Some legal aspects of the Egypt-Israel gas deal (part I)

I’ve long wanted to write a post about the legal aspects of the Egypt-Israel natural gas deal without taking the time to do so, but its probable breakdown makes this a moral imperative. Correct and specific legal information on what is after all a commercial transaction subject to the usual confidentiality clauses has been hard to find, and much more could probably be found by exploring Israeli (and thus Hebrew) sources, but I’ll leave that to Israeli media or bloggers. The specific legal architecture of the 2005 Egypt-Israeli gas sale deal is sketchy, but I think the following gives a relatively reliable picture.

I – The legal context: the gas contracts are based on a bilateral inter-governmental agreement

First, there are two parallel legal tracks here: there’s first an overarching agreement between the governments of Egypt and Israel on the gas sale, contrary to what many, me included, have thought (the second legal track being the contractual arrangements between the different Egyptian and Israeli companies involved).

« In the last few years, when lawsuits were filed in Egypt against the sale of gas to Israel, the government often claimed that it was only selling gas to EMG, and has no transactional relationship with Israel ».

Until a few days ago, I thought as much: the contracts were presumably signed between Egyptian and Israeli gas or energy companies – more on them later – with no explicit, direct legal involvement of either the Egyptian or the Israeli governements. Contrary to what many think, the Treaty of Peace between the State of Israel and the Arab Republic of Egypt  (the version on the Israeli MFA’s website is more comprehensive) does not contain any undertaking by Egypt to sell gas to Israel – there is a clause on trade in annex II, but it doesn’t impose a duty on Egypt to supply gas to Israel:

Article 2: Economic and Trade Relations

1. The Parties agree to remove all discriminatory barriers to normal economic relations and to terminate economic boycotts of each other upon completion of the interim withdrawal.

2. As soon as possible, and not later than six months after the completion of the interim withdrawal, the Parties will enter negotiations with a view to concluding an agreement on trade and commerce for the purpose of promoting beneficial economic relations.

There is however a memorandum of understanding dated March 26, 1979 between Israel and the USA whereby the US guarantees Israel’s oil supplies, but Egypt is not party to it, and it does not cover natural gas. But then I stumbled – by chance – on the 2005 Memorandum of understanding relating to the purchase and the transmission through a pipeline of natural gas signed between the governements of Egypt and Israel – you’ll find below the provisions that I find relevant to this dispute.

The Government of the State of Israel and the Governement of the Arab Republic of Egypt, hereinafter referred to as the « Parties »,

(…) Aware of the resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Arab Republic of Egypt during its meeting held on 18 September 2000, authorizing the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum represented by the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation to conclude the necessary contract with Eastern Mediterranean Gas Company, an Egyptian joint-stock company, hereinafter referred to as « EMG« , for the export of quantities of Egyptian natural gas to the consuming markets in the Mediterranean countries as well as the European markets;

Welcoming contracts between EMG and Israeli companies such as the contract between the Israeli Electric Corporation Ltd., hereinafter refered to as « IEC », and EMG for the supply of natural gas originating from Egypt to Israel, through a pipeline to be constructed between El Arish and Ashkelon, for a period of 15 (fifteen) years, renewable by mutuall agreemnt, as well as additional contracts to be concluded between EMG and other Israeli companies;

Have agreed the following:

Article 1 General: The purchase of natural gas, its transmission through a pipeline between El Arish and Ashkelon, including the construction of the pipeline and its operation, shall be in accordance with the terms of this Memorandum of Understanding and in accordance with and subject to the laws of the State under whose jurisdiction it lies.

Article 2 Guarantee of supply: The Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt guarantees the continuous and uninterrupted supply of the natural gas contracted and/or to be contracted such as between EMG and IEC for the initial 15 years as well as for any extended period, according to the provisions of the contract and for a yearly total amount of up to 7 BCM (seven billion cubic meters). The same guarantee shall apply to any other entity importing gas from Egypt to Israel. This guarantee will start on the date of the activation of any contract of purchase of natural gas from egypt.

Article 3: Subject to its law and the provisions of this MOU each Party shall facilitate the implementation of this MOU.

Article 4 Safety and security:

(1) Each Government shall have the right to determine, in accordance with its own laws, the safety and security measures which are to govern the construction and operation of the part of the pipeline under its jurisdiction.

(2) Operation of the pipeline, or any part thereof, shall not commence until each party has issued all necessary authorizations and permits in accordance with their national legal requirements. (…)

Article 7 Tripartite agreement: The Egyptian Government designates the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) and the Egyptian Gas Holding Company (EGAS) as representatives of the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum in signing the tripartite agreement as the First Party in the agreement guaranteeing natural gas supply, with EMG as the Second Party in the agreement, and IEC as the Third Party in the agreement. The same shall apply to any other entity importing gas from Egypt into Israel and/or consuming gas from Egypt in Israel.

Article 8 Consultations: The parties, recognizing each other’s legitimate interest in safeguarding the supply of natural gas from Egypt to Israel may consult each other with a view to find a solution to outstanding issues.

Article 9 Entry into force: (1) This Memorandum shall enter into force on the date of the latter of the diplomatic notes by which the Parties notify each other that their internal legal requirements for the entering into force of the Memorandum has been complied with. (…)

Done at Cairo, Egypt, on the 30 day (sic) of June 2005 which corresponds to the 23rd day if Sivan 5765 (…)

Some remarks: I’m not impressed by the quality of the legal drafting here – this is a shoddy and hastily drafted agreement. As a jurist, there are many issues I would have expected to see tackled in such an agreement – I’ve seen grants contracts for 25.000 € music festivals with more substantive legal content than this MoU, and a cursory glance into the Gas Regulation 2012 volume, containing a 361-pages overview of gas laws around the world, does indicate that there are possibly one or two issues that may have been overlooked. There is for instance no arbitration clause should consultations fail to achieve a compromise between the parties, nor are the different steps of the consultations phase detailed.

Or take article 1 for instance: it states that the sale and transmission of Egypt’s natural gas to Israel shall be « in accordance with and subject to the laws of the State under whose jurisdiction it lies« . So, if Egypt’s People’s assembly votes a law barring the sale of natural gas to Israel or mandating that the price of that gas should be three times the market price, that would be in accordance with the MoU, right? It doesn’t make much sense to allow such unqualified loopholes in an inter-governmental agreement governing highly contentious multi-billion sales of natural gas.

More importantly, the lasting impression one gets when reading this MoU is that it was drafted by the Israeli government (although if that is the case I’m underwhelmed by their legal service): while Egypt takes upon itself wide-ranging guarantees regarding the « continuous and uninterrupted » supply of natural gas to Israel (you will note that there is no force majeure clause, or no mitigation of Egypt’s wide-ranging guarantee), the Israeli government undertakes no corresponding guarantee vis-à-vis Egypt, as regards payments or price levels (no price revision clause), for instance. It is quite strange to see a government guaranteeing a private company’s supplies – EMG’s in this case – to another commercial operator such as the IEC on the Israeli side to such an absolute and unqualified extent. There is for instance no statement that Egypt’s guarantee is one of last resort, no indication of prior procedural steps or time-limits for the guarantee to play, and more importantly still there is no financial ceiling.

A more appropriate drafting from an Egyptian point of view would have been that the Egyptian government undertook not to unreasonably or unjustifiably hinder or obstruct said gas supplies, and to enter into prior consultations with its Israeli counterpart if it were envisaging action likely to substantially affect the supplies of natural gas to Israel. The absolute guarantee provided by this MoU seems unreasonable, and I would be interested to hear from better informed readers if other inter-governmental MoUs concerning oil or gas supplies contain similar wide-ranging guarantee clauses, especially in the absence of a reciprocal guarantee of payments from the buyer’s government.

Even more troubling, from the Egyptian point of view: the Egyptian government’s undertaking is not limited to the known parties to the 2005 gas sale contract, but to all parties of all Egyptian gas sales contracts with Israel thereafter. And the icing on the cake: the MoU is indefinite, with no limitation in time. Even the formalia indicates that the MoU template was Israeli – no Arabic version, and the date of the agreement indicated as per the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, with no mention of the date according to the Islamic calendar…

It is therefore necessary to resort to the general legal definition of a guarantee – see The Oxford Companion to Law (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, p. 542):

A guarantee is an accessory contract whereby one party undertakes to be answerable for the debt, default or miscarriage of another, who is primarily liable to a third party. The surety’s liability does not arise until the principal debtor has defaulted and the duration and extent of that liability depend on the terms of the contract. Before recourse can be had to him, any conditions precedent to his liability must be fulfilled.

While Egypt’s guarantee implicitly applies in case of default, it is unconditional, and no direct references are made to the contract between the principal debtors in this case, EGAS and EGPC, and EMG on the one hand and IEC on the other.

A comparison between the 2005 Egypt-Israel gas supply MoU and the 1979 USA-Israel oil supply MoU is telling: the US issued no unlimited – the MoU was signed with a 15 years validity, covering the period 1975-1990 – or unconditional guarantee – its undertaking is valid only if the US meets its own requirements, and as for transportation the US only undertakes to « make every effort« . More importantly still, « in any event the United States will be reimbursed by Israel for the costs incurred by the United States in providing oil to Israel hereunder« …

Then there is the legal status of the MoU: while it’s not labelled a treaty, it clearly intends to produce binding legal effects, as evidenced by article 9 (1):

This Memorandum shall enter into force on the date of the latter of the diplomatic notes by which the Parties notify each other that their internal legal requirements for the entering into force of the Memorandum has been complied with.

This is a procedure akin to that surrounding the signature and ratification of treaties. The 1969 Vienna Convention on the law of treaties states:

“treaty” means an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation (article 2.1.a)

It adds :

Article 11: Means of expressing consent to be bound by a treaty

The consent of a State to be bound by a treaty may be expressed by signature, exchange of instruments constituting a treaty, ratification, acceptance, approval or accession, or by any other means if so agreed.

Furthermore, the 2005 MoU does not have abstract or political aims (unlike some friendship or co-operation treaties), nor have the parties only expressed mere intentions (« the parties endeavour etc »): on the contrary, Egypt’s guarantee as to the gas supply is clear and unconditional; the provisions on environmental protection (article 5 of the MoU) and especially those on taxes (article 6 of the MoU – a tax exemption régime is set up) show unequivocally that both parties intended for the MoU to produce binding legal effects.

Accordingly, the 2005 MoU should be considered as an international treaty between Israel and Egypt, whose object is to guarantee the fulfillment of an Egyptian private company’s contractual obligations towards its Israeli clients. Robin Mill’s assertion in Foreign Policy – – is therefore unfounded in the present case.

Interestingly, and that’s yet another weakness, the MoU contains no provision on its termination. The provisions of the 1969 Vienna convention would then apply (see footnote (1) for the applicable provisions thereof).

Egypt could possibly invoke article 151 of its 1971 Constitution (it was in force in 2005, and still is to a large extent, despite the 2011 Constitutional declaration approved by referendum), which laid down the procedure for ratification of treaties, and mandated a ratification by the People’s assembly for commercial treaties or those imposing a burden on the state treasury – which could be said to be the case here with the unconditional supply guarantee undertaken by the Egyptian government vis-à-is the Israeli government, not to mention the:

Article 151 The President of Republic shall conclude international treaties and forward them to the People’s Assembly with the necessary explanations. The treaties shall have the force of law after their conclusion, ratification and publication in accordance with the established procedure. However, peace treaties, alliance pacts, commercial and maritime [treaties] and all the treaties involving modifications in the national territory or affecting the rights of sovereignty, or imposing charges on the State treasury which are not provided for in the budget must be approved by the People’s Assembly.

The 2005 MoU was never ratified by Egypt’s People’s assembly, so it might possibly have been ratified by the Egyptian governement in breach of its own Constitution, raising the possibility to invoke its invalidity in accordance with article 65 of the 1969 Vienna convention. Another possibility would be to invoke the material breach clause – (article 60 of the 1969 Vienna convention) – as the official reason invoked by state-owned EGAS – Egypt’s gas company – is that EMG hadn’t paid its dues for months on end:

The contract was terminated after the Egyptian side sent notifications to EMG five times, but EMG did not commit to its financial obligations as per the contract terms, while the deadline was 31 March (Egypt Independent)

It seems however that the Egyptian government, or what passes for it, has decided on presenting the gas deal termination as a purely commercial decision, based on non-payment of dues by the Israeli buyers:

Egyptian engineer Hani Dahi, executive director of the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation, said on Monday that the military council and the government had no part in the decision to terminate Egypt’s agreement to provide natural gas to Israel.

According to Dahi, the decision was made following a business dispute with Israel, and has nothing to do with politics. He added that the Israeli side has not fulfilled its economic obligations, despite repeated requests.

Mohamed Shoeb, head of the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company, announced Sunday evening that the company will terminate its agreement to provide natural gas to Israel, after a decision had been made on Thursday due to what he termed “Israel’s repeated breaching of the agreement.” (Haaretz)

This was confirmed by Egypt’s infamous minister of international cooperation, Fayza Abulnaga:

Egypt confirmed that it is not opposed to continuing gas exports to Israel if the two countries reach a new agreement based on new prices.

The Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) has notified the Israeli side of the decision, said Planning and International Cooperation Minister, Fayza Abouelnaga, in a briefing Monday after a cabinet meeting at the General Authority for Investment. She added that the Egyptian government or the Ministry of Petroleum has nothing to do with the trade contract between EGAS and the East Mediterreanean Gas Company. (Egypt Independent)

Notice by the way Abulnaga’s blatant lie (« the Egyptian government or the Ministry of Petroleum has nothing to do with the trade contract between EGAS and the East Mediterreanean Gas Company« ): she was part of the cabinet when the 2005 MoU was signed, and irrespective of whether she knew about its contents then surely these must be known to her today, and they are crystal clear: Egypt guarantees the supply of natural gas to Israel for fifteen years, i.e. until 2020.

This leads us to the second legal track: the contractual arrangements between the Egyptian gas suppliers, EMG which acts as an intermediary and the Israeli buyers. I will look into this in a following post.

(1)  The following provisions of the 1969 Vienna Convention could provide a basis for an Egyptian denunciation of the 2005 MoU:

Article 54: Termination of or withdrawal from a treaty under its provisions or by consent of the parties The termination of a treaty or the withdrawal of a party may take place: (a) in conformity with the provisions of the treaty; or (b) at any time by consent of all the parties after consultation with the other contracting States. (…)

Article 56: Denunciation of or withdrawal from a treaty containing no provision regarding termination, denunciation or withdrawal

1. A treaty which contains no provision regarding its termination and which does not provide for denunciation or withdrawal is not subject to denunciation or withdrawal unless: (a) it is established that the parties intended to admit the possibility of denunciation or withdrawal; or (b) a right of denunciation or withdrawal may be implied by the nature of the treaty.

2. A party shall give not less than twelve months’ notice of its intention to denounce or withdraw from a treaty under paragraph 1. (…)

Article 57: Suspension of the operation of a treaty under its provisions or by consent of the parties

The operation of a treaty in regard to all the parties or to a particular party may be suspended: (a) in conformity with the provisions of the treaty; or (b) at any time by consent of all the parties after consultation with the other contracting States. (…)

Article 60: Termination or suspension of the operation of a treaty as a consequence of its breach

1. A material breach of a bilateral treaty by one of the parties entitles the other to invoke the breach as a ground for terminating the treaty or suspending its operation in whole or in part.

2. A material breach of a multilateral treaty by one of the parties entitles: (a) the other parties by unanimous agreement to suspend the operation of the treaty in whole or in part or to terminate it either: 20 (i) in the relations between themselves and the defaulting State; or (ii) as between all the parties; (b) a party specially affected by the breach to invoke it as a ground for suspending the operation of the treaty in whole or in part in the relations between itself and the defaulting State; (c) any party other than the defaulting State to invoke the breach as a ground for suspending the operation of the treaty in whole or in part with respect to itself if the treaty is of such a character that a material breach of its provisions by one party radically changes the position of every party with respect to the further performance of its obligations under the treaty.

3. A material breach of a treaty, for the purposes of this article, consists in: (a) a repudiation of the treaty not sanctioned by the present Convention; or (b) the violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty. 4. The foregoing paragraphs are without prejudice to any provision in the treaty applicable in the event of a breach. 5. Paragraphs 1 to 3 do not apply to provisions relating to the protection of the human person contained in treaties of a humanitarian character, in particular to provisions prohibiting any form of reprisals against persons protected by such treaties.

Article 61: Supervening impossibility of performance

1. A party may invoke the impossibility of performing a treaty as a ground for terminating or withdrawing from it if the impossibility results from the permanent disappearance or destruction of an object indispensable for the execution of the treaty. If the impossibility is temporary, it may be invoked only as a ground for suspending the operation of the treaty.

2. Impossibility of performance may not be invoked by a party as a ground for terminating, withdrawing from or suspending the operation of a treaty if the impossibility is the result of a breach by that party either of an obligation under the treaty or of any other international obligation owed to any other party to the treaty.

Article 62: Fundamental change of circumstances

1. A fundamental change of circumstances which has occurred with regard to those existing at the time of the conclusion of a treaty, and which was not foreseen by the parties, may not be invoked as a ground for terminating or withdrawing from the treaty unless: (a) the existence of those circumstances constituted an essential basis of the consent of the parties to be bound by the treaty; and 21 (b) the effect of the change is radically to transform the extent of obligations still to be performed under the treaty.

2. A fundamental change of circumstances may not be invoked as a ground for terminating or withdrawing from a treaty: (a) if the treaty establishes a boundary; or (b) if the fundamental change is the result of a breach by the party invoking it either of an obligation under the treaty or of any other international obligation owed to any other party to the treaty.

3. If, under the foregoing paragraphs, a party may invoke a fundamental change of circumstances as a ground for terminating or withdrawing from a treaty it may also invoke the change as a ground for suspending the operation of the treaty.

Article 65: Procedure to be followed with respect to invalidity, termination, withdrawal from or suspension of the operation of a treaty

1. A party which, under the provisions of the present Convention, invokes either a defect in its consent to be bound by a treaty or a ground for impeaching the validity of a treaty, terminating it, withdrawing from it or suspending its operation, must notify the other parties of its claim. The notification shall indicate the measure proposed to be taken with respect to the treaty and the reasons therefor.

2. If, after the expiry of a period which, except in cases of special urgency, shall not be less than three months after the receipt of the notification, no party has raised any objection, the party making the notification may carry out in the manner provided in article 67 the measure which it has proposed.

3. If, however, objection has been raised by any other party, the parties shall seek a solution through the means indicated in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations.

4. Nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall affect the rights or obligations of the parties under any provisions in force binding the parties with regard to the settlement of disputes.

5. Without prejudice to article 45, the fact that a State has not previously made the notification prescribed in paragraph 1 shall not prevent it from making such notification in answer to another party claiming performance of the treaty or alleging its violation.

Article 66: Procedures for judicial settlement, arbitration and conciliation

If, under paragraph 3 of article 65, no solution has been reached within a period of 12 months following the date on which the objection was raised, the following procedures shall be followed: (a) any one of the parties to a dispute concerning the application or the interpretation of article 53 or 64 may, by a written application, submit it to the International Court of Justice for a decision unless the parties by common consent agree to submit the dispute to arbitration; (b) any one of the parties to a dispute concerning the application or the interpretation of any of the other articles in part V of the present Convention may set in motion the procedure specified in the Annex to the Convention by submitting a request to that effect to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Article 67: Instruments for declaring invalid, terminating, withdrawing from or suspending the operation of a treaty

1. The notification provided for under article 65, paragraph 1, must be made in writing.

2. Any act of declaring invalid, terminating, withdrawing from or suspending the operation of a treaty pursuant to the provisions of the treaty or of paragraphs 2 or 3 of article 65 shall be carried out through an instrument communicated to the other parties. If the instrument is not signed by the Head of State, Head of Government or Minister for Foreign Affairs, the representative of the State communicating it may be called upon to produce full powers.

Mona El Tahawy or native neo-orientalism

It’s probably a particularly sterile waste of time, but here are a few lines on the polemical « Why do they hate us? » article written for Foreign Policy magazine by Egyptian-born US debater Mona El Tahawy. The cover chosen for that issue of Foreign Policy – a black niqab painted on a woman’s naked body – caused even more furore than the article, a disparity which probably makes to justice to the intellectual substance of El Tahawy’s article.

Let me cite the gist of her argument:

In a crisp three-and-a-half pages, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion, a bulldozer that crushes denial and defensiveness to get at the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. There is no sugarcoating it. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.

Yes: They hate us. It must be said. (…) An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun. (…)


First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our « culture » and « religion » to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man — Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation — but they will be finished by Arab women.

It’s of course not the need to dramatically improve the condition of women in the Arab world in order to achieve a long overdue parity  that is at fault – on the contrary, witness the recent statement by Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al Sheikh according to which girls are ripe for marriage at 12. It’s rather the tone and lexical and discursive resources which El Tahawy taps into: essentialism, reduction of social and political phenomena to simple psychological factors (fear, hate), and even more so the lumping together of all men into a vague and threatening « they » – the kind of manicheism she resented when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but I suppose one has to distinguish between good manicheism and bad manicheism. That piece could have been written by David Pryce-Jones, Fouad Ajami or the staggeringly inane Lee Smith, a US journalist who wrote a 2010 book called « The strong horse » aiming to show that Arabs only understood and bowed to force and violence – unfortunately for him, 2011 came after 2010.

An American journalist writing exclusively for European, US and Israeli media outlets, Mona El Tahawy is not interested in helping Middle Eastern activists to bring about the legislative and social changes required, or to identify the practical ways this might be achieved. No easy clues here: there’s only hate to confront. How does one confront hate – by drone attacks, invasion or forced conversion? She does not say. More importantly still, Arab men and women are not really her main target – her piece is written in the tone of a native informer bringing the White (Wo)Man her exclusive insights about the twisted minds of her fellow natives. That article is more a career move, à la Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali (but without the latter’s islamophobia), than a sincere contribution to a fight for equality that is both morally necessary and socially unavoidable, as Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd have shown.

As often with these polemical mainstream media pieces, the response to them has been both massive and impressive – even by Mona El Tahawy’s own standards – remember, she had the gall to write, during the 2009 war on Gaza, that she preferred « sitting on the fence » when asked about her reactions to Israel’s onslaught on Gaza’s Palestinian population (her reaction then? « Israel is the opium of the people« ). The negative reaction against Mona El Tahawy has been massive – especially from those same Arab women on whose behalf El Tahawy writes. Here’s a short list – a full run-down is available here – but the following ones are those that caught my attention.

First, Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery by Roqayah Chamseddine. She correctly asks:

There are also unanswered questions:

1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?

Then Nahed El Tantawy’s « I don’t really think they hate us!« :

And before I go any further, I realize of course that I will be accused by some (which already happened on the FP comments sections) that I am in denial and that I refuse to air my dirty linen in public. Well, I’m NOT in denial; I am well aware that Arab women have their fair share of problems. But I refuse to be lumped into this monolithic group of oppressed, abused and hated victims. Arab women’s problems are not the same across the board. Even within one country like Egypt, what I see as a problem, might not be the most pressing issue for the woman next door. So, I refuse to have Eltahawy talk on my behalf as if she is the expert who can accurately identify my plight.

Foreign Policy (FP), anticipating  the response to El Tahawy’s piece, published « Debating the war on women » (you have to admire this American tendency to transform all social problems – poverty,drugs, terrorism – into a war to be embarked upon) – Egyptian academic Leila Ahmed takes El Tahawy to task for misinterpreting the Alifa Rifaat novel that she cites in her article, and urges on FP to invite Egyptian activist Asma Mahfouz and Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman to express their views on the the gender issue – it is indeed quite stunning that FP couldn’t get Tawakkol Karman’s to share her views. Female Muslim Brotherhood activist Sondos Asem’s critical views should also be mentioned.

Tom Dale wrote the following piece – « Hatred and misogyny in the Middle East, a response to Mona el Tahawy » – in Open Democracy:

Firstly, Mona identifies hatred – pure, transhistorical, misogynistic hatred – as the cause of women’s oppression in the Arab world. This hatred itself, el Tahawy explains in terms of men’s desire to control women’s sexuality. Even if this explanation wasn’t largely circular, which it arguably is, hatred is a woefully insufficient lens through which to understand the problem. Why is sexism stronger in some places and times than others? Why does it take specific forms? And aren’t there some things about women’s oppression which can’t be explained by hatred, even as there are things that can?

Secondly, because the article lacks a coherent explanation for the misogynistic practices it identifies, it also lacks the capacity to suggest effective solutions. Instead we get the slogan “call out the hate for what it is.” As if repeatedly pointing out the psychological form of the worst misogyny could bring down the walls of the patriarchal Jericho.

Thirdly, the article singles out ‘Arab societies’ for criticism. Whilst, relative to Sub-Saharan, Asian, or Latin American societies, Arab nations are disproportionately grouped at the bottom of the 2011 Global Gender Gap Report ↑ (based on a list of nations which is far from comprehensive, leaving out Afghanistan and Somalia for instance), this is no excuse for not building an analysis which integrates other offenders: half of the bottom six are not Arab. As an Arab woman herself, el Tahawy undoubtedly does not intend to essentialise Arab societies, but by treating the problems she describes as specifically Arab ones, and lacking in historical origins or non-Arab equivalents, she will unavoidably be perceived to have done so.

Dale has well-informed comments to make on Female Genital Mutilation, one of the main arguments in El Tahawy’s article:

Let’s take a look at one of the issues which el Tahawy identifies, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Egypt. The practice has its roots in Africa, and is not practiced in the Levant or Gulf, except in isolated pockets. It is not mandated by Islam, although it is widely believed ↑ to be. The re is strong evidence ↑ that local women’s economic and social empowerment is the best strategy for fighting FGM, and that denunciations on a national level are relatively ineffective. Better educated parents are less likely to endorse FGM, and women ↑ are typically the main organisers of FGM. So there it is. It isn’t ‘hate’, but a cocktail of economic factors, poor education, and social disempowerment against a particular – but not particularly Arab – background, which causes FGM. The women who take their daughters to the excisors do not hate their daughters, and telling them that they do is not going to change anything for the better.

Then we have Kuwaiti Beidoon activist Mona Kareem and her « ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ A Blogger’s Response« :

Eltahawy argues against Arab claims that Jews or Israelis hate us, but she uses the same logic when she puts Arab men under an umbrella of a single emotion: hate.

What should be considered is that we live in patriarchal societies, and the foundations of Middle East-based monotheistic religious texts are established on this patriarchy. Eltahawy’s claim not only degrades Arab culture in general but also patronizes Arab men and women by making the whole struggle for gender equality a conflict between the two sexes based on personal emotions.

Another problem I have with the general speech of “Arab feminism” is the term in itself. I really dislike seeing more than 20 different cultures put under one roof. Eltahawy is not a Pan-Arabist, I am assuming, yet she falls for this very common oriental division imposed by the media and others. Anyone knows how radically divergent the “Arab World” is: the North-African Arab culture is a far different culture from that of the Arabian Gulf.

Her concluding remarks are a strong refutation of El Tahawy’s arguments:

Last point: I think that Eltahawy has had many chances to present her thoughts on women’s rights. If western publications, including Foreign Policy, are interested in focusing a spotlight on so-called “Arab feminism,” then similar chances should be given to other Arab women. A variety of media outlets have included the stories of different women from the Arab world after the uprising, yet they rarely give them chances to speak about their experiences and to express their opinions.
Women like Manal Al-Sharif, Rasha Azab and Samira Ibrahim are not less “feminist” than other prominent female figures in the world. The veiled Bahraini protester Zainab Alkhawaja, for example, can speak well of the women’s struggle as she protests alone in the street and gets arrested for the sake of her detained father. He is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, the prominent Bahraini-Danish human rights activists who has been on a hunger strike in prison for 76 days. He, I am sure, does not hate her.

Moroccan blogger Samia Errazzouki is as dismissive in « Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent “Us”« :

Foreign Policy’s decision to choose this photograph of a naked woman with a body-painted niqab embodies this problematic narrative in more ways than one:

  1. This inherent sexualization of the niqab through the pose and exposure of the female form revives the classic “harem” literature and art, presenting the Arab and/or Muslim woman as “exotic” and “mysterious,” but still an object: An object lacking the agency to define herself, thus defined by others.
  2. All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she attends protests because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has chosen to wear the niqab, against the will of her family since she was 14. The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice.
  3. The feature of an Arab woman’s article on the front cover does not justify the editorial choice to use the image. Mona Eltahawy was notoriously owned during a debate over the niqab ban in France, where she took the position in favor of the ban. Her stance on the niqab is convenient to the narrative being perpetuated by the problematic image.

Zeinobia (« US , them and breaking the stereotype !!« ) invokes the Arab heroines of 2011 as witnesses for the prosecution:

I am fed up as Egyptian Arab Muslim African woman of that stereotype Westerners and orientalists put me in that I am being oppressed and needed to be saved as soon as possible by the Western values , you know the White man complex !! I am fed up of that stereotype at the time the Egyptian and Arab women like Samira Ibrahim , Zeinab El Khawja , Tawakel Karman, Bothiana Kamel , Noha El Zeiny made history for real in 2011 and 2012 !!?

The women who wear Niqab in Bahrain and Yemen made the dream of freedom possible , these are the same women insulted in the disgusting photos of FP.

Al Jazeera’s journalist Dima Khatib sided with El Tahawy’s critics (« Love, Not Hatred, Dear Mona !« ):

I was attracted to the opening of your article. Your style is interesting and you do poke the issues, and our issues are one, Mona. There’s no doubt that the facts in your article are accurate, that the problems highlighted are real, and that the suffering you write of is experienced by Arab women, even if they are not always aware of it. My anger faded as I read, slowly…until I reached the section where you explain “The Arab men’s hatred toward women”. Hatred?

Let’s see. In our Arab society, does the son hate his mother? The brother his sister? The father his daughter? And the husband hates his wife, and the lover his beloved? And the male colleague hates his female colleague, and the male friend his female friend, and the male neighbor his female neighbor? I don’t think our culture teaches us to hate women. In fact, mothers are sacred, grandmothers are sacred, aunts are treasured, and so are female cousins.

Jadaliyya has a comprehensive critique of El Tahawy in « Let’s talk about sex« :

We would suggest, as many have, that oppression is about men and women. The fate of women in the Arab world cannot be extracted from the fate of men in the Arab world, and vice versa. El Tahawy’s article conjures an elaborate battle of the sexes where men and women are on opposing teams, rather than understanding that together men and women must fight patriarchal systems in addition to exploitative practices of capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, and/or secularism. (…)

One would have to also critically and historically engage how women’s movements have been implicated in the policies and longevity of authoritarianism. After all, the two countries where women enjoyed the broadest scope of personal status law were Tunisia and Egypt, before the recent revolutions. Indeed, of all the countries of the Arab world, it was only in Tunisia and Egypt that a woman could pass her citizenship on to her children if she was married to a foreigner. (In Egypt there was a small qualification for women married to that other other, the Palestinian; post-revolutionary Egypt has, at least in law if not in practice, done away with this exception).

How can we account for these legal achievements under authoritarian regimes?

Not to forget Egyptian Palestine activist Sarah Hawas on Ikhras « Mona el Tahawy and the Transnational Fulul al Nidham« :

In recent exchanges on Twitter, Mona el Tahawy refused to respond to myriad demands for a statement of her position on the Palestinian-led global BDS movement against Israel. She resorted, instead, to making pre-emptive defensive accusations of libel and defamation, name-calling, and multiple other condescending insinuations of superiority. She went as far as to play the authenticity card and question the relevance of a non-Egyptian, Lebanese activist – namely, @LeilZahra – who has been at the heart of the uprising throughout the seven months – by dismissing his input as “conformist” to “make up for the fact that he wasn’t Egyptian”. This kind of discourse dangerously echoes General Hassan al-Roueiny of the ruling SCAF and his denigration of Egyptian-Palestinian poet Tamim al Barghouthi’s criticism of Egyptian foreign policy, on account of Tamim’s having a “weird accent” and “features that are not very Egyptian”.

And lastly, the only ironic response to Mona el Tahawy – Colonial Feminist‘s « Dear Mona Eltahawy« :

Mona, may you continue in your fight for media slots and nods of acceptance from mainstream media outlets, despite a slew of Arab women from all walks of life refuting your oversimplification of our plight. We pray that you continue to close your ears and eyes to logical rebuttals of your articles, as you pursue complete dominion over our voices, a pursuit done only out of the kindness of your own heart and on our behalf.

Thank you dearest Mona. We remain forever silently yours, awaiting your call for us to advance in the war against the barbaric men of the Middle East. We raise our chains in thanks and pray that one day we will meet in a free Middle East, where you will be hailed as our deliverer.

Some further reading, unrelated to Mone El Tahawy’s piece:

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