It was a typical US government response to favorable facts-on-the-ground rooted in violence. Once the military coup in Egypt had been accomplished and the first democratically-elected president of Egypt and many of his allies had been arrested and all sympathetic radio stations had been shut down, the US State Department released a statement expressing US condemnation of any future violence.
While the dirty deal was going down President Obama played golf and Secretary of State John Kerry went sailing off Nantucket. It was a bit like the The Godfather when Don Corleone is shown in church and the sequence is inter-cut with scenes of men being shot dead in bed and sputtering as they are being garroted.
This is not a particularly novel turn of events — just especially dishonest and dishonorable. It seems to be the way the US does coups in the 21st century. The days of crude coups like Iran (’53), Guatemala (’54) and Chile (’73) are long gone. Today, it’s done with great coordinated finesse thanks to a sophisticated international secrecy network vis-à-vis American taxpayers and the rest of the civilian world. As citizens, all we get is public relations that expresses great concern for the control of violence … once the favorable facts-on-the-ground have been established.
Currently, members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the name of the Muslim Brotherhood’s and ousted President Morsi’s political party, are furious. They should be. The New York Times reports that the party is planning to organize escalated demonstrations across Egypt. Many fear where this coup will lead. A 23-year-old female law student told The Times that her Islamist neighbors had started shaving their heads, which sounded ominous. “Everyone’s worried about a civil war,” she said. The body count  is now rising.
According to the official US position, anyone who foments violent acts after the coup that established favorable facts-on-the-ground can be treated as a threat to the stability of Egypt by the same military that undertook the coup. (The US, of course, is not calling it a “coup,” since to do so it would have to cut off the $1.5 billion in military aid it sends to Egypt, which would make no sense when the coup may foment civil war.)
Back in 2009, the Obama administration sent out the same sort of boilerplate garbage statement about stability and condemning violence when the democratically-elected, left-leaning president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya , was awoken at dawn by a gun to his head and flown out of the country in his pajamas. The same earnest US statement condemned future violence, defended democracy and expressed concern about stability. The dirt-poor, basket-case nation then devolved from its already lowly state into the homicide capital of the western hemisphere. And, in what is surely the most significant post-coup fact-on-the-ground, since Zelaya was ousted, a host of US military bases have sprouted like mushrooms out of the more fertile soil.
It’s true that the United States has lost a lot of its imperial mojo of late in the Middle East, but the important thing is it has not lost that mojo vis-à-vis the incredibly corrupt institution of the Egyptian military. Years of US tax-payer largesse has helped feather the nests of corrupt Egyptian officers in a military that’s deeply invested in business and finance. Washington’s excellent public relations skills help in these 21st Century coups by working the Sunday news talk-show circuit and other venues of meaning to get the right story out. Elliot Abrams  of Iran-Contra fame was one of them cranked up for the Egyptian coup. What’s important is that the American people be re-assured that stability is the most important thing and that the White House condemns any future violence. Everything is OK. It was not a coup.
You can all go back to sleep now.
The same sort of stability-focused public relations occurred in the notorious 2000 US presidential election. I know we’re not supposed to talk about that episode in American democratic history any more, since Al Gore patriotically ate the roadkill raw for the sake of stability and in the name of discouraging anger and maybe violence. It also turned out to be good for his future as a middle-brow environmental hero and money-maker.
As you may recall, the declared winner of that absurd episode, George W. Bush, assured voters that he was going to rule for all Americans. Better than anyone, he knew he’d lost the popular vote by 500,000 souls and would have lost the Electoral College if there had been a fair vote in the state ruled by his brother. So he too sucked it up and said what he had to say.
Then, of course, he got behind the wheel and drove the nation into a ditch off the right side of the road. He mounted a completely unnecessary war that wasted trillions of dollars and cost the lives of thousands of US service men and women. Then, he exploited the disastrous program of his Democratic predecessor to provide every American a house and nurtured an unaccountable Wall Street greed machine that hauled the battered car out of the Iraq ditch and, by 2008, sent it careening over a cliff.
This record makes Mohamed Morsi’s year-long run look like child’s play.
Consider it a modest proposal in retrospect. But think what might have been if we had been able to use the Egyptian military model of democracy. Think how comforting it would have been to have the Joint Chiefs step up and declare they were ready to throw the unduly-elected George W. Bush and his far-right cronies out of office in the name of “the people.” The Generals might have appointed an esteemed character like George Mitchell to be interim president until a truly fair election could be arranged. The Supreme Court could have used the same sophistry they used in Bush v. Gore to make it at least sound legal. Sure, it would have been a mess. But it could not have been a worse mess than the one that was the illegitimate reign of George W. Bush. The republic would have survived. In fact it might have been a worthwhile reality check. And we’d all now be much better off.
But, of course, I must be smoking something. This is not how things work. The analogy is completely wrong; it’s silly to imagine the US military would do something like that. Our joint chiefs were delighted by the far-right swerve George W. Bush had taken; it boosted their powers like never before. It didn’t matter one iota that he’d stolen the election. If George W. Bush had been a Muslim, of course, it would be different.
The story in Egypt is certainly not over. The coup has opened room for another very large shoe to be dropped. Another civil war in the region is now a good possibility. It’s disappointing that so many young Egyptian demonstrators in Tahrir Square apparently became so frustrated with political life in Egypt they crawled into bed with the corrupt Egyptian military they’d recently opposed. In a New York Times op-ed, Khaled M. Abouk El Fadl  points out that tyrants like Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein all “pointed to their supporters in the streets as the source of their legitimacy.”
“This time, the military agreed with the protesters,” he writes. “But next time, when protesters call for something that isn’t in the military’s interest, they will meet a very different fate.”
It’s tragically logical that if the first democratically-elected president can be so easily removed by the military and the dirty deed so neatly finessed by Washington, the future of real democracy in Egypt seems doomed. We’ll have to wait to find out what the cost of such a devil’s bargain will be for ordinary Egyptians. A US-excused coup was disastrous for Hondurans.
It’s clear the Egyptian coup benefited militarists in the United States and Israeli governments. Ironically, it apparently also benefited President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who said he was delighted by the coup that removed one of his more worrisome opponents.
The question for Americans — at least for those still awake — remains how do we put a check on our own massively corrupt military institution? And how do we create real democracy and save the mess we have from the vise grip of militarism and rapacious, unaccountable wealth?
|The Venus of Willendorf|
|Black Madonna and Child|
|Left: Aset and Heru. Right: Madonna and Jesus|
|A woman from the Buka Islands|
|Nanny Of The Maroons|
|Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba|
|La Mulâtresse Solitude|
|Amy Ashwood Garvey|
|Sarah Forbes Bonetta|
Finally, one of the last images of the presentation that really stood out to me was that of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a Yoruba princess who was taken as a goddaughter by Queen Victoria.
Next to every great man, there is a great woman next to him and sometimes even in front of him. The Black Woman is God On Earth.
It is interesting to observe that the word idiot derives from the Greek idiotes, which refers to a “private person” – as distinct from a public person, or one who is involved in determining public life. That is, an idiot follows the rules and laws that others draft and sign – irrespective of whether or not it is in the idiot’s interest. Some people in society determine how society will be organized – how its economic surpluses are distributed, how its resources are employed, how its energies are directed, how its cities are designed, its transportation systems are routed, etc. – and others simply follow (or are determined by) these rules. Many of these followers (the idiots) don’t even seem to mind this state of affairs. Still others live under the delusional understanding that they are, in fact, somehow in charge of determining the course of social life – through their duly elected representatives, of course, or through their reputed “consumer power.”
What is of especial interest to those observing political idiocy is how thoroughly inconsistent and incoherent its ideologies can be. Indeed, many idiots justify the status quo (in which they are consigned to the position of idiot) by appealing to the founding documents of the United States, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Declaration of Independence’s main argument is that the only legitimate form of political organization is one in which people govern themselves. It does not take much critical acumen to recognize that self-government – or autonomy – is irreconcilable with the heteronomy that the idiot is subjected to – irrespective of the degree to which the idiot is aware of his or her particular political impotence.
In other words, we are idiots whether we are aware of our political impotence or not. All that it takes to be a political idiot is to be excluded from the actual processes that determine how the world we live in is organized. And how many of us are in any meaningful way able to determine how things are governed? Because public interest polls consistently show majorities of people supporting social policies (such as universal health care, increased environmental protections, access to free education, an end to the wars of aggression committed by the US, etc.) that are not pursued, it does not seem to be much of a stretch to conclude that most people in this country are idiots. In this respect I am a total idiot. And I suspect that I am not alone in being aware of the fact that I suffer from this regrettable condition. Moreover, I suspect that I am not alone in wanting to change this harmful situation. As with other collective problems, however, our collective political and economic idiocy requires a collective solution; the first step of which is recognizing that most of us are these alienated political idiots in the first place.
cus·to·di·an (kəs-ˈtō-dē-ən) n. 1. One who has charge of something: caretaker
– The Heritage Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language, International Edition, 1973
The office of Ronen Baruch, the current Custodian of Absentee Property for Israel, is in an ancient Arab home at 8 Yoel Salomon Street in Jerusalem. A house of this type is not unusual in this part of Jerusalem, and this one has few markings to indicate its function. Even its mail is delivered to the main building of the Ministry of Finance in another part of the city.
The apparent location of the Office of the Custodian of Absentee Property
Searching the Internet will not yield this information unless you read Hebrew, and even then not much else. Much more is available about the Mossad, but perhaps only because it is bigger and more interesting. Information about the Custodian is not necessarily secret, just possibly of little interest to journalists. However, it has no website and does not advertise its contact information. It is almost as if Israel would prefer that no one knows it is there.
Despite this, the office plays a pivotal role in the existence of Israel. Most Israelis live and work on land that was once in the charge of the Custodian of Absentee Property, an office created less than two months after the Israeli state and existing to this day as part of the Ministry of Finance.
Who or what is the Custodian of Absentee Property?
To many of the indigenous nations of North America, the European notion of land ownership was strange. The role of humans was to be custodians of the land and for the land to be the custodian of its human inhabitants. Similarly, the rulers of Makkah and Medina have historically referred to themselves as custodians, not owners, of the holy shrines.
Thus, when Israel created the Office of the Custodian of Absentee Property in July, 1948, to take charge of property belonging to refugees that fled or were expelled, was its intention for the custodian to be a steward and trustee for the property of these refugees while they were away? Certainly, the title of the office implicitly acknowledges that the property belongs to the absentees, not the Custodian, which land registry documents in fact confirm.
Of course, land and the structures on it – some dating back a thousand years or more – were not the only property that came into the charge of the Custodian. Many millions of dollars of gold, jewelry, antiques, cars and other items made their way into the inventory. However, real estate was by far the most important and valuable. The absentee owners were almost all Palestinian Arab refugees and exiles, both rich and poor. A few were Jews, and their property was quickly returned to them. Not so for the rest, except a tiny fraction that were able to prove that they had not fled at all.
How much of the territory within the 1949 ceasefire line did the absentees leave behind? Prior to the proclamation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, some 6% of Mandate Palestine was Jewish property (Sami Hadawi, Village statistics: 1945). Considering that Zionist forces seized 78% of Palestine, however, the proportion within those areas would have been closer to 8%, excluding Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In addition, the remnant of the Palestinian Arab population that was not expelled retained some of their lands and homes, currently estimated to be less than 3% of the same areas. Roughly half of the captured territory was state land of the government of Palestine, mostly the Naqab (Negev) desert.
It is likely that all the rest, roughly 39%, was declared absentee property, and placed under the control of the Custodian. This figure agrees with an inventory made by the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) of 7,069,091 dunams. If the Custodian also took charge of state lands, the total would have been 89%. This information has not been released, but a statement by Jacob Manor, the Custodian in 1980, to journalist Robert Fisk (Pity the Nation, p. 45) indicates that the higher figure may be more accurate.
Of course, Israel had no intention of respecting the legal records of land ownership. The Absentee Property Law of 1950 made clear that the job of the Custodian was to “release” the property in its custody to other agencies, which would use the land without regard to the registered owners.
Thus, in effect, the Custodian of Absentee Property became Israel’s largest “fence” for stolen property. Under the powers authorized by the Absentee Property Law, the Custodian “released” the land to the Israeli state, the Development Authority and the Jewish National Fund (JNF), with the combined lands (93% of the state of Israel) under the management of the Israel Land Administration (ILA). The ILA thus became the largest recipient of stolen property in Israel, notwithstanding the international racketeers and blood diamond traffickers that have found a safe haven there.
Curiously, however, the ILA has until recently been prohibited from offering the land for sale, but rather to lease it to users, although in 2009 plans were made to begin granting title. This policy was promoted in the 1950s allegedly as an enlightened socialist program of collective ownership borrowed from the institution of the kibbutz. Was it instead a means of protecting individual Israeli citizens from the accusation of receiving stolen goods? If so, it constitutes another implicit admission that the property legally belongs to expelled Palestinians and not to either the Israeli government or its citizens.
The Absentee Property Law is in fact contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention and the International Declaration of Human Rights, both of which were constituted less than two years earlier and to which Israel became a signatory. This discrepancy came to light in the case of the Jerusalem residence of the Consul General of Belgium, which has been located since 1948 on absentee property known as the Villa Salameh. In order to be in compliance with international law, Belgium elected to pay rent to the exiled Palestinian owners of the property rather than to any Israeli authority or to Israeli businessman David Sofer, who claims to have “bought” (leased) the property from the Israeli government since 2000.
Surprisingly, Israel has been one of the strongest proponents for the restoration of absentee property to its original owners or their rightful heirs. One of the best examples of this is the HEART (Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce) Project, established in 2011 with more than $2.5 million per year funding from the Israeli government, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Its purpose is to seek restitution for Jewish property seized by the Nazi government in Germany. Other victims of the Holocaust, such as Slavs, Poles, Romanies (Gypsies), disabled persons, non-Europeans, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others are apparently ineligible for this service, as well victims of the 1948 Israeli ethnic cleansing project known to Palestinians as the Nakba (catastrophe).
Although the extent of past Israeli property theft is well known to students of such matters, popular awareness is lagging. Current activists are likely to consider the more recent thefts of Bedouin property in the Naqab (Negev), confiscation of Palestinian property in Jerusalem and West Bank land seizures, house demolitions and village eradications as the major problem without taking into account the much larger scale of earlier crimes. They might be shocked to learn, for example, that the land stolen from Palestinian owners prior to the 1949 ceasefire is equal in size to more than the total area of the West Bank and Gaza combined.
The issue is sometimes raised when defining “Arab land” in the Palestinian context. If, for example, “Arab land” is defined only as that which was seized in the June 1967 war, it disregards the enormous amount of property that was confiscated without compensation from “absentee” Palestinian refugees and exiles in 1947-49 and soon after.
Is the Custodian of Absentee Property awaiting the return of the absentees to reclaim their property? In a sense probably so, though not with a sense of joy. Rather, all who are responsible for the theft of the property and for the ethnic cleansing and other crimes committed in furtherance of that theft know that a day of reckoning always greets those who think they are above the law.