Thursday, August 21, 2008

WaPo's Editorial on Egyptian Professor: "Still a Fellow Dissident'?

Today's Washington Post editorial page provides exactly the kind of example of double-speak and lack of consistency I pointed out in my most recent CSMonitor opinion piece. My favorite part is the last line, quoting Egyptian dissident Saad Ibrahim in a recent interview, "Don't give dictators money to oppress us." Our oft-repeated but seldom acknowledged policy of aiding tyrants in the Middle East does not stand in line with our favorite and oft-brandished buzz words of supporting freedom and democracy.

Still a 'Fellow Dissident'?
As Egypt's Hosni Mubarak continues to hound an advocate for democracy, the administration is nearly silent.
Thursday, August 21, 2008; A14

Today, we repost an opinion piece by Egyptian professor and dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim that first appeared on our op-ed page one year ago. This month, Mr. Ibrahim was convicted of seditious libel or "tarnishing" the image of Egypt. For this transgression, the ailing, 69-year-old scholar was sentenced to two years in jail, with hard labor, and ordered to pay a fine equivalent to about $1,500. The prime piece of evidence against Mr. Ibrahim: The opinions he expressed in this newspaper.

Mr. Ibrahim, a dual Egyptian and American citizen, has for some time been living in exile in the Middle East and so may escape this sentence and other potentially draconian punishments. He is still subject to some 20 other legal actions brought against him by allies of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He is accused, among other things, of grand treason, in part for organizing a forum for Arab democracy advocates and for meeting briefly with President Bush last year after a conference in Prague. A conviction on these charges could subject him to death by hanging.

The fact that Mr. Ibrahim faces imprisonment -- or worse -- if he sets foot in Egypt speaks to the tightening grip of tyranny in that country. It is also testament to the Bush administration's failure to hold Mr. Mubarak to his commitment to further freedom and democratic institutions there.

There was a time when President Bush spoke openly, eloquently and forcefully about his sense of solidarity with Mr. Ibrahim, so much so that the president referred to himself as a fellow dissident. There was a time, only a few years ago, when he withheld millions of dollars in aid to Egypt until the country released Mr. Ibrahim from an unjust incarceration. Now, the administration can only muster an official, feeble "expression of disappointment" through an organ of the State Department as it continues to funnel billions to Egypt, enabling Mr. Mubarak to run an increasingly repressive police state.

A strong relationship with Egypt and continuing financial assistance to the country are most likely in the interest of the United States. But the relationship need not be exclusively with a regime that is on the wrong side of history; the United States should support those many Egyptians who believe in reform. At the very least, it should not continue to freely subsidize a regime that abuses its bravest citizens. Or, as Mr. Ibrahim succinctly put it in an interview this week: "Don't give dictators money to oppress us."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

NYT Op-ed: Tough Love for Israel by Nicholas Kristof

I really enjoyed this Kristof article from NYT's July 24th edition, especially the way he responded to the various critiques he received about the blog he kept from his time in Hebron. You may have read my own earlier blog posting about my harrowing and disturbing experience in Hebron. It is such a tense, divided place, and here it is remembered for Abraham, the chief patriarch, and the elder whom all Jews, Christians, and Muslims look to as the first prophet. As such, he and the town that is dedicated to his remembrance should be a place around which to find common ground rather than division. We can only work to that end...

Op-ed on NYT site.
Kristof's blog in Hebron

Tough Love for Israel?

On his visit to the Middle East, Barack Obama gave ritual affirmations of his support for Israeli policy, but what Israel needs from America isn’t more love, but tougher love.

Particularly at a time when Israel seems to be contemplating military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, the United States would be a better friend if it said: “That’s crazy” — while also insisting on a 100 percent freeze on settlements in the West Bank and greater Jerusalem.

Granted, not everybody sees things this way, and discussions of the Middle East usually involve each side offering up its strongest arguments to wrestle with the straw men of the other side. So let me try something different.

After I wrote a column last month from Hebron in the West Bank, my blog,, was flooded with counterarguments — and plenty of challenges to address them. In the interest of a civil dialogue on the Middle East, here are excerpts from some of the readers’ defenses of Israel’s conduct in the West Bank and my responses:

Jews lived in Hebron for 1,800 years continuously ... until their community was murdered in 1929 by their Arab neighbors. The Jews in Hebron today — those “settlers” — have reclaimed Jewish property. So I don’t see what makes them illegitimate or illegal. (Irving)

True, Jews have deep ties to Hebron, just as Christians do to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but none of these bonds confer any right to live in these places or even visit them. If Israel were to bar American Christians from Jerusalem, that would not be grounds for the United States to send in paratroopers and establish settlements. And if Israel insists on controlling the West Bank, then it needs to give citizenship to Palestinians there so that they can vote just like the settlers.

One side is a beautiful, literate, medically and scientifically and artistically an advanced society. The other side wants to throw bombs. Why shouldn’t there be a fence? (Mileway)

So, build a fence. But construct it on the 1967 borders, not Palestinian land — and especially not where it divides Palestinian farmers from their land.

While I do condemn this type of violence, it pales in contrast to Palestinian suicide bombers, rockets and other acts of terror against Jews. (Jay)

B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, reports that a total of 123 Israeli minors have been killed by Palestinians since the second intifada began in 2000, compared with 951 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces.

To withdraw from the West Bank without a partner on the Palestinian side will find Israel in the same fix it has once it withdrew from Gaza: a rain of daily rockets. Yes, the security barrier causes hardship, but terrorist attacks have almost disappeared. That means my kids can ride the bus, go to unguarded restaurants and not worry about being blown up on their way to school. Find another way to keep my kids safe, and I’ll happily tear down the barrier. (Laura)

This is the argument that I have the most trouble countering. Laura has a point: The barrier and checkpoints have reduced terrorism. But as presently implemented, they — and the settlements — also reduce the prospect of a long-term peace agreement that is the best hope for Laura’s children.

If Israel were to stop the settlements, ease the checkpoints, allow people in and out more freely, and negotiate more enthusiastically with Syria over the Golan Heights and with the Arab countries on the basis of the Saudi peace proposal, then peace might still elude the region. But Israel would at least be doing everything possible to secure its long-term future, rather than bolstering Hamas.

If there is no two-state solution, there will be a one-state solution — and given demographic trends, that will mean either the end of Israeli democracy or the end of the Jewish state. Zionists should be absolutely clamoring for a Palestinian state.

Laura is right about the need for a sensible Palestinian partner, and the failures of Palestinian leadership have been legion. At the moment, though, Israel has its most reasonable partner ever — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — and it is undermining him with its checkpoints and new settlement construction.

Peace-making invariably involves exasperating and intransigent antagonists and unequal steps, just as it did in the decades in which Britain struggled to end terrorism emanating from Northern Ireland. But London never ordered air strikes on Sinn Fein or walled in Catholic neighborhoods. Over time, Britain’s extraordinary restraint slowly changed attitudes so as to make the eventual peace possible.

I hope Mr. Obama, as a candidate or as a president, will be a true enough friend of Israel to say all this, warmly but firmly.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog,, and join me on Facebook at

"Obama's Opportunity in the Middle East" in Christian Science Monitor

Hello Euphrates fans,

I just wanted to share my article that was recently published in the Christian Science Monitor, entitled "Obama's Opportunity in the Middle East". The link and the text are below. Comments are welcome as always!



Article on CSM site.

Obama's opportunity in the Middle East

To strengthen ties, he should not ask 'Why do they hate us?' but 'Why don't they believe us?'

By Janessa Gans
from the July 21, 2008 edition

Elsah, Ill. - Sen. Barack Obama is visiting with leaders in Europe and the Middle East this week to "deepen important relationships and exchange views with nations vital to the country's national security," said a spokeswoman. In short, Senator Obama will seek to repair friendships that have frayed in the past seven years.

It won't be easy, especially in the Middle East, where a thick coat of skepticism and cynicism has dulled the reflection of American aspirations.

I saw this firsthand in May, when President Bush spoke to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. He preached the virtues of democratic reform to an audience of English-speaking, pro-Western businesses; NGOs; and political leaders. The effect? More grating than gratitude.

If Obama seriously aspires to the title Leader of the Free World, he must speak with a different tone. But more important, perhaps, he must listen for a different answer.

The prevailing question Americans have been asking since 9/11 – "Why do they hate us?" – is the wrong one. The better question is, "Why don't they believe us?"

The good news is that the next president – whether Obama or Senator McCain – won't be speaking from beyond a yawning philosophical divide. When he repeats America's familiar mantra of freedom, democracy, and fighting terrorism, he will be preaching to the choir.

The bad news is that he should expect cynicism; Arab leaders claim that our actions do not live up to our rhetoric. At the WEF I attended, they pointed to our use of the war on terror as an excuse to curtail civil rights and to squelch democracy in the Arab world. When Mr. Bush asserted, "Terrorist organizations … create chaos and take innocent lives in an effort to stop democracy from taking root," Arabs wondered aloud who had created chaos; who was visiting death and violence upon the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

To improve relations with the Arab world, Obama should strike a markedly different tone from Bush, who came across the WEF participants as disingenuous, biased, and arrogant.

Just days before he addressed the WEF, Bush spoke to the Israeli Knesset and extolled democracy as "the only way to guarantee the God-given rights of all people." He got a standing ovation. Then, at the WEF, he told the mostly Arab audience that Middle Eastern politics too often consists of "one leader in power and the opposition in jail." Some participants, having seen the text in advance, walked out.

Bush's remark wasn't inaccurate. But it was incomplete and, to the audience, hypocritical.

In 2006 the US insisted on elections in the Palestinian territories, then refused to accept the outcome when Hamas, the Islamic militant group, emerged with a surprising, but undisputed, victory. Audience members also noted how many of these "one leader in power and the opposition in jail" autocracies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, to name three – enjoy unwavering US political, military, and economic support!

The next president should also not dismiss the reforms and significant progress already taking place. "We are improving at a steady, stable pace," Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly's editor told me at the WEF. He contended that press and political freedom had increased substantially in the past decade and stressed, "We do not need pressure from outside to reform."

During his travels to the Middle East Obama must walk a fine line on Iran, treading between Israel's hawks and Arabs' cautious pragmatists. High-ranking officials at the WEF especially disapproved of Bush's strategy of isolation.

Finally, Obama must bear in mind something so obvious that it often goes unrecognized: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the massive cloud that overshadows all life in the Middle East.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit bluntly declared, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of everything. Everything bad that happens in the region is a direct result of this issue." And nearly all Arabs see the US as rubbing salt in the wound with its consistent pro-Israel bias.

To Bush's statement that "freedom is a universal right – the Almighty's gift to every man, woman, and child," officials asked me wryly whether this freedom extended to Palestinians as well. Did they not deserve to be free from oppression and occupation? How can the US in good conscience claim to support freedom and human rights, while uncritically backing a government that deprives millions of Palestinians of those rights?

Tough talk from the crowd, indeed, but let's not forget these are not reactions from our foes in the region but from our closest allies. This disparity between US rhetoric and US policies on the ground is alienating the base of Arab moderates we so desperately need.

If the next president also emphasizes the buzzwords of democracy, freedom, and human rights while supporting undemocratic regimes or essentially nullifying unfavorable elections, he, too, will be greeted with aversion.

Perhaps it's time to ensure that our words match our deeds. Do Americans care more about stability and pro-US regimes, or democracy and freedom? If the former, we should not pretend otherwise. It is better to be accused of realist pragmatism than hypocrisy.

But if we believe that democracy and freedom are absolute American values, we should insist upon their consistent application. If we can't convince even our friends of our commitment to these values, how could we possibly convince them to join with us to defeat our enemies?

Janessa Gans teaches political science at Principia College, and is the founder and executive director of the Euphrates Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to improving relations between the Middle East and the West.