Voices from the Arab press: The French far-right tsunami is coming

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

 TURMOIL BENEATH the surface: Enjoying a sunny day in Paris, July 10.  (photo credit: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters)
TURMOIL BENEATH the surface: Enjoying a sunny day in Paris, July 10.
(photo credit: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters)

The French far-right tsunami is coming

Okaz, Saudi Arabia, July 6

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The end of the war in Europe in the late 1940s spawned a reconstruction process throughout the continent, led by France, which urgently needed a labor workforce. This necessity resulted in a large influx of Moroccans into the French job market. As the French economy experienced a recovery, the demand for this labor only increased. 

Many of these immigrants intended to stay in France temporarily, yet their stay eventually lengthened. These people lived in run-down neighborhoods close to the capital of Paris and other large cities. They formed a distinct community that posed a challenge to local urban areas. Consequently, the decision was made to construct social housing to concentrate these individuals in one place. This move created a barrier between immigrants and mainstream French society, plunging second-generation immigrants into marginalization and alienation. With their parents clinging to ties to their countries of origin, members of this new generation had no homeland to which they could truly belong other than France. 

Later generations of immigrants sought equality with their French counterparts, but the state’s efforts to improve the suburbs, however commendable, were not sufficient, particularly in terms of economic policy. 

As the 1990s marked the end of the Cold War, resurgent populist right-wing parties ushered in a new era of the nation-state. Consequently, the citizenship state that had emerged from the ashes of World War II began, gradually, to decline. Even greater identity, economic, and social crises increased populist support, culminating in right-wing groups coming to power in Italy and Austria. 

This right-wing ideology has even been adopted by traditional parties, such as the Conservative Party in Britain, leading to Boris Johnson’s rise to power with his populism-driven rhetoric that enabled the adoption of Brexit, with all its negative consequences for Britons. 

 BURNING A Swedish flag to denounce the desecration of a Koran outside a Stockholm mosque, in Karachi, Pakistan, July 7. (credit: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)
BURNING A Swedish flag to denounce the desecration of a Koran outside a Stockholm mosque, in Karachi, Pakistan, July 7. (credit: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

Now in France, the situation has not changed. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the far-right has become essential in the French presidential elections. What is even more concerning is the fact that traditional parties have begun to be influenced by this same far-right extremism, as long as it holds appeal in electoral contests. This has subsequently led to a normalization of xenophobic and racist discourse, as numerous politicians and public figures have attempted to establish their presence by exhibiting increasingly extreme views. 

Éric Zemmour’s participation in the most recent presidential election is perhaps the most glaring example of this growing symbiotic relationship. Hate speech has found outlets in the media, creating a barrier between a significant section of foreign-origin French society and the populist Right. Worst of all, these sentiments have seeped into security services, resulting in tension and distrust between youth in the suburbs and security services personnel. 

This pressure has been intensifying every day and reached new heights with the killing of the 17-year-old boy Nahel Merzouk, which has sparked riots in the town of Nanterre to the west of Paris where he grew up and in cities across France. The extreme Right is on the rise in France, transforming the state and society to an alarming degree. This transformation is coming at the expense of immigrants – a price that is too heavy for them to bear. – Rami Al-Khalifa Al-Ali

Putin, the West, and the Wagner rebellion

Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, July 5

Many Western powers have widely accepted that the recent events in Russia reveal the fragility of Putin’s regime and destroyed his image as a guarantor of stability. Though the assessments put forth by Washington, Paris, and Berlin about the crumbling of Putin’s standing and the potential for his overthrow are real, they are also based on a fear that a right-wing ultra-nationalist would take his place. The new Russian leadership has seized a potentially dangerous weapon cache, including the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear armaments. Additionally, Russia’s large-scale chemical and biological weapons raise the specter of catastrophic danger, should they fall into the wrong hands. Developments in the world over the past few decades, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, have unfolded at an extraordinary rate. This enabled the faster-than-expected end of the Cold War and left the world’s most powerful nations uncertain about how to handle the collapse of another superpower. Many Western nations had failed to recognize the depth of the issues facing the Soviet Union, which led to its collapse and dissolution in the early 1990s. 

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was shocking, particularly with the Soviet Union having such a vast arsenal of conventional and unconventional weapons. And yet, the last few weeks revealed that the 36-hour rebellion spearheaded by Yevgeny Prigozhin covered an area as large as 750 kilometers in a single day. The Wagner forces seized two large cities and the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov, even pushing as far as 200 km. from Moscow, with seemingly little resistance from the crowds that came out to observe them. 

Alina Polyakova, president and executive director of the Center for European Policy Analysis, noted that not only the army’s weakness was exposed during the rebellion, but also that of Putin, who accepted a deal that would allow Prigozhin and his forces to move to Belarus without any punishment for their actions.

Western estimates have suggested that new leadership could overthrow Putin and that the internal political state of Russia remains volatile. At a time when the war in Ukraine is escalating dangerously between NATO and Russia, causing considerable casualties to all involved, the future of the Wagner group – one of Russia’s private military companies – within various African and Arab countries, remains in question.

After suffering major blows to its economy and military prowess since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin is still faced with the challenge of maintaining his authority. 

Wagner has been instrumental in carrying out Putin’s dirty work abroad, prompting speculation as to whether the Kremlin will dismiss its operations. However, Wagner’s lucrative activities regarding mining and harvesting gold, as well as the Russian leadership’s vow to relocate its personnel to Belarus, indicate that the group may very well remain in power. – Amr Helmy

Muslim representation, from Derbent to Stockholm

Asharq Al-Awsat, Lebanon, July 5

On the morning of Eid al-Adha, Swedish police established a security checkpoint in front of the capital’s Grand Mosque, as Salwan Momika, an Iraqi citizen living in Stockholm, prepared to burn a copy of the Koran and trample it with his feet, thereby confirming his alliance with an extreme right-wing movement. 

It is known that Momika – a former refugee – is endeavoring to acquire the backing of the anti-Muslim faction for his foray into politics. Hours later, President Vladimir Putin of Russia visited the Great Mosque in Derbent, situated on the coast of the Caspian Sea. While he stood in front of the television cameras, Putin held a copy of an old Koran to his chest, with his hands placed upon it, as he spoke to the crowd of worshippers sitting in front of him. Putin discussed Russia’s respect for the Koran – and for all holy books – as well as their rejection of any act that insults or hurts its followers. 

He also spoke of the contrast between Russia and other countries where holy scriptures are denigrated, yet the state does nothing to show respect for its citizens’ beliefs. The burning of the Koran has become a central issue in Europe’s policies on cultural pluralism, immigration, and integration. 

This is not the first instance of such an incident; similar occurrences happened in April 2020 and January 2021. Unfortunately, this sparked clashes between police and protesting immigrants, leading to reported injuries and arrests as well as the burning of cars. What is new in the latest incident is its connection to the rioting that occurred in France after the death of Algerian teenager Nahel Merzouk at the hands of police on June 27. 

Several other incidents have further contributed to escalating the situation. It appears that Putin’s message to the Muslim world has been well-received, with a statement from Al-Azhar mosque expressing gratitude for the Russian leader’s stance against the Swedish government’s lax response to the burning incident. 

While this doesn’t mean that Russia has gained the unanimous sympathy of the Islamic world, it does suggest that Putin’s speech at the old mosque offered an answer to the question on so many Muslims’ minds: Who will support us when our identity and sacred places are insulted or threatened? 

The answer given by the Russian president must disturb Western nations, as it opens the door for the return of old alliances between Moscow and the Arab world. This shift in the international relations system calls for new considerations in Eurocentric dialogue. Rather than focus on issues such as freedom of expression and respect for sacred beliefs, as in the past, the West must now pay close attention to the potential consequences of such an incident, like the unrest that occurred in Paris. Given this new outlook, Muslims in Europe are presented with a potentially auspicious moment. 

Rather than the enforced cultural assimilation Europeans have advocated in recent months, there is now a chance for political assimilation within a pluralistic framework, as Britain and the United States have done before. Therefore, I believe that Muslims should take advantage of this moment by actively engaging in political life and vigorously participating in national and local elections. This is the only means to obtain their desires legally. – Tawfiq Al-Saif 

Deepening Indian-Egyptian relations

Al-Ittihad, UAE, July 6

It is clear that India and Egypt have a long-standing relationship. Trade aside, the cultural connection between the two countries has always been strong. However, it seems that current generations have little knowledge of these relations, and how their respective intellectuals, artists, and other significant figures interacted with one another. 

There are a few scholars from Egypt who have documented some of these exchanges, yet unfortunately, researchers in India have not tried to investigate and publish their discoveries on their country’s historical relations with Egypt. 

More than a century ago, the renowned Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore paid two visits to Egypt and developed a close relationship with renowned Egyptian poet, thinker, and scholar Ahmed Shawqi. Upon the sad news of the death of Indian warrior Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Shawqi expressed his sorrow in a long poem, preserving it as a timeless piece of literature. 

In the 1960s, Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez visited India, followed in the 1970s by celebrated artist Nour Al-Sharif and his wife, actress Poussi. Highly revered journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal also visited India and engaged in discussions with university students and lectured at the Press Club. Not to mention the immense contribution of many Egyptian elites, including author Aisha Abd al-Rahman and poet Salah Abdel Sabour, who recited their work for audiences across India. 

Relations between India and Egypt have been bound by deep, longstanding ties. But these connections were nearly crippled by the Cold War as the two countries found themselves in opposing camps. Then-President Hosni Mubarak revitalized the link between the two nations when he was awarded the Nehru Prize in 2008. Since then, the relationship has been on the rise. 

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Egypt, marking the first official visit of an Indian leader since 1997. Modi’s trip highlighted the commitment between the two countries to further their cooperation. This swift reciprocal visit within six months speaks to the strengthening of relations and the desire to further collaboration between the two nations. 

There is no doubt that close relations between India and Egypt are of immense importance to both countries. Egypt is a major player in West Asia and North Africa, connecting 12% of the world’s trade through the Suez Canal. Both countries are now set to further strengthen their bond, with visible political exchanges at the ministerial level, including visits by India’s defense and foreign ministers in September and October of last year. Modi’s visit underscores how the two countries are standing together in times of global agitation, coupled with economic and political uncertainty. Following his visit, an agreement to raise ties to the level of a strategic partnership was signed by Modi and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. India and Egypt have further solidified their partnership by finalizing a strategic agreement and a memorandum of understanding. Modi and el-Sisi discussed bilateral relations and expressed their commitment to deepening ties across economic, trade, and defense realms. 

The memorandum covers the areas of agriculture, antiquities, and competition law, while joint air force exercises, dubbed “Desert Warrior” will take place this upcoming year. In 2023, India and Egypt will carry out a two-week joint exercise called “Hurricane 1” which demonstrates the two countries’ bilateral defense cooperation. Additionally, talks are underway to enable India to export Indian-made combat aircraft to Egypt, to strengthen their defense alliance and promote domestic manufacturing. 

Furthermore, Egypt’s gracious gesture of sending India 300,000 doses of the Remdesivir vaccine in 2021, while assisting India during the COVID-19 pandemic, symbolizes the longstanding friendship between the two nations. In 2022, India sent shipments of wheat to Egypt as a response to the disruption of Ukraine’s imports resulting from the war. 

Modi’s visit to Egypt comes as India is being touted as an emerging economic force, with rapid growth predicted while other regions of the world face stagnation. This was highlighted by Egypt’s formation of the “India Unity” unit within the cabinet, which India has described as “a useful tool in guiding bilateral cooperation” between the two countries. No doubt, Modi’s visit has opened the door to stronger cooperation between the two countries. Modi himself expressed it well: “This is a historic visit that will invigorate India-Egypt relations and prove to be beneficial to both of our nations in the long run.” – Zikru Al-Rahman

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.