Spring 2015

Regrettably our corner of the planet is no stranger to war. Even so, the current spiral of conflict in the Middle East both internal and geopolitical is unprecedented in modern times. The spreading disorder inspired us to take a deeper look at the causes of and the solutions to political crises, in the region and broadly around the world. The result is our Special Report: Resolving Conflicts.

Topping our lineup is The Cairo Review Interview with the Arab World’s elder statesman, Lakhdar Brahimi, who struggled against French colonialism and then Islamic extremism in Algeria, and has served as a United Nations peace envoy to countries from Afghanistan to Haiti. His advice to young diplomats: “No two conflicts are alike. Every conflict has its own reality. Your most important asset is an intimate knowledge of the situation in the country where you are.”

Meanwhile, David Ottaway and Marina Ottaway offer insights into Arab politics in their essay, “Egypt’s Leaderless Revolution.” Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Mehrdad Saberi argue for a new regional order in “America’s Middle East Challenge.” Rashid Khalidi deconstructs seven decades of failed American policy in “The United States and Palestine.”

Further afield, Nicholas Stadlen tells the story of Bram Fischer, an Afrikaner Nationalist whose friendship with Nelson Mandela helped sow the seeds for a multiracial South Africa. Forty years after the Fall of Saigon, Ngo Vinh Long examines how bitter enemies have become surprising friends. Charles Williams II explains why racial tensions in America continue despite the election of an African American president. Aaron Mills examines the colonial injustice suffered by Canada’s indigenous peoples and makes the case for a new constitutional order.

In his essay, “On the State of Nature,” Graham Harman, distinguished university professor here at the American University in Cairo, advances a modern philosophical framework for politics based not on Right versus Left, but Truth versus Power. Yet a problem with this duality, Harman writes, is that both err in assuming they know how the world really works. “This,” he says, “ignores that politics at its best admits uncertainty as to the best course of action.” Certainly a little more humility—and a lot more wisdom—is a good place to start in addressing the world’s troubles.

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor

Arab Peacemaker

When Lakhdar Brahimi was awarded the Dag Hammarskjold Honorary Medal in 2004, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan praised the veteran Algerian diplomat for being “one of the finest mediators and negotiators the United Nations has been privileged to call one of its own.” Brahimi was 70 and had just wrapped up a mission in Iraq, yet he was hardly retiring. Amid the Arab Spring uprisings, he was tapped as UN special envoy to stop what had become a full-blown civil war in Syria.

Brahimi became the go-to negotiator due to his legendary acumen, patience, courage, dedication, and modesty—and perhaps partly thanks to the diplomatic credibility he brings to mediating complex geopolitical conflict as a figure from the independence struggle that ended 130 years of French colonialism in Algeria in 1962. He joined the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) at age 22, served as its representative in South-East Asia for five years (1956–61), and after liberation went on to become Algeria’s ambassador to Egypt (1963–70) and the United Kingdom (1971–79) before serving as foreign minister (1991–93).

As an Arab League envoy he brokered the Taif Agreement ending the Lebanese Civil War in 1989; later, he served as UN special envoy to South Africa (1993–94), Haiti (1994–96), Afghanistan (1997–99 and 2001–04), Iraq (2004), and Syria (2012–14). Successful UN mediation is dependent on support from the major powers, but Brahimi often expressed his personal remorse in the face of failure. Proving unable to end the Syrian conflict, he announced with typical humility: “I am very, very sorry, and I apologize to the Syrian people.”

Brahimi is a member of The Elders, a group founded by Nelson Mandela to work for peace and human rights. He also is a Distinguished Professor of Practice at l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod spoke with Brahimi in Paris on January 27, 2015.

CAIRO REVIEW: What was the effect of colonial occupation on Algeria?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Colonialism ended in 1962. That is well over fifty years ago. Even our people probably have forgotten what colonialism was. Recently, I was terribly shocked to read one young writer saying that the colonial days were perhaps not as bad as what is happening now. He clearly hasn’t read his history. The French decided that Algeria was part of France. When the revolution began, the French used to say—maybe you remember this beautiful phrase: “The Mediterranean runs in the middle of France like the river Seine runs in the middle of Paris.” So, on both sides of the Mediterranean it was France. When they invaded Algeria, the war was terrible. The French were extremely harsh and the massacres committed during those years were really unbelievable. The best lands were taken over by the colonists. It impoverished the people very, very much. One of the scenes I remember in 1945: there was a typhus epidemic, people were dying en masse. On my mother’s side, in the extended family of forty men, thirty-nine of them died in that epidemic. And hunger. One of the images I remember is people running around trying to collect some kind of grass to eat. No more than 10 percent of our people went to school. We were ignorant and poor.

The war of liberation under the leadership of the FLN, the Front de Libération Nationale, was also extremely costly. Torture was infamous. [The French] used napalm and planes, destroying villages. Rounded up tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, and put them in concentration camps. We say that more than a million of our people were killed. I hope we’re exaggerating, but I don’t think we’re exaggerating much. Colonialism was really a debilitating state, where the individual and society as a whole were strongly affected and destabilized. Algeria and Vietnam were the two big struggles that weakened French colonialism. Of course, the Vietnamese inflicted on them a humiliating military defeat, Dien Bien Phu, on May 8, 1954. Our own liberation started a few months later on November 1, 1954. Less than a year later, there was the [Asian-African] Bandung Conference, so internationally our liberation struggle got its first recognition on April 24, 1955. There was one line in the conference communiqué saying that the Algerian people have the right to their independence and to struggle for it by all means. That was quite a thing for people like [Jawaharlal] Nehru to accept to sign on to that. So we built on that and did fairly well. The French were forced to give up and negotiate with us, and practically accept our terms for full independence and territorial integrity.

CAIRO REVIEW: How did you join the FLN?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: We had a student organization with the political support of the FLN. We had lateral contacts with people we knew as individuals in the FLN. I never applied for membership in the FLN, it just happened. We were here in Paris, I was vice president of l’Union Générale des Étudiants Musulmans Algériens. In 1955, there was the Bandung conference. The Indonesian students by the end of 1955 got in touch with us saying, “We want to organize an Afro-Asian student conference to commemorate the first year after Bandung, so we’ll have it in April 1956.” Mohammed Benyahia, president of our chapter in Algiers, and I were designated to go to this conference in Jakarta. Benyahia would stay as the representative of the FLN in Jakarta and I would stay with him and learn a bit of English then go to New Dehli to open our first office in India. But Benyahia fell sick so I stayed five years in Jakarta.

CAIRO REVIEW: What has happened to Algeria since liberation?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: You see we were probably over satisfied with ourselves that we have achieved this. In the Third World, we were greatly admired everywhere. But we had no experience with how to run a country. When I look back now, we were pretty well ignorant. Our diplomacy was reasonably effective from day one. For all the rest, I think we were learning. I think we really worked hard and we really believed in what we were doing. In those days, nobody was thinking of becoming wealthy—I mean, when I see now how people are obsessed with money—we were not interested in that. We were really working for our country and we did reasonably well. Some of our leaders started saying to the French, “In three years, we’re teaching French to much more people than you did in 130 years.” We did extremely well in education in the beginning, because then what was required was quantity not quality. Schools were opening up all over the place.

CAIRO REVIEW: So what went wrong?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The short answer is that I don’t know. I think that some of us, at least, were aware that our leaders and even cadres, lost touch with our people. As somebody said, we didn’t go anymore to popular cafés and cheap restaurants. We took the villas that were left empty by French colonists. We took over from the French and perhaps we were behaving a little bit like that. In the liberation movement there has always been an Islamic trend. It didn’t disturb anybody that people had an Islamic language, behavior, style, in their private lives. Who cares? We didn’t see that becoming a political movement. With the death of [Houari] Boumediene, something happened similar to what happened in Egypt after [Gamal Abdel] Nasser died. The successors thought that Boumediene in Algeria, and Nasser in Egypt, had taken the country far to the left and that it wasn’t bad if you now allowed the Islamists to express themselves and to reestablish a little bit the balance. In Egypt, those Islamists that Anwar Sadat encouraged ended up killing him. In our case, we woke up and found that our youth were very unhappy and there were demonstrations on October 5, 1988. And for the first time, the army was brought in and shot at our kids. Then they had what I called a precipitated multiparty system. They put an end to the one-party system and allowed parties to form and rapidly went to election. The  best  demonstration of what I had been saying for a long time, that we had lost touch with our people: the leaders, the government, and the FLN party, were absolutely certain they would win the election easily. Of course they didn’t. The amazing thing is that the parliamentary election took place in December 1991. Now just a year earlier, there were municipal elections that the Islamists won in a way that was humiliating for the FLN. Still the government and the FLN thought they were going to win the legislative elections. So I don’t think we understood their message in 1990 and I don’t think that we really listened closely to our people to hear what they were thinking. So this is when we plunged into civil war.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why didn’t the FLN democratize from 1962 onwards?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I don’t think we felt a need. Certainly, the first few years, say until 1974 and 1975, we were close to our people. Our people were satisfied with the system we had. Try to think of what existed in those days. Having a one-party system was not outrageous. Maybe it was outrageous for the United States, but I think it wasn’t outrageous for most people in Europe. We had extremely good relations with people like [Olof] Palme in Sweden, with the Italians, and with a lot of the French mainstream left. We had perfectly good relationships. They weren’t really shocked there weren’t several parties in Algeria, nor were we. The thing is, we became aloof to what was happening. The country was a victim of its own success. I remember telling Boumediene, “You don’t govern a country where only 10 percent of the population knows how to read and write. You run a country where you have 90 percent of the kids in school. It’s different.” Perhaps this is what we didn’t notice well enough.

CAIRO REVIEW: In hindsight, was it a mistake?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I don’t think so. Don’t forget that perestroika was just starting in Russia. People were talking about democratizing and so on, and in particular the economy. “Open up; don’t leave it all in the hands of the state.” The regime in place after Boumediene was hesitating where to go. The rhetoric was still leftist, but the practice was not leftist anymore. And I remember telling one of the main [leaders], “In our country, we have now a strong current of people who do not believe in socialism very much. Why don’t you join them and clearly you will have a lot of support? There is also a lot of support for socialism. But you can’t sit in the middle. You’re neither here nor there.” And as I’ve told you, they encouraged Islamist groups, mainly in the universities, as a way of counterbalancing the leftist tendencies that existed, that were left behind by Boumediene. I think that is where we went wrong. And then when the price of oil shot up in the early 1980s, more money meant more corruption. That made common people angrier than ever. Before that, there may have been petty corruption, but not much really. Then with money and liberalization, they were importing all sorts of things: cars, televisions, and so on and so forth. Then corruption, and dissatisfaction, went up in the country. So we had socialism without real socialists, and then we had democracy without real democrats.

CAIRO REVIEW: Meaning the government?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The government. Democratization was a way of staying in power, not of taking a genuine risk of losing power. They demonstrated that in January 1992 when they stopped the electoral process when they saw they were losing. If you ask me now: was it right to stop the electoral process, or not, I won’t be able to tell you. One day I say it’s utterly wrong, one day I say it was unavoidable. What I consider as a big mistake was actually going for elections when we did. We didn’t have to. We gave in to FIS [Front Islamique du Salut] pressure, who wanted an early election. I was telling everybody, “Please, you don’t have to. Don’t. Because there is a possibility that you might lose, and what the hell are you going to do?” The army had said publicly, “We will never hand over the country to the people who want to bring us back to the Middle Ages.” So what are you going to do? They said, “No, no, no, they are not going to win, so don’t worry about that.” This is what I always tell people now in the international community who think that the best exit strategy after a conflict is an election: please, think before you go for an election. An election can start or restart a war.

CAIRO REVIEW: What did you learn about political Islam and how to deal with it, as part of the society?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The people who really politically are deeply convinced and adhere to political Islam are very, very few. I think that where we went wrong was that we estranged ourselves from our people. We closed the door in front of our people. They had nowhere else to go except to these Islamic parties. We stopped giving the image to our people of being people they can trust. This is where things have gone wrong. People are supporting political Islam by default. When they had other people to support, they didn’t go to political Islam. Having said that, yes, political Islam is a reality. They can say, I think with some justification, that the first opportunity they had of proving what they can offer to the people was in Algeria, and we didn’t allow them, we didn’t give them the opportunity. When the so-called Arab Spring started, I said several times this is now the opportunity for political Islam to show what they are capable of.

Most probably, they are saying the same thing they said about Algeria: “In Egypt, we were not given the time to demonstrate what we could do.” But it’s not quite true. Because they said they would run for 35 percent of the constituencies, and then went for 100 percent. They said they would have no candidate for president, and then they had a candidate. And you remember how they forced the constitution through in the middle of the night. So they did have an opportunity of showing that they can be part of a polity, and they have failed the test. Whether their adversaries are doing the right thing or not is a different question. We were looking at Turkey, where political Islam was showing that they can successfully run a country, and live with the rest of the country. I’m afraid, with the last three or four years, Turkey is starting to show some negative aspects of political Islam. The other place where there is promise is Tunisia. The Al-Nahda party, all in all, and definitely Rachid Ghannouchi, its leader, have behaved in a remarkably interesting and promising manner. In Morocco, too, the late King Hassan had prepared the scene for his son extremely well. Islamists there have been in parliament for a long time, and now they are heading a coalition in the best possible manner. It will be very interesting to see how they will do in the next election. Until now, the country, or the leader who has handled the Arab Spring best, is clearly Morocco.

CAIRO REVIEW: Was there a real danger if the elections had gone ahead in Algeria?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: We don’t know how they would have behaved. Some of them are very clearly extremely conservative. They would start to ask women to stay at home and implement cutting off hands. There were people asking for that. So from this point of view, perhaps it was difficult to just say, “Go ahead.” And by the way, what is not appreciated enough after the first round of the election, the army was not the first to say, “Let’s stop that.” It was the trade unions and women who took to the streets and said, “We will never allow FIS to take over the country.” The women kept that militant position throughout the horrible seven years. From that point of view, maybe there was no other way. But on the other hand, we lost between 100,000 and 200,000 people. They destroyed everything. Factories were blown up, telephone lines, electricity, schools—that’s 200,000 people and everything we had built gone. Perhaps it’s better to let them take over for a little while?

CAIRO REVIEW: If democratization had started in the 1960s and 1970s, would Algeria have had a more inclusive society to handle these things?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Maybe. But don’t look at it with what is common wisdom today. Look at it from the point of what was common wisdom in the early 1960s. Common wisdom was that a single party is much better than this multiparty corrupt system with political parties being affiliated with Moscow and others with Washington and so on. That was common wisdom. I’m not saying that it was right. I’m saying that with what we understood in those days, that seemed to be the natural thing to do. I think if somebody like me or anybody else had said, “Let’s have a multiparty system,” the question would have been, “What the hell for?” And young people were quite happy with the system. It wasn’t a police state. People were fairly satisfied that those  who won independence for them were running the country and trying to give them schools, give them a salary, give them a house, and that was taking place.

CAIRO REVIEW: Arabs are ready for democracy? Democracy is a good thing?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Ultimately, yes, more and more freedom for the individual is important. But I think freedom for the community, for society, collective needs, are more important to satisfy at a certain stage of development. I’m a great admirer of Deng Xiaoping. A single party has not prevented this incredible progress that China is achieving. Compare China and India, two Asian countries, large populations—one trying to do it through a multiparty system and the other with a one-party system. Yes, India is doing well, but I don’t think you can say India is doing better than China. And also seeing what has happened in the 1980s in Africa, what is happening now, there are a lot of things that are unsatisfactory. And look at those incredible statistics: eighty-two people owning as much wealth as half the population that is poor. Or one percent owning as much as the rest of the world—that’s not great, is it? The thing is, what we are seeing now, in Africa in particular, is that there is a little bit of democracy and a lot of so-called capitalistic economy. Naked capitalist economy is geared to be a system fit for foreigners more than the locals. In South Africa, what is happening now is that a few blacks have been co-opted by the former ruling class, but the majority of South Africans are not doing very well. So yes, we made a lot of mistakes, we haven’t achieved half of what we were dreaming of, but I’m not sure that a multiparty system in the 1960s would have really achieved for us much more or much better.

CAIRO REVIEW: Going forward, how should countries in the region deal with political/radical Islamism?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Don’t forget that political Islam did not start the Arab Spring. As a matter of fact, they did not believe in it. They really jumped on the train while the train was already running. And of course when the Islamists came on board, with their organization and experience, it wasn’t that difficult for them to take over. I rather liked [ousted Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi. I met him three to four times. He is a decent person. But what I hear is that he wasn’t really allowed to be president. He was really the representative of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. What I hear also is that [Abdel Fattah] El-Sisi was actually handpicked by Morsi, that he tried to advise the president to behave in a different manner, and failed. There were thirty million people in the streets saying “We don’t want this.” This is a fact. Thirty million people is almost three-quarters of the adult population of Egypt. I would rather say that political Islam has not organized itself properly to take advantage of the huge opportunity that came their way—and our way, because I would like political Islam to be integrated in the political life of the region.

It’s a little bit too easy, as is the case now in the United States, to look at them as victims only. Yes, some of them are victims. Also a very, very important point, as far as the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned: they are the mother ship of political Islam. For them to say, “We have nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. We have nothing to do with violent Islamists.” They all came out of that tree—they are branches of the same tree. The trunk cannot say, “Those branches up there, I never heard of them.” You have some very interesting first class intellectuals in political Islam who are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. [They] should try to think in a constructive manner to see how we can move toward a situation where political Islam is a political trend in our countries, just like any other. The first thing is to fight against the most stupidly outrageous things that are taking place in our part of the world. The attitude to the Copts: where did this come from? Certainly not from nationalists or Nasserists—that came from them [the Islamists]. They have got to fight it much better and much more strongly than they have. Where in God’s name did this business of destroying churches come from? Somebody has really to put an end to this. Those who have to do more than others are certainly those in political Islam. The first thing you have to accept, if you see yourself part of political Islam, is that there is a division between “church and state.”

CAIRO REVIEW: Do you see any possible compromise in Egypt?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Definitely by temperament and profession these last twenty-five years, I’d like to see people reaching a compromise and agreement, and make room for political Islam and also get political Islam to accept to have a place in Egypt and not “Either we run Egypt or no one else will.” My Egyptian friends tell me, “Our temperament is different from yours, and therefore we won’t go to the extremes that you went to in Algeria.” I very much hope that they are right.

CAIRO REVIEW: Are there patterns in the crises you have dealt with as a United Nations mediator?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: There definitely are similarities, but the very, very big mistake that we sometimes make is to think that experience you acquired in dealing with one conflict can be taken—almost as is—to another conflict. That’s not true. The fundamental principle is that no two conflicts are alike; every conflict has its own reality, own characteristics, and hence the extreme importance of really trying to understand the place where you happen to be. You are tempted to say, “I’m coming from Afghanistan, for example, and I have seen it all. So, what is it that I can do here in this other conflict that I did over there successfully?” It doesn’t work that way. I tell young people in the UN, “Yes, what kind of experience you have is good and useful, but your first asset, your most important asset, is an intimate knowledge of the situation in the country where you are, and also all sorts of interferences that are at work, whether they come from inside, outside. This is your asset, this is what makes you a good negotiator, a good mediator, or not so good.”

But there are all sorts of [common] qualities. It’s an internal conflict, but that conflict is greatly influenced from outside, and it greatly influences its environment outside of its borders. It is practically true of every conflict—if the conflict is not resolved, it will most probably spill over outside of the borders. There is one way in which that spill will take place very early on and that is with refugees. I don’t know a conflict where people don’t get on the move and go to the nearest border and try to cross to the neighboring country.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is the role of the United Nations in these kinds of crises?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The UN is extremely important. Let’s say international organizations—chiefly the UN, but not only the UN—have a legitimacy that nobody else has. People tend to have confidence in the UN in a manner that they don’t in others—neighbors, in particular. As likely as not, relations between a country and its neighbors are always full of complicated issues, and big powers are always suspected of having agendas. The UN has no agenda or is supposed to not have an agenda. In some cases I think the only problem with the UN is to prove they are not being used by big powers. Otherwise, they have a legitimacy that big powers don’t have.

CAIRO REVIEW: Did you have to deal with the United States or big powers trying to use you for their purposes?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: More than the big power trying to use you is the perception that you are being used by a big power. When I went to Iraq in 2004, it was extremely difficult to tell people that I’m not being used by the United States. Because of what happened to [UN diplomat] Sérgio Vieira de Mello a few months before I arrived, I was protected by the Americans. I was staying with the Americans, traveling in American planes, and when I get out I am protected by big Humvees—so it was extremely difficult to avoid that accusation. I think that I have been an independent agent working for the United Nations. This is the beauty of the UN: it has no private interests, no national interests. So what I tell people is that when I go somewhere on behalf of the UN, my interest and the interest of the UN is that of the people I’m dealing with and nobody else. If I serve that particular people well, then the UN would be well served. You have to convince the people you deal with of that. UN people have to make sure that [UN legitimacy] is real and protected. You’ve got to make sure you don’t give the wrong impression, and that is not always easy.

CAIRO REVIEW: Would your job as a UN negotiator be easier or harder if the United Nations Security Council was expanded, as many countries are asking?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I don’t think it will make a very big difference. It will still be the Security Council and I would be acting on behalf of the Security Council on the basis of the mandate they give me. Would it be easier to craft a mandate or more difficult? Now we have five [permanent members] and it’s bad enough, once we have ten it will be that much more complicated. Legitimacy will probably be greater because the Security Council would be more representative.

CAIRO REVIEW: Some of your missions have been more successful than others: the Taif Agreement for Lebanon, Haiti, South Africa. Do some factors make a conflict harder to solve, or does it depend on the situation?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Invariably, the neighborhood where you are is a factor. They can be a help or hindrance. If you look at Syria now, it won’t be solved until the neighbors come to a serious agreement to solve it. When I took over, I saw immediately that the main countries supporting the opposition were not really in agreement. The Americans, the British, the French, the Saudis, the Turks, the Qataris, the Egyptians—in the last stage they were calling themselves the London 11—they were not in full agreement. Of course there was one big absentee and that was Iran. Most people were saying that Iran is part of the problem—perfectly true. But then some were saying, “Because it is part of the problem, it has to be part of the solution.” While others were saying, “Never! These people have created enough problems, keep them away!” You cannot possibly ignore the fact that neighbors have interests. They have legitimate interests. But they also have hidden objectives that are not so legitimate.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you summarize your experiences in Afghanistan—the two missions?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I went in 1997 to 1999, and then in 2001 after 9/11. I started in July 1997 and in September 1999 I told [UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan, “It’s enough.” I went down to the Security Council and I told them, “Look, I have done everything I know and it has got me nowhere. And the main reason is that you, the Security Council, have sent me there, but you have no real interest in Afghanistan. It’s a far away country, a poor country, and if they want to kill one another it’s of no concern to you. Or so you think.” Almost in these words. “I’m nobody in Afghanistan, I don’t represent anything except you, and the Afghans know how interested or disinterested you are. So if you are not interested, then I don’t represent anything.” I don’t know why I added the following words, but I did: “You think that Afghanistan is a poor country far away and whether they kill one another it doesn’t matter, but you are wrong. One day it’s going to blow in your faces.” When it did they said, “Please come back.”

CAIRO REVIEW: Osama Bin Laden had moved back to Afghanistan in 1996. Didn’t that get more interest on the part of the United States?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Mildly. They got a little bit more interested after the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked in 1998. You know again about Bin Laden, I told the Taliban, “Look, I hear that Bin Laden is here, and that he is threatening, preparing something.” The UN has no intelligence, but we have a lot of people who are all over the place and we heard that Bin Laden was up to no good. So I told the Taliban, “This man, you say he’s your guest, he’s a man who supported you, and so on, but he is up to no good and may do things that may be harmful to Afghanistan and to you.” They said, “No, it’s not true.” After the U.S. embassies were attacked, I saw Mohammed Omar. You know, I’m the only UN man, or non-Saudi, who met Mohammed Omar. So I told Mohammed Omar, “I warned you, and look at what has happened.” Mohammed Omar said, “He says he didn’t do it.” I said, “He did.” He said, “Look, at any rate, it’s our tradition and culture: he’s a guest. The guest in your house is the master of the house.” I said, “You tell that to real foreigners, not to me. That culture is mine too. Your guest is master of your house until he starts throwing stones on your neighbors. The day after that you tell him, ‘Now you leave.’ That’s not an argument you can use with me.” We had several opportunities to talk with the Americans. I was telling them that Bin Laden is up to no good and I think they knew it. They talked to the Pakistanis, but probably not firmly enough.

CAIRO REVIEW: In Afghanistan during your time in the 1990s and 2000s, what did you see as your mission, and how did it go?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I think the first phase was to try and see how the civil war could end. There we made terrible, terrible mistakes. Putting human rights first in a country like Afghanistan is understandable. To then decide that the Taliban were bad guys and we shall not talk to them or deal with them is not justified. By the end of 1998, the Taliban were controlling 90 percent of the country. The UN has legitimacy. The UN needs to have open doors. Anybody could walk in and talk to the UN.

CAIRO REVIEW: Your hands were tied? You couldn’t deal with the Taliban?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I dealt with them. I saw Mohammed Omar three times I believe. But the international community, the Security Council, the General Assembly, treated the Taliban as if they did not exist. Their government was not recognized. We did not deal with them. I think that was a very, very big mistake. The international community should have given full recognition to the Taliban and dealt with them—criticize them, yes, but don’t ignore their existence.

CAIRO REVIEW: You had those things going against you: the Security Council not interested, and not willing to engage one of the large parties.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: In the second phase, in the Bonn Conference which I organized and chaired, the Taliban could not be there because they were bombed and routed and dispersed out of all big cities. But as soon as we came back to Afghanistan, on December 22, we should have reached out to the Taliban. Some of us said, “Where are the Taliban? These people control 90 percent of the country, where have they gone? You are talking about maybe 100,000 or 200,000 people, who were in administration, army, police—where are they? Why don’t we try and find them.” But most people were saying no, the Taliban were finished. Iran, the United States, Russia, India, were all saying, “Forget about the Taliban.” Even Pakistanis were keeping their own contacts with the Taliban but they never pressed for us to [do so]. So that was a terrible mistake. Maybe I should have been a little bit more insistent. I wasn’t. So what we were trying to do was to help Afghanistan rebuild a state. We haven’t done a very good job of it.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why do you say that?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Look where we are now, fourteen years later. Evidently we haven’t done a good job. Civil war has restarted. Corruption is worse than almost anywhere else, or has been until recently—I don’t know how it is in the last year or so. Clearly the country is not standing on its own two feet, although a lot of money was spent. There again, the Americans had bombed their way through. Having had their revenge—that’s how they looked at it for 9/11—in Washington there was very little interest in Afghanistan. What we didn’t realize is that practically while they were bombing Afghanistan, they were actually preparing to go to Iraq. In the fall of 2001, they were talking in Washington much more about Iraq than about Afghanistan. We were not aware of that fully.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is Afghanistan a lost cause, or did you achieve something, at least a foundation?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Oh yes, we achieved a lot. First of all, the first two years were quieter for the people of Afghanistan than it had ever been for the last thirty years or so. Schools reopened. Now there is some kind of healthcare available for people in Afghanistan almost everywhere. That has never been the case in the history of Afghanistan. You have now telephones, I don’t know how many million mobile phones there are—practically everyone has a phone. Television, I don’t know how many stations. Electricity has got to a lot of places and some roads have been built. So a lot has been done. But a key element of what a state needs is not there—and that is security.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is the solution now?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: With the new president [Ashraf Ghani]—I think [Hamid] Karzai has done a reasonably good job. I’m very sorry that in the last four years or so the relationship between the White House and Karzai has not been great. That is unfortunate. Now there is a new president who is a very brilliant man. His associate [Abdullah Abdullah] is a very experienced and able man, too. How are they going to be able to work together is a question. I hope that they would manage to work together. If they do, I think there is a very good chance that Afghanistan can move forward. I think they have to answer a very, very big question and choose—because I don’t think they have the same view on this—whether to negotiate with the Taliban, or not. And if they want to negotiate with the Taliban, they should go ahead and do it, the earlier the better. Also the relationship with the neighbors—and the neighbors in this case are really just Pakistan and Iran—has to be established on a good footing. China is another neighbor, they have only ninety kilometers of border, but still they do have a common border. China seems to be ready to play a big role. Some say they are ready to replace the Americans. I know that Ashraf has also good relations in Washington and in London, so I hope this will help. But it’s an uphill struggle. The Taliban, we cannot just ignore them.

CAIRO REVIEW: You went from Afghanistan to Iraq?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Those were the worst days of my life. It was extremely difficult to say no. If you remember, the Americans went to the Security Council in June or July after the 2003 invasion and said we want to be recognized as the occupying power and they got that. By the end of the year, all of a sudden they said “We want to re-establish Iraqi sovereignty,” and they came to New York and told [UN Secretary General] Kofi [Annan], “We cannot do it alone, you need to help us.” And they also told him, “The man we want to work with is Brahimi.” Kofi could not say no. You are the United Nations. Somebody tells you, “I want to end occupation.” You cannot say no. And I thought I could not say no, either. The country is in my neighborhood, in my region, people I know, and so on. I was against this invasion and said so publically although I was a UN official. But it was extremely unpleasant being with the occupier. I was eating with them, living with them, talking to them, and so on—that was really difficult.

CAIRO REVIEW: What are you getting at there?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Psychologically it is very difficult to be cooperating with an occupation that you condemned and didn’t like. But the occupying power was now asking you to help end that occupation. How can you say no? What we achieved was reasonable, but not really great. I helped form a government that was certainly better than the government of [Paul] Bremer, and we managed to exclude people like [Ahmad] Chalabi and some other bad characters.

CAIRO REVIEW: Was it possible to build a new state after the fall of Saddam?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Until now, I annoy American officials by asking them, “Why did you invade Iraq? Give me a real reason, good reason.” If even I knew that there were no weapons, surely the United States also knew that? If Scott Ritter, an American and the most energetic UN inspector—the Iraqis hated his guts—is saying, “There is nothing anymore,” surely the American establishment must have known that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq anymore. And don’t tell me they went there to promote democracy. And if that’s what they wanted, they certainly did not do a great job of it. Until now, I don’t know what the real reason was they invaded Iraq. A lot of people in our part of the world think this is an Israeli [plan]. It’s a fact that a lot of the people who were very close to [Benjamin] Netanyahu were very active in pushing for the invasion. I told my American friends: “Actually every single person who knew anything about Iraq on your side, in your government or past governments—especially ambassadors, Arabic-speaking—all told you the one thing you don’t do is dissolve the army. General [Jay] Garner who was briefly in charge of Iraq before Bremer, who was still in the country, went to Bremer and told him, “I hear you’re going to announce the dissolution of the army.” Bremer said, “Yes.” He told him, “Don’t do that. We are talking to hundreds of officers and they are willing to come back and work with you.” Bremer told him, “I have my marching orders. I have my instructions. I’m going to do it.” The general said, “Can we please go to your office and call [Donald] Rumsfeld and let me tell him what we’re doing, and he’ll maybe tell you not to.” And Bremer said, “No, I have my orders. I don’t need to call anybody.” So why did they do that against the advice of every single American who knew Iraq, many of them Republicans? I still don’t know why they did that. De-Baathification, this was done by Chalabi. But the dissolution of the army was done by Bremer.

I visited Mosul, and was told they had no teachers. Mosul is known to be the cultural center in Iraq. How come you have no teachers? They were fired because they’re Baathists, I was told. I made a public statement questioning that decision. I was bitterly criticized by Iranian media and some of the Shiite extremists in Iraq. Again in Mosul, I was told by some doctors and surgeons, “We have no thread to sow a wound, we don’t even have alcohol and cotton.” I told Bremer, “How come? In addition to your own money, you have countries that pledged billions to help Iraq.” How the Americans run the place, I don’t know. The corruption started under the nose of the Americans, and it soon became worse than it ever was under Saddam. Now I tell my American friends, “The only thing you have properly democratized is corruption. Before it was only Saddam and his cronies, now it’s democracy—everybody is corrupt.” So that is why it was so terribly unpleasant.

CAIRO REVIEW: When you left, did you have any hope the country could be put right?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: [Colin] Powell wanted me to stay. Kofi wanted me to stay. I had committed just to form the government and then go. I said, “No, it’s enough.” Another thing, I don’t mind if you publish it: Tariq Aziz is not a friend of mine. I knew him. I dealt with him, but we were not close. I thought that keeping him in jail was terribly unfair and unjustified. This man surrendered. He was not caught hiding by the Americans. He came and said, “I’m Tariq Aziz. Here I am.” He had exactly the same career as Sadoun Hammadi. They both were foreign ministers, they both were ministers of information, they both were deputy prime ministers. When the regime fell, Sadoun Hammadi was speaker of parliament and Tariq Aziz was foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Sadoun Hammadi was released after three months. I got him a visa to go to Germany for treatment—he passed away. Tariq Aziz has now been in jail for thirteen years. Yes, he has been sentenced to death, but as far as I know, and nobody has told me the opposite, he’s not corrupt, he has not killed anybody. The only difference between the two: Sadoun was Shiite and Tariq Aziz is Christian. I gave a note to the White House: it is shameful you have given him to the [Iraqi] government. You should have tried him as a prisoner of war. If you have a prisoner, you try him or release him. Let him go and die with his wife and children.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you see the outlook for resolving the internal crisis in Iraq?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Bombing Daesh [Arabic for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS] will yield absolutely no results if it is not part of a political process, both in Syria and Iraq. Look at how long it has been going on. Was it President Obama, or somebody else, who said, “Since this bombing campaign started in Iraq, Daesh has lost about one percent of the territory they have occupied.” One percent in eight months? So how long is it going to take? If it is part of a political process, then yes, it will work. Daesh will be defeated, definitely. But it’s a hell of difference whether it’s defeated in two years or twenty years. You need to make it happen in two years, and for that you need a political process.

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s the political solution?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I don’t want to pontificate on things that I’m not close enough to. Broadly, I think you need to have in Iraq a state that is reasonably fair to all its people.

CAIRO REVIEW: What was your mission in Syria? What did you aim to do?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: It didn’t go very well. I tried to bring the two parties—unfortunately there are not two parties—bring the government and those that are opposed to the government to accept some kind of negotiated settlement. For more than a year, the official opposition—the people who were outside, in Istanbul and elsewhere—were extremely suspicious of us. Because their friends, their supporters, were telling them, “Bashar is gone. He’s finished. It’s just a question of weeks.” I was saying that Bashar is not leaving. Somebody in New York told me, “How could you say that? For all you know, we may hear, right now, while we are talking, that the man is gone.” This was in the end of 2012. So this opposition, they were told by their friends—everybody, the British, the Americans, the French, the people in the region, Turkey, the Arabs—that Bashar is finished. Everybody was talking about the “day after,” and we were saying, “No, we need a negotiated settlement.” They said, “This man is trying to protect Bashar. Why do you want to negotiate with Bashar while he’s falling? It is as if you had invited Tunisians to negotiate with [Zine El-Abidine] Ben Ali in Tunisia on January 13—the man fell the next day.” Only after one year did this opposition start to realize that I was perhaps not an enemy.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why were you so sure Bashar would not go like Ben Ali?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Because I know a little bit what Syria is. I told a lot of people that Assad—the father—has participated in every coup for twenty years until he did his own. So he had a lot of experience. His regime was built like a dome, where there is no wood or iron, or anything—but there is a keystone in the middle. The keystone is the president. Most Syrians realize they cannot take him because then the whole thing will collapse. This is what we have now. In hindsight, people seem to understand now that it is much better to work for change to happen in a negotiated manner. Actually the Russians said from day one, Syria is not going to go the way Egypt and Tunisia went. I have always been aware that the Russians know Syria extremely well. Their number two in the ministry of foreign affairs, [Mikhail] Bogdanov, has been ambassador in Syria for nine years, in Egypt for six, and in Israel for five years—so he knows his Middle East. You have a lot of people who served in Syria—not only diplomats, officers, engineers, and so on. It was unfortunate that people did not go to the Russians from day one and try to work with them to see how the Syrians could be helped to solve their crisis.

CAIRO REVIEW: You went in as UN-Arab League envoy, to try to negotiate some kind of agreement between the opposition and the government. Why didn’t this work?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: It didn’t work because the opposition was divided and the people who supported the opposition and many of the opposition outside the country were certain they were going to win—so why negotiate? George Sabra was criticizing me every day, “Why doesn’t this man leave us alone?” He didn’t say it in so many words, but practically, he seemed to be confident that they were on their way home and I was bothering them. I don’t blame them because if you have the mythical MI6 and CIA and everybody saying that the man is gone—President Obama was saying, “Bashar is finished”—why would they believe me? Had the Russians and the Americans worked together a little bit more effectively, it would’ve been a little bit easier for us, but they didn’t.

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s the political solution for Syria then?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: You’ve got to have a political solution that is accepted by not all, but most of the people in Syria. What we were saying, what the United Nations was saying, has been always that you don’t need more weapons in Syria, you needed no weapons. The secretary general [Ban Ki-moon] and I, and Kofi before me, we always were saying, “Stop providing weapons to all sides, including the government.” How this may be done now, in my opinion, you have got to bring in all the neighbors.

CAIRO REVIEW: You criticize the UN Security Council for not being so unified.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Certainly the Security Council was paralyzed, no doubt about that. Libya had a lot to do with it. The resolutions that were voted for Libya, the Russians thought that they didn’t vote a resolution to allow bombing and regime change, so they think they have been tricked. Not only them, but also the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians, the South Africans, who all happen to be members of the Security Council, even the Germans—they all thought they were tricked by the British, the French, and Americans. So then the Russians were extremely suspicious of any move for a resolution [on Syria] in the Security Council.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you analyze the rise of Daesh in this context?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: Daesh is an Iraqi product, not a Syrian product. Daesh is the mutation of Al-Qaeda, which had been defeated through the [David] Petraeus process. Al-Qaeda was defeated by the Sunnis and promises made to them were not kept, so some of those Al-Qaeda and non-Al-Qaeda started a movement against the government in Baghdad, and they called themselves the “Islamic State of Iraq.” They moved into Syria and changed their name. [Ayman] Al-Zawahiri as a matter of fact told them, “No, no, no you are in Iraq, stay in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Syria is somebody else, it’s Al-Nusra. If you want to go and and help, that is fine. But you don’t call yourself the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.’”

CAIRO REVIEW: How big of a factor is Daesh?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I don’t think that for the moment it is realistic to expect them to be part of the solution. I think they need to be defeated. For them to be defeated, you need a political process. If not, if they continue to prosper and to dig deep in the two countries for another five or more years from now, I don’t know if you are not forced to talk to them. I don’t know. But what I have been saying from day one is that Daesh will be defeated, but it will be defeated faster if there is a political process.

CAIRO REVIEW: The problem of Palestine?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I’m sorry to say that Arab governments have for all practical purposes given up on Palestine. The support now they give the Palestinian people is lukewarm. Now the Arabs are telling them, “Well you have the lead, this is your country, do whatever you like.” Of course Hamas is criticized. The PLO is criticized. Mahmoud Abbas is criticized. What I say is that the people of Palestine have rights. Whether their leaders are good or bad, whether their leaders are leading them properly or not, the Palestinians have rights and that needs to be supported. I’m encouraged to see that in Europe, all of Europe, this is starting to be understood. There is clear annoyance with the behavior and practice of the Israelis. I think it’s high time that the Arab governments and people say the same thing: what Israel is doing is unacceptable, the people of Palestine have rights whether their leaders are good or bad, and those rights have to be supported. One idea I’ve been throwing out is that we need to form a group of likeminded people in the Arab World, some personalities, political, intellectuals, former government or international officials like myself, and reach out to the Europeans, but at the same time, reach out to the Arabs in Israel and to the Israelis who really believe in a fair solution for the Palestinian people, and that is the creation of a viable state, not a patchwork of bantustans that the Israelis are offering for the moment. We should reach out to these people, and work for the boycott, not only BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement], but a real boycott of Israel exactly like South Africa was. In South Africa, people used to tell the black population, “This will hurt your population.” And they used to say, “Yes, we know, we accept that.” If you say this would hurt the Arabs and hurt the Palestinians, so be it. We have to talk to the Israelis so this is not a racist undertaking, it is a political movement to support the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.

CAIRO REVIEW: The Arab Spring brought a lot of hope in 2011, but things aren’t going well all over the region now. What message do you take from the uprising?

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: I spoke to [BBC correspondent] Lyse Doucet in May 2010 in South Africa, and we were speaking about Africa. I was telling her that, in Africa—north and south—our population is very young and impatient and they are unhappy with things. So unless our leaders wake up and deal with issues like corruption, there will be revolutions everywhere. And she laughed, “Revolutions?” I was not surprised that the lid blew off in several places. Perhaps I was over optimistic. I thought that our people are craving for change, real change. In every country, the present leadership can lead that change, but if they don’t, they will be the victim of it. I still think that this is valid. I don’t think that in the short term anything can happen, but in the medium and the long term the Arab World is not going to be what it has been. Change is going to take place. What form it’s going to take and what kind of convulsions it’s going to go through, it’s not something that is going to happen overnight. So these convulsions are now taking place. In Egypt, you see what is happening. People are saying El-Sisi is going to be [Hosni] Mubarak. No sir, he cannot be Mubarak, he will not be Mubarak, and Egypt is not going to be Mubarak’s Egypt. And it will be the same thing everywhere. Syria will be different from the Syria that existed in March 2011. In Syria, the foreign minister told a mutual friend, “Poor Brahimi. He believes in the Arab Spring. He believes it’s something positive.”

The Arab Spring is perhaps is a misnomer. But it’s certainly a genuine, popular movement that came from our entrails. It has done the destruction part quite effectively in three or four countries, but the rebuilding is going to take different shapes and it’s going to need time. Somebody said the French Revolution actually ended in 1871, almost a hundred years later. The convulsions were incredibly important: the terror of Robespierre, Napoleon, the Restoration, Napoleon III, all these were things resulting from what happened in 1789. You could say the American Revolution has taken a long time. It has thrown out all sorts of things until the present day. It is still a reference in American politics. In our part of the world, we come from a very, very deep hole. Sometimes we dig; we go further down rather than up. I think that is part of this change that people are craving for and fighting for. When is it going to deliver all its promises? I don’t know. But you are right: at present, it doesn’t look great.

Schooling Egypt

Egypt claims a proud heritage of intellectual advancement. The Library of Alexandria was the greatest of Classical antiquity, while Al-Azhar University in Cairo has been a revered center of Islamic learning for more than a thousand years. Today, however, the country faces an education crisis of what may well be historic proportions.

Of the 144 countries measured by the Global Competitiveness Report 2014–2015 put out by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Egypt ranked 141st in quality of primary education. In September, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi formed the Education and Scientific Research Council to identify the country’s needs and coordinate government action. The task is nothing short of daunting.

The WEF ranking captured only a part of Egypt’s longstanding education deficits. Illiteracy rates are startlingly high, with some estimates at over 25 percent among the general population. A generation of university graduates—including doctors and lawyers—is entering the labor force without sufficient skills or qualifications.

Five members of El-Sisi’s eleven-member council come from the faculty of the American University in Cairo (AUC). The council’s head is Tarek Shawki, dean of AUC’s School of Sciences and Engineering and a dedicated innovator. The most pressing issue for Shawki isn’t just how to make Egyptian education more innovative—it’s simply how to make it work. “The [education] minister told us that over 70 percent of the people in vocational training at the high school level cannot write their name,” Shawki told me in a recent interview. “The question is: How did they get that far?”

Some of the problem is a half-century of gradual decay. President Gamal Abdel Nasser introduced free education for all as part of his social welfare initiatives, but during a time when Egypt’s population was roughly a third of what it is today. Population growth, inadequate spending, and unsuccessful reform efforts have created today’s Perfect Storm situation. Government officials as well as Egyptian citizens recognized the crisis long ago, but meaningful reform has faced two obstacles: a society that demands free education, and the Egyptian bureaucracy

El-Sisi’s council has already defined thirty-two short- and long-term goals, from amending a law that regulates higher education, to establishing a national entity that ranks universities. One of its most controversial ideas is a radically different approach to free higher education. To counter a prevailing culture of entitlement and emphasize the value of education, the council wants to limit free education to students who receive scholarships awarded on the basis of merit. Opponents, including liberal groups, educators, journalists, and some in the government, warn that such thinking will kill free education and harm society’s poorest.

Joyce Rafla, an assessment officer at AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching and a member of the council, argues that there is no social justice in the current system. Upper- and middle-class children pay high fees to go to better quality private schools, she says, while free public schools sometimes run without teachers.

Welcome as it is, a presidential decree aimed at improving education doesn’t ensure smooth cooperation, even within the government. Some ministries, protecting their turf, have already resisted collaboration with the council. “What’s missing is the overall sense of having a national goal that we all work towards,” Shawki said.

Oriental Hall, Etc.

A two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict requires a strong external mediator, says former United States Ambassador to Egypt Daniel C. Kurtzer, now a professor of Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton University. Speaking at an event hosted by AUC’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdul Aziz Alsaud Center for American Studies and Research, Kurtzer said that there is room in the peace process for other players, Arab and international, but if the United States intends to retain its dominant role in mediation, it has to hold both sides accountable for “bad behavior” and it should lay out terms of reference or parameters for the negotiations. He said another major shift also needs to take place: both Israelis and Palestinians must acknowledge the mutually destructive and ongoing nature of the conflict. So far, that hasn’t happened. Regional political complexity and instability has not provided an environment conducive to peace, Kurtzer argued. “The norm is not cooperation to resolve international conflict,” he said. “Rather, that is the exception.” The lack of progress has left optimism for a two-state solution waning in Washington. Kurtzer voiced concern that even trying to initiate negotiation is considered politically “dangerous” for American politicians. But Kurtzer still thinks Israelis and Palestinians can compromise on issues that are considered barriers to peace, such as Israel’s settlement policy. These roadblocks are surmountable, but require new parameters and stronger determination from the parties and the U.S. to guide any future negotiation.

Egypt’s Leaderless Revolution

The January 25 Egyptian uprising always had scant possibilities of success. The country’s secular and Islamist revolutionaries were odd bedfellows right from the start. They agreed on forcing President Hosni Mubarak from power, but harbored different dreams and notions of a new Egypt, and often followed conflicting strategies. Other political forces, including the revolutionary youth, were weak and poorly organized. In the end, the uprising led to a totally different outcome than what the millions who took to the streets envisaged, and by early 2013 it had run its course.

If the possibility for success was limited, the uprising was not completely doomed from the start. For over a year following the forced departure of President Mubarak, different choices by leaders and political organizations might have led to a degree of success, although not likely to a full-blown democracy.

We should begin by stipulating what the term “success” meant in the Egyptian political context of the 2011–2013 period. Both secular and Islamic activists held up placards demanding “Bread, Freedom, and Dignity,” sometimes substituting “social justice” for the latter mantra. What they pushed for immediately, however, were authentic free and fair elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to authoritarian rule. The key components of their ideal new political order included a multiparty democracy, a parliament with real powers, an independent judiciary, and unfettered media—including social media. In the end, most Egyptians probably would have settled for less. But no group, regardless of ideological and theological differences, would initially have considered the restoration of authoritarian rule to be anything but complete failure. Only with the advent of Islamist rule under the Muslim Brotherhood did Egypt’s old upper class, including the so-called liberals, come to redefine success to the point of welcoming the return of military rule.

The Egyptian drama from authoritarianism to uprising back to authoritarianism unfolded in four distinct phases: 1) the unsettled period preceding the uprising; 2) the eighteen days of mass demonstrations leading up to Mubarak’s departure; 3) the subsequent year under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF); and 4) the brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule under President Mohammed Morsi.

Cusp of Revolt
In late 2010, the social and economic situation was exceedingly ripe for revolution. An economic boom starting six years earlier had doubled Egypt’s Gross Domestic Product to $218 billion but widened the gap between the poorest and richest and put the middle class in an economic cramp. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who came into office in 2004, had lifted constraints on the private sector with the full backing of President Mubarak and above all of his two businessmen sons, Gamal and Alaa. The result was the rise of a class of nouveaux riches led by a small number of oligarchs. However, the middle class and particularly the five million civilian government employees did not benefit from the boom and in fact came more and more under financial stress. Inflation had reached 13 percent while the official minimum wage had remained the same since 1984, at about seven dollars a day. And 44 percent of Egyptians were living on less than two dollars a day.

Most dangerous politically was the plight of twenty million Egyptians between the ages of 18 and 29 who constituted the “youth bulge” and accounted for 90 percent of the country’s jobless.  A 2010 United Nations report noted in particular that Egypt faced an “ever growing supply of unemployed graduates.” (The year of the uprising, 343,500 more Egyptians graduated with university degrees.) Already by 2008, a report by the United States Agency for International Development was warning of trouble ahead. “Accelerated growth juxtaposed with persistent poverty can generate social tension and instability as people become frustrated by insufficient opportunity for upward mobility,” the report said.

The frustration was most evident within Egypt’s labor force affected by the privatization of numerous state-run industries resulting in massive job reductions. Just as vexing were persistent low wages in both the private and public sectors. The extent of labor unrest came to public notice in 2006 with the strike of 27,000 workers over wages and conditions at the state-run Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla El-Kubra. By 2010, unemployed workers were camping out day and night outside the parliament building in the capital’s downtown. A report by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization called it “the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century,” and estimated that 1.7 million workers had engaged in more than 1,900 strikes or other protests between 2004 and 2008.

Persistent labor unrest gave rise in 2008 to the first attempt by a pro-democracy civil society group to link discontented elements in the work force to the struggle for political reform. On April 6 that year, young pro-democracy activists from Cairo went to Mahalla to show their support for striking workers as part of a national protest on their behalf. Thus was born the April 6 Youth Movement that would play a central role in January 2011. Its Facebook page quickly attracted tens of thousands of supporters. The link between the workers’ economic demands and the young protesters’ political ones was never firmly established, however; and this became one of the weak spots of the uprising.

Meanwhile, Egypt was preparing for the succession to Hosni Mubarak. In office since 1981, the president was ailing and his future uncertain, but the country’s power elite was deeply divided over who should replace him. Mubarak’s rumored plan for his son, Gamal, to succeed him in elections scheduled for the fall of 2011 had roiled the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). The Old Guard wanted to see Mubarak run for a sixth term while younger modernizers championed Gamal. The succession issue became much more acute after Mubarak was flown to Germany in March 2010 for an operation to remove his gall bladder. Gamal’s presidential bid was opposed not only by the NDP Old Guard, but most importantly by the military. Every president since the 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser had been a military officer, but Gamal Mubarak had never served in the army and had made no effort to cultivate ties with its leadership.

Yet another factor in the unsettled succession equation was the return in February 2010 of Mohamed ElBaradei, the longtime head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner. He immediately launched a bold campaign against the entire Mubarak regime, demanding authentic free and fair elections and an end to the twenty-nine-year-old state of emergency. Although he never declared the intention to run for the presidency, he was widely viewed as the most viable candidate to wrest power from the Mubaraks. His supporters set up the National Association for Change, which began gathering one million signatures on a petition demanding all kinds of constitutional and other reforms. The staid diplomat warned Egypt had become a “time bomb” and advocated street protests and even civil disobedience to press for reforms. His appearance on the political scene galvanized the opposition as never before, with leftist parties, civil society groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood rallying to his cause. Finally ElBaradei laid down the gauntlet calling for a boycott of parliamentary elections in November 2010 with the declared aim to “deprive” the Mubarak regime of its legitimacy.

Those elections primed the pump for the uprising. The NDP had one goal in mind: to drive the Muslim Brotherhood—whose candidates running as independents had won eighty-eight seats in the People’s Assembly—entirely out of politics. In the run-up to the elections, it arrested 1,200 Brotherhood organizers, broke up its rallies, and blocked a number of its candidates from running. So it came as no surprise that in the first of two election rounds on November 28, the NDP won 209 seats outright and the Brotherhood not a single one. In reaction, both the Brotherhood and the liberal secular Wafd Party decided to boycott successive rounds, allowing the NDP to win more than 90 percent of the seats. ElBaradei described the elections as a national “tragedy” and “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” He also called for a boycott of the presidential election scheduled for the fall of 2011.

Altogether, nearly all developments that took place throughout 2010 were extremely favorable to the ignition of an uprising. The level of public discontent with economic conditions was spreading from the working to the middle class. President Mubarak was in failing health. The ruling party was divided over whether to back him or his son Gamal. Both the military and pro-democracy groups were opposed to another Mubarak as president. The November elections had seriously alienated not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also secular opposition parties and pro-democracy civil society groups. A credible alternative presidential candidate, ElBaradei, was openly challenging the established elite for the first time in contemporary Egyptian political history.

But conditions were less favorable to the transformation of an uprising into a sustained movement for change. Egypt lacked strong political organizations other than the outlawed but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. The April 6 Movement had failed either to forge an alliance with labor or build bridges to the Muslim Brotherhood. ElBaradei’s National Association for Change had not gone beyond collecting signatures on petitions. Nor had civilian pro-democracy activists made any contacts with the military even though both opposed another Mubarak as president.

Taking the Square
The scope and initial success of the street protests on January 25 caught everyone including its organizers and the security services by surprise. The April 6 Movement had been gearing up to launch a nationwide protest the coming summer to contest the expected nomination of Gamal Mubarak as the ruling party’s candidate in the fall presidential election. But the flight of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia on January 14 emboldened Egyptians by demonstrating that even a ubiquitous police state was vulnerable to the street. Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian activist working for Google, mused on Facebook on the day of Ben Ali’s departure, “If 100,000 take to the street, no one can stop us… I wonder if we can?” Most unexpected was the readiness of virtually all segments of Egyptian society including entire families from the middle class, even some from the upper class, to swell the crowds gathering in Tahrir Square and on streets of cities from Alexandria in the north to Minya in the south. Muslims and Christian Copts stood side by side defending one another against the repeated attempts of security forces to clear the square. Women came out in huge numbers. Muslim Brotherhood youth fought alongside soccer fan toughs known as Ultras in the name first of “Bread, Freedom, and Dignity” and then “The People Want the Overthrow of the Regime.”

Also favoring the uprising’s success was the collapse of the 325,000-man Central Security Forces that disintegrated under the stress of night and day confrontation with hundreds of thousands of protesters. Chaos ensued as protesters turned their ire on NDP party offices across the country and set ablaze its headquarters in downtown Cairo. They assaulted police stations everywhere, besieged the Interior Ministry in Cairo, and they freed 23,000 prisoners—many of them Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members—from Wadi El-Natroun prison. Following the January 28 so-called “Day of Rage” protest, Mubarak dismissed Prime Minster Nazif and his government, while Interior Minister Habib El-Adly handed in his resignation, declaring that his security forces could no longer contain the uprising.

What finally and irrevocably turned the tide against Mubarak, however, was the refusal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to order the military to participate in suppressing the uprising by the use of force. On January 31, SCAF issued a statement acknowledging “the legitimacy of the people’s demands” and stating that the armed forces “have not and will not resort to the use of force against this great people.” It would take another eleven days of pressure before Mubarak yielded and gave up power. But it was not the revolutionaries in the streets who finally forced Mubarak to resign on February 11 after nearly thirty years in office. Rather, it was his General Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, and SCAF leaders. In the end, Suleiman himself was sidelined and power passed to SCAF, leaving the military in charge of the country’s fate.

With Mubarak’s departure, the uprising had achieved its first and most pressing objective. The massive street protests had established for the first time in contemporary Egyptian politics the principle of “revolutionary legitimacy.” However, the rapidity with which the uprising had succeeded created a whole new set of thorny issues distinctly unfavorable to a transition toward democracy. No charismatic civilian leader had emerged to take charge. Even ElBaradei, the best placed to fulfill that role, had retreated to the sidelines when confronted with the chaos and dangers of the street. Not until February 7, just four days before Mubarak’s ouster, was the “January 25 Revolutionary Youth Coalition” set up, comprising ten leading activists in what was meant to be a collective leadership. Wael Ghonim’s description of the uprising seems pretty accurate: “A revolution without a leader and without an organizing body.”

Another unfavorable development during those eighteen days of revolutionary fervor was the failure of secular activists to develop a working alliance with the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which sprang up in defiance of the government-controlled ones on the fifth day of the uprising to launch strikes across the country. The federation quickly grew to encompass 1.6 million workers organized in a hundred unions. Strikes paralyzed public transport in and around Cairo on February 7 and workers in Suez Canal service companies went out as well. On February 9, the new independent unions held a nationwide strike. But these strikes were mainly driven by grievances over wages, job security, and union rights—workers seemed more interested in taking advantage of the uprising to press their own demands than toppling Mubarak. No alliance between political and labor activists emerged from the uprising.

Strained relations between secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood were to prove even more consequential to the course of subsequent events. Members of the Brotherhood’s youth wing were deeply involved in the uprising from the beginning, and four days later the leadership exhorted its 600,000 members to join the protests. This immediately raised fears among secular protesters that Islamists were moving in to “hijack” their revolution. So much suspicion of the Brotherhood’s intentions arose that on February 7, the Revolutionary Youth Coalition felt obliged to issue a statement reassuring Egyptians that Islamists had not taken over Tahrir Square.

A final heavy legacy of the uprising was the absolutely central role played by the military in ousting Mubarak. It had done this without consulting with any of the civilian groups involved in the uprising. Secular and Islamist groups found themselves equally sidelined, highly dependent on what SCAF might do next, and as suspicious of the military and its motives as they were of each other. Both were suddenly aware that SCAF was in a position to dictate the outcome of their respective bids for power.

The Year of SCAF
In the almost eighteen months between the removal of Mubarak by the military and the election of President Mohammed Morsi, the contradictions that would eventually doom the uprising started emerging. It was a period of constant turmoil, with political battles played out partly in the streets and partly at the polls and in the courts.

The military was determined to follow a formally democratic political process, leading to the formation of a civilian government that would allow the military to resume its preferred role of exerting influence behind the scenes, rather than governing directly. The military, the Islamist parties, the secular parties, and revolutionary youth groups all agreed that Egypt had to move quickly toward restoring political due process. That meant holding elections for a new parliament and president as well as writing a new constitution.

There was no agreement at all, however, on the sequencing of these steps. A commission appointed by SCAF quickly revised the most controversial articles of the old constitution and submitted them to a referendum on March 19. Secular parties opposed the referendum, arguing that more discussion was needed, but everybody else supported it, including the Muslim Brotherhood. SCAF then incorporated the articles into a Constitutional Declaration issued on March 30. With this interim charter in place, Egypt would then hold parliamentary and presidential elections, to be followed by the writing of a new constitution. Secular parties again opposed the plan. First, they wanted to postpone the elections as long as possible, claiming that early elections would give the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been organizing for years, undue advantage. (It is worth noting that one of the most important secular parties, the Wafd, had existed longer that the Brotherhood.) Secular parties also wanted to be sure that the new constitution would not be shaped by Islamist parties and thus did not want it to be written by an elected body, where Islamists were bound to be well represented.

The proposed compromise solution was that all political parties should agree on a set of irrevocable “supra constitutional principles” that would bind whoever wrote the constitution. The idea gained acceptance, but different groups, from Al-Azhar, the historic center of Islamic learning, to the government itself, set forth their own sets of such principles. They were extremely contradictory, with secularists insisting Egypt must be a civil state and Islamists demanding an Islamic state with sharia the main source of legislation.

The most controversial of these sets of supra constitutional principles was the one proposed by Deputy Prime Minister for Political Affairs Ali Al-Silmi on behalf of the government and the military in November 2011. The document reflected the demands of SCAF in stipulating that the military and its budget remain outside any form of civilian oversight. It also reflected those of secular parties in proposing the constitution be written not by an elected body, but by an eighty-member committee based on corporatist representation: seats would be allocated for political parties, labor unions, and business associations as well as for social and religious groups like workers and peasants, Muslim and Christian authorities, and even “people with special needs.” The document was rejected in the midst of angry street protests demanding that SCAF speed up the election process and return to the barracks. The principles and process it spelled out endured, however, and became the basis for the writing of the 2014 constitution.

Meanwhile, the growing imbalance between secular and Islamist political forces was becoming more and more apparent. The Muslim Brotherhood was well organized and so too, to the surprise of all Egyptians, were the newly formed Salafi parties, above all the Al-Nour Party. On the other hand, the youth groups that had led the uprising seemed to abhor strong, hierarchical organization on principle, favoring instead egalitarianism and loose networks held together by Twitter, Facebook, and cell phones. While these means had worked well in mobilizing street protests, they failed to give youth groups any traction in organizing for elections or influencing policy decisions.

The mainstream political parties were also ineffective in generating public support and knew it. They responded by trying, unsuccessfully, to postpone elections. When the parliamentary elections in late 2011 and early 2012 confirmed their worst fears—with Islamists winning 70 percent of the People’s Assembly seats and secular parties of all ideological colorations combined only 30 percent—secularists simply rejected the new parliament.

Instead, they turned to various state institutions, particularly to the courts controlled by the old elite, and used them to oppose the newly elected parliament and later the presidency. The main battle was waged between the Supreme Constitutional Court on the one side and the Islamist-dominated parliament and constituent assembly on the other. The result was the permanent dissolution of parliament and of the first constituent assembly, while the second one survived but remained under imminent threat of court-ordered dismissal.

The possibility the parliament would be disbanded by a court decision, as it eventually happened, convinced the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood to present a candidate for upcoming presidential elections, reversing an earlier decision not to do so. The decision was controversial even within the organization, where many considered it ill-advised, while other political parties saw it as an attempt to dominate Egyptian politics and impose their own form of authoritarian rule.

The presidential election was hard fought, with the second round of voting coming down to a close contest between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander and Mubarak’s last prime minister, who was favored by the old elite and military. Many had predicted that SCAF would not allow an Islamist victory, but the military council took another tack instead. On the eve of the run-off vote, it issued an amended Constitutional Declaration that specified all legislative power would remain in the hands of SCAF until a new parliament was elected, thus hemming in the president. When Mohammed Morsi won the elections by a narrow margin, SCAF accepted the victory, confident that the new president would have limited power.

In summary, this second phase of the unfolding Egyptian revolution ended in a draw. SCAF had allowed a Brotherhood leader to win presidential elections, though it still sought to hold onto legislative power. The Islamists had shown that they could muster widespread electoral support, but still had to demonstrate they could parlay that asset into institutional power. The secular parties had found out just how little popular support they could mobilize, but discovered a way to compensate by enlisting the judiciary for their cause.

Only the revolutionary youth groups could be said to have suffered a clear defeat as they had failed to translate their claim to “revolutionary legitimacy” derived from the street into “constitutional legitimacy” based on democratic elections. Constant resort to street protest had had a positive impact in keeping the demand for change alive but also engendered a sense of fatigue among many Egyptians increasingly yearning for a return to normal life.

Brothers in Office
After Morsi’s election, the Brotherhood tried to play by the rules. It decided to accept the Supreme Constitutional Court’s authority and thus the dissolution of parliament, although the decision was based on somewhat flimsy legal grounds. However, it successfully repealed the supplementary Constitutional Declaration that SCAF had issued in June transferring all legislative powers to SCAF. It also continued working on the new constitution through a constituent assembly, the composition of which had been negotiated with the military and the old elite. The effort to produce a constitution acceptable to all sides proved futile, however, after most secularist members of the assembly refused to participate in its work. In Tunisia, Islamists and secularists fought over the new constitution article by article, word by word. In Egypt, by contrast, secularists stayed home, and most battles were fought between the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more fundamentalist Salafis. In the meanwhile, a swirl of lawsuits threatened the Brotherhood. Some were aimed at dissolution of the constituent assembly, others at the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or of the Brotherhood itself. The cases were never adjudicated, but hearings were always postponed, thus prolonging the threat. Playing by the rules was an uphill battle. Although the Brotherhood theoretically controlled both executive and legislative power, its hold on the country was extremely flimsy because of the constant legal challenges and because it did not control either the military or the bureaucracy. Accused by its adversaries of having “brotherized” the state, the Muslim Brotherhood in reality remained on the margins of a state apparatus that had been shaped by three decades of Mubarak rule and was still largely controlled by his people.

Morsi appeared briefly to have won a major victory in August 2012 when he fired Minister of Defense and SCAF Chairman Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as well as the Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan, replacing them respectively with General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and General Sidki Sobhi. Because Tantawi and Anan had controlled SCAF and governed Egypt directly or indirectly since the overthrow of Mubarak, their dismissal was initially seen inside and outside Egypt as a shift in the balance of power between military and civilian. El-Sisi, many concluded, owed his appointment to Morsi and would accept his leadership. In reality, the removal of Tantawi had been negotiated between Morsi and El-Sisi, the main beneficiary of the change.

Morsi was convinced, erroneously as it turned out, that the military was now on his side and tried to exercise, even in small ways, his prerogatives as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. One example was the annual celebration on October 6 marking the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal into the Israeli-occupied Sinai. Morsi invited to the traditional parade Islamist leaders who were completely unacceptable to the military because they had been involved in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on the same occasion in 1981. The provocative gesture infuriated El-Sisi personally and made the rift between the two leaders unbridgeable.

Morsi only made matters worse by issuing on November 22, 2012, his own amendment to the Constitutional Declaration, putting the constituent assembly and himself above the reach of the courts—above the law, as it was generally interpreted. The provision, a last ditch attempt to prevent the courts from dissolving the constituent assembly, would only remain in effect until the new constitution was enacted, which happened a month later. But the damage was done. From that point on, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood lost whatever legitimacy they had left in the eyes of a growing portion of the general public. Their credibility had already been severely eroded by a combination of a deteriorating economic situation, secularist fears that the Brotherhood would try to impose strict Islamic law, and hostile media. The ever squabbling secular parties which had been trying for months to forge alliances that appeared to dissolve the day after they were announced were sufficiently provoked by Morsi’s amendment to finally come together in a National Salvation Front.

From then on, the situation only worsened. The revolutionary mood had been replaced by a longing for stability and jobs. The revolutionary youth groups had no sense of direction and even less of organization. A new movement, Tamarod, emerged, apparently intent on renewing the revolutionary fervor of 2011 but in reality with a totally different agenda and sponsor.

The Tamarod, or Rebellion, movement declared itself in late April 2013. It claimed to be a youth group whose main aim was to collect signatures on a petition demanding Morsi’s removal. Whether or not the movement was genuinely started by young people acting on their own, as its leaders claimed, it was soon taken over by state security. In a matter of weeks it spread to almost all governorates in a well-orchestrated campaign that required extensive organization and resources way beyond the capacity of such a small new group to have mustered. Soon Tamarod started calling for a massive anti-Morsi demonstration on June 30, the day he had come into office just one year earlier. It was those demonstrations engaging once again millions of Egyptians that provided the military with the political cover to arrest Morsi on July 3. The number of protesters clamoring for Morsi’s removal certainly did not reach the thirty or forty million claimed by the organizers, but the demonstrations were nationwide, massive, and more widespread than those seen during the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. They left no doubt that public sentiment had turned against the Muslim Brotherhood.

A Failed Transformation
The dream of idealistic youth groups, the intelligentsia, and many secularists and Islamists of establishing a parliamentary-based democracy in place of military-backed authoritarianism vanished in July 2013. The initial uprising had begun as a spontaneous happening loosely coordinated by cyberspace-connected networks of would-be revolutionaries. Islamists had soon superseded the original organizers as the emerging political force. But eventually Egypt had been taken over by a much more powerful and well-organized coalition of the military, security services, judiciary, and state bureaucracy, all determined to bring down the Brotherhood and restore the old order.

The uprising was not doomed to complete failure from the beginning, but it quickly ran up against shortcomings in leadership and organization and the widening divide between secularists and Islamists. Major political actors bear much responsibility for the failure: certainly the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the leaders of the so-called liberal parties who, after their debacle in the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections, turned their backs on the democratic process and looked to the courts and the military for their salvation even at the cost of renewed authoritarianism. Ironically, secularist fears that Islamic rule would mean “one man, one vote, one time” turned out to be true but not because of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular liberal parties in alliance with the military and state institutions were primarily responsible for Egypt’s return to authoritarianism.

In retrospect, it is clear that Morsi’s election did not represent the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the second step in its undoing. The first step had been its overwhelming victory, together with the Salafi Al-Nour Party, in the parliamentary election. This mobilized the judiciary and more broadly the old secular elite into action to deprive the Brotherhood of power. Morsi’s election then reinforced the secularist resolve to halt the Muslim Brotherhood by switching from the polls to the courts and state institutions. The Brotherhood made one last attempt to move the fight back to the electoral arena by calling for new parliamentary elections in April 2013, but the Supreme Constitutional Court aborted this plan by rejecting the proposed election law twice, even after it was amended to meet its own demands.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders were extremely slow to understand that the political dynamics had radically changed. Perhaps because they had invested so much in the formal political process, they remained convinced that elections conferred upon them unassailable “constitutional legitimacy.” They confused legitimacy and effective power, which continued to reside with the military and state institutions where the Brotherhood had a minimal presence. Even their legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian public was quickly dissipating as a result of their own poor decisions and under a relentless propaganda campaign in the media.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders made many mistakes and provoked their adversaries unnecessarily, but in the end they succeeded in bringing about almost no change. They did not “Islamize Egypt” or “brotherize” the bureaucracy—they simply did not have the power or the time to commit the outrages of which they were so roundly accused. What they did was less important than what they represented: a counter-elite with a different value system and a threatening alternative to the old liberal and military establishments. Their own missteps made it easier for the military and the deep state to engineer their downfall, but a competent, well-managed government led by the Muslim Brotherhood would have been even more threatening to the old political elite and military.

That elite must share responsibility for the revolution’s failure. Weighed down by a sense of class entitlement, it made little effort to fight for popular support, the sine qua non for success in a democratic system. Instead, from the beginning its leaders complained of the unfairness of elections held before they had time to organize. Time was not their major problem, however. Secularists were divided and disorganized before the 2012 parliamentary elections, but they were still that way when Morsi called for new elections in April 2013. Indeed, they appeared to be just as riven by personal rivalries among competing leaders and just as disorganized in the run-up to the planned 2015 parliamentary elections.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who emerged at various time as the great hope of Egyptian secularists, stands out as an apt symbol of the old elite’s political failings. He refused to run for president on the ground that Egypt was insufficiently democratic, but did little to make it more democratic. Nor did he seem upset when his supporters tried unsuccessfully to convince the military to name him president, skipping elections. He launched the Destour Party but also did little to build it into a viable force. After the July 2013 military takeover, he readily accepted an appointment as El-Sisi’s vice president. But ElBaradei resigned six weeks later, after the military dispersed pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo at a high cost in lives—Human Rights Watch reports that at least 817 were killed—apparently appalled by the violence that had been predictable ever since his appointment. Whatever ElBaradei’s commitment to democracy in theory, he was never ready to lead secularists in the hard struggle to make it a reality and was all too ready to accept unelected high positions in government.

The overwhelming victory of Islamist parties in the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections doomed the revolution. Afterward, any hope for an Islamic-secular governing coalition such as evolved in Tunisia vanished, and polarization between the two opposing forces became unstoppable. No interposing third force emerged to mediate between Islamists and military, reflecting the persistent inability of secularists to get their own house in order. The failure of leadership on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood, secularists, and revolutionary youth made the return to military rule inevitable.

David Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. For thirty-five years, he worked for the Washington Post as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Europe and later as a national security and investigative reporter in Washington. He is the author, most recently, of The King’s Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia. His forthcoming book is entitled Anatomy of the Arab Revolution.

Marina Ottaway
is a senior scholar at the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a long-time analyst of political transformations in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. She spent fourteen years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of numerous books, including Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism; Africa’s New Leaders: Democracy or State Reconstruction?; and South Africa: The Struggle for a New Order.

America’s Middle East Challenge

For the past seventy some years, the Middle East has been a chessboard for the victors of the Second World War. The ongoing chaos in the region can be traced to how Great Britain, the United States, and France exercised their power here in the post-war years. The primary sources of conflict date back even further: to the arbitrary borders that were drawn by the French and the British in much of former Ottoman territories in the aftermath of the First World War; to the enthroning of kings, emirs, and sheikhs; and ultimately to the seizure of the wealth of the countries under their imperialistic control. A colonial mentality still prevails in the way Western powers and in particular the United States approach the Middle East.

American and Arab leaders like to claim an unshakable bond of trust, but in reality it is predicated upon a fragile ground; American relations with Iran, in turn, are all about mistrust. The presence of foreign forces in the Middle East has turned the region into two zones; one that sides with the United States, for example the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries; and another with a different foreign policy agenda that does not align with Washington—for example, Iran. The presence of foreign and particularly American military forces in the Middle East has served to disrupt the cordial relationships between regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt. This disruption is felt especially strongly as the region confronts growing instability and terrorism today.

Iranian Mistrust
The main origins of Iranian mistrust of the United States are Washington’s involvement in overthrowing Mohammad Mosaddegh and imposing the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The mistrust increased after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 when the United States embarked on a strategy of regime change. An early sign of the policy could be seen in Washington’s blatant support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980. That eight-year conflict became one of the lengthiest and costliest wars of the twentieth century, with more than one million casualties on both sides and $600 billion infrastructure damage to Iran. The United States, though claiming to be the champion of combating the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Iranian people and reportedly assisted the Iraqi army with intelligence in carrying out those attacks.

At the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran was devastated and the nation was in dire need of foreign investment to rise from the ruins. The United States refused to invest in the Iranian economy, and sought to prevent other nations from economic cooperation with Iran as well. The conventional Western perception is that it is Iran that is adamant in maintaining a hostile relationship with the United States; in fact, the general consensus in various Iranian administrations has been that neither country benefits from tit-for-tat policies, and that prudence dictates that we can and should ultimately become friends. This general consensus stems from the fact that the framework of foreign policy in the Islamic Republic is not based upon the wishes of one person or one branch of power, but on the collective view among various strands of power. At the end of the consensus-building process, the supreme leader must authorize it. Except in very few cases, the leader has always approved of the decisions made by the Supreme National Security Council. Thus, it can be argued that however extremely guarded he may be of America’s real intentions toward Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is also inclined to put an end to the long spiral of animosity.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as president in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, was the first to embark on normalizing Tehran’s relations with Washington. During his presidency from 1989 to 1997, Iran invited an American oil firm, Conoco Inc., to take part in the development of the Siri oil field project and offered Washington cooperation in areas such as terrorism and drug trafficking. However, without exception, all of the approaches were rebuffed by the United States.

America’s unwillingness to ease tensions continued under President Mohammad Khatami, who publicly called for a “Dialogue Among Civilizations” to improve relations with the West. The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon occurred during the Khatami presidency; in contrast with other nations in the Middle East formally allied with the United States, the Iranian people as well as the Iranian government were among the first to offer condolences to the American people and their government.

Even before 9/11, a round of talks was held between Iranian and American officials to address issues of mutual concern as well as bilateral matters. After 9/11, Iran played a substantial role in the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan by assisting the United States with logistical and military support, as well as intelligence. In response, President George W. Bush declared Iran to be part of an “axis of evil” (along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea)—a move that effectively scuttled any path to détente.

The pragmatism of President Rafsanjani and moderation of President Khatami exhausted Iran’s diplomatic approaches to mend ties with the United States. It became clear that Washington was simply not inclined to normalize its relations with Tehran. In Iran, the political road had thus been paved for the emergence of a more conservative Iranian leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, even President Ahmadinejad was not completely opposed to improved relations. In 2006, he penned an eighteen-page letter to President Bush that raised issues from the history of grievances between the two countries to American support for Israel. Regardless of the content of the letter, it was an unprecedented gesture by an Iranian leader, the first of its kind since the 1979 revolution. President Ahmadinejad also congratulated Barack Obama on his election in 2008, yet another surprising and positive outreach to the American leadership from a conservative and principlist Iranian president.

Nonetheless, under President Obama the United States ratcheted up pressure on Iran by orchestrating an international consensus, sometimes through arm-twisting, to impose crippling sanctions on Iran. In her 2014 book Hard Choices, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of her “pride” after the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1929 against Iran. The move came amid growing pressure on the administration from Congress, Israel, and pro-Israel lobby groups. Since the mid-1990s Israel has been pushing Washington to pursue a harsh policy toward Iran. In July 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech to a joint session of Congress where he stated that “time is running out” for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and called for immediate and effective prevention. The most recent American-led sanctions not only target Iran’s oil industry, financial transactions, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and arms sales, but they also make it almost impossible for Iranians to purchase goods such as medicines and medical equipment. The sanctions policy, which is intended to dissuade Iran from developing its nuclear program, has been mainly targeting the lives of ordinary Iranians rather than the nuclear program. Clear testament is the substantial increase despite sanctions in the size of Iran’s enrichment capacity over the past decade from roughly 200 centrifuges to more than 20,000 centrifuges.

The American approach to Iran has been predicated upon engagement and pressure. Therefore, positive overtures toward Iran are perceived by Iranians with suspicion. Hillary Clinton states very clearly that during her term as secretary of state the policy of engagement “would open our hand in seeking tougher sanctions on Iran.” Ayatollah Khamenei believes that the United States is intent on toppling the Islamic Republic, citing American support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion, covert operations against Iran, open backing for anti-regime groups, denial of Iran’s right to peaceful enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and paralyzing economic sanctions. The declaration that “all options are on the table,” used by various American administrations, is insulting language that exacerbates the shortage of confidence on the Iranian side.

Since the start of President Obama’s second term, though, a change in American policy toward Iran has been evident. A change in tone appeared in the remarks of President Obama in the UN General Assembly, where he shed light on the mutual mistrust between the two countries and the need to resolve years of animosity through diplomatic means. In an unprecedented move, President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani spoke over the phone after the latter’s election in 2013. There have also been meaningful high-ranking talks between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his American counterpart, John Kerry, over the nuclear program; such talks were hard to envisage only three years ago. Since President Rouhani took office, there have been a number of substantive and constructive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program that resulted in an interim deal called the Joint Plan of Action in November 2014 and an outline agreement for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in April 2015.

Should the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program be resolved, it will certainly prepare ground for cooperation between Iran and the United States. The two countries have common interests in the Middle East: combating drug trafficking, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, containing and ultimately eradicating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and putting an end to the Syrian civil war. Thus, a comprehensive resolution based upon mutual respect over Iran’s nuclear program could be a promising first step in further Iranian-American cooperation and could pave the way for a paradigm shift in relations.

Arab Suspicion
Arab attitudes toward the United States are grounded to a large extent in U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an old wound in the relations between the Arab World and the United States. The peace plan supported by both would have at its core a two-state solution—one state for the Palestinians and one for the Israelis—has long lost its viability. The 1967 borders that have internationally been recognized as the basis for the fruition of a two-state solution are no longer accessible given the mass construction of Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders and on the territory of the future Palestinian state. The number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories has risen from 200,000 in 1991 to roughly 600,000 today. The Arab Peace Initiative that was suggested by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia in 2002, which was endorsed by the entire Arab World, does not have any applicability given the settlement issue and Israel’s rejection of any compromise. Benjamin Netanyahu, who on numerous occasions stated his commitment to the two-state solution, ruled out the possibility of a Palestinian state in the days before the 2015 Israeli election. Furthermore, the American policy of not recognizing Palestinian statehood is itself humiliating to the Arabs and a source of contention between the Arab World and the United States.

Iraq proved to be another area of serious friction for U.S.-Arab relations. Although several Arab states had joined the U.S.-led coalition to eject Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait in 1991, many Arab governments were uncomfortable with the Iraqi human suffering that resulted from severe American sanctions following the conflict. Prior to the American-led invasion of 2003, Iraq still constituted a potential security threat to its Arab neighbors. However, unlike the case in 1991, U.S. war plans ignored the considerations of Arab countries and left them uneasy and humiliated.

America’s policy toward Iran is one of the main Arab grievances against Washington. Many Arab countries perceived and continue to perceive that the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan paved the way for the steady rise of Iran’s influence in the region at their expense. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal put it this way: “Several years ago, we fought a war with the United States and Saudi Arabia in order to save Iraq from the occupation of Iran. Now it seems that Iran is being handed over Iraq on a golden platter.”

It should be pointed out that the Arab concerns about Iran come against the backdrop of Iran’s repeated calls for the consolidation of security and stability in the region. Nonetheless, some GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia have sought and failed to win an even stronger Western stance against Iran. Saudi Arabia was unable to convince Washington to launch a military strike on the Islamic Republic. The truth is that Iran’s rich history, civilization, human resources, and strategic energy resources are the reasons that Iran has managed to resist pressures from the United States and its Arab allies. But now that Iran possesses substantial influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and to a lesser extent Yemen, the Arabs blame the United States for Iran’s rising influence.

The nuclear talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) are another factor in Arab suspicion toward the United States. The Arab concern is primarily predicated on the assumption that any resolution to Iran’s nuclear program would enhance Iran’s position in the region vis-à-vis its neighbors. The Arabs fear that Iranian-American détente may lead to an American departure from the region that would be detrimental to their national interests and security. The main concern of the Saudis and other monarchies may be the potential political upheaval that could follow such a strategic realignment in the Persian Gulf. A Rand Corporation report in 2009 noted that “Saudi Arabia has tried to paint Iran as a cultural and ideological aberration from the rest of the region, and the most expeditious means of doing this has been to cast the Islamic Republic’s Shi’a/Persian ambitions as a threat to Sunnis everywhere.”

Another area of concern for Arabs is America’s response to the political upheaval of the so-called Arab Spring that swept the region starting in 2010. The United States called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, supported the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, and threatened to cut off military aid after a coup brought Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to power. Prince Saud laid out Saudi uneasiness about this: “Concerning those who announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or threatening to stop them, the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will provide a helping hand to Egypt.” The Saudis and other monarchs in the Persian Gulf are highly concerned by the potential rise of Islamist ideologies and organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood. It could embolden the disenfranchised segments of these societies to embark on violent actions against their governments. Therefore any successful political change in any of the Arab countries of the Middle East can potentially ignite major political challenges to the Gulf monarchies as well. It could be argued that Mohammed Morsi’s ouster and Saudi support for El-Sisi were partly triggered by Morsi’s inclination to normalize Egyptian relations with Iran, which had been suspended since 1979.

Bahrain is another area of contention. The United States has a strong interest in preserving the security of Bahrain, as the country hosts the United States Fifth Fleet. However, Bahraini officials seem to be grappling with the assumption that Washington is covertly colluding with the Shia opposition leaders who might share ideological and religious affinity with Iran. The Bahraini government has accused Iran of meddling in the domestic affairs of Bahrain by supporting the Shia-dominated opposition groups (an accusation rejected by Iran). Last year, a senior U.S. diplomat was expelled from Bahrain for meeting Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary-general of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, one of the opposition groups in Bahrain. However, given the importance of Bahrain to the U.S. military presence in the region, it seems unlikely that Washington would be willing to jeopardize its interests by weakening the Bahraini government.

Syria is another area where the United States has not acted according to the desires of its Arab allies in the region, who seek the ouster of President Bashar Al-Assad. In spite of immense pressure from the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates, as well as Turkey, Washington did not intervene in Syria to overthrow the Al-Assad government. The United States has launched aerial bombardments in Syria against ISIS, but it seems increasingly logical to assume that the Obama administration might find it necessary to cooperate with the Al-Assad government in fighting ISIS more in line with the Iranian strategy in Syria. This will certainly be another blow to the already tense American-Arab relations.

The menace that has engulfed Syria and Iraq is to a large extent due to logistical and financial support given to various extremist groups by a number of Arab countries as well as Turkey. Although denied by the heads of these states, Vice President Joe Biden noted the role of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey in creating the quagmire. “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria,” Biden said. “They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra [Front] and Al-Qaeda.” Had it not been for the support that ISIS has received, it would have been impossible for it to destabilize the region to the extent it has done this far. Ironically, all the countries that either directly or indirectly helped ISIS to come into being joined the United States in a coalition to fight ISIS through air strikes. Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, termed it the “coalition of repenters.”

It should be recalled that the quagmire is partly due to shortsighted American foreign policy toward the region. The chaos and disorder that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq created fertile ground for Sunni radicals such as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi to pursue the most extreme brutality and terror. Al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian terrorist who set up the forerunner to ISIS: Jamaat Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad (Party of Monotheism and Jihad) made up mostly of non-Iraqis.

The threat now posed by ISIS has brought the United States and Iran closer together, which might well result in even more uneasiness for Arab countries. The late Saudi King Abdullah told John Kerry that if the Iranians were invited to join the coalition against ISIS, Saudi Arabia would boycott the talks. Obviously Iran as a country that possesses tremendous influence in Syria and Iraq can play a major role in the fight against ISIS—indeed it is a role that Iran has already been playing in collaboration with the governments in Baghdad and Damascus.

Toward a Master Plan
The Middle East is in dire need of cooperation on issues of long-term interest to the stability and well-being of the whole region. The Arab Spring has resulted in political instability in many countries, while extremist and terrorist groups have wreaked havoc across the region. It is imperative for Middle Eastern countries to work collaboratively in order to tackle these region-wide challenges.

The United States faces lack of trust from Iran and suspicion from its Arab allies. America’s oil-centered involvement in the Middle East is becoming less strategically important as the United States moves toward becoming the leading exporter of oil and gas. As a result, the Arabs are losing their oil leverage with Washington and are resorting to suicidal strategies to destabilize the region, by funding various extremist groups, in hopes that it would compel America to stay involved.

America’s increased involvement in the Middle East is inevitable as a result of the expansion of ISIS and other terrorist groups. This heightened involvement could result in positive outcomes if it is calculated carefully. The United States should come to the realization that its military might is not capable of bringing about peace in the Middle East. As Chas W. Freeman Jr. argued in his bookAmerica’s Misadventures in the Middle East, “How do we propose to manage the contradiction between our desire to assure the stability of the Persian Gulf and the fact that our presence in it is inherently destabilizing?” However, U.S. military superiority could be applied positively and used to support regional governments to fight terrorism in the region. Washington’s efforts toward a regional cooperation system in the Persian Gulf (akin to that of the European Union) would fill the vacuum caused by an eventual U.S. departure and assuage Arab fears of a resurgent Iran. President Rouhani, in his 2014 address to the UN General Assembly, pointed out, “The right solution to this quandary comes from within the region and regionally provided solutions with international support and not from outside the region.”

The United States needs to abandon its foreign policy approach of alienating Iran and recognize Iran’s power and potential in the region. Iran, in return, as a regional power should engage with neighbors such as Saudi Arabia to tackle regional issues. As it did in the 1990s, Iran should once again embark on a policy of good relations with its Arab neighbors. Normalization of relations between Iran and Egypt would be of utmost importance. In 2007, President Rouhani, in his previous capacity as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, proposed the establishment of a regional cooperation system between Iran and the GCC. His ten-point initiative encompassed an array of issues of mutual concern. The initiative proposed the establishment of a Persian Gulf security and cooperation organization between Iran, Iraq, and the GCC; facilitation of cultural, economic, and political cooperation; plans to ensure the security of energy supply and production; cooperation on nuclear-related issues and establishment of a region free of WMD; and finally paving the way for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the region.

Regional cooperation faces serious challenges, however. For some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the proverb the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” justifies its Israel-like policy toward nuclear talks with Iran. The Kingdom has persistently been involved in sabotaging the talks by hinting that international endorsement of Iran’s nuclear program would trigger a nuclear proliferation race in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s former Director General of the General Intelligence Directorate Prince Turki Al-Faisal stated in an interview with BBC, “ending fear of developing weapons of mass destruction is not going to be the end of the troubles we’re having with Iran.” The Saudis now perceive themselves to be entangled in an Iranian-dominated Middle East that straddles Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The Saudis, thus, feeling alienated by its oldest ally, the United States, has recently been engaged in forging a bloc against Iran’s growing power in the region.

Iran can commit itself in reaching security, political, and economic agreements with its neighbors, particularly with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt to restore security and stability in the region. This would be to the benefit of the region, the United States, and the entire world. As an influential player in the Middle East, the United States should restore the confidence of its Arab allies, gain the confidence of Iran, and help provide a foundation for collaboration among regional countries to eradicate terrorism. The United States and the regional powers need to engage other great powers such as Russia, China, and the European Union to realize such a master plan.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He previously served as Iranian ambassador to Germany (1990−97) and spokesman for Iran’s team in nuclear negotiations with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (2003–05). From 2005 to 2007, he served as foreign policy advisor to Ali Larijani, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator. Mousavian was head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council from 1997 to 2005. His latest book is Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.

Mehrdad Saberi is a student at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC and the founder of the Iranian Student Club at the university.

The United States and Palestine

As with many other unresolved issues in the modern Middle East, it was Great Britain rather than the United States that initially created the problem of Palestine. But in Palestine, as elsewhere, it has been the lot of the United States, Britain’s successor as undisputed hegemon over the region, to contend with the complications engendered by British policy. And as elsewhere in the Middle East, in the end the United States significantly exacerbated the conflict over Palestine that it inherited from Britain. The outlines of the problem can be simply stated: with the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, Great Britain threw the weight of the greatest power of the age, one which was at that moment in the process of conquering Palestine, behind the creation of a Jewish state in what was then an overwhelmingly Arab country, against the wishes of its inhabitants.¹ Everything that has followed until this day in that conflict-riven land has flowed inevitably from this basic decision.

Woodrow Wilson was the first American president to support Zionism publicly, and his backing was crucial to the awarding of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine to Britain. This in turn led to the inclusion of the text of the Balfour Declaration in the terms of the Mandate, committing the entire international community of that era to the establishment of a “Jewish national home.” Wilson extended the United States’ support to Zionism in spite of the results of the American King-Crane Commission, which discovered the majority Arab population of Palestine to be overwhelmingly opposed to the establishment of a Jewish national home—which they rightly feared would inexorably develop into an exclusively Jewish state in their homeland and at their expense.

Although the United States withdrew from active involvement in the League of Nations and from many other aspects of international politics soon afterwards, the impact on Palestine of these key post-World War I decisions in which the United States played a crucial role was to be lasting. Under the protection of the British Mandate, and with its invaluable support, and with financing which largely came from contributions raised from American donors,² by 1939 the Zionist movement had created the nucleus of a viable, independent Jewish state. This American financing, from private and later governmental sources in the form of economic and military assistance, has been crucial to the success of the Zionist project and the state of Israel from the very beginnings and until the present day.

It was thus in keeping with what was to become an American tradition that a few decades after Wilson’s original intervention, at another critical moment for the fortunes of the Palestinians and the Zionist cause, President Harry S. Truman overrode the views of most of his foreign policy advisors on the Palestine issue. He did so to decisive effect in supporting the Zionist movement when it came into confrontation with the British in 1946 over the issue of opening the doors of Palestine to immigration for Jewish displaced persons in Europe; in supporting a 1947 United Nations plan for the partition of Palestine that was exceedingly favorable to the Zionists;³ and in extending American recognition to the new Jewish state immediately after it declared its independence on May 15, 1948. Justifying his position, Truman famously remarked: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have any hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”⁴

This sums up one aspect of the conundrum of American power as it has affected the Palestinians. Unable to appeal to the Bible for justification (although many of them are Christians), as could the Zionists, unable to claim that they had strategic value to the United States, as Israel was able to do, especially during the Cold War, and unable to marshal a powerful lobby to support them domestically, as Israel has been exemplary in doing, the Palestinians have consistently failed to gain a fair hearing for their cause in the United States. Their failure was partly a function of the continuing ignorance of the Palestinians’ political leadership, from the 1940s until the present day, of how American politics worked, and their inability to make a persuasive case to American public opinion or politicians. It was also a function of the political ineffectiveness of a relatively small and largely first-generation Arab-American immigrant community that is only today beginning to make an impact on the American political system. The task of both Palestinians and Arab-Americans was made all the harder by the fact that they were up against a vivid narrative rooted in Biblical themes familiar to most Americans, and which took on added poignancy from the 1940s onward from the terrible, recent memory of the Holocaust.

For decades the way in which the United States has treated the Palestine question has had a powerful and enduring impact on how America was regarded by Middle Eastern public opinion. Most Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims, as well as increasing numbers of others in the rest of the world, have come to regard the consistently negative attitude of the United States government towards the Palestinians as an important standard by which the United States should be judged as a great power. By the same token, it must be admitted that over its many decades of unstinting and generous support for Israel, the United States has been remarkably successful in persuading most Arab governments that, all appearances notwithstanding, it was not completely biased in favor of Israel, or even if it was biased, that they should simply ignore this fact.

In recent years, as American policy has increasingly converged with that of Israel, this process of persuasion has grown more difficult for United States policymakers. Absent such persuasion, there have been increasing internal difficulties for Arab governments perceived by their own public opinion to be supine before a United States totally biased in favor of Israel. Moreover, in the wake of the murderous suicide attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington, the convergence between the policies of the George W. Bush administration and the Ariel Sharon government in Israel reached the point that they were virtually indistinguishable in a number of realms, notably as regards what had become their shared rhetoric on the topic of “terrorism.” Palestinian militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad were lumped together with Al-Qaeda in the statements of the Bush administration and the Israeli government, and this approach has since become enshrined in American laws on terrorism.

It remains to be seen how much of an impact this American-Israeli convergence and the identification of the United States with Israel will have on the standing of the United States with public opinion in the Middle East, or with regional governments, or on these governments’ standing with their own peoples. For most people in the Middle East insist on distinguishing between groups like Al-Qaeda, and what they see as legitimate Palestinian resistance to occupation. Even if they morally disapprove of the targeting of Israeli civilians, as many (but certainly not all) do, most believe that Palestinian violence against Israelis can only be understood in context. This context includes the expulsion of most of the Palestinian population from their homes in 1948, and the intense, systematic violence against Palestinian civilians of Israel’s occupation regime, which has been in place since 1967. Middle Easterners understand, as most Americans do not, for example, that while civilians constituted a majority of the 1,000 Israelis killed in the second intifada, they also were a large majority of the over 4,500 Palestinians killed. In view of the United States government’s almost exclusive focus on Palestinian violence directed against Israeli civilians, the perception among Middle Easterners that the United States cares about innocents only if they are Americans or Israelis, and pays no attention to them if they are Palestinians or Arabs, is hard to efface. In the eyes of many in the Middle East, it appears that some civilian lives have much more value than others in U.S. policy.

It has not always been thus. Indeed, during most of the 1950s and into the 1960s under the Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy administrations the American position on Arab-Israeli issues was relatively balanced, in spite of a deep American popular sympathy for Israel. Nevertheless, in addition to forcing Israel out of Sinai, during the 1950s the United States also repeatedly voted in the UN Security Council to condemn Israel for its savage reprisals, such as the October 1953 raid on Qibya in the West Bank, to avenge the killing of three Israeli civilians. In this raid, fifty-four Palestinian civilians were killed when they were pinned inside their homes with gunfire, after which soldiers of the infamous Unit 101, commanded by Ariel Sharon, dynamited dozens of structures over the heads of the victims. Indeed, until the mid-1960s, while the United States was always a dedicated ally of Israel, it certainly acted more even-handedly in the conflict than it has ever since then.

Through the mid-1950s there were in fact repeated initiatives to resolve the nascent Arab-Israeli conflict, mainly by the United States, but also by other mediators, on the basis of territorial compromise and the return of some of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who were driven from or fled their homes in 1948. The principle of peace with Israel on the basis of these ideas was accepted at different times by several Arab governments, but was rejected by Israel, largely because of the refusal of Israel’s first prime minister. David Ben Gurion and his followers, such as Moshe Dayan, disagreed with a minority of Israeli leaders like Moshe Sharett in considering a large, strong Israel more important than peace on these terms. Notwithstanding these realities, which were soon forgotten by American public opinion, if it ever properly registered them, it was the Arabs alone who got a reputation as rejectionists when they refused compromise with Israel in the late 1960s. The United States, although it had advocated such a compromise in the 1950s, allowed the matter to drop when it was repeatedly rejected by Israel. This eventually constituted another pattern in U.S. policy: giving up on American initiatives when Israel raised objections.

Cold War Considerations
Although from the outset the United States government provided Israel with considerable economic assistance (in addition to generous tax-exempt private donations), that aid did not become significant until the late 1960s, and only jumped to astronomical levels beginning in 1973. Starting in that year, U.S. military and economic aid to Israel went over a billion dollars annually, putting Israel ahead of all other American aid recipients. It has remained there ever since, with current annual aid levels well over $3 billion. Moreover, the United States did not sell Israel significant quantities or the most modern kinds of arms until the 1960s, when Kennedy decided to provide the Jewish state with Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and President Lyndon B. Johnson thereafter agreed to sell Israel Skyhawk fighter-bombers. Neither, however, was a top-of-the-line offensive weapon (the first of these, F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, were first delivered to Israel in 1969, at the height of the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal). From the early 1950s until the 1967 war it was France rather than the United States that furnished the key weapons systems to the potent Israeli arsenal, as well as providing the wherewithal for the building of the Dimona nuclear reactor, which thereafter enabled Israel to transform itself into a significant nuclear-armed power. The United States was thus not the foremost military or diplomatic backer of Israel until after 1967. It was the super-imposition of Cold War rivalries on the Arab-Israeli conflict that revolutionized both the conflict and American relations with the entire region.

The Cold War had entered the Middle East much earlier, indeed from its very beginning, with the immediate post-World War II crises between the Soviet Union and Iran and Turkey leading eventually to the issuance of the Truman Doctrine in 1947. However, at the outset the Cold War mainly affected the region’s non-Arab peripheries bordering on the Soviet Union. It was not until the mid-1960s that Egypt and Syria, the leading Arab states surrounding Israel, became increasingly identified with the Soviet Union as a result of their need for large quantities of weapons in light of their repeated military defeats by Israel. Thereafter, the United States began to offer significant military, and later economic, assistance to the Jewish state.

The deepening American involvement in Vietnam in the late 1960s contributed to the imposition of Cold War patterns on the Middle East, as American policymakers came to see the alignment with the Soviet Union of several Arab states, notably Egypt and Syria, through Cold War lenses. Especially after it routed the Arabs in 1967, and as the war in Vietnam turned uglier, a potent Israel came to be attractive to the United States as a proxy stick with which to beat Soviet clients in the Middle East. Ironically, there is much evidence that most of the leading Arab states were not interested in confrontation with Israel before 1967. It is now known that they were dragged into such a confrontation during the spring of that year by attacks on Israel by Palestinian groups based in Syria and the zeal of the radical neo-Baath regime in power in Damascus.⁵ They thereafter were incapable of escaping this confrontation after Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1967. Once the Arab states and Israel, and their respective super-power patrons, had been thus involved, there was no getting out of the rigid symmetries imposed by the Cold War.

This began what might be called the classic phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict, one that concluded only with the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. This phase encompassed the 1967 war, the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal ending in 1970, the 1973 war, and the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon. The Arab parties engaged in the conflict, notably Egypt and Syria, the newly established Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as well as Iraq and Algeria, were seen as aligned with the Soviet Union, which was perceived as calling the shots. This idea of Soviet manipulation of the Arabs was false in every respect,⁶ but it was the product of an era of distorted perceptions when American policymakers saw Vietnam and China as proxies of the Soviet Union. The Soviets posed as the disinterested and generous patrons of the Arabs, although there was much evidence of deep and bitter rifts between the two sides over the rigid limitations the Soviet Union placed on its military and economic support, out of fear of being dragged into uncontrollable confrontations with the United States by what Moscow saw as irresponsible Arab governments.

Although the United States backed a broad range of Middle Eastern states, including Iran, Turkey, and several Arab countries, its support for Israel from the late 1960s onwards was increasingly both quantitatively and qualitatively different from that it extended to any other country in the Middle East, or indeed elsewhere. U.S. aid to Israel came to include advanced weapons systems no other client or ally, even NATO partners, received.

By 1970, at the height of the War of Attrition, the conflict had grown much more intense, with an increasingly salient role for the superpowers. As U.S.-supplied Israeli F-4 Phantoms bombed targets deeper and deeper inside Egypt, Israeli pilots were shooting down the most advanced interceptors in the Soviet arsenal, Egyptian MiG-21Js, flown by Soviet pilots, while 20,000 Soviet military personnel were stationed in Egypt in advisory and combat roles. Soviet-supplied SAM-2 and SAM-3 anti-aircraft missiles were being installed closer and closer to the Suez Canal, threatening to establish a no-fly zone for Israeli planes over Israeli positions on the east side of the canal. Losses of men and material among both Egyptian and Israeli forces were increasingly heavy. Finally, by August 1970, the number of Israeli F-4 Phantoms shot down by Egyptian anti-aircraft guns and missiles became greater than the United States’ ability to replace them, given how stretched production of these cutting-edge aircraft was due to the Vietnam War. At this stage, the United States made a determined effort to lower the level of violence: Secretary of State William Rogers managed to obtain a ceasefire along the canal, which lasted for three years, although the political element of the Rogers Plan, involving negotiations between Egypt and Israel, became a dead letter because Israel refused to enter into serious negotiations.

The end result was a temporary calming of Israel’s Egyptian front, at the expense of an explosion on the eastern front, for the Rogers Plan provoked fierce divisions between the Arab parties that accepted it, Egypt and Jordan, on the one hand, and the Arab parties that rejected it, Syria, Iraq, and the PLO. In the end, the fractious PLO paid the highest price for its rejection, being eliminated from Jordan by the Jordanian army in a series of campaigns beginning with the bloody Black September fighting in Amman in 1970 and continuing until the battles in Jarash and the north in the spring of 1971. A coup in Syria in November 1970 led by Hafez Al-Assad against the wing of the Syrian Baath Party that had most strongly supported the Palestinians, and the elimination thereafter by Ahmad Hassan Bakr and Saddam Hussein of those Iraqi Baathist leaders most sympathetic to the Palestinians left them in a weak position, isolated in Lebanon, and without significant Arab government support. The PLO had nevertheless succeeded in reestablishing Palestinian nationalism, which had been in eclipse since the 1948 war, as a regional force to be reckoned with.

Until this point, the United States had ignored the Palestinians, focusing instead on its relations with the Arab states, and preeminently on its rivalry with the USSR. The United States at best engaged in conflict management in the Arab-Israeli conflict, as in its interventions of 1956 and 1970, which both reestablished the status quo ante bellum, or pursued a policy of benign neglect, as in 1967, when it gave what amounted to a covert green light to Israel’s preemptive attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.⁷ Henry Kissinger, who soon after 1970 had taken control of American Middle East policy, pursued the benign neglect approach until the 1973 war.⁸ Only then did the Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israeli forces in the occupied Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights oblige him to devote his attention to the Middle East, although he assiduously ignored the Palestine problem. Once again, the solution chosen was to focus primarily on obtaining strategic advantage vis-à-vis the USSR rather than peacemaking per se. The main American aim was to win Egypt into the American camp and away from the Soviet one, while separating Egypt from its Soviet-aligned Arab allies via a separate peace with Israel. Kissinger largely achieved this objective with a series of disengagement accords that ultimately, under the Carter administration, led to the Camp David agreement and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979.

The secretary of state meanwhile paid the minimum of attention necessary to the Syrian-Israeli front, where the post-1973 crisis was defused by a disengagement accord that is still in force over forty years later. Throughout, Kissinger generally disregarded Jordan and the Palestinians, having strongly supported the former against the latter during the fighting of 1970–71. President Jimmy Carter and his advisors eventually followed the same approach of disregarding the Palestinians, although this was not their initial intention. In 1977, Carter attempted to initiate comprehensive Middle East settlement negotiations involving the Soviet Union and all other parties and including the Palestinians, made a pioneering statement about the need for a Palestinian homeland, and initiated direct contacts with the PLO. Carter soon drew back from all of these initiatives, under intense pressure from an enraged Israeli government, backed by the powerful Israeli lobby. It was not U.S. policy, but rather Anwar Sadat’s initiative of traveling to Jerusalem, and his decision to accept a separate peace with Israel at the expense of his Arab allies and the Palestinians, that eventually led to Camp David and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979.

Coming of the Neoconservatives
The Ronald Reagan years saw an unprecedented American warming to Israel, with the rise in official positions of muscular nationalists like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and intensely pro-Israel neoconservative figures like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith. Under such influences, American benign neglect of the Palestinians became increasingly malignant, as the Reagan administration supported Israel’s 1982 war on the PLO and Lebanon and turned a blind eye to its aggressive settlement policies. This had become a critical issue beginning in 1977 with the advent to power in Israel of right-wing Likud governments, led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. In service of their ideology of a “Greater Eretz Israel,” these leaders were committed to keeping control of what they called “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank to the rest of the world). In order to make this a reality, they began a settlement building campaign to make sure this would happen that has never slowed significantly since then. This has brought the number of Israeli colonists in illegal settlements in the West Bank and occupied Arab East Jerusalem from 10,000 in 1977 to nearly 200,000 by the end of the 1980s. There are 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and occupied Arab East Jerusalem today, amounting to over one in ten Jewish Israelis.

Beyond this, the Reagan administration secretly gave a green light to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and its expulsion of the PLO from Beirut in 1982, and thereafter helped Israel to create a puppet Lebanese government that was brought to sign a short-lived peace treaty on Israeli terms.⁹ The only concrete result of this ill-fated foolish American initiative, besides the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut, was to alienate the overwhelming majority of Lebanese, and to provoke a series of lethal attacks on American Marines, diplomatic facilities, and academics in Beirut. Although Reagan’s last secretary of state, George Schultz, opened up direct, public contacts between the U.S. government and the PLO for the first time, after the Palestinians met a number of American conditions, in the end this initiative did little to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Toward the end of the Reagan years, in December 1987, the first Palestinian intifada erupted, producing a powerful positive effect on Israeli and American public opinion. It was partly in response to this unprecedented Palestinian popular upheaval that the George H. W. Bush administration launched the first serious multilateral effort to resolve the entire Arab-Israeli conflict in the wake of the U.S. war to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

Starting at Madrid in the fall of that year, Secretary of State James Baker managed an achievement unprecedented since the Balfour Declaration. This was to seat virtually all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and all the relevant international actors, around one table, albeit only for one short plenary meeting. Thereafter the proceedings broke up into bilateral negotiations in Washington, between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians, as well as multilateral sessions bringing in most Arab countries and several others. Bilateral Palestinian-Israeli negotiations went on in Washington for the next twenty some months, until June 1993. Unfortunately, the United States, acting under Israeli pressure, imposed ground rules for the functioning of these talks that were highly disadvantageous to the Palestinians. This nullified any advantages they had achieved through the United States including them for the first time in negotiations on their fate. These ground rules also affected the subsequent talks between the two sides that started secretly at Oslo in 1993 and resulted in the Oslo accords of that year.

Under these ground rules at Madrid and in Washington, the Palestinians were not allowed to choose their own representatives freely—thus no one associated with the PLO, from Jerusalem, or from the Palestinian diaspora could take part—and initially they were obliged to accept the fiction of a Jordanian-Palestinian joint delegation. More seriously, they were forced to accept what ended up being an indefinite deferment of the negotiation of all the most important “final status” issues: an end to occupation, sovereignty, statehood, final borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and water. And most significantly, all the Palestinians were allowed to negotiate with the Israelis, whether in Washington or later on during the Oslo talks, was an interim self-government accord, whose contours were almost identical to the “autonomy” proposals put forward by Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978.¹⁰ This process in the mid-1990s ultimately produced the Palestinian Authority (PA), which eventually obtained extremely limited control over less than 20 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, divided into dozens of small islands, all isolated from one another by swathes of Israeli-controlled territory and dozens of military checkpoints. These arrangements gave Israel ultimate authority over security, thereby enabling it to maintain full control of the occupied territories, which it retains until this day. Most importantly, all the while, Israel was able to continue expanding its illegal settlements and the strategic roads that connected them, a process which has never been interrupted, in spite of a “peace process” that has proceeded fitfully ever since then.

The highly respected head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid and Washington negotiations, Haidar Abdel Shafi, said that it was a grievous mistake for the Palestinians to continue to negotiate while Israel’s closure of Jerusalem to West Bankers and its unceasing expansion of its colonial settlement enterprise in the occupied territories continued devouring the very land that was supposed to be subject to negotiation. He added that the Palestinians should have withdrawn from the talks when the United States failed to insist that Israel respect the terms of reference for the entire Madrid process, and in particular when the Americans failed to honor the commitments contained in their Letter of Assurances to the Palestinians. This letter committed the United States to oppose any actions that were “prejudicial or precedential,” would “make negotiations more difficult or preempt their final outcome,” or that would “predetermine” final status options. Seeing the American failure to do anything about Israeli actions that contravened these basic guidelines, the entire Palestinian delegation agreed with the position of Abdel Shafi, only to be overruled by Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership.¹¹

Dishonest Brokers
The negotiations that started at Madrid went on fruitlessly for ten rounds in Washington. Eventually, after the election of Yitzhak Rabin at the head of a Labor government in 1992, Israel decided to start indirect, and later direct, back-channel negotiations with the PLO itself in Oslo and elsewhere. While this meant that a major Palestinian demand—direct negotiations with the PLO—had been met, it had an important downside. Now, the negotiations were no longer in the hands of an increasingly competent delegation of West Bankers and Gazans, with intimate knowledge about the situation under occupation, and with a popular constituency back home they had to report to periodically. This group over time had developed a level of expertise in negotiating with the Israelis—and with the American “dishonest brokers,” who were often harder to deal with than the Israelis themselves. Instead, the negotiations were now carried out in secret by a group of PLO officials chosen primarily for their loyalty to Arafat, with limited knowledge of English (the language of the negotiations), no legal background, no first-hand knowledge of the situation in the occupied territories, no negotiating experience with Israelis, and no direct knowledge of how the twenty months of Madrid and Washington discussions had gone.

These weaknesses of the Palestinian negotiating team were reflected in the disappointing terms for the Palestinians of the resulting Oslo accords, the basis for the Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, in the presence of Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, and President Bill Clinton. As fleshed out by a series of subsequent interim agreements, these accords eventually produced the misshapen map of scores of isolated islands of territory over which the newly established PA ruled, and the political, legal, and diplomatic strait-jacket within which the Palestinians have found themselves ever since.

While most people the world over naturally thought that peace had been achieved with the ceremony on the White House lawn in September 1993, for ordinary Palestinians the Oslo accords began a process that went downhill almost for the beginning. By the Oslo accords, the PLO formally recognized the state of Israel (it had in fact already done so once before, as part of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988). While Israel now formally recognized the PLO as representing the Palestinians, it did not formally recognize the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, self-determination, or sovereignty, or that they had the right to secure borders, or where those borders were. While in consequence of Oslo, Israel got acceptance and recognition from the the Arab World, and developed commercial or political or indirect relations with a majority of Arab countries, by contrast the Palestinians were forgotten by their many of supporters in the Arab World and elsewhere, who mistakenly thought they had finally achieved their national objectives.

Even more seriously, the lives of most Palestinians got considerably worse after Oslo. After having enjoyed virtually complete freedom of movement in Israel and the occupied territories for the first two decades of the occupation, following the Oslo accords and the creation of the PA, most Palestinians found themselves in a situation where their movement was more and more restricted by Israeli checkpoints, security barriers and “closures.” An extensive network of so-called “bypass roads” was built after the Oslo accords to connect Israeli settlements to one another and to Israel, together with a massive security barrier to wall off Israel and Jerusalem from the West Bank. These two developments had three devastating effects. Firstly, they cut off adjacent Palestinian areas from one another; secondly, they enabled Israel to separate more Palestinians from their lands, as most parts of the wall/barrier, and all the bypass roads, were built on Palestinian land inside the occupied territories; and thirdly they demonstrated to Palestinians that Israeli military occupation and the ever-expanding Israeli settlements were there to stay, and that their dreams of statehood and sovereignty were not going to be realized. Meanwhile, Palestinian GDP per capita declined and unemployment rose as labor flows were interrupted because the movement of Palestinians to work inside Israel was more and more restricted. On top of these problems created by Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli accords, the newly established Palestinian Authority proved unable to improve the situation of ordinary Palestinians. Over the years, angry mass dissatisfaction with declining standards of living and with the PA’s incompetence, inefficiency, corruption, and poor performance in negotiations with Israel grew in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to the point that the popularity even of the national leader, Yasser Arafat, began to suffer.

Soon after Oslo, negotiations between the two sides bogged down. When there still might have been a slim possibility of transforming the Oslo accords into a basis for independent Palestinian statehood, in the mid-1990s, American diplomacy failed to resolve the basic differences between Palestinians and Israelis. Instead of pressing for the immediate launching of conclusive “final status” negotiations to put a definitive end to Israeli occupation and settlement, the Clinton administration indulgently allowed the Israeli government to drag out the negotiation and implementation of further interim self-government accords. After endless rounds of fruitless negotiations, by 2000 the Palestinians were no nearer their objectives of ending Israel’s occupation and settlement of their land, and creating a viable, independent, sovereign Palestinian state. Indeed, many of them realized they were further away from it than they had been after the first intifada when negotiations started in 1991.

Not surprisingly in view of these results, despair and anger spread among ordinary Palestinians as their daily life grew harder, and the high hopes of the early 1990s evaporated. From here to the explosion of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 was but a very short step. This took place after the Clinton administration let most of its eight years in office go by without making any substantive effort to begin detailed negotiations on the “final status” issues between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Clinton’s Blunders
Although the president’s own advisors and the Palestinians had warned him that none of the extensive necessary preliminary groundwork had been done to prepare for a summit meeting, Clinton succumbed to the importuning of the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and convened Barak and Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, just four months before the 2000 presidential elections. Taking place with utterly inadequate preparation (normally top leaders only meet to finalize details of accords subordinates have largely worked out), the summit was doomed to fail, and duly did so. However, after Clinton having forced the Palestinians to attend a summit they argued had been insufficiently prepared for, and after he promised that he would not blame any party if it did not succeed, instead of Clinton and Barak sharing the responsibility for its failure both leaders wrongly placed all the blame on Arafat.

At Camp David, Barak had made a stingy take-it-or-leave-it offer to Arafat that was predictably rejected.¹² The offer, which would have divided the West Bank into three disconnected segments, and would have given Israel complete control over the borders of a “state” that would thereby have been much less than sovereign, was ludicrously described in the ensuing Israeli-American mythology as “generous.” As elections loomed in the United States and Israel, Barak obtusely seemed to be doing the work of the Israeli right wing parties for them by decrying Arafat for being “unwilling to make peace.” In fact, although Arafat showed little adroitness in responding imaginatively to Barak’s thoroughly unsatisfactory offer, the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators continued serious talks during the ensuing months.

Ironically, during several weeks of negotiations at the Egyptian resort of Taba in January 2001, senior Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, working from an improved version of the proposals discussed at Camp David that was put forward by Clinton in December 2000, made significant progress on many of the key issues. The two sides came very close to agreement on some questions, and somewhat narrowed the gap on others. But it was already far too late by this point: George W. Bush had already won the November 2000 elections; Barak had already lost his majority in the Knesset and was about to suffer a resounding defeat in the February 2001 elections to Sharon; and Arafat, who had won over 80 percent of the vote for the position of president of the PA in a reasonably fair election in 1996, had over five years lost the confidence of most Palestinians, with his popularity according to reliable polls declining to well below 30 percent. Most importantly, the much-tried patience of Palestinian public opinion had finally given out, and all that was necessary to ignite it was a spark. Once Ariel Sharon had provided that spark by his provocative visit to a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem accompanied by a huge phalanx of security personnel, demonstrations and confrontations with Israeli occupation troops soon gave way to the second intifada.

This intifada started as an unarmed, popular mass protest against Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al-Sharif, but this visit only provided the trigger. After nine years of disappointment with a negotiating process that had produced mainly negative results for most Palestinians, and which had delegitimized Yasser Arafat himself, as well as the PLO and the PA, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was primed for an explosion. When it took place, stone throwing by unarmed Palestinian youths was met for several weeks by Israeli lethal automatic weapons fire that killed as many as ten demonstrators a day, and maimed dozens. Little attention was paid in the American media to the horrendous casualties inflicted daily by Israeli troops on these unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in the weeks before the Israeli civilian casualties. In time, armed Palestinians joined haphazardly in the one-sided fighting, provoking and justifying an even higher level of organized Israeli repression against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, and making it possible to grossly misrepresent the conflict as one where two equal military forces were battling it out. This Israeli escalation in turn led Palestinian militant groups to launch attacks on Israeli civilians.

Israeli civilians only began becoming casualties, after the intifada had been raging for over five weeks, during which time Palestinian civilians had suffered horrendous losses. Thus, twenty Palestinians were killed on the first two days of violence at the end of September, and another 121 in October, almost all of them unarmed civilians, before the first Israeli civilian was killed by a Palestinian attack on November 2, 2000. There was thereafter scant mention in the U.S. media of the devastating impact of Israel’s use from the outset of battlefield weapons like tanks, missiles, helicopters, and fighter-bombers in heavily built-up Palestinian civilian areas. The second intifada was perceived in the United States and Israel as having resulted primarily in Israeli civilian victims of Palestinian suicide attacks in Israeli urban areas, while the extremely high Palestinian civilian casualty toll received little or no attention. In fact, over the course of the first three years of the intifada, the number of Palestinians killed and wounded (26,053) was nearly four times the number of Israelis (6,752). Not surprisingly, especially after the shock of the 9/11 attacks, which had disturbing but superficial similarities, this false image, assiduously cultivated by Israel and its backers, had a profound impact on the U.S. media, public opinion, Congress, and the administration.

Washington’s War on Terrorism
The dominant neoconservative elements in the George W. Bush administration, some of them having served earlier under Reagan, were already predisposed to accept a hard-line Likud analysis that said that Oslo was a mistake, Arafat was irredeemable, the PA was a nest of terrorists, and thus that overwhelming force was the only possible response. The logical conclusion to such a line of thinking was shared by the Bush administration and Sharon’s new Likud government in early 2001: given that in principle force was the only way to deal with terrorists, the Israeli army was fully justified in all that it did, even against the PA and Palestinian civilians. The ideological convergence over terrorism in the wake of 9/11 clinched the argument being made by these neocons, who called for enthusiastic support for the line of blind military repression coupled with an obstinate refusal to negotiate seriously that was followed by the Sharon government.

It was only after nearly three years of carnage in Palestine and Israel that had thus been tacitly sanctioned by the Bush administration, and in the aftermath of the capture of Baghdad in the spring of 2003, when Washington felt the need for some evidence to show the Arabs and the rest of the world that it was not totally hostile to Arabs and Muslims, that a change in policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict became manifest. This took the form of belated administration support for the “road-map” produced by senior representatives of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, the so-called “Quartet,” but mainly reflecting the views of its American drafters. Originally prepared for presentation in mid-2002, it was repeatedly delayed at the behest of the Sharon government. The Israeli government’s objective was to gain more time for its army to impose a military solution, in pursuit of the mirage of a “defeat” of the entire Palestinian people, via the imposition of draconian collective punishment on the whole population of more than four million people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

By 2003, however, something had changed. Both Palestinian militants and Sharon and the Israeli army high command were operating under new constraints. Public opinion on both sides was weary of the unending violence, and most could see that their own side’s violence had failed to bring their opponents to their knees: instead it had more strongly unified both peoples, and made them more resistant to making concessions. This was the environment in which it at last became possible for the Road Map to be formally put forward and accepted by both sides, initiating a three-month ceasefire.

The resulting lull was a function of all of these factors, as well as of the state of exhaustion on both sides. But this was no more than a temporary respite, since no progress was made thereafter, whether under George W. Bush or his successor Barack Obama, toward resolving the underlying issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Instead, during round after round of frustrating American-brokered negotiations during both administrations, based as always on Israeli preconditions and demands, thousands more hectares of Palestinian land were confiscated and hundreds of kilometers of settler-only roads were built. Meanwhile, the Israeli settler population in the occupied territories has tripled, from 200,000 when negotiations first began in 1991 to 600,000 today. In these circumstances, it was not surprising that there were repeated outbreaks of violence in the years that followed. These included massive Israeli attacks on Lebanon (which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice grotesquely called “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”) in 2006, and on Gaza in 2008, 2012, and 2014.

Beyond its whole-hearted support for Sharon’s repression of the second intifada and for Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Gaza, the Bush administration took one other major initiative regarding Palestine. This was the president’s endorsement of the Israeli position on two crucial aspects of the conflict via a letter to Sharon on April 14, 2004. In it Bush recognized Israel’s territorial aggrandizement and the permanence of major Israeli “settlement blocs” in the occupied territories, stressing the impossibility of “a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949” and the irreversibility of “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers.” The letter also endorsed the Israeli contention that Palestinian refugees cannot return to Israel proper.13 In taking these unprecedented positions, the Bush administration undermined a number of fundamental tenets of American Middle East policy ever since the occupation of 1967, including the principle, anchored in UN Security Council resolution 242 of that year, of “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

The presidency of Barack Obama has not thus far resulted in any major change in the bias of U.S. policy in favor of Israel. This is in spite of high hopes among many, and unfounded fears in Israel and among its supporters, that the new president would take new initiatives on Palestine. Like all of his predecessors going back to Jimmy Carter (except for George W. Bush), Obama recognized that the gross imbalance in its policy in favor of Israel harmed the United States and hindered the prospects of a resolution of the conflict. But like them, once faced with the determined opposition of an Israeli government backed by its formidable lobby in Washington, Obama eventually backed down. Thus, like many of his predecessors, he originally called for Israel to accept the 1949 armistice lines as the basis for its borders, and demanded a halt to Israeli settlement expansion while negotiations proceeded. Israel refused, and as usual paid no price for defying the wishes of the U.S. government. Neither systematic, routine Israeli violence against Palestinians under occupation—since 2000, over 1,400 Palestinian children aged 16 or under have been killed in the occupied territories, an average of two every week—nor massive Israeli assaults on Gaza in 2008–09, at the beginning of his presidency, and in July 2014, provoked condemnation from the Obama or his administration. Most importantly, the military aid that provided lethal weapons for suppression of the Palestinians, and the tax-free “charitable” donations to support the settlement project kept flowing, and the United States continued to defend Israel in international forums.

All of this has happened in spite of the beginnings of a profound shift in some sectors of American public opinion towards the Palestine question. Young people, especially university students and younger members of the American Jewish community, seem more open-minded and less biased than their predecessors, and campus activism in support of Palestine has increased over the past several years. Meanwhile major American churches, such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterians, and some foundations are more willing to consider sanctioning Israel for its violations of Palestinian rights, by supporting aspects of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Apparently unaffected by these shifts, like many of his predecessors Barack Obama has ended up engaging in conflict management in the Middle East, and in treating the Palestinians with malign neglect. In 2013–14, his secretary of state, John Kerry, undertook a futile round of diplomacy that in no way departed from the bankrupt and biased previous approach of American policymakers, based as always on Israeli desiderata. Kerry’s failure was followed by violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and then by a massive assault on Gaza. To achieve a serious transformation of the situation, however, much more is necessary than simply bringing a temporary halt to this spike of violence, or the next one after that. As long as Israeli settlements continue to expand, as long as the basic structure of the Israeli military occupation remains in place, as long as Israel refuses to allow the Palestinian people to enjoy self-determination and equal rights, and as long as the United States is not willing to impose a fixed timetable for Israel to halt these and other violations of international law, no progress towards a real settlement of the conflict over Palestine can take place. In the seventh year of the Obama administration, more than six decades since the United States inherited the British imperial mantle in the Middle East, and with it stewardship over the Palestine problem, there is no sign of such progress.

This essay was originally published in French in the collective work under the direction of Dominique Vidal, Palestine: le jeu des puissants, (Sindbad L-Actuel/Actes Sud—Institut des Etudes Palestiniennes [Beirut], Paris, 2014).

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. From October 1991 until June 1993, he served as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation during the Madrid and Washington Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. He is the author of seven books about the Middle East, most recently Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. HasUndermined Peace in the Middle East

  1. Over 92 percent of the population of Palestine was Arab at the end of World War I: see Justin McCarthy, The Population of Palestine: Population Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate (Columbia University Press, New York, 1990).

    2. For details, see Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948, 2nd ed. (Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987), Appendix V.

    3. Although the Jewish population was only 31 percent of the total, according to the UN partition plan, the Jewish state was to get 56 percent of the country, less than 7 percent of which was Jewish-owned at the time. Through conquest, Israel ended up controlling a total of 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine by the time of the 1949 armistices.

    4. William A. Eddy, F.D.R. Meets Ibn Sa’ud (American Friends of the Middle East, New York, 1954).

    5. See Rashid Khalidi, “The 1967 War and the Demise of Arab Nationalism: Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” in The June 1967 War: Origins and Consequences, eds. Wm. Roger Louis and Avi Shlaim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 264–284.

    6. This was demonstrated by Alvin Rubinstein, an American political scientist and a Cold War hawk, in Red Star on the Nile: the Soviet-Egyptian Influence Relationship since the June War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

    7. The relevant documents can be found in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–68, vol. 19, and in The Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1967, ed. Harriet Schwar (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004). They do not fully elucidate the “green light,” although they reveal much else. For the latest conclusions on the topic see the different chapters in The 1967 Arab-Israeli War, eds. Louis and Shlaim.

    8. The full extent of Kissinger’s neglect of this matter in the period leading up to the 1973 can now be examined on the basis of the public American diplomatic documents for the period: U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–76, vol. 25, and Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973, eds. Nina Howland, Craig Daigle, and Edward C. Keefer (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011).

    9. For details of new revelations in the regard from the Israel State Archives, see the new preface to R. Khalidi, Under Siege: P.L.O. Decision-making During the 1982 War, revised edition (New York: Columbia University Press, January 2014).

    10. For details, see R. Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), ch. 3.

    11. Ibid.

    12. For the best account of the Camp David fiasco of 2000, see Clayton Swisher, The Truth about Camp David: The Untold Story about the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process (New York: Nation Books, 2004). See also Charles Enderlin, Le rêve brisé: Histoire de l’échec du processus de paix au Proche-Orient, 1995-2002 (Paris: Fayard, 2002).

    13. For the text, see

After the Fall of Saigon

The Vietnam War or Second Indochina War—known in Vietnam as the American War—was one of the most destructive conflicts in history, and ended with a triumphant victory for Ho Chi Minh’s Communist forces and the most humiliating military defeat the United States has ever experienced. If a single image represents the historical drama, perhaps it is the one of the Huey helicopter evacuating American personnel and Vietnamese associates from a U.S. embassy building rooftop. Ho’s Communist forces and their southern allies in the National Liberation Front had succeeded in toppling the U.S.-backed southern government of the Republic of Vietnam, and driving American troops, numbering a half million at the peak of the war, out of the country. The conflict between 1955 and 1975 left more than two million Vietnamese dead, and some 58,000 American troops perished.

Outside Vietnam, it is sometimes forgotten that the United States had also been deeply involved in the First Indochina War from 1946 to 1954, and would also become involved in the Third Indochina War from 1979 to 1989. These three wars brought enormous physical, economic, social, and moral dislocation to Vietnam, and caused deep antagonism between the governments of Vietnam and the United States as well as polarization among the Vietnamese themselves.

Forty years after the Fall of Saigon it may seem surprising that the United States and Vietnam have not only reconciled but their bilateral relations are thriving in many respects. And the Vietnam-United States rapprochement has helped foster a growing reconciliation among bitter Vietnamese adversaries, too.

On September 2, 1945, before a half million people in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France four days after announcing the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Most of the country was behind Ho and his revolutionary government. Emperor Bao Dai had abdicated in favor of Ho and moved from Hue to Hanoi to serve as supreme advisor to Ho and his government for almost a year.

Vietnam had struggled for centuries against Chinese domination and, later, French colonialism. By the 1880s, France controlled Vietnam and created industries for the export of rubber, tobacco, coffee, tea, and other products. Ho Chi Minh, a Communist who had developed his political thinking in Paris and Moscow, led the Viet Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam. Its aim was to fight against French colonialism and, after France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany, against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam.

Vive La France!
Despite Ho’s declaration of independence (which seemed conspicuously modeled after the American Declaration of Independence), and the Viet Minh’s cooperation with U.S. forces against Japan during World War II, the United States (along with Great Britain) ferried French troops to Vietnam in late 1945 to re-establish French colonialism. A key factor was Washington’s desire after the liberation of France to shore up the government of Charles de Gaulle with the resources from the richest former French colony—and head off any chance of Communists coming to power in Paris.

Armed with American weapons and supported by British troops, the French re-conquest of Vietnam began with an attack on Saigon on September 22, 1945. Within a few years, the United States and France were framing the escalating conflict as a war against Communism. In 1949, Bao Dai became chief of state of the newly formed French-controlled State of Vietnam centered in Saigon. In March 1954, however, the Viet Minh guerrilla army mounted a spectacular offensive against the French fortification at Dien Bien Phu, handing France one of the worst defeats in military history. “Vive la France!” were the last words of the final radio transmission from the French headquarters as it was being overrun. The humiliation led to the collapse of the French colonial administration in Vietnam, the end of the French Indochinese Federation of which Vietnam was a part, and the rise of other anti-colonial movements against France elsewhere. Some 2,200 French troops were killed in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and another 6,500 were taken prisoner; some of those Prisoners of War (POWs) died in captivity. The First Indochina War resulted in the deaths of a half million Vietnamese—and about 35,000 French troops—and severe economic destruction and social dislocation.

This war formally ended in July 1954 with the Geneva Conference, which resulted in the Geneva Agreements and a Final Declaration. The agreements established a ceasefire demarcation line at the 17th parallel to separate Ho’s Viet Minh forces (the coalition of many anti-colonial groups) in the North from French and Vietnamese allied forces in the South. Article 14 detailed the provisions for political and administrative control in the two regrouping zones pending the general elections to reunify the country. The Final Declaration provided for a general election in July 1956 to reunify Vietnam.

To the Viet Minh, the Geneva Agreements represented an opportunity to win over the whole country through an election and finally secure Vietnam’s independence. The Viet Minh’s hopes were raised because a definite date for the election had been set forth in both a bilateral armistice agreement with France as well as in the Final Declaration, and also because of the publicly positive stance taken by the United States at the time.

The Geneva Agreements were signed by the DRV, France, Britain, the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Laos, and the People’s Republic of China, although not by the State of Vietnam or the United States. Yet the American chief representative at the negotiations, Under Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, a senior U.S. army general in World War II and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, issued a Unilateral Declaration indicating that the United States would abide by the accords. “In the case of nations now divided against their will,” Smith said, “we shall continue to seek to achieve unity through free elections, supervised by the United Nations to ensure that they are conducted fairly.”

However, because the Geneva Agreements met the essential political objectives of the DRV it became a bitter pill for the United States to swallow. According to “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense,” better known as the Pentagon Papers, “When, in August, papers were drawn up for the National Security Council, the Geneva Conference was evaluated as a major defeat for U.S. diplomacy and a potential disaster for American security interests in the Far East.” Various plans for direct American intervention in Vietnam to remedy the situation were proposed.  Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was quoted as saying that U.S. intervention had become possible because “we have a clean base there [in Indochina] now without the taint of colonialism. Dien Bien Phu was a blessing in disguise.”

Dulles was intent on preventing the advance of Communism, and feared the 1956 election would hand Ho’s Communists a decisive victory. Commentator Leo Cherne wrote in Look magazine at the time: “If elections were held today, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese would vote Communist. No more than eighteen months remain for us to complete the job of winning over the Vietnamese before they vote. What can we do?” President Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected various proposals for direct U.S. military intervention in Vietnam at that time; for example, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Arthur W. Radford advocated an expeditionary force for the Hanoi-Haiphong region. Earlier, during the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Radford, a determined anti-Communist and interventionist, had even suggested threating the Viet Minh with a tactical nuclear attack. But administration policymakers reached a “compromise” that involved setting up a “stable, independent government” in South Vietnam. This came to be known as the “Diem Solution”—the consolidation of Ngo Dinh Diem in power in Saigon, a decision that would precipitate the Second Indochina War.

A Quasi-Police State
Diem, previously Bao Dai’s prime minister, was a Roman Catholic politician known for being a fierce anti-Communist. With American backing in 1955 he deposed Bao Dai, declared himself president, and announced the formation of the Republic of Vietnam south of the 17th parallel. After the Geneva Conference, the United States took a number of steps in direct violation of the Geneva Agreements to strengthen Diem as a bulwark in the Cold War against Communism. Major General Edward Lansdale led a propaganda fear campaign encouraging Roman Catholics to flee from the North into Diem’s republic; as many as one million northerners arrived, many ferried by sea in what the U.S. Navy called Operation Passage to Freedom, bolstering Diem’s shaky base of support in a largely Buddhist country. The United States launched efforts to build up Diem’s army, which was stepping up repression as well as pacification in the rural areas.

As early as October 1954, the United States authorized a crash program to aid Diem costing several hundred million dollars annually, beginning with the consolidation of all Vietnamese troops in the French Union forces under Vietnamese command. In November of that year, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered a prompt reassignment of selected personnel and units to maintain “the security of the legal government in Saigon and other major population centers,” to execute “regional security operations in each province,” and to perform “territorial pacification missions,” according to the Pentagon Papers.

The aim of these operations was to destroy the revolutionary infrastructures in the countryside and to terrorize the population into submitting to the Saigon administration. In mid-1955, soon after the last Viet Minh units had regrouped to the North under the Geneva Agreements, the Diem regime launched a nationwide “Communist Denunciation Campaign” in which the population was forced to inform on revolutionaries and their sympathizers. In May 1956, the Saigon regime officially announced that more than 100,000 former Viet Minh cadres had “rallied to the government” or surrendered. Tens of thousands of others had been jailed, executed, or sent to “re-education camps.” Many of these people had been innocent civilians who had simply voiced their dissatisfaction with Diem’s “land reform” program that in effect sent landlords back into the countryside to reclaim lands the revolution had parceled out to the peasants during the resistance against the French. As American foreign policy analyst William Henderson wrote in the January 1957 issue of Foreign Affairs: “South Vietnam is today a quasi-police state characterized by arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, strict censorship of the press, and the absence of an effective political opposition. All techniques of political and psychological warfare, as well as pacification campaigns involving extensive military operations, have been brought to bear against the underground.”

For their part, DRV leaders in Hanoi sought to restrain their cadres in the South, hoping that the general election and other stipulations of the Geneva Agreements could still be carried out. But Diem blocked the election, arguing that his government was not a signatory to the Geneva Agreements and thus was not bound by them. In an overall assessment of the war issued in 1995, the Vietnamese Communist Party said that the lack of a resistance strategy led to steep setbacks in the South during this time. To avoid losing influence over the southern revolutionary movement, in 1960 Hanoi sanctioned the establishment of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam—usually referred to as the National Liberation Front (NLF)—representing twenty political, social, religious, and ethnic groups, all modeled on the Viet Minh movement that had fought French colonialism. The front’s program called for the overthrow of the Diem administration, liquidation of all foreign interference, human rights and democratic freedoms, a “land to the tiller” policy, an independent economy, the establishment of a national coalition government, a foreign policy of peace and neutrality, and peaceful reunification of the country. In 1961, the NLF formed the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, which proceeded to deliver significant military blows to Diem’s forces.

Confronted with mounting pressures and on the advice of his brother and chief political advisor Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem established contact with both the NLF and the DRV to seek a negotiated settlement. The French government helped set up a channel for negotiations in August 1963. De Gaulle announced that France was ready to help in creating a Vietnam that would be “independent of outside influences, in internal peace and unity and in concord with its neighbors.” There are still debates about Diem’s real intentions. But Washington’s doubts about Diem reached a point that it supported a military coup on November 1, 1963, that resulted in the murder of Diem and his brother. The move turned out to be a grave mistake, foreclosing the chances for reconciliation and leading to further deterioration of the Saigon regime. Faced with instability in the South Vietnamese government and near catastrophic defeats of Saigon’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the President Lyndon B. Johnson administration acted on General William Westmoreland’s recommendation for a greatly expanded U.S. ground combat role in the war.

The U.S. military build-up was quick and massive: more than 181,000 men by the end of 1965, around 376,000 by the end of 1966, and some 480,000 by December 1967. According to the Pentagon Papers, Westmoreland’s forces found themselves “fighting a war of attrition.” The aim was to kill larger and larger numbers of the enemy through “search-and-destroy operations” and to force more and more villagers to move into areas controlled by the South Vietnamese government to deprive the NLF of popular support. This was known as the pacification program, or “The Other War: The War to Win Hearts and Minds.” In reality, it created enormous resentment, and consequently resistance, from the Vietnamese. By mid-1967, the U.S. Operation Mission reported that the Saigon government controlled only 168 hamlets of a total of 12,537 in South Vietnam. On the other hand, the NLF controlled 3,978. The rest were listed as “contested” or partially controlled by both sides. The U.S. Hamlet Evaluation System admitted that to a large extent the NLF dominated the countryside.

Peace with Honor
In January 1968, North Vietnamese troops and southern NLF guerrillas mounted a massive surprise offensive known as the Tet Offensive—a reference to the timing of the attack at the start of the Vietnamese New Year. Some 80,000 troops and guerrillas carried out hundreds of strikes throughout South Vietnam, even managing to briefly penetrate the American embassy in Saigon. The Communist forces suffered huge losses and failed to ignite a popular uprising in the South against the U.S.-backed regime. But they scored a major political victory by discrediting the Johnson administration’s optimistic assessments of its war effort. Two months later, his presidency in tatters due to the political fallout from Tet and the growing anti-war movement in the United States, Johnson proposed peace talks to end the conflict and announced he would not seek re-election. The Paris Peace Talks began in May but failed to achieve any results for the remainder of Johnson’s term in office.

The administration of Richard M. Nixon, the winner of the 1968 presidential election, showed little interest in the Paris Peace Talks. His national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, conducted secret negotiations starting in 1969 but they failed to yield results. Meanwhile, Nixon put into effect the “Vietnamization” program. This involved the massive build-up of Saigon forces—in effect, to encourage Vietnamese to kill other Vietnamese with the aim of preventing a total Communist takeover. It cost the United States $38,000 to send an American to Vietnam to fight for one year. But it cost an average of only $400 to support an Asian—including Korean and Thai mercenaries. Saving American lives and dollars was aimed at persuading the American public that the war was winding down. W. Averell Harriman, who Johnson sent to head the American delegation to the Paris Peace Talks, denounced Vietnamization as “a program for the continuation of the war… Vietnamization of the war is dependent on an unpopular and repressive government.”

The Nixon administration was able not only to prolong the war for five more years but also to escalate it through aerial bombing, which averaged about 100,000 tons of explosives a month on South Vietnam in 1969 and 1970—the administration halted U.S. bombing of the North as part of its peace talks diplomacy. An equal amount of high explosives was also delivered by artillery strikes monthly, which in many cases caused more systematic damage than the aerial bombardments. In April 1971,Look magazine reported on the destruction of dams, dikes, and canals, and mile upon mile of “rice fields pockmarked with millions of large craters filled with water in which malarial mosquitoes have been breeding in epidemic numbers.” These high explosives, combined with chemical spraying (which the Pentagon admitted in 1969 was limited only by the ability of the United States to produce it), had by the end of 1970 destroyed about half of the crop land in South Vietnam. This caused serious shortages of food and forced the Saigon regime to import huge amounts of staples.

The devastation and widespread hunger in the countryside drove millions of the rural population into urban areas and camps for displaced persons. The plight of these refugees was among the reasons behind the hundreds of demonstrations staged every month by scores of civic groups, which in 1970 formed the People’s Front in Struggle for Peace. The front issued a ten-point platform headed by the demand “that the Americans and their allies withdraw completely from Vietnam as the most important precondition for an end to the war.” The urban movement of groups from the right to the left became known as the third segment, or Third Force.

Mounting political pressure from the Third Force, the unraveling of the Vietnamization program, and related U.S. military setbacks in Cambodia and Laos in 1970 and 1971, respectively led the United States to sign the Paris Peace Accords of 1973. The agreements recognized the territorial integrity and unity of Vietnam, stipulated the withdrawal of U.S. forces and release of POWs, and clearly called for negotiations between the Saigon regime and its southern opponents in the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) toward a political settlement in the South and an eventual reunification of Vietnam “through peaceful means.”

Nixon described the deal as “peace with honor.” Nonetheless, the Nixon administration and the South Vietnam government of President Nguyen Van Thieu believed that carrying out the accords would lead to an eventual political takeover by Vietnamese revolutionaries. Not long after the agreement was signed on January 27, 1973, Thieu reiterated—with American acquiescence if not outright support—his “Four Nos” policy: no recognition of the enemy, no coalition government, no neutralization of the southern region of Vietnam, and no concession of territory. In a July 1973 interview in Vietnam Report, the English-language publication of the Saigon Council on Foreign Relations, Thieu stated: “In the first place, we have to do our best so that the NLF cannot build itself into a state, a second state within the South.” In the second place, he continued, his government should use all means at its disposal to prevent the development of the Third Force, branding all Third Force personalities as pro-Communist.

Arrests of Third Force activists soared and attacks on PRG-controlled areas by the Saigon regime increased partly because of increased military aid to Saigon after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. The United States supplied the Thieu government with so many arms that, as Major General Peter Olenchuk testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 1973, “We shortchanged ourselves within our overall inventories. We also shortchanged the reserve units in terms of prime assets. In certain instances, we also diverted equipment that would have gone to Europe.”

In fiscal year 1974, Congress gave the Saigon regime $1 billion more in military aid. Saigon expended as much ammunition as it could—$700 million worth. This left a stockpile of at least $300 million. For fiscal year 1975, Congress again authorized $1 billion in military aid, but appropriated $700 million—about what was actually spent in 1974. The Paris Peace Accords stipulated that equipment could only be replaced on a one-to-one basis. The February 16, 1974, edition of the Washington Postquoted Pentagon officials as saying that Thieu’s armed forces were “firing blindly into free zones [PRG-controlled areas] because they knew full well they would get all the replacement supplies they needed from the United States.” But it was the beginning of the end. Thieu’s aggression helped drive a counteroffensive by the Communist forces that brought about the fall of one southern province after another in early 1975 without too much resistance from Thieu’s forces.

Good Relations with the United States
Communist forces rolled into Saigon on April 30, 1975, and General Duong Van Minh, who had become South Vietnam’s leader following Thieu’s resignation on April 21 and subsequent escape to Taiwan, surrendered to a North Vietnamese officer at the presidential Independence Palace. This decision should have saved a great deal of unnecessary bloodshed. But, by pushing for a military solution until the very end, the United States and the Thieu regime had foreclosed the possibility for a coalition government of “reconciliation and concord” that might have prevented or eased the tumultuous political transition that ensued. Worse still, the military victory eventually justified a “winner-takes-all” mentality by opportunists, many of them carpetbaggers from the North, which made the process of internal Vietnamese reconciliation more complicated and difficult.

Even at this stage, there were still some reasons to hope that a foundation could be laid for reconciliation and political accommodation. In repeated statements, Vietnamese officials in the North and in the South said that they desired diplomatic cooperation and good relations with the United States. A few days after the liberation of South Vietnam, for example, Premier Pham Van Dong of the DRV sent a message to Washington through Sweden in which he stated that a chapter had been closed and that Hanoi was looking forward to enjoying “good relations with the United States.” In this letter Dong never touched on the subject of America’s “contribution to healing the wounds of war” as stipulated in the Paris accords—the idea of paying war reparations would have been political suicide in Washington. On May 14, 1975, on the very day that Henry Kissinger (now secretary of state) punitively extended a trade embargo against Vietnam under the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Washington Star reported that Hanoi wanted good relations with the United States and was willing to welcome, without any precondition, an American diplomatic mission in Saigon under a new South Vietnamese government.

Before the collapse of the Saigon regime in 1975, both the government in Hanoi and the PRG in the South had often stated that they envisioned the reunification of Vietnam to proceed step by step over a period from twelve to fourteen years. Hence, the Vietnamese sent two official observer delegations to the United Nations, one representing North Vietnam and the other representing the South. In mid-July, when the Vietnamese sought full membership in the United Nations, North and South Vietnam respectively submitted separate applications for membership as two independent states. The United States strongly opposed these applications.

The negative posture of the United States had the affect of strengthening the hands of the hardliners in North Vietnam who favored early reunification with the South. A longer period of reunification would have allowed the people in the South to run things their own way and to have time to establish some kind of coalition of forces in the South that would help the process of reconciliation and political accommodation there. If and when the North and the South finally reunified, the two separate political entities would have to negotiate on more or less equal terms. In fact, the South, under a neutralist and more democratic regime might have become a dynamic leader in the process.  As it turned out, northerners took over and ran roughshod over the South.

Hence, nearly two months after the U.S. vetoed the applications of the two Vietnams as independent members of the United Nations, the Central Committee of the Communist Party declared at its Twenty-Fourth Plenum in September 1975 that Vietnam had entered a “new revolutionary phase” and that the tasks at hand included: “To complete the reunification of the country and take it rapidly, vigorously, and steadily to socialism. To speed up socialist construction and perfect socialist relations of production in the North. And to carry out at the same time socialist transformation and construction in the South… in every field: political, economic, technical, cultural, and ideological.” Reunification took place on July 2, 1976, with the formation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Despite the withdrawal of all American forces from Vietnam, Washington would come to be indirectly involved in the Third Indochina War. By mid-1975, Chinese troops and the military forces of Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime, wary of Vietnam’s ambitions in Indochina, had already massed along Vietnam’s northern and western borders and carried out almost daily attacks. The new threat to the country led the Vietnamese government to add 300,000 to 400,000 men and women to the various armed forces, and implement programs for the “socialist transformation and reconstruction in the South.” This was done with an eye to maximizing the procurement of resources, taking economic and human resources (foodstuffs, able bodies, etc.) for fighting the war, especially from the rural areas to defend the country. The southern population and even some southern revolutionary leaders resisted these programs; many such leaders were purged and their supporters marginalized, creating North-South polarization among revolutionaries that had not been present before the end of the war.

The Hanoi leadership hoped that it could improve relations with the United States by offering to drop its precondition for economic aid and agreeing to resolve the issue of U.S. Missing in Action (MIA) forces. On July 31, 1978, Premier Pham told an American delegation to Hanoi led by Senator Edward Kennedy that Vietnam put aside its preconditions because Vietnam truly wanted to be a good friend of the United States. Kennedy called on the President Jimmy Carter administration to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, lift the trade embargo, and give Vietnam aid “according to the humanitarian traditions of our country.” Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke met the Vietnamese foreign minister at the United Nations in September 1978 and agreed on normalization without any preconditions. President Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wrote in his memoirs how he scuttled the move toward normalization due to the war between Vietnam and Cambodia, the close ties between Vietnam and the Soviet Union, and the continued flood of refugees from Vietnam.

In early November 1978, fearing that Washington’s tough stand would encourage China and Cambodia to stage a pincer attack on its territory, Vietnam signed a treaty of friendship and mutual assistance with the Soviet Union. On December 15, the United States announced a historic normalization of relations with China—ending a hostility that dated back to Mao Zedong’s revolution in 1949. On December 25, Vietnam launched a preemptive invasion of Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge government—its official explanation was to save the Cambodian people from the genocidal Pol Pot regime. During a visit to the United States in January 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping announced that China would “teach Vietnam a lesson” and asked President Carter for “moral support” for the forthcoming Chinese punitive war against Vietnam.

In February 1979, China launched an invasion that nearly destroyed six northern Vietnamese provinces and, by China’s estimate, killed 75,000 Vietnamese defenders. For the next ten years, China and the United States supplied military equipment to the remnants of Pol Pot’s forces and applied the maximum economic and diplomatic pressure on Vietnam. By 1989, Vietnam had withdrawn all its forces from Cambodia, and in 1991 signed the UN-sponsored settlement for Cambodia. In 1992, China established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam after extracting many concessions from Vietnam’s top leaders. It is worth noting that American support for China during this period had the effect of sending Vietnam deeply into China’s sphere of influence, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In playing the “China card,” the United States pushed Vietnam increasingly into China’s arms and gave China the opportunity to penetrate deeply into every aspect of Vietnam’s political, economic, and social life.

There Is Nothing Impossible
After decades of enmity between Washington and Hanoi, normalizing relations was a daunting challenge. But for Vietnam, the time was ripe because of its need to rebuild its economy after the destruction left by a half century of conflict, and the need to balance its strategic relations following the demise of the Soviet Union and the hostility of its other erstwhile Communist ally, China.

In 1994, the United States finally lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam. The official sticking point had been U.S. insistence that Vietnam account for the 1,677 American servicemen still listed as MIA in Indochina. This was an issue that the anti-Vietnam and anti-Communist lobbies in the United States had concocted to prevent improved relations. To symbolize this hot-button domestic political issue, Clinton named as America’s first ambassador to Vietnam Douglas (Pete) Peterson, a former Air Force fighter pilot who had spent six and a half years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

But Washington clearly saw the geopolitical benefits of improved relations with Vietnam in light of China’s emergence as an economic and military power in Asia. One of America’s concerns had been China’s hegemony in the South China Sea—Vietnam’s coastline covers almost the entire length of a body of water through which about 60 percent of the world’s seaborne trade passes annually.

The first items on the agenda of these new bilateral relations involved various issues left over from the Second Indochina War. These included accounting for the American MIAs, reuniting the families of Vietnamese refugees, and humanitarian programs such as the clearing of unexploded mines and cluster munitions and the cleanup of land areas contaminated by toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange that continued to cause birth defects, cancer, and other health problems.

Senator John McCain, another former POW in Hanoi, and many American veterans such as John Kerry, the current secretary of state, Peterson, and subsequent U.S. ambassadors to Vietnam have patiently and courageously worked to defuse the very emotional and difficult MIA issue. Joint American-Vietnamese search teams have combed the country for possible remains. At times they dug in the middle of Vietnamese villages and graveyards just because of some rumors. Hanoi has also actually opened its secret records of those captured to American researchers.

American veterans and volunteers have worked with Vietnamese counterparts to build friendship and trust on the issues of unexploded ordnance and remediation of residual effects of herbicides, particularly Agent Orange. Until very recently, various U.S. administrations have looked at these problems as “humanitarian” issues and have been content to let American and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) take the lead.

In spite of studies documenting the harmful lingering effects of Agent Orange, the U.S. government officially refused to recognize the problems created in Vietnam fearing that the Vietnamese would link the issue to war reparations. But in 2005, military-to-military cooperation began tackling dioxin remediation. In 2006, as Vietnam prepared to enter the World Trade Organization and as the United States and Vietnam were recognizing certain shared interests with respect to China and terrorism, then-U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine publicly called for progress on the issue of Agent Orange. In November, when President George W. Bush visited Hanoi to participate in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, a joint statement issued by the two governments said that their respective presidents “agreed that further joint efforts to address the environmental contamination near former dioxin storage sites would make a valuable contribution to the continued development of their bilateral relationship.” A Congressional allocation of $3 million for remediation in 2007 was followed by similar allocations for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, for a total of $9 million. Then came a Ford Foundation initiative, the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. In June 2010, the group released a ten-year, $300 million plan of action to clean dioxin-contaminated soil and restore damaged ecosystems and expand services to people with disabilities and their families.

Meanwhile, according to various U.S. estimates, the end of the war left about 25 million pounds of unexploded ordnance in the southern part of Vietnam alone; since 1975, buried bombs have killed 40,000 people nationwide and injured 60,000, nearly half of them children below the age of 16.Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller visited Vietnam in 2015 and announced that the U.S. government would spend $10 million on programs to survey and clear unexploded ordnance this year. American non-governmental organizations have spent $80 million on such programs in Vietnam over the last twenty years.

The results of improved ties are impressive. Trade between the United States and Vietnam grew from less than $500 million in 1995 to $35 billion in 2014. Charlene Barshefsky, the former United States Trade Representative, stated in prepared remarks delivered to the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Hanoi in March 2015 that since the signing of the Bilateral Trade Agreement between the two countries in 2000, Vietnam has been the fastest growing of America’s fifty largest trade relationships. She said that most of this has been import growth, up from $800 million worth of coffee and shrimp in 2000 to $30 billion in clothing, furniture, consumer electronics, shoes, fish, rice, and processed foods in 2014. Americans bought more from Vietnam in 2014 than from some much larger countries including Russia and Brazil, for example. As of 2014, Vietnam had surpassed Malaysia and Thailand to become the top merchandise exporter to the United States among the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Barshefsky hailed Vietnam’s progress and underlined America’s interest in supporting future economic development. Since Vietnam signed the Bilateral Trade Agreement and subsequently entered the World Trade Organization, its economy has tripled in size and its per capita income has doubled. Since 2000, she noted, the national rate of deep poverty has dropped from about 45 percent to 2.4 percent—“a remarkable achievement, lacking many parallels elsewhere in the world.” She said that 17,000 Vietnamese college students were studying in the United States, as many as from Canada and more than from Mexico or the United Kingdom. “There is every reason to believe that they will help Vietnam change as rapidly, and advance as quickly, as their elders did in the last fifteen years,” she said. “And that as their lives and careers advance, they will continue to build a closer and more interrelated relationship between our two countries.”

Ted Osius, the current U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, is equally bullish in remarks that would have been almost unimaginable twenty-five years ago. In January, at a conference called “Vietnam-United States Relationship: For 20 More Successful Years,” Osius reviewed significant achievements and promised further collaboration. He said that after the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is signed—possibly in 2015—he expects the United States to become the top investor in Vietnam. The TPP is a complex project for rebalancing the United States toward Asia that includes not just trade but also security and development in the decades to come. Osius told the audience at the National University in Hanoi that the relationship between the United States and Vietnam is regional and global and not just bilateral. He listed areas of cooperation such as security, science, technology, health, private enterprises, human rights, culture, sports, and especially education. He punctuated his remarks with the refrain: “There is nothing impossible in the relationship between the two countries.” This was met with huge applause every time it was repeated, perhaps because it seemed to echo the famous slogan by Ho Chi Minh during his independence speech in 1945: “There is nothing as precious as independence and freedom.”

Return of the Viet Kieu
The improved relationship between the United States and Vietnam has had another beneficial result: mitigating the antagonism within the Vietnamese refugee communities in the United States toward the Vietnamese government and thereby aiding the process of reconciliation between bitter adversaries. Both governments made efforts to reunite families through the Orderly Departure Program and enabling visits to Vietnam by the Viet Kieu, or “Overseas Vietnamese.” There are about four million ethnic Vietnamese residents in 101 countries, with nearly 1.3 million living in the United States.

There have been three waves of Vietnamese immigration to the United States. The first wave began in 1975 when the Fall of Saigon led to the American-sponsored evacuation of Vietnamese military personnel, bureaucrats, and urban professionals, and their family members. By the end of 1975, the number of these evacuees reached about 125,000. A second wave entered the United States in the late 1970s as so-called “Boat People”—Vietnamese fleeing in rickety vessels on dangerous seas to escape political or ethnic persecution as well as the terrible consequences of the wars with Cambodia and China. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the population of Vietnamese refugees in the United States increased from almost 231,000 in 1980 to nearly 1.3 million in 2012, making it the largest foreign-born population in the country. Migration since has mostly consisted of immigrants reuniting with their relatives in the United States.

Whatever the reasons for their migration, there is no doubt that the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam has encouraged more Vietnamese immigrants in the United States to visit their families in Vietnam. In 1993, close to 153,000 of these people returned to Vietnam for visits. In 2003 there were 380,000, and in 2005 nearly half a million. In 2007, to encourage even more returns, the government began granting Viet Kieu visa exemptions for up to ninety days per visit. The number of visits has remained around 500,000 a year in the past five years. Assuming that the visitors spend an average of only about $1,000 each during their stays, this would have brought in about half a billion dollars annually to the local economy.

More contact has also induced more investments and remittances. Statistics given by the Committee on Overseas Vietnamese and printed in many daily newspapers in February 2015 said Viet Kieu had been involved in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 3,600 projects in fifty-one out of sixty-three provinces and cities in Vietnam. The combined amount of investment in these projects was $8.6 billion by the end of 2014, or equal to half of the entire FDI investment for the year. Presumably, many more investment projects have been indirectly funded by the Viet Kieu through remittances and run by family members living in Vietnam.

Remittances increased from $1 billion in 2000 to $9 billion in 2013, according to information from the Asian Development Bank and the National Bank of Vietnam. There was a significant jump from under $4 billion in 2005 to $6 billion in 2006 and $7 billion in 2007. Perhaps because of the global financial crisis in 2008 there was a retreat to $6 billion. According to MPI, total remittances sent to Vietnam via formal channels equaled $11 billion in 2013, representing about 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to data from the World Bank. The report says that immigrants in the United States transferred about $5.7 billion in remittances to Vietnam in 2012.

It may take another generation before the wounds can fully heal, however. Due to political pressures that remain in the Vietnamese diaspora, it has been difficult for individuals to talk publicly about the reasons for their willingness to return to Vietnam and the extent of their success there. Some of the pressure comes from within the extended family, and there is also outright intimidation by hardline anti-Communists within the overseas communities.

Political Symbolism
American interventions in Vietnam between 1945 and 1995 saw many twists and turns, but Washington’s motivations had little to do with Vietnam or the Vietnamese. U.S. involvement in the First Indochina War stemmed from its desire to help France re-establish its colonial rule, rationalized in terms of preventing the French Communists coming to power in Paris and preventing the spread of Communism to Vietnam and other parts of East Asia. The Second Indochina War became a regional hot war justified by the Cold War, pushing the Vietnamese people willy-nilly into either the “Communist camp” or the “Free World camp” without regard for the universal Vietnamese demand for independence. The Third Indochina War was a “proxy war” against the Soviet Union.

With the promising turnaround in relations, the United States must now be careful not to appear heavy-handed and self-centered in its approach lest many years of hard work would be compromised. Two sensitive and linked issues will be arms sales and human rights. In 2015, Ambassador Osius and Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States, appeared on a platform in Washington to discuss bilateral relations. The Vietnamese envoy argued that the United States should lift the arms embargo on Vietnam; Osius tied the issue to progress on human rights, which he said remains the most difficult aspect of the relationship.

Human rights should be a very important concern for everyone and every nation, and abuses remain a problem in Vietnam. But the United States should not overplay its hand on human rights as it once did on the POW/MIA issue. American arms would help Vietnam share the security burdens of East Asia with the United States while appearing as a self-reliant partner and not an American puppet. As Ambassador Pham emphasized, lifting the arms embargo would achieve great “political symbolism.”

Ngo Vinh Long is a professor of history at the University of Maine, where he has taught for more than twenty-five years. He is also a research associate at Duy Tan University, Da Nang. He has contributed to the Journal of Contemporary Asia, The American Historical Review, and other publications. 

Bram Fischer’s Legacy

How did South Africa avoid the bloody civil war that most people expected? After forty years of apartheid, brutal repression, and mutual fear and hostility, deeply rooted in race and ideology, the conflict seemed to be one of the most intractable in the world.

In history, cause and effect do not normally work in straight lines. There was the sudden ending of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The West and in particular the United States no longer needed South Africa as a strategic ally against the Soviet Union. The following year there was the wholly unexpected unilateral decision of President F. W. de Klerk to release Nelson Mandela from prison and to lift unconditionally the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). There was the pivotal juncture in 1993 after the assassination of Chris Hani, the charismatic leader of the SACP, by a white extremist, when the country stood on the brink. Mandela arrived unannounced at the studios of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, appealed to all sides to hold back, and commanded his supporters to exercise restraint. This was the moment when the mantle of national leadership and political authority if not state power changed hands. Two years later there was the famous appearance of Mandela, now president of South Africa, wearing a Springbok jersey, for decades the symbol of white Afrikaner domination, at the final of the Rugby World Cup held in Johannesburg.

When Mandela emerged from twenty-seven years in prison and extended the hand of reconciliation to the white population, and de Klerk accepted that hand, it reverberated around the globe. On paper, there was no conflict more bitter and entrenched. Much of the credit of course must go to Mandela for his unique act of forgiveness and political vision. Credit also goes to de Klerk and his minister of justice, Hendrik “Kobie” Coetsee for recognizing that apartheid and white domination could not survive the end of the Cold War—at any rate not without a bloody civil war. But the seeds of this remarkable rapprochement can be traced back thirty years earlier, to the period before Mandela was sent to Robben Island and to the extraordinary story of the relationship between Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other leaders of the ANC, and a small group of white and Indian political activists and lawyers. It is a story that changed the history of South Africa.

Afrikaners and Africanists
At a memorial service for Mandela in Westminster Abbey, Archbishop Desmond Tutu described how the world held its breath after the victory of the ANC in the 1994 election, fearing that South Africa would be overwhelmed by the racial bloodbath so many had predicted. “Instead of retribution and revenge, which everybody expected, the world saw black and white South Africans walking the path of forgiveness and reconciliation,” he said. “It was because he who spent twenty-seven years in jail came out transformed from the angry militant to the magnanimous leader who believed we each had the capacity to be great, to be magnanimous, to be forgiving, and to be generous. We cannot give up on anyone. He might not have put it like that, but basically he was saying no one is a hopeless case, with a first class ticket to hell. We all have the capacity to be saints. Nelson Mandela has shown us what we can be.”

The world knows the famous passage in Mandela’s speech from the dock at the Rivonia Trial, at which he was sentenced to life in prison. He had fought against white domination and he had fought against black domination. A democratic and free society in which all could live together in harmony and with equal opportunities was an ideal for which he had worked all his life, which he hoped to see realized and for which, if needs be, he was prepared to die. Less well known is the fact that when he began his involvement in the struggle against apartheid, he espoused a narrow Africanist approach, believing that there was no place for alliance with whites or Indians.

Mandela and the other non-white Rivonia trialists spent their long years on Robben Island engaged in intensive political discussions, in which their political views evolved. But it would be wrong to attribute, as Tutu appeared to do at Westminster Abbey, the sea change in Mandela’s thinking exclusively to the prison years. His shift to a wholehearted commitment to a multiracial approach owed a great deal to the friendships he struck up with a small group of white and Indian political activists and white lawyers as well as black African Communists at the Rivonia Trial and in the years leading up to it.

Chief among these figures was Bram Fischer QC. He is the great unsung hero of the early phase of the struggle against apartheid. He led the defense team at the Rivonia Trial and, with his brilliant conduct of the defense, saved Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki (father of Thabo, who later succeeded Mandela as the second president of a free South Africa), and the other defendants from the gallows. By proving that the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation (known as “MK”), were separate organizations and that neither of them had yet adopted Operation Mayibuye, a controversial blueprint for full-scale guerilla warfare, he enabled the trial judge to justify passing sentences of life in prison rather than the death sentences most observers had expected.

But Fischer’s relationship with Mandela and Sisulu went far beyond that of lawyer/client. He was also acting chairman of the banned SACP and was one of Mandela’s closest political comrades. Indeed, he was a frequent visitor to what had become the MK safe house at Liliesleaf farm in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia from which the trial took its name. It was pure chance that he happened to be absent from the meeting of the High Command on the morning of June 11, 1963, when most of the defendants were arrested in a police raid. In fact, he had been involved in acquiring Liliesleaf as a safe house for meetings of the SACP.

Eighteen months after the Rivonia Trial, Fischer found himself back in Court C of the Pretoria Supreme Court, this time not as a QC but as a defendant standing in the same dock as his former client Mandela and charged with the same offense: conspiracy to commit sabotage. And like Mandela, he faced a possible death sentence but was sentenced to life in prison.

Road to Damascus
Fischer had come a long way from his roots. Abram Louis Fischer, known to all as Bram, was born on April 23, 1908, into one of the most prominent Afrikaner Nationalist families. His grandfather Abraham, the first and only prime minister of the Orange River Colony who later served as minister of the interior in General Jan Smuts’ South African government, referred to “stinking coolies” and “the natural tendency of natives generally to lead lives of idleness.” His father, Percy, a judge president of the Free State, had been effectively driven from practice at the bar in Bloemfontein for representing members of the Boer rebellion in 1914. Fischer himself was elected Nationalist prime minister at a student parliament, and in his speech from the dock at his trial said that he had been a Nationalist from the age of 6.

As a schoolboy at Grey College in Bloemfontein where he came top of the school in his matriculation, he persuaded the headmaster to let the boys boycott a reception for the visiting Prince of Wales .While at Grey University College where he obtained the degrees of BA and LLB, both cum laude, he became the only revolutionary Communist leader ever to have played scrum-half against the All Blacks for the Free State. In 1931 he won a Rhodes scholarship to New College, Oxford, where he obtained a diploma in law and economics.

On his return to South Africa from Oxford, he joined the bar and in due course became one of the most distinguished and sought-after QCs in South Africa, specializing in commercial and mining law. Had he wished, he could have attained, by reason of his family connections and his talents, the highest political or judicial office in apartheid South Africa. He was tipped as a future prime minister or chief justice. Instead, he turned his back on personal ambition in favor of pursuing the ideal of a fair and just multiracial democracy.

As a young man, Fischer had a Road to Damascus experience. He was distressed to feel revulsion at shaking hands with a black man. He recalled that, as a child growing up on a farm, his two best friends had been black and he realized that he had become brainwashed with the irrational culture of racial prejudice. Years later in his speech from the dock in which he explained why he had become a Communist, he traced it back to this epiphany. At that time the Communist Party was the only party that was open to all races and advocated an extension of the franchise. While at Oxford Fischer travelled to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1932 and, although it is not clear exactly when he joined the party, by the time of the 1946 miners’ strike, he was a member of the Johannesburg district committee. When the other members of the committee were arrested for inciting the strike while he was out of town, he insisted on being charged alongside his comrades. When the party was banned in the 1950s he remained a member of the successor SACP, in due course becoming acting chairman.

Together with his wife, Molly, who also came from a patrician Afrikaner family (she was the niece of the wife of General Smuts) and also joined the Communist Party, Fischer dedicated his life to working for the overthrow of apartheid. This manifested itself in his personal, professional, and political life. He was widely regarded even by many who did not share his political opinions as a man of complete integrity. In many areas of his life he lived the change he wanted for his people and his country. His house on Beaumont Street in Johannesburg became a home to multiracial social and political gatherings, including mixed-race bathing in his swimming pool, which were unique at the time; Mandela and Sisulu were frequent visitors. Fischer informally adopted a young orphaned African girl who shared a bedroom with his younger daughter, Ilse. It is hard to convey how exceptional this was. In the desert of racial separation entrenched and developed by apartheid, this house was an oasis of genuine racial equality, friendship, and respect.

Throughout the 1950s and up to the Rivonia Trial in 1963, Fischer straddled the worlds of the law and anti-apartheid politics, acting for both Mandela and Sisulu in a series of political cases that he conducted alongside his commercial practice. At the beginning of his political career, Mandela was not at all in sympathy with Fischer’s position. When he first assumed a leadership role in 1949 in the ANC Youth League with Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, with whom he founded the first black attorney’s firm in South Africa, he was, in his own words, “fiercely nationalistic in our approach and anti-White, anti-Indian, and anti-Communist.” In his speech at the funeral of Elias Motsoaledi, one of the Rivonia defendants who died on the day of Mandela’s presidential inauguration in 1994, Mandela said: “Comrade Motsoaledi was a member of the Communist Party of SA as it was then known. We had many clashes in which he criticized us and at times attacked us viciously for what he considered very conservative and reactionary views. But in that debate we learned a great deal, because when you debate issues of that nature, if you approach that debate with seriousness and earnest at the end of the debate you find yourself closer to your rivals than you were before that debate.”

Gradually through the 1950s, Mandela softened his attitude both to the Communist Party and to alliances with white and Indian activists. As well as black Communists such as Motsoaledi and Moses Kotane, Fischer played a key role in this process. Mandela told Fischer’s biographer Stephen Clingman: “Even when we were attacking the Communist Party I used to say that Bram is really exceptional. He was not really a Communist. He was in that party because there was no other party that men like him could join.”

That is an assessment with which Fischer probably would not have concurred. When his close friend and one of his junior counsel at the Rivonia Trial George Bizos made a similar comment to an American academic observing the trial who expressed surprise that such a brilliant and charming man should be a Communist, Fischer, in a rare outburst of anger, reprimanded him: “George, don’t you ever apologize to anyone for my political beliefs again.” He was a party loyalist and made it clear in his speech from the dock that he fully believed in what he called scientific Marxism. How did a man of his brilliance and integrity maintain that loyalty in the face of the mounting evidence of Stalin’s crimes? A possible clue is provided by Bob Hepple in his book, Young Man with a Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution, 1960–1963. He was asked by Fischer if there were any writings that refuted the revelations of Stalin’s crimes that he could show his daughters. When Hepple said the evidence against Stalin was irrefutable, Fischer’s response was: “Well we now know what to avoid when we establish Communism here.”

Mandela assessed Fischer’s attitude not from what he said but from the way he treated his black workers and the risk he took in adopting a black child. He told Clingman: “The woman who worked for him regarded Bram as a brother, and she would be involved in his parties not as a waiter but as a colleague, as a comrade and then you saw what type of man Bram was.” Sisulu described Fischer as a very kind man. He remembered him getting up when his son Paul, who suffered from cystic fibrosis, coughed in the night and was touched by the sound of him running to be with Paul. Sisulu said it was as if Fischer’s children were his own. “When Paul finally died, it was like my own child had died,” he said.

By the time Kotane told Chief Albert Luthuli, the then-president general of the ANC, that the SACP was about to announce its underground existence in 1960, Luthuli queried whether the party still included people like Fischer because only then could he trust it. This reflected the degree to which friendships and alliances had been forged across the racial divide between leaders of the ANC and the SACP.

Luthuli, Slovo, and Bernstein were among the 156 leaders of the ANC and the other groups fighting apartheid, including the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the South African Coloured People’s Congress, the SACP, and the white Congress of Democrats, who had been arrested and tried at the so-called Treason Trial. Slovo, a barrister, was a Jewish Communist advocate who later joined the High Command of MK and in 1963 argued (against Fischer and Sisulu) for the adoption of guerrilla warfare. Bernstein, also a Jewish Communist and married to Hilda Watt, who in 1942 became the only Communist ever elected to public office under apartheid when she won a seat on the Johannesburg city council, was an architect.

In 1954, sifting through literally thousands of written responses, mostly from Africans, Bernstein had been largely responsible for drafting the Freedom Charter which was adopted at the 1955 Congress of the People in Kliptown, and ratified by the ANC the following year. He worked closely with Mandela, Sisulu, and Tambo in the Congress Alliance which organized the Congress. The Freedom Charter, which underpinned the ANC for the next forty years and later found expression in the post-apartheid constitution of South Africa, proclaimed the right of the people to a free and multiracial democracy: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.”

Black, White, and Indian
Second only to the Rivonia Trial, the Treason Trial was the most important political trial of the apartheid era. It lasted from 1956 to 1961 and ended with the dismissal of all charges. Its unintended but perhaps most important lasting contribution to the peaceful end of apartheid was the opportunity it created for the black, white, and Indian leaders of the opponents of the regime to discuss political as well a legal tactics, strategy and policy and in the process get to know each other. It was a spectacular own goal on the part of the Nationalist regime. Most of the defendants had been banned from taking part in any political or public meetings; the daily bus journeys between Johannesburg and the court in Pretoria provided them with a unique forum to develop personal and political relationships. Luthuli wrote that if there was one thing that helped push the movement along non-racial lines, away from narrow, separative racialism, it was the Treason Trial, which showed the depth of sincerity and devotion to a noble cause on the white side of the color line. He singled out for praise “the brilliant team of legal men who defended us so magnificently for so little financial reward.”

In particular Fischer’s role was critical. Such was his standing at the Johannesburg Bar (despite his well-known political views he was the longest-serving member of its Bar Council and ultimately became its chairman) that he was able to persuade the non-political leaders of the bar to act for the defendants. As second QC under Issie Maisels QC, he contributed to the successful outcome with his patient and skillful cross examination; it persuaded the judges, by whom he was held in high esteem, that the defendants were committed to the ideal of a multiracial democracy to be achieved by non-violent means, albeit including civil disobedience.

Unlike most of their other lawyers, Fischer was regarded by many of the defendants, including Mandela and Sisulu, as a friend and comrade as well as an advocate. He would invite them to dinner at Beaumont Street and undertook the task of helping solve many personal and family problems during the long years when they and their families endured great financial privations. He had already acted for Mandela, Sisulu, and eighteen other Congress leaders in 1952 when they were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their activities in the Defiance Campaign. In 1954, he had arranged for another leading QC to act pro bono for Mandela in his successful resistance of an attempt to have him struck off the roll of attorneys because of his involvement in that campaign.

After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the introduction of repressive emergency legislation that outlawed the ANC and allowed first 90- and then 180-day detention without trial, Mandela persuaded the ANC to adopt a policy of selective and nonlethal sabotage. He went underground and MK was formed, with him as its leader and its High Command drawn from the ANC and the SACP. This extended his close collaboration with white and Indian activists. Among those who drove Mandela to clandestine meetings (or rather he drove them, disguised as a chauffeur so as not to attract attention) were Bob Hepple and Ahmed Kathrada. Hepple was a young Jewish advocate who was co-opted by Fischer onto the Central Committee of the SACP. Kathrada was a leading young member of the SAIC, who a decade before as a leader of the Young Communist League had clashed with Mandela over Mandela’s opposition to a strike organized jointly by the ANC and the Transvaal Indian Congress. He had challenged him to a public debate that he boasted he would win, for which he was roundly rebuked and about which they later teased each other on Robben Island.

In 1962, Mandela was arrested while “chauffeuring” another white comrade, a film director called Cecil Williams, from Durban to Johannesburg, and was sentenced to five years in prison for inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport. He decided to wear tribal dress and to take no formal part in the trial, declaring that he was “a black man in a white man’s court.” However, in place of Slovo, now under a banning order, he asked Hepple to give him informal legal advice and, before being led off to prison, warmly embraced him. Their next meeting would be at an event at Buckingham Palace in 1996, and Mandela again embraced Hepple. Hepple had been tortured and then released from prison during the Rivonia Trial in exchange for agreeing to give evidence for the prosecution. Fischer had organized his escape from South Africa to avoid him giving evidence. He was living in exile in England where he had recently become Master of Clare College, Cambridge. As Mandela lined up to be presented to the Queen, he spotted Hepple: “Bob, is that you?”

There were by now very close ties between the ANC, the SACP, and the High Command of MK, which included Fischer, Slovo, and Bernstein, as well as Mandela, Sisulu, and Mbeki. When the police raided the Liliesleaf safe house on June 11, 1963, they interrupted a debate on whether Operation Mayibuye should be adopted. Those arrested included Sisulu, Mbeki, Hepple, and Bernstein, as well as Kathrada and Denis Goldberg, who was responsible for buying equipment for the sabotage campaign.

At the Rivonia Trial, Fischer led the most brilliant legal team ever assembled in South Africa—Vernon Berrangé QC, George Bizos, Arthur Chaskalson, and attorney Joel Joffe. Although with the exception of Berrangé the other lawyers were not political activists, they were all committed opponents of apartheid. There was a real sense of camaraderie between the defendants and their lawyers, who were subjected to intimidation and harassment by the regime. In heading the defense, Fischer took the huge risk of being identified by prosecution witnesses since he had himself been a frequent participant at meetings at Liliesleaf.

It was not the only risk Fischer took. When Kathrada had been detained after Sharpeville, Fischer smuggled a radio into prison for him. During the Rivonia Trial, he and Molly smuggled letters in and out of prison between Kathrada and his white girlfriend, Sylvia Neame. Once in the dead of night, he broke into the garage of another safe house in Mountainview where, before his arrest, Goldberg had parked a van which was registered to the Rivonia safe house and freewheeled it down a hill so that the owners of the safe house would not be compromised if the van was found there. He then tried to arrange for Goldberg to escape from prison and aided Hepple’s flight from South Africa.

George Bizos had come to South Africa in the Second World War as a 13-year-old refugee after helping his father, the mayor of a Greek village, rescue seven New Zealand soldiers from the Germans. As a young advocate, he was often instructed in political cases by Mandela, with whom he would share sandwiches in his car—the law prevented them from lunching together in a restaurant. Before the trial began, he brought Greek delicacies to lift everyone’s spirits in the drab prison cell where they met to discuss tactics. It was Bizos who persuaded a skeptical Fischer to expose Sisulu, who had only a few years’ schooling, to the cross-examination of Percy Yutar, the only prosecutor in South Africa with a PhD. Over six days Sisulu wiped the floor with Yutar. Bizos remained one of Mandela’s closest confidants throughout the prison, transition, and post-apartheid years.

Joffe had decided to emigrate to Australia to avoid bringing his children up under apartheid but deferred his departure to take on the defense. On top of his key role as sole attorney in the case, he raised the funds for the defense and acted as an informal welfare officer for the families of the defendants. Berrangé, a former Communist and the most feared cross-examiner at the bar, effectively sacrificed any chance of continuing to practice in South Africa by taking on the case.

Denis Kuny had previously risked everything by agreeing to let Mandela chauffeur him to Port Elisabeth when he was on the run. According to Kuny, Chaskalson had taken a similar risk by lending him his car for the same purpose. Kuny acted for James Kantor, an apolitical solicitor who lived a playboy lifestyle and was arrested by the Special Branch out of pique because his brother-in-law Harold Wolpe, a leading SACP figure, had escaped from the Marshall Square police station. Such was Mandela’s admiration for Chaskalson, who later gave up a lucrative commercial practice to establish the Legal Resources Centre to fight test cases against apartheid laws, that when he became president he appointed him first to the Constitutional Court and then as chief justice. When he knew he faced a life behind bars Bram Fischer gave Chaskalson his advocate’s gown and his desk, which Chaskalson took with him to the Constitutional Court.

As for the defendants themselves, there were eleven of them—six black, one Indian, and four white. By the time they stood to hear the judge pass sentence there were eight, of whom one was white. Hepple had fled the country, the charges against Kantor were thrown out at the end of the prosecution case, and Bernstein was acquitted. The trial lasted eight months and by the end the bonds of comradeship that had been forged between them under the threat of the gallows lasted a lifetime. In 2014, Goldberg revisited Court C in the Pretoria Supreme Court and sat in the dock in which he had heard Mandela end his peroration by declaring that he was prepared to die for the ideal of a multiracial democracy. “He wasn’t just saying ‘hang me,’” he explained. “He was telling the judge, ‘Hang Walter, hang Govan, hang Denis, hang all of us.’ It created a bond that can only be broken by death. I’m sorry, but it’s stronger than the bond between husband and wife.”

Before, during, and after the trial there were acts of great bravery and solidarity. Kantor, who had been offered his freedom if he betrayed the others, warned Hepple and Bernstein not to pass on any secrets to him lest he reveal them under torture. Goldberg, at the first meeting of the defendants, when they were released from 90-day detention and charged with sabotage, which carried the death penalty, offered to take all the blame if it would save the others. Kathrada, who was advised that he had a very good chance of overturning his conviction and/or life sentence, declined to appeal as a matter of solidarity and spent twenty-six years in prison rather than break ranks.

Tragedy, Compounded
The day after the Rivonia Trial ended, Fischer’s wife, Molly, drowned in a freak car accident, a fact of which he made no mention when visiting his clients/comrades on Robben Island to discuss whether they should appeal, so as not to burden them with his personal tragedy. It was typical of his ascetic and self-effacing character and his consideration for others. When a prison guard informed Mandela about Molly’s death, he wrote Fischer a letter of condolence that the authorities refused to deliver.

When Fischer was himself arrested a few weeks later for membership of the outlawed SACP, he got bail to argue a case in the Privy Council in London. He refused entreaties to estreat bail and remain in London because “I gave my word” and because he believed it vital for leaders, particularly white leaders, of the struggle against apartheid to make a stand inside the country.

However, Fischer then made a further life-changing personal sacrifice. In the middle of his trial, at which he faced a maximum of five years in prison, he decided that he could best continue his fight against apartheid by going underground, thereby courting a life sentence and possibly even a death sentence when in due course, as was inevitable, he was captured. In his prophetic letter to the court he said that any sentence passed on his co-defendants would be punishing them “for holding the ideas today that will be universally accepted tomorrow.” He explained that he “could no longer serve justice in the way I have attempted to do during the past thirty years. I can do it only in the way I have now chosen.”

By surviving for nine months underground in heavy disguise (the “Red Pimpernel” to the “Black Pimpernel” as Mandela was called in his period underground) at a time when the national leadership structure of both the ANC and the SACP had been smashed by the Rivonia and other raids, Fischer raised the defiant banner of resistance and made a symbolic stand to show the world that at least one Afrikaner stood shoulder to shoulder with the non-white imprisoned leaders of South Africa’s freedom movement. It boosted the morale of Mandela and the other prisoners on Robben Island. When Bizos made a prison visit, Mandela’s first inquiry was to find out how Fischer, whose nom de guerre was Shorty, was faring. This he did by holding his hand at chest height with his thumb outstretched turning it questioningly up and down. When he saw Bizos’ thumb pointing firmly up in the air, a broad smile crossed his face.

When Fischer was finally captured, he was charged with sabotage and the prosecution called for the death sentence. He refused to testify in his own defense because his loyalty to his comrades would not permit him to implicate others and his respect for the rule of law would not permit him to lie on oath. Instead, like Mandela before him, he chose to read a statement from the dock to explain the choices he had made. Also like Mandela, he was a passionate believer in the rule of law but, as he said in this historic speech from the same dock where Mandela had made his famous speech two years earlier, “When the laws themselves become immoral and require the citizen to take part in an organized system of oppression—if only by his silence and apathy—then I believe that a higher duty arises. This compels one to refuse to recognize such laws.” In that speech, which remains one of the most inspiring political speeches of the twentieth century, Fischer explained why he had felt compelled to join first the Communist Party and then the underground struggle against apartheid:

All the conduct with which I have been charged has been directed towards maintaining contact and understanding between the races of this country. If one day it may help to establish a bridge across which white leaders and the real leaders of the non-white can meet to settle the destinies of all of us by negotiation, and not by force of arms, I shall be able to bear with fortitude any sentence which this court may impose on me. It will be a fortitude, my Lord, strengthened by this knowledge, at least, that for the past twenty-five years I have taken no part, not even by passive acceptance, in that hideous system of discrimination which we have erected in this country, and which has become a byword in the civilized world.

Fischer paid a heavy price for his principled and visionary refusal to acquiesce in what he saw as the evil and unjust system of apartheid. In 1966, at the age of 58, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. His decision to go underground, followed by his life sentence, meant that he was unable to continue looking after his son Paul, whom he and Molly had nursed with devotion all his life. When Paul died in 1971 at the age of 23, Fischer was not permitted to attend the funeral.

The prison authorities in Pretoria Local Prison, who viewed Fischer as a traitor to his Afrikaner people, singled him out for especially harsh and cruel treatment. He was made to clean latrines with a toothbrush and was shown off in his cell, like a prize exhibit in a museum, to friends of the warden after drunken dinner parties. When he became ill with cancer and suffered a painful breach of the femur, he was treated with callous indifference and it was left to Denis Goldberg, his comrade, former client and fellow prisoner, to nurse him as best he could. (Among the Rivonia defendants, only Goldberg was not allowed to serve his life sentence on Robben Island with his comrades; the hand of apartheid reached even into prison). Even though it was obvious by 1974 that Fischer was terminally ill and had only a few months left to live, the state refused to free him.

Fischer died of cancer on May 8, 1975, at the home of his brother, Paul, which had officially been designated part of the prison estate so that his visitors could be restricted. Shortly after the funeral the prison authorities confiscated his ashes lest his grave should act as a shrine for his many admirers. They were never recovered.

Alone of the Rivonia defendants and their lawyers, Fischer did not live to see the Promised Land of a free and democratic South Africa. But his influence on the thinking of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other leaders of the ANC as well as on other members of the legal team manifested itself in the critical negotiations after Mandela’s release from prison and in the creation of the new South Africa.

Nelson Mandela, his former client, who had started out nearly fifty years earlier with a narrow Africanist approach, became the first president elected by a universal franchise and appointed F. W. de Klerk, an Afrikaner Nationalist, as his vice president. Mandela said that in any history written of South Africa two Afrikaner names will be always remembered: Beyers Naude, the anti-apartheid minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, and Bram Fischer. Delivering the Legal Resources Centre’s inaugural Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture in 1995, President Mandela said that as he stood at the voting booth in the first free elections the previous year, one of those next to him, alongside Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani and Albert Luthuli, was Bram Fischer.

“As Comrades, As Brothers”
Fischer occupies a unique place in the history of the struggle against apartheid and the fight to achieve a peaceful transition to a multiracial democracy in South Africa. By his conduct of the defence at the Rivonia Trial, he played the key role in saving Mandela and the senior leadership of the ANC from the gallows. By his willingness to sacrifice his career, his family life and his liberty in the cause of securing freedom for the majority black population, he helped to influence Mandela to abandon a narrow Africanist approach and sowed the seeds of Mandela’s magnanimous extension of the hand of friendship and reconciliation to the white population when he was released from Robben Island. By his personal example he showed that there were white South Africans, and in particular Afrikaners, who were prepared to put the interests of freedom and justice for all above their own personal interest. He succeeded in creating the bridge between his Afrikaner people and the legitimate leaders of the black population, which in 1994 enabled them to settle their differences without a bloodbath, as he had hoped in his speech from the dock.

Mandela said in his Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture:

As an Afrikaner whose conscience forced him to reject his own heritage and be ostracized by his own people, he showed a level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself. No matter what I suffered in my pursuit of freedom, I always took strength from the fact that I was fighting with and for my own people. Bram was a free man who fought against his own people to ensure the freedom of others.

Referring to Fischer’s elite Afrikaner heritage and early espousal of Afrikaner Nationalism, Mandela added:

With that background he could not but have become an Afrikaner Nationalist, as we became African nationalists thirty years later as a result of our oppression by whites. Both of us changed. Both of us rejected the notion that our political rights were to be determined by the color of our skins. We embraced each other as comrades, as brothers, to fight for freedom for all in South Africa, to put an end to racism and exploitation.

Sir Nicholas Stadlen is a former English High Court Judge (2007–13) and distinguished Queen’s Counsel. From 2006 to 2007, he published the Brief Encounters series of podcast interviews in the Guardian  with Gerry Adams, Hanan Ashrawi, Shimon Peres, Desmond Tutu, and F. W. de Klerk. He has conducted extensive interviews with the surviving defendants and lawyers who took part in the Rivonia Trial. In March, he chaired a colloquium at the University of the Witwatersrand on the life of Nelson Mandela’s defense counsel Bram Fischer. He will be a Visiting Fellow at St. Antony’s College Oxford in 2015-16.


In 2008, the United States electorate chose the first African American president since the inception of the Republic more than two centuries earlier. Barack Obama, the Democratic Party candidate, received 69.5 million votes out of the total 131.4 million total votes cast—the highest number in presidential election history. The more than 60 percent turnout of eligible voters was put at the highest in nearly fifty years. More than fifteen million ballots were cast by first-time voters who heavily favored Obama—comprising nearly 15.2 percent of all votes cast for him, compared to 7.5 percent of all votes cast for Republican John McCain.

Many Americans were dazzled by the energy created in a campaign of hope and change. Understandably, many hoped and perhaps even assumed that the change would further improve race relations in America. Anti-establishment youth had embraced a man who aspired to lead the American establishment, with hip-hop artists such as Nas and Young Jeezy producing tracks like “Black President” and “My President.” This newfound political energy was promoted through political paraphernalia that carried pictures of candidate Obama in a red, white, and blue filter. The music, the bumper stickers, the mood, and the candidate did not represent blackness or whiteness; they represented humanity, patriotism, and coming change. They evoked the spirit of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, and even of Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in Boston, when he intoned, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.”

The election of an African American man as president of the Republic led many to conclude that the nation had reached a historic turning point. The high turnout for Obama, including among white voters, seemed to demonstrate that change had truly come. Some dared to believe that the United States was becoming a “colorblind society.” After the 2008 election, college classrooms across the country were bursting in conversations debating “are we now a post-racial society?” Statistics showing greater numbers of black doctors, lawyers, and CEOs helped quantify the argument.

Here comes the paradox, however: the political and economic gains of African Americans have fueled the politics of race and fear in America. This is why we are witnessing, in spite of the hope for better race relations engendered by Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012, continued spasms of police brutality toward African Americans.

Stain of Slavery
Police brutality for the purpose of instilling fear and intimidating blacks has a long history dating back to the era of slavery in America. Some slaves like Harriet Tubman found paths to freedom, and others like Nat Turner revolted against a system so cruel that the law ordained and validated the heinous treatment of human beings who had dark skin. Patrolmen conducted manhunts for runaway slaves. Some police officers were law enforcers by day and members of the Ku Klux Klan by night. The injustice didn’t end with the beating or killing of victims. The American judicial system averted its gaze when racist groups burned crosses and lynched blacks in the south.

One of the great stains of injustice on the American Republic is the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. Dred Scott, a black slave, sued for his rights and those of his family to be free. He marched from courtroom to courtroom until the case was ultimately heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. The highest court of the land ruled 7-2 that persons of African ancestry could not claim U.S. citizenship. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered words that some blacks feel ring true to this day: slaves and their descendants were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The U.S. Constitution ratified in 1788 empowered men to hunt for slaves; they were a loose band of bounty patrolmen, but many African Americans know them as police officers. Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 known as the Fugitive Slave Clause (superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery in 1865) required the return of escaped slaves:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

To further appease slaveholders, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to create a legal mechanism for the recovery of escaped slaves. The constitutional provision and the legislation emboldened slave owners and local towns to create patrol officers to enforce and hunt slaves with legal powers. In “A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing,” Victor E. Kappeler of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, wrote: “The institution of slavery and the control of minorities… were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing. Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities.”

Many may find it a stretch to discuss the history of slavery in the conversation about present-day police brutality. However, this is critical to understanding the deep-rooted social and psychological issues that blacks and whites alike must grapple with today. It helps us to see why some whites can turn black teenagers into demons, and why African Americans must cry that #blacklivesmatter.

We Shall Overcome
In the twentieth century, nearly a century after the abolition of slavery, an American civil rights movement arose with growing demands to end racial segregation and discrimination on the basis of color. By the 1960s, the movement had achieved notable successes in the passage of legislation banning racial discrimination in employment and housing and protecting voting rights.

Yet the civil rights movement created another dynamic that often led to more distrust and anxiety in the relationship between blacks and the police. Local officials like Commissioner of Public SafetyTheophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor turned dogs, water hoses and clubs on peaceful protesters when they marched through the streets of Birmingham. On “Bloody Sunday” fifty years ago, Sheriff Jim Clark sent his officers to attack marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma; Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler killed unarmed Jimmie Lee Jackson during the peaceful protest.

The brutality of these policemen indirectly contributed to the success of the civil rights movement as their harsh actions were recorded and broadcast across the nation and the world to widespread revulsion. Indeed, the marchers sought to dramatize the brutality of the local police. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of non-violent civil disobedience using direct action tactics was designed to draw out police brutality for the attention of the media. King instructed his followers:

If you can accept it, you will leave those state troopers bloodied with their own barbarities. If you can accept it, you will do something that will transform conditions here in Alabama.

In September 1955, a young mother made a decision that sent a spark through the black community and far beyond. Emmett Till was a black teenager killed by white men who heard that he had whistled at a white woman in the Mississippi delta. His mother, Mamie Till, allowed for an open casket for the world to see the face of her brutalized 14-year-old son. It was not the police who performed this act of brutality, but the blind eye of the justice system let the killers go free with a not-guilty verdict. Mamie permitted the gruesome photos of her dead son to be published on the cover of Jet, a popular black magazine, an act that aroused the conscience of many people across the country. Rosa Parks tells of her anger and her disgust over what happened to Emmett Till, and how it strengthened her determination on the day she made civil rights history by defying a driver’s demand that she vacate her seat on a segregated public bus in Montgomery.

The brutality showed very painfully the depth of disregard for black life. But the pain of inequity was far worse than the pain of the brutality. The beatings and killings speak to the pain of the inequities of education, unemployment, discrimination, and Jim Crow. The goal of the civil rights movement was to transform conditions in Alabama, the south and America—not merely to secure voting rights or civil rights and access to healthcare, education, bank loans, and the lunch counter.

Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!
The Black Power Movement grew out of the brutality blacks experienced during the civil rights struggle. In contrast with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach, Black Power reflected the militant, highly confrontational style of a fed-up generation that was not ready to lie down and get beaten by police and chewed by police dogs. Not surprisingly, police at every level of government would view the Black Power Movement as a threat.

The movement’s organizers belonged to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which grew out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These young people coined phrases like “black power” and started a Black Nationalist group carrying on a tradition of black separatism initiated by the Jamaican pan-Africanist thinker and activist Marcus Garvey. They began to bear arms publicly for protection purposes against the police, and labeled the police “pigs.”

The Black Panther party, founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, college students well read in the law, began in the ghettos of Oakland where blacks felt that the police were intimidating black community members. The party quickly spread across America, with thousands of members and dozens of branches. Members of the Panthers wore all-black regalia and militaristic-style clothing, and bore arms openly in states where it was legal to do so. Such was the party’s profile that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover termed it “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” The police killing of party deputy national chairman Fred Hampton, legal cases against Newton, and organizational infighting eventually led to the dissolution of the party in 1982.

“I Can’t Breathe!”
Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Trayvon Martin. In the era of America’s first African American president, black lives continue to be lost at the hands of police, or disregarded by the American justice system. These killings from Ferguson, Missouri, to Staten Island, New York, have spurred national protests and hold the attention of the nation.

Michael Brown was an 18-year-old black man shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson. The killing in August 2014 set off demonstrations in Ferguson and around the country, and propelled the Twitter hashtag #blacklivesmatter as a powerful instrument of awareness and protest. Federal investigations eventually cleared Wilson of wrongdoing, but found Ferguson police guilty of racism, racial profiling, and routine violations of the constitutional rights of the city’s African American residents. A Justice Department report found that black drivers were more than twice as likely to be searched during routine traffic stops and were more likely to face excessive force from police. “Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias,” the report said. The report discovered racist jokes among officials in the city email system; one of them compared President Obama to a monkey.

Another case that attracted national attention in 2014 was the police chokehold death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old former New York City employee. Garner died while being arrested in July for allegedly selling unlicensed cigarettes on a street in Staten Island. In an act caught on video, a police officer put Garner in a headlock while restraining him, leading Garner to repeat, “I can’t breathe” eleven times; he was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital an hour later. A local grand jury declined to indict the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, but the U.S. Justice Department is still investigating Garner’s death.

What is happening in America stems from a psychosis that can be traced back hundreds of years. In his grand jury testimony in the case of Michael Brown, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson described what he felt was the menacing face of the young man. “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face,” Wilson said. “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

What would make an 18-year-old boy look like that? Fear. Why would you be afraid of an 18-year-old boy? A history that says blacks are three-fifth human relegates blacks to the status of animals. The fear will always be there. Whether it is a police officer pulling over a black man at a routine traffic stop, or a white woman clenching her purse when a black man passes by, or store security eyeing a black customer, it is an instinctive feeling: they are demons, animals.

Stony the Road We Trod
On election night in 2012, as President Obama was winning re-election against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the Fox television commentator Bill O’Reilly declared: “The white establishment is now the minority.”

To some, those words ring true. The sentiment of fear is so strong that conservative politicians in the United States have purposely decided to stonewall the executive branch headed by a black man. In the six years of President Obama’s terms of office we have observed the do-nothing Congress. Many have come to believe that with the increasingly multicultural demographics of the country, white males who have traditionally dominated politics will find it difficult to win elections without some type of voter suppression. Hence, conservative politicians have pushed for voter ID laws, which could effectively disenfranchise many black and Latino citizens, and blocked immigration reform that would enable undocumented Latinos to become citizens with voting rights. These conservative politicians also use race as an easy opportunity to create fear—enabling them to rally their supporters, manipulate the electorate on economic issues, and hold on to political power. Take the ultraconservative Tea Party movement: it advocates reduced government spending and opposes government programs such as Obamacare, but it mobilizes its forces with racist rhetoric and fearmongering.

The Tea Party feeds a middle-class struggle that breeds racism and ignorance, and creates a climate for acts of violence and police brutality toward African Americans. In a struggling economy, the argument that blacks are the reason that whites may not get jobs or the help they need strikes a chord with middle-class whites. Their fear of losing preference or privilege leads to tactics of intimidation, to disdain for African Americans, and to police brutality.

“Black Lives Matter” is now our cause. We use die-ins, marches, and civil disobedience with hopes of progressive policies like police accountability, body cameras, demilitarization of police forces, and federal oversight of police departments. But most important and central to this cause is changing a heart, changing a moral consciousness, changing minds, and changing the generations to come to undo the years of damage that the past and even present forces of division have promoted. So we protest not just for policy, not just for attention, but in this generation we protest to educate and to dispel a long history that has discounted the humanism of black life from slavery to present. In the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a poem put to song by the principal of a segregated school in 1900 on the occasion of a visit by Booker T. Washington for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday:

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

Reverend Charles Williams II is senior pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, the pulpit that Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Thurgood Marshall, among others, used as a stage to spread progressive messages. He is national expansion director and president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by Reverend Al Sharpton. On Twitter: @therevcw.

Constitutional Stories

Allow me to frame my comments by presenting two contrasting quotations at the outset, one from Canada’s current prime minister and one from the prime minister who immediately preceded him. I’m not going to refer to them further in my essay; rather I invite you to read them now and then to return to them once more at the end. Each presents a strikingly different constitutional narrative of Canada, even though spoken by a prime minister. This essay unpacks the remarkable tension between them and tries to explain the work that each narrative does for Canadian self-understanding today. I conclude that the constitutional story we tell has a tremendous impact on the quality of citizenship we hold. Here we go:

We should not, you know we’re so, we’re so, humble isn’t the word, but we’re so self-effacing as Canadians that we sometimes forget the assets we do have that other people see. We are a very large country, with a well-established, you know, we have one of the longest-standing democratic regimes, unbroken democratic regimes, in history. We are one of the most stable regimes in history. There are very few countries that can say for nearly 150 years they’ve had the same political system without any social breakdown, political upheaval, or invasion. We are unique in that regard. We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers, but none of the things that threaten or bother them about the great powers. We also are a country, obviously beginning with our two major cultures, but also a country formed by people from all over the world that is able to speak cross-culturally in a way few other countries are able to do at international forums.¹

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, addressing the G20 in Pittsburgh, 2009

The history of the indigenous populations of the world is a book most people have never read. This is certainly true of Canada. And unfortunately when we do read the book of the First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit, it begins with the European explorers who, after they figured out this wasn’t India or China, believed they had discovered a new continent where no one of any consequence lived. It starts with Canada’s beginnings when the European settlers believing that native culture had no value, the settlers who followed made no attempt to understand it because they assumed its people had nothing to say. Thus began the tradition of dismissing indigenous knowledge in order to impose the European settler’s mono-cultural point of view on everything they saw, touched, or heard in the so-called new world. From the start, the newcomers’ message to North America’s First Peoples was the mantra used by colonial powers the world over. We told them, and we told ourselves, that all that we believed was good, and that all they believed—their history, their traditions—was irrelevant.²

—Former Prime Minister Paul Martin, address in Saskatoon, 2014

Most would agree that until recent years, Canadians have long enjoyed a strong reputation internationally for our commitment to global welfare and for the living conditions we sustain at home. Probably less known, Canadians are awfully proud of it. We don’t like to own up to it—I sometimes feel as if there’s a sense of joint enterprise in keeping our pride on the down low. Most of us wouldn’t want to be caught in public feeling so upbeat about ourselves. Doesn’t jibe with our reputation for getalongability and easygoingism. But make no mistake, we’re proud of what are seen as Canada’s remarkable social, political, and economic successes. We’re proud of the tremendous quality of life we have. We’re immensely proud to be Canadian. We see our country as embodying the progressive politics but neither the external open imperialism nor the internal casual indifference toward others of our neighbors to the south. We understand ourselves as international exemplars of lives lived valuing and experiencing freedom, justice, and equality and all of this without adopting an American ethos of we’rebestism.

This is a caricature of course. Many critical-minded Canadians do not feel this way at all; some rail against this view. But my experience across a wide array of spaces is that beyond the academy, beyond activist communities, and beyond identifiable minorities, most Canadians subscribe to a version of it (as do hordes of academics, activists, and minorities). In our ordinary capacity as citizens we complain of course—about policies we don’t like, about the identity of the government of the day, about how out of touch their values are with the heart of our collective being—but we don’t call into question the quality of our citizenship itself. No, Canada and membership in it are taken as unambiguously good. That’s always presented as a settled answer, not an open question. It’s the invisible claim upon which all self-reflexive political judgment may issue, not a premise within the purview of debate.

On the surface, of course, this sense of certainty has to do with the immense privilege that citizenship in Canada bestows. But not far beneath this secret self-love has to do with a rather obvious, important and permanent feature. Travelling on the back of citizenship, it finds its foundation in our constitution. All of the citizenship goods that empower the caricature find their (effective) first cause in the set of documents and unwritten conventions that bind our political community together. Statements about pride in Canadian identity are ultimately statements about the domestic structural conditions that authorize and shape it.

That structure is deeply (although as the Supreme Court of Canada’s Quebec Secession Reference³ made clear, not classically) liberal, and has been given great force judicially through the metaphor of “a living tree.” As Western liberal democracies grew, a deep constitutional divide emerged as to how (and whether) a constitution could allow its government to recognize changes in the society it governs. That is, a divisive question arose as to how the settled legal and political superstructure could account for dynamic social, economic, and (though liberals are loath to admit its existence in public life) moral sensibilities formally beyond, but in reality shot through, law and politics.

For Canada the debate was settled in 1929 by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Canada’s then-final legal arbiter, in Edwards v. Attorney General for Canada, better known as the Person’s Case.⁴ Speaking for the Council, Lord Sankey delivered his famous statement that, “The British North America Act planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.”⁵ That’s the metaphor for Canadian constitutionalism and thus the home of our private self-confidence. The fact that the tree is specified as living underscores Canada’s constitutional commitment to growth and change; ours is not a constitutional order forever determined by our originator’s intent. Rather, where existing legal disadvantage has in contemporary contexts come to be seen as prejudicial, the relevant law will be reformed.⁶

Violence of Erasure
The choice of a tree over other life forms is apt because the structure of branches suggests that the tree can accommodate (there’s the liberal move) a wide variety of directions for growth all at once and none of the branches are expected to look alike. Subject to what the trunk may bear, each has a space of its own in which to thrive. But of course everything turns on the reality of the trunk. All branches find roots and hence nourishment only through it. And this is precisely as Lord Sankey intended with the insufficiently discussed last half of his statement that the growth (and imperially, his use of the language “expansion”) of the living tree was always to be constrained “within its natural limits.”

“Aha,” anti-imperial skeptics like me will exclaim.

For anyone concerned about power, the constraining condition necessarily raises the rather important questions of 1) what those limits are, 2) how they are justified, and 3) whether the justificatory standard invoked is the right one. And from the perspective of the status quo, those are dangerous questions for their effect is to topple the constitutional story Canada tells of itself, and thus call into question citizen confidence in the goodness of their national identity. Those questions, in like metaphor, are the lumberjack’s ax.

First, let us be clear: the limits contemplated are the hard edges of liberalism—a political community built on an anthropological premise that each of us exists independently before we exist in groups and the resulting valuation of individual autonomy as the primary political good even where other political goods are taken as being of vital importance; the concomitant problem of individuals needing certainty of security from one another’s capacity for open physical violence and for the violence of liberty deprivation; the need to vindicate the right where such transgressions occur; and a resulting necessary, shared orientation to justice. To accomplish all of this the living tree has its roots clutching a social contract struck between settler⁷ peoples at confederation in which the rule of law was sanctified and marshaled to police a hard line between public and private life. Within this story, that contract is the seed for Canada’s entire constitutional enterprise.

Question two: all of this is said to be justified because the sovereign—vested with a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence to enforce compliance with the right—finds its authority in this contract, the product of autonomous citizens having delegated their power upward and centrally to it.

That just leaves the third question: whether the justificatory standard of autonomous settler citizen authorization is the right one. Use of the descriptor “settler” in posing the third question is not out of place because in the contract story Canada tells, only settler peoples were invited to participate in the dialogue. Which is already to state the beginning of my answer to the question.

A necessary condition of the contract is the violence of erasure. The living tree draws up through its roots strength and support from the contract story, in which indigenous peoples do not appear: folks already present can’t feature in a story of beginning. We were not party to confederation. Although we may now vote (and many of us do), we are not retroactively made subjects of popular sovereignty: Canada is still not ruled with our consent. And guess what? Many of us would steadfastly refuse to legitimize a shared political community bound within a liberal constitutional framework even if wewere offered authorization/non-authorization over it: we already have stories that explain how we constituted ourselves as political communities on our traditional lands. And as folks who were already here, organized in vibrant political communities, indigenous peoples’ foundational political claim is not to fit in with, or be tolerated by, the rest of Canada, but rather to have our own ways of being—legal, political, economic, social, spiritual, and ecological—stand in the world that gives them life and meaning.

Let’s sideline all of that for a moment and reflect on Canada today. We have the metaphor of the living tree and considerable citizen pride in the real-world impacts it conditions and empowers. But how are the benefits of Canadian constitutionalism distributed across citizens? Who feels that pride? And more pointedly, how’s the living tree working out for the indigenous peoples whose political communities on Turtle Island preceded and—albeit colonized, disempowered and thus rendered largely ineffective in practice—survive despite Canada?

The question is no question at all. I have no interest here in inventorying the causes of the incalculable suffering that indigenous persons, peoples, and lands have experienced because of institutionalized state depredations against them. Accounts of both the distant past and ongoing violence have been and are being widely reported and are readily available for those interested in educating themselves. Although it has its own problems, the five-volume report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released in 1996 is a good starting point.

Alternatively, to learn more one could simply check out the headlines of Canada’s national dailies (not for the quality of coverage—which is widely biased against indigenous interests—but for an identification of national issues regarding indigenous suffering). We recently had the Idle No More movement in Canada which brought tens of thousands of people, indigenous and settler, from across all corners of Canada into the streets, public squares, malls, and highways in recognition of indigenous suffering and in support of change. Support rallies broke out in various cities in the United States and in other countries. Second, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is currently wrapping up its inquiry into the federal government’s Indian Residential Schools’ ethnocide program. The government was compelled to create the process through a settlement agreement that resolved litigation, and it has fought the process throughout it, including, perhaps most importantly, denying the commission access to critical documents and information needed to deliver on its mandate. Third, affected families and many sections of civil society have long been voicing concern over the massive-scale murder and abduction of indigenous women in Canada. Although the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview,” a report documenting 1,181 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada between 1980 and 2012 (and these are just the cases the RCMP had documented), Canada’s federal government refuses to take targeted action. In particular, it continually rebuffs calls for a national inquiry on this issue specifically in favor of general tough-on-crime legislation. I once had a settler man in his 50s tell me he missed “the good old days when you could dump a squaw back in the ditch when you were done with her” as casually as if commenting on the weather, while driving me down the TransCanada highway. He even smiled. Not smugly; as if in fond remembrance.

Those are just a handful of contemporary reference points, which for many indigenous peoples reflect the experience of life under Canada’s imposed constitutional order. If you’re a Canadian citizen who happens to be indigenous and who thus resides on the boot end of Canadian constitutionalism, you might well feel no pride in Canada at all. On the contrary, many indigenous persons voice deep anger, hurt, and frustration at Canada for its total disinterest in reckoning its genesis with indigenous existence and for its ongoing quiet disinterest in drawing out the connection between its contemporary constitutional practice and our suffering today.

Stunning Apathy
Yes, to be sure many indigenous persons and peoples in Canada are suffering but that right there—the reaction—is the real story: that it’s possible for Canada’s disinterest in indigenous suffering today to be quiet, that Canada is so far removed from claiming any sense of responsibility for the living conditions it has imposed on indigenous peoples, that its disinterest could register as quiet instead of shocking, deafening silence to the average citizen’s ears. The real story is about why Canada feels no need to claim responsibility. The real story is about why so many settler Canadians are mystified when confronted with indigenous peoples’ absence of pride in Canadian constitutionalism and even offended by indigenous non-identity with Canadian citizenship. The real story is about the stunning apathy so many Canadians demonstrate to indigenous suffering today and their sustained commitment not to educate themselves about it. The real story is about the dynamic that allows for Canadians’ righteous indignation at human suffering in other parts of the globe—enough so that governments of different political stripes continually find public support for the allocation of funds and troops in support of peacekeeping and military interventions abroad—while generating little more than exasperated sighs about indigenous suffering at home. I have yet to see a Canadian federal election in my lifetime where citizens decided that indigenous suffering was a matter of Canadian governance and hence a voting issue.

Many Canadians go further still and are actively angry with us for suffering. Many Canadians, including some of Canada’s most highly regarded print journalists, consistently argue that we bear the primary responsibility for our own suffering. Liberal constitutionalism has done us the good service of working out for us the conditions that will allow us to thrive and those conditions, we are told, are universal; we’re thus at fault if we don’t accept the offer of constitutional transformation. On this popular account, a need to inquire into the actual causes of indigenous suffering isn’t taken as necessary to address it. Let me repeat that astounding perspective: knowing the cause of indigenous suffering is not taken as necessary or even important to address it. Indigenous peoples enjoy a unique cultural quality of timelessness so special that so far as our interests are concerned, public policy need not attend to the trivialities of cause and effect. The question of cause either doesn’t arise or answers are simply presumed. In the latter case, the answer proffered is always a version of “they aren’t willing participants in our liberal constitutional order.” One of the strongest moments of this latter form of imperialism I’ve personally experienced was in March 2011.  I was an invited speaker at a forum on indigenous-Canada reconciliation in Canada’s province of Ontario. It was held in the Native Canadian Center, in Toronto. Sitting in the audience and waiting for my panel, I was stunned to hear our keynote’s core message. A former premier of Ontario shared with easy confidence and certain conviction that indigenous peoples in Ontario need to join the twenty-first century: that was the central impediment to our having a successful relationship. It was such an unbelievable statement coming from someone with as much constitutional authority as he had that I kept waiting for the punch line. Then slowly I realized he really is that ignorant and that his presence at this event was the (albeit unintended) joke.  In my comments, shaking I was so angry, I stated that his prehistoric view works directly against reconciliation and in the interests of division.⁸

So much for getalongability. So much for easygoingism. On home soil—where Canadians are inescapably confronted with indigenous suffering—the national disposition wavers instead between privileged confusion (those who have continually refused to educate themselves) and angry judgment (those who always already know the answer). Either way, it’s an orientation of open imperialism that follows from unquestioned, unjustified, and unjustifiable settler privilege: never having to justify how it is one came to inherit the considerable benefits of life in Canada; as if no disadvantage has been borne for what appears through the filter of settler privilege as a marvelous, costless, constitutional windfall.

Colonialism is not reducible to a historical process of European settlement and indigenous displacement. That’s but one phase of what is, properly understood, a mode of relation. Today it’s exercised through the imperial imposition of a liberal constitutional order over pre-existing indigenous ones: the living tree refuses to acknowledge the forest around it and stubbornly, selfishly, proceeds to draw up as many resources as it can for itself, oblivious to the needs of all others. The question Canada poses to the indigenous peoples it colonizes even today is “liberty or unfreedom?” but this is a false dichotomy which serves the purpose of (thinly) concealing Canada’s constitutional commitment to violence. The real question is always “freedom or unfreedom?”: there are logics of freedom beyond liberty. This is not a sophisticated insight. One simply needs to be willing to ask the third question raised by Lord Sankey’s constraining condition for it to be disclosed.

This brings us to the heart of the problem of contemporary Canadian colonialism and our starting point of the pride so many Canadians feel by virtue of the constitutional order in which they claim citizenship. Through the lie that liberty represents the whole of freedom, Canada’s greatest constitutional feat has been to hide domination within the shadows of freedom. The Honorable Frank Iacobucci, retired Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, recently concluded an inquiry into the systematic exclusion of on-reserve indigenous peoples from the jury roles in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. Consider the following quotation from his final report:

One of the biggest challenges expressed by many First Nations leaders and people is with respect to the conflict that exists between First Nations’ cultural values, laws, and ideologies regarding traditional approaches to conflict resolution and the values and laws that underpin the Canadian justice system. The objective of the traditional First Nations’ approach to justice is to re-attain harmony, balance, and healing with respect to a particular offense, rather than seeking retribution and punishment. First Nations observe the Canadian justice system as devoid of any reflection of their core principles or values, and view it as a foreign system that has been imposed upon them without their consent.⁹

The real story is not the one Canada tells.

As this quotation reveals, it is not the case that on northern Turtle Island, what many of us now call Canada, a single constitutional order occupies all the constitutional space. Liberty is not the only foundation for political community, nor is it the only face of freedom. Long before early Europeans showed up (much less the hordes of immigrants from every country imaginable who are still arriving), the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island not only lived in political communities, but did so according to constitutional frameworks reflective of their own ways of being and knowing in the world and of their own conception of value.

Indigenous Forbearance
Canadian imperialism stands on the unforgivably arrogant assumption that before Europeans showed up, indigenous peoples had no constitutional order; that we were autonomous units roaming randomly about, occasionally bumping into one another, which is the cause of our cultural diagnosis of civilizational failure to thrive. But the real story is about conflicting constitutionalisms. The real story of indigenous resistance to Canadian constitutionalism—the reason we refuse the offer of liberal transformation—is because there is freedom beyond liberty; because it is not the case that all we need is a shot of liberal constitutionalism to set us straight; because we are not scaling ourselves against the liberal metric of success; because despite centuries of dispossession and violence, we have not forgotten who we are; because we know that we claim citizenship in our own constitutional orders which are premised on an ontological claim of interdependence, not one of individual autonomy and which are pointed toward harmony (understood not as non-conflict, but as right relation), not justice; because we know that submission to liberty and the privileging of the individual it requires over the relational mode of being required of an interdependent self will alienate us, too, from the conditions of earth which sustain our lives, and will make us, too, complicit in the violence that has ushered in the Anthropocene and climate crisis.

The real story is about indigenous forbearance. Despite repeated state-sanctioned violence taking physical, mental, economic, ecological, and social forms, we have not adopted a responsive course of violent confrontation. Of how many other places in the world where peoples live under conditions of domination—precisely because of who they are as peoples—can this be said? The real story is about indigenous peoples staying true to their own teachings, which have to do with guiding those who behave harmfully into right relation. This is a story of unimaginable patience. It is a story of giving to those who do not deserve the gift, but who, despite their commitment to violence, are also part of creation. It’s a story about the daily practice of indigenous constitutionalism under conditions determined to stamp it out.

Finally, the real story—about violence, imperialism, education, forbearance, and hope—is about treaty. Canadian constitutionalism brings a treaty within the liberal logic of distributive justice. It says that treaties are contracts which distribute settled rights between parties, which are then enjoyed by each party’s respective membership. As such, treaty rights are expressed within the forms of Canadian constitutionalism and thus speak under, not to, its power.

Although they all use different language to express the idea, most indigenous peoples I know think of treaties instead as a framework for right relationships. That is, the work of a treaty is not to distribute rights under the authority of Canadian constitutional power, but rather to coordinate distinct constitutional orders. Often this is described as a “nation-to-nation” relationship. It is an intersocietal practice indigenous peoples engaged one another in long before settlers arrived and into which settler peoples were welcomed.

This has been a long answer to the third question, but my view will be plain: from no space could settler peoples legitimately authorize a constitutional contract on Turtle Island without the express consent of indigenous peoples, and for reasons of conflicting ideas about the foundations of healthy political community, that consent would not, is not, and will not be given. But that isn’t the end of the story. We are not to draw from widespread indigenous refusal of the contract and the resulting violence upon which Canadian constitutionalism is necessarily predicated that settler citizens can never claim legitimacy here. The replacement story for settlers is not a choice between acknowledged domination or insufferable guilt and the resulting deliberate ignorance and animosity it breeds.

Instead, we could all choose education and the connection it allows for, together. Indigenous peoples could volunteer to teach settlers about our own constitutional orders and about the treaties that invoke these constitutional forms to make a home for settler peoples here. Many have already been working hard at this for a very long time. We could all accept that treaties serve the end of bringing us into political community together, and thus legitimize settler presence on Turtle Island. We could all accept that treaties are also the constitutional means: our difference is not a tension to be resolved once and for all; rather settler presence is forever to be contingent on compliance with the earth-first treaty order. If this were the constitutional story we told, our lives would all change. Thankfully, we would no longer enjoy the unsustainable pace of earth-destroying modes of economic development which are responsible for the Anthropocene, and all of us, settler and indigenous, would be able to claim citizenship in our shared political community knowing that violence is not the foundation of our link. And that’s a community I’d be proud to be part of.

Aaron Mills (Anishinaabe name: Waabishki Ma’iingan) is a Bear Clan Anishinaabe from Treaty #3 Territory, Canada. He is a doctoral candidate, Vanier Scholar and Trudeau Scholar at the University of Victoria, Faculty of Law. He serves on the board of directors of the Indigenous Bar Association. He completed his J.D. at the University of Toronto in 2010, during which time he was the editor-in-chief of the Indigenous Law Journal and served on the board of directors of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto. 

  1. Aaron Wherry, “What he was talking about when he talked about colonialism,” Macleans, 1 October 2009. Online: http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/what-he-was-talking-about-when-he-talked-about-colonialism/.
  2. Paul Martin (The Rt. Hon.), “Wâhkôhtowin 2014: Indigenizing Practice in Post-Secondary Education: Linking Kindred Spirits,” Keynote Address, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 19 September 2014. http://www.witbn.org/APTNFinalSmallTypeJune19.pdf. To be clear, although I contrast Martin’s statement with Harper’s, I am not intending to hold it out as representative of an ideal constitutional story. Martin, too, is a committed contractarian of the sort I argue against in this essay, but he’s able to see some colonial impact, both contemporary and historical.
  3. Reference re Secession of Quebec [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217., in which the Supreme Court of Canada addressed three reference questions on whether and under what conditions the Province of Quebec could unilaterally secede from Canada.
  4. Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) [1929] J.C.J. No. 2, [1930] A.C. 124. (J.C.P.C.). Five women sought to prove that they were “persons” within the meaning of s. 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, which regards senate appointments.
  5. Edwards at 136.
  6. “Seen by whom” of course remains a live and contentious question. I note also that this generous characterization of the doctrine of the living tree denies the possibility that some legal disadvantage may have been intentionally prejudicial (and indeed in my opinion, was so) from the outset.
  7. I don’t intend my use of the descriptor “settler” to reduce the political identities of non-indigenous Canadians to the fact of colonization. However, in an argument where our respective political status on Turtle Island is the very thing at issue, centring settler and indigenous locations is critical.
  8. Symposium on Reconciliation in Ontario: Opportunities and Next Steps, University of Toronto / National Centre for First Nations Governance Symposium, Native Canadian Centre, Toronto, 10 February 2011.
  9. The Honorable Frank Iacobucci, First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries: Report of the Independent Review Conducted by The Honourable Frank Iacobucci (Government of Ontario, 2013) at 210.

On the State of Nature

Modern political discussion is dominated by the division between Left and Right. Each of us has so internalized this distinction that we often catch ourselves placing new acquaintances or emerging public figures somewhere along the Left/Right spectrum, even in ambiguous cases. We immediately detect when someone makes a misstep by occupying the wrong part of the spectrum at the wrong time: as when our loose cannon uncle praises George W. Bush at a gathering of Arabists, or a student leader talks like Che Guevara before a university board of trustees. The split between Left and Right goes back to the French Revolution, that formative event for all politics ever since. While the Right holds onto the various accretions of history as if they were fragile heirlooms protecting us from anarchy, the Left generally wishes to eradicate such accidents in favor of a political system grounded in an optimistic view of the human character.

Ultimately, these opposing standpoints are motivated by opposite theories of the so-called “State of Nature,” a staple of early modern political theory. The Right’s version of human nature resembles that of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, where life in the State of Nature is famously described as “nasty, brutish, and short.” Pre-civilized existence is a war of all against all, with theft and murder normal daily occurrences, and even the mightiest humans in permanent danger of being clubbed to death in their sleep. Given the horrific prospects of such a world, approached in some respects by the brutal English Civil War of Hobbes’ own era, the paramount need is for order. We should salute nearly any government, no matter how oppressive, as a bulwark against the terrors of the night. Even if we join those commentators who view Hobbes as the founder of liberalism, insofar as he seeks to depoliticize social life for the pursuit of happiness and economic gain, the basic pessimism of Hobbes’ vision is clear. Since even a brutally oppressive regime would be preferable to civil war, the key is that nothing should be regarded as transcending the sphere of the state. Not only religion, but even science must be blocked from claiming access to a superior truth beyond the power of the sovereign. Hobbes himself went so far as to denounce the chemist Robert Boyle to the English government for claiming direct access to the truth of the vacuum.

By contrast, the Left is the heir of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose State of Nature features equal human beings who differ initially only by who can sing and dance most impressively around the campfire. In the State of Nature there are no distinctions as to wealth, power, intelligence, strength, or even beauty (since everyone looks equally horrible). The birth of agriculture and metallurgy ended this condition by giving rise to cities, starting us on our long historical march through crushing social hierarchy and bloodthirsty war machines. Though it is no longer possible to return to the initial paradise, overthrowing the tyranny of kings and sultans would be a good start in partially restoring human dignity. While for Hobbes even an oppressive government is still better than the State of Nature, for Rousseau it is infinitely worse. Occasional injustice is not the lesser of two evils, but a morally repugnant outrage that justifies revolution.

Yet there is a different and more important modern political distinction that does not rest on speculations about the State of Nature. I speak of the difference between Truth Politics and Power Politics, both of which come in Left and Right forms. With the former we have those who believe they grasp a political truth grounded in the nature of things, though one which regrettably eludes us due to the stupidity, greed, corruption, or class interests of others. This supposed truth may be the equality of all humans (as for most Marxists) or an eternal hierarchy of unequal human types (as for most Straussians). With the latter category we have the colder view of those who see politics as merely as a battleground of strength, poised somewhere beyond good and evil. The fact that most people are a mixture of the two tendencies does not mean that the pure tendencies do not exist. And here too we find a Right version of Power Politics (as with any Machiavellian tyrant) and a Left version (as with much postmodern identity politics). In one of its milder forms, Power Politics takes the shape of geopolitical realism.

This duality of Truth and Power can often be found in commentary on contemporary events. Let’s consider two present-day views on the motives of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The first comes from an article in the February 14, 2015 issue of the Economist, one of the flagship periodicals of free-market liberal democracy.¹ At times the article presents Putin as merely evil: “The EU and NATO are Mr. Putin’s ultimate targets. To him, Western institutions and values are more threatening than armies. He wants to halt their spread, corrode them from within and, at least on the West’s fragile periphery, supplant them with his own model of governance…[in which] states are dominated by elites, and those elites can be bought.” At other times he is depicted as mentally unstable: “From his tantrums over the Middle East to his invasion of Georgia, and multiple misadventures in Ukraine, Mr. Putin has sometimes seemed to stumble into accidental disputes with the West, driven by a paranoid fear of encirclement.” Ultimately he becomes a dangerous psychotic: “Last year Mr. Putin lopped off Crimea, redrawing Europe’s map by force. The war he hallucinated into reality in eastern Ukraine has killed thousands.” For those left fearful of Russia after reading the Economist’s take on Putin, we can turn to the geopolitical realism of the Stratfor company, which portrays a thoughtful Putin simply playing the hand he was dealt. Where theEconomist sees madness and aggression, Stratfor’s Reva Bhalla sees a clear rationale: “Contrary to popular opinion in the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not driven by crazed territorial ambitions. He is looking at the map, just as his predecessors have for centuries, and grappling with the task of securing the Russian underbelly from a borderland state coming under the wing of a much more formidable military power in the West.”² Stratfor founder George Friedman, who takes Russian vulnerability so seriously that he predicts the breakup of the country over the next decade, weighed in as follows after his December visit to Moscow:

I have understood the Russians’ view of Ukraine as a necessary strategic buffer and the idea that without it they would face a significant threat, if not now, then someday… I tried to provide a strategic American perspective. The United States has spent the past century… [trying to prevent] the rise of any single hegemon that might be able to exploit Western European technology and capital and Russian resources and manpower.³

Friedman prefaces this view with a classic realist formula: “I try not to be drawn into matters of right and wrong, not because I don’t believe there is a difference but because history is rarely decided by moral principles.”

But however clear-headed this last utterance may seem, it overstates the realist case. One month earlier, Friedman’s colleague Robert Kaplan described that case as follows: “Though everyone and no one is a realist, it is also true that realism never goes away—at least not since Thucydides wrote The [History of the] Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC, in which he defined human nature as driven by fear… self-interest… and honor…”⁴ Now, surely it is part of honor to observe basic moral principles and to be known for observing them. Niccolò Machiavelli himself, for all his praise of the Borgia family’s machinations, says of the tyrant Agathocles that “it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.”⁵ That today’s world leaders are not just calculating realists can be seen from a simple thought experiment. If we were to replace each of these leaders instantly with a purely amoral double, it should be obvious that the world map would change its current form rather quickly, to the advantage of the most powerful states. While the position of the Economist may border on self-righteous, it is hardly out of bounds to judge Putin or other political actors in moral terms as well.

Bruno Latour’s Realization
Rather than brewing a lukewarm mixture of Truth and Power, it seems better to assume that there is something wrong with both positions. In a recent book, I attempted to trace the gradual realization of this point in the career of the French thinker Bruno Latour, who is not usually regarded as a political philosopher.⁶ Latour begins his career as an ardent Hobbesian, merely adding inanimate entities to the political sphere in a way that Hobbes does not, giving inanimate entities the task of stabilizing human society: houses, bank accounts, wedding rings, identity cards. What Latour loves most about Hobbes is his refusal of any transcendent principles, whether religious, scientific, or otherwise. The young Latour despises Truth Politics as a rather pitiful assertion of moral principle by those who do not take the trouble to win. This shifts with his blunt conclusion of 1991: “No, Hobbes was wrong.”⁷ By 1999 he asserts that the polity needs transcendence to prevent it from ignoring the outside world: it is now the job of scientists to detect relevant unknown inanimate entities (climate change, contagious diseases) and the job of moralists to draw our attention to excluded humans (illegal immigrants, the severely disabled).⁸ Truth Politics and Power Politics both share the same defect: both think that they already know how the world works. That is to say, either they already know what a good political system would look like if only it could be implemented, or they already know that truth is an illusion and the world is nothing but a winner-take-all struggle to the death. This ignores that politics at its best admits uncertainty as to the best course of action: a learned uncertainty that Latour credits to the diplomat, one of his favorite figures. This leads Latour at last to an “object-oriented” politics, in which the object is never fully grasped but still organizes political activity anyway: the true factors behind climate change, the prions probably but not definitely responsible for mad cow disease.⁹

One typical feature of object-oriented politics is its claim that political issues arise in intermittent and indeterminate fashion and require the participation of all those affected by it. Whereas the journalist Walter Lippmann saw the frequent ignorance of the American public as a barrier to democracy, John Dewey viewed it more optimistically, as a signal of individual freedom not to be informed about each and every public issue. Instead, each political issue defines its own new public, and each issue remains a subject of controversy and uncertainty for as long as it is with us. Much like Socrates never reaching a final definition of justice or virtue, the democratic public never reaches the final truth of an issue, but also (one hopes) never resorts to brute force alone in dealing with it. Yet the opposite feature also follows. Just as no political issue can ever be thoroughly illuminated, we also cannot let action be delayed indefinitely by the unattainability of direct political knowledge. At some point a decision is needed. And here Latour makes striking use of the right-wing political theorist Carl Schmitt (who is also popular among many Leftists for his anti-liberal view that the political is always violent).

Schmitt is primarily interested in those situations where arguments over right and wrong are no longer relevant, since the parties have embarked on an existential struggle for survival.¹⁰ Latour’s 2013 Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh openly implied that we now have reached this point with climate change: a point where climate change skeptics obviously cannot be convinced, and so must simply be defeated. However entertaining this “Green Schmittianism” might sound, it has alarmed those of Latour’s readers who saw his object-oriented politics, structured by broad but limited participation in never fully definable or resolvable issues, as his more promising political breakthrough. Assuming that this is the case, it would still remain to be seen how an object-oriented politics would shift political discourse away from the oscillating descriptions of Vladimir Putin as either malevolent or admirably rational. If modern political theory is truly dominated by the duality of Truth and Power, it remains to be seen what emerges from the breakdown of this distinction.

It is worth noting two other aspects of Latour’s object-oriented political theory. One is his remarkable degree of respect for politicians, rare among intellectuals. Even before Socrates, philosophers were in the habit of belittling politicians as cynical manipulators with forked tongues and crooked speech. The honest person was supposed to engage in “straight talk,” which the politician seemed inherently unable to provide. According to this model of transparency, the people should speak to their representative (democratically elected or otherwise), who should faithfully express their will, while the people in turn would transparently follow the commands of the government. Yet all this assumes that the will of the people and the orders of the sovereign power are transparently intelligible, though the arts of commanding and obeying involve as much interpretation as art or food criticism. Latour views politics as a continually revived circular motion, a perpetual translation between people and sovereign that has nothing in common with direct knowledge. The second aspect of Latour’s object-oriented political theory is its recognition that political issues follow a trajectory from background to foreground to background: “Political-1” through “Political-5.” Political issues are first vaguely detected and slowly processed as topics for sovereign action long before they become visible as topics for parliamentary dispute, public referendum, or arbitrary decree. Eventually many issues reach the point of Political-5, becoming objects of invisible efficient governance rather than heated dispute. In the days of Louis Pasteur, the origin of illness was a largely political dispute. Ultimately we reached the point when public health and hygiene transcended party boundaries and became largely a management problem, until one day they were reawakened in the resistance of the anti-vaccine movement. Perhaps a half-century from now, today’s charged conflicts over climate change will resemble the relatively unpolitical management of roads and bridges; a century later, maybe the climate will return to the arena of explicit politics. What seems clear is that the time of politics as a purely human concern are giving way to a political entanglement with inanimate beings.

Graham Harman is a distinguished university professor at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of twelve books, most recently Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political and Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism

  1. The passages below are cited from “Putin’s war on the West,” Economist, February 14, 2015.
  2. Reva Bhalla, “The Intersection of Three Crises,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, February 24, 2015. https://www.stratfor.com/weekly/intersection-three-crises.
  3. George Friedman, “Viewing Russia from the Inside,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, December 14, 2015. https://www.stratfor.com/weekly/viewing-russia-inside.
  4. Robert D. Kaplan, “The Realist Creed,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, November 19, 2014.
  5. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W. K. Marriott, ed. R. Dillon (Plano, TX: Veroglyphic Publishing, 2009), 35.
  6. Graham Harman, Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political (London: Pluto Press, 2014).
  7. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. C. Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 27.
  8. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. C. Porter. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  9. Bruno Latour, Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, trans. C. Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 327.
  10. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. G. Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

My Promised Land

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. By Ari Shavit. Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2013. 464 pp

Since the collapse of the Oslo peace process in the year 2000, a number of factors have converged to shift Israel’s ideological center of gravity sharply to the right. This shift is best appreciated in the metamorphosis of the country’s “moderates.” Benjamin Netanyahu, a diehard opponent of Palestinian self-determination, now occupies the “pragmatic center” of Israeli politics. Likewise, when it comes to what passes for mainstream dissent, the peacenik anguish of literary intellectuals like Amos Oz and David Grossman has given way to the thinly veiled apologetics of Ari Shavit, a self-styled anti-occupation liberal who gleefully cheered Israel’s 2008–09 bombardment of the Gaza Strip. A veteran correspondent and columnist for Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper, Shavit has penned a seductive defense of the Zionist enterprise that advances a number of highly reactionary propositions under the guise of “centrist” thinking.

As its title suggests, My Promised Land is not a work of academic history but “a personal journey through contemporary and historic Israel.” Based on interviews conducted over the course of Shavit’s journalistic career, its “characters” range from nameless citrus cultivators to high-ranking figures in Israel’s political, military, and scientific establishments. A scion of the country’s Ashkenazi aristocracy, Shavit weaves family history into his narrative, lending it a compelling insider intimacy. But the Jewish-Israeli human stories, poetically rendered, are regrettably laced with the author’s tendentious accounts of Middle Eastern history, as well as a set of schizophrenic political jeremiads that combine extreme neoconservative hawkishness on Iran’s nuclear program with anti-occupation moralizing. The most troubling aspect of My Promised Land, however, is Shavit’s subtle but pervasive dehumanization of Palestinians through rhetorical acts of commission and omission.

Wending his way though Israel’s bloodstained origin story, Shavit imbues his Jewish protagonists—soldiers, survivors, farmers, pioneers—with a robust, multidimensional psychology. They love, they hate. They experience guilt and compassion and existential fear. For the most part, their moral shortcomings are duly weighed against their noble intentions, their troubled consciences, and their instinctive desire for self-preservation in a hostile world. Empathy is, of course, a cherished quality in conflict reporting. Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree is perhaps the best example of a journalistic account that employs emotional portraiture to enhance our understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But unlike Tolan, Shavit denies equal treatment to his Palestinian characters, to the extent they can be said to exist at all. When “Arabs” appear in My Promised Land, they most often appear as malarial peasants, anonymous killers, anti-Semitic mobs, bullet-scarred cadavers, or vanquished refugee columns.

In his most celebrated chapter, Shavit depicts the “cleansing” of the Palestinian city of Lydda at the hands of Jewish militants during the war of 1948. This is Shavit’s big reveal, his courageous liberal challenge to previous popular Zionist accounts that denied or sanitized Zionism’s role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. To his credit, he does not censor or downplay what recent Israeli historiography has established beyond a reasonable doubt: that Jewish forces precipitated the departure of 750,000 Palestinians using massacres and direct expulsions, transforming Arab Palestine into a Jewish-majority country. He paints the battle scene unflinchingly:

Some 3rd Regiment soldiers spray the wounded in the mosque with gunfire. Others toss grenades into neighboring houses. Still others mount machine guns in the streets and shoot at anything that moves. After half an hour of revenge, there are scores of corpses in the streets, seventy corpses in the mosque. The corpses from the mosque are buried at night in a deep hole dug by some nearby Arabs, and a tractor is brought in before morning to cover the hole.

Nor does Shavit hesitate to describe the monstrous psychology of war. A Jewish soldier nicknamed Bulldozer “hunts down the Arabs seeking refuge between the old stone houses of the ancient city. He feels delight in hunting. Delight in killing. The almost sexual pleasure of laying men down.” But unlike his Palestinian counterparts, Bulldozer is fundamentally human, a product of his brutal environment. Earlier in the paragraph we are told that he “finds himself nearly alone as an armed Arab mob storms the building he is in. The mob shouts ‘Slaughter the Jews.’… He feels the cold shudder of approaching death.” A paragraph later we learn of Bulldozer’s emotional state as he discovers his comrades’ lifeless bodies: “Once again, he feels fear. He has a sudden, rare moment of understanding of what these few months of war have done to him, what a nightmare he is living.”

A sensitive portrayal, and certainly not unusual for the genre. But what of the anonymous “Arabs” Shavit has chanting “Slaughter the Jews?” Have they no backstory, no complex inner life? A recurring feature of My Promised Land is that Palestinian violence is presented without emotional context or psychological underpinnings (to say nothing of legitimate political grievances). It occurs randomly, senselessly. Its perpetrators are rarely individuated persons. The bloodthirsty mob is the primary vehicle of Palestinian political expression.

In describing the genesis of the 1936 Arab Revolt, Shavit neglects to mention decades of thwarted political activism undertaken by Palestinians in opposition to the Balfour Declaration and its codification in the British Mandate, which denied political self-determination to Palestine’s Arab population in deference to Zionist aims. Nor is much said about the unprecedented non-violent civil resistance that characterized the initial phase of the revolt, before it was crushed by the British administration. Instead, Shavit describes an irrational eruption of animal brutality:

[A] rumor swept through Jaffa that four Arabs had been murdered in neighboring Tel Aviv. Hundreds of Arabs thronged the streets… they gathered on street corners, waiting for prey. They stoned Jewish buses, Jewish taxis, and Jewish automobiles. They chased innocent Jews passing by. Chaim Pashigoda, twenty-three, a law clerk, was on his way to the registrar’s office in Jaffa. Armed with stones, hammers, and knives, a Palestinian crowd attacked and murdered him.

This is a typical passage. Inexplicable bouts of Arab murderousness and anti-Semitism propel Shavit’s account of Zionist history at every turn.

In Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land, a book-length critique of My Promised Land, forensic scholar Norman Finkelstein includes a table that juxtaposes Shavit’s various descriptions of Palestinians and Jews. What it reveals is the systematicity with which he associates Palestinians with filth, disease, and cultural and technological backwardness. By contrast, Shavit goes to excessive lengths to underscore his Jewish characters’ taste for European high culture, to the degree that it constitutes something of a leitmotif. Jewish-Israeli contributions to agronomy and medicine, among other civilization-enhancing values, are repeatedly underscored.

Given their pervasiveness, one cannot escape the feeling that these dehumanizing tropes serve a strategic function in the book’s overarching polemic. And indeed, the reader’s acceptance of Shavit’s most provocative contention—that the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 was not only tragic but also morally justified on the grounds that it brought the State of Israel into existence—is emotionally and rhetorically premised on this prior matrix of orientalist characterizations. As Finkelstein puts it: “The tacit message is that Palestinians, if left to their own devices, would have produced just another destitute, dreary, and despotic Arab state, while the world would have been deprived of Israel’s high-tech industries, cutting-edge inventions, and flourishing cultural landscape.”

The undisguised racism of My Promised Land is unfortunate, not least because the book contains several chapters that are legitimately fascinating and offer keen historical insights. For instance, the account of Shmaryahu Gutman’s quasi-mystical “Masada journey”—a grueling, ritualistic night-trek to the legendary mountain fortress of Masada that steeled the resolve of a generation of Haganah fighters—is an object lesson in nationalist mythmaking. Other examples are Shavit’s sympathetic portrait of Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox powerbroker Aryeh Deri, and his compact history of the Dimona nuclear reactor project. Amputated from the poisonous body of My Promised Land, these chapters could make for instructive additions to course syllabi. For that reason, the book is worth cautiously perusing, particularly in conjunction with Finkelstein’s slim volume. But those interested in an honest portrayal of Zionism, Israel, and the conflict with the Palestinians should look elsewhere.

Matthew Berkman is a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. From 2009 to 2011, he served as a research associate for the U.S./Middle East Project in New York.

World Order

World Order. By Henry Kissinger. Penguin Press, New York, 2014. 432 pp.

Henry Kissinger divides the world geographically, but analyzes it through a cultural lens. He presents as a series of “reflections” in World Order a journey from the moment that the world’s powers agreed on “an order” to organize international relations—the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years War—through to our current day.

The objective of the journey is not to prove that one “order” is superior to another, but to argue that “an order” is needed for the world to avert a descent into chaos. The last section of the book—in which Kissinger reflects on the impact of modern communications, the Internet and social media, on the notion of state sovereignty, human privacy, and societies’ cohesion—revolves around his unshakeable belief that the world needs an order through which states interact with one another. Though he does not say so directly, he sees the Internet’s evaporation of barriers among societies, and its gradual changing of individuals’ sense of belonging, as potentially threatening to political, economic, and social stability. He subtly supports the need for regulating this virtual world, which, in his view, if left unstructured, could usher in an era of utter disarray in the functioning of societies.

Kissinger, of course, is savvy enough to refrain from putting forward propositions regarding who is to effect this regulation—or how. This point aside, his apprehension about the way the Internet is changing social functioning lies in his skepticism of humans’ reasoning and their ability to control their behavior in a world in which the virtual will increasingly merge with the psychical. Kissinger also asserts that he is skeptical of the ability of political leaders to rise above the pressures that the Internet and social media place on their decision-making processes. There is a real danger of politics becoming a theater of managing perceptions, judged by the number of Twitter followers and ‘Likes’ rather than decision-making processes that, in theory at least, maximize the general benefit of a certain nation. Throughout this section, Kissinger throws various concerns at the reader, without venturing any answers. What he manages, successfully, is to put forward the alarm of a political scientist and policymaker over the changes that the Internet is causing in our lives, without sounding like an old man, grumpy about the changes taking place around him.

In the rest of the book, Kissinger goes beyond posing questions and airing concerns. In discrete chapters, he dissects how the American, Chinese, European, Indian, Islamic, Japanese, and Russian views of world order developed. His approach is consistent; he identifies the formative and transformative experiences that each of these societies went through; he pauses at the roles played by key historical figures; and he delves into the unique features of these societies’ cultures. His points are almost always insightful; and his flows—the links he makes between the experiences, the leaders’ roles, the cultural heritages, and the traumas that societies had experienced—are gracefully logical. But they are selective.

In each of the chapters, Kissinger picks and chooses what he sees as the important historical experiences, the individuals worth mentioning, and the challenges that merit reflection. Other observers might well choose different historical episodes, leaders, and traumas. By default, Kissinger’s analyses of these different views of “order” are incomplete.

They are also distinctly American. For an observer of Kissinger’s stature, it is surprising that his views do not have the detachment expected from someone with his command of history and long experience in international affairs. His Americanness is a bit old-fashioned. Whereas most modern American strategists imbue their narratives with serious examination of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II, his reflection on America’s view of “world order” lacks any real criticism of the legacy of America’s projection of power in the last seven decades. This makes his narrative less genuine. Crucially, there are few lessons for American decision-makers.

Contrast this with Kissinger’s discussion of the Chinese perspective. He draws upon his assessments of Chinese history, culture, and power structure in his previous book On China. His arguments and tone are respectful, acknowledging the weight and burden of China’s colossal experience in shaping its view of “world order.” But in reflecting on its trajectory in the twentieth century, he is frank, laying blame when and where it is due, most notably on Mao Zedong’s disastrous socioeconomic policies that led to the great famine and loss of millions of lives. Kissinger does the same with other nations’ experiences, such as India’s persistent adherence to a statist socialist model that stifled Indian entrepreneurship under the weight of a gigantic and lethargic state structure. And so his analysis of America’s experience of the last seven decades, by comparison, comes across as at best charitable and at worst disingenuous.

Kissinger’s presentation of Islam’s view of “world order” is intriguing. He anchors it on a distinction made by some Islamic scholars of Dar Al-Silm (the abode of peace, Islam’s own lands) and Dar Al-Harb (the abode of war, the rest of the world). He uses this as the launching pad to dissect why Islam, in his assessment, has never—and will never—accept any other “order.” At the beginning of the chapter on Islam, Kissinger makes a subtle caveat that the views he picks represent but one of the many that have shaped Islamic thinking and engagement with the world. The caveat is admirable and correct. But it does not answer the question of why he chose that specific point to represent the Islamic perspective, from the very rich and diverse views of the world that scores of Islamic schools of thinking have produced over the past centuries. The likely answer is that Kissinger chose a school of Islamic thinking that reflects, in his view at least, the most potent force in the Islamic World at the moment. If true, it means that Kissinger regards groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other Salafist jihadists as the ones representing the majority of Muslims today and that are likely to shape the future of Islam’s engagement with the world.

Interestingly, Kissinger also makes a distinction between the Islamic perspective and the Iranian one. I suspect that this is driven by two factors. The first is his fascination with “cultures.” The Persian civilization is beguiling; it entails a unique view of the world, placing Persia at the center of the civilized world, and measuring others’ refinement through their proximity to Persianness. This culture was arguably the strongest within the Islamic World. It is the single major civilization that chose to embrace Islam without sacrificing its own language for Arabic. The second reason is probably Kissinger’s own experience. Throughout the 1970s, Kissinger was the architect of America’s relationship with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He got to know the man, his family, his history, his country, and what drove his worldview. Though Kissinger became relatively close to Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, too, his experience in dealing with the Shah and Iran was much longer, more intense, and arguably more personal than any of his dealings in the Arab World. And yet, these two factors, even if true, fail to acknowledge that the Islamic civilization is an amalgamation of various cultures, and worldviews, including that of Persia.

Having said that, by choosing to focus on the Islamic binary between peace and war, by singling out Salafist jihadism as a decisive force in the Islamic World today, and by separating the refinement of the Persian World from the rest of the Islamic World, Kissinger forces the readers who culturally belong to the Islamic World to stare at the threat they confront. When it comes to the Islamic World, Kissinger is not raising a red flag regarding violence. He is not an alarmist, and does not subscribe to the hysteria regarding the Islamization of Europe. His thesis is more subtle. He argues that the Islamic World is slowly being driven, by Muslims, out of the international system.


Tarek Osman is a political economist focused on the Arab World and is the author of Egypt on the Brink. He was the writer and presenter of the BBC’s 2013 radio series “The Making of the Modern Arab World” and the 2015 radio series “Saudi Arabia: Sands of Time.” He is the political counselor for the Arab World at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. On Twitter:@TarekmOsman.

City of Lies

City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran. By Ramita Navai. PublicAffairs, New York, 2014. 320 pp.

In June 2009, before the Arab Spring uprisings, Iranians took to the streets to demand “Where is my vote?” When authorities declared incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner, his leading rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, cried foul. Mousavi’s supporters, donning the Islamic color green—a symbol of his candidacy—staged mass demonstrations not seen since Iran’s 1979 revolution. What initially were protests against what Mousavi and the public deemed to be a fraudulent election became a call for reform and greater civil liberties. The peaceful protests in the tens of thousands in major cities—at one point a million gathered in Tehran’s Azadi Square—were violently quelled by theBasij paramilitary units and the Komiteh. Thousands were beaten and hundreds were thrown in jail, with a death toll of seventy-two—including those who died in prison. Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and the election’s third runner up, Mehdi Karroubi, were put under house arrest.

Countless Iranians put their lives on the line for a man and his idea of “change.” Many believed him to be the man who could lead the reform of the political apparatus of the Islamic Republic, the movement of hope and change not seen since the era of reformist President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005. Yet Mousavi was a different figure when he served as prime minister in the 1980s during the war between Iran and Iraq.

In 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime executed thousands of Communists, Marxists, Mujahedeen Khalq, and other members of various political groups imprisoned in Evin, the country’s notorious political prison. As Ramita Navai recounts in City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran, around that time the parents of a young boy named Amir were arrested in Shiraz for dissident activities. For months, Amir and his grandfather searched for them. When they learned that Amir’s parents had been executed, Amir and his grandfather knocked on the door of every government official begging for the return of the bodies for a proper burial. Finally, according to Navai, a high-ranking government official told them the parents did wrong and dismissed them with a contemptuous look—the government official was the same man who would lead the peaceful protests two decades later. (Mousavi would deny any involvement in the 1988 massacre.)

Through stories like this, City of Lies shows us how in Iran not everything is how it may appear. In the first line of her preface the author explains, “Let’s get one thing straight: in order to live in Tehran you have to lie. Morals don’t come into it: lying in Tehran is about survival.” For her, lying is a mask worn to protect from judgment and to save face or keep abehroo, honor or reputation. It is not just in the evasive responses given to questioning from the morality police, but in the fabrications told to one’s neighbors, family, and friends. It’s sometimes to arouse envy, but mostly to keep appearances. Deceit is a natural instinct in order to survive: Tehran is the real jungle and you either eat, or become eaten by the system.

Mousavi may be an extreme case, but there are skeletons in most Iranians’ closets. Navai shares stories about societal problems that come as a shock for outsiders unfamiliar with post-1979 Iran. Some Iranian husbands, Navai writes, go to Thailand for sexual pleasure, while others pick up prostitutes and take them to summer villas in Iran by the Caspian Sea. Even the regime knows the people are discontent and complaining about societal issues; a billboard on the corner of Valiasr and Takht-e Tavous reads: “LET’S NOT SPEND SO MUCH TIME DISCUSSING SOCIETY’S PROBLEMS IN OUR HOMES.” Turning stereotypes on their heads, Navai has the reader empathizing with the prostitute-turned-home video porn star, or the closeted gay Basiji. They are heroes in their own right, Navai reveals; they struggle with the system, and survive.

Navai employs a neat structural device by finding many of her stories up and down Valiasr Street, the seemingly endless sycamore-lined boulevard, “the single road that sums up Tehran for all Tehranis, where Iranians come to celebrate, to protest, to march, to commemorate, to mourn.” In its depiction of Tehran’s dark and sometimes seedy underbelly, City of Lies often strays into material that delights in having shock value. There are no uplifting tales about the teenager who starts an animal shelter, or the foreigner who braved the 1979 revolution to remain in Tehran to teach her beloved students. Everyone likes a good story about sex, drugs, and lies. It’s all the more riveting if it is set in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Holly Dagres is assistant editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. She has written for Al Jazeera, Al-Monitor, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, and the World Bank Blogs, among others. On Twitter: @hdagres.

Media Policy and Freedom of Expression

Our school co-hosted a debate in Tahrir Square recently on “Media Policy and Freedom of Expression.” The event is testimony to the challenges of the times, and vivid confirmation of the changes in the Middle East. Tahrir Square has become a symbol of societies striving for wider freedoms and new orders, not only in Egypt and the Middle East but throughout the world.

Discussing “freedom of expression” in the same conversation with “media policy” may imply that they are mutually exclusive concepts, but that is a false premise, to say the least. It is true that traditional proponents calling for media policies are those who want to manage media excesses, not only organizationally but also in terms of information and opinions. In heated debate, this extrapolates to making judgments about how “free” freedom of expression should be.

On the other hand, an equally traditional argument by diehard proponents of freedom of expression is that all attempts to reform or establish media policies are roundabout efforts to apply restrictions. This equally false argument is that freedom of expression can be absolute, irrespective of the content or consequences of what is said. This becomes a debate between proponents of states considered to be free politically and states that are authoritarian or “less free.”

Media policy and freedom of expression are two important issues that should not and cannot be considered simplistically or in absolute terms. All sources of authority—be they governments, captains of industry and business, politicians, etc.—attempt to direct and influence the media. There are absolutely no exceptions. Some do so through regulatory means, ownership, and restrictive practices, whereas others by spinning their stories and information to media outlets. When speaking about media policy most may presume we are referring to governmental policies. True many years ago, but today governmental media policies are only part of a much larger paradigm that involves many participants and stakeholders.

Money and technology have made access to information and the ability to become a media participant available not only to media professionals but to any interested party, with legitimate or malicious intentions. And, given the sheer speed and scope of dissemination of any information across satellite and electronic media, the possibility for abuse is much more probable and much more consequential. Thus, it is necessary to examine media norms, procedures, and regulatory guidelines, and to do so domestically, regionally, and internationally.

One cannot envisage a robust, serious, and useful media landscape without fundamentally assuring not only freedom of expression, but also the right to free access to information. There will always be caveats that relate to the common good. To even talk about media policies, one has to ensure that there is freedom of expression to have a media paradigm worthy of consideration. That is not to say that freedom of expression is absolute, even in the most open democratic societies. All nations across the world have limitations on freedom of expression related either to protection against libel or safeguarding the public interest even beyond the national security parameter. Open societies are more effective in prosecuting libelous expressions or those that are directly detrimental to national interest. This is because they define speech in these two censurable categories more precisely.

On the other hand, sources of authority that over-manage the media and restrict freedom of expression ultimately lose control because their mass media becomes less credible or less interesting in comparison to other media outlets that are now accessible. Ironically, while trying to control the vehicle for transmitting information to their audience, these authorities lose the audience completely. And, by intentionally ill-defined constructions of what constitutes libel or expressions detrimental to the public good, they are unable to enforce the control and management that they strive for because the courts have no basis on which to adjudicate. By curtailing freedom of expression, which is transmitted and received throughout the world today, they diminish their ability and that of their societies to take advantage of the wealth of constructive opinions that exist, or to contribute to the larger public media landscape.

Media policies and freedom of expression are not options we have to choose between, nor is there a best formula for media policies and/or how to assure respect for freedom of expression. This will be a continuous topic of discussion not only because of different perspectives in our societies but also because technology enables many more participants to engage and thus become stakeholders.

Media policies, media reform, and/or media regulation are imperative for many reasons. What’s acceptable to some constituencies is not acceptable to others. What is appropriate for some age groups is not for others. What can be condoned in private exchanges may not be fit for public consumption. There really is no way to control freedom of expression, and it is futile to try to do so. Moreover, it is an inherent right that we should all safeguard, and without it you could not have objectivity or checks and balances in the media. We must also preserve and safeguard freedom of information by clearly defining what constitutes libel and where and when opinions are directly and immediately detrimental to the public interest.

We must ensure a competitive media environment, not over-influenced by any political trend, source of authority, and/or ideological inclination or personal interest of owners. There must be serious and continuous competition among media outlets guaranteed with antitrust/anti-monopoly provisions. It would be wise to create a media oversight commission from members of the media industry, public figures, and audience stakeholders to oversee not the technical complaints but rather grievances raised about the content and expressions carried in public media.

Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo