It’s always interesting to analyze those little stories that show so clearly the rules of Arab politics and debate, themes which never quite find their way into the Western media, which only see these issues in a Western political and intellectual framework. Yet if you want to understand Middle East politics it is imperative to comprehend such realities.
The example here is a statement by Egyptian Minister of Legal Affairs Mofid Shehab attacking al-Jazira television for, in his words, “instigating civil war” in Egypt. Al-Jazira has been complaining that Egypt is building a steel barrier along its border with the Gaza Strip to block Hamas from smuggling in weapons and other things.
“A number of Arab satellite stations, and [al-Jazira] especially, have placed themselves as responsible for the sovereignty of our country, and as usual have poisoned the public against the state.”
Here are some of the rules. The more militant a group is in fighting Israel or the West, the better. All Arab regimes are supposed to help these groups without reservation, even if it damages their infrastructure and drags it into an unwanted war (Lebanon in 2006; Jordan in the 1960s).
Egypt is building the barrier because it views Hamas as an enemy of the Egyptian regime and national interest in two respects. First, Cairo sees Hamas as an instrument of Iran and its bloc, a grab for regional power of Persian, Shias, and Islamists to the determinant of Arabs, Sunnis, and Arab nationalists.
Second, because Hamas is aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood which wants to overthrow the regime. If Hamas succeeds in entrenching itself in the Gaza Strip, that will be an inspiration to the regime’s enemies at home, while the arms’ smuggling will also eventually provide more guns for terrorists within Egypt.
Consequently, the Egyptian government would like to see Hamas fall from power in the Gaza Strip and be replaced by a Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority regime. But given the constraints of Arab politics, it will not do too much to bring about that outcome. Similarly, the Egyptian government would be happy in theory if the Palestinians made peace with Israel, ended the conflict, and obtained a state. Again, though it won’t do much toward that goal other than insisting the United States has to make it happen.
The above is basic and normal national interests’ stuff. Yet not one word of this-or at least very little–can be expressed by Egypt. After all, Hamas is fighting Israel and Western influence, so that has to be good. It is “Islamist,” piously Muslim, so that has to be good, too. Iran and Syria can speak and act freely; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan cannot.
Shehab expresses his views in an interview with al-Ahram, a regime-controlled newspaper. Clearly, Hamas’s use of statist repression isn’t something repugnant in principle to the Egyptian government. And so Shehab switches the target from Hamas itself to foreign news media which is assumed to be the instrument of another state rather than merely reporting facts.
The goal of these television networks, explains Shehab, is, “To engender a civil war and inflame the Egyptian and Arab streets, and cause a clash of official authorities.”
That is, calling attention to the wall is intended to stir up Egyptians against their own government. How come they’re restricting rather than helping Hamas in its battles? Since Shehab’s government cannot answer that question within the bounds of permitted discourse, it has to focus on the mere raising of the issue as the problem.
Shehab then raises another issue in his arsenal: al-Jazira and other Arab media attacked Israel during the Cast Lead operation in the Gaza Strip in early 2009. They now criticize Egypt. Therefore, according to this logic, they are comparing Egypt to Israel, which is unacceptable: “They have launched a war against the Egyptians just as they did during the barbaric attack on Gaza a year ago.”
The mythology must be maintained that all Arabs are always on the same side and that all Muslims are always on the same side. The good guys are good guys who cannot be criticized; the bad guys are always bad guys who must always be criticized. Indeed, Shehab then turns to the ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb of propaganda: attacking Israel and America:
“Why didn’t Al-Jazeera have a single word of condemnation to say about the weapons, missiles, and smart bombs that were sent from Al Udeid Base [in Qatar]to Israel in order to bomb the residents of Gaza?”
This is quite a startling lie for a cabinet minister of a “moderate” government “aligned” with the United States and receiving massive amounts of American aid. Shehab, obviously with permission from the highest levels of the Egyptian government is trying to “inflame the Egyptian and Arab streets, and cause a clash” of the Arab masses with the United States.
And of course it is untrue, a lie that could lead to terrorist murders of Americans. There was no U.S. equipment shipped to Israel especially in order to be dropped on the Gaza Strip, especially not from Qatar (which is singled out here because it is the master of al-Jazira). In other words, the proper response for any criticism by Arabs or Muslims is: Oh yeah! Well, you’re a murdering Zionist agent and a lackey of American imperialism!
This is, one must remind oneself, the end of the twenty-first century’s first decade while in the Middle East it is just like being in the 1960s. And the early 1960s at that.
Indeed, Shehab continues, this specific report is a Zionist operation to discredit Egypt:
“This civil war network is first and foremost an Israeli tool. It transferred reports on the Egyptian construction on the border from the news agencies in Israel and has begun to weave its usual plot.”
Of course, Israel is happy that Egypt is building this wall. Precisely at the moment when Egyptian and Israeli interests align, the Egyptian government has to step up its verbal attacks on Israel.
The minister does note indirectly that the barrier is being built to avoid a repeat of the time in January 2008 when many Gazans broke through the border defenses as Hamas gunmen shot at Egyptian soldiers. “I ask all Egyptians, and all those who support their homeland, are you willing to accept the violation of your country’s sovereignty?”
Shehab thus indulges in a bit of Egyptian patriotism, which is permissible though usually only as a secondary factor which doesn’t enjoy the same level of legitimacy of the other arguments. In short, a more moderate state, at least, is not quite able to pursue its own interests.
They can go against the current when necessary but always at a cost. Egypt made peace with Israel, for example, but faced years of boycott, President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated, and the peace cannot be a warm one. Saudi Arabia can seek Western help in the fact of Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait but the cost is the rise of Usama bin Ladin and years of terrorism.
Already criticisms and demonstrations are starting against the Egyptian wall in various countries. The claim is that the structure is unacceptable because it “helps” Israel. The fact that it also helps Egypt as much or more is not considered to be relevant.
Thus, one sees in this little item, as in hundreds more, how crippled the Arabic-speaking world is by its own form of Political Correctness. Such a doctrine is incompatible with democracy at home, full peace with Israel or a real alliance with the West. The question for the future is whether it is compatible with the survival of the Arab regimes themselves in the face of a challenge from Iran and revolutionary Islamists.