Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Muslim Brotherhood’

Egypt: The Elusive Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th August, 2014

Wafik MoustafaWafik Moustafa bookDuring the first few weeks of 2011 I was glued to Al Jazeera’s English-language TV channel as the revolution in Egypt unfurled and President Hosni Mubarak eventually stood down from power. But this proved to be a hollow victory for the predominantly liberal and often secular young demonstrators who had been so visible in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Elections led to Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood becoming the new president, but the new government’s swift moves to islamise the state led to renewed mass protests and Morsi’s ousting in a coup. Now Egypt is led by Field Marshal Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who many critics see as a sort of Mubarak Mark II. In fact, the repression against dissent is even worse now than it was in Mubarak’s final years. But all this was predictable, of so argues the British-Egyptian doctor Wafik Moustafa, in his thought-provoking book Egypt: The Elusive Arab Spring (Gilgmesh, £24.95). Dr Moustafa is unique in having stood for both the Egyptian presidency (against Mubarak) and as a prospective UK MP (for Bootle) — both lost causes, as Mubarak made sure for 30 years that the veneer of democracy eventually applied to quieten criticism from Washington would not threaten him through the ballot box, and Dr Moustafa is a Conservative who had little chance of ousting Labour in Britain’s industrial north west. His book is a very personal take on events, both during the three years of the so-called Arab Spring and in his recounting of Egypt’s modern history, from a liberal, cosmopolitan perspective. He obviously thinks Egypt is the poorer for losing former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei from frontline politics (not a view particularly widely shared among ordinary Egyptians) and he is (probably justifiably) harsh on the record of the late Colonel Nasser, whose standing in the Egyptian street nonetheless seems to be rising again, with a little help from El Sisi. The author ranges wider than the Egypt of the title, looking at events across the whole Arab world, as well as specific issues such as the media. The order of chapters is at times a little strange — an account of the Egyptian monarchy coming towards the end of the book, for example — but the late alterations and additions made necessary by political developments in 2013 are reasonably well integrated into the whole, and all in all this is a stimulating read, which will be particularly appreciated by those who are not already Middle East experts and want an accessible and literate overview of Egypt’s situation and the multitude of challenges facing the country’s future.

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Egypt: Where Next?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd June, 2014

Egypt elections 1Egypt elections 2Last night at the National Liberal Club, Liberal International British Group hosted a panel discussion on the political situation in Egypt, with former Nile TV presenter Shahira Amin, democracy activist Ahmed Naguib (via skype), the Treasurer of Liberal International, Robert Woodthorpe Browne (who has been involved in a lot of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s recent work in Egypt) and myself. As the discussion was (rightly) held under the Chatham House Rule, I cannot divulge what any of the others said, but I can share some of the things I talked about. As the two Egyptian participants gave such a comprehenesive and coheremnt picture of today’s political realities and challenges, I complemented their presentations by reminding people about the highs and lows of the mood on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January/February 2011, including the prominent role played by brave women and the way that Muslims and Christian Copts protected each other when they were at prayer. But those who dubbed the phenomenon that started in Tunisia the previous December “The Arab Spring” were always way out on their time-frame. I believed that then and believe it even more strongly now: it will be 30 or 40 years before it becomes clear how the whole New Arab Awakening works out, but what is sure is that Egypt is the test case of its success or failure. It has always had a pole position in the Arab mentality, not just because it is by far the most populous nation in the the Arab world but also because of Cairo’s (Sunni) religious and intellectual pre-eminence. Field Marshal Sisi’s victory in the recent presidential election was a foregone conclusion, though it was notable that in each electoral district there were tens of thousands of spoiled ballot papers. But for the majority of Egyptians (rather than the wealthier, educated elite) the prime concern at the moment is economic survival: bread not ballots. Western commentators like myself rightly focus on matters such as human rights abuses, including the systematic use of torture in detention centres. But the key thing that any Egyptian government, now and for the foreseable future, has to tackle is how to overcome the huge inequalities in Egypt and to provide enough, reasonably-paid work for the predominantly young population. Otherwise, there is likely to be a growing, disenchanted body of youth who could be tempted by something far more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood that was ousted from power. And that bodes ill.

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Political Islam at the LibDem Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th March, 2013

MENA regionThanks to a three-year cooperation programme with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the British Embassy in Tunis the Liberal Democrats hosted a group of visiting politicians from Tunisia and Lebanon at the Brighton Spring Conference. On the Saturday afternoon there was a closed session with the visitors and most of the Party’s International Relations Committee and parliamentary International Affairs Team, identifying how best that programme might proceed. But in the evening there was an open fringe meeting that addressed the subject of Liberalism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and how various political forces that might consider themselves Liberal can or should relate to ruling parties that base their core inspiration from Islam. I was the opening speaker, drawing on my professional experience working or travelling in all of the MENA countries as well as teaching at SOAS. I made the point that Islam is the most political of all religions in that it is not just a faith but a code of practice for both private and public life. A number of parties that have come to power since the Arab Awakening — such as Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — are indeed Islamic in inspiration but it is important to make a distinction between them and extremist, exclusive Islamists who have turned a perverted interpretation of the Koran into an oppressive and even murderous ideology (such as the Taliban when they were in power in Afghanistan). There is a worrying influence of salafi or ultra-conservative Islamic thought in much of the MENA region but people need to recognise at the same time that the main reason groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood gained such support was because they looked after people’s needs in societies in which the government was singularly failing to do so — in a sense engaging in community politics. I also made the point that the Arab Awakening, now barely two years old, is still in its infancy and it is likely to be a decade or more before its outcomes are clear.

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How Permanent a Ceasefire?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st November, 2012

After several false starts, a truce has been agreed between Israel and Gaza, with both Egypt and the United States playing a significant role in the process. This will be a relief both for those Israelis who have suffered rocket fire from Hamas and from other groups in Gaza and the far greater number of Gazans who have been the deliberate or collateral targets of Israeli firepower. But does the truce offer more than a breathing space? Essentially, the core situation has not changed: Gaza is still subject to a cruel blockade, which means that many products, including building materials, are kept out by Israel and even humanitarian aid convoys from Turkey and other friendly states cannot get through by sea. Israel has made no firm offer to lift that blockade, though at least the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo is more sympathetic to the Gazan’s plight than Hosni Mubarak was. What has received little attention, though, is the amount of protest that has broken out in the Occupied West Bank, causing some Arab commentators to wonder whether a Third Intifada is on the cards. What seems to me to be certain is that until the Israeli government changes its policies and starts the evacuation of the West Bank, rather than continuing to build settlements both there and in East Jerusalem in defiance of International Law, there will be no stability in the region. To my mind, the Arab-Israeli conflict is merely on hold, and probably not for very long.

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Syria Unity Forum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th February, 2012

This evening I was one of the speakers at a solidarity event for the people of Syria organised at the London Muslim Centre at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. Since the beginning of the uprising last spring, maybe as many as 8,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria by the despotic regime in Damascus, which seems determined to carry on the killings, disappearances, torture and harrassment in a desperate attempt to hang on to power. In 1982, an estimated 38,000 people were killed in a devastating onslaught on the city of Hama, the centre of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. But little news of this filtered out to the outside world at the time, despite the valiant efforts of journalists such as Robert Fisk. Today, the murderous Assad government cannot act unseen. Even if most foreign journalists are banned — and those who are allowed in officially are strictly controlled — new media and social networks mean we get up-to-the-minute reports on what is going on from people on the spot, even in Homs, the city currently effectively under siege. Indeed, there was a direct link to a Free Syria activist in Homs at this evening’s event. Other speakers physically present at the meeting included Walid Saffour of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, Wael Aleji, a (Christian) member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and the human rights lawyer Toby Cadman. I spoke of the urgent need to get medical and other humanitarian supplies into beleagured communities, as well as for increased international pressure to get the Syrian authorities to stop their assault on the people, and finally supporting moves by other Arab states to oust the regime. When Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, there were widespread hopes in the West that he would introduce reforms. Some economic reforms did indeed take place and he opened Syria up to tourism. However, when the waves of the New Arab Awakening (aka Arab Spring) started to sweep across North Africa and the rest of the Arab world, prompting street demonstrations beginning in the southern town of Deraa, he adopted an iron-fist approach, with the aide of his brother Maher, the head of the security forces. Both will one day, I hope, be arraigned before the International Criminal Court (ICC). But in the meantime, everything needs to be done to express support for those brave people in Syria who are resisting oppression. British MPs should sign the Early Day Motion demanding the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador from London and more should be done to publicise the fact that the British government, through William Hague, has acknowledged the oppposition Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After nearly three hours of presentations, videos and pra7yers, the East London Mosque evening ended with a collection from people present for emergency relief for Syria, which raised several thousand pounds.

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Christians, Syria and the Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th December, 2011

I’m often asked: why hasn’t Syria gone the way of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen, to which my short answer has been: because of the country’s religious diversity. There are many things one can legitimately criticise the al-Assad regime for over the past 40 years, not least the brutal crackdown on dissent since this April. But one thing the government in Damascus has done has been to protect the interests of minorities such as Christians and Druze, as well as the Alawites who form a significant part of the government and army apparatus. The greatest danger that the country faces as it teeters on the brink of civil war — which one could objectively argue has started already — is that srife could occur along sectarian lines. As Revd Nadim Nassar, a Syrian Anglican priest now based in London, confirmed at a meeting of the Liberal International British Group (LIBG) at the National Liberal Club last evening, this means that some Christians are petrified that any overthrow of the current regime could lead to an Islamic government which would not give them the rights they enjoy today. Over 70 per cent of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim, though only a small proportion of those would identify with the Muslim Brotherhood (for decades the Assad’s main bugbear) let alone more extreme salafis or Islamic fundamentalists. Revd Nassar said that when he was a schoolboy, people really weren’t aware or particularly bothered who was Muslim or who was Christian in his class; as in his case, often one couldn’t even tell from somebody’s name. And at some Christian shrines in Syria you can also find Muslims praying. But Revd Nassar despairs that in the West — including Britain — most people make the simplistic equation Middle East = Muslim (and extremist, to boot), without recognising the significance of the Christian communities in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, notably. That is why he and colleagues set up the Awareness Foundation, to help Church congregations amongst others learn and understand about the realities in both the Middle East and Europe and make sense of their faith in today’s world. The organisation has eschewed the more theoretical or academic approach of bodies such as the Alliance of Civilizations (spearheaded by Turkey and Spain), calling instead for practical programmes which change minds and attitudes among ordinary people. This was all certainly a new take for many members of LIBG and of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, which co-hosted the NLC meeting. In a nutshell, the issues are far more complicated that simply democracy versus dictatorship.

Link: www.awareness-foundation.com

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Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution and the New Media

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th June, 2011

There’s been a tendency to label the momentous changes that have taken place in Egypt over the past five months as the Facebook Revolution, but as was stressed by the panelists at an excellent seminar hosted by ThomsonReuters at their Canary Wharf HQ this evening, although new media helped, the real victors were the Egyptian people, who overcame their fear of the Mubarak regime and its state security services and held out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square until the regime fell. Former Google rep Wael Ghonim, who was one of the Revolution’s stars, joined us all on video link from Dubai, where he is busy writing a book about the whole experience. Dr Sally Moore, a British Egyptian psychiatrist who was in the thick of things in January/February, reminded us how many women were involved in the popular uprising and emphasized how important it is that their voices are not lost. Srdja Popovic, Executive Director of the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) brought an interesting Serbian perspective from someone who had been at the heart of the action that brought down Milosevic. He argued that the three essential components for any such exercise of People Power are unity, planning and non-violent discipline — all of which the Egyptian revolution had (though sadly not the Saffron Revolution in Burma, for example). The panelists were not worried about the fact that the Egyptian Revolution was leaderless, though now it is important that strong political figures emerge who can appeal to the electorate in September. Sally, for one, thought the elections ought to be postponed, as there is no way that the scores of new political parties, groups and coalitions can get their act together in time, especially as life as normal will shut down during August because of Ramadan. But the likelihood is that the elections will indeed take place as planned and it must not only be the Muslim Brotherhood that has the organisation to succeed.

Link: www.Trust.org

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Who Is Mohamed ElBaradei?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th January, 2011

Though this week’s street protests in Egypt have conveyed a clear message, namely that the Egyptian people want President Hosni Mubarak to stand down, the movement has lacked a clear leader around whom it can coalesce. The name that has nonetheless been in the frame for some time has been Mohamed ElBaradei, the 68-year-old former head of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA), who has spent much of his professional life abroad, including a stint as part of Egypt’s mission to the United Nations in New York. He attracted some criticism earlier in the week for not stepping up forcefully as a potential replacement for Mubarak, and in fact only returning to Egypt very late in the process of what one can now call a Revolution, but it woud seem that he has been busy behind the scenes, building a wide coalition of opposition forces. That coalition includes more than a dozen political parties (though obviously not the ruling NDP) and, significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic force that is in principle outlawed but in practice plays a significant role in society. The Muslim Brotherhood has endorsed ElBaradei as a spokesman for this new coalition, which could pave the way to his becoming interim President — though for that to happen, Mubarak must stand down. If he wants to escape a worse fate, Mubarak would be well advised to do that as soon as possible, leaving the way open for ElBaradei and a transition to a more open and democratic society which is responsive to the Egyptian people’s real needs.

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