By Salma Khamis

Egyptian President Abdelfattah El Sisi and his French counterpart François Hollande at the Opening Ceremony of the Suez Canal's Expansion, July 2015. Source: BFM TV

For anyone who has been following Egyptian affairs, this past month’s headlines have provided for a curious case of seemingly implausible coincidences. Coming from a country that sometimes seems to be purposely trying to embarrass itself on the international stage (see: the army-financed AIDS-curing laser machine), I must say that PR mishaps are no stranger to the Egyptian government. Unfortunately, the events of this month only serve to reinforce this fact.

The first case in point: the tragic September 13th accidental killing of 8 Mexican tourists by an army airstrike in the Egyptian White Desert.  In every sense of the word, this event was a domestic and diplomatic catastrophe, and it should have been treated as such. Rather, internally, Egyptian media outlets chose to focus on whether or not the tourists should have been where they were without the army’s authorization. Externally, President Abdelfattah El Sisi, the presumed highly skilled arbiter of diplomacy, chose to congratulate Mexico on the occasion of the Mexican Independence Day, whilst in mid-condolence-speech regarding eight of their nationals who perished on Egyptian soil for absolutely no reason other than institutional incompetence.

Fast-forward to September 23 and France’s announcement that it has decided to reroute its previously Russia-bound Mistral helicopters to Egypt. As any freshman IR student could tell you, this is a decision with profound geopolitical motivations and consequences. On the one hand, increased Russian military intervention in Syria undoubtedly played a role in determining whether or not the weapons made it to Putin. On the other hand, there could not possibly be a more pronounced endorsement of Sisi and the path upon which he is leading his country than an internationally advertised arms deal such as this.

Despite limited French criticism of the Egyptian government’s human rights abuses, it was only during the opening ceremony for the expansion of the Suez Canal (itself a vestige of French influence in the country) that the speculation regarding warming Franco-Egyptian relations was confirmed. Sitting side by side with El-Sisi, French President François Hollande seemed every bit as impressed as Egyptian liberals were infuriated. The visual of a P5 country president sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Sisi served as a loud and clear confirmation, not only of the economic soundness of the canal expansion (a notion widely contested by academics); but of all that Sisi has become notorious for in barely over a year of being in office: forced disappearances, mass death sentences, dwindling academic freedom, and a whole host of other “democratizing” pursuits.

Adding yet another ‘coincidental’ insult to injury, on the same day the French government announced the Egyptian arms deal, the Egyptian government announced that Sisi had decided to presidentially pardon 100 political prisoners. Out of these 100 prisoners, the names of two in particular caught the world’s attention: Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed who, up until their arrest in 2013 on terrorism allegations, worked in Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau. Despite being a Canadian national, Fahmy could not secure his release through diplomatic efforts in what had become an international controversy as the Egyptian government continued to defy foreign pressure to release the Al-Jazeera journalist. Predictably, Sisi was hailed domestically for his act of historically unprecedented benevolence.

I am fully aware of the dangers of having hypothesized a correlation between a set of variables, only to make it seem like there are no two ways about it. This sequence of events could very well be purely coincidental and, as a cynical Egyptian observing events from afar, I could be making an unfair correlation between a number of factors that bear little relevance to one another. It is not like Sisi was subsequently making a trip to the United States the very next day after pardoning these prisoners, attempting to put the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s bad press.

The fact of the matter is, foreign and domestic analysts alike should not be commending President Sisi for the decision to pardon 100 political prisoners who should not even have been arrested in the first place. To commend his efforts is to be complicit in justifying the need for their initial arrest and subsequent detainment under blanket “anti-terrorism” laws that serve only to terrorize an entire population into silence. The decision to pardon these prisoners comes not from Sisi’s newly found conviction in the sanctity of human rights, but from a need to save face after a month of spectacularly unfavorable press. Even if the prospects of being elected for a second term have already been deemed an inevitability in domestic discourse, Sisi still has to salvage his image abroad.

Rather than commending Sisi for pardoning 100 unjustly detained political prisoners, we should question the premise upon which the pardon was issued. Bartering the livelihood of 100 individuals for the acquisition of weaponry or redemption of diplomatic stature is not only irresponsible, but provides room for the future manipulation of domestic affairs to save face on the international stage.

When push comes to shove, what commentators do not want to admit in their analysis of Egyptian affairs is that all of these coincidences, or mishaps, or temporary setbacks, or whatever it is we want to call them; they are but symptoms of an overarching and undeniable institutional failure that needs to be addressed before it morphs itself into yet another global embarrassment… or twenty.

By Kate Moran

A woman in Madrid, Spain protests the Syrian Civil War and Western military intervention in the country. Source: Adolfo Lujan/DISO Press.

Any pundit worth their salt is familiar with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. Signed between the British and French governments in the aftermath of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, this secret treaty aimed to demarcate their respective spheres of neo-colonial influence in the Middle East. It was this agreement that led to the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine and, in the views of many, was a critical component of Israel’s ultimate declaration of state in 1948.

Historians, politicians, and laypeople alike all invoke the language of Sykes-Picot to either voice their justification for, or opposition to, the legality of Britain’s decision to allow for the existence of a Jewish homeland in historical Palestine. Yet, few consider the implications of this agreement for the rest of the region. Indeed, Sykes-Picot remains relevant today and, in light of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, can provide an historical context for understanding how broader political and economic trends in the post-War period have shaped current social realities.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Britain and France rejected Arab leaders’ bid for Syrian independence. Not soon after, the Sykes-Picot Agreement officially partitioned the Middle East into roughly what we know it as today. Territories ceded to French control included Syria, which would remain under European mandate until 1944.

Though the vestiges of colonialism are by no means the only forces at play in the Syrian Civil War, the legacy of meddlesome European—and later, American—intervention cannot be ignored. Sectarian violence is a feature of the conflict often talked about, but rarely with acknowledgement of the ways in which Syria’s colonial past influences this dynamic.

Part of the reason the Middle East seems so endlessly mired in conflict is because its history is likewise enmeshed in it. The geographical boundaries of the region are almost entirely arbitrary; the interested parties of the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Middle East with little to no regard for indigenous social structures like ethnic and tribal affiliations. How can a country and its people—much less an entire region—be expected to identify with, and adhere to, boundaries that they themselves did not determine? Perhaps if the Arab world had been given even minimal say in what their newly-formed, independent republics and states would look like, we would see far less sectarian division today.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has once again pushed Syria’s colonial past to the fore. Now more than ever, sectarian violence increasingly characterizes a country with one of the region’s richest and most extensive histories of religious and cultural heterogeneity. The Islamic State’s Sunni fighters, in capturing cities, occupying territories, and cleansing these areas of “unorthodox” (read: non-Islamic State sanctioned) elements; seem to be attempting to rewrite the history (and map) of the modern Arab world. Their defiant and brutal acts of violence are undertaken with complete disregard for the arbitrary boundaries first established in the 20th century.

Yet, the Islamic State is equally colonialist in its division of, and dominion over, the Middle East. It too is an imported government structure, and therefore is just as unsustainable as the French and British mandates were in the post-war years of the 20th century. It too displays blatant disregard for historically and culturally significant social constructs. It too is seeking to “whitewash” the Arab world, only under the guise of religion, rather than capitalism or imperial ambition.

Make no mistake: the Islamic State’s legacy is one that will leave its mark, just not the one that it intends. Its brutal campaign to “retake” the Arab world in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam will fail. In 20, 30, or perhaps 50 years, the Middle East of today will no longer exist. The region’s colonial legacies—those of Europe, the United States, and even the Arab world itself—will eventually run their course. And when all is said and done, the best form of governance for the Arab world—one cultivated in consideration for, not in exception of, social divisions—will emerge. This form will be the most lasting legacy of the Middle East. Although, at first glance, maintaining these divisions may appear counterproductive to achieving regional stability, in fact, they are the only way that such stability can be achieved.

Rather than conceptualizing ethnic and cultural diversity in the Middle East as a prerequisite for government dysfunction, it would behoove the West, and those who care at all about the Middle East beyond its geopolitical strategic value, to understand this diversity as an impetus for inspiring effective governance. Most importantly, these divisions will inspire social unity when extricated from a colonial framework of suppression and homogenization.

The Syrian conflict is a complicated muddle of individual, national, and international interests. The Islamic State will not be defeated overnight, and solely blaming the European occupation and colonization of the Arab world for its current woes is both shortsighted and unproductive. Rather, understanding this history might help those in positions of influence to make better-informed decisions about how and when to intervene in the region, and how the current sociopolitical realities have been shaped. In this way, we might begin to understand how we might best help—even if it means staying out of it.

By Annabelle Timsit

30,000 marchers gathered in Paris to protest Israel’s war against the Hamas in the Palestinian territories of Gaza. Source: looking4poetry/Flickr

2014 saw a 91% increase in anti-Semitic acts (physical and verbal attacks and/or threats) perpetrated against Jews in France. The most significant rise in these attacks recorded that year happened in correlation with geopolitical events taking place thousands of kilometers away, in Israel and the Gaza strip. These two seemingly unrelated events, namely the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and the intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are actually a reflection of an increasing “importation” of the conflict into France that is threatening the survival of the world’s third largest Jewish community.

This phenomenon is part of a progressive deterioration of French-Israeli relations that began shortly after World War II. After the Algerian War ended in 1962, the official direction of French foreign policy seemed to be a restoration of French-Arab relations. While this decision did not immediately translate into a worsening of relations with Israel, it did make a full endorsement of the new Jewish state a risky political move.

Relations deteriorated to the point of no return in 1967 during the Six-Day War. When Abdel Nasser announced the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba on May 22, France warned all countries involved that the first to open fire would be considered the conflict’s initiator. On June 5, Israeli forces triggered hostilities and, that same day, the French government announced an embargo on arms to belligerents, which primarily affected Israel. On November 27, 1967, De Gaulle gave a famous press conference which harbored many of the dangerous anti-Semitic currents that we would see arise in anti-Israel criticism in years to come: he asked himself if, “Jews, hitherto scattered, but that had remained what they had been at all points in times, that is to say an elite people, sure of themselves and domineering”… “would not once again convert into ardent and conquering ambitions the very moving wishes they spent nineteen centuries forming.” The French government now portrayed Jews as aggressive antagonists with territorial ambitions.

This importation of the conflict had huge security ramifications in France; after the impressive but unexpected victory of the Israeli army in the 1967 War, Palestinian combatants realized they could not rely solely on Arab states. They opted for a strategy that internationalization of the conflict, using violent means of international terrorism to bring attention to their plight. Unfortunately, Europe was the theatre for much of that initial violence. In January 1975, for example, two rocket attacks targeted Israeli planes stationed at Orly airport in Paris. In 1980, the attack against the Copernic synagogue on the night of Shabbat caused 4 deaths and 46 injuries. The violence took place on both sides, as Israeli forces did not hesitate to retaliate on French soil, going as far as assassinating Palestinian officials, such as the representative of the PLO Mahmoud Hamshari during Mossad’s covert Operation Wrath of God.

The post-1967 situation illustrates the point at which the events of the Middle East began to directly reflect on the Jewish people as a whole, more specifically on the Jews of France. After 1967, the actions of the Israeli state were no longer seen as concerning Israelis; they now concern Jews around the world, and therefore French Jews were made to pay with their lives when decisions made in Israel affected Palestinians. The huge rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France and many other European countries, the resurgence of anti-Semitic extreme-right political parties in Parliaments in Greece and Hungary to name a few, and the rise in Islamist terrorism against France and its supposed ‘support’ of Israel are all symptoms of a much larger disease that has been growing in French society for 50 years.

The term “importation” itself did not emerge until the Second Intifada. Since October 1, 2000, more than 7,660 anti-Semitic acts were committed in France, according to concurring sources within the Protection Service of the Jewish Community and the Interior Ministry. The repeated hikes in violence linked to unrest in the Palestinian territories led the media to conclude that what affected Israeli Jews now had a direct effect on Jews all over the world and in France especially, hence the ‘importation’ of the conflict.

Coupled with the growing anti-Israel stance of the French government, this phenomenon is indirectly related to demographic issues. Indeed, the most pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes within any Muslim population outside of Gaza and the West Bank can be found in the Middle-East North Africa (MENA) region. The historically large French Muslim population from the MENA region and its issues of social and religious integration as well as social marginalization has led to a tense situation. The “no-go zones” mistakenly referred to earlier this month by Fox News, while not a reality for most French people, have become very real indeed for Orthodox Jews wearing kippas. For anyone doubting this reality, the new Time video of a Jewish man walking around the less developed neighborhoods of Paris and getting repeatedly insulted, spit on and followed for 10 hours should be evidence enough. What is all the more revealing however is the number of times he gets “Vive la Palestine!” screamed at him.

When Menahem Begin visited France in 1967 he gave a speech where he said, “we have nothing and no one to replace France, especially not in Europe. Our Europe is France. If we lose France, what is left? Germany? God forbid!” Yet today the thought that so horrified him may very well become true. As of 2013, 31% of French people think that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to France”, 33% feel that “Jews think they are better than other people” and 26% think “people hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.” The ADL rates France as the most anti-Semitic country in Western Europe. Netanyahu issued a statement last month specifically encouraging French Jews to emigrate to Israel for their safety, a request which caused an uproar in the French political class but which resonated with the friends and family of the 7,000 French Jews who ‘made aliyah’ last year. If the Charlie Hebdo attacks of the past month and the desecration of hundreds of Jewish tombs in a cemetery in Sarre-Union a few days later have showed us anything, it is that as the Israeli-Palestinian continues to stagnate thousands of kilometers away, France’s Jews are suffering in the here and now and the trend is only getting worse.

By Olivia Daniels

Following the attacks on Jews living in European countries, most recently the terror attacks in Copenhagen, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a mass emigration of Jews from Europe. Netanyahu said, “Jews have been murdered again on soil only because they were Jews,” reiterating, “Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home”.

This comment left European leaders extremely defensive, French President Francois Hollande telling French Jews, “I will not just let what was said in Israel pass, leading people to believe that Jews no longer have a place in Europe and in France in particular,” while French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, “A Jew who leaves France is a piece of France that is gone”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also commented, “We are glad and thankful that there is Jewish life in Germany again,” and, “we would like to continue living well together with the Jews who are in Germany today”. Denmark’s Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior told the Associated Press, “People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism, but not because of terrorism,” and insightfully, “if the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a desert island.”

The director of the European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachim Margolin, is using the tragedy in Copenhagen as means for a change in gun licensing laws to allow Jews to carry weapons in Europe. Margolin said, “When I pick up my son at the synagogue I want to make sure that he is there and he is alive…it is a very basic request”. Despite his loss of faith, Margolin also criticized Netanyahu’s call, explaining, “Netanyahu is basically saying ‘we have no way to protect you where you are’”.

europe des island2The problem is not that Netanyahu wants Jews to come to Israel: the state was built on immigration and its survival has always been contingent on Jews coming and staying. The issue is that the prime minister is insinuating that Jews are not safe anywhere but in Israel, which places a stigma on both European countries and European Jews: Jews are not welcome in Europe, and they will not be safe unless they leave. Even Shimon Peres, former Israeli president and prime minister, retorted, telling the Times of Israel, “Don’t come to Israel because of a political position, but because you want to come and live in Israel…Israel must remain a land of hope and not a land of fear”.

According to the Law of Return, any Jewish person can become an Israeli citizen, so long as they pose no threat to the state or the people. In 1970, the law was amended to include citizenship for non-Jewish immediate family members. Thus, it is relatively simple for any Jew with the will and the means to become an Israeli citizen. In the first quarter of 2014, Jewish immigration to Israel increased by 50 percent, 93 percent of which was from Western Europe and Ukraine. In all of 2014, more than 7,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from France, which was twice as many than in 2013. The January attacks in Paris left Israel expecting another increase. Around 8,000 Jews live in Denmark today and despite recent events, they have been asked to stay in their home country with the promise of protection. The Danish-born terrorist that killed two people in Copenhagen was shot and killed by police on Sunday, allowing the Danish people to feel a moment of relief.

Jews should feel safe in today’s world, and they should not have to relocate to Israel for that to become a reality. One cannot ask anyone to stay somewhere they feel threatened, so it is up to those European leaders to uphold their promises of inclusion and protection.


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