This blog is dedicated to Abdul Aziz Muhammad Hegazi who passed away today, but I have used the spelling “Abdul” that I believe he gave me at the time rather than the spelling as it appears in his obituary, Abd El Aziz Muhammad Hegazi.
Egypt, Palestinians and Jordan
I will focus on Jordan alone in my next blog, but I first want to provide some background, more on the shaping of my own views on the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, than on an objective analysis of the current prospects for peace. Since this blog relies a great deal on my memory, which has never been very good, and has certainly deteriorated as I have aged, it may contain many mistakes in names and dates. I believe, however, that the overall impressions that I absorbed remained with me and influenced my outlook until today.
I have been in Jordan on three different occasions, first when I attended a Track II meeting in Amman, Jordan on Israeli-Palestinian peace in the early eighties, then again in the early nineties when I was a guest of Crown Prince Hassan to discuss, not the Middle East, but a proposed new convention on international migration that he was promoting as a complement to the refugee convention, and then in the late nineties when my friend
Mike Molloy was the Canadian ambassador to Jordan between 1996 and 2000.
Mike and I had met when he was responsible for implementing the new provisions of Canada’s 1976 Immigration Act, which came into force in 1978, and when he was responsible for coordinating the 1979-1980 Indochinese Refugee Movement. I had visited him later when he was stationed in Geneva representing Canada at the Law of Sea discussions, and then worked with him again when he was a key diplomat when Canada accepted the role of gaveling the Multilateral Working Group on Refugees during the Middle East Peace Process in the nineties and I, as the Director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University and a scholar who has written on Palestinian refugees, served as an advisor to that group. Mike also served as Co-Director of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative at the University of Windsor, but I was never involved in that. Most recently, this year, he, I and Naomi Alboim wrote a joint paper proposing a renewal of private sponsorship in Canada.
However, this blog is not based on my experience with Mike nor his views on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, nor with the time when I was the guest of Crown Prince Hassan, brother of the late King Hussein, for that trip had only a peripheral relationship with the Middle East, let alone Israeli-Palestinian peace, though I did learn how the Canadian government and the Jordanian government could be very flexible when they wanted to be. Those two governments cooperated in facilitating my entry into Jordan when I had a number of entry stamps to Israel in my passport, something which prohibited my entry into Jordan at that time.
As a total aside, as a guest of the crown prince, I learned that “enough of too much” at Passover seders bore absolutely no comparison to the meal table of Middle Eastern royalty. I thought that the initial huge sumptuous table offerings, more than enough to feed all of the participants in the meeting in Amman ten times over, was the main meal. I soon learned, after I had stuffed myself, that those delicious morsels had only been the appetizers. Then I had to be very polite in dealing with the meal subsequently offered.
I gained a sketchy knowledge of the northern string of cities in Jordan and of Jordanian politics, an insight into Egyptian views of the Palestinians, and an in-depth immersion course into the politics of Egypt during the volatile 1970s when I went with Dr. Abdul Aziz Hegazi on a car excursion exploring the region north of Amman. We had been together at a Track II meeting in Jordan in the early eighties to discuss the potential of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. It was a Muslim holiday and we had a day off. Petra, we agreed, was too far away for a day excursion, especially when we had to return to Amman for a reception that evening. As a skeptic about the possibilities of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Abdul had evidently decided to give me a lesson in realpolitik to counter my peacenik propensities.
Abdul, as a highly regarded economist, had been made Treasury Minister of Egypt by President Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1968. He had been made Minster of Finance and Foreign Trade when the Ministry of Finance, Treasury and the Ministry of Foreign Trade were merged by Anwar Sadat in March 1973, a unification that was unpacked when Abdul was “promoted” to Prime Minister in September 1974 and Mohammed Abdul Fattah Ibrahim was made Minister of Finance. Abdul told me that he regarded that move at the time as a demotion because he had less real power than he ever had as Finance Minister, and that was very limited. Abdul was forced out of the Egyptian government in 1975. That day we traveled around Jordan together, Abdul gave me an education in Egyptian politics, particularly for the period he served until 1975 when his ouster was demanded by students rioting in demonstrations against him, demonstrations he said were organized by his cabinet colleague, the Minister of the Interior.
When he was appointed by Nasser as Finance Minister, Egypt was in shock from the economic tsunami resulting from the Six Day War. Abdul had the responsibility of holding the economy together in the face of enormous losses of both tourist revenues and tolls from the then closed Suez Canal. When Anwar Sadat came to power and then determined to prepare the Egyptian military for war, Abdul was faced with covering those costs, but only after he learned about them, for he had not been informed of the military build-up or the plans to go to war with Israel.
As background, as you will certainly recall, at least those of you old enough to do so, Anwar Sadat’s peace overtures to Israel to sign a peace agreement entailing recognition of Israel had been rebuffed in 1971, not only by Israel, but by both the USA and Egypt’s prime supporter at the time, the Soviet Union. Even though Egypt was then considered a client of the USSR, Sadat expelled the 15,000 Soviet advisers in July of 1972. As we now know, free of the Soviet overwhelming presence, Sadat created his three man war committee at the end of December 1972 consisting of only himself, his Foreign Minister, Mohammed Hassan el-Zayyat, and Mamdouh Muhammad Salem, his Interior Minister who had succeeded Sharawy Gomaa, who had until then controlled the then all-powerful Egyptian secret police and opposed any reconciliation with Israel. Salem succeeded Abdul as Prime Minister.
The role of the Interior Ministry and the national security police forty years ago should be familiar to readers today, first, because of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, and then only last October, on the fortieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War commemorations, the real beginning of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s war against the Muslim Brotherhood when 53 demonstrators were killed and many more injured all over Egypt in protests on 6 October 2013 against the Egyptian army and the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in the military coup of 3 July 2013. Those security police had fired live rounds at the demonstrators, though, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, they had only used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. The Muslim Brotherhood had called on its supporters to commemorate that fortieth anniversary by staging demonstrations against the government.
Abdul Hegazi was never included in that three man war triumvirate formed by Sadat at the end of 1972 to conduct the planned war against Israel in October 1973. In fact, the day before the Yom Kippur War began, he had been in Great Britain at his wife’s bedside as his wife was about to be operated on in a London hospital. In spite of that, he was summoned back to Cairo on urgent business, but only learned of the attack across the Suez Canal from the media after it had been initiated. Abdul, however, as Finance Minister, had been tasked by Sadat with introducing the badly needed reforms, the so-called Intifah Economic Policy, introducing privatization and the cutting of subsidies while increasing the charges for welfare, health and transport services, changes necessary if Egypt, once again, was to be in a reasonable financial position to go to war against Israel.
Even though appointed Prime Minister, Abdul had not been part of the cease-fire agreement or the disengagement agreements of 1974 and 1975, though he supported all three. He was out of office when Sadat decided to go to Jerusalem and when the Egyptian Israeli Peace Treaty was negotiated that led to Egypt’s suspension from the Arab League from 1979 to 1989 and Sadat’s own assassination in 1981. Abdul when I met him had become a confectionary importer. Nevertheless, my most important lessons about Egypt, and, perhaps, even indirectly about Jordan and the Palestinians, were absorbed in that all day seminar of discussions, though those lessons may have been deformed because I only had Abdul’s perspective on the events of the seventies and, as I said above, have a very poor memory.
What were those lessons?
First, I learned about the role of the Egyptian army. The one day “seminar” provided a foundation for my understanding of the current president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, and his role in the coup against former President Mohamed Morsi. The army is a very entrenched conservative organization. Even when Sadat became president, Abdul told me, and though Sadat had issued a decree to study the diseconomies and problems caused by the Aswan High Dam, and whether the building of the dam and the reclamation of vast new agricultural land in Egypt’s western desert, had offset any negative effects, Sadat’s fellow officers forced Sadat to suspend the decree to launch a study. All powerful military leaders in military coups, at least in Egypt, are not all powerful. Abdul, a lover of Shakespeare, told me that the bard had more to teach about politics and intrigue that most political texts.
Second, in Egypt, ever since the military coup in 1952, the Egyptian army, though it has a prime role as a highly disciplined institution in the defence of the state, has an even more pronounced role in the acculturation of men in Egyptian society. Within its hierarchical organization, one in eight males in Egyptian society were then trained in disciplined behaviour, in loyalty to the state and in the development of a new sense of belonging divorced from their rural families and clans. The Egyptian army, compared to Egyptian civil society, has three key strengths: a sense of esprit de corps, a well-working internal communication system, and some degree of self-sufficiency that no other institution in Egypt possesses.
After Sadat’s army reforms, which undercut the network of personal loyalties rooted in elites and personal connections, the army retained one exceptional virtue, promoting recruits based on merit rather than background or who they knew. The downside was that the myth of the army as the egalitarian guarantor, of promoting social mobility and the provision of opportunity, prevented the development of an equivalent rags to riches American Horatio Alger myth as an inspiration in Egyptian civil society. Further, the norms within the military had not become deeply enough institutionalized by the time Sadat was assassinated and the army once again became more inward-looking at the officer level under Hosni Mubarak. In my current interpretation, Morsi’s overthrow was not just because of the deep historical antipathy between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, but because Morsi wanted to obtain the traditional all-powerful role in Egypt as the truly titular leader. Abdul, like Morsi, had not served in the army; he too learned his lessons about the centralization of power by the Egyptian army in the seventies the hard way.
I learned a third lesson, the limited power of that all-powerful army. With respect to that self-sufficiency, the Egyptian army was the most powerful factor in the Egyptian economy. When Abdul was Finance Minister, he introduced reforms that utilized the army’s huge share of public resources to make the military responsible in the last six months of military service for a soldier acquiring a skill which he could use when rejoining civil society. On the other hand, because those approximately 600,000 troops at the time were overwhelmingly stationed at or near Al Nasr City between Cairo and the Suez Canal in preponderant military municipalities, the army was not well equipped nor trained to keep internal order within Egypt. Hence the need for the Central Security Forces. He who controlled those forces, not the army, he told me, controlled Egypt, though the head of those forces always came from the army.
Fourth, when Abdul became Finance Minister, the army consumed about 25% of public state revenues. His economic reforms were intended to reduce that proportion and free the economy both from the overwhelming weight of the army as well as centralized Soviet-style planning and control. Instead, because of preparations and expenditures for the war against Israel, expenditures over which he had absolutely no control, that percentage increased to as much as 70% at one point, creating the huge financial crisis which was eventually used to get rid of him.
Fifth, the military was not just an army but a way of life that instilled civic identity, loyalty, a sense of responsibility, a familiarity with new technology and skills to make a success in civil society. It was thus the only real competitor on the national level to the Islamic religion which, however, lacked the modernizing abilities of the army. The army’s first priority had always been to defend and enhance that role.
Sixth, I learned how the army always made civilians the carriers of responsibility for failure. Sadat, an army man through and through, always reverted to army control in the face of a crisis, but took credit for successes even when initiated by civilians. Even though Sadat, after he came to power, had tried to civilianize his cabinet even more than Nasser had after the debacle of the Six Day War, and even subsequently to reintroduce political parties, whenever a great initiative was taken, civilian members of the cabinet were excluded. Whenever a crisis occurred, civilian member in the cabinet were put on a sacrificial pyre. After Abdul left office as Prime Minister, on the groundwork he had laid, Egypt joined with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to develop a weapons manufacturing self-sufficiency using both Gulf wealth – a billion dollars a year – and Egyptian manpower. However, that move had the unintended effect of further entrenching the army as the economic engine of the state, even after the Gulf States threw Egypt out of the Arab League following Sadat’s peace with Israel. The Gulf States canceled the military cooperation arrangements.
Only in the late 1970s did the reforms Abdul set in place reduce the enormous parasitical role of the army on Egyptian civil society, at least until Sadat was assassinated, after which Mubarak worked to restore the army’s pre-eminent place in the economic life of Egyptians through the appointment of Abu Ghazala as the dominant Defence Minister. In spite of the army’s voracious appetite for the profits of civil society – Abu Ghazala had sold off the army’s ownership of public lands to enhance the army’s role in the economy – and the personal kleptocratic interests of army officers, by then it was too late to close the barn doors. A foundation for a thriving civil society had been created of which Abdul felt very proud.
Seventh, the army’s power was limited in two other ways, by the power of the street and the power of the paramilitary Central Security Forces. Because of the tensions between the army’s cut of the economy and the need for financial reforms, Sadat, on Abdul’s recommendation, had removed food subsidies. They were then reinstated in 1974 in the face of popular protests. Further, when people on the street demonstrated, the army did not intervene because it was not in a position to do so. The Central Security Forces (CSF) were. That is why it is the control and use of that force, rather than the army itself, that is so critical to understanding Egypt. The CSF is also used to control ordinary soldiers if they dare challenge their senior officers, even though the army is upheld as the ultimate safeguard for order and good government in the nation and controls the economy. Unless that dynamic between the army as an economic behemoth as well as a cultural icon, and the CSF as an internal security apparatus, is understood, one cannot understand Egypt or the contradiction between a constitution which, on the books, guarantees civilian control of the political life of Egypt, and the reality of the course of Egyptian history since WWII and the overthrow of King Farouk by the free officers. All change in Egypt comes from above. It just depends on who the “Above” is which shifts from time to time. Or so I was instructed.
Eighth, I learned about Abdul’s perspective on the Palestinians. Sadat had been at war with the Palestinians as well as the army officers who opposed him and his policies. When Arafat became leader, first of Fatah and then of the PLO, Sadat saw him merely as another Egyptian upstart searching for a political base of his own over which he could become a Pharaoh. After all, Arafat was born in Cairo and only went to Palestine to live with his mother’s brother from the age of four to eight after his mother died. Arafat’s father, Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, was an Egyptian who had lived in Gaza when he met Arafat’s mother. Arafat went to live with his father again at the age of eight, but he evidently hated his step-mother and his father even more.
Arafat decided very early, Abdul told me, to make another al-Husseini his true spiritual father, an ardent anti-Zionist, Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem who had stridently opposed the settlement of Jews in Palestine from the twenties to the forties. Arafat became active in the Palestinian cause as an arms smuggler when he was seventeen, but an Egyptian army officer confiscated his weapons at one point in 1948. The enmity between himself and Egypt, especially the Egyptian army, never abated when he left Egypt for Eastern Europe to get a higher education and an engineering degree.
Arafat co-founded Fatah and then became chair of the PLO in 1964 with the aim of eliminating Israel. Egypt did not allow him to use Egyptian soil to raid Israel so he established his political base in Syria and Jordan and achieved notoriety when, in March 1968, his guerilla force had a frontal confrontation with Israeli army units and managed to kill as many as thirty Israeli soldiers even though it was at the cost of 150 Palestinian guerilla lives. Abdul told me that it was important to understand Arafat’s roots and the path of his career to comprehend the pan-Arab sense of his mission, of which Palestinian nationalism was only a part, and the PLO covenant seeking total liberation of Palestine that only allowed Jews born in or descended from Jews living in Palestine before 1896 to remain in a free Palestine. That justified the series of terrorist attacks by Palestinians against civilians. The return of all refugees to Israel and the creation of a Palestinian secular and democratic state became the twin mantra of the PLO but, according to Abdul, Arafat would never make a deal if that agreement was not just an interim step in the quest to eliminate Israel. For me, that is the only explanation in understanding why Arafat rejected Barak’s most generous offer at Taba for peace. Hence, although I disagree with the right in Israel and their intention to deny Palestinians a state of their own, their deep suspicions of Palestinian leadership intentions may be warranted.
After the battle with the Israeli army in 1968 and the increasing use of Jordan as a base for raids against Israel, when a state within a state was being created in Jordan, King Hussein launched Black September on the sixth of that month in 1970, expelling the militant Palestinians to Lebanon. That action was backed up by both Israel and Egypt but not Syria. The Palestinians tried to repeat their successes and eventually drew Israel into the 1982 Lebanon invasion.
Success followed success for the PLO to the horror of Egypt at that time. Nevertheless, in 1973, Arab states, including both Jordan and Egypt, recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. In 1974, Arafat was the first non-state representative to address the United nations General Assembly, and he did so with a gun in his waistband. In 1975, the UN General Assembly passed the infamous Zionism is Racism resolution with the support of Eastern bloc, Islamic and non-aligned states, a resolution that was not rescinded until 1991. Egypt and Jordan supported the PLO rhetorically as both countries tried to control that polity lest the threat become focused on them instead of Israel. At the same time, Egypt was determined to make peace with Israel after the Yom Kippur War and regain its lost territories. But it adamantly refused to re-establish its administration over the Gaza Strip.
So my final lesson from Abdul was that you should not confuse public rhetoric and words in the Arab world with beliefs. The two may be totally at odds unlike the West, which he deeply admired, where the governing rule was that you should say what you mean and mean what you say, even when Western politicians often fail to follow that norm. In the world of business and economics, to which he really belonged, a man’s word was a pledge, entirely to be trusted. In the world of power, however, a man’s word was just a gesture and often a disguise to hide true intentions.
As a current example of such disinformation, in early December of this year, during the Presidential Palace trial in which Morsi and 14 other prominent Islamist leaders are accused of inciting the murder of protesters during clashes outside the Itihadeya Palace in December 2012, evidently, according to the pro-Morsi satellite channel, Mekamelin, Morsi is being held in a maximum security navy prison in Abu Qir and not in a civilian detention facility, contrary to both the law and the information given out by the army about Morsi’s detention.
Abdul Hegazi was a wise and wonderful man. He was a memorable teacher and any false lessons learned are a result of my poor memory, not his analysis.