Voices from the Arab press: 500 kilometers form Moscow

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 THE HAJJ: Muslim worshipers pray at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca last July. (photo credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
THE HAJJ: Muslim worshipers pray at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca last July.
(photo credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

500 kilometers from Moscow

An-Nahar, Lebanon, June 28

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Recent reports have surfaced indicating that a group of Russian mercenaries has been operating in various parts of the world, under the direction of the Russian government. 

This force, which disregards the rules of war and basic humanitarian law, serves as a public manifestation of the power of the Kremlin. It appears that Vladimir Putin has failed to heed Machiavelli’s cautionary words from The Prince: “If a prince bases the defense of his state on mercenaries, he will never achieve stability or security.” 

For years, mercenaries with criminal backgrounds have provided a host of services to the Russian state – but in the end, their penchant for defying law and reason has come back to haunt them. The founder of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has a long and close relationship with Vladimir Putin. 

In the 1990s, Putin was deputy governor of St. Petersburg, and Prigozhin had been previously convicted and served nine years in prison. The two developed a strong bond, which contributed to Prigozhin’s transition from restaurateur to billionaire business tycoon. Rumors circulated that Putin was the driving force behind the Wagner Group, though Prigozhin has repeatedly denied his involvement. Prigozhin has made appearances in the Ukrainian war wearing military uniforms and leading mercenaries in Ukraine. 

The Wagner Group’s dark history of foreign military involvement preceded its involvement in the Syrian, Libyan, and African state conflicts, and, most recently, Sudan. Sources report that this group possesses weapons far superior to those available in global markets – and that these weapons must have been obtained through official state approval. 

 A SUPPORTER of the Wagner private mercenary group holds flags near the headquarters of the Wagner fighter-controlled Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, last month (credit: REUTERS)
A SUPPORTER of the Wagner private mercenary group holds flags near the headquarters of the Wagner fighter-controlled Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, last month (credit: REUTERS)

Reports also allege that this group shows no mercy, nor does it adhere to the rules of war, and has prioritized killing above all else. The group had achieved success in destroying the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, but then their leader began to openly criticize the Russian military leadership. Accusations included cowardice and fleeing from the battle, as well as withholding weapons and armaments. 

This criticism soon escalated, with the leader suggesting that Putin had been misled by false information in deciding to go to war with Ukraine, despite Western indifference to Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea. Taking an even bolder step, Wagner declared the Russian state “incapable of defending the country.” 

In an alarming move, the group then occupied a military base inside Russia and its convoy reportedly headed for Moscow – a warning to the entire nation – before retreating at the 500-kilometer mark. 

The nature of things is such that the development taking place is, indeed, natural. When a state or other entity creates a military arm in addition to its official forces, this arm often turns against its originator. This has been seen in Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen, wherein the states create an additional militia equivalent to the official army, but with wildly divergent goals and little discipline. The result is often civil war. In these countries, the unauthorized military arm is often characterized by its lack of constraint; it kills without compunction or consequence. 

It is clear that the Wagner group did not engage in this operation solely for adventurous purposes. Calculations and ambitions were at play when they pursued a dangerous campaign against the powerful Russian state. The state may have supplied them with equipment, but their national will was the true power behind the mission. Initial expectations were that the campaign would only take weeks, yet it stretched over time and resulted in costly human losses among both the Ukrainians and Russians. 

Despite this, there still remains an unnatural trend of unofficial supporters of the war, and the Wagner Group in particular, within Russia itself. This mercenary militia group stepped in to replace the state that was lacking direction in a war it didn’t know how to manage. 

The conflict is likely to intensify, resulting in a rift among the ranks of Russians, whose position is born out of fear rather than confidence in the rightness of their leaders’ decisions to wage war. With the toppling of the fear barrier by the Wagner leadership, the wall of tacit support for the Kremlin within Russian society is crumbling. Will a change in regime be the result? The coming days and weeks will provide the answer. – Mohammed Al Rumaihi 

Israel and the visa waiver program

Al-Ittihad, UAE, June 29

It is perplexing and offensive that some Biden Administration officials are hurrying to admit Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program, which enables a quick, visa-upon-arrival entry into the US. It is difficult to comprehend since both the State Department and the Homeland Security Department are aware that Israel does not meet a fundamental prerequisite for participation in the program, which is to guarantee full equivalence; that is, “equal treatment and freedom of movement for all citizens of the US regardless of national origin, religion, or race.” Israel has consistently failed to uphold the standard of equal treatment, which is tantamount to discrimination against Arab Americans at its borders. Civil rights advocacy organizations have amassed numerous accounts from Arab Americans, especially Palestinian Americans, who have been forced to endure hours-long interrogations at the Israeli border or were flatly refused entrance and forced to return to the US. 

The US State Department has issued travel advisories indicating that American citizens with Arab or Muslim heritage, including Palestinian Americans, often face unequal treatment and significant difficulties when entering Israel. In 2014, due to this discriminatory treatment, Israel’s application to the Visa Waiver Program was denied. In addition, new regulations from Israel specifically targeting Palestinian Americans have made entry into the country even more restricted. 

However, the Biden Administration seems to have reversed its attitude and is reportedly helping Israel join the Visa Waiver Program. In July, a 30-day trial will begin to assess Israel’s entry screening process. Given the history of discriminatory treatment against citizens of Arab or Muslim descent, including Palestinian Americans, it is confounding that the Biden Administration has decided to backtrack on its stance and attempt to facilitate Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program. 

Palestinian Americans will be permitted to apply for a 90-day travel authorization through an online portal, a move that the US is demanding Israel demonstrate by successfully granting such requests to a “critical mass.” While this change offers some benefits, it leaves much to be desired. This policy also narrows the scope of those who are able to use it: that is, only those who possess Palestinian identity cards, estimates suggest this is around 70,000 people. This is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of other Arab Americans and Muslim Americans who are excluded from this process due to their prior travel to other Arab or Muslim countries, and who have been subjected to unjust discrimination. 

The trial underway in Israel does not address the discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans who experience harassment at checkpoints and when departing the country. The Visa Waiver Program should allow both Americans and Israelis equal entry without mandatory prior application or authorization. 

If accepted, Israelis ought to be given the same access to the US as all Americans, including those of Arab descent, without requiring a visa. Israel’s purported “alternative solution” to allow limited entry to Palestinians instead of meeting the requirements for the Visa Waiver Program not only fails to address the unjust discrimination faced by Arab Americans, but it also belittles the program’s conditions of reciprocity and thereby insults the citizenship rights of Arab Americans. 

Israel has long claimed that its policies at the border are driven by security considerations. However, its refusal to accept US passports held by Palestinian Americans and its mistreatment of Arab American travelers to Lebanon or Egypt paints a different picture of harassment rather than security. If the Israeli government continues in this vein, the US should take steps to withhold the Visa Waiver Program concession. 

For the last three decades, I have consulted with foreign ministers while in possession of numerous affidavits detailing the experiences of those subjected to harassment or denied entry into Israel. These accounts make it clear that Israel’s conduct is unacceptable. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed this sentiment when she made it clear to her Israeli counterparts that “an American is an American.” 

We must stand by our citizens, and granting Israel special authority to relegate Arab Americans to second-class status is unthinkable. We cannot allow the Arab American community to be sacrificed so that the Biden Administration can curry favor with Israeli voters. Furthermore, a coalition of 16 senators, 19 representatives, and six prominent liberal American-Jewish organizations have demanded that the Biden Administration suspend the Visa Waiver Program until Israel can demonstrate its reciprocal commitment to honoring the rights of American citizens. – James Zogby 

Saudi kingdom serves sacred Islamic sites safety

Al Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 27

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, blessed by God to host Islam’s holy sites, guarantees the security, comfort, and safety of pilgrims and visitors so that they can fulfill their religious obligations with dignity before they depart. Thanks to the divine grace and the wisdom of its leaders, and the dedicated efforts of its people, this assurance has become a reality. The kingdom has tirelessly strived to ensure security, safety, protection, and well-being for the guests of the Almighty since its inception, under the leadership of its founding by King Abdulaziz, and continues to do so to the present day with the support of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz and His Highness, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. 

Since the country’s inception, Saudi Arabia has placed great importance on servicing and developing the sacred Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina, providing the latest and finest modern technologies to ensure optimal reception and access to services for pilgrims from the moment they enter the country, until their departure. Saudi Arabia has served the holy sites and their esteemed guests for generations now, through service trips, strategic planning, advanced training, and professional qualifications for security personnel. All of these measures provide security and safety for all of the guests of God who come to the holy sites. 

The world is watching in admiration of the great policies pursued by the kingdom. Yet we are conscious of the need for continual achievement. It is clear that the task is not yet achieved and there remains more to be done in order to provide service and protection of the holy sites and their blessed guests. 

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, may God protect him, bears the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”– a title that perfectly conveys the kingdom’s commitment to serve and maintain the sanctity of these holy sites and their visitors. This policy is upheld through immense financial, material, and human investment and is conducted without exception, around the clock, every day of the year, out of reverence, love, and respect. 

As a part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is committed to enabling Muslim pilgrims to enjoy the highest quality services while honoring the Two Holy Mosques. It conducted a study of thousands of Muslims with the aim of understanding their expectations and needs. A seven-stage journey for visitors was created, including pre-travel check-in, greeting upon arrival and departure, guidance while visiting the sacred sites, health and safety protocols, warm hospitality, and a chance to discover the kingdom. This yielded great success thanks to innovative initiatives, such as electronic visas for every country and an extended Umrah season. 

In the upcoming phase, the kingdom is striving to provide pilgrims with a spiritually transformative experience with more efficient hosting processes, enriched Islamic historical sites, and improved services. Its ambition is to help 30 million pilgrims create a memory inspired by a single idea.

In conclusion, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has continually provided the highest and most honorable services for guests of God, such as pilgrims, Umrah performers, and visitors, to ensure their comfort, security, and safety. The kingdom will not tolerate any attempts to compromise the safety of its guests or politicize their religious rituals. By the grace of God and the wisdom of the kingdom’s rulers, Saudi Arabia guarantees that its guests will leave the country safe and secure, after fulfilling their religious obligations. – Ibrahim Al-Nahhas 

June 30 is the beginning, not the end

Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, June 28

The date of June 30 – marking the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government – will always remain etched in Egypt’s history as one of the country’s greatest feats. 

This wasn’t a traditional overthrow characterized by tanks and armed soldiers, but a determined battle waged by civilians who realized, in a brief period of two years, that they had been subject to religious exploitation. On June 30, the people and army of Egypt united to make history: They rid the land of the corrupt politics of a criminal group that had poisoned it since 1928. This group injected its poisonous ideology into many countries in an effort to control them. But thanks to the brave action of the people and military, Egypt stands liberated today, with its sight toward the future. This is an achievement unmatched in its significance and one that even Brotherhood supporters cannot tarnish. 

Ten years ago, Egyptians wrote a chapter in history with their brave and passionate protests. I still see the image of women standing at their buildings’ entrances, flags waving, and chants of “Down with the rule of the supreme leader!” ringing out. 

I also remember mothers apprehensively sending their children into the streets to demand the removal of the Brotherhood mafia. 

June 30th is an iconic date that is remembered for the powerful and moving display of courage by average Egyptian mothers, fathers, and children. It was revealed on June 30 that Egyptians still possess the capacity to discern between right and wrong, and between lost and acquired identity. 

Additionally, it became obvious that a broad spectrum of citizens – though not all – understand that ridiculing one another undermines the foundation of the nation and blurs the role of religion in everyday life. The journey to modernize Egypt, free it from the poisonous grip of political Islam, and save it from the deleterious consequences of faith mingled with politics had begun and will continue from that day forward. 

Yet, this mission still continues. It is something that requires effort from all of us: citizens, as well as political leaders, state institutions, and the government. It is no exaggeration to say that on June 30, the Egyptian “patient” was discharged from intensive care. Now what that patient needs is follow-up, recuperation, and the bolstering of its strength. 

My sincerest gratitude goes out to all who took part in those monumental events, on June 30, 2013, regardless of their motives. – Amina Khairy 

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.