Some Significant Perspectives on Egypt

Feb 10, 2011 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

February 9, 2011

Number 02/11 #03

With the Egyptian situation still both volatile and apparently stale-mated – after a decline in protest numbers, they now appear to be back up again –  much continues to be written about what could happen, Western policy and the roots of the current situation. This Update features some views on the crisis we believe are particularly noteworthy and should be read by anyone who wants to form an informed opinion.

First up is an interview with former Soviet dissident, turned Israel political leader and intellectual force for democracy Natan Sharansky. Mr. Sharansky makes the argument that the danger of a non-democratic outcome in Egypt results from past repression and refusal to pressure for democratic reforms – and calls for a policy of linking US aid to democratising reforms. He also stresses that democracy is not primarily about elections – the first requirement is “free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties” and Egypt can not have a free election until these are in place and this will take considerable time. For all the views of this thoughtful and inspiring proponent of liberal democracy, CLICK HERE. Sharing Sharansky’s emphasis on political freedom in Egypt as the key interest are former CIA analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht, scholar Michael Ledeen, leading Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and Middle East analyst Michael Rubin.

Next up is an analysis of what to do about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood from someone who has some unique insights into the movement – Tawfiq Hamid, an Egyptian exile who used to be a member of a radical splinter group of the Brotherhood alongside al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri. Hamid discusses the Brotherhood’s success in Islamising some key segments of Egyptian society, but also notes some setbacks he believes they have recently suffered. He suggests a series of measures to control and limit the organisation’s undemocratic efforts. For this unique perspective, CLICK HERE. More comment on the history, ideology and role of the Muslim Brotherhood come from terrorism expert Yehudit Barsky, Giulo Meotto of Commentary and the Wall Street Journal.

Finally, we offer a view on US policy on Egypt from one of America’s most respected foreign policy thinkers – Leslie Gelb, former senior official and head of the Council on Foreign Relations. Gelb warns against naive intoxication with the protesters as democrats or seeing their victory as likely to lead to a successful democratic transition, as well as underplaying the danger posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. He stresses that the goal must be an orderly transition to real, not fake, democracy, and points out where the administration has gotten this emphasis both right and wrong so far. For the rest of Gelb’s detailed analysis, CLICK HERE. Some other significant discussions of the US policy toward Egypt  come from former official Elliot Abrams, Washington Institute head Robert Satloff, another Washington Institute scholar David Makovsky, military historian Victor Davis Hansen, noted author Walter Russell Mead and columnists Bret Stephens and Barbara Kay.

Readers may also be interested in:

Democracy’s Tribune on the Arab Awakening

A survivor of nine years in the Soviet Gulag, Natan Sharansky believes that liberalism can take root in Egypt—if the free world supports its transition.


Wall Street Journal, Feb. 5 2011

‘If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky’s book, ‘The Case for Democracy.'” With that comment in 2005, George W. Bush created a best seller, impelling hordes of statesmen, policy wonks and journalists to decode this Rosetta Stone of the “freedom agenda.”

In the book, Mr. Sharansky argues that all people, in all cultures, want to live in freedom; that all dictatorships are inherently unstable and therefore threaten the security of other countries; and that Western powers can and should influence how free other countries are. Rarely have these arguments been dramatized as during the past weeks—in Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen and especially Egypt. So late Wednesday night I interviewed Mr. Sharansky to hear his explanation of our current revolutionary moment.

“The reason people are going to the streets and making revolution is their desire not to live in a fear society,” Mr. Sharansky says. In his taxonomy, the world is divided between “fear societies” and “free societies,” with the difference between them determinable by what he calls a “town square test”: Are the people in a given society free to stand in their town square and express their opinions without fear of arrest or physical harm? The answer in Tunisia and Egypt, of course, has long been “no”—as it was in the Soviet bloc countries that faced popular revolutions in 1989.

The comparison of today’s events with 1989 is a common one, but for Mr. Sharansky it is personal. He was born in 1948 in Donetsk (then called Stalino), Ukraine, and in the 1970s and 1980s he was one of the most famous dissidents in the Soviet Union—first as an aide to the nuclear physicist-turned-human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, then as a champion for the rights of Soviet Jews like himself to emigrate. His outspoken advocacy landed him in the Soviet Gulag for nine years (including 200 days on hunger strike).

Mr. Sharansky was released from prison in 1986, after his wife Avital’s tireless campaigning earned his case international renown and the strong support of President Ronald Reagan. He moved to Israel, where he eventually entered politics and served until 2006 in various ministerial posts and in the parliament. Throughout, he preached and wrote about, as his book’s subtitle puts it, “the power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror.”

This idea is the animating feature of a worldview that bucks much conventional wisdom. Uprisings like Tunisia’s and Egypt’s, he says, make “specialists—Sovietologists, Arabists—say ‘Who could have thought only two weeks ago that this will happen?'” But “look at what Middle Eastern democratic dissidents were saying for all these years about the weakness of these regimes from the inside,” and you won’t be surprised when they topple, he says.

And yet policy makers from Washington to Tel Aviv have seemingly been in shock. Many of them—on the right and the left—look upon the demise of Hosni Mubarak and the potential rise of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood with dread.

“Why is there such a big danger that if now there will be free choice for Egyptians, then the Muslim Brotherhood can rise to power?” Mr. Sharansky asks. “Because they are the only organized force which exists in addition to Mubarak’s regime.” Mr. Mubarak quashed almost all political dissent, with the general acquiescence of his American patrons. But he couldn’t stop the Brotherhood from spreading its message in mosques. Meanwhile, he used the Brotherhood as a bogeyman, telling the U.S. that only he stood between radical Islamists and the seat of power.

It worked. Mr. Sharansky says that in a 2007 meeting in Prague, President Bush told him that the U.S. supports Mr. Mubarak—to the tune of nearly $2 billion in annual aid—because if it didn’t, the Brotherhood would take over Egypt.

For all his good intentions and pro-democracy rhetoric, Mr. Bush was inconsistent in practice. By Mr. Sharansky’s calculus, simply propping up Mr. Mubarak’s fear society would make it more likely, not less, that radicals would gradually become the only viable opposition and be best-positioned to gain power when the regime inevitably fell. And so it is today, as the Mubarak regime teeters.

Still, Mr. Sharansky finds reason for optimism. While recognizing common Israeli fears that Mr. Mubarak’s ouster could give Hamas more power in and around Gaza and endanger the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, he doesn’t expect the security balance to change much. As he wrote in “The Case for Democracy,” over the past 30 years Israel’s “border with Syria, with whom we do not have a peace treaty, has been just as quiet, and [I] suggest that Israeli deterrence is responsible for both.”

Mr. Sharansky points out that Mr. Mubarak is no great man of peace. Indeed, since 1979, Egyptians’ “hatred toward Israel only grew. . . . Egypt became one of the world centers of anti-Semitism.” That’s because all dictators must cultivate external enemies in order to maintain their grip on power. So even when Mr. Mubarak “lost Israel as an enemy, he continued to need Jews as the enemy.”

Mr. Sharansky says the recent uprisings prove his fundamental contentions “that there are limits to how much you can control people by fear,” and that all people, regardless of religion or culture, desire freedom. “That’s a very powerful universal message. It was very powerful when the Iron Curtain exploded, and it’s as powerful today,” he says.

He has a prescription for what should happen next. First, he says there’s no justification for Mr. Mubarak staying in place. “What would that mean? . . . He could continue for another few months or for another year, until [Egypt] explodes with more hatred toward America and Israel and the free world.”

Second, U.S. policy should shift from its focus on illusory “stability” toward “linkage”—an approach that successfully pressured the Soviet Union. That means linking U.S. aid to Egypt’s progress in developing the institutions of a free society.

If he were a U.S. senator, Mr. Sharansky says, he would immediately introduce a law to continue support to Egypt on condition that “20% of all this money goes to strengthening and developing democratic institutions. And the money cannot be controlled by the Egyptian government.” Ideally his measure would kick in as soon as possible, so that it can affect the incentives of any Egyptian transitional government established to rule until September, when a presidential election is scheduled.

The model for such linkage is the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which forced the Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration or lose the economically-valuable “Most Favored Nation” trade designation. But Jackson-Vanik has been controversial ever since its enactment 35 years ago, and Washington has shown little willingness to deploy linkage since.

But Mr. Sharansky holds out hope, partly because on Egypt “the statements from the White House are improving with every day, especially in comparison with its catastrophic statements at the time of the Iranian revolution [in 2009].” By his reckoning, the Obama administration’s position during the recent Iranian protests was “maybe one of the biggest betrayals of people’s freedom in modern history. . . . At the moment when millions were deciding whether to go to the barricades, the leader of the free world said ‘For us, the most important thing is engagement with the regime, so we don’t want a change of regime.’ Compared to this, there is very big progress [today].”

Inconsistency is par for the course in this field. “From time to time,” Mr. Sharansky says of the George W. Bush administration, “America was giving lectures about democracy.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a strong address in Cairo in 2005. And in 2002, by threatening to withhold $130 million in aid to Egypt, the administration successfully pressured Mr. Mubarak to release the sociologist and democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim from prison. In their final years, however, administration officials reverted to bureaucratic form and relaxed their pressure drastically.

President Obama relaxed it even further, Mr. Sharansky notes, inserting only vague language about democracy into his June 2009 address in Cairo. “There was no mention at all that at that moment democratic dissidents were imprisoned, that Mubarak had put in prison the leading [opposition] candidate in the past election,” Ayman Nour.

Even if the U.S. embraces linkage, Egypt’s September election could be quite problematic. “Only when the basic institutions that protect a free society are firmly in place—such as a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties—can free elections be held,” Mr. Sharansky wrote in “The Case for Democracy.” In Egypt, those “free, developed institutions,” he tells me, “will not be developed by September.”

What can develop over the next eight months, Mr. Sharansky says, is a U.S. policy making clear that “whoever is elected cannot continue to survive—he cannot continue to rely on the assistance of the free world in defense, economics, anything—if democratic reforms are not continued and if democratic institutions are not built.” After several years of such democracy-building, he says, when dissidents like Mr. Ibrahim enjoy the ability to build institutions like trade unions and women’s organizations, “then in a few years you’ll have a different country, and you can have really free elections.”

For this to happen, “there must be consistent policy in the free world,” says Mr. Sharansky. That means “no compromise for the sake of stability with those who will come to power—and who, inevitably, if they have the opportunity to lead as dictators, will try to lead as dictators.”

“There is a real chance now,” he says. “And the fact that it happened with the country which has the [second-] biggest level of assistance from the United States makes this chance for success even bigger if the leaders of the free world—and first of all the United States of America—play it right.”

What shouldn’t happen is a repeat of the 2006 election in Gaza, when Hamas won office without demonstrating any commitment to democracy, and Palestinian society had no checks in place to prevent the outcome from being one man, one vote, one time. But the Gaza scenario seems unlikely in Egypt, says Mr. Sharansky.

“Hamas really used a unique opportunity. First of all, there was the policy of Yasser Arafat, who really turned the daily life of Palestinians into a mafia [environment] with racket money paid by all the population to the leaders. That’s why you saw when there were elections, many Christian villages like Taiba were voting for Hamas. Why is a Christian village voting for Islamic fundamentalists? Because they were like the Magnificent Seven, saving the village from the mafia. . . . Second, geographically, it was like there was a special closed area, Gaza, which was brought [to Hamas] on a plate by us.”

So can the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt replicate Hamas’s electoral coup in Gaza? “Only in one case: if the systematic practice of keeping people under dictatorship—so the dictatorship becomes more and more cruel against any dissident thinking— continues and strengthens. Then it’ll unite people more and more around the only force which can resist this and get military and organizational and financial support: the Muslim Brothers. . . .

“That’s why I’m saying we must be happy that [Egypt’s uprising] happened now and not a few years later because then the Muslim Brothers would be even more strong. . . . This revolt happened when the Muslim brothers are not as strong as Hamas was.”

With Cairo’s streets still aflame, the immediate question is how far Mr. Mubarak will go to maintain his rule—how many police trucks will run down street protesters, how many plainclothes thugs will hunt down Western journalists in their hotel rooms. Beyond that, the question is whether over time Egypt will come to pass the town square test. “There is a good chance,” says Mr. Sharansky, “but a lot depends. Some Egyptians are now working for this. The thing is whether the free world will become a partner in this work.”

Mr. Feith is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal

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Playing chess with the Muslim Brotherhood


Jerusalem Post, 07/02/2011 23:37

Direct confrontations with the group may be much less effective than well-planned gambits.

The US is facing a dilemma on how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On one hand, accepting it means accepting an Islamist system that will certainly have an anti-American and anti-Israeli agenda. On the other hand, rejecting and delegitimizing this group can turn some of its members to the use of violence.

The group has very strong anti-American and anti- Israeli views, and hence defeating it requires wisdom similar to playing chess rather than direct confrontations, especially in the current volatile situation.

This approach is possible because we know that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike other jihadi groups, can sit at a table and negotiate. In chess, one may win the game by executing a proper gambit, or a well-calculated sacrifice. Direct confrontations with the Muslim Brotherhood may be much less effective than well-planned gambits.

THE CURRENT reality in Egypt is that despite being officially banned, the Muslim Brotherhood very much exists. For nearly 30 years, the Mubarak regime has been unable to suppress the spread of its ideology. For example, the Brotherhood managed during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak to increase the Islamic-based hatred of Israel, and both anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism have reached very high levels in the country.

In addition, it managed to Islamize a significant portion of the society. Currently, most Muslim women are wearing the hijab, Islamic jargon is used in mainstream media and the support of Shari’a is prevalent among the population. During the time of Anwar Sadat, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism were declining, and during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time, signs of Islamization of the society were virtually nonexistent. This indicates that the Muslim Brotherhood thrived during the Mubarak regime.

The reliance of Israel and the US on one person in power in Egypt without pressuring him to change the educational system and the government-controlled media to actively fight anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism was a short-sighted approach that was doomed to fail. It was much better that the US – instead of pressuring Mubarak on democracy – should have used its relation with him to make changes in education and to implement effective strategies to weaken Islamism. This would have guaranteed a much better long-term relationship between Egypt and the US and Israel.

Mubarak’s approach that allowed anti-Semitism to flourish while pretending to be a friend to Israel was schizophrenic and indicates that he was not a true ally. His refusal to visit Israel even once during his 30 years of presidency is another indication of the lack of sincerity in his relationship – despite receiving billions of dollars in aid from the US.

A man who truly believes in peace would not have allowed anti-Semitism to flourish to such pathological levels in his country. For example, Sadat, who believed in peace, took many active steps to change Egyptian society and used religion effectively to fight rather than promote anti-Semitism. Sadat’s approach was to a great extent successful in decreasing anti-Semitism – despite his being assassinated by extremists who deemed him an “apostate.”

WHILE THE Muslim Brotherhood flourished over the last few decades, it lost a significant amount of its popularity in the last few years due to several reasons:

• The emergence of open criticism of Islam and the exposure of radical teachings that contradict human conscience. The Internet and modern media allowed a level of debate and discussion that weakened the appeal of political Islam to many people. This was evident by the refusal of the protesters in Egypt to use the flag of the Muslim Brotherhood.

• The failure of Shari’a-inspired Islamic groups in Somalia, Afghanistan (Taliban) and Gaza (Hamas) to provide a better life for their people contradicted the basic slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood that “Islam is the solution.” Furthermore, the failure of the Islamic solution proved to many that the wealth in Saudi Arabia was not necessarily because it implement Shari’a.

• The refusal of the Muslim Brotherhood to join the demonstrations at the beginning (it only joined them when they started to succeed!). This led many to perceive it as a group of political opportunists. The Muslim Brotherhood had no other option but to arrange a few separate insignificant parallel demonstrations. It is important to note that the prayers that were held during the protests represented a common ritual level of Islam rather than an ideological movement belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.

IN THE current volatile and exploding situation dealing with the Brotherhood has become a very sensitive issue. The following are a few – but essential – recommendations on how to handle the current situation with the Muslim Brotherhood in a way to avoid the complete collapse of the country.

• Try to “contain” or “accommodate” the group to some extent as direct confrontations in this situation can turn some of its members to become violent or support other more violent Islamic groups to do terrorist acts. Stability at this stage is vital to defeat this group in the long run.

• Allow some of the members to have limited roles in the next government in areas that do not allow them to control strategic policies, education or the sensitive security and military apparatus. One could assign more technical ministries to them to test their competence – such as the ministries related to environmental affairs, or water and irrigation or housing and utilities. This offer to the Muslim Brotherhood must be conditioned by its approval of the international treaties of Egypt, including the peace with Israel.

• Fight the group ideologically – putting its members in prison without fighting its ideology has been ineffective and failed to stop its proliferation.

• Use religion to fight the Muslim Brotherhood and embarrass it. For example the secular government can declare that it must respect the peace treaty with Israel and ask the group to agree with this. The Koran states clearly: Fulfill [every] promise and treaty, 17:34; O ye who believe! Fulfill [all] obligations. 5:1; Those who fulfill their oath and never break their treaties [the context is praising them], 13:20.

• Provide humanitarian aid from non-Islamic organizations to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood in using this tactic to win the hearts and minds of people.

This gambit of accepting a limited and controllable role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the next stage of Egypt’s political future, while using effective approaches to defeat it at the ideological level, will be vital to avoiding further instability that can breed uncontrollable radicalism.

The writer is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of a terrorist Islamic organization JI with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawaherri, who later became the second in command of al-Qaida. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. www.tawfikhamid.com

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Obama’s Egypt Flip-Flop

by Leslie H. Gelb

The Daily Beast, February 4, 2011 | 9:30pm

U.S. media pundits are intoxicated with protests and naïve about religious and military extremists—and the White House’s daily policy shifts aren’t helping, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

As the Egyptian earthquake rumbles into its second week—with implications for U.S. security in the Middle East rivaling those for the Soviet Union during the 1989 uprisings in Eastern Europe—three matters roil my mind:

First, most of the American talkocracy is now so utterly intoxicated with protestocracy, which they call democracy, that they outright neglect the enormous trials of getting from the streets to a real democracy. It’s hard as hell, and the process lends itself to hijacking by extremists.

Second, the Muslim Brotherhood jumps immediately to mind as hijackers, but don’t overlook the potentially equal or greater threat to democracy from Egypt’s beloved armed forces. The history of venomous domestic and foreign-policy pronouncements by the MB should keep us all awake at night. All who ignore this history are naïve, best suited to cable-TV commentary, not policymaking.

Third, the Obama White House hasn’t helped matters by shifting policy ground almost daily, causing confusion, and thereby squandering America’s credibility and limited but precious influence. President Obama has got to learn the fundamental rule of dealing with careening crises: State your basic principles and then shut up publicly! (Meaning, just boringly repeat your mantra daily.)

I’d like to believe that, if I were an Egyptian, I would be in the streets with the protesters. I’d be mad as hell with Mubarak and would want to get rid of him as quickly as possible. But that wouldn’t make me or my fellow mobsters democrats. Generally, one cannot count on mobs, no matter how nice or liberal or unfilled with hatred, to produce democracies.

The United States has no power to shape events in Egypt, but it does have real influence. Using that influence effectively absolutely requires consistency out of the White House. That has not been forthcoming.

The best way to get from the streets of Cairo to some semblance of a constitutional government that ensures rights and freedoms is, of course, to get Mubarak and his lot to help with the transition from dictatorship to the desired end. That’s what the Obama administration is now trying to do behind the scenes. And that’s the right approach. The protestocracy is justifiably skeptical of involving Mubarak and his bunch in any capacity whatsoever. And that’s understandable because he disappointed and lied to them so many times before. And they’re afraid that if they get out of the streets and let him take the lead, Mubarak will revert to business as usual or worse. I’d think that way if I were in their shoes as well.

But from a very safe distance here in New York, I truly believe that circumstances are different today than in the unhappy past. Mubarak will have to go, and I believe at some level he now understands this. His support has clearly dwindled, even among his own backers in the army and elsewhere. Not to be discounted at all, he now has practically no support whatsoever from any nation in the world. He can’t hold on this time. The policy trick for the U.S. and others is to try to “praise” Mubarak into saving his nation once again by turning over power to his subordinates, calling for an assembly to fix the worst parts of the present constitution, and holding supervised elections in, say, three months’ time. To my friends in the talkocracy, I have to say that trying this approach is far better than pretending that the protestocracy can somehow magically transform itself into a democratic government. They have no organized political parties and, alas, no experience with governing.

As for the long list of gargoyles to be encountered during this process, I’ve already disgorged myself about the MB. They promise democracy and nonviolence at home and not to Islamicize Egypt. Given their long history, it’s simply naïve to take them at their word. And I’ll bet most Egyptians are even more worried about the MB than the American talkocracy.

The other potential threat to democracy, the Egyptian military, is almost always forgotten. Right now they’re seen as saviors, the keepers of peace, the ones who will preserve the future democracy. But their history is one of supporting dictators. The present corps of generals are all Mubarak men. The colonels could be anything, including secret members of the MB and plotters for future dictatorships. Just as there are groups within groups within the MB, so it is with the armed forces. It’s important that Egyptians and Americans don’t close their eyes to these risks.

As for Obama’s performance, it has been more wanting than helpful. As I’ve written many times, the U.S. has no power to shape events in Egypt, but it does have real influence. Using that influence effectively absolutely requires consistency out of the White House. That has not been forthcoming.

Obama has consistently upheld the universal rights of free speech and protest, acknowledged legitimate grievances, and called for peaceful change. That’s all fine.

But here’s the gist of the administration’s rhetorical roller coaster since the crisis began: They started out saying that Mubarak’s regime was “stable,” they proclaimed Egypt a “close and important ally,” suggesting the need to support Mubarak, and added that he was not a “dictator.” Then they threatened to review the billion-dollar U.S. aid package to Egypt, a real body blow to Mubarak and the military. After Mubarak said he would not run for reelection in September, they called for an “orderly transition.” As protests continued, they called for Mubarak to begin the transition “now.” In sum, they danced to and fro during the first several days and then increasingly hardened their position against Mubarak even as they were privately trying to get him to participate in his own political demise.

The only statement that made complete sense throughout this roller-coaster process was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s on Sunday: “It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy.” That’s the heart of the matter, and that’s all the administration should have been saying publicly along with a line like, “And, of course, we stand ready to help Egyptians as and when they call upon us to do so.”

One should focus sharply on Mrs. Clinton’s wise words last Sunday—that is, our goal should be a real democracy, not a fake one. I’m accused all the time now of favoring an illusory stability for Egypt, but I think my critics are doing their best to encourage Egypt and the protestocracy to accept an illusory democracy. Let’s hope the Obama administration can cajole Mubarak toward a peaceful and orderly transition and that Egyptian elites and protesters will be mindful of the threats lurking just beneath the surface. For if we, and far more important they, are not on their guard, we shall all be very sorry.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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