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How building Kibbutz in Egypt could change everything for poor neighborhoods

About 60 or 70% of Cairo is made up of ramshackle informal settlements and shanty towns which have been mushrooming since the mid- seventies. The hideous urban sprawl is gobbling up the limited Egyptian agricultural patch as the weak state of the mediocre Mubarak lack(s) comprehensive socio-economic development plans for the bulk of Egypt’s population. This has in turn led to massive immigration to Cairo which is expanding horizontally across its agrarian belt. The phenomena include Alexandria and the Delta cities to the effect that the Urban Egypt is now restricted to parts of greater Cairo, Alexandria and some Upper Egyptian towns. The discrimination against the people of these settlements, the stigmatization and widely accepted stereotypes about them are alarming. Their status is akin to that of African Americans in U.S cities at the turn of the 20th century. Those disenfranchised people are a time bomb at the heart of Egypt

Each informal settlement is divided into family-based neighborhoods lead by one or several extended family along with its networks of patronage. The families are oftentimes involved in illicit activities masked by a vocational façade. The networking resource of the neighborhood and the isolation of the settlements are both essential for their business model. It is therefore no wonder that stern resistance is put up against any attempts by the state to resettle the inhabitants in subsidized housing units in other places due to the perceived detrimental effects to their social capital. Besides, large resettlement projects of a scale that can make a significant impact on the total size of informal settlements in Egypt would require resources way beyond what is available to the Egyptian debt-ridden and cash-strapped treasury.

Economical Familly units: Alexander Stross Ikea refugree shelter: via better shelter

Think of a grand scale mega-project for transforming Egypt’s shanty towns and grotesque informal settlements, replacing them with economical, easy-to-build family units like the illustrated ones (above); or with the new innovative Ikea refugee shelters illustrated below. The administrative units could be communes á la “Kibbutz”. In each commune economic activity should be centered on small industries, workshops and some farming while energy needs are to be mostly supplied by a portfolio of garbage incinerators, bio-units and solar panels. Central vocational schools and government business training centers manned by Egypt’s best should be established in each cluster of communes. Experiences from China in communal small-scale industries can be copied. The whole rationale behind the communes is canalizing the social capital and communal identity of the neighborhoods in a productive orientation.

Image via Better Shelter

Once a solid framework for the communes is established, one that gains the trust of the people, the communes could turn into a magnet for technology hipsters of the sort of Marcen Jacubowsky of the global village construction set, which is a platform in which Marcen lead a team in Missouri, U.S.A, of mostly amateur enthusiasts to build tools and tractors for farming, building and energy generation.  They use heaps of scrap metal as raw material in a self-supporting farming community producing its energy and hardware needs all from scratch. Of course such communities are to large extent experimental ones and certainly the socio-cultural set-up in Egypt is not conducive to the establishment of such communities. Nonetheless, the Success of Marcen’s experience sheds light on the tremendous potential of communities that share a belief in a more sustainable and less materialistic future. If anything, such experiences could be extrapolated to provide inspiration for alternative contours of development in places like Egypt. It helps that many in the informational settlements have vocational skills acquired through Egypt’s informal apprenticeship system. The system – though unregulated – has its tacit rules and large compounded local knowledge networks.

There are already some experiments in Egypt for family energy self-sufficiency.  A non-profit organization sponsored building bio-gas units from recycled material on rooftops of some of Cairo’s poor areas (poor Cairo neighborhoods are not necessarily informal settlements) to help the families with their energy bills.

When it comes to farming the model should be for highly water-efficient greenhouses.  Feasibility studies accounting for water resources and land availability would decide on farming model, whether subsistence, or a business-oriented flower and herbal farming.

“There are already some experiments in Egypt for family energy self-sufficiency”

An issue that should remain controversial is ownership structure since violent feuds between families are not a rare incidence in the informal settlements. Also, each family is usually large in number with 7 or 8 children per household. This in turn would lead to disputes and difficulty of taking the right business decisions.  Hence ownership should be communal with the greenhouses, small-sized industry belonging to the commune and run through councils including elected members of the communes and representatives from NGOs and funding entities. Private ownership should be restricted to workshops, retail outlets, etc. The whole experience must not be construed as a communist experience, but rather an opportunity for providing training, jobs and social development for a marginalized and disenfranchised community that shares some of the characteristics of indigenous ones.

A project of such scale is bound to require large financial resources which are a rare commodity in Egypt.  Egypt however has a much skewed income distribution where middle-men, agents and rent seekers acquire the largest chunk of a backward economy. A slight adjustment in the tax system could make a quantum leap in Egypt’s prospects provided that the sclerotic political caste (ancien regime, MBs, sham revolutionaries) is discarded .

Egypt is one of the largest recipients of western aid due to its pivotal role in Middle Eastern security. Alas, the Euros and dollars go down the drain into cosmetic projects and corruption. The west has direct interest in uprooting Islamic extremism of which social deformities are one of the causes. Hence in the framework of transparent, strong, reforming government the EU can help with finances, expertise and planning until the new communes are self-sustaining.

All the same, I can’t help but laugh when I read about our minister of informal settlements’ bombastic press releases about a revolution in shanty towns which amounts to no more than showcasing the installation of few expensive solar panels in some of them. There are many global well-wishers for Egypt, but first we have to relay clear signals that we are up for a real change.

Who Rules Egypt?

History has shown that Egypt’s destiny is intertwined with that of the Near-East. In the first millennium B.C the ancient near-eastern civilizations were on the decline. Enormous breathtaking innovations had been taking place in the near-east for several thousands of years before the birth of Christ- notwithstanding the feudal, despotic  and very hierarchal organizations of societies in the region. With a Near-East dominated by the dynamic and more democratic Greeks and Romans, the previous despotic organization survived with the bulk of the peasant population continuing to be land serfs feeding the urban Greco-Roman elites instead of the Pharaoh and his provincial lords. An inexorable turn of events happened in the Middle-Ages with the Arab conquests which assimilated the Semitic ancient near-eastern, Greco-Roman and Persian components of the region.

The dissolution of the borders between the Greco-Roman west and the orient created the Islamic civilization in which the Arabized population of the near-east, Persians and later on Turks were partners.  Egypt at the time was in a state of flux with successive dynasties each bringing in new ruling groups. The Islamic era featured the establishment of cities in Egypt like Cairo, Mansoura, Quena. City dwellers were traders, artisans and manufacturers. Nonetheless, those cities remained distinct from the European burgs in terms of their being entirely dependent on the ruling dynasty at the time , for  each ruler brought in his clan  and own groups creating a new urban elite and feudal lords, forcing the previous groups to merge with disenfranchised population.

Relative stability came about with rule of the Mamluks in the 13th century (a caste of Islamized foreign warrior slaves bred to rule  while bloody struggles between their factions decided upon the next ruler).  Yet, insecure property rights, excessive taxation of city dwellers  and unacceptable barriers to trade due to political upheavals and purges in the region hampered innovation, learning and the development of technology in  Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

The initial dynamism of Islam and the demonstrated penchant of Arabs/Muslims for  trade and exploration gave way to a fatalistic version of Islam, one that idolizes the status-quo,  reverence of the elders and the sanctity of old traditions and knowledge.

Conditions further worsened with the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries and its dominance over the Middle-East. The ottomans relied on coercion by its own janissary Mamlouk caste, in addition to the local Mamlouks, to extract enervative taxes from local population. The era was marked by lawlessness, plundering and intellectual decline. What is even worse, the Ottomans isolated the Middle-East and shut it out of the flourishing European civilization. The tradition of urban life in the middle ages dwindled as the Egyptian cities were reduced to mere rural administrative centers. It was all clear that the entire Middle-East was rushing downhill.

In the early 19th Egypt a daring ottoman ruler grabbed power and secured for Egypt a state of quasi-autonomy. Muhammad Ali had an eye on controlling the Middle-East and establishing his own dynasty in Egypt.  Muhammad Ali broke the ottoman isolation and imported French instructors for the army, built some factories and new schools. His goal was building a strong army to secure his ambitions. In the process he wiped out the Mamlouk caste, monopolized agrarian trade and turned  himself into the proprietor of land, industry and state. He created a new elite, with an eye on westernization, from Islamized European adventurers, members of his Albanian tribe, remnants of the Mamlouk caste and  some of the Arab tribes chiefs who allied themselves with him. He distributed agricultural land among the previous groups and modernized and centralized state bureaucracy. His factories were dysfunctional of course because what he failed to apprehend is that for industry to flourish he needed massive expansions in education, sovereignty of the law and secured property rights in independent cities conducive to innovation and trade.

Eventually, a coalition of European powers checked his rule as he was about to bring down the entire Ottoman Empire, albeit hereditary succession for his descendants under the title Khedive was secured. The Khedives created westernized elite from their landlord support base and converted Egypt into two countries; a westernized enclave in Cairo designed after Paris, and the rest of the country which was agrarian and miserable riven by poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition.

Egypt fell a prey to a temporary period of British rule, which left the Khedive institution intact, from 1882 till 1923. During the period the division of large estates among heirs, increased buying and selling of agricultural land and the need for an administrative class to aid the British all created a middle class, though tiny one. The growing exposure of Egyptian middle class to western culture through education and the European expats brought in ideas of freedom nationalism, secularism. The new middle class was partly western in its outlook. The elite in Egypt internalized colonial attitudes towards the rest of the country.

A new class of landlords relatively more connected to the native population saw its economic interest at stake from British interference in cotton trade, Egypt’s foremost commodity export, and so lead  a popular revolution in 1919 which culminated in the declaration of Egypt’s independence in 1923, thus ushering in the liberal era.

During the liberal era a tiny bit of the local population found its way to the landlord class and some expansion in trade from the Suez Canal along with limited forays into industrialization increased the size of the middle class in Cairo, Alexandria and some other Egyptian cities. A fault line was found in Egyptian society between the western outlook of the Bourgeoisie and the Isalmic overtones of the new middle and lower middle classes which harbored suppressed hostility towards European influence and  It was along these tensions  that Muslim Brotherhood political movement and organization was formed. The Egyptian institutions were still following the initial design of Muhammad Ali where landlords and new industrialists monopolized the entire wealth of Egypt through networks of patronage and clients.

Middle classes operating in these networks had always been driven by aspirations to join the Mamlouk caste and take part in extracting wealth from masses. Nevertheless, further expansions in the Middle class during and in the aftermath of world war two, along with the romanticist tendencies of a portion of landlords class, created a critical mass demanding change in Egypt.  A group of young officers lead by Nasser in 1952 capitalized on the popular resentment and seized power.

Nasser immediately embarked on land reform distributing land among poor peasants, allied himself with the Soviet Union in the hope of replicating the massive industrialization that had been taking place in the Soviet Union starting from the Stalinist era. Nasser adopted Arab Nationalism and supported emancipatory and anti-colonial movements throughout Africa and the Middle-East. Despite his anti-western rhetoric his project was in essence a westernization one.  He exhorted social liberties, mass education and a growing public sector.

Nasser’s experience eventually foundered due to his rash uncalculated external adventures which lead to the Arab defeat in 1967. Still his designs for Egypt had fatal flaws. By empowering the army a new elite class of top brass filled in the void left by former landlord institutions. They challenged Nasser’s rule  and formed a new  exploitative class allied with the top bureaucracy  in the expanding public sector. The army allowed for the formation of a private contractors class in the era of socialism, which delivered privileges to the officers.  The same norms and institutional culture of the previous era persisted. The officers brought to power with them the aspirations of joining the Mamlouk caste.

Meanwhile, Nasser failed to understand that the root of Egypt’s problems lies in traditions and its exploitative Asiatic heritage as the small land owners later on turned into   massive clans in the Delta region exploiting landless farmers and hogging social change. The new small land owners lacked the westernization aspirations of liberal era landlords.  The ground was thus furnished for the subsequent revival of Islamism in the 70s. What Egypt needed was something akin to Maoism in China which made a complete break with traditions and heritage, creating a new society founded on productive and egalitarian values.

A hallmark of the Nasserite era was the creation of the gigantic security apparatus which through media control and propaganda controls the aspirations of the middle classes. The security apparatus has its tentacles in all Egyptian institutions and later on all big business activities. So, up till this point in time, it the main center of power and the de facto ruler of the country

Nasser’s successor Sadat launched a war against Israel in 1973 to regain Egypt’s pride that tarnished in 1967. Following the war Sadat needed to create a new social base to support his peace with Israel and rapprochement with the U.S. He thus reversed the socialist policies of Nasser with an open door policy in 1975 and pushed for a large role for the private sector. Alas, his liberal reforms were mainly cosmetic and were not the sort of reforms that would bring about technological modernization and cause a boom in small and medium sized productive business in an atmosphere of economic freedom. Rather, he created a fascist regime made up of an alliance between the security apparatus and a new business class. The business model was that of commissioners, traders and agents forming franchise oligarchies that extracted the largest chunk of a commodities and emigrants remittances economy, then provided services to the impoverished masses.  Oligarchs had impregnable spheres of influence linked by security apparatchiks.

The business class was made up of remnants of the liberal era, private contractors of the socialist era, top brass and former top state bureaucracy as well as the security apparatus apparatchiks. The most hideous elements of the new business class and in fact its role model was an utterly  unscrupulous, bazar-minded  climbers  for whom- literally-speaking-   fraud, sham credentials, bribery  and ability to play up to the regime and extract profits without actually  producing anything were all the signs of a good businessman!!

A symbolic sign of the era is the deterioration Of Cairo which deservedly used to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world during the liberal era.  A contracting magnate and Sadat’s in-law , Othman Ahmad Othman,  became minister of housing; he watered down the building code,  deregulated the construction business and turned a blind eye to the corruption at locality and neighborhood levels where the executives viewed aesthetic and building codes as relics of  an “ancient outdated era”.

The security apparatus having shed the burden of the socialist veneer formed with the new Mamlouk caste along with the Sadat business class.  The state institutions disintegrated and had a laxedgrasp of its remit so as to allow the new rulers to profiteer and extract Egypt’s wealth. The regime bribed the landed clans of the Delta (the small holding farmers empowered by Nasser) by withdrawing the state from the provinces leaving them to chaos and the quasi-customary rule of village norms. The political motto of the Sadat’s era was listening to the village elders whose norms were embodied by Islam and thus the quasi-Maoist policies of Nasser were reversed.  The newly found middle classes reverted back to its Islamic heritage with a significant portion of it moving to the gulf states thus internalizing the traditional Islamist mores of  the Gulf.  Sadat didn’t last of for long. He was succeeded in 1981 by Hosni Mubarak.

The incompetent, utterly corrupt Mubarak lacked courage, imagination and resolution to go at Egypt’s problems head on and relied on freezing-the-status-quo policy. The oligarchs in the eighties continued to absorb larger chunks of the backward economy and they monopolized the new thriving tourism and hotels business, while the state institutions became totally governed by nepotism and patrimony and their grip grew laxer and laxer. Mubarak peddled to the middle class his Muslim village elder credentials. This in turn allowed the critical elements of the Egyptian religious institutions to criticize the regime on its Islamic credentials thus forming the intellectual base of groups like Al-Queda and other horrific terrorist organizations.

The new oligarchs lacked the old landlords’ fixation on emulating the west. They remained Islamic in core. Paradoxically enough, they oftentimes wondered why Egypt is not modern enough and blamed the passive populace for Egypt’s trouble. They equated modernity with brand shopping, luxury cars and frequent pilgrimages to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

There was some sense in their discourse since the Islamic heritage is the main culprit of Egypt’s troubles, but, ironically enough, they consistently failed to grasp that they were part of that heritage. In the nineties the oligarchs took over the public sectors assets accruing astronomical figures from reselling them, for example one politically connected oligarch, Muhammad Zayat made a 500% profit in 3 years from buying  a state alcoholic beverages company then reselling it.

The fascism of Mubarak climaxed with the rise of his ignoramus son, Gamal Mubarak, at the turn of the millennium. Mubarak junior had a childish passion for new liberalism and his idea of modernization was centered around selling Egypt’s natural resources and infrastructure to his close oligarchs. Several factors confounded to bring about the demise of Mubarak.   Mubarak’s new group of oligarchs was crowding out the business segments traditionally more liked with the army. All in all the balance in ruling allianceof security apparatchiks and oligarchs was tipping ing in favour of Gamal’s oligarchs. The ICT revolution and tourists influx whipped up anti-regime sentiments among the middle class which was comparing Eypt’s status with the rising countries in East Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately, the gradual Islamisation of Egyptian society starting from the early seventies made large segment of the middle class look up to the Muslim Brotherhood as the saviors. A popular uprising  broke out in 2011 and the army and security apparatus ousted Mubarak.

However, Egypt’s trauma, its middle class, grew weary of the growing power of Islamists which was empowering  Egypt’s Fakirs and the disenfranchised, and of the ensuing further deterioration and more brazen nepotism and incompetence of the Muslim brotherhood. They gave up on the revolutionaries and supported the return of the ancien- regime with the security apparatus being the powerful partner in the historical alliance between the security and oligarchs. They had legitimate fears from a descent into chaos and theocracy at the hands of the Islamists. But here also they are reproachable since the bulk of the army, of the judiciary,of police and of security officers hails from the ranks of the middle class. They stuck to the enervative despotic heritage and clung to their Mamlouk aspirations as they refrained from supporting radical reforms that would jeopardize their petty relative privileges, whereas the officers abstained from applying the law to worsen chaos and stoke general fears from a descent into lawlessness.

The revolutionaries undoing was their inadequate understanding of Egypt’s root problems. Hence at present all energies must be focused on bringing back consciousness of Egypt’s cultural and institutional problems to the middle class, which though is small in relative terms, it remains large and can form critical mass for change

Dotted Thoughts on Al-Azhar

Bringing down Al-Azhar should come as top priority for our national security strategists. Al-Azhar not only epitomizes the Asiatic and fatalistic religious norms which are hampering the imagination and freedom of our masses, it is also actively involved in generating anti-modernity forces in the region.

As of the seventies of the past decade, Wahhabis have assumed the role of being the torch-bearers of the medieval revival. The prestige and influence of Al-Azhar among Muslims could have very well countered that. Yet, if anything, the Islamic thought taught in Al-Azhar shares the tenets of Wahhabi Islam. With a seemingly moderate veneer it has Islamized the bulk of the middle class which should have been the enlightened locomotive of the Arab world.

Paradoxically enough, Al-Azhar despite of being the leading global Sunni Muslim Institution, it has always exhibited a tacit and at times even overt admiration for the clerical Shiite theocratic   rulers of Iran. As it happens, Al-Azhar clerics aspire for assuming an executive role in Egypt when the time is ripe.

Nonetheless, it remains a fact that Al-Azhar produced exceptional reformers like Mohamed Abdou, and Al-Bakoury (who was about to issue a fatwa rendering wine halal for Muslims). Those reformers had the support of the westernized Egyptian royal family in case of Abdou, and the modernist Gamal Abdul Nasser in case of Bakoury. Alas, the consistent economic and social failures in the Arab world crowded out reformists and brought conservatives to the fore. President Sadat in the second half of the seventies came up with his revolutionary political philosophy of “listening to the village elders” ushering the reversal of the quasi-Maoist policies of Nasser, and was at loggerheads  with  Egyptian former royal family’s fixation on  emulating the west, not  the sclerotic  village elders.

The utterly incompetent, parochial and corrupt Mubarak lacked resolution, courage and imagination to go at Egypt’s complex problems head on. Rather, he founded his rule on a Freezing-the-Status-Quo policy. He peddled to the middle class moderate Islamic credentials through his alliance with Al-Azhar, whereas for Egypt’s rural millions he was the village elder. He thus rendered legitimacy a derivative of Islam and its patron, Al-Azhar. No wonders then that the more independent ones of Al-Azhar students criticized Mubarak by questioning his Islamic credentials and thereby turned to jihadist theoreticians in the eighties. They characterized Al-Azhar veneer of moderation as hypocritical- sadly enough, they were right.

Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood, whose thought is Identical to the Al-Azhar but differ on their rigorous esoteric organization and political action, hijacked the Middle classes’ dissatisfaction with Mubarak’s social and economic failures. That explains the ascent of the Muslim brotherhood in the aftermath of the Arab spring. The Egyptian security apparatus effectively undermined their discourse among the Careen and Alexandrian Middle-Classes, by brilliantly relaying to them the message that the MBs are not Islamic enough, thus replicating the disastrous approach of Mubarak which lead to his downfall. However, the Islamist (MBs) thought is rooted in Egypt through Al-Azhar. And the support base of MBs is strong among the provincial Middle classes as well as some of the landed clans and families in the Delta region; those families side with either the Mubarak regime or the MBs depending on the willingness and ability to deliver favours. Egypt’s millions of Fakirs, on the other hand, drift towards the more dangerous Salafi brand of Islam.

Bringing about radical social and economic reforms is the only way out of the current mess that poses an existentialist threat to Egypt which might, in the mid-term future, face the destiny of Syria.  The starting point is declawing Al-Azhar. I still haven’t figured out Marshal Sissi, but I sincerely hope that he is conscious of the roots of Egypt’s intractable difficulties.Azhar

The Syrian Conundrum and Assads

Syria harbored the oldest urbanized communities known in history and Syrians for thousands of years have been sophisticated cosmopolitan traders. Even during the dark ages of the Ottoman empire-  which  sealed off the Middle-East and stripped its historical advantage of being  an intermediary between the orient and Europe-  Levantines maintained some limited access to the flourishing western civilization through Christian missionaries. Against such a backdrop one finds it very difficult to come to grips with tragic situation of Syria at present where the country is rent by a brutal civil war with no looming prospects for an end to the bloodbaths.

This gloomy image comes in a stark contrast with the secular one of Syria in the fifties where Sunnis,  Syriainics (Christians) and Alawites ( Isolated Mountainous community  with a syncretic belief  encompassing Islamic, Zoroastrian, Buddhist  and ancient Semitic elements) shared   a unified identity in an open and secular society  that cherished multiplicity, one   that was keen on catching up.

Syria back then championed Arab nationalism which glued the multiple components of Syrian society together.  This movement first arose among Syrian Christians to counter the Islamic character of the Ottoman Empire then it was upheld by Syrian Sunnis in retaliation to the growing Turkification of the empire towards the end of the 19th century. After the end of World War 1 and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, Syria fell under French rule. In French-ruled Syria the majority of Alawites- concentrated in the western coastal region- had a rooted sense of Syrian identity despite   a general distrust of the Sunni majority exacerbated by the social differences between the mountainous illiterate Alawites and the mild, relatively sophisticated urban Sunnis. The Alawites had a disproportionate representation in the French- administered army. Syria got its independence in 1946.

The prominent political forces back then were the Arab national Baath party on the one side- popular among urban Sunnis due to its secular character and promotion of individual liberties- and the Muslim Brotherhood which had its support base among conservative Sunnis and the rural hinterland population on the other side.  The Alawites joined the Baathists in droves.

Power fell in the hands of competing factions of young officers engaged in launching coups against each other – though the Sunni- Alawite distinction was of no significance back then. The Arab nationalist fervor took a dangerous twist in the fifties as it turned into a chauvinistic trend with a rather neurotic rejection of the west- paradoxically enough,  Arab rulers were promoting societal and social liberties though never political ones- and a crazed fetishized intent on the annihilation of Israel.  The seeds of a pluralistic modern society ripe in the fifties   gradually gave way to the brutal rule of a primitive military junta. The officers brought Syria back to square zero plunging it into its previous state of isolation under Ottoman rule.  It is worth mentioning that China and some other developing countries underwent iron curtain experiences in order to bring about radical societal transformations; the main difference however is the meritocratic and impartial nature of Chinese institutions and despite of the one party system, a variety of opinions were allowed within the ruling party- notwithstanding the frequent bloody purges. Syria on the other hand was run like a neighborhood lorded by mafia clans going to ceaseless turf wars. The disastrous failure of the union between Egypt and Syria bore out that state of affairs

The tinkering, incompetence, jingoism and nepotism that characterized the Syrian Baathist rule lead to the humiliating Arab defeat in 1967. Ironically enough, the Syrian minister of defense during the 1967 war, Hafez Assad, became the de facto ruler of Syria. This power- crazed, unscrupulous iron man had the brutality of Stalin and the   the shrewdness of the Machiavellian prince.  He cautiously but steadily started pushing Alawites to top positions in army and state, along with Sunni cronies all while masquerading as a Pan-Arab visionary and freedom fighter against Zionism . Syria’s eventual defeat in the war launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel in 1973 made it very much clear to Assad that his reign would soon be seriously challenged. This is because the legitimacy of the entire military junta was founded on their promise to bring progress and modernity to Syria, something which can never be achieved unless Israel is wiped off the map. It is of course counter-intuitive to put an entire country in limbo rendering its future contingent on an unwinnable battle against a nuclearly armed Israel.  A partial explanation of the Syrian defeat, which  serves to shed considerable light on the nature of this horrendous regime, is found in Russian accounts. The Russians  were baffled by Syrian commanders consistent failure  to heed tactical and strategic advice of Russian military experts. Definitely that would have jarred with  the Syrian criteria of appointing commanders. The Syrians always spurned Russian advice on the pretext of having come up with their own pure ARAB ways of doing  warfare!

But with the deftness and cunning of a Mafia boss, Assad was quick and decisive; he purged the Syrian army of Sunni officers in 1974, put Alawites on top of all critical agencies and empowered an Alawite business elite. His sectarian policies sowed what is happening in Syria now.  He turned Syria into a country of a master Alawite caste presiding over an isolated Sunni majority.

Syria lost another war to Israel in 1982. A conservative Sunni rebellion, lead by the Muslim Brotherhood, ensued but it was bloodily crushed by Assad killing thousands of civilians in the process. It was henceforth all clear to Syrians and Assad that the regime had no legitimacy. Assad was defeated by Israel and Syria lagged behind backward and poor. Sunnis as well as some Alawites and Christians were discontent about how things turned out in Syria. Assad, on the other hand, peddled to minorities in Syria that his regime was the only safeguard against the religious fascism of the Muslim Brotherhood.  He brought the Alawite sect to the conviction that the survival of his regime is an existentialistic necessity for them.

In 2000 Assad died and was the succeeded by his Son Bashar. The revolutionary freedom fighter turned Syria into a private inherited isle. Assad junior followed in the footsteps of the Fascist regime of Egypt’s Mubarak and started a gradual process of opening Syria up to investment and trade. Alas, Mr. Assad’s policies were not the kind that would foster innovation and competitiveness and bring about technological modernization. Rather, he created a new class of nouveau-Riche rent seekers with wealth made out of a superficial flirtation with free market policies that only served a tiny consumerist class.

Following a few years of cautious optimism about Bashar’s open door policies, Syrians realized that the reforms were essentially cosmetic.  In the last years of the previous decade draughts hit the Sunni hinterland due to the disastrous agricultural policies of Assad. Mr. Hafez Assad felt like boasting of Syria’s self-sufficiency in wheat production and accordingly depleted Syria’s underground water resources. The environmental catastrophe fueled the smoldering resentment of the Conservative rural Sunni population against Alawite rule. The ground was thus paved for the spread of disruptive Muslim Brotherhood networks in the Syrian Hinterland.

The situation in Syria flared up after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Middle class Syrians including Alawites and Christians took to the streets demanding change. The protests were intense in the hinterland urban centers. The regime retaliated with disproportionate lethal force which in turn stripped the façade of legitimacy which it had hitherto managed to sustain. Assad deliberately tinged the uprising with sectarian features. There were numerous reports about rumors spreading in Sunni villages about an imminent Alawite attack; the rumors went the other way round as well.

This mainly civilian uprising cannot provide an explanation for the myriad of well-trained and armed feuding guerillas that have been sprouting up throughout Syria. The Muslim brotherhood rural networks spawned fighting factions which attracted some defecting Sunni soldiers. Nonetheless, those fighters are not seasoned nor do they possess any combat experience of any significance, albeit they comprise the bulk of the insurgency.

The significant weight of fighting against Assad is carried by the gratuitously bloody and horrendous Jihadists and Al-Qaida-like groups of Jabhit Al-Nusra and the heinous ISIS.  The file and rank of those groups are manned by people from Arab tribes:  Bedouin in the North and mostly sedentary Arab tribes in the south and west of Damascus. Those tribes, spread in the deserts of Syria, Iraq and Jordan, are, generally speaking, pragmatic and they tend to mind their own business. They seldom revolt but when they do they invoke the puritanical warlike spirit of the Jihadist Islam; after all, it was this desert culture that spawned the birth of Islam in the first place. Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein understood their psychology and granted them some level of autonomy while turning a blind eye to their illicit activities of smuggling and looting in return for subservience to the authority of the state. Assad humiliated those tribes during the first months of the uprising and refused to free the slew of young tribal men who joined their urban counterparts in the uprising. This provocation fell heavily on people for whom vendetta is an essential part of their existence.

In the North however the dynamic is different. At the height of the U.S war in Iraq Assad provided logistical support to Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq- later to become ISIS- and allowed them to use Syrian desert territories as a refuge and aggregation base for the various Iraqi insurgent groups. That proved to be a fatal mistake on Assad’s part since they allowed the Iraqi insurgents to network with Syrians. It is also possible that they had managed at the same time to establish communication channels with Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Assad with a demoralized army in return tended to augment the sectarian feature of the conflict with the Iranian intervention as Iran brought in its proxy Shite fundamentalist group of Hezbollah to the fray along with Iraqi Shiite fundamentalist militias. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey are supporting the Sunni Jihadists with arms, medication and communications, both officially and through independent civil society actors.

The Syrian uprising of the youth calling for democracy and freedom has been hijacked by lunatic   hardline fundamentalists from the Sunni and Shiite camps.  The urban Sunni Middle-class population, along with Christians are torn between their contempt for the mobster, Assad, and their prescient fears about looming darker ages at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadists. This explains why Sunnis are split down the middle  on Assad.

The war is likely to continue to be dragged out with neither side approaching a decisive end. The international community and the free world must live up to its moral and humanitarian duty to end the calamity of Syria and salvage its despondent people. Only a united stand on part of the free world can enforce a defeat of the fundamentalists and the hideous Assad.bashar-instagram-beach-550x550 (1)

and the free world must live up to its moral and humanitarian duty to end the calamity of Syria and salvage its despondent people. Only a united stand on part of the free world can enforce a defeat of the fundamentalists and the hideous Assad.

Values and the Egyptian dilemma

“In Egypt, for example, researchers showed a decade ago that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, plants are able to tolerate reduced watering longer. This variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat and can be cultivated with meager rainfall alone. This is what wheat farmers need”.

(Newyork Times, 2 Feb 2014, P.A 23)

It has come as quite a shock to me to know that there have been successful attempts in Egypt to develop wheat strains that require much less amounts of water. Without going into much detail about issues I’m not trained to handle, It goes without saying that our institutions and political circuits are not wired to be receptive to innovation because of the lack of coordination among them and the absence of integrated state-level policies to tackle our complex problems that pose an existentialist threat to Egypt.

Our bureaucracy and political elites are more of a coalition of profiteers and status seekers striving to sustain the horrible status-quo and preserve their petty stakes in the rot with no shared understanding of how to sort out the huge challenges facing our country.

The root cause , in my opinion, is cultural, since our version of Islam doesn’t link status to quality and achievement. Rather, success is a function of pretentious piety and the capacity to control and amass networks of clients along pre-modern and largely agrarian lines and hence any disruption of our systems is sternly resisted and perceived as a breach of our “familial” valueswhich are based on real and metaphorical lineages.

Big brothers, Condoleezza Rice and the angels of mercy!

It   amazes me how commonplace it has become in Egypt to rant about the American plot to destabilize Egypt by handing it over on a silver platter to Sunni Islamists so as to   plunge the region into an artificial sunni-shiite-Christian conflict which in turn would facilitate smoother control of the Middle East and warrants the security of Israel.

Is there really such a plot? To think that such a plot exists clearly betrays an underlying simple bipolar view of the world where Arabs are holy virtuous people manipulated by the   powerful villains. Second, it is based on an implicit assumption that decision making in the United States is a linear process, where a single authoritarian figure utters judgments in the name of the father; do I detect some projections here?  Finally   let’s hypothetically acknowledge the existence of this demonic plot, and then think what we are doing about it. What I see is something akin to a child whining for being grounded by the elders. Isn’t that what these apologetic complaints about the unjust world are tantamount to?

Now let’s put this plot to a reality test. It is a fact that the human political and cultural world is much more complex than the images run by the aforementioned simplistic view. That world is made up of global actors with economic and security interests that partly stem from the way their different cultures view themselves and others. It is not strange then    the United States, a mighty military and industrial power, has strategic interests in the region. The first goal of this strategy is securing the flow of oil from a region that has almost half of the world oil reserves. This entails the prevention of the rise an anti-western hostile power, one that controls these reserves and tampers with the industrial prosperity of the USA.  The geographic location of the Middle East and its proximity to Europe and vital trade routes makes this goal all the more important.

Second we get to the state of Israel. The western culture has strong affinity with the state of Israel since the Old Testament sentiments of the Israelites were the founding seed of America.  Further, the search for the Promised Land by the heroic Israelites is one of the foundations of western mobility and its Judeo-Christian subconscious.  Consequently guaranteeing the security of the state of Israel is the second tenet of this strategy.

In Arab modernization projects we have always revealed a total disregard for the rules of the game and prevailing power relations because we think in a cartoonlike way of world comprised of good guys and evil ones. Think of Nasser’s rhetoric about the destruction of Israel and scraping western interests. The childish behavior peaked in 9/11 when a group of Islamist fanatics committed a horrendous crime by attacking heartland America mass killing thousands which was a terrible shock to the entire security of the western world.  This terrorist act was not a crazy attack by some deranged people, from an out of the way niche, with a deluded vision of the world, but rather it exposed an under-the-surface anti modernity and anti-western fervor in the Middle-East. An undercurrent of satisfaction could be detected throughout the Middle-East- sometimes overt support for the terrorist act was expressed. Even Well-off and westernized upper middle class Egyptians expressed sympathy for retaliating with power, for the first time, against the American hegemony and its support of the colonial state of Israel.

This childish attitude, based on a simplistic vision of the world, exposed that we are a traumatized people just like a child who went through a traumatic experience  and then suddenly  when they are a  grown-up they are exposed to an incident that lays bare the  origins of the traumatic experience.  The trauma stems from    long centuries of being the losers  and from contributions to humanity that had stopped in the 13th century. All these factors had shaken to the core the sense of security that had been the hallmark of the Muslim world.

Think of how the course of history would have changed had we focused since the 60s on industrializing our countries, combating poverty and ignorance and opening up to the world as partners of the entire international community. In other words, what would have happened if we were more self-critical and faced our reality with courage and determination to improve our conditions while bargaining rationally with the other actors in the world to ensure that mutually beneficial compromises are reached.  Alas, we focused instead on burying our trauma, rather than facing it. We have remained stuck in our childish world governed by our traumatic experience. There is no better place for us but the imaginary paradise of a prosperous and pious Arab-Islamic society of the medievals.

The first anchoring assumption of the satanic plot is thus undermined by the realities of the world. Let’s move on to the next assumption that is the way the USA drafts its foreign policy. America is basically a coalition of interest groups representing different business segments, farm blocs, religious interests and industrial tycoons. These groups share common values of economic liberty, minimized state intervention in markets and superiority of the American morals of loyalty, honesty and integrity .The different interest groups  continuously realign themselves  to the left and right (within the specific American spectrum) and gain access to decision making according to their relative power in a certain period. The foreign policy is shaped by political affiliations- whether hawkish interventionists or pacifist liberals- of the elements in power in a specific point of time. Affiliations of the groups in power are regulated by the institutional culture of the relevant American government organizations (CIA, state department, etc,) Input from  think tanks informs decision making  in the power corridors while voices from the concerned interest groups( big oil, military- industrial complex,  affected business segments) are accounted for.  We could see how the American tactics serving their Middle East strategy has always shifted from confrontation with Nasser to the containment then destruction of Sadam, to the support of militarized Islam in the 70s and 80s to combat the leftist encroachment on American oil interests in the region.

A seemingly perpetual alliance with the conservative Islamic regime of Saudi Arabia has been an enduring tactic since the 40s.

The ascent of a clutch of intellectually- driven, dogmatic politicians and intellectuals, called the neo-conservatives, to power in America coincided with the 9/11 attacks. The main tenet of the neo-conservative policy was regenerating American morals, in the face of what they perceive as an increasingly decadent society, by erecting an external enemy.  The iconic foreign policy figure of this group was Condoleezza Rice!

9/11, however, was a game changer, meaning that it cannot be reduced to just an opportunity for the neo-conservatives to enact their vision. The entire western security theory had been challenged and the Middle Eastern traumas were obviously on its way to boil over into a galvanization of the entire region in anti-western hostilities. That meant that a strategic shift in the American strategy for the Middle-east had become inevitable. The obvious goal is sorting out the Islamic threat. The neo- conservatives’ tactic was shock and awe; a swift blowing attack on the male figures of the muslims- Iraq and Afghanistan- which would expose the Middle Easterners to their reality. Thereby, the tensions in these societies, hidden by the illusions sustained by these societies to conceal its real traumas, would be exposed.

In Egypt we have a primitive capitalist system (I’m for clean capitalism, so I don’t anyone to say that I’m communist) that have failed to industrialize (modernize) Egypt. It is capitalism organized along despotic and archaic near-eastern agricultural lines, where big brothers (El-Kebeer) control the economy through networks of patronage and spheres of influence protected like women of the household (harem).  The big brother stifles spin-offs and innovation whereas the younger one resists the patronizing big brother by negative work values and internally disbelieving the whole system. The system has generated huge income and education gaps, strict immobile social hierarchies, class antagonisms and widespread negative religiosity, which represents a safeguard against insecurities, contradictions and a diminishing national self-esteem.

In Syria there is an underprivileged rural class of Sunnis ruled by a privileged Alawite minority allied with Christians and Sunni-middle- classers. In Iraq, the Shiites stored a deep resentment for the sunni elite.

Bang, bang! The tactics worked; the Middle East has been destabilized. Egyptian people has been going into dissent since 2004-2005, civil war erupted in Syria and Iraq has been technically divided. The Arab fetishistic rage against Israel has been redirected towards the formation of new identities in the Levant and Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines.

This is not yet the end of the story, American power leant leftwards with the presidency of the pacifist left-leaning Barack Obama. The new tactic takes for granted that the ripple and dominos effects of neo-conservative tactics are irreversible. The American tactic is now focused on preventing the backfire of these effects and stopping the destabilized region from falling a prey to Jihadist Islam. This is carried out through a tactical alliance with the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and Syria and the Shiite Islamists in Iraq to ensure free elections in these countries, ones that would give the people a conduit for regime change which would eventually force the people out of the their traumatic state .

The long-term desired effect of a modern secular Islam will only come in the long-term. Meanwhile, expect a protracted period of economic failures, social unrest and political turmoil. I expect that in a 30 year time we will come back to the future and modernity having given our Illusions ample room to play out “democratically”.

Now we have seen that the second assumption of the satanic plot is fallible; there is no fatherly authoritarian single American figure conspiring against the angelic Arabs.

That said, I sincerely hope , for my own parochial interests, that the Egyptian non-Islamist opposition succeeds in toppling the  Brotherhood, though this a far cry from saying that the Islamists in general have no future in the short to mid- term in Egypt.

By the way, what do you think of Condi? Is she a she-demon or an angel of mercy in disguise?

Fears and horizons

I can never get to understand why the Arabs are so hell-bent on cutting each other’s throats just to appease Omar, Ali and Hussein! I really don’t know, but, nonetheless, I think it might be related to some belief that an imagined heavenly paradise existed on earth in the medieval times. Why so? I also don’t know, yet the first thing that comes to my mind is fear to face reality as it is. It might as well help if they learned that that crusades came to an end in the 13th century. This is not saying that there are no historic grievances; bad things happen. Grownups however play the game using rules that are very different from children’s.

The first step in the long weary road back to the future starts off by realizing that Ibn- Taymiyah, and Ghazaly were ordinary mortals who must not be confused with rocket scientists, social reformers and prophets.

The Middle Eastern Christians on their part must find a way to cope with the fact that the Pharoanic, Phoenician and Assyrian civilizations are dead; hence they had better invest their energies in finding new ways for all of us!

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