Charity or Right?

In many years at the World Food Programme and UNICEF, I worked with professional and committed leaders who clearly wanted to see our work as #charity and #Humanitarian_aid and not as a fulfillment of rights owed to children and the hungry. They cared most, as good executive bureaucrats do, about getting the job done and growing their organizations in the process. They wanted to provide “help” to people who “need it” rather than support “entitlements and rights” — which to them seemed like a losing and senseless ideological battle in which some of their main benefactors (esp. the US), stood firmly on the other side. What is deeply wrong and self-defeating with this organizational attitude? how does it come about? Please share your views on this and I will share a couple of longer pieces when they are done in the coming few months.

Dances on quicksand: US and the Arab Spring (3 of 7)

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in Ahramonline on 7.12.2013)

It has been a truism for decades to attribute the drivers of US foreign policy in the Middle East to two realist drivers; free flow of oil from the major Gulf producers and Israel’s security, with the latter seen as part of the US power projection in this region since the cold war era and increasingly also a domestic policy concern since the late 1960s.

Glibert Achcar in his tour de force of the recent Arab revolutions in The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (University of California Press and Saqi Books, 2013), views US foreign policy in the region as an exclusive domain for the realists (who care most about the free flow of oil and Israel as a strategic asset in the Cold War and now the only reliable one in a shaky region).

In this he is supported by former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Martin Indyk, who argues that unlike the balance the US had always to strike between the national interest and the nation’s values, “in the Middle East…every American president since Franklin Roosevelt has struck that balance in favour of the national interest, downplaying the promotion of America’s democratic values because of the region’s strategic importance.”

It has to be noted that national interest, according to Indyk who now works with the Brookings Institution, stands for economic and security interests which can be measured in the short term. 

Timothy Mitchell, in his seminal work, Carbon Democracy (Verso Books, 2011), argued for seeing democracy, human rights and the Wilsonian tradition in general as instruments deployed to stabilise the capitalist project in the region, and the world at large, in a much more effective way compared to brutal autocracies. In other words, democracy and human right are necessary instruments sometimes.

Let us look more deeply into the vast oil question.

The US is the ultimate guarantor of energy supplies from the Middle East, which provides about a third of global oil production (nearly 14 percent of total global energy production) and is the main provider for Europe, China and Japan. The Arab region has about 50 percent of world oil reserves.

Although the US does not primarily depend on this oil for own energy needs, it is extremely important for main players in the world economy, whose financial health affects that of the US in the interdependent global economic environment. This policeman function should also provide Washington DC with a clout when negotiating trade and other economic issues with the rest of the industrialised world.

Historically, it was oil that attracted the US to the region, especially after WWII when the US became the region power broker and security guarantor. The 1956 Suez Crisis signaled the end of 40 years of imperial control by the French and the British following the 1904 Sykes-Picot agreement.

Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the world, provides the best example of how American values can become so subservient to hard interests. With no constitution nor real parliament, the royal family exercises absolute authority, which is formally vested in the king but legitimated by an alliance with an extremely conservative clergy, which controls education, public space and is financially well-endowed.

Mitchell, and others, argue that this political and social arrangement in Saudi Arabia is not primarily natural or an expression of indigenous factors only, but has been as well built by external intervention, mainly British, and then sustained by the Americans who punished deviations from this model.

Israel competes with Saudi Arabia for the position of the most important US ally in the region. US-Israeli relations rest on a complex mix of domestic and foreign policy concerns and priorities. Domestic concerns, especially the role and influence of the pro-Israel Jewish and evangelical communities in supporting a special bilateral relationship, play a strong role. The 1967 war transformed this relationship into a strategic sphere with Israel becoming a central part of the US Cold War policies in the Middle East.

Through the pro-Israel lobby, Israel not only impeded itself in the matrix of dominant US interests but was also easily seen as a cause that deserved support on moral and cultural grounds rooted in western affinities, common values and shared historical experiences.

To ensure the stability of the region, hence continuous oil flow and Israel’s security, the US had to turn a blind eye (or even support) the practices of many autocratic, dictatorial and corrupt regimes whose grip over power was rooted in systematic violations of human, minority and women rights and gave rise to extremist and fundamentalist groups which operated underground, partly due to the lack of genuine democratic space.

“Support to dictators has been the bane of American policy in the Middle East” argues Vali Nasr, who is the current dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. Nasr believes that dictators were good to the US but over time they created the very problems the US wanted them to contain.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a watershed moment because for a few years they opened a window that showed a possible overlap between democratisation and foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, bringing them both under the rubric of national security for both the neoconservatives and the liberals.

Democratisation was no longer dismissed by many hard-nosed realists as an idealist concern. Until then there was no alternative strategy and the dominant policy voices in Washington DC were those, at best, calling for “gradual” democratisation to be undertaken by the very ruling circles whose interests ironically rested on maintaining the status quo.

The Bush democratisation offensive in the region, however, floundered in 2005 and 2006 after the Muslim Brothers gained over 20 percent of the parliamentary seats in Egypt and a majority in the legislative house of the Palestinian Authority and then assumed de facto control over Gaza.

But even before what should have been a predictable win by the Islamists, democratisation programs through MEPI [Middle East Partnership Initiative] were criticised by many as window dressing.

Even after the effective demise of the Bush doctrine for democratisation, there were still some voices in Washington DC supporting the overall effort as a better insurance policy for US national interests and not merely as the right thing to do in line with American values.

The position of this camp was best articulated by Tamar Cofman Wittes, who tried to marry the US strategic interests with its values, claiming that only democratisation in the Middle East could ensure sustainable support of US interests as the “reliance on strong, autocratic leaders who can guarantee policy cooperation even in the face of domestic disapproval” was no longer sustainable.

Autocratic regimes were suitable for cold war era policy objectives but that they cannot handle transnational threats such as “international organised crime, refugee and other migrant flows, and, most notably, international terrorism.”

The Bush administration thought that reforming the autocratic regimes and making them more efficient could drain a major source for radicalism and anti-Americanism, but it could not stomach a transition in which the new democrats are not as malleable and certainly more committed to a nationalist or a religiously motivated anti-Americanism. This is why the Muslim Brotherhood started to look like an enticing option for a certain group of policymakers in Washington in the mid 2000s. It had become certain by then the risks that accompany the Arab democratisation are far outweighed by the risks of watching some of the Arab republics crumble and collapse uncontrollably in a few years.

In 2009, Wittes joined Clinton as an assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs in the first Obama administration. But the policy did not change much, at least not publicly.

Dances on quick sands: US and the Arab Spring (2 of 7)

(This was first published in Ahram online on 30.11.2013)

Before we jump into the horse-trading that marked the making of the US foreign policy on the Arab Spring in 2011-2013, it helps to scan and present the chief actors in Washington DC, even if quickly. The authority to formulate the US foreign policy ultimately rests with the US President on major issues. He takes decisions relying on options prepared and debated by senior officials and experts from respective departments and agencies when they meet within the National Security Council (NSC). In these meetings, senior presidential advisers join top officials from the departments of State and Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other government agencies. The NSC is where options for all major foreign policy issues, especially if they are at a crisis stage, are shaped. The list of crises debated within and acted upon by the president using the NSC entire membership or a partial team from there includes the Bay of Pigs in the 1960s all the way to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-2003, and the Arab Spring of 2011-2012.

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Dances on quick sands: US and the Arab Spring (1 of 7)

(This was first published in Ahram Online on 22 November 2013)
I spent a few months this year studying how the US foreign policy machine has been responding to the avalanche of developments in the Middle East since December 2010 when the ostensibly stable region erupted into a turmoil that brought its peoples to the streets in an upheaval that has not ended yet. Through written material, documents and interviews in Washington DC and New York, these articles are an attempt to piece together how the US foreign policy was formulated and why in this period.

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How to Survive Between a Rock and A Hard Place: The Experience of Human Rights Organizations in Egypt

First published by here by Dejusticia in April 2018 as part of their book Rising to the Populist Challenge: A Playbook for Human Rights Actors

Summary:Over the period from 2014 to 2017, the Egyptian government cracked down in an unprecedented fury on human rights defenders in particular and the civil society in General (including political parties, trade unions, student unions, sports clubs, etc.). Unlike previous regimes which worried about international reactions and, to a lesser extent, wanted to maintain an appearance of a relative freedom of association, the current regime feels far more empowered on both fronts. It has committed some of the most egregious human rights violations in Egypt’s modern history with impunity, crushed almost all forms of public dissent, killed over a thousand protestors in the span of a few days, imprisoned tens of thousands of people, and, finally, has been strangulating and demonizing human rights actors by drying up their funding streams, especially from foreign sources. The regime has resorted to the other weapons in the authoritarian arsenal including restrictive laws and regulations, vilifications and labeling, censoring independent media, and embroiling HRDs in court cases with charges ranging from harm to national security to tax evasion. Domestically, it seems that the regime has mollified the protest movement that reached a zenith in mid 2013, though anger, probably fueled by the persistence of deteriorating socioeconomic problems, seems to be simmering. In this the regime has benefitted from the prominence of counterterrorism, stemming the waves of immigration from the region and stability; these three concerns seem to dominate the foreign policy decisions of the US, western Europe, Israel and rich Arab gulf countries. And this is why the current regime has received their support or their silence in the past four years.

Egypt Human Rights’ Movement: Repression, Resistance and Co-Optation

First published by the Century Foundation on April 18, 2017

Summary: Since the mid-1980s, the number of Egyptian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on human rights has grown rapidly. But despite the proliferation of organizations, the human rights movement in Egypt has never been very effective, and is now especially unmoored. This report traces the sources of these problems in the history of human rights activism in Egypt. The author shows that even as the government has at times allowed NGOs a modicum of independence, it has mostly regarded them with contempt and suspicion. Additionally, Egyptian human rights organizations never formed strong bonds with trade unions and other parts of civil society. They have thus been especially vulnerable to failure. Now, the security-dominated regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is leading a fresh crackdown on human rights NGOs. For Egypt, mired in political dysfunction and economic malaise, this is a practical as well as a moral blunder. The inclusion of human rights in policy and politics, the author argues, is essential to the country’s advancement.

Freedom of Expression in Egypt: How Long Hair, Pink Shirts, Novels, Amateur Videos and Facebook Threaten Public Order and Morality!

First published in the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalysis in September 2016

Abstract: Freedom of expression suffers from a ferocious crackdown in Egypt because of gaping narcissistic injuries to a chauvinist, patriarchal national psyche that has been repackaged in Egypt’s early post colonial years. Decades of cultural and socioeconomic decay has torn Egypt’s stereotypical psyche between claims of grandeur and righteousness on the one hand and a reality of failures and debasement on the other hand. Dislocated, many Egyptians are desperate and willing to submit to any comforting system of meaning. Their alienation and sense of shame drive them to seek a clean origin and to disavow reality, a state that is conducive to an obsession with blaming the other, or the minority or the neighbouring communities, for instigating this shame. There is a symbiotic deadlock of the impossible return to an imagined past and the feared submission to an ill-defined new. This creates a state of neurosis where the two essentialist “selves” propagated by the religious and neo-liberal elites are meant to preserve a status quo under the benevolent hand of the father/dictator. A challenge to this setup means also a challenge to the father whose protection is sought and loathed in such a torturous neurotic state whose end or dissolution could mean to many the end of the world as they know it. For Egypt to get out of this quagmire, deep political and institutional reforms will have to evolve through social resistance and transformation. This will take time because ultra-nationalism and patriarchy are instrumentalized and integral to deep vested material and psychological interests.

Politics of Food Aid: From Politicization to Integration

Politics of Food Aid:

From Politicization to Integration


… at the beginning of the [1990s] … aid agencies tried to recruit states for their cause, by the beginning of the next decade they had discovered that states had already co-opted humanitarianism for their interests (Barnett: 172).

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