Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia


This review was first published on Middle East Book Reads.

Desert Kingdom deals with the history of modern Saudi Arabia and the role played by oil, water and other resources in the coming about of the Saudi state. Jones pays special attention to internal Saudi geopolitics. He uses geopolitics in its literal sense: the politics of the earth and its resources. As Jones and other authors such as Stuart Elden (The Birth of Territory) and Timothy Mitchell (Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil) argue, geopolitics is about the political implications of the earth and its resources; In other words, political decisions are shaped by geology and the manner in which natural resources are exploited. Looking at the history of Saudi Arabia through the lens of geology enables Jones to highlight previously neglected aspects of the Saudi state such as the very crucial role played by oil and water in the repression of its Shia minority.

The key to controlling the whole of the Arabian Peninsula lies with controlling the Peninsula’s geological resources: its water supply and its oil. However, the Saudi state does not want merely control over these resources, but rather seeks to exploit them for political reasons. Especially in the fourth chapter about the Eastern Province and the al-Hasa oasis, Jones discusses the expansion of Saudi power from the capital of Riyadh to the periphery and the resource-rich east in the light of geopolitics. This expansion and exploitation of resources has implications for the Shia population, mostly located in the Eastern Province, as the author clearly describes.

The first chapter, titled “The Nature of the State” loosely outlines the theoretical assumptions of Jones. He is mostly interested in the internal dynamics of the Saudi state, “the ruling strategies deployed by the state to secure its authority and security domestically, and the challenges to power it faced in the twentieth century.” In subsequent chapters, Jones more or less chronologically discusses the forging of the Saudi state from the end of the nineteenth century until today.

Desert Kingdom begins with the discovery of oil and the founding of the most important oil company, Aramco, and the exploitation of Saudi oil. Jones then describes the implications of the search for water and the unequal distribution of wealth on the population. Regarding the distribution of wealth and access to resources, Jones stresses how the Shia have been marginalized, both for religious reasons (some Saudi clerics do not even recognize Shiites as Muslims) and because their alleged ties with Shiite Iran, by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia. In the later chapters of the book, the author analyzes more recent developments in Saudi society, Saudi agricultural ambitions and the “return to faith” as Jones puts it, meaning that religious arguments became more important for the Saudi government and that the role of the clergy increased in Saudi society. This change in policy was mainly focused on improving the House of Saud’s Islamic credentials in the face of challenges from conservative clergymen to the House’s position as the protector of the two Holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Jones opposes the claims found in many other studies on Saudi Arabia that Saudi rulers and society are traditional and that they are both determined by “a timeless Islam.” Unfortunately, most of his criticism of other works on Saudi Arabia is tucked away in the endnotes. These notes contain quite essential information on Jones’s assumptions and views. His contrarian views that Saudi society and its rulers are essentially not conservative and traditionally Islamic, and his idea that the rulers are at odds with the peninsula’s Bedouin, whom the state seeks to relocate and urbanize, is central to the book’s thesis.. They certainly deserved more attention than a few endnotes and should have been included in the body of the text.   Nonetheless, Jones presents his arguments well, and in a clear and straightforward manner.

A recurring theme in Desert Kingdom is the way in which the Saudi government has used science and technology for political gain. The formation of the modern Saudi state has been depoliticized and, in order to fully exploit its oil, the Saudi government has approached many political issues through a perspective of scientific and technological development, as Jones describes in the third chapter. He emphasizes the very crucial role the United States government played in the development of the Saudi state and its ability to gain control over its oil. The American government has been involved in numerous projects ranging from the exploration of Saudi oil resources to anthropological and sociological investigations into the population. In contrast, the British seem wholly absent in these developments.

One downside of Jones’s geopolitical approach to the formation of the Saudi state is that it neglects other important aspects of Saudi society. Jones’s focus on the Eastern Province and dissent of the Shia population causes the reader to be left in the dark on issues such as the internal politics of the House of Saud. For example, Jones discusses the 1979 uprisings in the Eastern Province but only briefly refers to the attack on Mecca’s Great Mosque in November 1979. Jones does consider influences from Iran on the Shia population of eastern Saudi Arabia and rightly rejects conspiracies on Iranian machinations and support for the protests. However, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy towards Iran and the Middle East in general is largely left untouched.

Desert Kingdom makes clear that geology forged modern Saudi Arabia and Arabia’s natural resources should be the focus of studying Saudi internal politics. Jones has very much succeeded in providing that insightful and original approach, supported by his thorough and well substantiated research of primary sources.


Egypt and the Islamic State: Two Sides of the Same Medal?

I am currently reading Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum. Her book deals with the rise of Communism and the crushing of opposition in post-war Eastern Europe (more precisely in East-Germany, Poland and Hungary). In particular, Applebaum’s aim was to give an insight into how totalitarianism works in practice, how a totalitarian regime comes about. The definition of totalitarianism that is quoted in the introduction to the book is the definition that was enthusiastically adopted by Italian fascist Benito Mussolini: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

While reading one of the last chapters titled “Reluctant Collaborators”, I started drawing parallels between the post-war situation in Europe and the current situation in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. A couple of sentences in particular made me think of the Egyptian military dictatorship of al-Sisi. When Applebaum explains a number of reasons for many apolitical people to remain silent in the face of increasing oppression, she writes the following:

The devastation of the war, the exhaustion of its victims, the carefully targeted terror and ethnic cleansing – all of the elements of Sovietization described earlier in the book – are part of the explanation. Both the memory of recent violence and the threat of future violence hovered constantly in the background.

Although some of the reasons Applebaum cites are mostly applicable to the process of Sovietization, I believe the last sentence is very relevant to Egypt’s current situation. Immediately after the revolution, the Egyptian state sought to get the people back in line again. The violent crushing of dissent, sometimes through state agencies, the police and the military but also through the use of gangs of civilians, continued like no mass demonstrations ever happened.

The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, whether because of sabotage or incompetence (probably both) to get Egypt on track posed a huge opportunity for the military to regain absolute control. The military benefitted from the immense impopularity of Morsi’s government while in the mean time demonstrations turned more violent each week. This threat of more violence, or even civil war as al-Sisi put it when he forced Morsi to resign, is why the military was thanked for “saving Egypt.”

Currently, the threat of violence is being kept very much alive by the state’s destructive “anti-terrorism” campaign, given credibility by extremists who are bombing police officers in public places or killing conscripts at military check-points. One could argue that because this threat is credible and even real to some extent, the road to a totalitarian dictatorship was put wide open, with many “apolitical” people cheering on its arrival while standing on the side of the road.

This leads me to the other totalitarians who are on the rise in Syria and Iraq. The Italian fascist definition of totalitarianism suits them even better than the Egyptian regime, I believe. The Islamic State, or ISIS, “achieves its aims by psychological means and a reputation of extreme violence” as Ha’aretz put it. In Iraq, anger with the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has encouraged some Sunni groups to support ISIS in its fight with the Iraqi government. By no means all Sunni groups support ISIS, but as one of the persons interviewed by Ha’aretz points out: “One hundred percent of people are angry that the Islamic State is here but there is nothing we can do.” Villages that resist the rise of the Caliphate are given an ultimatum, after which most of them swiftly comply, facing terror campaigns, kidnappings and destruction.

Obviously there exist many differences between the two totalitarian regimes described above. However, in practice, the outcome is the same: absolute control of the state over all aspects of society through the use of force. Unfortunately it seems that both of them are here to stay, although the Egyptian dictatorship appears to be the more “stable” one. Ironically, in the fight against the Islamic State and similar groups, Egypt will most likely be perceived as an ally (like it was an ally in the “War on Terror” under President Mubarak), instead of the other side of the medal of oppression.


In de nacht van 14 op 15 april, alweer ruim twee maanden geleden, ontvoerde Boko Haram honderden schoolmeisjes van een middelbare school in het noorden van Nigeria. Wereldwijd werd met afschuw gereageerd op de ontvoering, die op 5 mei werd opgeeist door de islamitische fundamentalisten van Boko Haram. Ouders en familieleden van de meisjes demonstreerden tegen de manier waarop de Nigeriaanse regering omging met de ontvoering, en eind april sloegen deze protesten zelfs over naar steden als Londen en Los Angeles.

De twittercampagne die eind april op gang kwam zal vrijwel niemand ontgaan zijn. Duizenden mensen riepen op tot vrijlating van de meisjes door te poseren met een A4tje met daarop de hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Zelfs de Amerikaanse First Lady Michelle Obama postte een foto met deze oproep op twitter.

Ondertussen trekt Boko Haram zich niets aan van de wereldwijde verontwaardiging. Ondanks de beloofde steun van onder anderen de VS, Frankrijk en China aan de Nigeriaanse regering worden nog altijd 223 meisjes vermist. De media-aandacht waar deze meisjes eerst op konden rekenen is verslapt. Niet alleen het wereldkampioenschap voetbal, maar ook een andere ‘spraakmakende’ ontvoering zorgt nu voor spanning en sensatie in de pers.

Wie namelijk op de Wikipediapagina over de ontvoering van de Nigeriaanse schoolmeisjes kijkt bij het kopje See also, zal iets vreemds ontdekken. Onder dit kopje staat namelijk een verwijzing naar een recentere ontvoering, die van drie Israëlische jongens op de Westelijke Jordaanoever, ongeveer een week geleden. Op het eerste gezicht hebben deze twee ontvoeringen vrijwel niets gemeen, en toch zijn er een aantal overeenkomsten. Niet zozeer de twee ontvoeringen komen overeen als wel de internationale media-aandacht en de campagnes op social media om de ontvoerde kinderen vrij te krijgen.

Het interessante aan campagnes op social media is haar onvoorspelbaarheid. Zo vroeg de New Yorkse politie twitteraars om foto’s te posten van goede ervaringen met politieagenten, voorzien van de hashtag #myNYPD. Al gauw verschenen er tientallen foto’s van de NYPD terwijl zij mensen arresteerden en buitensporig veel geweld gebruikten. Niet bepaald de campagne die de NYPD voor ogen had. Zo kom ik op nog een overeenkomst tussen de twee ontvoeringen: beide campagnes werden door mensen aangegrepen om een ander verhaal te vertellen.

De tweet van Michelle Obama lokte veel negatieve reacties uit. Mevrouw Obama maakt zich wel druk om de ontvoering van schoolmeisjes maar de honderden kinderen die in de afgelopen jaren omgekomen zijn bij door haar man goedgekeurde drone-aanvallen op gebieden in Pakistan en Jemen verdienen blijkbaar geen steun, zo was de strekking van de (terechte) kritiek. (Zie deze website voor een interessante visualisatie van drone-aanvallen in Pakistan.)

Datzelfde geldt nu voor #BringBackOurBoys. Groot was de verontwaardiging toen een filmpje opdook van Israëlische militairen die twee onbewapende kinderen doodschieten (zie hier een verslag van Defence for Children). Deze twee jongens komen nooit meer terug. Daarnaast werden in april 196 Palestijnse kinderen opgepakt en vastgezet, 27 van hen waren tussen de 12 en 15 jaar oud.

Boko Haram ontvoert meisjes waarop politici vervolgens gretig gebruikmaken van de verontwaardiging en afschuw, niet gehinderd door de balk in hun eigen oog. Op de Westoever worden drie jongens ontvoerd, waarna de beproefde tactiek van verontwaardiging wordt ingezet. De cynische conclusie luidt dat zowel de daadwerkelijke oorlog als de mediaoorlog uitgevochten wordt over de ruggen van kinderen.

In Iran wonen maar twee soorten mensen

Ik ben, helaas, nog nooit in Iran geweest. Ik heb dus niet met eigen ogen kunnen vaststellen dat er meer dan twee soorten mensen wonen in deze ‘totalitaire islamitische dictatuur.’ Waarom beweer ik dat dan toch in de titel van deze post? Omdat ik, zoals zoveel mensen, mijn informatie baseer op wat media ons voorschotelen. Ik krijg namelijk de indruk dat het plotseling helemaal in is om de boodschap te verkondigen dat (bijvoorbeeld) Iraniërs ook heus mensen zijn, die niet zoveel verschillen van ons westerlingen. Tegelijkertijd wordt benadrukt dat een groot deel van de Iraanse bevolking – nog steeds, zegt men er dan bij – ‘ultraconservatief’ is. De drang om te laten zien dat mensen in het Midden-Oosten eigenlijk net als wij zijn, schiet op deze manier door en leidt tot het schetsen van een karikatuur.

De karikatuur die ons voorgeschoteld wordt ziet er zo uit: er zijn progressieve, meestal jonge mensen die willen feesten, Westerse films kijken en naar ‘onze’ muziek luisteren. Dit zijn de ‘good guys.’ Naast deze progressieven zijn er de achterlijke moslimfundamentalisten. Er bestaat volgens deze karikatuur dus geen middenweg, geen gematigde groep. Iraniërs zijn óf zoals wij, of compleet het tegenovergestelde.

Neem bijvoorbeeld de reeks artikelen over Iran die Monique Samuel schreef voor De Correspondent. De titels van de laatste twee artikelen in deze serie van vier zeggen eigenlijk al genoeg: ‘In de Iraanse hoofdstad Teheran is geen maagd meer te vinden’ en ‘In het Iraanse Shiraz is zingen voor vrouwen verboden.’ Boodschap: in Teheran kan stiekem alles, terwijl in Shiraz vrouwen zelfs niet mogen zingen in het openbaar! Teheran wordt bevolkt door hippe mensen; in Shiraz wonen slechts conservatieve mannen met baarden en in sluiers gehulde vrouwen. Of bekijk dit filmpje van RTL-journalist Roel Geeraedts over een skivakantie in Iran: compleet met ‘hippe mannen en vrouwen in moderne ski-outfits!’

De enorme hype rond de reportage van fotograaf Hossein Fatemi (hier een opvallend eenzijdige selectie van zijn foto’s, en hier de complete serie) zou je kunnen zien als het directe gevolg van het versimpelde beeld dat in veel media geschetst wordt van Iran en het Midden-Oosten. Internetgebruikers reageren totaal verbaasd als blijkt dat er in Iran gewoon mensen wonen in plaats van haatdragende aliens. Dit artikel beschrijft precies wat er mis is met veel artikelen over Iran:

This joy, however, is always tempered by the utter annoyance and disgust I feel at the ridiculousness of needing to prove our humanity to anyone. These projects often reek of an almost 19th century colonial obsession with discovering the “real Iran” and reducing a nation of 70-some-million people to a backpacker’s week-long vacation. These projects are primarily undertaken by Westerners for Westerners, bestowing upon the white [and generally male] gaze a certain universality and objectivity that the narratives of the “natives” never achieve.

De Facebookpagina Humans of Tehran (gebaseerd op het welbekende Humans of New York) nuanceert het beeld dat media van Iran geven, simpelweg door foto’s van toevallige voorbijgangers te plaatsen. Het is erg fijn dat journalisten eindelijk ontdekken dat er niet slechts één soort mensen woont in Iran. Helaas is het blijkbaar een brug te ver om te concluderen dat het er ook meer dan twee zijn, en daarom worden wij overspoeld met non-nieuws.

Lecture: Egypt in turmoil

This is a shortened version of a lecture I delivered on Monday, September 9, at the Student Association for International Relations (Studentenvereniging Internationale Betrekkingen) in Groningen. For more information, kindly visit their website.

First of all, I would like to thank SIB for inviting me to give this lecture on recent events in Egypt.

Let me start this lecture by sharing two anecdotes to give you an idea of the current situation. A few days before the mass demonstrations of 30 June, I walked into a small supermarket close to Tahrir square, Cairo. The owner of the shop greeted me and jokingly asked: “Are you a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?”, referring to my beard. I said: “Of course not, I’m not Egyptian.” Then, the guy suddenly turned serious, and advised me to shave my beard before the big demonstrations of next Sunday. Because, “god willing, we will slaughter all those beards.”

Last week, the minister of the Interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, survived an attempt on his life. A bomb went off as his motorcade passed in Nasr City, the area where the minister lives and also the scene of the biggest pro-Morsi demonstrations a until couple of weeks ago at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

What I’ll try to do in this lecture, is to explain how we got from the first anecdote, to the second. I will also provide some background. SIB has asked me to talk about the recent events, namely the ousting of president Morsi, in the context of Army-Muslim Brotherhood relations. I will give a short history of these two players in Egyptian politics, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Afterwards, I’ll discuss in detail the way Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood came to power after the January 25 revolution. I’ll try to explain the context in which this took place, as well as the challenges that Morsi had to deal with during his short presidency.

Subsequently, I’ll talk about the popular protests against Muslim Brotherhood rule, Morsi’s ousting by the military and finally the current situation.

A short history of the Army

The Egyptian army is one of the most powerful players, if not the most powerful player, in Egyptian politics. Led by the Free Officers, the army staged a coup d’etat against King Farouq in 1952, resulting in the king’s ousting and the establishment of the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Ever since 1952, Egypt has been ruled by generals or retired generals. Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Free Officers, deposed Mohamed Naguib and took power in 1954. After Nasser died in 1970, Anwar Sadat took over. Sadat was assassinated by a member of an extremist offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood during a military parade, and his vice-president Hosni Mubarak became president.

The Egyptian army controls a large percentage of the economy, and directly or indirectly owns up to 40% of Egypt’s businesses. This is of course one of the reasons why the army is so powerful. The army has the ability to influence the Egyptian economy, as it controls numerous factories, bakeries, natural gas and gasoline companies, et cetera.

Another source of power for the Egyptian military is its popularity. Despite the fact that the army has proven to be very incompetent in fighting and winning wars, it is still very popular among many Egyptians. Just imagine, almost everyone knows someone, a conscript or an officer, doing service in the army.

Maybe because of this popularity, the army has largely escaped public anger over the issue of foreign funding. Egyptians aren’t really fond of organizations that they suspect of being funded by the West. However, the biggest recipient of foreign funding is the military, which receives 1.3 bln dollar annually from the United States. I don’t think this is a fact that the army is very proud of, and it won’t publicly acknowledge this of course.

Let’s now have a look at the Muslim Brotherhood. I’ll come back to the army and its relationship with the Brotherhood later.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Founded in 1928 by a school teacher, Hassan al Banna. Quickly grew to become a country-wide conservative Islamic movement, aiming to ‘Islamize’ Egyptian life.

The Muslim Brotherhood was involved in the resistance against Israel in 1948. The organization also opposed the Egyptian monarchy. The Muslim Brotherhood was disbanded by the prime minister in 1948, out of fear for its popularity and because of rumors that the organization was plotting a coup against the king.

Less than three weeks later, the prime minister was assassinated by a student member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Hassan al-Banna condemned the assassination, he was himself murdered in February 1949.

The Muslim Brotherhood supported the 1952 revolution, but they felt Nasser and the Free Officers betrayed them afterwards, and tried assassinating Nasser in 1954. This led to a crackdown on Islamists.

During the presidencies of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was largely forced to work underground. On a few occasions, members of the organization were allowed to run in elections as independents. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, these ‘independents’ won 20% of the seats, but in the 2010 elections most of the Muslim Brotherhood candidates were banned from participating. So the army-Muslim Brotherhood relation has always been problematic.

The 25 January revolution

That fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is a conservative organization explains the way it dealt with the 25th of January revolution. The first few days, it prohibited its members from participating in demonstrations. While mainly youth from the April 6 Youth Movement and other groups took to the streets on the 25th, the Muslim Brotherhood stayed home. When it became clear that this time it was serious, the Muslim Brotherhood joined the protesters in their call for Mubarak to step down.

After Mubarak stepped down, the army took over and ruled Egypt through the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. While the youth movements and other opposition groups continued their protests against what they viewed as the same old regime with new faces, the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated with SCAF to pass a constitutional declaration opening the road to elections.

Even when the army was rounding up many activists, putting them in jail and prosecuting them before military courts, the Muslim Brotherhood remained quiet. When the army committed the Maspiro massacre in October, in which over 20 Coptic christians were killed, and when the army and police killed over 40 protesters in November, the Brotherhood still said that parliamentary and presidential elections under SCAF were the way forward.

People were presented with maybe the worst possible choice. Ahmed Shafiq was the last prime minister under Mubarak, and a retired air force officer. For many Egyptians, voting for Shafiq felt like betraying the revolution. So people who supported the revolution were more or less forced to vote for Morsi.

However, in 2012, Morsi won the presidential elections by a small margin, in part because many non-Muslim Brotherhood people voted for him to keep the other candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, out.

Morsi’s presidency

We have to acknowledge the fact that Egypt was more or less in ruins when Morsi became president. The economy was in a very bad state, security absent in many places, people had no trust in government institutions, et cetera.

Morsi faced many challenges, and expectations were unrealistically high. It was clear from the beginning that a few years would not be enough to fix Egypt’s economy, get the tourists back and improve the daily lives of poor Egyptians.

Morsi obviously didn’t succeed in fixing these problems. But I think it’s actually worse than this. He only didn’t succeed, he didn’t even try. Instead of reforming the police, he tried to use the state security and riot police to quash opponents. And when the police refused to disperse protesters in front of the presidential palace in December, 2012, Morsi sent his supporters to attack these peaceful demonstrators.

Instead of fulfilling his campaign promise of inclusiveness, he fired or marginalized advisors who didn’t agree with his policies. The Muslim Brotherhood refused to compromise on the subject of the new constitution, instead pushing for a very dividing document.

The way the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies among the Salafi parties approached the draft process for the first post-revolution constitution disappointed a lot of people. Even the ones who voted for Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections felt like the first civilian president in the history of Egypt was just another dictator looking to maximize his power. When Morsi issued his infamous constitutional declaration, making himself and his presidential decrees immune against judicial oversight, people took to the streets in anger.

The protests continued for a couple of weeks, resulting in a lot of violence, especially outside of Cairo. Still, the army and the security forces supported Morsi. After some time, the protests died down, without any tangible results for the opposition.

However, the first cracks in the army-Muslim Brotherhood alliance became visible during these weeks of protest.  The army, now headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was appointed by Morsi in August, 2012, called for reconciliation and an end to the violence. Al-Sisi wanted to organize meetings between the opposition and the government to find a way out of the crisis.


Out of disappointment in the Egyptian opposition, mainly the National Salvation Front headed by ElBaradei, a group of youth activists started their own campaign against Muslim Brotherhood rule. The campaign is called Tamarod, or Rebellion, and entailed the collection of signatures against Mohamed Morsi, calling for early presidential elections. As soon as Tamarod became well-known and picked up speed, the ‘mainstream’ opposition endorsed the campaign, trying to jump on the bandwagon of anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment.

I think it’s important to note that these youth were not the same people who started the revolution in 2011. Although a lot of activists supported the Tamarod campaign, others questioned its understanding of democracy. They also pointed out that the campaign lacked a decent follow-up strategy in case Morsi would step down.

On June 30, Morsi’s first anniversary as president, thousands of people took to the streets. It was a very celebratory atmosphere in most places in Cairo, as people seemed surprised that so many turned out in protest against the Muslim Brotherhood. The inevitable numbers game was played by both sides, as Morsi’s supporters also came together to show their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and their elected president. It’s hard to say how many people each demonstration had, but in my experience at least, the number of protesters against Morsi was larger than the number of protesters during the 18-day revolution in 2011.

A few days before June 30, Morsi had delivered a speech broadcast on StateTV. It was expected that he would compromise on a few less important issues, but he wouldn’t even go that far to prevent this political crisis from becoming unsolvable.

On Monday, July 1st, al-Sisi, the army general, issued a statement urging Morsi and his political opponents to reach an agreement. Al-Sisi basically gave Morsi 48 hours to solve this crisis, otherwise he would come up with a roadmap that would clearly not include the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi.

On July 2nd, Morsi delivered another speech, stressing his democratic legitimacy as president, that he would defend until death. Again, it was clear that the Muslim Brotherhood would try to hold on to power, without compromise. I wonder whether anything else than “I resign” would have been enough to make people return to their normal daily lives. In the run-up to June 30, I heard many people say that Morsi would finally leave on the 30th, and that hopefully the army would save Egypt from disaster and civil war. So expectations were a bit high.

Finally, on the 3rd of July, at about nine in the evening, al-Sisi issued a statement outlining a roadmap for transition. I watched the speech just a few hundred meters away from Tahrir square, in the street where I used to live. I could only hear the first couple of sentences, after that it was clear that Morsi was no longer president and celebrations had started.

According to the army, the Tamarod movement and political parties like ElBaradei’s National Salvation Front, this was not a coup, but a popular revolution supported by the army. Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood has a different perspective. They say it’s an attack on the legitimacy of a democratically elected president.

I think you all know how the army and police forces ended the pro-Morsi sit-in on August 14. As Human Rights Watch put it, the security forces used excessive lethal force against mostly unarmed civilians. Hundreds were killed, thousands injured. Muslim Brotherhood supporters responded by attacking tens of churches and other christian institutions, as well as burning houses and shops owned by christians.

Right now, a curfew is still in place in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. The military is very visible in the streets, and violence between security forces and groups of civilians is happening almost every day.

The short anecdote I started this lecture with illustrates how it’s possible that many people, I think a fair majority even, supports the violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. There are a number of reasons: the first is that people were very disappointed in Morsi’s presidency, as he failed to fulfill his campaign promises. Second, the way Morsi was elected shows that a large part of Egyptian society was always against the Muslim Brotherhood. The former regimes of Mubarak and even Nasser and Sadat before him, have always attacked the Muslim Brotherhood and described it as a terrorist organization.

The Egyptian media, and unfortunately not only state media but also private, so-called liberal, media, have adopted the “war on terror” discours in their coverage of the current crackdown. The most dangerous thing is that many Egyptians are fine with it. Something that has become very clear to me when I lived in Egypt before the coup, is that many Egyptians hate the Muslim Brotherhood and its members. One time when I exited the metro, a elderly headscarved woman came up to a man with a large beard and started insulting him, and his Muslim Brotherhood. Like the crackdown on Islamists in the fifties and nineties, every man with a beard, and every woman wearing a niqab, is a suspect. Not only Islamists or members of the Muslim Brotherhood are targeted. Leftists and human rights activists as well as lawyers are vulnerable as they critizice the current government’s treatment of Islamists and lament the lack of progress.

As the failed attempt to assassinate the minister of interior shows, there are some jihadist extremist elements in Egypt. Police stations and military checkpoints have been targets of such groups over the past few weeks. The current situation resembles the period of violence of the nineties, when tourist attractions were often targets. I am afraid that the current situation of bombings, assassination attempts and attacks on churches will remain for at least some time. It’s very hard to see how free and fair elections can take place in such an insecure and polarized environment.

Juich nieuwe regering in Egypte niet toe

Veel mensen waren zeer gelukkig met het afzetten van de Egyptische president Morsi, lid van de Moslim Broederschap, door het leger op 3 juli. Na een handtekeningenactie en daaropvolgende massademonstraties kon de minister van defensie, generaal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, niets anders dan Morsi door middel van een populaire coup d’etat afzetten.

Veel westerse regeringen zijn echter een stuk minder enthousiast. Zeker nadat leger en politie op 14 augustus de sit-in van de Moslimbroeders met excessief geweld uiteensloegen is de steun voor de nieuwe regering snel verdwenen. De Nederlandse regering heeft de hulp aan Egypte stopgezet, de export van militair materieel naar Egypte is verboden. Ik lees de laatste dagen steeds vaker artikelen van verontwaardigde columnisten (onder anderen Afshin Ellian), die vinden dat minister van buitenlandse zaken Frans Timmermans de nieuwe regering het voordeel van de twijfel moet geven. Waarom steunde Timmermans Morsi’s regering wel en de huidige ‘liberale’ regering onder aanvoering van hoogste rechter Adly Mansour niet? zo vragen zij zich af. Het antwoord zou moeten luiden: omdat deze regering voorlopig geen haar beter is dan de vorige.

Laat ik duidelijk zijn: ik ben geen fan van Morsi en zijn Moslim Broederschap. Sterker nog, in de hoop op positieve verandering was ik zelfs voor de zo spoedig mogelijke verdrijving van zijn regime. De weg die de nieuwe regering ingeslagen is, zal om een aantal redenen echter niet leiden tot deze vooruitgang. Ten eerste: door de demonstraties van voorstanders van Morsi met zeer veel geweld neer te slaan, heeft het regime aangetoond dat bevordering van mensenrechten ergens onderaan de lijst van prioriteiten staat (zie onder anderen dit rapport van Human Rights Watch). De van de Verenigde Staten gekopieerde ‘war on terror’ leidt slechts tot diepere polarisatie en geweld in plaats van verzoening en gerechtigheid.

Ten tweede: tot nu toe hebben de Egyptische regering en haar veiligheidsdiensten slechts lippendienst bewezen aan de beveiliging van christenen, hun kerken, instituties, winkels en huizen. Op 14 augustus vielen voorstanders van de afgezette president tientallen kerken en andere christelijke eigendommen aan. Hoewel de Egyptische regering deze aanvallen heeft veroordeeld, heeft men geen enkele actie ondernomen om de christenen beter te beschermen. In plaats daarvan gebruikt de regering deze aanvallen als excuus om honderden Moslimbroeders en andere mannen met baarden op te pakken in het kader van de ‘war on terror’. De daadwerkelijke daders lopen in veel gevallen nog vrij rond. (Deze manier van ‘divide and rule’, alsmede geweld tegen christenen is het Egyptische regime niet vreemd. Herinnert u zich het bloedbad bij Maspero nog?)

De derde reden heeft te maken met wat Egypte nu te wachten staat. Daarvoor moeten we even terug naar eind vorig jaar, toen de Moslim Broederschap een gedrocht van een grondwet met veel haast en zonder al te veel overleg door de daarvoor bestemde commissie ramde. Met consensus en democratie had het weinig te maken. Die grondwet en de daaropvolgende decreten van Morsi zorgden voor enorme demonstraties tegen zijn bewind. Die grondwet, een aangepaste versie van de constitutie van 1971, wordt nu gebruikt als de basis voor de nieuwe grondwet, die moet leiden tot een democratisch Egypte. In dit artikel van Ziad Ali wordt goed uitgelegd waarom dit een heel slecht idee is, en dit stuk van Bassem Sabry geeft een overzicht van de veranderingen en overeenkomsten ten opzichte van de vorige grondwet.

Ik denk dat we kunnen stellen dat Egypte niet op de goede weg is. Niet als het gaat om het tegengaan van polarisatie. Het beschermen van minderheden, een van de redenen waarom Joël Voordewind deze regering juist wil steunen, is voor deze regering ook geen prioriteit. En op verbetering van mensenrechten en versterking van de rechtsstaat door de nieuwe grondwet hoeft men al helemaal niet te rekenen. Westerse regeringen moeten dus druk uit blijven oefenen op de huidige (militaire) machthebbers, om het regime te dwingen tot grootschalige hervormingen. Het zonder omhaal accepteren van de routekaart zal de situatie in Egypte slechts verergeren.

In een eerdere versie schreef ik dat Maja Mischke in haar column net als Afshin Ellian schreef dat de huidige regering het voordeel van de twijfel moet krijgen. Zij bekritiseerde slechts het feit dat Frans Timmermans de regering van Morsi steunde.

Alsof ‘niet in staat zijn tot zelfbestuur’ een argument voor bezetting is

De titel van deze blogpost is een, enigszins gechargeerde, parodie op dit artikel van Dirk-Jan van Baar in de Volkskrant van 8 augustus, getiteld ‘Alsof Palestijnen zonder nederzettingen ineens tot fatsoenlijk zelfbestuur in staat zijn’. Zijn pennenvrucht verleidde mij tot het schrijven van een nieuwe post, na maanden van ‘inactiviteit’.

Dirk-Jan van Baar, historicus, pleit in zijn artikel voor ‘Een Ander Europees Geluid over het Midden-Oosten’. In het kort: Europa moet minder kritisch staan tegenover Joodse kolonisten op de Westelijke Jordaanoever/Judea en Samaria/Palestina (doorhalen wat volgens u als lezer niet van toepassing is) en meer oog krijgen voor de ‘veiligheidsdilemma’s van Israël’ en de positie van christenen in het Midden-Oosten. Van Baar richt zich in zijn artikel voornamelijk op het eerste en tweede deel van het ‘andere geluid’ en gaat pas in aan het eind van zijn betoog in op de positie van christenen.

Van Baar is duidelijk onder de indruk van de bijna onmenselijke (economische) prestaties die kolonisten leveren, terwijl zij door bijna iedereen gehaat en uitgekotst worden. Dat alleen al verdient sympathie. De historicus vergeet hierbij te vermelden dat de kolonisten door de Israëlische regering allerminst uitgekotst danwel tegengewerkt worden. De huizen in nederzettingen zijn niet voor niets goedkoper dan woningen buiten de Westelijke Jordaanoever. B’Tselem schrijft:

“The Israeli governments have implemented a consistent and systematic policy intended to encourage Jewish citizens to migrate to the West Bank. One of the tools used to this end is to grant financial benefits and incentives to citizens – both directly and through the Jewish local authorities. The purpose of this support is to raise the standard of living of these citizens and to encourage migration to the West Bank.”

Een aantal dagen geleden nam het Israëlische kabinet een nieuwe ‘map of national priority areas’ aan, met daarop extra nederzettingen. Veel Israëli’s zijn de kolonisten wellicht liever kwijt dan rijk, hulpeloos en zielig zijn zij absoluut niet.

Daarnaast is er natuurlijk nog het punt dat de groeiende nederzettingen het stichten van een Palestijnse staat steeds lastiger maakt. Iets wat door Van Baar slechts terloops genoemd wordt, en blijkbaar onbelangrijk is voor een duurzame oplossing van het conflict. Misschien heeft dat te maken met Van Baars stelling dat het ontstaan van de nederzettingen en de politiek die daarbij hoort uiteindelijk de schuld is van de Palestijnen zelf. Zij hebben zich namelijk altijd verzet tegen deze expansie buiten de grenzen van voor 1967, en hebben elke vreedzame oplossing van het conflict verworpen. Alsof het uitblijven van een vredesovereenkomst een argument is om dan maar zoveel mogelijk land te koloniseren, voor het te laat is. (Ik ga hier maar even voorbij aan het feit dat in het verleden van beide kanten vredesvoorstellen gedaan zijn. Ook het punt dat deze nederzettingen natuurlijk niet op zichzelf staan maar in stand gehouden moeten worden door een netwerk van ‘Jews only’ wegen, checkpoints, zogenaamde pricetag-aanvallen, etc. zal ik niet noemen.)

Op een punt ben ik het met de auteur eens. Natuurlijk breekt de vrede in de moslimwereld niet zomaar uit als er geen Joodse nederzettingen meer zijn. Er zijn ‘experts’ die stellen dat de oplossing van het Israëlisch-Palestijns conflict de sleutel is tot vrede in het gehele Midden-Oosten (‘the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad/Tehran/etc’). Deze koppeling gaat uit van de aanname dat alle conflicten in het Midden-Oosten verbonden zijn met het bestaan van Israël en het conflict tussen Joden en Palestijnen. Dat is uiteraard grote onzin. Echter, dit lijkt mij geen argument om de kolonisten en de Israëlische regering hun goddelijke gang te laten gaan met de garantie dat op deze manier Palestijns zelfbestuur nooit gerealiseerd zal worden.

Een laatste punt: fijn dat Van Baar zich zorgen maakt over de positie van christenen in het Midden-Oosten. Dat zouden meer mensen moeten doen. Jammer dat hij vergeet te vermelden dat er nog altijd ruim 200.000 Palestijnse christenen op de Westelijke Jordaanoever wonen. Ik begrijp dan ook niet wat Van Baar bedoelt met de zin ‘Alsof Joden (en christenen) niets meer te zoeken hebben op de Westelijke Jordaanoever (voor hedendaagse Europeanen is dit moslimgebied), terwijl hier toch hun heilige plaatsen liggen.’ Wellicht verbindt hij het lot van de Joodse kolonisten toch aan dat van christenen?