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Will It Remain Business as Usual in the Middle East?

One of the most glaring ironies of the Middle East conflict is the righteous indignation displayed by the region's leaders towards each other's policies. In a region where violent and oppressive rule is the norm, leaders have no trouble pointing out each other's flaws, often menacingly. And so Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government shows no signs of ending one of the world's longest and most brutal occupations, rails against the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran; while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls Israel “the most cruel and oppressive, racist regime,” even as his government continues to persecute members of the Bahai faith, jail journalists, torture students and sentence women to death by stoning.


On the other hand, friendly governments are quite prepared to ignore each other's less savory policies, with far reaching costs to the agenda of peace, justice and freedom most governments rhetorically support.

The recent Durban II conference in Geneva took note of this problem directly in its Draft Outcome Document, which stressed that “democracy and transparent, responsible, accountable and participatory governance at the national, regional and international levels... are essential to effectively prevent, combat and eradicate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

It's too bad that the United States decided not to attend the conference, if only because in doing so the Obama Administration might have taken note of this point, which has profound implications for the way President Obama should be—but so far isn't—reshaping US foreign policy towards adversaries and key allies alike in the Middle East.

The clearest and most troubling evidence of the Obama Administration lack of understanding of importance of promoting—indeed, demanding—democracy from its allies in the region, and its negative impact on the search for peace, comes from the statement of Special Envoy George Mitchell at the conclusion of talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak only two days before the opening of the Duban II conference.

As a press conference concluding his consultation with Mubarak—one of the longest reining authoritarian leader in the world at 21 years and counting—Mitchell, whose selection was lauded by the media as an example of Obama's commitment to peacemaking, explained that “The president believes, and I believe, that a comprehensive peace in the Middle East will be possible only as a result of the leadership of Egypt, President Mubarak ... and the whole [Egyptian] government.”

It is hard to know which interpretation of Mitchell's statement is more accurate, or disturbing: On the one hand, if it accurately represented his views, then it betrays a wholesale ignorance on the part of Mitchell and his superiors, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, as to the realities of Mubarak's undemocratic rule in Egypt, and how his hold on power has long been intimately tied to his role in ensuring the long term management rather than resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (The same could be said of Jordan's King Abdullah's role in the peace process, which was praised by Obama after the two met in Washington on April 21.)

Perhaps worse, however, would be if the statement was in fact not an honest reflection of Mitchell's assessment of Mubarak's role in the peace process. In this case the statement is disingenuous, and based on the assumption that Americans, as well as Egyptians, Israelis, Palestinians, and other citizens of the region, either don't know or don't care about obvious links between authoritarian rule, corruption, occupation and the overall lack of democracy across much of the Middle East.

Specifically, if the peace process is one of the single most important priorities of the Administration, and its successful conclusion—and given how remote a possibility a viable two-state solution seems today one has to wonder what the Administration's actual barometer of success is—can “only” occur with Mubarak at Egypt's helm, then the clear message to Mubarak and his people is that he has a green light from the United States to do whatever is necessary to maintain his power, regardless of the cost to Egyptians and the possibility of democracy in the country.

Either way, Special Envoy Mitchell's remarks can only be read as a slap to the face of the many brave Egyptian activists for democracy, who continue to be harassed, jailed, and often tortured for pursuing the dream of genuine democratic development that Obama's election has symbolized for the world.

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Indeed, just before Mitchell's arrival in Cairo, the Egyptian leader's security forces once again questioning well-known blogger Wael Abbas after he and his mother were assaulted in his home by police. Two more bloggers were detained in late February. Blogging is quickly becoming the lifeblood of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt. in the words of Egyptian commentator Mona Eltahawy, “chipping away at the authority” of political, economic and religious elites.

The majority of bloggers are equally critical of Mubarak's corruption and lack of democracy internally, of his close relationship with the US, and of his role in enabling the Israeli occupation to continue unfettered through the close security cooperation between the two countries and their American sponsor. The three issues cannot be separated. Mubarak knows this, which is why those movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Movement (led by teenagers and twenty-somethings whose members have suffered beating and arrests for attempting to fly kites along the beach in Alexandria in support of higher wages) or Kefaya, who highlight the link are so dangerous.

And just as the Egyptian government tries to silence its own bloggers, it also is quite wary of allowing Gazans to offer unvarnished views of the conditions in which they are forced to live, in good measure because of the regular restrictive border closing by the Egyptian government and its intelligence cooperation with Israel.

And so roughly the same time that Wael Abbas was assaulted, the Gaza-based blogger Leila El Haddad was detained at Cairo airport upon her arrival from Washington, where she was kept in detention for over a day with her two young children before being expelled from the country and sent back to the United States, despite having written permission from Egyptian Consul-General in Washington to cross the border into Gaza.

In the context of this struggle Mideast Envoy Mitchell's remarks send a signal, both to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and to the peace activists in both communities struggling desperately against their policies, that business will continue as usual under the Obama Administration when it comes to Egypt, Israel, the occupation, and the larger geopolitics of the region. Aside from a periodic mild criticism, the US will continue to support the status quo, whether it's authoritarian, corrupt and violent rule in Egypt, or an ever deepening occupation in the West Bank.

In this context, for the Mubarak government the link between pro-democracy bloggers at home, and pro-democracy bloggers passing through to Gaza is clear. Both are a threat to the regime's power and stability, two qualities which, ironically, the Obama Administration seem to think make Egypt a crucial partner for peace in the region. But if there's a lesson in the rise of bloggers in Egypt, Palestine and across the region, it's that sclerotic governments focused only on their own perpetuation are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with a rising tide of activists who in 147 characters or less can inform the world about the latest affront to democracy and human dignity, as Leila Haddad did when she tweeted repeatedly from her detention cell.

President Obama needs to choose sides soon. Perhaps he could send President Mubarak, Prime Minister Netanyahu and their colleagues around the region a twitter letting them know that their services are no longer needed. That would be a lot better way to reach Islam's next generation than another round of shuttle diplomacy by out of touch diplomats who think authoritarian leaders can bring peace and prosperity to region.


Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, July 8, 2008), and An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books, in press). He is also author of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005), and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948 (California, 2005), and co-editor of Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel-Palestine (Rowman Littlefield, 2007), Religion, Social Practices and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies (Palgrave, 2005) and with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation.

Republished with permission from the History News Network.