Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 50-52

Northern California Chronicle

Egypt Strives to Build a Peaceful Modern Middle East, Says Ambassador Nabil Fahmy

By Elaine Pasquini

Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Nabil Fahmy (Staff Photos E. Pasquini).

IN A FEB. 21 SPEECH at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy tackled a myriad of topics, including Egyptian-American relations, the war in Iraq, global terrorism, the challenges and possibilities for Middle East peace in view of the recent Palestinian elections, as well as last year’s elections in his home country.

Although Egypt did not support the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Washington and Cairo are now “working toward the same goal—a sovereign Iraq for all Iraqis,” the veteran diplomat said. “Dividing Iraq on an ethnic basis would be wrong.”

Discussing the Jan. 25 elections in which Hamas won 74 of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s 132 seats, Fahmy said Hamas should respect commitments made by the previous Palestinian government with Israel, and the Israeli government should do likewise. The latter, he added, also should turn over to the Palestinians the $54 million in tax and customs receipts it collects monthly on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, but which it has been withholding since the Hamas victory.

In Ambassador Fahmy’s opinion, however, U.S. aid is a different matter. “There is no legal obligation on the part of America to give assistance, but we think the Palestinian people should not be sanctioned for making a choice,” he insisted.

During the 30-minute question-and-answer session, one audience member asked the ambassador his views on Iran. “We think Iran should support the Arab-Israeli peace process,” Fahmy responded. “We think they should desist from any programs that might be in the pursuit of nuclear weapons and they should try to truly invest the rich heritage they have toward building a modern Middle East.”

Another questioner asked if democracy in the Middle East would lead to radical Islam taking control of the area. “I do not see democracy in the Middle East leading to extremists taking power,” the diplomat replied, “but I think it is naïve to think democracy will happen overnight. Democracy is not just about the majority winning an election. The winning majority must also respect the rights of the minority.”

The long-serving ambassador also stressed the importance of building democratic institutions as part of a “democratic system where you have accountable and transparent checks and balances.” Woefully pointing out that only 23 percent of Egypt’s eligible voters participated in his country’s last election, Fahmy stressed that more people need to participate in the democratic process for democracy to work. “Democracy is an evolution, not a revolution,” he concluded.

Reza Aslan on Failed Iran Policy

Author Reza Aslan at the San Francisco World Affairs Council.

“There can be very little doubt that the strategy of the United States over the last 26 years to sanction, isolate, and contain Iran as a means of bringing down the clerical regime has been unquestionably a miserable failure,” said Reza Aslan at a March 1 San Francisco World Affairs Council program co-sponsored by Stacey’s Independent Bookstore. Not only has Washington’s policy failed to topple the clerical regime or make the Islamic republic more democratic, Aslan told his audience, it has done the opposite. “The clerical regime is now stronger than it has been in a decade,” maintained the author of No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam. “The democratic opposition and reform movement is weaker—perhaps even dead and buried—and the economy is on the verge of collapse.”

Although Iran has been able to offset some of its economic difficulties through trade relations with Russia, China and India, Aslan explained, today one-third of the population is unemployed, 40 percent live below the poverty line, and the annual inflation rate is 24 percent. These dismal economic figures, he elaborated, rather than mass arrests or political repression, caused the demise of Iran’s vibrant reform movement of the 1990s. And it was the state of the economy, rather than any other reason, he said, that caused the stunning June 2005 upset victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over front-runner Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—Iran’s powerful cleric and richest man. “Ahmadinejad became president,” Aslan said, “because most Iranians, and particularly younger voters in major urban centers like Tehran who should have been the national constituency for the reform candidates, saw Ahmadinejad as the only candidate willing to talk about what nearly everyone in Iran, regardless of class, piety or political affiliation, is most concerned about—that is, massive inflation, high unemployment, and soaring housing prices.”

Tehran’s former mayor promised to end government corruption, distribute aid to the outlying provinces, promote health care, raise the minimum wage, and help the young with home and business loans. “In other words,” Aslan pointed out, “Ahmadinejad had a one-issue platform: the economy, the economy, the economy.”

The articulate author went on to discuss prospective U.S. policies toward his homeland of 68 million people, 70 to 75 percent of whom are under age 30, 90 percent of whom are literate, and the vast majority, according to Aslan, pro-American who would “like nothing more than to put an end to the clerical regime.”

The most powerful and popular of the many dissident opposition groups is the National Council of Iranian Resistance, which, according to Aslan, is “really the friendly face for the Mujahideen-e-Khalq,” a Marxist organization that has been on the EU and U.S. terrorist watch list for years because of the group’s attacks on American forces in the 1970s. “This must be the only terrorist organization in the world to have its offices next to the Treasury Department and an open door to some of the most powerful voices in both the Senate and the executive office, including Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS),” he marveled.

Aslan predicted that a threatened pre-emptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear program would be unlikely, due to, among other reasons, Iran’s enormous influence over southern Iraq’s predominantly Shi’i population. “If Iran were attacked by the U.S.,” he pointed out, “it would be an excuse for them to essentially unleash their dogs upon American forces and would be the end of any hope of stability in Iraq. Any foreign policy analyst, even in this administration, knows quite clearly in their heart of hearts that the military option is not an option.”

“I think it is time for a new approach to Iran,” Aslan concluded, “one that replaces America’s failed sanctions policy with a package of security guarantees and economic incentives in exchange not just for international monitoring of Iran’s civilian nuclear program, but also for international cooperation with Iran’s civilian nuclear program—the exact same package we are offering to North Korea. The U.S. should put aside its ideological reservations and confront Iran the way it confronted the former Soviet Union and the way it confronted China, the way it is now currently confronting North Korea—that is, with an aggressive policy of interdependent trade relations in the hope that rapid economic growth will foster democratic change. Recent history has proven that usually some sort of representative government, plus some sort of free market economy equals some sort of national stability and success.”

Ahmed Said Speaks to Art Students

For several years, Ahmed Said’s larger-than-life bronze sculptures have graced three outdoor public plazas in his native Cairo. The Egyptian sculptor recently introduced his work to a new audience: art students at City College of San Francisco. CCSF sculptor instructor and Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, staff photographer Phil Pasquini hosted the March 9 program in the Rosenberg Library, along with special guests Egyptian Consul General Abderahman Salaheldin and his wife, Dr. Thoraya Mohamed Elkhadrawy.

The 39-year-old artist discussed his views on art, particularly sculpture, and his early work of drawing portrait caricatures for newspapers.

Many of Said’s clay sculptures—a barber cutting hair, street musicians, and villagers enjoying a family dinner—were inspired by every day Egyptian life. Inspired by international figures as well, Said has sculpted portraits of Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Gandhi. “I wanted to show the wisdom of Asia on Gandhi’s face,” he explained.

Of special interest to the students was Said’s discussion of his work in California preparing Disney characters for video commercials to teach English as a second language to children through claymation, a stop-motion animation using figures molded in clay that are recorded on film or digital media and played back in rapid succession.

Said’s well-received presentation particularly touched one student of Middle East origin, who told Said after his lecture that the artist’s clay statuette of a man sharpening knives (at left) rekindled wonderful memories of this once staple of village life, as well as bustling Middle Eastern cities.

Ahmed Said’s works are on exhibit at Berkeley’s La Pena Cultural Center through April 30. 

Elaine Pasquini is a free-lance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Thousands Protest in San Francisco

(Staff Photo E. Pasquini).

Under a bright blue sky and following a motorcycle police escort, some 25,000 anti-war protesters marched through the streets of San Francisco on March 18, marking the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with demands that President George W. Bush bring U.S. troops home.

Carrying placards, banners, and cutout peace symbols, the crowd chanted, “Shame on Bush” to the beat of a drum. “Speak Out: Apathy Supports Injustice,” one marcher’s sign warned, while another suggested, “Fund People’s Needs Not War.” A student’s sign pleaded, “$$ for Education NOT Occupation.” Common Ground Relief in New Orleans leader Malik Rahim was the keynote speaker at the rally in Civic Center Plaza following the march.

The event, organized by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), was one of the largest in the country. Smaller protests were held throughout the Bay Area, including in Vallejo, San Rafael, Oakland, Walnut Creek and Palo Alto.—E.P.

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