Making sense of Syria

I have so many questions swirling around my head about what’s been happening in Syria. One is why the AK government in Turkey didn’t take my great advice and play a leadership role in trying to broker a serious, negotiated transition to democracy in Syria, but instead has been giving ever stronger support to the Syrian opposition. (So far, my main answer to that is that the AK is probably quite serious about pursuing a strongly Sunni-ist agenda, which seems to over-ride all the many Realpolitik-al and other reasons why positioning itself as a powerful mediator would have made more sense.)
Perhaps their motivation really was, in their minds, overwhelmingly a pro-democracy one, based on the demographic weight of Sunnis in the Syrian population. But in that case, surely they should have been eager (as an outside power) to put the opposition’s democratic claims to the test as soon as possible, that is, by working proactively with all concerned parties to negotiate the terms for a truly democratic election in Syria? Certainly, if they had done that, then they would have had a lot more credibility as “midwives to democracy” than the Gulf Arab states do…
Democracy, as the AK people should know as well as anyone, does not grow out of the barrel of a gun but is above all a set of tools that are used to resolve very thorny differences and disputes in a nonviolent and rights-respecting way. (As happened between “Whites” and non-“Whites” in South Africa in the early 1990s… and that, after the “White” South Africans had sustained a centuries-long reign of terror in the country that completely dwarfs anything the Baathists have done in Syria. But yet, democrats around the world all cheered loudly– and imho, quite correctly– at the news that the Apartheid-enacting National Party had agreed to take part in a free and fair national election against its rivals, rather than having its leaders all strung up on lamp-posts.)
Oh well, not worth my while sitting around for too long, regretting Ankara’s failure to play a truly democracy-promoting role in Syria…
So the next question I have in my head is a combination of two questions, really. Firstly, why did the GCC countries and other Arab League member-states step in last week with such (relative) speed and determination to position themselves as the main external mediators of a regime-opposition negotiation in Syria, thereby doing a lot to strengthen Pres. Asad’s position, at least temporarily… And the corollary to that is, why on earth should anyone inside or outside Syria take seriously a claim by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to have mainly “democratic” goals in mind in Syria? But really, the first half of this question is the more pressing one, and I’ll try to come back to it later.
The next set of questions I have are the ones concerning the linkages and interactions between developments in Libya and those in Syria. Now, I know that a lot of opposition people in Syria were fairly loudly calling for the imposition of a Libya-style “no-fly zone” in Syria. Maybe they still are calling for it. But it ain’t going to happen– for a large number of reasons. One important one is that the GCC countries, whose cooperation with the whole ‘NFZ’ project in Libya– and in the case of Qatar and the UAE, their actual participation in it, at least symbolically– was seen by western countries as crucial to its international “legitimacy”, very evidently decided at some point that they were not about to engage in the same kind of hostile act against Pres. Asad in Syria. Another was, of course, the clearcut and definitive Russian and Chinese use of their veto against the US-sponsored resolution in the UNSC which would have provided exactly the same kind of springboard for subsequent military action that resolution 1970 provided for 1973. And another is the fact that in both Europe and the U.S., the appetite for yet another act of military aggression against a distant Muslim land seems to have drained away almost completely– certainly, compared with the heady days of BHL’s bellicosity back in March.
The way things have turned out in Libya has also, I am sure, had its effect on the desire of just about all non-Syrians to engage in a repeat performance in Syria.
The anti-Qadhafi military operation in Libya, remember, was described by its boosters at the time, back in March, as the western-led “NATO-plus-Arabs” coalition finally “getting it right” regarding how to do a foreign military aggression “intervention”. Crucially– and this was especially sold as being a strong contrast to Iraq– there would not even be any need for western or other foreign “boots on the ground”. The whole western intervention would be accomplished from the air, while on the ground in Libya would be the boots only of Libya’s’ reputed throngs of eager democrats.
So now we have how many competing militias on the ground in Libya? Three hundred or more?
Actually, from the POV of the health and safety of the Libyan people, even a western occupation army might have have been better than this situation– which shows absolutely no signs of getting any better, any time soon.
So far from being an “exemplary” action by western armies to support local “democrats” in Libya, what has happened in Libya has turned out to be an application of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”, on steroids. That is, the destruction not only of Libya’s anyway ramshackle state but also of many of the internal bonds of its society.
Thank you NATO.
(We can also note that if these anti-Qadhafi people who are now rampaging all over Libya had had a decent amount of democratic sensitivity and commitment, they would have been working hard throughout all this year to resolve the many differences among themselves through nonviolent deliberations or negotiations. But no. NATO powerfully modeled for them all that power grows out of the barrel of a gun, or a drone, and they proved eager learners of that lesson.)
So I imagine that even in some of Syria’s hard-pressed opposition strongholds, the “Libyan model” doesn’t look so irresistibly attractive now as it did, say, a month ago…
Over the past few weeks, various friends and colleagues have pointed me to a number of studies on Syria that they have found interesting. One was this one that Mona Yacoubian published on October 5, under the title “Saving Syria from Civil War.” Yacoubian’s policy prescription is truly mind-boggling: What she argues for is pursuit of “controlled regime collapse” in Syria– that is, a policy of deliberately stripping away successive layers of supporters away from the regime until it collapses.
Honestly, Mona Yacoubian should know better than to imagine that there is any such phenomenon in the world as “controlled regime collapse” of the kind she is talking about. Though she sells her policy as one that can “stave off civil war”, it seems almost certain to lead only to civil war.
Equally significantly, when she talks about stripping progressively greater sections of the officer class away from their allegiance to Pres. Asad– or “Bashar”, as she cozily calls him– she makes no mention at all of the extremely salient facts that Syria is still in a state of war with Israel and has some of its national territory occupied and illegally annexed by Israel, and that no patriotic Syrian inside the army or outside of it is easily going to take any action that would undercut the country’s military preparedness.
Then yesterday, we had ‘Meet Syria’s Opposition’ by Randa Slim, another Lebanese-American woman. This one gives a lot more informative detail about the make-up of the many disparate groups that are in the Syrian opposition, and doesn’t attempt to provide any big-picture prescriptions for American policy. The nearest she comes to making a policy point is this mild and fairly realistic observation, at the beginning of her article:

    Seven months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition has yet to develop a united voice and platform. Unless these disparate groups unite and present a credible and viable alternative to the Assad regime, both Syria’s fearful majority and the international community will find it difficult to effectively push for meaningful change in Damascus.

Sadly, Slim’s piece is marred by some really bad editing, so that at many points it is really hard to figure out what she is trying to say. Thus, for example, she says this:

    [The opposition’s] fragmentation and disunity poses [sic] a formidable challenge. It makes it difficult to assess who is representing whom, the level of public support each enjoys among Syrians, and the role each is playing in the protest movement.

But then she immediately says this:

    While it is impossible to know which side commands a majority, a critical mass of Syrians has clearly opted for regime change.

So how on earth do the two halves of that last sentence fit together? In this context, what does the term “critical mass” actually mean?
This is far from the only place at which her piece is marred by internal inconsistency and lack of clarity. It is a pity, too, that though her piece came out the same day the Arab League delegation announced its “peace plan” for Syria, she makes no mention of the impact that will have. All she does is note that “Pro-Assad Lebanese allies told me that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were the main funders [of the opposition.] There is no independent evidence to substantiate such claims.” For his part, As’ad AbouKhalil has regularly pointed to links between Saudi Arabia and some members of the Syrian opposition, on his blog, e.g. here.
But if, as seems to me almost certainly to have been the case, various Saudi institutions have been supporting some of the Islamist portions of the Islamist/Ikhwani portions of the opposition– what has happened to that support in the wake of the Arab League peace effort?
Slim doesn’t explore that question at all. (She also makes no mention of Syria’s state of war with Israel.)
… So finally, we come to this paper, today, from the Crisis Group. Its tone is markedly different from the evident anti-Asadism of Yacoubian and Slim– though it is also written with the sensibilities of a Western audience very clearly in mind. The whole first paragraph sets the tone, as well as defining the policy prescription:

    Syria’s acceptance of the Arab League proposal to defuse the crisis presents an eleventh-hour opportunity to seek a negotiated transition before the conflict takes an even uglier turn. Despite understandable scepticism, both the protest movement and the international community ought to give this initiative a fair chance; for either one to dismiss or undermine it would be to offer the regime justification for rejecting both the deal and responsibility for its failure. The regime’s intentions soon will be put to the test. In coming days, protesters will take to the streets with renewed energy, probing President Bashar al Assad’s sincerity after months of rising repression; they cannot be expected to show patience for protracted political talks devoid of swift, tangible results on the ground. The various strands of the opposition ought to publicly reject violent attacks against security forces and accept to engage in a dialogue with no condition other than the regime’s implementation of the plan. Likewise the international community should fully endorse the deal and adjust its reaction to developments on the ground. Only by giving Damascus a genuine opportunity to live up to its commitments under the plan can the international community reach consensus on holding it accountable should it choose to flout them.

There is a lot of good sense in this paper. Which is nothing less than I would expect, since I have great respect for the careful, always extremely well-informed work of CG’s principal Syria analyst, Peter Harling.
Above all, the CG’s careful argument as to why the Arab League initiative should be supported and given a chance is really important. I wish, though, that the paper had done more to urge its mainly Western-official target audience to work hard alongside the Arab League mediators to push them much further toward pursuit of a truly democratic outcome in Syria than they might otherwise be inclined to go.
But even in this generally strong CG piece, frustratingly, I still could not find answers to my own two big questions about what has been happening in the orbit of the Syria issue, namely: Why has Ankara adopted such a strongly pro-opposition position, and why have the GCC countries intervened so strongly over the past week or so to let Pres. Asad off the hook?
The most plausible answers to the latter question have to do, I think, with two things: Firstly, a fear in many Arab countries that if Syria follows the path of Libya, it might end up following the terrifying path of social breakdown (fitna) that the Arab countries have seen come about not only in Libya, but also in Iraq, in the wake of Western military aggression “intervention”… and the fact that Syria, like Iraq, is much closer to the heartland of the populations and concerns of most Arab countries than is Libya.The past two weeks have seen the emergence of a lot of very bad news from Libya, remember, which could well help to explain the timing of the Arab League’s activism on the Syria-negotiation question.
Secondly, I don’t think any Arab governments can ignore– as Mona Yacoubian, Randa Slim, and even the Crisis Group all managed to– the fact of Syria’s continuing state of war with Israel and its close proximity to Israel.
Back at the beginning of October, did Asad tell Turkish foreign minister Davutoglu that “If a crazy measure is taken against Damascus, I will need not more than six hours to transfer hundreds of rockets and missiles to the Golan Heights to fire them at Tel Aviv,” as the Israeli website Ynet quoted the Iranian Fars news agency as having reported? A spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry strongly denied this. But if the intention of the Iranian “leak” had been to scare the bejeesus out of the Gulf Arab countries in particular, maybe it had some effect.
(My view of that reported threat? I think six hours is ways more than Israel would need to undertake a devastating counter-strike, so what Asad reportedly “threatened” didn’t sound very threatening to Israel as such– but it certainly would threaten to inflame matters in the whole of the rest of the Middle East.)
There is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a protection racket being sustained by the Syrians (or perhaps, in this case, by the Iranians on their behalf) over some of the other Arab states, in a way that almost exactly mirrors the protection racket that has long been sustained by Israel over the United States… Both Syria (or Syria/Iran) threatens to blow up the whole Middle East by attacking Israel if the Arab states don’t do what Asad wants them to… Just as Israel periodically threatens to blow up the whole Middle East by attacking Iran if Washington doesn’t do exactly what Netanyahu wants it to (which in his case, is overwhelmingly to allow him to continue paving over the whole of the West Bank for the illegal Israeli settlers, without raising a finger in protest.)
Ah, Realpolitik. What a dirty business, eh?
In this case, however, it may well end up tending to take Syria’s people to a much better (because negotiated) outcome than they could ever expect if they choose to follow the path of Iraq or Libya. Yes, it would certainly be amazingly difficult for Syria to be able to democratize while it is still under threat and partial occupation by Israel. Yes, it would be amazingly difficult to reverse the terrible course toward increasing internal polarization and schism that Syrian society has been following for the past nine months. Yes, it seems amazingly unlikely that Riyadh or Doha would ever end up as champions of democracy!
But…. The alternatives to finding a negotiated outcome to the Syrian conflict are now all far, far worse…. As I’ve been saying like a broken record for six months now, in Syria both the regime and the opposition are resilient and won’t be defeated easily. Trying to find a negotiated and democratic way out of this impasse still seems like the best– indeed, the only– way forward. And this negotiation should only be over the form of governance inside Syria– that is, a negotiation for how a transition to democracy will be implemented– and not a negotiation over outcomes, i.e., that “Asad must go”, or whatever. It must be a negotiation that keeps a place at the table for the representatives of all significant forces in society on the basis of preserving the patriotic unity of the country and its people that they all so desperately need, despite– or rather, precisely because of– the depth of the wounds and resentments they bear from the recent and the more distant past. And they need it, too, because of the continuing state of war with Israel and the presence of very threatening Israeli forces looming on Jebel al-Shaikh right over the approaches to Damascus.
Look, you think it was easy for South Africans to overcome their resentments in 1992-94 and sit down at the table together? But who among the democrats of western countries is not glad today that they did so? Almost nobody. So why should we not support a negotiated transition to democracy in the case of Syria, also? (The Crisis Group report was quite right, by the way, to point out that Washington’s repeated calls for regime change in Syria have been extremely unhelpful…)

The Arab Spring at Nine Months

What a whirlwind nine months it’s been for the Arab world. As I wrote at a much earlier point in this phenomenon called the ‘Arab Spring’, it is as if some tremor in the long-frozen tectonic plates of the region’s political geography had suddenly burst through all those plates, freeing up waves of long-frozen political energy that have ricocheted– and continue to ricochet– through all the region’s countries.
This is a phenomenon of an almost Biblical 40-year periodicity: After all, it was back in around 1970 that the Arab world’s political shape settled into broadly the same pattern that it then retained until January of this year.
(As it happens, I made my first visit to the region– to Beirut– in 1970. This is, I realize, neither here nor there… Mainly, it makes me feel old.)
It was in 1969 that a young colonel called Muammar Qadhafi had toppled “King” Idris in Libya… The political shifts that occurred in the Arab world the following year were more closely related to Palestine since they stemmed in good part from the tragic battles of 1970’s ‘Black September’. In those battles, Jordan’s U.S.-backed (and discreetly Israeli-backed) King Hussein reimposed an oppressive system of total control on his kingdom (and on its national population which then as now included a numerical majority of ‘West Bank’ Palestinians) by chasing out the Palestinian guerrillas who had become well established there over the preceding three years… Provocatively well established, one could say. The king’s Black September campaign was, indeed, directly precipitated by an action in which the PLO-affiliated Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four international aircraft and landed them at an airstrip in northern Jordan…
During Black September, the Cairo-based Arab League worked hard to try to negotiate a settlement between Hussein and the Palestinians. On September 27, Egypt’s iconic, strongly Arab-nationalist president Gamal Abdel-Nasser convened an emergency summit meeting of Arab leaders in Cairo in an attempt to hammer out an agreement. The next day, he suffered a heart attack and died. (Five million Egyptians flocked to the streets to witness the passing of his cortege.)
Nasser was succeeded in the presidency by his vice-president, Anwar Sadat, a man who shared Nasser’s military background but not his commitment to a broadly ‘non-aligned’ form of Arab nationalism. Throughout Sadat’s eleven years in office, his main goal was to steer Egypt into a close alliance with Washington; and he seemed more than willing to enter into the bilateral peace agreement with Israel that was the entry-fee for that alliance. The Egyptian-Israeli peace of 1979 decoupled mighty Egypt from the Palestinians’ long-running quest for national liberation. After Sadat was assassinated in 1981, his vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, succeeded him. Mubarak hewed just as closely to the pro-American path as his predecessor. His longevity and the hyper-alertness of his ever-repressive mukhabarat gave him the time in office that neither Nasser nor Sadat had, in which to build the basis of dynastic rule..
Notably, in all the time Mubarak was president, he never named a vice-president… He also increasingly evidently started to groom his son Gamal to succeed him.
Meantime, back in the Black September of 1970, the conflict in Jordan soon enough made its effects felt on Syria, as well. The ‘leftist’ wing of the Baath Party, which until then was in power in Syria, had sent tanks into northern Jordan to help the Palestinians. But when those tanks came under threat of serious attack from Hussein’s tanks, the ground forces commanders in Damascus begged for air support from Syria’s air force. The air force commander, Hafez al-Asad, turned down their request. Without any air support, the Syrian tanks retreated speedily back to Syria; and amidst the political chaos and bouts of recriminations that ensued he undertook a swift coup in Damascus that brought his much more cautious, centrist wing of the Baath Party into power…
Where it has stayed until today.
Asadist Syria pursued, by and large, a much more ‘statist’ and less ideological set of policies than its predecessor. On many occasions that involved taking very harsh actions– against Syrians, against Lebanese, and against the Palestinians in both Syria and Lebanon.
… In Syria, Hafez al-Asad was almost seamlessly followed into power by his son, Bashar. In Jordan, Hussein was almost seamlessly followed by his son, Abdullah II. In Egypt and Libya, over the decade of the 2000s, it became increasingly clear that the rulers, despite claims of allegiance to republican idealism, were preparing an ‘Asadist’ type of familial succession…
In the PLO, Yasser Arafat was followed into power by his decades-long Fateh colleague Abu Mazen. No generation change there. And over the years Fateh, too long in power with too little to show for it except the continuous expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, suffered increasing internal rot.
* * *
Of course, many other huge things were happening in the Arab world in the 40 years that followed 1970. There were numerous important wars. There was the landmark Madrid peace conference of almost exactly 20 years ago today. There was the whole inglorious ‘Oslo’ episode, whose endless rounds of useless negotiations ended up merely providing cover for Israel’s continued paving over of the West Bank… There was the bloody and horrendously traumatic American invasion of Iraq… an action that– as soon as it became abundantly clear that the original casus belli of forestalling a ready-to-go Iraqi WMDs program was a figment only of the U.S. neocons’ over-active imaginations– was retroactively redefined as having had the purpose of “bringing democracy to the Arab world.”
That ideological repositioning of what, as everyone in the region quickly saw, turned out to be a bloody and longlasting disaster, wrought havoc on the dreams and projects of the many democrats throughout the Arab world. Along with all their other compatriots, those democrats looked at the fitna (social breakdown) and grand-scale human suffering that followed the conducting of no less than three popular votes in Iraq, under the auspices of the US military occupation, in the period 2005-06… And they concluded, quite reasonably, that U.S.-imposed democracy was certainly not the way to go.
Indeed, it’s quite possible to surmise that the ‘Arab Spring’ might have happened several years earlier, if the dead weight of the Iraqi experience had not been hung around the neck of Arab democrats over the past few years.
* * *
A full history of the ‘Arab Spring’ needs to take into account the many more proximate influences that led up to it… The inspiration of the Palestinians’ First Intifada of 1987-93… and of the early months of the Second Intifada of late 2000. (Westerners forget too often that the first 6-8 weeks of the Second Intifada were almost wholly nonviolent on the Palestinian side. It was only after the Israeli forces had killed more than 200 unarmed Palestinians that the Palestinian factions decided to take up arms.) … The disturbing sight of Pres. Mubarak (and Jordan’s King Abdullah) lining up time after time after time to support Israel’s extremely destructive and lethal attacks against its neighbors… The rampant takeover of so many economies in the Arab Mashreq by self-interested crony capitalists, and all the disruption, privation, and human misery that resulted from that (See this recent strong reporting on the role that US aid programs played in this regard, in Egypt. Also, go and buy Rami Zurayk’s fabulous book, Food, Farming, and Freedom, to see the account he gives of the role that US-imposed trade and aid policies played in bringing about the destruction of rural livelihoods and rural communities all around the Arab world.)… The intensification of campaigns of repression by so many Arab governments, that in the cases of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority– okay, not strictly a ‘government’, but still– were all actively supported by Washington… The repeated, glaring instances of the double standards Washington applied to any matter concerning the region, running the gamut from accusations of nuclear weapons programs (Iran’s, vs. Israel’s), to support for democratization and freedom of expression (Iran, vs. Egypt, the PA, Jordan)… The humiliating knowledge that all the important decisions in so many Arab countries were being taken with Washington and Israel’s interests in mind, way above any interest in the citizens’ own wellbeing…
Yes, no wonder that under the tectonic plates of the long-ossified Arab political system, huge forces of dissent were simmering.
Starting last December 17, within short order, the following things happened:

  • Vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in a provincial town in Tunisia, sparking a mass protest movement nationwide;
  • Tunisian president Ben Ali fled the country (January 14);
  • mass demonstrations convened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (January 25 and 28);
  • the Egyptian military stepped in and removed Mubarak from power (February 11);
  • the Security Council issued a first stern demarche to Libyan ruler Qadhafi warning him to stop armed attacks against unarmed civilian demonstrators (February 26– in resolution 1970);
  • and followed up (March 17, resolution 1973) with a resolution authorizing members states, “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”…and two days later, French jets roared over Benghazi to start the NATO-plus, stand-off operations against Libya that seven months later resulted in the rebels’ takeover of the whole country and the grisly killing in captivity (October 20) of Muammar Qadhafi.

* * *
Meanwhile, extremely large-scale and well-organized pro-democracy movements in two key countries in the Arabian Peninsula– Bahrain and Yemen– were being very violently repulsed by national governments that have long been key allies of the United States.
In the tiny island monarchy of Bahrain (home to the U.S. Navy’s ‘Fifth’ Fleet), an amazingly well disciplined pro-democracy movement had grown up over the years and, as the Tunisian and Egyptian mass movements came out onto the streets, Bahrain’s democrats decided to do the same, as well. Their main occupation/claiming of public space occurred at the Pearl Roundabout, a hub graced by a towering sculpture of a pearl… (Pearl diving had been the traditional occupation of the Bahraini indigenes, most of them Shiite, long before Sunni travelers from across the water in the Arabian mainland had come across and established trading-posts, followed by an ’emirate’, and even more recently, a ‘monarchy’.)
On March 16– just one day before Washington so hypocritically supported resolution 1973 against Qadhafi– the Bahraini forces, aided by Saudi forces sent in along the causeway Saudi Arabia had built to Bahrain some years ago– moved in to crush the democracy movement. Two days later, they even demolished the whole of the ‘Pearl’ monument. Read Amnesty International’s reports of continuing gross rights violations in Bahrain since then.
The situation in Yemen is at this point far less clear-cut. Indeed, it has always been so, Yemen is a massive country. Its population of 23.5 million citizens is easily the largest citizen body on the whole Arabian Peninsula. But it doesn’t have oil; and it is far and away the poorest country on the Peninsula.
Look, I don’t know a lot of detail about Yemen’s internal politics. It is a mountainous country, and as a result home to many different kinds of social groups, nearly all of them Arabic-speaking. There are reportedly some strongly matrilineal tribes there, where the men sit around and braid their hair all day. There are very dark-complected African communities that retain many of their African folkways. There are some expanses of flat cultivated land where farmers wear conical straw hats. There are northerners and southerners, easterners and westerners, Zaidis and Houthis and Hadhramautis and more… (Probably one of the best sources for good information about Yemen– as for so much else– is the Jadaliyya website, where you can find the work of Sheila Carapico, Stephen Day, Fawwaz Trabulsi, and more… Or, these two very informative recent pieces in Middle East Report: by Sheila Carapico, in May, and Stacey Philbrick Yadav, last week.)
One snapshot picture I have of Yemen is that it is “Saudi Arabia’s Gaza.” That is, it’s the place from which Saudi Arabia took some of the best land– and then, to which, in 1991, it relegated huge numbers of people who had previously labored hard in the Saudi economy… in this case, more than a million… while it replaced them with short-term contract laborers imported on very short-term and repressive contracts from Asia.
Just like Israel, with the Palestinians of Gaza…
Pertinent fact: GDP per capita in SA (2005):$14,979. GDP per capita in Yemen (2005): $923.
But I do recognize that the situation in Yemen is far more complicated, politically, than the situation in Gaza.
One of the complications is the U.S. hand in Yemen, which is exercised almost wholly by the U.S. military, in its pursuit-by-drone of alleged leaders and members of the group described as “Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula” (AQAP). Pres. Ali Abdullah Saleh evidently entered some years ago into a pact with Centcom whereby Centcom or the Special Operations Command had considerable freedom to “hunt down” alleged AQAP people in broad areas of Yemen on the basis of “plausible deniability” by Saleh himself– and in return for significant, broader security and political support by the U.S. (and Saudi Arabia) for Saleh, against any domestic opponents.
(Okay, in this respect, much like Washington’s relationship with the Pakistani military.)
Politically, the Obama administration has apparently reached the (not unreasonable) conclusion that it really does not know how to “intervene” effectively in Yemen; and it has subcontracted this job– as in Bahrain?– to the Saudis. Hence, Saleh has made a number of trips to Saudi Arabia over recent years– and remember, the intense internal unrest in Yemen antedates Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, by several years, going back (at least) to the outbreak of the Houthi rebellion in 2004-2005. Some of those trips by Saleh to Saudi Arabia were under the guise of “getting medical help”; some under other pretexts. Earlier this year, it seemed that the Saudis had “decided” to replace him in power in Sana’a during one of his absences from the city– but then, there he was again recently, back in Yemen with the apparent blessing of the Saudis.
We should not, of course, in this survey of “where we are the Arab Spring”, ignore the role that the Saudis– and to a lesser extent the Qataris– have played… At the regionwide level, the Saudis’ main contribution has been to bankroll the counter-revolutionary (anti-democratic) forces. But for the Saudi rulers, both Bahrain and Yemen are crucial components of their own back yard.
Of course, Saudi Arabia is now itself in the midst of an extremely long-drawn-out succession crisis. Saudi “diplomacy” has anyway always been a very episodic, personality-driven business, with very little institutional basis for sustained follow-through or monitoring of anything that’s happening in foreign affairs. But now, King Abdullah is stumbling ever closer to his 90th birthday. (Question of the day: How much longer can the most expensive advances in American medical science keep this man alive?) His designated ‘Crown Prince’, Prince Sultan, finally passed away last week. (As’ad AbouKhalil thinks he died a long time ago. But anyway, the death got announced last week.) And then, as I’ve noted here before… the crown is likely to pass along the long line of still-surviving sons of King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, all of them now aged between their late 60s and their late 80s, before a transition of some peaceable or non-peaceable form takes place to a member of the next generation.
So we should not necessarily expect any very intelligent or reasoned set of policies to be emanating from Riyadh, with regard to any of these ‘Arab Spring’ developments.
This is probably a very important place to note the importance of Sunni-Shia differences, or perceptions or fears of such, in what’s happening in many places during this ‘Arab Spring’– most especially in all the Gulf Countries (including inside Saudi Arabia), and also in Syria.
Yes, I’m getting to Syria here. Bear with me.
In regard to the Sunni-Shia ‘issue’, the experience of Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion of 2003 has had huge effects in the region. Prior to March 2003, Saddam’s regime was seen by all the Sunni-dominated regimes of the Gulf as a very valuable “bulwark” against any encroachment of Shiite power from Iran. In the view of the GCC monarchs, the U.S. invasion ended up simply “giving” Iraq to the Shiites and also to Iran. They don’t tend to focus on the fact that the vast majority of the Shiites in Iraq– as in their own countries– are ethnically Arabs, not Persians; and they are not necessarily pre-disposed to prefer Tehran’s rule over self-rule. Shiaphobia, that is, an exaggerated fear of Shiites, is a huge driver of the foreign policies pursued by all the GCC governments; and as in the case of all such phobias, this one cannot easily be assuaged by reference to such mundane things as facts, or the existence of a long history of a shared life together, or even much basic human decency…
Bottom line on the Saudis: expect continued erratic flip-flops in the way they pursue their regional interests. Also, expect that the succession issue will dominate the attention of all senior princes; and it may well interact in interesting and surprising ways with Riyadh’s pursuit of its regional diplomacy.
Bottom line on Yemen: expect a lot more tragedy, conflict, and suffering ahead– unless the forces of the country’s impressively resilient and focused opposition movement can succeed in slowly expanding their power until Saleh decides to do the decent thing and follow Ben Ali into exile.
* * *
So now, Syria.
Back in May, I was articulating my judgment that the country has both a resilient government and a resilient opposition movement… And therefore, sadly, that the stand-off between them would most likely continue for a further long while. And that has been the case.
Back in May, I was arguing that the best way to break this stalemate, and thereby to save the Syrian people from the huge amount of suffering that it would necessarily involve, would be to have some kind of authoritative, externally mediated negotiation between the regime and the opposition, over the modalities of how real democratic reform could speedily be instituted in the country.
Neither side was willing to enter such a reform process voluntarily. For the regime, any hint of entering serious negotiations with the opposition would seem to give the opposition some legitimacy. For the opposition, the only thing that most of its supporters were willing to negotiate about back then– and probably, still today– was the exit of the regime. Many of these oppositionists felt, too, that even letting the regime’s leaders leave the country safely, in the manner of Ben Ali, would not be enough: They wanted to see Asad and his cronies “brought to justice”, “held fully accountable”, humiliated, punished, and brought low.
There was also (and remains) the question of the ability of leaders on each side to enter into a negotiation, as well. On the regime side, how much freedom of action does Pres. Bashar al-Asad actually have, in such matters? And on the opposition side, it is not as if you have one single, dominating and disciplined pro-democracy movement along the lines of, say, the ANC in late-apartheid South Africa. The Syrian opposition has been marked by a cacophony of voices (despite the best efforts of the U.S. government, Turkey, and others, to persuade its figures and personalities to try to unify and get their act together.)
Back in May, I was arguing that of the available outside negotiators, the government of Turkey seemed to be the one best placed– and also, most highly motivated– to try to lead the mediation mission. The good positioning came, I thought, from the good relations that Ankara had built with both the regime and some parts of the Syrian opposition– as well as from the general attitudes of Syria’s people toward Turkey, which shifted to being extremely favorable over the past few years, especially in light of the “no visa” policy between them and the attractiveness of the “Turkish model” for economic affairs and governance, which a vast majority of Syrians have seen as distinctly preferable to that offered by their other major partner in the region, Iran.
Turkey’s motivation, I argued, would come from the facts that its border with Syria is by far the longest of any of its land borders; and that Syria is an important transit country for Turkish companies doing business with Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and several other Arab countries.
But I guess that Turkey’s AK Party leaders saw things differently. In the weeks after I was writing and speaking about this topic back in May, Ankara (and perhaps a large part of Turkish public opinion, as well?) started shifting noticeably toward giving ever stronger support to the Syrian opposition. I have wondered what motivated this shift, which seemed to fly in the face of the AK Party’s longstanding policy of seeking “zero problems with the neighbors”. Was it merely a desire to try to be “on the right side of history”, that was arrived at after conducting some form of analysis that the Asad regime’s days were numbered? Earlier in the spring, Ankara had undertaken just that kind of a recalibration with respect to Libya: There, Turkey had previously had extensive business links with the Qadhafi regime. But on March 19 (or shortly thereafter), Ankara was lining itself up with those of the NATO forces who were participating in the sea blockade of Libya– that, after it had successfully extracted the thousands of Turkish workers who had previously been working on huge construction contracts in Libya (along with, as I recall, some number of wounded Libyans who needed to be evacuated from encircled cities.)
Or was Ankara’s shift motivated by more ideological, Sunni-ist concerns? Who knows?
Anyway, suffice it to say that Ankara’s increasing identification with the Syrian opposition played a role in hardening the political positions espoused by many oppositionists. In addition, various outside forces proved themselves able to push significant amounts of arms into Central Syria (to Homs, from the north Lebanese city of Tripoli and elsewhere in Lebanon), and into northeastern Syria, from Iraq. The fact that the Israeli secret services have strong networks in both some areas of Lebanon and some areas of northern Iraq should not be ignored– but there are plenty of other actors who could also be suspected of having a hand in this.
It has been really hard to get solid news out of Syria. Nir Rosen has done some good work for the Al-Jazeera website. But much of Al-Jazeera’s reporting has been hyperbolic and based on the thinnest of sourcing. Since Qatar started working openly with NATO in Libya, the Qatari government seems to have exercised a lot more control over Al-Jazeera’s reporting; and in Syria, Qatar’s deeply Wahhabist government seems to have decided at some point– along with the Saudis– to throw its weight behind the Sunni-ist portions of the Syrian opposition.
For a while, some opposition voices in Syria were openly calling for NATO to repeat, in their country, the same kind of operations they had mounted against Libya. But a number of things stopped that from happening. The most important was the veto that both China and Russia cast on October 4, against a resolution that seemed (though in slightly softer tones) to deliver the same kind of demarche to Syria that resolution 1970 had earlier delivered to Libya, and thus to prepare the way for a military intervention-enabling resolution like 1973 at some later point.
That draft resolution did receive the nine votes that, absent any vetoes, would have allowed it to pass. It was a notable moment in the dynamics of the world system when China and Russia delivered their vetoes. Brazil, India, South Africa, and Lebanon also abstained during that vote. It is entirely possible that the two veto-wielders– and possibly the other ‘BRICS’ members on the Security Council, where by chance all five were present– were worried about the ‘R2P’-derived precedent that the Libyan intervention had set, which might one day be used against any of them. It is possible that many of those BRICS countries found that the way the situation had unfolded in Libya (where the anti-Qadhafi rebels had already seized Tripoli and were exhibiting a notable lack of ability to govern fairly and effectively) was also of great concern to them. And it is possible that for some of them, the sovereignty of Asad’s Syria was seen as in some way more deserving of their support than that of Qadhafi’s Libya– especially given Qadhafi’s wholesale leap into the pro-western camp in recent years. We should note, however, that South Africa was already strongly opposed, for African-solidarity reasons, to the NATO intervention in Libya; so its failure to support the west’s resolution on Syria was really no surprise.
No matter what the motivations of individual BRICS countries, the fact of the Russian and Chinese vetoes changed the calculus of all involved in Syria, making it very clear that no Libya-style, overt western military intervention would be happening there any time soon.
Another development that almost has almost certainly affected the regional environment around Syria has been the resurgence of Kurdish (PKK) anti-regime violence in Turkey. Activating “the Kurdish issue” is something that all those four countries with significant Kurdish populations– Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey– know how to do against each other. And of those four countries, probably Turkey, with its in-my-opinion genuine aspirations to move toward greater democracy and its very significant Kurdish population, is more vulnerable to the re-emergence of a “Kurdish issue” than any. Regardless of the nature of any external sponsorship Turkey’s Kurdish militants may have received– and both Iran and Syria have their own separate reasons to have done this– the re-emergence of PKK violence was doubtless a huge headache for Ankara.
In the end, though, in the aftermath of the failure of the western move at the Security Council, it was the Arab League, not Turkey, that stepped in to explore the possibilities for brokering a negotiated end to Syria’s internal strife. An Arab League delegation arrived in Damascus yesterday. It was greeted by large pro-Asad demonstrations in the capital and some reported instances of anti-Asad strikes being observed in Homs and other cities.
(One word of warning to the Arab League negotiators: Remember the fate of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, 41 years ago.)
The commentary that the FT’s Roula Khalaf had on the Arab League mission yesterday is probably worth reading. She wrote:

    Qatar, the exceedingly wealthy autocracy which has emerged as the unlikely champion of the oppressed across the Arab world, is leading the delegation, despite initial grumbles from Damascus. But the six-member mission also includes Egypt, Oman, Algeria and Yemen…
    Needless to say the presence of the foreign minister of Yemen on the delegation to Damascus should reassure Assad. In fact, Sana’a could give the Syrian strongmen some good advice – namely to take a page out of Saleh’s book and pretend to agree to Arab initiatives without implementing any of their stipulations…
    The whole point of the Arab League mission is also puzzling. The foreign ministers are giving Assad and the Syrian opposition two weeks to hold a national dialogue. But, as many diplomats in the Arab world know, if such a meeting were ever to take place – and it is unlikely – it will be based on a reform plan that seems to be unworkable. Assad is not about to agree to share power with the opposition. And after nearly seven months of atrocities, the Syrian national council, the umbrella opposition group, is not about compromise with the regime or wait, as the plan suggests, until 2013 to have free presidential elections.
    Diplomats tell me that the Arab League has no choice but to tread carefully when it comes to Syria, which is far too important strategically and still has a few good friends in the region…

And from Washington, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, seemed to confirm the need for the Arab states to tread carefully when it comes to Syria. He told journos at a press breakfast on Tuesday that “We do see a possible ouster of Mr. Assad as affording an opportunity to us.”
* * *
So, there is a massive amount of geopolitics swirling around– and often penetrating deeply inside– the politics of the Arab Spring. And there remains a lot of uncertainty about the outcomes– in all the Arab countries, and indeed in the region as a whole. Here, though, are some of my preliminary thoughts at this stage:

    1. The overwhelmingly peaceable and overwhelmingly civilian mass movements that swept the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt from power were unalloyed good news. The outcomes in both those countries may not be as truly wonderful as we might hope. But the peoples of the two countries have provided themselves with a decent chance of being able to build robust and largely accountable and democratic political systems, in place for the repressive systems they have labored under for so many years. Read this account, from JWB’s upcoming, Cairo-based author Issandr El-Amrani, on how exhilarating he found Tunisia’s recent elections… (Okay, Issandr is less optimistic regarding Egypt. But still, I am sure he would agree with me that the prospects for serious positive political developments there are still far, far greater than any of us would have imagined just one year ago.)
    2. The overwhelmingly civilian mass pro-democracy movements in Bahrain and Yemen also been deeply inspiring. Hey– I never gave a shout-out yet to Yemen’s fabulous, inspiring leader Tawakkol Karman for being a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Huge congratulations, Ms. Karman! despite the creativity and commitment of the members of the movements in those two countries, however, both have met serious resistance… And in both cases, that resistance has been supported by Washington. Shame, shame shame! (And something that all of us in the pro-justice movement here in the United States ought to be working hard to reverse.)
    3. In Syria and elsewhere there have also been large-scale civilian mass movements taking real risks to fight for political reform. But it’s been harder to gauge the real reach and influence of those movements. And in Syria, as in Yemen, there have been serious armed elements involved alongside the unarmed mass movements.
    4. Libya has been seen as a real test case for the whole western liberal notion of ‘R2P’– which far too many western liberals take to mean that “international community” (however fuzzily defined) has a prima facie duty to support the human rights of beleaguered peoples in all other countries. Actually, the UN’s R2P documents don’t say that. They say that governments everywhere have the first duty to protect the the lives and safety of their peoples; but that if they fail to do so, then the UN can step in to take such steps as are deemed necessary to save the peoples’ lives. Big difference.
    So what we saw in Libya was a UN-allowed, NATO-led military intervention that was launched in the first instance under the rubric of enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect the civilians of Benghazi from what was described to us all as a completely certain humanitarian disaster. The western leaders never paid any heed to the facts that– as I blogged at the time– the humanitarian situation in Benghazi was actually getting better in the days immediately before their bombings started; or, that the African Union leaders were poised to undertake the kind of tension-deescalating negotiations that resolution 1973 had also specifically called for.
    Since March 19, Libya has seen scores of thousands of conflict-related deaths and maimings, and the country’s political space has been largely taken over by a clutch of mutually competing armed gangs. It looks very like Iraq in 2006 or so. And in keeping with that “Iraqi” theme, we saw the disgusting scenes of Muammar Qadhafi being brutalized while in captivity and then turning up shortly afterwards having been executed by a gunshot to the head.

Is this what the building a strong democracy looks like? No, no, no! I am in great fear as to the suffering and continued conflicts that the Libyan people will see over the months and years ahead.
Like Iraq before it, what happened in Libya is surely not a “model” for any people– in the Arab world or elsewhere– who seek a life of human dignity, security for their families, and accountable governance.
So the “balance sheet” for the Arab Spring is at this point decidedly mixed, but still on balance positive. What is clear is that the social and political forces that were unfrozen by Mohamed Bouazizi (and before him, to be fair, by Khaled Said in Egypt) have set the whole Middle East on a political course whose dynamism still has a lot more unfolding to do.
In upcoming blog posts I plan to examine the effects of the Arab Spring so far on the Palestinian issue; and also (in more depth than previously), on the response of the western media to the Arab Spring. Stay tuned.

In Algiers: Book Fair and Colloquium

I’m writing this on a plane, at the end of a four-day visit to Algiers… In Algiers I was participating in a big international Colloquium on the Arab Spring organized in conjunction with the ‘Salon Internationale du Livre d’Alger’ (SILA– the Algiers Book Fair.) It was really interesting to return to Algeria. I hadn’t been there since 1989; in the interim, the country passed through a truly terrible, lengthy civil war that lasted throughout most of the 1990s and was laced with repeated atrocities, committed by both sides: both the very secular government and the ferocious Islamist opposition. In 1998, at the end of what Algerians today refer to as “the Black Decade”, the government finally won.
On Friday morning, participants in the Colloquium were taken on a tour of the city’s historic Casbah, the labrynthine, historic area of four- and five-story dwellings that clings to a steep hillside in the center of the capital city. Yes, we walked right by the (under-reconstruction) house in which famed national-liberation activist “Ali La Pointe” was entombed along with two other militants, when the French colonial powers blew up the house during the national liberation war, as memorialized in “The Battle of Algiers”. And that night we dined with Madame Zohra Bitat, one of the liberation heroines who figured in the war (and in the movie), who is now Vice-President of the country’s Senate…
When we toured the Casbah our guide told us that for several years up until 1998, the country’s security forces were unable to go into it, so strongly did the Islamists control it. That’s how grave and present the threat was, that the regime felt itself under.
It is notable to me, during the present Arab Spring, that the Arab countries that have experienced grave internal conflict in the past 15 years have not witnessed the kind of mass pro-democracy movements that marked the Arab Spring. We didn’t discuss that phenomenon very much during the colloquium. But we did have a very rich discussion of, in particular, developments in Egypt and Tunisia. There were some excellent analysts– and analyst-participants– from those countries, from several other Arab countries, from the U.K., U.S., Turkey, etc., who also participated. I believe the organizers are hoping to publish some kind of a ‘proceedings’ volume from the gathering. (At which point, you can read the presentation I gave on the reactions of the Anglo-Saxon media to the Arab Spring. A shortened version is here.)

Continue reading “In Algiers: Book Fair and Colloquium”

Syria, authoritarianism, war, and peace

I regret that I haven’t had much time in recent months to blog and write about the many developments in the still-unfolding ‘Arab Spring.’ However, I think that much of what I was writing back in March and April– especially on the extremely upsetting and complicated series of events in Libya and Syria– has stood the test of time pretty well. That has been particularly the case, I think, with regard to the warnings I issued ( e.g. 1, 2) about the danger of trying to use military tools, as in Libya, in order to pursue a claimed human-rights agenda, and with regard to the calls I made (e.g. 1, 2, and in this late-May discussion at the Middle East Institute, MP3) for people to focus on achieving a reform process in Syria that is negotiated, inclusive, and wide-ranging rather than continuing to pursue only shrill and personalized “rights” campaigns that all too easily and often shift over into highly politicized calls for regime change.
I repeat: War and extreme social conflict are always and necessarily injurious to the rights of the civilian residents of the conflict zone, especially the most vulnerable. Armchair activists in the west who have never lived in a war zone often have zero understanding of this fact.
(Though I am strong critic, on pacifist grounds, of the whole concept of a “just” war, I do think the first proponents of that originally Christian doctrine understood the always-injurious nature of war; and they coded that understanding into their injunctions that wars should only be undertaken when there was a strong chance of a speedy and decisive victory, and when the goods to be gained through any proposed war could be seen to clearly outweigh the evils that would necessarily accompany it. No-one back then ever proclaimed the idea of an “easy” war that would be a “cakewalk” or that would bring “only” good to the world! How tragic that so many in the west have lost sight of that deep wisdom embedded into the “western” tradition… )
Back to Syria, though. There, as in Libya, we have a situation in which both the regime and the opposition have now proven their resilience. This is, of course, a recipe for stalemate and prolonged conflict that, so long as it lasts– and it has now lasted several months– will cause immediate harm to Syrians of all political persuasions while also sowing the seeds of a possible much more serious social breakdown (fitna) in the future.
I want to ask two questions:
1. How many of those in the west who are now clamoring for immediate regime change in Syria think the negotiated transition from minority rule to democracy that occurred in South Africa in the early 1990s was a good thing? I would imagine the vast majority of them (of you) do.
So has the violence enacted by the minority regime in Syria even come close to the violence enacted by the former minority regime in South Africa against its people?
No. I thought not.
So why was a negotiated transition to democracy good in South Africa, while most western rights activists shudder at the very idea of one in Syria? (I hope the answer is not a racist one: Namely, that westerners were prepared to give a generous pass to members of the minority regime in South Africa because they were “white”… but they’re not prepared to do so to members of the Alawite regime in Syria because, um, they’re just another bunch of Ay-rabs… )
2. Can I invite you to a thought experiment?
I know from my own extensive research that Israel came very close to concluding a peace agreement with Syria at two points since the 1991 Madrid Conference: firstly, in 1994-95, and secondly, in 2000.
Imagine if one of those attempts had succeeded… Then, in early 2011, when the winds of the Arab Spring started blowing in Syria they would have been blowing in a country that (like Egypt) had regained all the national territory seized by Israel in 1967 and held for many years thereafter, and that was in a state of fairly well-entrenched final peace with Israel.
How different would such a Syria have been? How different would have been the role of the “security” forces in the country’s politics and national culture? How different would Syria’s whole society and economy have been from what we see there today?
Note that I am not here just mindlessly “blaming Israel” for all the woes currently besetting Syria and its people. The people inside Syria– on both sides– who have been pursuing their agendas through violence must bear the first responsibility for the losses inflicted. (And there, as in South Africa or U.S.-occupied Iraq, or anywhere else, it has been the dominant security forces that have inflicted the vast majority of the casualties…)
But still, it is worth noting that the security forces in Syria in general have only continued to occupy the bloated social, economic, and cultural role that they have been occupying because of Israel’s steadfast intransigence in the peace negotiations over the years, and because of the extreme reluctance of Israel’s negotiators to abide by the Security Council resolutions (and longstanding international norms) that insist that Israel cannot hang onto any of the Syrian territory that it occupied through war, back in 1967.
If Syria in 2011 had been in a situation of peace with Israel since 2000– even a “cold” peace, as between Egypt and Israel– then might not the internal interaction between pro-democracy forces and the military look more like what happened in Tahrir Square, and since then, in Egypt this year?
In Tahrir Square, the leaders of the military were abiding by an arrangement they had reached with the political leadership (in that time, Pres. Sadat) back in 1977, under which they vowed they would never turn their tanks against civilian protesters. Yes, I realize that pledge was given even before Egypt concluded its peace with Israel in 1978-79. But still, the fact of the peace with Israel made it a lot easier for the Egyptian military in 2011 to once again abide by the pledge they had made in 1977.
… Ah, it’s too late now to “imagine” what Syria might have looked like today if either the 1994-95 or the 2000 peace talks with Israel had succeeded. Those of us around the world who care deeply about the wellbeing of Syria’s 21 million people face the situation we face.
For my part, I’ll continue to call for a reform process in Syria that is negotiated, wide-ranging, authentically Syrian, and inclusive (including of representatives of the present regime, as well as, of course, the different strands of the opposition)– rather than calling for any specific outcome such as either the downfall or the continuation of the present regime.
(In South Africa, putting the focus on the need for real reform and respect for a truly democratic nationwide election proved to be the key that winkled the pro-apartheid National Party out of office– and gave them a decent, respected position in the political opposition… until the NP withered completely on the vine around ten years later.)
I call for the same kind of negotiated outcome in Libya, where goodness knows the damage caused by this terrible, tragic war that NATO has waged for the past five months has been unconscionable.
But in the case of Syria, let’s also not forget that the country is still one that it is in a state of war with its neighbor, Israel; and that the only way to end that state of war is through conclusion of a final peace agreement that implements all the conditions of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. If westerners in countries that have given huge support to Israel for the past 40 years truly want to help the people of Syria– including the very numerous Syrian citizens still prevented from returning to their families’ homes and farms inside the occupied Golan– then surely they (we) should be agitating hard for Israel to conclude the kind of rules-based peace with Syria that it concluded with Egypt back in 1979. Certainly, no U.S. government aid to Israel, whether economic or military, should be given in a way that entrenches and strengthens Israel’s hold on the occupied Golan.

Quick notes on Fateh-Hamas reconciliation of April 27

As I tweeted yesterday, the reconciliation announced in Cairo yesterday— which still needs a lot of fleshing out– is the second great result of the Egyptian people’s historic overthrow of the Mubarak-Suleiman regime. Until February 11, Omar Suleiman had been assiduous in (1) monopolizing the whole diplomatic space allotted to “seeking” this reconciliation, and (2) blocking its attainment.
In both these steps, we can note, he was mirroring the behavior his Washington friends have pursued more broadly toward the attainment of a final-status Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement: (1) monopolize, (2) block. You might argue– as I have, many times, at both these levels– that if you can’t sh*t you should get off the pot. But in both these cases, staying glued to the pot so no-one else gets a chance to do the job is just as important as the not-doing of the job.
But the heroic and disciplined Egyptian people knocked Sulaiman off his pot… and now, six weeks later, we have a first important step toward what could well be a Fateh-Hamas reconciliation that serves the interests of the long-battered Palestinian people a lot better than the extremely damaging U.S.- and Israeli-engineered division that has wracked the Palestinian movement since late January 2006.
See these great photos from an anti-Israeli popular demonstration in Cairo just yesterday. H/t Arabawy.
The rough score-sheet for the effects of the Arab uprisings up till now on the always-permeable internal politics of the forcibly dispersed Palestinian people is roughly as follows:

    1. Overthrow of the Mubarak-Suleiman regime: devastatingly bad for Fateh and very good for Hamas.
    2. Serious weakening of Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria: Fairly bad for Hamas in the short term, given the location of the movement’s pan-Palestinian headquarters there and its longterm alliance with the Asad regime. However, note the following: (a) the strongest opposition force in Syria, as in Mubarak-era Egypt, is the MB, which also has longstanding links with Hamas; (b) the Syrian public is strongly pro-Palestinian; (c) Hamas anyway has a widely networked and very resilient leadership and succession-planning structure, that it has developed over the course of many years. If they get knocked out of Damascus, they could go to, um, Cairo or El-Arish! (d) even if ‘a’ and ‘b’ were not true, if Hamas were to ‘lose’ Syria and ‘gain’ Egypt, it would still be a tremendous net plus for them;
    3. Chaotic and violent events in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain: These have some effects on the Fateh-Hamas balance, but none that are as sizeable or immediate as the effects of developments in Egypt and Syria.

What is true, as a general rule in the region is that the kind of sordid backroom deals that regimes like Mubarak’s, that of successive Jordanian monarchs, or others have struck with Israel in the past– that is, arrangements to quash Palestinian movements that go far beyond the formal requirements of the peace treaties– have become considerably harder for these Arab parties to uphold, given the long overdue and very welcome emergence of strong movements calling for transparency and accountability from Arab governments.
Now, it is also true that amidst these regionwide developments there are some very disturbing currents, including (obviously) the rush toward western military action in Libya and the support that action has garnered from many Gulf Arab states; the emergence of a vicious new wave of anti-Shiite sectarianism– not only in Bahrain and Yemen, but broadly throughout the region, including (in its anti-Alawi guise), in Syria. This is an aspect of the emergence of a new kind of specifically “Sunni” power in the region that fills me with dread. Goodness, have we not seen quite enough of the terrible effects of Sunni-Shiite sectarian hatred in Iraq and Lebanon over recent years??
For their part, the leaders of Hamas (though not all of the rank-and-file members of the movement) are part of a determinedly tolerant current within the broader “Sunni Islamist” stream. Hamas leaders are eager to work with Christians inside and outside the Palestinian community; and they have a long history of working closely alongside Hizbullah (and the Iranian government), which must surely have affected the view they have of Muslims who are Shiites. Hamas people whom I’ve interviewed have always warned strongly against allowing any kind of paranoia about the machinations of an alleged “Shiite Crescent” to insert a fatal wedge into the Palestinian or broader Arab national movements. That kind of paranoia, I certainly have heard expressed and endorsed by high-ranking people in Fateh– as in Jordan, Mubarak’s Egypt, etc.
Anyway, the region is still in a high degree of dynamism. This will certainly have a big effect on the internal politics of Palestine.
Here in Washington, DC, I see various of the rabidly pro-Israel members of Congress have been screaming their hearts out about how any affiliation with Hamas would render the Fateh leaders completely ineligible for any further U.S. aid. Ha. good luck with that. If the U.S. Congress cuts off the “aid” (including $$ and political support) to the Ramallah-based P.A. completely, then the P.A. will almost immediately collapse– and so will the “Dayton Forces”, which have been policing the various little pieces of Ramallastan in the service of the Israelis for the past few years. What then for U.S. policy?
The White House, interestingly enough, seems to have a slightly more nuanced view. I haven’t had time to find the whole of the statement that NSC spokesperson Tommy Vietor made yesterday, about the reconciliation news from Cairo. (If any readers can contribute the original source of this document, please put it in the comments.) But what truly intrigued me was the headline the pro-Hamas PIC put on this report of Vietor’s statement: “US meets Palestinian unity deal with guarded optimism.”
What on earth– ?
The portions of Vietor’s words that PIC quoted were as follows:

    ”Hamas … is a terrorist organization which targets civilians,” said Veitore.
    “As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace,” he said. ”To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
    “We have seen the press reports and are seeking more information,” he added.

To me, this doesn’t warrant the headline the editors put onto their news report. On the other hand, Vietor’s words are light-years less hostile and hysterical than those of people like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen or Gary Ackerman.
The fact that the PIC has depicted them, in its headline, in this extremely rosy way– “guarded optimism”???– is what intrigues. Are the Hamas ideologues trying to prepare the way for a new overture to the Obama administration?

Quick notes for a quickly changing world

Just 30 days ago, on January 14, I was making the 3.5-hour drive down from Charlottesville, VA to Greensboro, NC, for the Quaker conference held to mark the 50th anniversary of Pres. Eisenhower’s prescient 1961 warning about the dangers of a ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ arising in the U.S.
As I drove, I was listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the day’s events in Tunis. That was the day the growing but determinedly peaceful anti-government demonstrations there were (amazingly!) able to ‘persuade’ Pres. Zein el-Abideen Ben Ali to leave the country.
The conference was really good. I got to speak after lunch on Saturday, with my designated topic being the MIC in the Middle East. I reminded the audience that for the past 15-20 years, the MIC’s project in the Middle East has been far and away its biggest (and costliest) overseas project; and that the situation there has been used by the bosses of the MIC back here at home to continue to justify the obscene amounts of spending they get from U.S. taxpayers.
But I was also able to share with them the good news that (1) In the Middle East more than anywhere else, the actual utility of military force had been shown to be either nil or negative. What did the US achieve, of lasting geopolitical value, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? What did Israel achieve of lasting geopolitical value with its obscene assaults against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008?… and also that (2) The events then unfolding in Tunis were demonstrating for all to see that the MIC’s vast, sprawling project in the Middle East was beginning to crumble– and the crumbling would doubtless continue.
I told them that the two key places to watch for further crumbling of the U.S. MIC’s Middle East project– “within either a shorter or longer time frame; but almost certainly within the coming months”– were Egypt and Jordan.
And then, the heroic pro-democracy activists and organizers in Egypt achieved what they achieved last Friday. Far faster than I had dared to hope.
Of course the democracy movement has a lot further to go– in those two countries, and elsewhere around the globe. (Including here at home in the United States, folks. Wake up!)
But today I am just feeling so joyous to be able to witness this.
Honestly, I never thought I would live to see this day. Throughout all of the 35-year-plus professional life that I have devoted to a study of foreign affairs, and principally Middle East affairs, the situation in the Middle East has been gloomy and getting gloomier. Autocracy was becoming ever deeper and deeper embedded in many countries, including in Egypt which is truly for that whole region “Um al-Dunya” (The mother of the world.) Periodic wars wracked the region, culminating in George W. Bush’s obscene invasion of Iraq.
… Which, remember, had come after a period of 13 years in which the U.S. and Britain forced the U.N to maintain a punishing sanctions regime against Iraq which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. And no other government in the Arab world wanted to (or was able to) prevent those atrocities from happening.
Egypt’s Pres. Mubarak was at the heart of Washington’s imperial planning for the region. As were the two successive kings of Jordan and the monarchs of Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s Pres. Ben Ali was also a small-scale, but loyal, supporter of it.
Plus, throughout all these years, successive governments in Israel– Labour as well as Likud and Kadima– continued their longterm project of implanting their illegal settlers into the heart of Arab land in Palestine, including in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem.
Since 1993, Washington has taken not one single effective step to rein in Israel’s settlement-construction program. Indeed, in the way it implemented the Oslo Accords, by insisting on building (and even having the US taxpayer pay for) big new highway systems for the settlers, they gave the settlement-building project a massive new shot in the arm.
And Washington covered the vast, multi-pronged support it gave to Israel in every field during these years with this thin fig leaf of a myth that there was some kind of a meaningful “peace process” underway. (That myth was also cited as a justification for stamping down on Palestinian democracy when it dared to raise its head in January 2006: We can’t allow anything to damage the peace process,” they said, as they armed Mohamed Dahlan’s coup plotters and helped him in his ugly coup attempt against the Palestinians’ elected leadership, in 2007… )
Pres. Mubarak and his intelligence sidekick Omar Suleiman were big players in every single one of those imperial schemes.
Now they are out. And Washington’s policy in the Middle East is going to have to change. A lot. And rapidly.
Hallelujah! What a day of joy!
As I’ve noted here many times before, it turns out we’re no longer living in the 19th century! We’re not even living in the 20th century. The crucial change in world affairs, as the 21st century progresses, is that the global information environment has become so transparent and so inter-connected that any more major wars or invasions (such as what we saw the Bush administration launching against Iraq in 2003) are becoming increasingly unthinkable.
Already, during those fateful days in March 2003 when the invasion was launched, we were having real-time blogging from within Baghdad, in searingly beautiful English, telling us of the horrors of how it was to cower under that bombardment and live through the terrors of the civil collapse that followed.
(And what did the U.S. “achieve” for all those expensive bombs dropped, and all those expensive soldier deployed?? Nothing of any lasting value except the destruction of an entire society there in Iraq… An “achievement” that surely will continue to haunt us for many years into the future.)
Yes, I was part of the emerging global blogosphere back then: Reading, sharing, and interacting with the work of fabulous Iraqi writers like Riverbend, Faiza, or Salam/Pax. That already felt heady enough.
Then, this past Thursday and Friday, I was spending most of my time on Twitter (@justworldbooks). It was amazing. There, we were having a strange form of free-form “conversation” about what was happening, in real time with fellow tweeps who were on the ground in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and with people around the world who were also glued to the situation.
In Twitter, in case you don’t know about this, there’s a simple content-aggregating tool called a hashtag. They always start with what Europeans call a hash-mark. So there has been #Tunisia, #egypt, #jan25, #tahrir, etc. If you put that hashtag into your tweet, the tweet then shows up in the relevant aggregator. And if you want to see what everyone else has been saying about that same subject, you just search for the hashtag.
On Thursday evening (U.S. Eastern time), everyone around the world was waiting and waiting for the speech that, several hours earlier, Mubarak had promised he would be making. As we were all waiting, someone came up with the idea of launching the hashtag #reasonsmubarakislate. And it took off like wildfire!
All the contributions to it were jokes, including some that were very childish. (“#reasonsmubarakislate The situation in his pants is very fluid”, etc.) Others were very clever– but always within the 140-character limit.
So for an hour or two there, as we were waiting, we were sharing these jokes– with people from all around the world, most of whom were unknown to each other.
And then, finally, Mubarak came onto the screen and gave his terrible speech. People immediately stopped feeling jokey and excited, and the hashtag died almost immediately. If you have a Twitter account– and you should! follow me there @justworldbooks! –go and read the RMIL hashtag. You’ll see the most recent entry there is from Feb. 10.
This amazing ability of the internet to help create a single, inter-connected international public is one part of this story.
The other is what happened in Egypt when the government “turned off” the internet and all cellphone coverage for a couple of days there: The large “modern” portion of the economy got stuck in its tracks! Routine banking or commercial transactions all, with the flick of a switch, became impossible. Tourists, travelers, and millions of Egyptian family members all lost the connections with each other and the outside world that they had come to rely on.
Of course, regime apologists immediately tried to lay the blame on the protesters: “These protests are costing our economy billions of dollars a day and causing chaos and uncertainty in our lives!” But everyone in Egypt knew who had turned off the internet and the cell-phones. It was not the protesters. (And the behavior of the protesters– non-violent, orderly, well organized, dignified– was not seen by any observers as having sowed any chaos.)
After two days, the government decided to turn the intertubes and cell-phone service back on again.
Autocrats everywhere, beware.
Everything is changing with dizzying speed. It turns out the long-feared Israel is now “just a small, slightly troublesome country off the northeast tip of Egypt”, not some massive and all-powerful global behemoth.
True, it still has something of an iron grip on the “thinking” (or more to the point, the campaign financing) of most members of the U.S. Congress. But in the American public sphere, there have been remarkably few voices echoing the strong advice from Netanyahu and Co. that “all of us in the west should support Mubarak and Suleiman because they are ‘our guys’.”
Of course, many people in the United States have a lot of questions about the role the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists might have in the next Egyptian government.
Of course, voices have been raised warning that the democratic euphoria that followed Mubarak’s departure on Feb. 11, 2011 might soon turn to dust if “the mullahs” come into power in Egypt as they did in the years that followed the Shah’s departure from power on Feb. 11, 1979.
This is natural. Most westerners don’t know anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with other Islamist organizations. We have all been subjected in recent years to repeated barrages of anti-Muslim, anti-Islamist hate speech. Many of us (self included) do have some very deep and genuine concerns about the practices of the current Iranian government– as, of course, those of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
There has been, in the general discourse here in the U.S., remarkably little ability to discern the differences among these different forms of Islamist organizations. In my life and career, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview representatives of many different kinds of Islamist organizations; and I have tried to do what I can to explain the differences to my readers and the general public. One distinction I always try to make is between organizations that are deeply rooted in the societies in which they operate and are willing to participate in fully democratic, one-person-one-vote elections, and those (like Al-Qaeda) who share neither of those attributes.
And we are all very lucky today that there is, in the Middle East today, one democracy in which a moderately Islamist government has held sway for nearly a decade now– and has performed very well in that role, in both the technocratic sense of delivering good services on a sound basis, and the civil-liberties sense of respecting and strengthening the rule of law and the democratic basis of society.
This is the AK (‘Justice and Development’) Party in Turkey. So it is not the case today that the only possible “model” one could point to of a republic dominated by an avowedly Islamist party would be Iran under the mullahs, or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Hello! Go to Turkey, people! See how things are proceeding in the politics and society of that vital NATO member!
Also, neither I nor anyone else can tell you what the political favor of a freely elected parliament in Egypt will be. The MB have said they won’t run for the presidency, but they will likely run for parliament.
All I’m saying here is that even if they end up with a strong showing in the next government, this is not the end of the world. (And to understand more of my reasons for reaching that conclusion, go read the piece I had on ForPol’s Middle East Channel about them, back on January 31.)
Egypt’s economy and society have some way to go before its 83 million people can catch up with the living and economic standards of Turkey’s 75 million. In Turkey, businesses and industrial conglomerates from throughout the country have been building up huge operations throughout the whole of the former Soviet space, as well as in the Arab world and have pulled the country’s per-capita GDP up to about twice the level in Egypt. But if Egypt’s businesswomen and -men can be freed from the terrible yoke of corruption under which they’ve labored so long, they’ll be able to compete soon enough.
Many of my Egyptian friends are saying that if westerners really want to support Egypt’s democracy, the best thing we can do is go and take vacations there. Well, I guess I can support that (and yes, I am really eager to come back!)
But I think maybe the very best thing we can do is to stop using our taxpayer dollars to provide completely illegal subsidies to the U.S. Big Cotton cartel. Here are some resources I quickly gathered on this issue: 1, 2, 3. The last one notes that,

    According to the Environmental Working Group, American cotton growers are among the largest recipients of U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies. They receive a total of more than $3 billion a year in payments each year.

And the vast majority of that money goes to just 2,000 Big Cotton companies, not to family farmers…
The first source I link to (the FT, from summer 2009), has this:

    In Egypt, the area to be cultivated with cotton this season has shrunk by 10 per cent to 300,000 acres, its lowest ever, says Mefreh El Beltagui, a cotton exporter and an official of Alcotexa, the Alexandria-based association of cotton exporters.
    “If the US were to remove its cotton subsidy, they would not be able to compete with us,” he says. “Here there are no subsidies for cotton exports. The state needs to intervene, because here we have mostly small farmers who cannot deal with price fluctuations. Also because we need to preserve our [international] customers for Egyptian cotton. Once you lose a customer it is hard to get them back.”

Of course, the other thing we need to do to help the Egyptian democrats is scale back our aid to the Egyptian military considerably, and divert it instead to an Egyptan-controlled fund to support the social reconstruction the country so badly needs after the deformation it has suffered as a result of 35 years of being integrated into the U.S. military-industrial complex.
A fund to support the rehabilitation of the thousands of Egyptians (and others) tortured in the U.S.-supported prisons in Egypt run by U.S. (and Israeli) ally Omar Suleiman would be a fine place to start that project.
Democracy and national self-determination in Tunisia and Egypt: What a beautiful idea!
I have such a lot of confidence in all my friends in both countries that they can do this: That they can rewrite their constitutions to the degree that they all agree on; that they can figure out the rules they want for free and fair elections; that they can fashion new and fairer rules for their economy; that they can define and pursue a role in the world that is both dignified and consonant with their values.
Some people here in the U.S. have been worried, regarding Egypt, about things like “What will become of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? What will become of the ‘peace process’?” I think those are so far from being the first concerns of Egypt’s democrats today. (The very first one, of course, is to preserve their revolution from the machinations that anyone else– including the Mossad— might be planning to undertake against it.)
The army has said they will stick by the bilateral peace treaty. And there is no current ‘peace process’ in existence. So what’s the bother?
As Egypt does generate its new, much more transparent and accountable system of governance, we can all be certain, I think, that it will be one that is much less willing to see Cairo act as a cat’s-paw of Israel and of the AIPAC-dominated U.S. Congress, and much more determined to stand up for Palestinian and Arab rights.
Deal with it, Israel.
And if democracy and national self-determination are such a beautiful idea in Egypt, are they not equally beautiful in Palestine, as well?
The whole region– and the whole world– is changing. That region-spanning Apartheid system that Israel and its friends in the U.S. Congress have been running for so long– the one in which “Egypt” and “Jordan” and to some extent “Saudi Arabia” were all just treated like little subservient homelands within Apartheid South Africa– is starting to slit apart at the seams.
The era of human equality and an end to war has been brought 100 times closer by the stupendous events of the past month.
Thank you, thank you, the Tunisian and Egyptian people.

Iraqi elections and American mirrors

It will probably be some time before it’s possible to get a good, rounded picture of what happened during today’s elections in Iraq. It will likely take the Iraqi Independent Elecoral Commission many days to provide its “count” of the vote, which would include a figure for the turnout.
But even then, given the lack of any independent observing, many questions may well remain about whether people can generally trust what the Commission reports…
I watched ABC News’s World News Sunday tonight. Peter Jennings was there in a safari jacket, reporting from somewhere in Baghdad’s Green Zone, I think. A high proportion of ABC’s reporting had a cheerleading, distinctly editorializing tone to it. On their website they feature this piece by AP writer Sally Buzbee, which starts out:

    Iraqis embraced democracy in large numbers Sunday, standing in long lines to vote in defiance of mortar attacks, suicide bombers and boycott calls…

Look, I don’t want to impugn the courage that many Iraqi voters showed as they went to the polls today. But I’m not sure that “embracing democracy” was the only– or perhaps, even, the main– thing they were doing as they went there. “Responding to an ayatollah’s command” might equally well, or even better, describe the motivations of a high proportion of the voters.
After all, simply casting a vote is not the essence of democracy. (They got to do that numerous times, under Saddam.) The essence of democracy surely lies in acting from a deep commitment to using deliberation and negotiation to resolve differences, rather than violence; and an equally deep commitment to ensuring the rights of all members of society, including (especially) those with whom one disagrees.
Maybe the people who went to the polls today in Iraq will show those characteristics. I sincerely hope so. But they did not necessarily show them today, simply by going to the voting places.
I think quite a lot of US media outlets have used Buzbee’s piece. Some have used an alternative offering from AP that doesn’t have her cheerleading tone but, more soberly, gives a series of snapshots, from six different parts of the country. Most of the snapshots were penned by people with Arab or Kurdish names.
For his part, George W. Bush saw no need to be either judicious or sober in coming out with his expression of jubilation at the “resounding success” that he claimed the election represented.
Back in October, at the time of the Afghan election, I wrote here that:

    I understand that there are many, many people in the international community who desperately want the inauguration of decent electoral demnocracy in Afghanistan and Iraq to be successful. I am myself one of them. But I fear there may be some people who are so deeply invested in the success of these elections–even though, in Afghanistan, they seemed to be held on terms very vulnerable to US manipulation–that they are prepared to overlook what in other circumstances they might clearly recognize as fatal flaws in the system.

The same is even more true today. Let’s wait and see how credible the rest of this current voting process looks, and what results it generates, before we make any judgments about its worth.
Even more to the point, let’s see whether the election leads to the emergence of an Iraqi leadership that is truly prepared to stand up to US power– and how the Bush administration peole will deal with that.
The Bushies have already drawn one key, defiant line in the sand. Brad Graham and Peter Baker reported in the WaPo today that,

    The Bush administration has for now ruled out creating a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq after today’s elections…
So much for all the President’s earlier averrals that he would “withdraw the troops from Iraq, if asked.”

Voting under the gun

It strikes me as a bizarre perversion of the ideals of democracy that people should be expected to cast votes– and then to concur in the legitimacy of the leadership thus “chosen”– if these election campaigns and the subsequent elections have been held in a situation of gross public insecurity.
But that is what the US and Israel are trying to sell as “democratization” these days.
In Iraq, back in late October, it was evident there were major political issues to be resolved between on the one hand the Sunni Arab minority in the country, and on the other the Shiite Arab majority, the Kurds, the Interim Government, and the Americans.
Many parties were pursuing negotiations of these issues at different levels. But the Americans and their Allawist allies simply walked away from those negotiations. They were adamant that they wanted to “solve” the Sunni issue by force… “in time to restore calm before the Jan. 30th elections”.
Well, we’ve seen that they haven’t “solved” anything. Their disastrous decision to “clean out” Fallujah has led only to highly increased levels of public insecurity throughout huge swathes of the country.
But still, Bush’s spokesman tells us that the President remains adamant the elections will go ahead on time. This, despite the proliferation of reports that various figures in the interim government itself are floating the idea of a postponement…
You SHALL vote on the day ve tell you to! (How is that not gross foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs?)
(Go see what Riverbend wrote about the elections, last Sunday. She’s heard you can sell a voter’s card there for $400 already.)
But back to my main theme.
One of the major “meta-ideas” of democratic theory is that in a democratic community it is always possible to find ways to talk through differences and arrive at compromises between competing interests… How on earth did anyone think that the escalatory tactics the US military has pursued in particular since last October provided any kind of a “preparation” for democracy at all?
And then, there’s Israel, another internally (though like the US, also problematically) democratic country that’s running a heavyhanded military occupation in foreign territory… And over there, too, the indigenous people in the country under occupation have an election coming up…

Continue reading “Voting under the gun”

King Abdullah (!) on prospects for Iraqi elections

The BBC and other news media are giving much prominence to the views Jordan’s King Abdullah has expressed regarding the prospects of holding timely elections in Iraq.
Excuse me?
Since when did that Hashemite monarch become recognized as any kind of an expert on democracy or democratization?
According to this page on, Jordan has a “3” listing in Freedom House’s annual assessment of the state of its civil and political liberties (on a scale of 7 = bad through 1 = good). And the “democratic institutions rating” it gets from the Polity IV project is -2.0 (on a scale of +10 = good through -10 = bad).
I must admit I’ve become rather fond of Nationmaster’s funky, well-presented combinations of international listings, facts, and factoids.
The question of the prospects for Iraqi elections is, of course, not a game at all.
There are a number of quite mind-boggling features of the current international discussion over this issue. One is the rampant disarray within the Bush administration on the topic— with Rumsfeld quite blithely contradicting all the confidence that Colin Powell and his people are expressing the ability of the Iraqis to hold the election before the January 31 deadline.
Another is that Powell looks as though he’s aiming at painting Kofi Annan into being “the bad guy”, whose “pessimism” and “foot-dragging” will be blamed for any ultimate failure of the elections to be held on time.
Not fair! How on earth can Kofi’s people get in there and do what needs to be done to help organize a free and fair election if the US military carries on rambo-ing around the whole country generally escalating tensions and making trouble?
In addition, there are many respects in which what is said by cabinet members and other administration flacks in Washington has come to bear almost no relationship at all to the actual situation on the ground in Iraq

Continue reading “King Abdullah (!) on prospects for Iraqi elections”

Women and reform in the Arab world

Another great issue of the Carnegie Endowment’s Arab Reform Bulletin this month. This one’s a special issue on Women and Reform. Almost all of the (relatively short) contributions in it are informative and well argued.
I particularly enjoyed the contributions by Marina Ottaway, Avoiding the Women’s Rights Trap, and Diane Singerman, Women and Strategies for Change: An Egyptian Model.
In her solidly argued piece, Marina first of all lays out all the well-known reasons why struggling for women’s rights is an essential part of struggling for democratic reform. But she introduces this note of caution:

    It is true that a country will never be fully democratic while it discriminates against half its population. It is equally true that the real obstacle to democracy in Arab countries today is not discrimination against women, but the fact that the entire population has only limited political rights. The unchecked power of Arab presidents, kings, sheiks, and emirs, and the absence or weakness of institutions that could limit that power, are the real problem. Parliaments tend to be docile, often dominated by the ruling party or by handpicked appointees. Judiciaries are rarely independent. Islamists dominate the best-organized opposition groups. Giving women the vote or training women to run for office does nothing to address these core issues. The problem is not to give women the same rights as men, but to reform political systems so that the entire population can enjoy fully the civil and political rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that most Arab countries have signed but do not respect…

Continue reading “Women and reform in the Arab world”