Israel’s PR machine

By Max Blumenthal

In the post-Oslo era, as the strategy that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle refers to as “peace without peace” captured the Israeli consensus, human rights activists ratcheted up grassroots efforts to challenge the occupation of Palestine and Israel’s prevailing structure of ethno-religious discrimination. Popularly known as BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israeli institutions involved in occupation has generated shock waves in international pro-Israel circles and within the top levels of Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus. The government-linked Reut Institute has designated BDS as a key national security threat and produced a blueprint for sabotaging Palestine solidarity networks around the world. 

While paranoia mounts inside Israeli policy circles about the rising tide of nonviolent global resistance, Netanyahu has grown obsessed with Israel’s withering image in the West. Under his guidance, the term “delegitimization” has become a household word signifying BDS and nearly everything done in the name of exposing Israel’s violations of international law. And thanks to Netanyahu’s instigation, Barack Obama has become the first American president to explicitly pledge to battle the pressure campaign. 

Groping for a convenient solution to its public relations problems, the Israeli government has turned to hasbara. The literal meaning of this Hebrew word is “explanation,” but when put into practice, most informed observers recognize it as propaganda. The more the State of Israel relies on force to manage the occupation, the more it feels compelled to deploy hasbara. And the more Western media consumers encounter hasbara, the more likely they are to measure Israel’s grandiose talking points against the routine and petty violence, shocking acts of humiliation and repression that define its treatment of the Palestinians. 

Under the leadership of Netanyahu—a professional explainer himself, who spent the early years of his political career as a frequent guest on prime-time American news programs perfecting the slickness of the Beltway pundit class—the Israeli government has invested unprecedented resources into hasbara. Once the sole responsibility of the foreign ministry, the task of disseminating hasbara now falls on a special Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, led until 2013 by Yuli Edelstein, a right-wing settler and government minister who has called Arabs a “despicable nation.” (Edelstein is now speaker of the Knesset.) 

Edelstein’s ministry boasts an advanced “situation room,” a paid media team, and coordination of a volunteer force that claims to include thousands of bloggers, tweeters and Facebook commenters who are fed the latest talking points and then flood social media with hasbara in five languages. The exploits of the propaganda soldiers conscripted into Israel’s online army have helped give rise to the phenomenon of the “hasbara troll,” an often faceless, shrill and relentless nuisance deployed on Twitter and Facebook to harass public figures who express skepticism about official Israeli policy or sympathy for the Palestinians. These efforts have been complemented by the office of the prime minister, the IDF spokesperson’s unit, and the ministry of tourism and culture, each of which hosts newly created hasbara units. Even the Jewish Agency, a state-funded para-governmental organization primarily engaged in absorbing and settling new Jewish immigrants, employs a full-time social media operative named Avi Mayer, who spends his days on Twitter attacking Palestine solidarity activists with usually baseless claims of anti-Semitism and deception. 

Whether they like it or not, every Jewish Israeli citizen is a potential recruit for the national hasbara brigade. While Tel Aviv University sends hasbara delegations to campuses across Europe and the United States, the National Union of Israeli Students offers Israeli college students $2,000 to spread propaganda “from the comfort of home.” El Al Airlines deploys its flight attendants in American cities to make the case for Israel during specially allotted paid vacation days. Meanwhile, back at Ben Gurion International Airport, large billboards posted by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy instruct Israelis to “be good diplomats” when they travel abroad. By corralling an entire population into promoting Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” the state strengthens a culture that treats dissent and critical inquiry with instinctive hostility. 

In 2005, the American reality TV program The Apprentice reappeared in Israel as The Ambassador, a hit show featuring hundreds of Israeli citizens engaging in heated hasbara competitions before a national audience and a panel of judges that included top army generals and journalists. At stake were cash prizes, a chance to speak in international parliaments and the adulation of their fellow citizens. At a 2010 conference of liberal intellectuals in Herzliya sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the think tank of the German Green Party, I encountered the winner of the second season of The Ambassador. She was pretty in a classically telegenic way, slender and extremely poised. The 30-year-old woman in a gray pantsuit was Melody Sucharewicz, but to many Israelis who viewed her as a celebrity, she was simply known as “Melody.” Since her victory, Sucharewicz has spoken about Israel’s “quest for peace” at the United Nations and secured a plum position at the Peres Center for Peace. 

During a question-and-answer session at the conference, Sucharewicz leapt to defend Israel against even mild criticism from various panelists, including the renowned Israeli historian Tom Segev. For five minutes she delivered a breathless, semi-coherent rant, as though she were in a contest to spin as many current events in Israel’s favor as possible. Finally, the moderator asked Sucharewicz to conclude her remarks with a question. “Of course you want me to stop talking,” she snapped at him. “You will never let a woman speak long enough to express herself.” Having shamed the moderator into submission, Sucharewicz plowed ahead for five more minutes of hasbara

When I interviewed her in the hallway afterward, I found her unflappable. To my question about the wave of anti-democratic laws flooding the Knesset, she responded, “Israel is not perfect. They can only strive to be more perfect…. I wouldn’t go as far as saying there is pure discrimination.” On issues ranging from civilian casualties in the 2008–09 attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) to the bulldozing of Bedouin villages in Israel’s Negev region, Sucharewicz always returned to one point: Israel is not perfect, but it is constantly improving. 

The same year that The Ambassador hit Israeli airwaves, the government focused on rebranding Israel as a cosmopolitan, technologically advanced party playpen for Western visitors, especially sex-hungry, upwardly mobile men between 18 and 35. A series of edgy commercials promoting tourism highlighted the new Brand Israel campaign. The first of the ads, released in 2006, depicted two randy young men sitting shirtless on the Tel Aviv beach while a parade of scantily clad Israeli women appear before them: 

Man #1 (staring at a nubile young woman rubbing lotion on her thighs): Holy shit, man! 

Man #2: Holy fuck! 

Man #1(glancing at the bouncing breasts of a bikini-clad blonde jogging in his direction): Holy Jesus! Oh! Come to papa! 

A brunette bikini model drops a paddle ball near the men and gives them a sultry look.

Man #1 (overcome with passion): Oooooh!

Slogan appears on-screen: “Israel: No Wonder They Call It the Holy Land.”

With $90 million from the municipality of Tel Aviv to promote the city as a gay paradise, and with free trips provided by the tourism ministry for gay Israelis willing to “conduct public diplomacy activities abroad,” the Brand Israel campaign has increasingly centered on what many international gay activists call “pinkwashing,” or using the country’s relatively progressive gay rights record to conceal its human rights abuses. The campaign has included sending openly gay Israeli soldiers to speak on college campuses, screening pro-Israel films at gay rights festivals, and even sending a bizarre float into the 2011 San Francisco Gay Pride parade featuring a blow-up doll of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being sodomized by a nuclear missile. 

Among the most aggressive promoters of Israel’s supposedly queer-friendly culture was Michael Lucas, one of the world’s wealthiest gay porn producers. A fervent supporter of Israeli airstrikes on Iran and a vehement Islamophobe (“I hate Muslims absolutely”), Lucas leveraged his fortune to found a company promoting gay tourism to Israel. “I find it absolutely maddening that gay people, who are the number one target of Islam, are so ignorant of the facts,” he told an interviewer from the far-right US journal FrontPage Magazine. “They are romanticizing the same Palestinians that hang gay people on cranes, but demonizing Israel, which is a safe haven for gay people.” Lucas’s most heavily promoted porno film, Men of Israel, which became a vehicle for his gay tours, featured two actors having sex inside a Palestinian village that was ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias in 1948. 

Incorrectly claiming that the village had been depopulated hundreds of years before, Lucas wrote in a press release, “We went to an abandoned village just north of Jerusalem. It was a beautiful, ancient township that had been deserted centuries ago…however, that did not stop our guys from mounting each other and trying to repopulate it. Biology may not be the lesson of the day, but these men shot their seeds all over the village.” After the filming concluded in the “abandoned” village, Lucas and his cast were received by a news crew from Israel’s Channel 1, which covered the porn shoot as a boon to Israeli public relations. 

In June 2011, when activists around the world convened in Greece for the attempted launch of the second Gaza Freedom Flotilla—one year after the Israeli military attack on the Mavi Marmara that killed nine activists—the Israeli government released a YouTube video designed to tar the flotilla organizers as homophobes. The video depicted a gay activist who called himself “Marc3Pax” talking about how the organizers had refused to allow him on board because of concerns expressed by their supposed partners among the anti-gay Hamas. Marc3Pax closed the video by warning gay viewers that joining the Palestine solidarity movement meant “getting in bed” with bearded jihadis who hate homosexuals. 

Sensing that the video was a hoax, US-based writers Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty of the Palestinian news and opinion website Electronic Intifada quickly unmasked the star of the video as an Israeli actor and nightclub promoter named Omer Gershon. When I investigated the video’s origins, I learned that the first person to promote it on Twitter was a character named “Guy Seemann.” At first, I could not believe that an actual person named Guy Seemann was disseminating a gay hoax video. I soon discovered that Seemann was not only real, but that he was a low-level operative working in the office of Prime Minister Netanyahu. 

The Marc3Pax hoax was followed by another dunderheaded and downright weird video designed to undermine the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Produced by a Tel Aviv–based production company with links to the prime minister’s office, it’s titled “Sex With the Psychologist.” It features an attractive and extremely bothered young woman reacting to Rorschach inkblots displayed by a leering, gray-haired psychologist. As the woman descends into varying stages of agitation, shots of her thighs flash on the screen. “All you want to do is live in peace,” she complains in South African–accented English, “but you keep trying to embarrass her and attack her and harass her.” Her words are interrupted by jarring montages of knives and clashes on the deck of the Mavi Marmara. “Doctor, why are you showing me these pictures?” she protests. “Stop telling me lies and presenting me only one side of the story…. Leave her alone, stop provoking her!… What do you want? For her to disappear off the map?” 

The woman was apparently a metaphorical representation of Israel as it wishes to be seen: peaceful, cosmopolitan and erotic, but also traumatized, vulnerable, and driven to neurosis by marauding terrorists and Jew-hating activists—an innocent victim in need of rescue. At the video’s end, the woman storms out of the psychologist’s office and a message appears on-screen: “Don’t support another violent flotilla.” 

The lurid hasbara of Brand Israel was directly inspired by corporate PR, and no single figure has devoted more energy at refining its techniques of damage control than Frank Luntz. Luntz earned acclaim—and notoriety—in 1996 when he crafted a memo for Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House, called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” The memo advised Gingrich to promote the GOP agenda with positive words like “moral,” “lead” and “prosperity,” while hammering Democrats with terms like “abuse of power,” “corrupt” and “intolerant.” Luntz went on to garner lucrative contracts from Enron, ExxonMobil and, most recently, the financial industry, which hired him to help undermine the Occupy Wall Street movement. Luntz’s bestselling vocabulary guide, Words That Work, was originally titled Killer Words

Given his history of helping corporate crooks talk their way out of crises, perhaps it was appropriate that Luntz was contracted by the Israel Project, an international pro-Israel activism outfit with ties to the country’s foreign ministry, to craft its official hasbara handbook. In the 116-page guide, fine-tuned for the sensibilities of an audience high on passion and low on information, Luntz outlines strategies for promoting Israel in the media and on campus. Throughout the document, Luntz urges pro-Israel activists to lead attacks on adversaries by “start[ing] with empathy for both sides first.” He advises Israel advocates to feign humility and concern for Palestinian children before opening up a relentless focus on the “Iran-backed Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.” 

In an unusual—and probably unintentional—moment of candor, Luntz warns that if Israel remains in a perpetual state of war with no plan to resolve its crisis, “Americans will not want their government to spend tax dollars or their president’s clout on helping Israel.” To hold off the looming storm, Luntz advises Israel supporters to “remind people—again and again—that Israel wants peace.” For him and professional hasbarists like Sucharewicz, the word “peace” is, of course, nothing more than a rhetorical device. 

While the Israeli government deployed a steady barrage of sophistry and diversionary tactics to guard its image, the military-intelligence apparatus resorted increasingly to repression to silence its internal critics. One of the most effective was Yonatan Shapira, an air force pilot who in September 2003, at the height of the second intifada, organized twenty-seven active-duty and veteran pilots to sign a public letter of refusal to fly any more missions that endangered civilians in the territories. After leaving the military, Shapira joined the BDS movement, incurring the wrath of the Israeli right-wing media as well as a threatening interrogation by the country’s internal security service, the Shin Bet. 

In September 2009, Israeli authorities detained Palestinian human rights activist Mohammed Othman when he returned from a trip to Norway, where he had lobbied Norwegian officials to support BDS and the grassroots campaign against Israel’s separation wall. Othman was released months later, but only following a sustained campaign by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to publicize his status as a political prisoner. In December 2009, Israel detained Jamal Juma, a leading member of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, designating him as a dangerous “security prisoner” before releasing him without charges weeks later. 

Among the dozens of Israeli activists caught in the Shin Bet’s dragnet was Leehee Rothschild, a 29-year-old human rights activist who was a constant presence at unarmed Palestinian demonstrations against the occupation in the West Bank, and who had recently joined a small group of pro-BDS Israeli activists and academics called Boycott Within. In March 2012, a year after police raided her apartment and rummaged through her belongings, Rothschild was detained by the Shin Bet while returning home from a trip to Europe, during which she had participated in a series of educational BDS events. At Ben Gurion International Airport, she was interrogated by “Shavit,” the director of the Shin Bet’s “extreme left and right department,” who suggested that his agency was listening to her phone calls, reading her e-mails and had bugged her apartment. When she was released, Rothschild wrote, “[Shavit] said that for now, I’ve stayed within the law, but once I broke it, I’d better remember that they are watching me, and that they view me as a leader, so I could be held responsible for leading other people into illegal acts.” 

The mounting panic over BDS fed directly into a Knesset effort to criminalize the boycott of Israeli products. In March 2011, a bill was introduced by the Likud Party’s Ze’ev Elkin, a right-wing populist from the party’s cadre of thirty- and fortysomething upstarts, and passed a committee vote, sending it to the Knesset floor for a final vote. The bill represented a streamlined version of a previous proposal that would have punished boycotters with actual jail time, while deporting noncitizens who called for boycotts of Israel in their own country. In its new, diluted form, the bill explicitly punished speech considered harmful to the Jewish state, allowing any Israeli who felt his or her business had been damaged by another Israeli’s call for a boycott—no evidence required—to sue the perpetrator in civil court. The bill read: “It is forbidden to initiate a boycott against the State of Israel, to encourage participation in it or to provide assistance or information in order to promote it.” 

Anat Matar was one of the first Israeli citizens to publicly promote a boycott. A professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and the mother of prominent left-wing journalist Hagai Matar, Anat quickly became a hate figure for Knesset right-wingers, who demanded that she be ousted from her tenured academic post. In a speech before Tel Aviv University’s 2010 graduation ceremony, the super-hasbara super-lawyer Alan Dershowitz accused Matar and two other pro-BDS Israeli academics, Rachel Giora and Shlomo Sand, of “impos[ing] their ideology on students,” and urged “patriotic” students and faculty members to “stand up to propagandizing professors…in appropriate forums outside of the classroom where different rules govern.” Matar told me that 250 of her academic colleagues were inspired by Dershowitz to sign a public letter condemning her in vitriolic terms. 

Matar told me that despite the mounting intimidation, she was not the real target of the anti-boycott legislation. “If the law passes, it’s not only me who gets hurt,” she said. “And if I’m fired, that’s actually the least important thing. The most important is what will happen with the NGOs like Adalah [the legal center for Arab minority rights], with [the occupation monitoring group] Yesh Din, with B’Tselem. If I’m fired, it’s a personal inconvenience—but if that happens, it’s much more than a sweeping attack on a lunatic from academia. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t see any way out of this.”

So much for freedom of expression in Egypt

These announcements have been placed in all government offices:

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 “According to instructions from [departments of] Public Security and Intelligence, political discussions are strictly prohibited in places of work, and the director of every administration or division chair is charged with implementing the ban, and whoever violates this, his case will be referred to the administration and this for the benefit of public good and the good of the work”.

Other Nations Offer a Lesson to Egypt

New York Times – August 26 2013

LONDON — Is the era of the military big man back? In Egypt, where Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi led a populist putsch against the elected president, prison doors are swinging.       

Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader and freshly ousted president, languishes in one jail cell, while Hosni Mubarak, the despised autocrat who led Egypt for 30 years, has just been released from another.       

The turmoil highlights the central role of the military in some postcolonial Muslim countries, where at least in the fitful early stages of democracy, it forcefully imposes itself as the self-appointed arbiter of power and the guardian of national identity.       

But a look at other Muslim countries that have struggled with democratic transitions, including two other polestars of the Muslim world, Pakistan and Turkey, should provide a kind of warning to General Sisi. There it is the generals who are now facing charges.       

Last week, a Pakistani court indicted the former military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — the first time in Pakistan’s coup-strewn history that a leading general has faced criminal prosecution. In Turkey, a court recently imprisoned dozens of senior military officers on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, a punitive reminder to a military once accustomed to reasserting its authority through coups.       

Though General Sisi is riding a wave of popularity among some Egyptians and neighboring countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, for cracking down on Islamists, the events in Turkey and Pakistan have shown the limits of military power. And in Egypt, that may ultimately mean allowing the Islamists a genuine role in public life.       

“General Sisi needs an exit plan, now,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior State Department adviser. “Without one, he could end up like Musharraf. And his country, too, could be left worse off at the end of his military rule.”       

Military and civilian leaders have been competing for power in Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt for decades. The military has exercised muscular influence in all three countries, openly or behind the scenes, because of weak civilian rule that can be traced to the foundation of the states — in some cases, in a bid to circumscribe Islamist influence.       

Egypt’s generals ousted the monarchy and established a republic in 1952. Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military revolutionary, led a fierce secularization drive in the 1920s. Pakistan’s military helped unify the country after its traumatic partition from India in 1947, and quickly established itself as the strongest arm of a weak state.       

Pakistani, Turkish and Egyptian generals profess to love democracy, but they practice it with varying degrees of reluctance. After seizing power in Pakistan in 1999, General Musharraf promised early elections but stayed for nine years. During a stint at the United States Army War College in 2005, General Sisi wrote a paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East” that was critical of American intervention in the region. Turkey’s army has claimed a popular mandate for inherently undemocratic acts.       

Instead, the military has deeply embedded itself in each state’s DNA, winning privileges and lucrative jobs for its officers, all the while controlling politics in blunt fashion. Pakistan’s generals have mounted four coups over the past 55 years; Turkey has had three. In both Pakistan and Egypt, analysts describe the military as the core of the “deep state.”       

“The military has been very influential since the 1952 revolution,” said Hala Mustafa, editor of the Journal of Democracy in Cairo. “Even under Morsi, it had the same privileges and status as it had over the past six decades.”       

How the militaries exercised that influence has varied. While Turkish and Egyptian generals ruthlessly marginalized political Islamists, Pakistan’s men in uniform co-opted them. During the 1980s, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan used them to both fight and to Islamize Pakistan’s national identity, a source of tension with Egypt at the time.       

In all three countries, Islam is often seen as the boogeyman of democracy, Dr. Nasr said. “But that is wrong. The real struggle in the Middle East is between civilian rule and the military.”       

That struggle is further complicated by the debate over how to integrate Islam into politics. For years, Turkey was the model of progress for many Muslim countries. But the military’s retreat has been driven, in part, by the country’s desire to join the European Union. And the gloss of civilian rule vanished in June when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan violently suppressed a protest movement in central Istanbul, suggesting that one authoritarianism was being replaced with another. This month’s treason trial brought out sharp divisions between secularists and Islamists, underscoring how Turkey’s nation-building model remains a work in progress.       

Yet the Turkish model may still offer the best hope: the protests in Istanbul appeared aimed more at Mr. Erdogan’s hard-nosed policies than at the system of civilian rule itself.       

For some Egyptians pondering their future, the dreaded outcome is to become like Pakistan. Yet there are lessons to be learned. For decades, Pakistani generals could intervene in politics at will, a fact that the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, appreciates better than most: his last stint in power ended in 1999 with an army coup.       

But since General Musharraf was ousted as president in 2008, Pakistan’s notoriously fractious politicians joined hands to give the military little room for maneuver, culminating in the recent, relatively clean election, which Mr. Sharif won with a handsome mandate. The courts have also grown bolder, highlighting military-driven vote rigging and human rights abuses (even if nobody has yet faced charges) and daring to indict General Musharraf, who also faces possible treason charges.       

Pakistanis now view themselves as exemplars of transition politics. After Mr. Morsi’s ouster, which many Egyptian liberals supported, their Pakistani counterparts were quick to offer advice on the perils of military intervention. “Been there, done that — and it was definitely the wrong choice,” said the journalist Omar R. Quraishi on Twitter.       

Still, Pakistan’s generals remain strong behind the scenes, and Pakistan’s transition is far from complete. General Musharraf’s trial, analysts say, could offer a weather vane of how much prestige they are willing to cede.       

Leaders in Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt are acutely aware of the parallels among them. General Musharraf, who speaks Turkish, used to wax lyrical about the secular vision of Turkey’s founder, Mr. Ataturk. More recently Turkish leaders have expressed fear that events in Egypt could stir trouble in their own country. “At moments of peril, it is more important than ever to stick closely to the democratic path,” President Abdullah Gul wrote recently in The Financial Times.       

Yet as all three countries climb the ladder toward functioning democracies, the effort is complicated by outside pressure, which often favors the military. American support for Pakistan and Egypt has long been predicated on those countries’ geostrategic value: Egypt’s proximity to Israel and Pakistan’s to Afghanistan. Turkey is a major player in NATO.       

And in Egypt, General Sisi and his commanders have drawn vocal support for his harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood from the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Even Mr. Mubarak, at the height of his 30-year rule, dared not operate so boldly. But therein lies the danger, perhaps, for General Sisi.       

His support from Egyptian civic society could evaporate as revulsion grows at the bloodshed against Islamists and the military’s crackdown on other dissenters. If he alienates Western support, financing from the Middle East cannot sustain his country for very long. And, as events in Turkey and Pakistan have shown, the military’s eminence can endure only by strategically ceding space to civilian players — or the use of violent repression.

It is the job of the thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners – Albert Camus

We must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of the country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes explosive, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated by race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of the thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.

Egypt going down path of Algeria’s bloody war – by David Blair

Telegraph of London August 21 2013

The generals are masters of Cairo and their foot soldiers are cannon fodder in the deserts of Sinai. The killing of 26 policemen near Egypt’s eastern frontier provides another vivid sign of how violence is taking hold across the Arab world’s most populous country.

 

But this incident also strikes an echo of the first stirrings of civil war in another Arab nation where the army seized power at the expense of radical Islamists. Two decades ago, the ambush and murder of policemen signalled the onset of armed revolt in Algeria. Often, busloads of officers were waylaid by gunmen and shot on the spot, which seems to be what happened in Egypt this week.

 

Before long, Algeria’s Islamist insurgents had graduated to attacking the army, planting bombs in the capital and, worst of all, carrying out night-time massacres in defenceless villages across the ”bled”, as the country’s coastal landscape is known.

 

When this singularly brutal civil war finally subsided in the early years of this century, perhaps 100,000 people had been killed. A shadowy cabal of generals, impossible to dislodge and known to Algerians as ”le pouvoir”, still pulled the strings of power. ”Once again,” reads a history of Algeria’s conflict, ”le pouvoir had exhibited its enduring dominance as it recaptured the instruments of authority through direct control of the state.”

 

The bloodshed began after Islamist party the Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of Algeria’s election in December 1991. Instead of allowing it to take power, the army mounted a coup in January 1992, cancelling the second round of elections and seizing control of the government. The Islamists, denied the chance to win office via the ballot box, decided that force was the only way.

 

The parallel between these tragic events in Algeria and Egypt’s recent experience is startling. For the Islamic Salvation Front, read the Muslim Brotherhood, and a pattern falls into place.

 

In Cairo on July 3, the army overthrew an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood and assumed de facto power. On Sunday, the cabinet appointed by the generals debated whether to ban the Brotherhood and revive the prohibition that held sway until Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011.

 

If this step is taken, Egypt’s new rulers will have adopted the Algerian solution to the challenge of political Islam. This can be summed up as ”deny, ban and suppress”: namely, deny the Islamists power, even if they win a fair election; ban their parties, however popular they might be; and lock up their supporters. Hundreds of Brotherhood figures are behind bars in Egypt and the official death toll from the operation to clear the protest camps and break up demonstrations is nearing 1000.

 

If the regime now adopts the last piece of the Algerian recipe and restores the ban on the Brotherhood, the Islamists might feel compelled to take matters into their own hands, follow their Algerian counterparts and choose armed insurrection instead.

 

Fortunately, there are good reasons to believe this will be avoided. For all the obvious parallels, there are vital differences between events in Egypt and Algeria. The most striking is that Algeria’s Islamists were never allowed to take power. In Egypt, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood won both parliamentary and presidential elections – and Mohamed Mursi duly became Egypt’s president in June last year. No one stood in the way of the Brotherhood assuming the power granted by its election victories. The problem was Mursi’s lamentable performance in office. The key moment came last November when he issued a decree that effectively swept aside all legal restraints on his authority and, with one blow, repudiated the ideals of the revolution against dictatorship.

 

Incidentally, remember how the Brotherhood promised not to run for the presidency after Mubarak’s fall? What if it had kept this pledge? The first president of the new Egypt would have been, say, Ahmed Shafik, a hold-over from the old regime, or perhaps Amr Moussa, a former head of the Arab League. The new leader would probably have failed spectacularly, overwhelmed by crisis. What would have happened next? Millions of Egyptians would have implored the Brotherhood to accept power as the only alternative to army rule.

 

Instead, the Brotherhood broke its promise – and now Mursi is out and the generals are in. After decades of preparation for Mubarak’s fall, Mursi and his colleagues dug their own political graves. Algeria’s Islamists had the mantle of victimhood. Their Egyptian counterparts, by contrast, succumbed to hubris.

 

But the Brotherhood’s bedrock of popular support, constructed over decades, remains intact. Given time, it could recover. In essence, the Algeria option means excluding Islamists from politics, regardless of how many votes they might win. For Egypt’s rulers to ban the Brotherhood – which was capable of winning elections as recently as 2012 – would be the height of folly. Mursi fell victim to his own hubris. The generals must not do the same – for Algeria provides a dreadful warning.

Egypt No longer Matters – by Bobby Ghosh

Time Magazine – August 18 2013

In Sana‘a last summer, a senior Yemeni general told me of his recent meeting with visiting American officials. The general had hoped to make the case for greater U.S. aid, military and civilian, for Yemen. But the Americans kept asking him about events in Egypt.

“They kept saying, ‘What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood? What are the Egyptian military officers telling you about [Mohamed] Morsi?’” the general recalled, shaking his head in frustration. “I told them, ‘We had our own Arab Spring, now we have a democratic government, we have acute poverty, civil wars and al-Qaeda. Can you please stop talking about Egypt and start talking about Yemen?’”

The general said the Americans did stop asking about Egypt, but only for a short while. Then the questions started up again. “They wanted to know if I had been to Cairo, and if I had noticed changes after the overthrow of Mubarak,” he said. “Americans seem to think that Egypt is the most important thing in the Middle East.”

It is pretty important, I said politely.

“No, it was important,” he replied, waving a hand over his shoulder. “But that was a long, long time ago.”

The American political and foreign policy establishment, as well as the media mainstream, tends to view Egypt through the lens of the 1960s and ’70s. Back then, Egypt was the fulcrum of the Arab world, unarguably its most important country. It was the source of the region’s most compelling postcolonial political idea: Nasserism. Cairo was the cultural center of the Arab peoples, the source of great cinema, TV, music, art, literature. It had a vibrant media scene.

Although it lacked the natural resources of a Saudi Arabia or an Iraq, Egypt had, relative to those countries, an abundance of intellectual capital: it was the center for learning, with the region’s best universities, both secular and religious. Its labor force was coveted by the newly wealthy Gulf states.

All that and, crucially from the U.S. point of view, Egypt was a threat to Israel.

Egypt today is none of those things, and for two reasons: the Middle East has changed, and Egypt has not.

Cairo is no longer the region’s cultural heart: Egypt doesn’t produce great art, music or literature. Arab TV audiences are much more likely now to be watching Turkish soap operas, Lebanese music videos and Qatari satellite news channels. Egyptian universities are now laughably bad, and the Gulf states prefer Indian, Pakistani and Filipino labor to Egyptian. Egypt’s media scene is a regional joke.

After decades of mismanagement by corrupt generals and bureaucrats, Egypt is an economic basket case. It has few valuable resources to sell the world, and its mostly impoverished people don’t have the money to buy anything from the world, either. Even the Chinese, who aren’t deterred by political instability or violence, aren’t exactly queuing up to invest in Egypt.

While Egypt has weakened over the past four decades, several other regional players have grown stronger and more ambitious. Some of these — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey — are American allies (much of the time, anyway), which means Egypt’s utility to the U.S. as an interlocutor to the Arab world is greatly diminished. Washington might have valued Egypt’s support for its efforts in Syria, but an Egypt run by brute generals presiding over the slaughter of their own civilians is hardly a credible partner in dealing with Bashar Assad.

As for that other crucial American concern, Egypt is no longer a serious threat to Israel: the balance of military power is entirely lopsided in Israel’s favor. It was remarkable how quickly Morsi, when he was elected President last year, moved to reassure everyone that he would adhere to the peace treaty between the two countries. All the main constituencies in Egypt (Islamists, liberals and the military) know if they went to war with Israel, their country would be reduced to rubble.

Nor is there a great risk that Egypt may endanger Israel by arming — or allowing others to arm — Hamas in Gaza. For one thing, most Egyptians (the Islamists included) fear and distrust the Palestinian militants. For another, Israel has demonstrated repeatedly that it is perfectly capable of choking off Hamas’ supply lines.

Can Egypt reclaim its old place as the fulcrum of the Arab world? An opportunity arose two years ago. The Arab Spring was an import from Tunisia, but it once again made Egypt a laboratory of a new, powerful political idea: post-totalitarian democracy. Egypt’s size meant its democratic experiment would be watched more closely than, say, Libya’s. Alas, as we’ve seen this summer, that experiment has failed. Rather than show the way forward, Egypt is in full retreat. It now falls to Tunisia and Libya to show that the Arab Spring wasn’t simply a replay of the Prague Spring.

As for Egypt, it seems now that its main relevance in regional and global affairs is as a potential source of trouble. Its combination of instability, corruption and ineptitude makes Egypt fertile soil for radicalism and Islamist militancy.

And Washington should treat it as such. It should stop pretending Egypt is an important player in Arab affairs, and pay more attention to countries that are. It should stop giving the generals $1.5 billion a year. That money is better spent on countries where the democratic experiment still has a chance of success. Instead, the U.S. should prepare for the humanitarian crises that will inevitably accompany continued military brutality and economic misery. And it should be alert for the growth of a new al-Qaeda franchise on the Nile.

And if that happens, I know a Yemeni general they can ask what to do about it.