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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 29, 2012

Alpher186x140.jpgAlpher discusses the Tel Aviv demonstrations against African migrants, the first round of presidential elections in Egypt and a possible a "Yemeni" solution in Syria, as well as "the Arab mindset" at this time of revolution.

Q. Last week, Tel Aviv witnessed angry demonstrations against African migrants. This "north-south" problem is not new to Israel. Why the outburst?

A. Indeed, the problem of Africans--primarily from Darfur, South Sudan and Eritrea--crossing illegally into Israel from Egypt in search of refugee status and/or a better livelihood has been festering for nearly a decade. True, of the 60,000 or so known arrivals, as many as 8,000 have come in the past half year at an ever-accelerating pace. But Israel is fast constructing a fence along the Sinai-Negev border that should radically reduce the inflow. It is also planning a holding facility in the Negev and investigating ways to send the illegal migrants either to their home countries or to third countries that would host them in return for financial and other considerations by Israel.

Ostensibly, the explanation for last week's outburst, which featured racist rabble-rousing by right wing members of Knesset and violent attacks on African homes and businesses and could almost be described as a pogrom, was simply the "critical mass" attained by the African presence in tenement housing conditions in two poor neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. An (unenforced) Israel government prohibition on employing the Africans, coupled with the absence of official financial assistance, has produced a large coterie of destitute and unemployed Africans on the streets of these neighborhoods and generated rumors and unsubstantiated reports that they are responsible for a growing crime wave.

Still, why now? The explanation lies in recent intense incitement by the most senior government officials, beginning with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and prominently featuring Minister of Interior Ely Yishai of Shas, to the effect that the Africans--all 60,000 of them--constitute a demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu has promised to remove them, first to holding centers, then back across Israel's borders, in order to "save" Israel. Yishai describes the Africans as carriers of diseases in language reminiscent of Goebbels. Netanyahu leverages the African presence to focus public attention and growing economic frustration on an easily identifiable and inarticulate minority whose main "supporters" are a few left-wing Knesset members and the Israeli NGO volunteers who run soup kitchens for them.

Why does Netanyahu need a scapegoat or distraction? First, because the economic situation is worsening on his watch. More significantly, he needs to divert attention from about 3.5 million Palestinians who are slowly being swallowed into Israeli control by dint of active settlement spread in the West Bank and East Jerusalem under his direction. The 3.5 million don't threaten Israel's Jewish nature? The Arab residents of annexed East Jerusalem alone number five times the Africans. Focusing on the Africans is a very convenient way of distracting the public from what is really happening to Israel on the demographic-political scene. It's also just plain racist.

Q. Recent days have witnessed the first round of presidential elections in Egypt and reports that Washington is looking for a "Yemeni" solution in Syria. What can we learn here about the course of the Arab revolutions?
A. Essentially, we learn that nothing is quite as it seems. The first round of Egypt's presidential election produced a mid-June runoff between the last-minute Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Mursi, and a holdover from the Mubarak regime, Ahmed Shafik. In other words, the Islamists and the army triumphed or, if you like, Islam and status quo ante security concerns--not charismatic revolutionary or even semi-opposition candidates like Abdul Monem Abdul Futuh and Amr Musa, who were favored in pre-election polling.

Because the runoff presents a stark choice, the outcome is of great interest to Israel and the United States. A victory by Shafik would strengthen those forces in Egypt that seek to maintain reasonable ties with Israel and close ties with the US. A victory by Mursi would give the Islamists, who already control parliament, a sense of "critical mass" in their dealings with the army and would embolden them to demand, at a minimum, to radically downgrade the peace treaty with Israel. It would also bring Egypt closer to Hamas at the expense of the PLO and thereby affect Palestinian "reconciliation" planning, which in recent days has been renewed.

Notably, secular candidates like Shafik, Musa and Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi gained more than 50 percent of the total vote in this round; if the latter two could lend their support to Shafik, he might triumph. On the other hand, the total vote this round was well under 50 percent; a larger turnout in two weeks could help the Islamist candidate.

Turning to Syria, the "Yemeni" solution now ascribed to the Obama administration in its contacts with Russia would remove President Bashar Assad and replace him with a vice-president or other senior official acting as transition president until elections. This is what the US and Saudi Arabia did in Yemen, easing out Ali Abdullah Saleh in favor of his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was then elected president without opposition. The only problem is that this solution is not really working in Yemen and is totally unsuited to Syria.

In Yemen, Saleh remains in the picture and continues to exercise considerable influence behind the scenes. In any case, his replacement is "his man". Meanwhile, the violence there continues too. But Yemen offers nothing like the fragmented ethnic scene we encounter in Syria, where Assad sits atop a two-million strong Alawite pyramid, supported by other minorities like the Christians and Druze, that views conceding power as a prelude to its total destruction. Assad could step aside tomorrow in favor of another Alawite, and nothing would change in the level of atrocities and violence in Syria (which, incidentally, is reminiscent of what we witnessed in the civil war in neighboring Lebanon 30-35 years ago; plus ca change. . . ).

Q. Why do you think it's so difficult for the United States and others in the West to understand the Arab mindset at this time of revolution?

It's not just the West; even westernized Arabs are alienated from what is happening. The problem might best be illustrated with reference to two of the most dramatic events, or series of events, that have shaken the Arab Middle East for more than a year. Here again, Egypt and Syria play prominent roles.

The first event--really, series of connected events--is the mass protests again dictatorial rule that erupted in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011. In both countries, it was the relatively well-developed but numerically negligible sector of modern, westernized intellectuals, techies and students that catalyzed and initially led the revolution, based on principles and slogans that focused on social and economic issues and democratic principles that western audiences readily understood.

The revolutionaries hastened to promise pluralistic democracy. The West quickly bought into their revolutions and helped usher out the secular dictators, Ben Aly and Mubarak, who were the focus of revolt. All this happened just over a year ago. Since then, a democratic process has indeed emerged in these countries, but it appears to be paving the way for rule by political Islam rather than by secular politicians who represent the original revolutionaries. In both Tunisia and Egypt, Islamists dominate the elected parliament, while in Egypt the next president will be either an Islamist or a former Mubarak loyalist.

What happened? Essentially, and rather strikingly, these original revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt--the urban elites with their facebook and twitter technologies and tactics--had no real feeling for the widespread Islamist grass roots in their own countries. The latter quickly swept them aside in elections.

This is a startling divide--one unknown in democratic countries where frequent voting and polling broadly signal ideological and religious trends among the population.
Our second event is the revolution in Syria and the vicious response of President Bashar Assad. Remember when Bashar took over in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez? Captivated by his ophthalmology studies in London and his love for computer games, many western observers confidently predicted that the younger Assad would be a reformer because he had absorbed western values. When he married Asma Akhras, a Syrian born and bred in Britain, the deal appeared to be sealed: Bashar, like his contemporaries and fellow westernized royal heirs to power in Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain, would modernize and democratize.

Instead, Bashar Assad turned out to be as cunning, cruel and autocratic as his late father. The three young Arab monarchs in question have, on average, a better record, apparently thanks to inherited monarchic stability, but none has truly democratized. It turns out that exposure to the West and its values had no dominant liberalizing influence on any of these rulers. As in additional Arab revolutions in Libya and Yemen, ethnic, religious and tribal considerations carry far more weight.
What links these two events--the critical lack of familiarity with their own populations on the part of the original modernist revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia, and the broad lack of liberalizing influence of exposure to the West on the likes of Bashar Assad--is a yawning gap of perception, comprehension and communication between western and Arab cultures. Some Arab democrats hope that political Islam, as it accedes to power through democratic reform in Tunisia and Egypt, will bridge the gap by respecting democratic norms and fostering pluralism. Others fear that political Islam will pull these countries backwards, at least in terms of liberal values such as pluralism.

The evidence to date is equivocal. A democratically-installed religious-secular coalition in Tunisia is encouraging. It speaks well for political Islam in contrast to the resolutely secular yet brutally dictatorial Baathists that rule Syria (and ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein). On the other hand, women's status already appears to be suffering wherever Islam has risen to political power at the expense of secularism, including Tunisia, non-Arab Turkey and non-revolutionary Iraq.

It will take time to know for sure. But the startling perceptual and cultural gap between western and Arab values that we have encountered so far does not bode well for the capacity of the West and of truly westernized Arabs to understand the dynamics at work in the Arab countries that are living through revolution.