Spinning Gaza … yet again.

(soorry in advance for the typos – I just had to get this out.  If I had waited any longer, it wouldn’t have been published, so please bear with me.)

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With the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt the Arab Spring is in full-bloom!

Yet some are none to pleased about this turn of events.

But, please . . . please do not give in and believe easily all of the spin and negative rhetoric that is being pushed by the other side right now.  Yes, you know who I mean by “the other” side.  I try to remain somewhat neutral when I can, but the situation in Gaza is one of the biggest injustices of the past decade.  Plain and simple.  Below is a list of some of the spin I am picking up in the media over the past week or so re. Palestine along with my version of the “truth.”  Of course these statements of truth reflect my own personal bias.  However, I fully admit to it.  Unlike some…..

Spin: Hamas siezed Gaza in 2007.  Truth: Hamas was elected in democratic elections which had been strongly advocated for by both Israel and the USA.  Anyone with an ounce of understanding about Palestine could have seen that one coming.  The ruling  Fatah party did, and strongly cautioned that Palestine was not ready for elections.  American politicians either didn’t believe it or didn’t care and pushed hard for elections.  Once Hamas was elected (due to strong public works initiatives, anti-Fatah corruption stance, and strong rhetoric against Israel) the US cut off diplomatic ties.  IMO, this was one of the biggest foreign policy debacles of the past decade.  Was Hamas being elected the best possible outcome from the elections?  Absolutely not.  Were the elections possibly rigged?  I seriously doubt it.  Should the US taken this as a serious wake-up call and need for a change in directions in Middle East foreign policy?  Yes.  The first thing they should have done was appoint Jimmy Carter as Ambassador (or Special Envoy) to Palestine and kept the channels of communication wide open.

Spin: An open border with Egypt will allow guns and Iranian weapons experts into Gaza.  Truth: Both are most likely already there.  The result of a completely blockaded border around Gaza (read: open-air prison) has been the development of a system of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border and “illegal” trade in everything from cement to cigarettes, guns to chewing gum.  And probably a few Iranian weapons experts made it in too.  Israel and the old Mubarak regime in Egypt were constantly griping about the tunnels and trying to shut them down – but the fact of the matter was they were Gaza’s lifelines in a very desperate time.  Ask yourself what you would do as a normal law-abiding citizen if your town was completely blockaded by sovereign power.  Would you politely request your  duly elected government to stop their misguided approach to international politics in hopes that someday a shipment of flour might make it to your local supermarket – or would you line up at the end of the tunnel where all of the “illegal” flour was coming into the country?  Now that the border with Egypt is open, everyday commodities needed for health and life will flow through the open borders and the tunnels will only be used for truly illegal things.  Now the Palestinian authorities can join with Egyptians in shutting down the tunnels.  As for the Iranian weapons experts – don’t get too worked up.  If they have been helping up to this point they haven’t been that good.  Palestinian military tech is woefully inaccurate.  Also Iran has co-opted the Palestinian cause and ultimately Palestinians have no natural affinity for Iran.  Which brings me to . . .

Spin: The open border with Egypt will increase Iranian support of PalestineTruth: American foreign policy already pushed Palestine towards Iranian support.  It’s about time somebody else starts speaking up for the underdog.  This is simple playground rules.  When someone is being bullied they look for help.  When they are getting beat up real bad on a regular basis, they will look for help from anyone bigger and stronger than they are.  They will especially look for help from someone who is enemies with the one that is beating them up in the first place.  Even if the one being picked on isn’t really friends with those people.  When your back is against the wall and your being threatened sometimes you throw in with some unsavory types. Especially when all the cool kids are just hanging around watching and not wanting to get their knuckles dirty.  Or if it’s the cool kids’ friend that is doing the bullying.  With America refusing diplomatic relations with the duly elected government of Palestine, US foreign policy pushed Palestine into the arms of Iran making the situation much worse than it ever was before.  Will Iran have freer access to Gaza now. Perhaps.  But to what end?  The truly cool kids on the playground are the ones who stand up for the underdogs even when it is their own BFF that is beating them up.

Spin: Obama was out of line and endangering our relations with Israel, not to mention Israel’s security by suggesting a return to 1967 borders.  Truth: George W. Bush said the same thing a few years ago.  If you don’t believe it – check out this letter from W. to Ariel Sharon.  Bush used a term that probably makes more sense – “the 1949 armistice lines” but in effect both he and Obama said the same thing.  Bush even advocated for a two-state solution in his letter.  So what is all the fuss about?  What are Republicans griping about?  American politicians need to stop posturing over Israel-Palestine and stop cowering in fear of AIPAC lobbying money being pulled out from underneath them and actually stand up for what’s right and just in the region. Besides Obama was clear in his speech that the ’67 (or ’49) borders were the basis  for final border negotiations with the idea of mutually agreed upon land swaps.  This has been part of every American backed plan for peace in the Middle East for the past several years.  Why is Obama taking heat for it.  Obama went on to speak very strongly against any Palestinian backing of terrorist operations or denying Israel’s right to exist.

Spin: Per Benjamin Netanyahu they 1967 (1949) borders are indefensible.  Truth: It is decades of illegal Israeli settlement activity that have made that border indefensible.  Anyone who has spent any time in the West Bank know that it has not been a contiguous Palestinian territory for a very long time.  It is riddled with Israeli settlements like a hunk of Swiss cheese and sliced up by Israeli roads that Palestinians are forbidden to drive on or build near.  The long-standing policy of Israeli’s constructing settlements and roads on Palestinian land has disrupted the natural growth and development of Palestinian society.  It has also acted as an Israeli insurance policy to be cashed in on the day final status negotiations begin in earnest.  With all of the territory and population represented by Israeli settlements in the West Bank, surely Israel would have the right to protect those interests.  They couldn’t ask those citizens to leave their homes and property could they?  (Kindly note the dripping sarcasm).  The 4th Geneva convention clearly states that it is illegal for an occupying power to transfer citizens to settlements within the militarily occupied country.  It would be like Americans setting up American-only cities in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Crazy.  It would never happen.  Yet we’ve let Israel do it for over 40 years.  And now Israel is crying, “How will we protect our citizens if we go back to the 1967 borders?”  Well, maybe you shouldn’t have continued to steal Palestinian land to build your illegal settlements?  For those who think I am being to harsh I saw it with my own eyes back in the 90s.  A Palestinian farmer whose family had owned land since Ottoman times, routinely had land stolen by settlers.  They would come out at night with automatic weapons and extend their fence 10 more meters into his property.  The year we visited him they also burnt his wheat harvest.  Which brings me to the last spin . . .

Spin: Palestinians are not true partners for peace.  Truth: Neither are the Israelis. Anyone who honestly looks at the 100+ years of history (I’m going back to the beginning of the “modern” zionist movements) cannot see either side as being 100% committed to lasting peace.  Both sides have committed great atrocities.  Both sides have advocated and politicked mostly for themselves.  Both sides have sought the upper hand.  But, honestly . . . Israel has had the upper hand for quite some time.  They have been almost completely in control of the territory since 1967.  They have continually tightened the noose around Palestine’s neck.  The discomfort this caused led to two intifadas, but, really – if the Palestinians had enough resources, don’t you think there would have been an outright war by now?

So, yes the Arab Spring is in full bloom … but I fear a scorching Middle Eastern summer is due to hit anytime soon and all the flowers that have sprung up around the region will soon wither and die.

The problem is both Israeli and Arab cultures highly value honor, despise shame, and espouse revenge.  Both are eye for and eye and tooth for a tooth cultures.  Many eyes have been blackened, many teeth knocked out, much blood spilled by both sides.  The need for revenge does not die easily in the Middle East (on either side).  It festers for years and years.  Politicians will continue to say what they want.  Pundits will spin these speeches.  People will take sides on Facebook.  And people (both Israeli and Palestinian) who we don’t know, will never meet, and honestly probably don’t really care about will continue to suffer and die until both sides have the courage to lay down all of their perceived rights and follow the advice of an old Middle Eastern prophet, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .”

Jordanians Rally for Egypt

[Note: The bulk of this post was written earlier today before Mubarak stepped down.  It just goes to show you how quickly things can change on the world political stage.]

Tonight Jordanians and Egyptians in Jordan took to the street to celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak.  Cars jammed the streets and there was jubilant beeping and shouting as if a giant wedding procession were taking place.  Fireworks went off  in various neighborhoods.  Hours earlier Jordanians were rallying to demonstrate against Mubarak and in support of the Egyptian people.

Jordanians took to the streets in subdued numbers the day after Hosni Mubarak made his confusing pronouncement of relinquishing power but remaining President of Egypt.  After Friday prayers, protesters marched from al-Husseini mosque in downtown Amman.  The demonstration was peaceful and the mood of onlookers was curious and hopeful.  Friday shopping went on as usual as the rally progressed several blocks through downtown.

Young and old alike join the anti-Mubarak rally in Amman Jordan on February 11th, 2011.

Despite grave predictions about Jordan being the next Middle Eastern country to face widespread unrest, chanted slogans mostly focused on the situation in Egypt.  “The whole world are Egyptians!”  “Last night will be the last night!”  “No more Mubarak!”

However, some chants did call for the ouster of the newly appointed Jordanian Prime Minister.  They recalled his stint as ambassador to Israel and called the question if he might even be a double agent.  But as one local bystander remarked, “They don’t know what they are saying, they just want to say something in the streets.”  Security personnel walked interspersed with protesters.  Police cars blocked off traffic at key points along the route and followed the crowd down the street.  Candy apple vendors and an old man selling rice crispy treats gave the whole thing a bit of a feel of a parade rather than a political protest.

Now that it is official that Mubarak has stepped down there will be a moment of celebration.  The hopes and prayers of many are for a change for the better.  However, one can be certain that the road ahead will be a bumpy one for Egypt.  Will the inter-faith goodwill displayed between Copts and the Muslim Brotherhood persist?  Will the military prove to be a just and fair intermediary until a more stable government is formed?  Only time will tell.  But tonight the people celebrate.  In Egypt, and in Amman, and perhaps around the world.   And perhaps some take comfort in the ancient wisdom that, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.”  Let us pray that justice will prevail where greed has previously been at work and that the new government of Egypt will truly work for the people.

As for Jordan’s small rally today, here are a few pics:

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Oh . . . and here is a video I took of part of the rally.

Why the Kingdom of Jordan will NOT be the next Egypt

Headlines about the Middle East have been full of news and speculation on the protests and potential regime change in Egypt.  What is happening there is a moment that will be remembered in history for years to come.  It is a popular uprising against a regime that has too long looked the other way and allowed corruption to flourish, the economy to languish and the lives of everyday citizens to fade into nothingness.  The protests seem to be a massive grass-roots effort (not needing western politics as a catalyst) to force a change that is long overdue.

Over the weekend some new sidebars accompanied the main articles about the situation in Egypt.  Many of these speculated about the potential for the Kingdom of Jordan to be the next Middle Eastern nation to be engulfed in widespread popular protest after Tunis, Yemen, and Egypt.  Friday’s post-prayer anti-government street rally and a protest near the Prime Minister’s residence fed fuel to the fire of this speculation.  And today headlines announced that His Majesty King Abdullah II had disbanded the cabinet and appointed a new Prime Minister.  Some articles characterized this move as “caving to public pressure” and painted a picture of huge street protests in Jordan forcing the King to the action.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  There have not been huge, widespread protests here in Jordan.  To my knowledge there were two significant rallies as I mentioned before.  I live in Amman currently and many people I have asked about the Friday rally near the mosque downtown weren’t even aware that it had happened.  If you were not in the neighborhood or on the street where these were occurring, you wouldn’t have been aware they were even taking place.

I saw some video posted of the anti-government rally.  There were a lot of flags being waved and there was a truck with big loudspeakers and some chanting.  But the crowd was peaceful and orderly.  There was a much bigger stir here in Amman during the month-long protests against the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in January 2009.  I attended one of those demonstrations and that ended up in stone throwing and tear-gas being shot.  The recent protests here in Amman didn’t come anywhere close to that.

Were these small protests enough to force HM King Abdullah II to do something about his government?  I find it hard to believe.   The King has demonstrated his low tolerance for government corruption and ineffectiveness before when he disbanded the entire lower house of parliament a few years ago.   There has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the the economy and politics here in Jordan over the last several months (since Parliamentary elections) and years.  Consumer prices have been on the rise and some people view politicians as affluent and out of touch with the people.  (Of course that could be just about any country in the world right?)  So is today’s government house-cleaning in response to a couple of weekend protests?  Is it because of what happened in North Africa?  Or is this a wise move that has been in the planning for a while?

Who knows.

But in the end I don’t believe Jordan will be the next Egypt, and here’s why:

  1. The economy is bad – but not that bad.  Inflation in Jordan was around 0% in 2009 and just over 5% in 2010 compared to 18% and 10% in Egypt in those same years.  Consumers have certainly felt the 5% pinch this past year especially in key areas such as fuel and staples like flour and sugar.  These increases have hit the poor hard, but life in Jordan is still much better than life in Egypt as attested to by the vast number of Egyptian guest workers who come here for little pay rather than sit unemployed in Egypt.
  2. The population of Jordan is only 6.4 million.  The entire population of the Kingdom is around 1/3 the size of the greater Cairo metropolitan area.  The population density of Cairo is over 44,000 people per square mile compared to Amman’s relaxed 4,300 people per square mile.  (For reference NYC is only 27,000 people per square mile).  When it comes to the development of and controlling of civil unrest what is Cairo going to do?   When you have that many dissatisfied people in that small of an area the potential for unrest is huge.  Amman is just not the same.
  3. Related to #2 above.  Everybody is related to everybody or knows everybody else in Jordan.  Everyone is interconnected.  Tribal affiliations still mean something.  Less than 100 years ago most of the population was made up of bedouin tribes for whom family and honor meant something.  These values still exist today and fuel the protection of the common good of the kingdom.
  4. The King is well-loved.  And so is his father.   There is an Arabic saying, “If you know the son, you know the father.”  Despite grumblings about the economy and the job-performance of elected or appointed officials people still love and respect HM King Abdullah II and HM the late King Hussein.  This ruling family has held the Kingdom of Jordan together for well over half a century – not by force and oppression nor by turning a blind eye.  They have ruled with wisdom and concern for their people.  Although not elected, from what I have seen, they have the respect and allegiance of their people.  Hosni Mubarak on the other hand has been re-elected by sham elections for 30 years.  He might well have been called king rather than president.  A “king” who ended up a petty tyrant perhaps in the eyes of his people.  Much different than the wise and respected Kings who have ruled Jordan.
  5. Despite #4, of course there  has been opposition to the government over the years.  In recent years certain Islamic groups have been particularly outspoken.  In fact these groups have been instrumental in the recent protests.  They are not satisfied with HM King Abdullah’s new Prime Minister, either, citing him as the reason they lost many parliamentary seats in the 2007 elections.  They forget however that those were the first elections after the 2005 hotel bombings.  In any event, the current opposition leaders have made it clear in a public statement that they are not seeking regime change in Jordan, but rather political reform.  Which leads me to my last point . . .
  6. Jordan is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  This means that HM King Abdullah II traces his lineage to the prophet Muhammad himself.   Islamic groups here have stated that they recognize the Hashemite’s right to rule.  I have to imagine that it would take quite a lot for Muslims to seek to overthrow a King who is descended from Muhammad.  They may take exception to his appointees, but I think it will be quite some time before we see widespread violent protesting in the streets of Amman.

Of course this is just my layman’s outsider point-of-view.  I could be totally off base, but I doubt it.   Throw a few hundred flags and a PA system in the street these days and you’ll have the western media hearing “regime change” in every slogan.

Some thoughts on the unrest in Egypt

The news and images coming from Egypt this past week have been unsettling for most.  Scenes of protesting and violence in the streets, so close on the heels of the the Tunisian protests have led many to wonder if we are on the brink of upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East.  Foreign governments have called for evacuations of their citizens from Egypt and have begun arranging for special flights to get ex-pats out of the country.  The wealthy have been fleeing as well.  While middle-class travelers have been sleeping on the floor of the airport waiting for flights, over 60 private planes have taken off, apparently including one carrying one of the most famous names/faces in the Arab world – pop star Amr Diab.

Of course, the majority of the Egyptian population do not have the means or interest to flee the country.  This is a popular uprising fueled, in part, by economic discontent and the huge gap between the haves and have-nots in the country.   Officially around 20%  of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  These are old statistics and unofficial estimates are that closer to 50% of the population live in poverty – unable to provide for their basic daily needs.  Unemployment is high, even among university graduates.

I know many Egyptians here in Jordan.  They fuel the service sector of the economy working as janitors, car washers,  garbage-men, waiters, cooks, and guards.  Restaurant workers tend to work 12-hour shifts for less than a Jordanian Dinar per hour.  Our building guard doesn’t even get paid by our landlord – for his hard work his family of 5 gets the privilege of living out of two tiny rooms and collecting a small monthly stipend from tenants.  For 6 or 7 Dinars Egyptians will wash Jordanian cars 2 or 3 times a week for an entire month.  Compared to life in America these “jobs” and rates of pay are so sub-standard its hard to even categorize.  However, every Egyptian I know here says that life and work conditions  in Jordan are far superior to opportunities available back in Egypt.  They would rather live as 2nd-class citizens and work for next to nothing here in Jordan than face the lack of opportunity in Egypt.

So it is no surprise that the those struggling with poverty and daily existence are now protesting in the streets.  The wonder is not that it is happening now, but that it has taken so long for it to occur.

It is hard at this point to tell if change will be for the better.  Many of the Egyptians I speak to here in Jordan view the unrest as a very positive thing.  They are hopeful that it will prompt true political change for the better.  However, Christian Egyptians (in the vast minority), are very nervous.  Copts in particular have been the victims of much violence over the past several years.  In the midst of the current unrest members of the radical groups who advocate such attacks have been freed from prisons.   Many are speculating that more radical elements will fill the power void that appears to be developing in Egypt.

Of course the media plays of the fears of a radicalization of the Islamic street in Egypt.  The reports of vigilante justice and mob mentality sounds pretty scary.  However, one American friend of mine says he is appreciative of the club-wielders on his street.  With the breakdown in police services and spread of unrest families and neighbors have been looking out for each other.  Curfew starts at 2:30 PM.  After that strangers are not welcome on the street and private citizens will do what is necessary to protect themselves.  My friend is known in the neighborhood and is not really concerned for his safety.  Egypt is a collectivist society and it is not, like some Americans might imagine, truly “every man for himself.”  Just like in the rest of the Middle East, family and tribe and neighbor and guest are words that hold important – almost sacred – meaning.  What may seem like a dangerous man with a club or knife on television may actually be a father standing ready to protect his family and guests.

Of course, my prayer and hope for Egypt is peace.  In the short term that senseless violence and looting would cease and that order would be restored.  However, true peace will not come to Egypt without justice.  Economic justice.  Social Justice (to use a phrase demonized by conservative politics in America).  Political Justice.  And solutions that recognize that all people deserve dignity and opportunity and the ability to not just survive each day, but to thrive.

Of course these problems are not just present in Egypt.  The gap between the economic and political haves and have-nots has been growing steadily around the world.  Personally I am afraid that “every man for himself” thinking has gotten us into these situations, but will not get us out.