Analyst Šádí Shanaáh: Czech policy towards Middle East 'an illusion'

Šádí Shanaáh, photo: Alžběta Švarcová

Šádí Shanaáh is a Czech-Palestinian expert on international relations who works for the Prague-based think tank Glopolis, and has been a frequent guest in the Czech media ever since the start of the prodemocracy revolts across the Middle East. Mr Shanaáh was born in Prague but spent part of his childhood in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. In this edition of One on One, we discuss the Czech foreign policy, the differences and similarities between communism and the autocratic Arab regimes as well as his own political aspirations. When we sat down, I first asked him whether he became interested in international politics because of his unusual background.

Šádí Shanaáh,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“It had something to do with the fact that I spent some time abroad and that my father is a foreigner from the Czech perspective. I developed a strong sense for justice and solidarity because in Jordan, we lived in very difficult times; we lived in a Palestinian refugee camp – which was of course not made up of tents because it was very old so it was basically a poor neighbourhood of the city.

“Just this experience of seeing people living in much worse conditions that somewhere else made me interested in the causes, in what are the forces behind certain social developments. It was very interesting for me. Looking at the European experience of hundreds of years of wars, I always felt that the project of the European Union is very interesting; it’s based on peace and it’s an endeavour unique in the history of Europe. So that motivated me to study the European integration and international relations.”

You now work for the Glopolis think tank. What do you do there?

Protests in Egypt,  photo: CTK
“In Glopolis, we started a project in January that will be publicly launched in May. The project’s called ‘Česko hledá budoucnost’ which means ‘The Czech Republic Searches For Its Future’ or ‘Navigates Its Future’, and it’s a project which stemmed out of disappointment that there is no long-term policy planning in the Czech Republic, there is no long-term vision and honest assessment of where we come from and where we are heading; what is the base of our wealth on, what is our strength and what are our weaknesses.

“Politics here goes from one extreme to the other; it changes very fast according to certain not even political preferences but corporate interests behind political parties. We want to come up with a comprehensive approach to our long-term vision, and to initiate a debate about it.”

The Czech Republic has a record of supporting human rights in many countries of the world, such as Cuba and Belarus. But the Czech stance on the revolts in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East has been rather cautious and reserved – why do you think that is?

“It shows that we have built an image of our foreign policy that is to a large degree artificial and is in fact an illusion. We officially base our foreign policy promoting and defending human rights in the world but in reality, we don’t hesitate to criticize human rights abuses in countries which cannot harm us, are far away or are not important, like Cuba. But we don’t apply the same standards to China and even Russia, and certainly not to the Middle East.

Photo: CTK
“That region has been either out of our scope, or not interesting, or perceived through the lenses of oil, immigration, Israel and terrorism. Some people defend this policy and say it was wise and careful but it was actually very self-serving. We didn’t even criticize some things that we could have without running the risk of being perceived as biased. We could have criticized the brutal measures used against the demonstrators, and when we made s statement, it only came after Ben Ali was on the plane out of Tunisia, for instance. It’s very sad when you think of it but maybe it will force us into contemplating the dilemma between pursuing our national interests and having a normative foreign policy.”

Czechs experienced communism but for many people here, it’s difficult to understand the nature of the regimes of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Kaddafi and others. You were seven years old when communism fell but how would you describe the difference between the communist totalitarian regime and those in the Middle East?

“First of all, I would say that those regimes in the Arab world are much more brutal. Saying that, I don’t want to devalue the brutality of the communist regime of course; people were harassed, imprisoned and even sentenced to death but the state of affairs in some Arabic countries is paradoxically a legal anarchy because the law does not apply and the secret service has free hands to detain and even kill anyone without any references to the legal framework.

“I would say that what connects is the two is the fact that the regimes ran out of ideology at some point. They became empty inside; there was no ideological substance and therefore, the only legitimacy they could build upon was that of a police state. So there was no legitimacy, and they also ran out of economic steam. But here’s a difference: the regime in Egypt, for example, started economic liberalization in the 1970s while here, it only occurred after the revolution. In Egypt, it happened before the revolution and it was in fact one of the causes of their revolt.”

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Another issue that seems to have driven people to the streets in many Middle Eastern countries is corruption. How do you understand what’s happening in the Czech Republic in this context? Are we threatened by systemic corruption, as some people pointed out?

“The political situation in the Czech Republic is a bit absurd now. It even escapes the limits of what should be acceptable by the society. But the Czechs have astonishing skills or characteristics in a way that they – and I’m speaking as a Czech now – withhold or let politicians to put some many things on their heads without revolting and taking to the streets, as manifested by the episode of the military police intruding Czech TV. No one cared very much.

“It’s amazing that really big scandals that in Western societies would perhaps move people and push them into civic actions are met with lethargy here. It shows the weakness of the civil society here even after 20 years after the revolution. The level of corruption and the magnitude of the scandals manifest how much the system is not pursuing political ideologies of a clash of concepts but is dominated by private and in some cases corporate interests.

“We could see that over the past couple of weeks, several renowned personalities spoke indirectly of a revolution which is a new thing here. They are saying that the only way of changing this is to have people in the streets. And I think that large parts of the society feel something has to change because this cannot go on.”

Are going to be personally involved in trying to change this? You are a member of the Green Party and in 2009, you ran for a seat in the European Parliament. Are you going to run for a political office again?

“Well, I was running as number 18 on the ballot; it was a duty that I though I had to be active, and I don’t have any high position in the party. I just take it for granted that people should join political parties to populate them and changing them from within. I would certainly participate in anything that would strengthen the civil society here, be it a blockage of the extremists marching through Brno on May 1, or some rallies that would show that the people actually care, and that democracy is not just casting your vote once every four years but that it’s a continuous process.”