The House Always Wins

Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly on 12/7/2018

In the wake of a string of fixed election results in Turkey, the country’s opposition must organise to force President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to step down from power

“The house always wins” is a phrase that is well known to visitors to the American city of Las Vegas. It means that the casino or gambling house in question systematically makes sure that the odds work in its favour and that it always comes out as the winner in the end even if the gamblers think they have a strong chance of winning.

This tactic seems very similar to that used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with regard to the Turkish opposition since his first win as prime minister in 2003.

Erdogan’s latest victory in the presidential elections of 24 June in Turkey, securing another five years in power, was as predictable as all the other elections that have taken place in the country since Erdogan surfaced on the political scene. These elections resulted in one unchanged outcome: the victory of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Over the years, Erdogan’s hold on power has enabled him to tamper with the Turkish constitution, as he did in 2007, 2010 and 2017. The last constitutional referendum in Turkey in 2017 gave the country an executive presidency that favoured him as the incumbent and turned Turkey from a constitutional democracy into an autocracy through carefully constructed clauses granting the president almost absolute power.

Days after this year’s controversial elections took place Erdogan celebrated his ill-gained victory by practicing his favourite hobby of arresting more political dissidents. This time, on 5 July, 350 soldiers were charged with supporting US-resident Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, perceived by Erdogan as his arch-rival. The massive arrests conducted by the Turkish authorities were a continuation of Erdogan’s brutal purges since the failed coup d’état in July 2016, which have led to the arrests of tens of thousands of Turkish citizens and police and army officers and the suspension of hundreds of thousands of others from their jobs.

Erdogan is banking on Turkey’s strategic position and membership of NATO to avert pressure from the United States and Europe. He has been blackmailing Western countries by playing cards like Turkey’s relationship with Russia. Over the past few years, he has sent signals that Turkey may choose to be in the Russian camp instead of the Western one, something which US and European leaders are desperately trying to avoid lest they lose the Turkish army’s major role in NATO.

Turkey has the second-largest army in the NATO alliance next to that of the United States. Furthermore, the country’s strategic geographical location in the proximity of Russia, Iran and the wider Middle East makes Turkey an irreplaceable member of the alliance. Erdogan is well aware of such facts, and he is counting on the Western exercise of patience in the face of his tyrannical behaviour.

At the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood’s and the Islamists’ ugly face is being displayed in all its brutality in the once-democratic state of Turkey as Erdogan continues to change the political rules in order to shock and awe the opposition while organising smear, intimidation and harassment campaigns against his rivals through the state-owned and AKP-affiliated media.

For decades Turkish citizens have been fearful of the return of Turkish military involvement in political life, especially after the three successful coups d’état of 1960, 1971 and 1980. That fear has led the majority of Turkish citizens to overlook the Islamists’ manipulation of their emotions and their cracking down on the country’s military commanders with the Erdogan regime’s involvement in their arrests, trials and decimation.

To some it may seem only normal that the Turkish military should not be involved in politics, but the fact remains that the country’s 1982 constitution makes the Turkish army the guardian of secularism, or “Kemalism” as it is known in Turkey, in order to prevent the country falling into the grip of the Islamists as is now the case. Aware of these facts, it was Erdogan’s first task to weaken the military standing guard over the Turkish state and to turn it into a force of repression in his hands after decimating the secular military leaders who had kept the Turkish state intact.

This happened amidst a naïve silence, if not approval, among the Turkish opposition, which was fearful of military intervention but overlooked the Islamists’ master plan to take over all of Turkey.

The chief mistake of the Turkish opposition over the past decade and a half has been to treat Turkish politics as a democratic game in which it can garner support and win an election. The sad truth remains that the opposition has been beguiled, and it has beguiled the millions of Turks who believed in its rhetoric. The Turkish opposition remains in disarray, and it shows little sign of grasping the fact that the political game in the country ceased to be a democratic one the moment that Erdogan and his AKP Party were allowed to step into the fray and then actually take power.

It is time for the Turkish opposition to organise and rally across the country in a bid to force Erdogan to step down even if this takes weeks or months as similar popular movements against Islamist rule took in Egypt and Tunisia. Erdogan has committed a long list of crimes of corruption and human-rights violations, and this being so he will be anxious not to lose his position. He will thus use all the vicious means at his disposal to retain it, but the will of the people will triumph in the end.

Even so, with every new election in Turkey the opposition still naively rushes to challenge Erdogan and his Party, aiming to secure an electoral win that will end the Islamist nightmare that has overtaken the country. The process resembles a gullible gambler who enters a shady casino with the dream of winning quickly, while being unaware that he has just stepped into a trap. Even if the gambler gets lucky and acquires some winnings, the casino will likely ensure that he loses all his winnings in the end. The rules are fixed in such a way that the house always wins, thus guaranteeing its steady profits.

Erdogan resembles a crooked casino owner who sets the rules for the gullible Turkish opposition while at the same time making sure that the house always wins.

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Egypt’s Televangelists Lose Clout

Original published in IPT on 9/7/2018

They once captured the hearts and minds of millions of Egyptians, but Islamist televangelists are losing popularity. They started to lose credibility during the June 2013 revolution that drove the Muslim Brotherhood from power and in the subsequent terrorist attacks after Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.

“The state of abandonment of the Salafi preachers and the Muslim Brotherhood … is very good and serves the interests of the Egyptian, Arab and Islamic societies,” said former Muslim Brotherhood member Sameh Eid. “The exposure of the ideas of these preachers and their great dependence on a heritage that is no longer suitable for the present time and place make them a rare and ridiculous material on the pages of the media.”

Fewer people are watching the Islamist televangelists shows, Islamist groups researcher and former Brotherhood member Tarek Abou Saad, so they now resort to using historical tales of Islam’s grandeur to try to draw an audience.

Despite those efforts, televangelist ratings during Ramadan were the lowest since 2011.

Egyptian media traditionally offered two main types of televangelists – Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and Salafist (Wahhabi). Brotherhood clerics in modern clothes advocate a gradual Islamization of society while infiltrating Egypt’s more affluent society. Salafists successfully appealed to working class and more impoverished sectors of society.

The televangelist movement in Egypt was initiated by Omar Abdel Kafi who became extremely famous among the affluent. The radical preacher issued fatwas prohibiting greeting Christians and urging boycotting Jews. Egyptian authorities took him off the air in 1994, forcing him to work in exile from the United Arab Emirates. He follows the path of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Recently, his anti-Semitic statements, describing Jews as “aiming to control all the world’s money and lands then controlling all international politics,” got him banned from delivering a speech in Canada in April.

The rise of Islamist televangelists was cancerous to the fiber of the Egyptian society and fueled radicalization during the past two decades. Views toward women, Christians, art and the West all grew more strident.

The new wave of preachers was first introduced in 2002 through the Saudi-financed religious network “Iqra [Read] TV.” By 2007, Time magazine listed Amr Khaled as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, calling him a “rock star” and “a needed voice for moderation from within the Muslim world.”

Forbes Arabia also identified Amr Khaled as one of the richest Islamist preachers that year, estimating his income at $2.5 million.

He introduced a new form of preaching – which he called “Visual Da’wa” – emphasizing appearance as a way to inspire more religious adherence. He urged girls to wear the hijab, which he called a “walking symbol of the faith.” “Wearing your hijab at the beach, even if surrounded by semi-naked girls,” he said, will lead to society becoming more religious. This is the way to fix society.”

Most of the new breed of televangelists didn’t study Islamic theology at Al Azhar University like traditional preachers. Instead, they present themselves as average people who found religion through personal experiences. For example, televangelist Moez Massoud said that he became closer to God after losing friends in an accident and then surviving a health scare. This approach has attracted a younger audience than traditional religious programs.

While many view the new televangelists as sincere God-fearing preachers, others see actors performing a role. Amr Khaled has been mocked for fake piety repeatedly on social media for actions like praying only for his followers while in Mecca, excluding other Muslims.

“l believe they put on an act and use a special voice tone to convey their message to the audience,” said Egyptian actress Laila Ezz Al Arab.

Amr Khaled’s chicken endorsement drew ridicule.

The epitome of acting and fake enthusiasm came when Khaled taped an advertisement for a Saudi chicken brand called “Al Wataniya.” “We need to do everything right in this Ramadan,” he said. “We need to fast properly, worship God properly and watch over our health properly … Your soul will not be purified without your stomach and body being healthy….” This advertisement drew a storm of condemnation and mockery.

Some Salafi preachers attempted to take over the televangelist and religious scene following the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2013 ouster from power by siding with the army. Some of their leaders still preferred an Islamist government and rejected the June 2013 revolution and the constitution that followed it. For instance, the most famous Salafist televangelist, Abou Ishak Al Howeiny, issued a fatwa urging people to boycott a 2014 referendum on the new constitution because it was written by “coup d’état” supporters.

Other Salafi televangelists offer radical and occasionally insane fatwas. Those include permitting necrophilia and underage marriage. Egypt’s parliament responded with new legislation requiring fatwas be vetted by established religious institutions like Al Azhar, the world’s oldest and most prestigious Islamic institution.

However, while Muslim Brotherhood affiliated televangelists are declining in influence, core supporters of some Salafists clerics are holding their ground, according to Egyptian media expert Amina Tharwat Abaza.

“Followers of some famous Salafist clerics such as Ishak Al Howeiny are simple-minded people and unfortunately they still revere him,” she said. Al Howeiny became famous for saying jihad can be used to acquire wealth and spoils from infidels. “The poverty we are suffering from is because we gave up jihad, if we wage jihad once or twice a year, each one can capture some men, women and children and sell them for a good profit.”

“Unfortunately,” Abaza said, “some of the masses are satisfied treating their limited knowledge of religious teachings as a ‘science’ in itself.”

“They follow the radicals in their witch-hunts against all reformers and thinkers. Some of the anchors accuse them of infidelity and atheism. Assisted by this twisted media are the clergymen who brainwashed them into thinking that all who oppose their word are infidels.”

While televangelists try to rebuild their reputations and try out less overtly religious appearances, the June 30th revolution that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood greatly diminished their influence. Instead, criticism and mockery have become synonymous with their preaching.

“I’m afraid they’re trying to rebuild it again by signing new contracts with TV channels to try brainwashing youth minds,” said actress Laila Ezz al Arab.

But this time, after they’ve been exposed as flakes and profit-seekers, it doesn’t appear to be working very well. The public is more aware that they garnered wealth and fame by trading in religion. Televangelists’ former “rock star” status coupled with some insane fatwas conflicted with the religious beliefs of the masses. It may be the beginning of the end of a phenomenon that has negatively affected Egyptian society for decades.

Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.

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For the Love of the Game

Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly on 5/7/2018

It is time to learn the lessons of this year’s football World Cup after the elimination of the Egyptian team, writes Hany Ghoraba

It is often said that a week is a long time in politics, but many are not aware that the same thing could easily be said of sport. A stark difference in mood, attitude and support for Egypt’s National Football Team has become apparent in the matter of just one week. Between 15 June, when the team played its first World Cup game against Uruguay, to 19 June, when it played against Russia, there was a complete shift in attitude towards the team, from total support to complete disdain and even anger.

Backed by a massive campaign on the sports networks prior to the World Cup and bolstered by the amazing form of some of Egypt’s key players, especially Egyptian Liverpool star striker Mohamed Salah, the public entered into a frenzied state of anticipation for a great football campaign to come in the World Cup in Russia.

Over the more than nine months since Egypt’s qualification for the World Cup in October 2017, the media had placed enormous pressure on the national team members, with massive, if over-optimistic, predictions of their qualifying for the higher rounds of the World Cup, if not winning it. The squad was called the “Legion,” the “Warriors” and the “Battalion,” especially in the weeks leading up to the competition. For some, the national team seemed to be like an actual battalion shipped to the battlefront of the war taking place in the world of football. The entire event was hugely politicised by both officials and the media.

Unfortunately, days after its arrival in Russia, the Egyptian media, especially that publishing online, started spreading rumours about the team’s status, even parroting false news stories spread by anonymous sources from the international media about the team without validating these sources. It became a race among Egyptian Internet news outlets to publish as much news as possible, including rumours, just to increase online traffic, or what is known as “click bait”. These rumours included negative reports about Salah’s health after his injury during the Champions League final, as well as about celebrities meeting with team members in their hotel, which had bad ramifications for the entire team.

Football has a long history of being politically manipulated by governments, the media and politicians worldwide, as happened in the 1934 tournament in Italy, for example, which witnessed Italian dictator Mussolini’s attempts at exploiting it for political ends. Today, the media has tried to suggest that a good performance by the Egyptian football team in the World Cup will somehow increase the country’s welfare.

The spectacle has been presented as if the fate of the nation depended on the results of the Egyptian team in the World Cup, ludicrous since Brazil and Argentina, both of which have star-studded teams, are on the verge of bankruptcy. Many economically advanced states do not have football teams to speak of, including Singapore, Canada and Finland. Tying the fate of the nation to the results of its football team is naïve in the extreme and has generated very negative ramifications.

After the Egyptian team’s exit from the tournament, Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group supporters and their affiliates went into a frenzy, gloating over the Egyptian team’s defeat and then calling for the resignation of the government and the president after trying to manipulate the discontent among Egyptian football fans. The call was less than a fortnight before the fifth anniversary of the 30 June Revolution that ended the Muslim Brotherhood’s ambitions to dominate Egypt. It was pathetic attempt to capitalise on public anger at failure in a sports tournament, claiming that this somehow represented the failure of the Egyptian state.

The Islamists’ social-media supporters overlooked the fact that Egypt is not the only team exiting the World Cup, as 15 other countries have also had to exit from the first round, including Germany. However, hardly anyone is calling for the resignation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel or any of the other 15 heads of government or of state.

Star-studded teams such as European champions Portugal, twice World Cup winners, and last time’s runner-up Argentina, also exited from the tournament at the same time as Egypt. Poor performances can occur in all great teams, and Egypt, seven times African Cup champions and last time’s runner-up, is no different. While this is not an excuse for the team’s poor performance, it does reveal the mistake of blaming the entire country for it, especially as the Islamists were joined by the same political and media figures who had upped the ante about Egypt’s prospects in the World Cup.

Meanwhile, another assortment of great Egyptian athletes was performing great deeds in the Mediterranean Games held in Tarragona, Spain, winning 45 medals including 18 golds. However, these great individual achievements were hardly covered by the Egyptian sports networks, which have spent most of their time broadcasting analysis about the failure in the football World Cup.

It may be time to learn the lessons of Egypt’s participation in this tournament on all levels, especially from the media coverage and political manipulation, in order to avoid them in the future. This will enable Egypt to prepare for the next World Cup on a more professional basis and attain a better performance.

Football, the beautiful game, is loved by billions across the world, and this is certainly the case for the Egyptian people, who see it is as a source of joy and happiness. For the love of the game, the media and politicians should handle it more carefully, while at the same time making sure that whatever happens in the game stays in the game and does not grow to larger proportions.

After all, football is a sport, and even if Egypt won the World Cup, this would not solve the country’s problems.

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Egypt’s finest hour

Originally Published in Al Ahram Weekly on 28/6/2018

The 30 June Revolution was a defining moment that not only impacted the Egyptian nation, but also the region and the wider world, writes Hany Ghoraba

A nation’s history is made up of critical moments that define it and create its place in world history. With its seven-millennia history, Egypt has experienced hundreds if not thousands of such historic moments, many of which did not only impact the Egyptian nation and the region, but also changed the wider world. The 30 June Revolution in 2013 was one of those defining moments.

A year before the 30 June Revolution took place, the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group had managed to take a tight grip on power in the country, sending it into uncharted waters. The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies were not content in holding most of the seats in parliament, however. It also took power in a controversial presidential election that witnessed rigging across the country. Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi became president in some of the most-troubled times in Egypt’s modern history.

It did not take long before Morsi started to implement his divisive policies, which aimed to enable the Islamists to grab hold of the country as a whole. He started by decimating the Supreme Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, purging it of the opposition including former judge Tahani Al-Gebali, Egypt’s first woman judge.

However, the epitome of the crisis came on 22 November 2013 when Morsi issued an edict granting his executive orders immunity from being contested in a court of law, which is the standard practice in Egypt. Morsi thus granted himself absolute power as president in a way that had never happened since the formation of the Egyptian Republic in 1954. In other words, he rendered the Constitutional Declaration of March 2011 null and void, believing he had outsmarted all opposition to his rule.

Yet, Morsi was not protecting himself by tampering with the constitution, and instead he was breaching the contract between him and the nation which was his only protection. He was thus making his presence as president unconstitutional after 22 November 2012. The moment Morsi committed his horrendous political act, he forfeited the protection of the constitution under which he had been elected. The first wave of protests against his rule started after this edict, displaying the people’s anger at Morsi’s power grab.

A few months later, the largest grassroots opposition movement ever seen in Egypt, Tamarod, managed in record time to gather 22 million signatures demanding that Morsi accept new elections and calling for a massive uprising to take place against him on 30 June 2013. Morsi’s insistence on grabbing yet more power only speeded up his end, as he refused all calls for negotiation by politicians and army alike, insisting that he was the country’s absolute ruler.

As a result, on 30 June 2013, the finest hour in Egypt’s modern history took place when 33 million Egyptians rallied across the nation from Alexandria to Aswan demanding that the Islamist president step down. This was a show of people’s power unprecedented in modern history. People took to the streets in an unprecedented show of solidarity and in the name of patriotism and freedom. It took only three days for Morsi and his Islamist regime to fall under pressure from the street and then the army, ending a dark chapter in the history of modern Egypt.

Egypt thus became the first predominantly Muslim country to oust an Islamist regime through a popular revolution, a feat never attained before in countries such as Iran, Turkey or Hamas-ruled Gaza. The Egyptian people sent a message to the world that Egypt has been and always will be a secular state that cannot be swayed by religious fanatics and will continue to be a beacon of tolerance and progress in the region.

The price of this message was high, however, as thousands of people, including men, women and children of all creeds, died during the waves of terrorism that the Muslim Brotherhood launched across the country. The military and the police have lost thousands of their finest and bravest in fighting these terroristic waves, and they are still under threat in North Sinai after the terrorist groups there have been dealt severe blows that have neutralised them across the rest of Egypt. The Brotherhood has now been forced to operate from abroad, aided by terrorist-supporting regimes in Turkey and Qatar.

Before the 30 June Revolution, a significant portion of global public opinion was misled by Islamist lies, thinking that the Islamists could create a democratic system within their native societies. It was because of the dictatorships in the Middle East that they had been stopped from developing democratic rule, they claimed. Turkey was cited as an example of the success of the Islamists in embracing democracy, though later it was shown that the Turkish Islamist experience was destructive to Turkey and its neighbours. The blood baths orchestrated by tyrannical Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ambitions to restore the Ottoman caliphate have borne witness to his abuses of democracy to consolidate power.

Nine decades after the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, the majority of Egyptians have realised that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Political Islam groups are a man-made calamity that must be eradicated. The 30 June Revolution served as a first step towards that goal. The high price paid by the Egyptian people as a result of their historic act of defiance of the Brotherhood has changed the tide of history and ended the gains of the Islamists in the Middle East, including in Tunisia, Libya and Syria.

Global public opinion towards the Muslim Brotherhood has also changed, all the more so since the manifestations of the Islamists’ fabled caliphate were established on the ruins of Iraq and Syria in the wake of attacks by the Islamic State (IS) group. The atrocities committed by this group in these countries and its splinter cells across the world were a rude awakening to those who believed that the Islamists could be democratic once they reached the seat of power.

The celebrations of the fifth anniversary of the 30 June Revolution this year remind all Egyptians of their great achievement that changed the region and the world. It was modern Egypt’s finest hour because the Egyptians stood up against an enemy that was not simply a foreign invader, but also a way of thinking that had crept into society and spread terrorism and violence.

This was the hour when the majority of Egyptians decided that they could no longer be beguiled by such fanaticism. In the same country that witnessed the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and saw the spread of its terrorist rhetoric across the globe, that organisation finally saw the beginning of its end. Egyptians once more changed the course of history, in line with their power and their destiny.

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Erdogan Balancing Act

Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly on 21/6/2018

Turkey’s ambition to join the European Union has been made immeasurably more complicated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist and neo-Ottoman rhetoric, writes Hany Ghoraba

Unlike the British, who chose to exit the European Union willingly in 2016, the Turks have been dreaming of the day they could join the EU, allowing them to solidify their position as a major power in the Middle East and expand the political and economic horizons of the Turkish nation on the European continent.

Unfortunately, that dream that the nation has been striving for over past decades has now been impeded by the presence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm of the Turkish state.

In 2003, Turkish prime minister and now President Recep Tayyib Erdogan promised the Turkish nation that he would work on realising the dream of joining the EU as he stepped up the economic reforms needed to meet the standards set by the EU for membership. Eighteen years later, Turkey may have attained a good economic condition for a few years, but now it is crumbling economically, socially and politically.

Nearly 15 years of Erdogan’s rule in Turkey has turned one of the most promising democracies in the Middle East into an autocracy through multiple constitutional referendums that have paved the way for Erdogan to turn himself from an elected prime minister to a dictatorial president with almost unlimited powers.

Over the past two years alone, Erdogan has managed to purge the opposition to his rule, eliminating dissidents through a purge that has included the judicial system, the police, the army and even educational institutions in Turkey. He has used the failed coup of 2016 as a pretext for purging the opposition and has even threatened to reinstate the death penalty in Turkey, abolished in 2004 when the country was working to meet the admission requirements for the EU.

Erdogan heads an Islamist regime, and he has aimed to appease the masses in Turkey through a rhetoric that combines Islamism with restoring the glories of the former Ottoman Empire. Europeans, who may remember a history of constant confrontation with that Empire, have not been pleased to hear Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman and Islamist rhetoric. The memories of the Ottoman Empire have not simply faded away, and they are still taught in European school curricula, like when, for example, the former Empire expanded into central Europe and was only stopped outside the gates of Vienna in 1683. The Ottoman Empire then receded, but it was still often in conflict with the European powers until its fall in 1922.

Many Europeans do not wish to see a repeat of Turkish-Ottoman hegemony, thinking that tying their fate to the Turkish Republic carries the same perils that their ancestors ran in suffering the Ottomans. Erdogan’s rhetoric and hostile stance towards Europe certainly does not help the argument that the successor state to the Ottoman Empire is in reality very different.

While opinion polls do not necessarily accurately reflect a given political situation, they are an indicator that cannot be ignored. Recent polls conducted in the European Union have shown that its citizens disapprove of Turkey joining the EU by huge margins. For instance, the German centre-right party the European People’s Party (EPP) conducted a poll in 2017 that showed that three out of four European citizens opposed Turkey joining the EU.

Germany tops the list of European nations whose citizens oppose Turkey being a European Union member, followed by Holland, Denmark and Finland. Countries such as Austria have officially indicated their rejection of the idea of an expanded EU that would include Turkey. Bizarrely, the aforementioned poll also indicated that countries such as Russia and Morocco faced smaller opposition by European citizens to their joining the EU than Turkey.

On the official level, the European Commission slammed Erdogan’s Turkey in April by saying that Turkey “continues to take huge strides away from the European Union, in particular in the areas of the rule of law and fundamental rights,” according to EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn.

Erdogan’s abysmal record on human rights in both Turkey and in neighbouring countries where Turkish armed forces are conducting illegal operations has become a deal-breaker for Turkey’s long-term plans to join the EU. This point of contention joins several others hindering Turkey’s chances of joining the EU in the future.

Such points are numerous and include the Turkish leader’s aggressive speeches against other European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and his threats to unleash Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Europe if the EU states do not meet the cost of their residence in Turkey. Such stances, when coupled with Erdogan’s mix of Islamist and Ottoman rhetoric, have distanced Turkey from its European neighbours. These engaged in many feuds with the former Ottoman Empire in the past, and they are not keen for these to emerge again.

For decades, Turkey as a European partner state has been a buffer between the EU and areas of conflict in Iraq, Syria, Iran and the former Soviet states of Georgia and Armenia. The moment Turkey joins the EU, Europe’s borders will expand into these conflict zones and deep into the Middle East, representing new strategic, demographic and political challenges to the EU that it does not welcome.

To make matters worse, Turkey’s role in these conflicts has exacerbated their ferocity, such as in the case of Syria and Iraq and the turbulent history of Armenia. The EU has acknowledged the Armenian Genocide carried out by the former Ottoman Empire during the First World War, though this is still denied by Turkey today. Such considerations have not made the Europeans more open to the idea of Turkey as a member of the EU, especially since Turkey is also engaged in feuds with two EU members, Greece and Cyprus, over the situation in Northern Cyprus.

The economic development of Turkey over recent decades has been admired by many, and this has led to strengthened ties with the EU. However, these ties have failed to change into anything other than partnership with the EU due to the presence of Erdogan.

Erdogan’s dictatorship, aggression, support for terrorism and hostility towards Turkey’s former partners and allies have created huge barriers to the ambitions of the Turkish nation to join the EU. This was never going to be a simple matter, but it has now become immeasurably more complicated as a result of Erdogan’s paradoxical policies of appeasing his own supporters domestically as an Islamist and Neo-Ottoman leader and appeasing the EU by appearing as the kind of liberal leader needed to secure Turkey’s membership.

Thus far, Erdogan’s dictatorship in Turkey has tainted all his actions, and this has meant the withering of Turkey’s plans for EU membership.

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Human rights hogwash

Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly on 31/5/2018

A recent report on Sinai by Human Rights Watch has once again drawn attention to the shoddy methods employed by this US-based NGO, writes Hany Ghoraba

“A government is guilty until proven innocent” seems to be the motto of the US-based non-profit organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is headquartered in New York.

This motto has been born out in almost all the group’s reporting on Egypt over recent years. In its latest series of negative reports on Egypt entitled “Army intensifies Sinai home demolitions” HRW said that “the destruction, much of which is likely unlawful, has extended well beyond two government-designated security buffer zones in the cities of Arish and Rafah. The army also demolished several homes in Arish, in what appears to have been retaliation against terrorism suspects, political dissidents, and their relatives.”

This language, used by Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director, is not only presumptuous since it fails to provide any evidence of such destruction, but is also deeply misleading. Moreover, Whitson fails to mention in her twisted report that the Egyptian army is already building a new town to accommodate the residents of Rafah and other towns who evacuated their homes on army orders as a precautionary measure during the fight against the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated terrorist group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.

This report and similar ones accusing the army of causing a humanitarian crisis in Sinai have been officially denied by an Egyptian army spokesman who said they were devoid of truth. He stressed that food and medical supplies had been secured by the army to reach North Sinai amidst the military operations.

Egypt has been on the HRW radar for the past few years, especially after the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood former president Mohamed Morsi in the 30 June Revolution. Since that date, HRW has become reliant on supporters of the terrorist group for its reports and fabled tales of their torments under the new Egyptian government.

HRW has hardly ever recognised the damage that members of this terrorist organisation have done to the Egyptian state and people over recent years, when thousands of military personnel and civilians have perished. They died as a result of the unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. Nevertheless, these attacks hardly occupy the minds of this US-based NGO, and they are rarely mentioned in its reports.

In the case of the North Sinai governorate that the shoddy report of HRW covers, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has turned the lives of North Sinai residents into a living hell, with indiscriminate attacks on civilians including Christian Copts and Muslim worshippers in mosques. Coptic shop-owners and their families have been threatened and forced to flee their homes, seeking refuge in other cities after being threatened.

However, it has not only been the Copts who have been suffering, as on 24 November last year the most devastating attack in the history of Egypt took place in the town of Bir Al-Abd in Sinai, killing 305 worshippers in a mosque. As a result of such attacks, the Egyptian state has been tasked with protecting the lives of innocent civilians, and drastic measures have been put in place including relocating citizens to new homes.

The Palestinian group Hamas, which has been running the Gaza Strip for over a decade, has dug thousands of tunnels across the Egyptian/Gazan border, and these have been a lifeline for terrorists in the region. Accordingly, measures had to be taken to distance civilians from this dangerous border zone and relocate them to the town of New Rafah about five km from the border. These evacuated residents were paid compensation, and they will be handed their new homes as soon the new town is up and running.

HRW’s reporting style using anonymous witnesses and unnamed sources cannot be perceived as constituting a reliable source of information. For instance, the report cites the Facebook links of an anonymous group called “the People’s Committee of North Sinai”, which is obviously tied to terrorists in North Sinai as it speaks the same language in its communiqués.

The Egyptian government and army amidst the economic hardships that the country has been suffering from for the past seven years have undertaken the huge task of relocating the residents of the border town of Rafah to a location away from the reach of terrorists surfacing from Gaza through tunnels. This relocation comes at a huge economic cost that the government could well do without, yet in order to protect Egyptian citizens and Egyptian borders from terrorist activities it has been willing to bear this cost.

HRW has also accused the Egyptian army of expanding the security perimeter it set for the evacuation from Rafah without announcing it in advance. However, it ignored the fact that in any war or conflict armies may need to take the decision to expand a security perimeter to protect the lives of civilians and of course of soldiers. Even if the army has chosen to expand the security perimeter in Rafah to curb the terrorist activities coming from Gaza into Egypt, it is the prerogative of the Egyptian army to do just that without having to clear it first with an organisation writing reports from a lofty perch in New York.

No government on the planet, democratic or not, can claim to have discovered a proven formula to tackle terrorism. But the goal of protecting the citizens of the state is paramount for all governments facing unprecedented challenges from terrorist activities.

Undoubtedly, this NGO is doing a disservice to the noble cause of human rights by publishing shoddy reports on a war in which it has decided to side with the aggressor, in other words the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist allies in Sinai. It has simultaneously ignored the thousands of lives lost by Egyptian military personnel and police forces, as well as by innocent civilians, as a result of the actions of these groups.

HRW’s shoddy reporting uses unnamed witnesses and cites unverified sources of information from conflicting reports, being more befitting of a sensationalist tabloid newspaper than the reputable human rights organisation it claims to be. Such reports on the situation in Egypt also raise questions about the validity of the organisation’s reports on the human rights situation in other countries. It may be time to revise HRW’s status as a credible source of human rights reporting worldwide.

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Divided on Iran

Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly on 24/5/2018

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran has led to a breakdown in US-European relations, writes Hany Ghoraba

Withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran was on US President Donald Trump’s election agenda, as he had expressed his discontent at its contents since its signing in 2015. It was thus only a matter of time before he found the right moment to announce his decision to unilaterally withdraw from the deal made by his predecessor Barack Obama.

The deal that Obama held up as a glorious moment of his presidency was in tatters in less than a year and a half of Trump’s presidency. Trump believes that the deal, while it has temporarily halted Iran’s nuclear ambitions by limiting its nuclear centrifuges to about 5,060 and disposing of 98 per cent of its enriched uranium reserves for 10 years, is not enough to curb its unbending determination to acquire nuclear weapons in the future.

While the international community applauded the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, many countries objected, and these countries, among them Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have now applauded Trump’s breaking the deal. There have been many opposing views to Trump’s decision in the US, especially from the Democratic Party, which believes that it could be a mistake of historic proportions. On the other hand, others say that Trump may have had valid reasons for breaking the deal, despite the unorthodox method he chose to do so. The nuclear deal did not encourage Iran to adopt a more peaceful and cooperative stance towards its neighbours in the region, these people say, and in fact the opposite has been true.

Since 2015, Iran has taken up a hostile stance in the region that has led it to be involved more directly in the domestic affairs of countries including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen as well as Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. This was done while fomenting violence and supporting terrorist activities in the region, with countries such as Syria and Yemen that host Hizbullah and the Houthi rebels receiving large amounts of money and weapons to carry on their fight against Iran’s opponents.

European Union countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and France have expressed their disapproval of the American withdrawal from the deal and declared their commitment to preserving its terms with Iran. This stance, which appears as a political decision, also has an economic perspective behind it. France would lose an oil contract for exploration in Iran amounting to $5 billion, for example, were it to abandon the deal, as well as a potential deal for 100 Airbus passenger planes that Iran has ordered. Similarly, Germany and the United Kingdom have forged many economic agreements with Iran based on the deal.

As a result, the EU countries involved in the deal are keen on preserving it as they could lose out heavily if it were cancelled. Trump has also not presented viable alternatives to the deal, even though the US may also lose a $20 billion deal for planes signed with the US giant Boeing.

However, Trump has vowed that his administration will target companies and countries dealing with Iran in six months’ time as a warning of how things may proceed, though it is unclear if he will carry this through if his European allies continue to abide by the deal. The UK, Germany and France are the cornerstones of the US-European alliance, and a feud with them will find the United States in a diplomatic war with all the major powers in the world, including the Russians and Chinese who have also condemned the deal breaking.

There could be a showdown between the US and Europe in a similar manner to what occurred over Cuba when the US imposed a blockade against the island in 1962. In 1996, the EU issued a “blocking statute” aimed at countering US sanctions against Cuba, and EU officials are said to be modifying this for use in the current crisis with Iran, thus countering US restrictions on EU firms conducting business with the Iranians. On 18 May, the president of the European Commission said that “we have a duty, the commission and the European Union, to do what we can to protect our European businesses, especially SMEs,” from US sanctions against Iran.

This clear statement clarifies the fact that business is the first priority of the European Union and security issues are secondary. The EU has also allowed European investment banks to finance projects in Iran, and it has urged European governments to conduct “one-off” transfers to Iran’s Central Bank to assist Iran in receiving oil revenues.

The European stance means that a possible war against Iran targeting its nuclear facilities will not be conducted through America’s traditional European allies. At the same time, it will face resistance from superpowers such as Russia and China, especially the former which has been a major contractor and technology provider for all Iran’s nuclear facilities. This means that any potential war on Iran will only be possible through US regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and possibly Israel. That said, a war on Iran may not be on Trump’s immediate agenda, as he would rather weaken the Iranian regime than become engaged in a fully-fledged war against it without international support.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal was not as haphazard as it may appear because he realises that the US does not possess some casus belli against Iran at present, even with Iran’s rampant interference in the region. Accordingly, he would rather weaken the Iranian regime by depriving it of the means of financing its hostile activities in the region than of risking all-out war.

However, the latter goal is unlikely to be attained without EU support, and accordingly Trump might have to resort to other options, including presenting a modified deal to Iran that guarantees that the Iranian regime will not pursue its nuclear weapons plans as soon as the ten-year deal is over as well as stopping its ballistic-missile development and funding terrorist activities in the region.

These will be hard goals to reach without EU support, but it is also not in the best interests of the European Union, with all its vast economic, political and military ties with the United States, to ignore US demands in favour of economic ties with Iran.

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