Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Thuggery - From Tahrir Square to Dalston Junction

It's a long way from Tahrir Square (about ten minutes from where I live in Cairo) to Dalston Junction (about ten minutes from where I live in London), and I never imagined that my summer sojourn in Islington would be punctuated by another outbreak of street unrest, only six months later. Egyptian bloggers have commented rather naively on the violent nature of the English 'protests' (and they are protests of a kind, even if misdirected and very poorly articulated). But it's striking how much of the public discourse in England has been equally naive, dominated by the 'law and order' lobby, the instant resort to security solutions on the part of many commentators and the emphasis on culturally determined explanations for what is largely a political problem with economic roots. Most of the people on British television are talking about discipline, immorality, parental responsibility, entitlement, consumerism, dysfunctional families, disrespect for authority and, here and there, 'black culture' (since they clearly can't pin the looting and vandalism solely on people of African origin, some of them are saying that 'black culture' has penetrated other demographic groups, with the subtext that this has undermined some theoretical upright white culture). The few who emphasize the economic roots of anarchic behaviour by the new underclass are often booed off stage. Politicians who dare to make hints in that direction have to tread carefully, for fear that they will be branded as condoning theft and thuggery.
    Prime Minister David Cameron took the 'law and order' line again today. "For me, the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing that I have spoken about for years. It is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to feel that the world owes something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities, and that their actions do not have consequences.. We need to have a clearer code of values and standards that we expect people to live by, and stronger penalties if they cross the line," he said.
    No doubt that will play well to the new gentry of Chipping Norton or the suits in the City, but as a serious analysis, or even as a means to dissuade potential looters from taking advantage of the next opportunity that arises, it is worthless.
    In a sophisticated industrial democracy of the kind Britain claims to be, politicians have a responsibility to set the social and economic parameters that enable parents, schools and employers to bring up, educate and train well-informed and law-abiding citizens who feel they have a stake in their communities and wider society (and ideally the whole world), who are able to contribute and are rewarded fairly for their contributions. If there are thousands of young men roaming the streets without work, without regular incomes, and with no inclination or incentive to improve themselves, then the politicians must share the blame. It may have been the Thatcher government ('there is no such thing as society') or the Blair government, which shared many of Thatcher's emphasis on pleasing the middle classes, but government cannot pass the buck to parents, teachers and social workers. Other governments in Europe have done better, enabling more social mobility and working harder to protect the small minority who, for a variety of reasons, will inevitably not qualify for well-paid employment.
    The looters have not helped their cause, with their offhand comments about 'nicking free stuff', taking their taxes back, 'everyone else was doing it', or sticking it to the Feds. It would be reassuring to hear them voice a coherent analysis of their plight and channel their energies into political activism that might ameliorate their circumstances. But that may be a reflection of British society's failure to encourage political participation at the base. Not enough commentators have said much about the elite's condonement of illegal activity by powerful media corporations, members of parliament with their outrageous expense claims, members of the royal family with their dubious money-making schemes, not to mention the bankers who cost the taxpayers many billions of pounds with their reckless lending practices.
    To go back to Egypt, the elites in both countries have found a useful word to dismiss those who challenge their cosy world - thugs. In both cases it implies thoughtless apolitical violence by an underclass that does not deserve a hearing. Of course, if we are to live in a state of law, looters and thugs must be arrested and punished. But in the long term, unless we work to create a society without large numbers of people living on the edge, we should not be surprised if the streets erupt from time to time.       

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Obama's fairly vacuous speech

I'm glad I'm not a working journalist who has to cover 'events' such as Obama's speech today. I remember that sinking feeling at the end of a 'major' speech when one realises that the speaker has said nothing of great significance, but without stretching the truth here and there there's no easy way to convey that in an interesting manner to a supine audience, or to satisy editors obsessed with the news cycle. As so often with these speeches, it's what's missing, the links that politicians do not make, that often carry the most significance.
    Obama hasn't understood that Palestinians are just as likely to rise up against their masters, and have just as much right to do so, as any of the Arab peoples who have overthrow their old despots. The double standard inherent at so many levels of this stage must surely jump out at any informed listener.
    Israeli suffering is clearly physical, that of the Palestinians merely psychological - a strange inversion of reality: "For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own" The 'taught to hate' line is particularly offensive - as if anyone needed guidance to find Israel's behaviour worthy of strongly adverse emotion.
    The future security arrangements would be almost as one-sided as they are today. "Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met." The Palestinian state must be "non-militarised", while the United States commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Nothing new there, of course.
    The inclusion of democratically elected Hamas representatives in a Palestinian government of national unity "raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist." Strange how no one ever imagines a Palestinian veto over the inclusion of rightwing racists and expansionists in Israeli governments.
    The United States has now divided the Middle East into five distinct categories of countries facing popular unrest, with different solutions for each:
    Israel - full U.S. commitment to its security and international diplomatic cover for anyone who dares to criticise it. The angry Arabs here should recognize Israel, abandon resistance and go back to fruitless talks in which they have nothing to offer but further obeisance to their Israeli masters. If Israel offers them enough scraps of land to make a viable state, they should be very grateful.
    Egypt and Tunisia - since they've already overthrown our old allies, we'll have to live with it and put on a brave face. Since Egypt is neighbour to Israel and has a large army, we will give it some debt relief and other economic benefits. A little growth and a show of U.S. largesse might help prevent our enemies winning democratic elections.
    Bahrain (home to the Sixth Fleet) - the government here has been quite naughty but we love it really and and we are "committed to its (Bahrain's) security". The government should clean up its act and the opposition should abide by the rule of law, ignore Iranian enticements and join open-ended talks with the government.
    Syria and Yemen - President Assad is not completely a lost cause and President Saleh in Yemen "needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power." In theory, if Assad leads a transition to democracy, he can obtain rehabilitation. An easy position to take, because U.S. policy can be recalibrated at any moment to reflect the latest assessment of how Assad is doing.
    Libya - Gaddafi is a lost cause, it's just a question of time. "When Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed."
    As usual, there are three main determinants in U.S. policy in all these cases:

    1. What does this regime do to serve or subvert Americans interests in the Middle East? The more the regime serves, the softer the U.S. stance, and vice versa.
    2. What are the chances this particular regime will be overthrown by angry Arabs? The more likely it is to fall, the harder the U.S. stance towards the ruler, and vice versa.
    3. If this regime is overthrown, what is likely to take its place and to what extent would the successor regime serve U.S. interests? This is much harder to judge. The conventional wisdom is that this factor has worked in favour of President Assad, whom the Israelis might prefer to see survive.
    The other factors, not specific to Arab regime change, are the chronic distortion of U.S. foreign policy by domestic lobbyists and Washington's broader regional alliances, especially with Saudi Arabia and the patrimonial states in the Gulf. 


Monday, 11 April 2011

Mustafa el-Fiki as Arab League Secretary General

Egyptian televisions were saying this evening that Egypt's nominee to replace Amr Moussa at the head of the Arab League is former member of parliament and ruling party 'intellectual' Mustafa el-Fiki. Assuming this is true, it is the most extraordinary choice. Fiki will go down in history as the beneficiary of one of the most outrageous acts of electoral fraud committed in the parliamentarian elections of 2005. After serving in parliament as a member appointed by President Mubarak, the NDP gave him the Damanhour (Beheira province) seat in 2005, on the assumption he would win. In the event, rival candidate Gamal Hishmat of the Muslim Brotherhood won by a margin of about 25,000 votes. No problem: the election officers merely reversed the tallies, giving Fiki all Hishmat's votes and Hishmat all Fiki's votes. The snag was that one of the judges overseeing the count, the brave Noha el-Zeini, went public with a detailed account of what happened. Fiki just brazened it out, as is his style -- essentially a shameless egotist with no obvious priniciples. Since the revolution, he's been posing as an impartial analyst and public intellectual. Come to think of it, maybe he would be good at the Arab League - he could be all things to all men and curry favour with every Arab head of state simultaneously. Does anyone out there know who exactly chose him and on what grounds? Will the Arab states approve such a controversial choice? Maybe here's a chance for a non-Egyptian to jump in and end the long Egyptian monopoly of the position (broken only when the league moved to Tunis after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, as far as I recall).  

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Mubarak speaks, worries about hidden wealth allegations

The statement that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak released today from house arrest in Sharm el-Sheikh is extraordinary for both its formality and its banality. The old man slips off to the palace that Hussein Salem gave him on the Red Sea coast without so much as a friendly farewell to his people and then pops up two months later with a statement drafted by some libel lawyer! Doesn't he have anything interesting to say after 60 days ruminating over his 30 years in power? No regrets, no apologies, no philosophical musings? Not our Hosni. That was always his big failing - the lack of vision, the failure to understand that running a country of 40 to 80 million people (yes, the population did double over those 30 years) meant more than making sure that the shipments of imported wheat turned up in time, that any possible troublemakers were carefully monitored and that Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia approved of his performance.
    In case you haven't read his statement in detail (Arabic text here), Mubarak speaks like a retired civil servant who graciously gave up his sinecure for the public good and now insists on defending himself against allegations that he pocketed some public monies now and then. Nothing about the way he ran the country, nothing about the 800 Egyptians his police force and party thugs killed before he graciously agreed to leave, nothing about the way he allowed State Security to torture thousands of people and stick their ignorant noses into everything that moved across the country all those years. He does at least say that he "gave up the presidency" (that's the first time we've heard from him that he agreed to go of his own free will) and has decided to stay out of politics. But after that it's "all about me" - his reputation and the reputation of his family, and the only affront to their reputation that he can see is the allegations that he had large bank accounts and properties abroad, not that he ran a police state and failed to empower real institutions that might have converted Egypt into a modern functioning democracy. And again, here he is boasting about his service to the country in war and in peace like some old blimp who thinks that wearing a fancy uniform with medals gives him  immunity from criticism by some upstart revolutionaries (more of those troublemakers).
    The reactions appeared to be overwhelmingly negative, though no doubt there are many Egyptians willing to sympathize with the man in his dotage. Psychologist Ahmed Okasha was on OTV saying Mubarak continues to treat Egyptians as slaves and subjects, rather than free citizens.
    It's impossible not to see some connection between Mubarak's statement and the very large rally in Tahrir Square on Friday and the demands that Mubarak face trial or leave the country. The military council is again on the defensive after the heavy-handed and ultimately futile attempt to disperse the crowd in Tahrir by force. I passed through the square this afternoon and it remains in the hands of the protest movement, with barricades on some of the main approaches and no army or police in sight. As long as Mubarak's fate remains undecided in this way, the political forces that brought him down cannot sleep soundly. 

Monday, 28 March 2011

Egypt's new new parties law still restrictive

The military council running Egypt has made some amendments to the draft law regulating political parties as released by the cabinet a few days ago. Unfortunately they add to the confusion rather than clarify the ambiguities. The approach adopted by the military council is reminiscent of the old regime's preference for legislation that was wide open to interpretation (in its case by a pliant judiciary), so that it could finetune its apllication of the law to suit its political preferences.
    The new text, available in Arabic on El Shorouk's website, reads:
In their principles, their programmes, their practical activities or in their choice of leaders and members, parties must not be set up on the basis of religion, class, sect, group or geographical region or because of gender, language, religion or belief (sic).
    So the overt ban on parties based on religion appears to stand, though supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood seem to think that the ban would not apply to the party the Brotherhood plans to set up, simply because the party will not have Muslim in its name, or at least because the party will avoid mentioning Islam in its programme. Maybe the programme will just refer to al-Din, the religion? This is farcical.  If the military council intends to let the Brotherhood form a party (which must of necessity have Islam as one of its bases, however carefully disguised), the council should promulgate a law that explicitly makes that possible.
    The redrafted arrangements for vetting political parties are also problematic and will no doubt lead to endless legal wrangling. The new law gives the final word, after the parties committee, to yet another body of judges - the Supreme Administrative Court. This is still an improvement on the Mubarak-era law, which vested the power of denial in a political body, but it still falls way short of allowing the free formation of political parties.
    As in almost all significant matters, the military council appears to be following the path of least resistance rather than taking a stand on any firm principle. It will not come as a surprise if the council changes its mind on these points at some later stage in the political process. 
    Likewise for the phasing of parliamentary and presidential elections. El Shorouk quotes Major-General Mamdouh Shahin as saying parliamentary elections will take place in September and no date has been set for presidential elections. The Daily News version says specifically that the presidentials will come later. There have been changes back and forth on this, so this version may not be definitive.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Egypt's parties law - not so liberal after all?

The new version of the Egyptian law regulating political parties, approved by the cabinet on Wednesday, was been widely interpreted as a more liberal version of its predecessor, which was in practice highly restrictive. The headline in the state newspaper Al Akhbar said the law made it possible to form parties freely, merely by notification of the authorities, and a widely reproduced Reuters story initially took a similar line. Liberal blogger Zeinobia welcomed the law as "very reasonable", without going into much explanation. But my reading of the law, at least in the detailed version printed in Al Akhbar on Thursday, suggests that the changes are largely superficial and the new law retains many of the flaws of the old.
     The main change, and this at least is significant, is that the regulatory authority will be a panel of three judges - the first deputy president of the Court of Cassation as chairman, plus two deputy presidents of the Council of State in the appeal courts. The Council of State, roughly speaking, is the judicial body with jurisdiction over disputes over the powers of the state. Under the old law, the regulatory body was part of the Shoura Council, the upper house of parliament, which was fully controlled by the old ruling party. The chairman was Shoura Council speaker Safwat el-Sherif, an old-style authoritarian who abused his role to withhold recognition of any parties the government did not like.
     But it is not true that people are now free to form political parties without restriction. The text states quite clearly that people who set up parties can start operating 30 days after notifying the parties committee “provided the committee does not object”. In other words the committee retains a veto over parties that it considers do not meet the necessary requirements.
     The substantial restrictions appear to be largely unchanged. The principles, objectives, programmes, policies and methods of a party must not contradict “the basic principles of the constitution or the need to protect Egyptian national security or to preserve national unity, social and democratic peace”. Parties cannot be set up on a religious or geographical basis or on the basis of discrimination between citizens because of gender, origin, language, religion, belief or any other reason.
     The ban on parties based on religion was originally designed primarily to thwart any attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to form a political party and it will be interesting to see whether and how the Freedom and Justice Party that the Brotherhood now plans to set up will be able to draft a programme that circumvents the ban. I have not yet seen any Brotherhood comment on the new law, which Al Akhbar describes as merely a draft approved by the cabinet.
     The other potentially troublesome restriction lies in the apparently innocuous phrase “social peace”, which in the 1970s was clearly understand as directed against any attempt to seek recognition for a communist party, on the strange grounds that communism is more of a threat to “social peace” than other political ideologies.
     The ban on parties with a linguistic or regional agenda seems rather authoritarian and unnecessarily restrictive, especially given the unusual homogeneity of Egyptian society. Would the sky really fall in if those who speak Siwi (in the remote western oasis of Siwa) or the various Beja-type languages on the southern stretch of the Red Sea coast campaigned for their native tongues? Europe is awash with regional-based parties (Bavaria, northern Italy, Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, Galicia, Navarre, the Basque country and no doubt more), all within a manageable democratic framework.
    If the military council approves this law, the extent of change will depend to a large degree on the good will of the regulatory committee.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Unnecessary polarization over Egyptian referendum result

It's alarming how badly Egyptian liberals have taken their failure to persuade their compatriots to vote against the constitutional amendments in the referendum last Saturday and how quickly they have jumped to the conclusion that this was the outcome of some conspiracy between the military and the Islamists. The result, of course, was 77 percent in favour and 22 percent against. A common theme is that the Muslim Brotherhood, salafist groups and assorted sheikhs told people that voting 'yes' would be good for stability, law and order and economic recovery, as though trying to promote a point of view and influence people's choices was somehow undemocratic. They seem to have forgotten that the 'no' lobby ran full-page advertisements in national newspapers in the days leading up to the vote, featuring leading politicians and celebrities explaining why they would vote against. The most serious 'accusation' against the Islamists is that they promulgated their message close to polling stations and distributed sweets/candy to people who voted yes. The liberals are showing that they have very thin skins and little confidence in the good judgment of their fellow Egyptians. They are also unwittingly deploying the same elitist argument that Mubarak and the old ruling party used ad nauseam, both to foreign governments and at home in private – that Egyptians are not yet mature enough for democracy and need to be protected from their own choices.
The polarization around the referendum result, driven mainly by the losing liberal side but encouraged by a few salafis here and there, is quite unnecessary and could be counterproductive for the liberals, because it gives credence to the notion that everyone who voted 'yes' was an Islamist sympathizer who wants the Islamists to do well in parliamentary elections and dominate the process of drafting a new constitution. This notion is a fantasy and the liberals are foolish to promote it. Many Egyptians vote 'yes' for purely pragmatic reasons – they wanted to bring an end to military rule, move on to elections as soon as possible and end the uncertainty about the transitional process. They also trusted themselves and their compatriots to vote for a representative parliament that will set up the assembly to draft the new constitution. There's nothing sinister or undemocratic about that. The liberals, on the other hand, offered no convincing proposals for a mechanism to set up a constitutional assembly without national elections.
If liberals want to counter the Islamist alternative, they will have to argue their case on its merits and win people over in free debate. They should argue for universal human rights, including freedom of belief in its widest sense (including the right to change or abandon one's religion at will), gender equality and the sovereignty of the people. They can no longer hide behind the power of the state, as many of them have done for the past sixty years.
That said, there has also been some excessive and divisive rhetoric on the Islamist side. Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, for example, quotes Islamic preacher Mohamed Hussein Yaaqoub as saying that the referendum result was a victory for Islam. “The people said 'yes' to religion, and to those who say 'We can't live in such a country' we say 'You're free. You have visas for Canada and America.' We're not upset with those who said 'no', but now they know how big they are and how big religion is.” Addressing his own supporters, he added, “Don't worry. It's over. Now the country is ours.”

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Egyptian referendum result

All the signs point to a substantial majority in favour of the constitutional amendments on which Egyptians voted on Saturday, with an astonishing turnout of over 60 percent. See ahramonline for the latest details, with preliminary figures from many provinces. I was clearly misled about overall sentiment by my personal exposure to so many 'no' voters. It will be interesting to compare the figures from individual areas but it's not clear how much detail the authorities will provide on that, beyond the numbers for provinces as a whole. For a change we can safely assume that the figures are roughly authentic, despite some reports of abuses here and there. YouTube has footage that apparently shows a clerk filling in the 'yes' circle on blank ballot papers but I've no idea if it is genuine or how widespread such activities might have been or who might have instigated it. From my brief tour of polling stations on Saturday and from media coverage, I concluded that social conservatives and uneducated people in rural areas were most likely to vote 'yes', while educated urban liberals tended to vote 'no'.  The latter are a relatively small demographic group, so the outcome is not in fact surprising. For those who have not been following the debate, the difference between 'yes' and 'no' was not that great, making the referendum an easy start for Egyptian democracy in action. A 'yes' majority means presidential and parliamentary elections will take place within six months and the newly elected parliament will appoint a large committee to rewrite the constitution from scratch. A 'no' majority would have meant that a new constitution would have to be written before elections, but it was never too clear how that process would proceed. One major argument of the 'no' camp was that the new political forces need more time to organise before elections, otherwise the well-established forces - the Muslim Brotherhood and local strongmen associated with the old ruling party - will define the country's future. But that argument smacked of elitism and scaremongering about the Brotherhood.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Prognosis for the EuroAmerican intervention in Libya

EuroAmerican intervention in Libya has started inauspiciously and it will take something like a miracle for the EuroAmerican powers to bring this conflict to a happy conclusion. Having given a commitment to save Benghazi and presumably its eastern hinterland from recapture by Gaddafi's forces, France, Britain and the United States cannot back out until they at least stabilize a front line between the government and the rebels. That's very difficult to do by air power alone and the potential for 'mission creep' is enormous. Assuming that Gaddafi's forces do not collapse and retreat in disarray, the 'Allies' will have to decide where it would be acceptable for such a front line to lie and how long they could accept a stalemate along that line. Would they, for example, ensure that the rebels have full control of the eastern oilfields and of the pipelines and oil export facilities in that part of the country? That would be a logical step, so that the rebels could at least finance their own operations and would not become a financial and logistical burden. Without oil revenue, eastern Libya would soon be impoverished unless the 'Allies' diverted some of the Libyan government's foreign assets to them.
    In the medium term, the EuroAmerican intervention at the minimal level they now envisage is likely to lead to the partition of the country into a rebel-held east and a government-held west, with all the instability that implies. The east would be a proxy entity reliant on EuroAmerican protection, much like Iraqi Kurdistan in the years between 1991 and 2003. If they decide that that outcome is unacceptable (and their rhetoric already includes maximalist 'regime change' elements incompatible with their UN mandate), they might have to go on the offensive, attacking Gaddafi's forces on the ground along the ceasefire line, in the hope that military defeat will provoke regime change from within as military units defect and Gaddafi's inner clique loses patience with his leadership. That strategy did not work with Saddam Hussein, who shares many of Gaddafi's psychological traits. Saddam dug in his heels and survived 12 years of very severe sanctions and political isolation. If anything, Gaddafi is likely to be even more stubborn that Saddam, who at least had moments of clarity.
    A major failure of the EuroAmerican initiative is that they have not been able to win over the Tunisians and the Egyptians, where the governments have the revolutionary credentials to offset the impression that this is an imperial venture. The token support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates does not have the same credibility and we have not yet seen any signs that these Arab states are willing to commit their military assets to the campaign.
    Another question mark hangs over the fate of rebel pockets in the west of Libya. Are the 'Allies' planning to protect them as well and, if so, how exactly? In the case of Misurata and possibly Zawya, Gaddafi forces are deployed close to inhabited areas, making it difficult to dislodge them by air power alone.
    The overthrow of Gaddafi is a desirable objective, just as the overthrow of Saddam was desirable in 1991, but the EuroAmerican intervention has all the appearance of a hasty response to domestic public opinion, rather than a considered policy choice. It makes a difference that the intervention follows a genuinely popular uprising in many parts of Libya, but with time that distinction may wear off and the 'Allies' may find themselves tied up in just another open-ended Middle Eastern conflict. I hope I am wrong.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Clinton on Bahrain

 Secretary Clinton's remarks on Bahrain, made to reporters in Cairo today, overlook the reality that protesting and simultaneously setting conditions for dialogue are legitimate aspects of the political process she says she wishes to promote. The protest movement in Egypt, to the acclaim of the world, refused to negotiate with the government of Hosni Mubarak and responded to all his overtures with deafening chants of 'irhal' (go away) and 'yuwa yimshi, mush hanimshi' (HE must go, we won't go). Here's what Clinton said:

I think what’s happening in Bahrain is alarming, and it is unfortunately diverting attention and effort away from the political and economic track that is the only way forward to resolve the legitimate differences of the Bahrainis themselves... We have made that clear time and time again. We have deplored the use of force. We have said not only to the Bahrainis but to our Gulf partners that we do not think security is the answer to what is going on. Now, we’ve also said to the protestors that they have to engage in peaceful protest and they should return to the negotiating table. 

But to product long-lasting and harmonious results, a negotiations must be between parties who enjoy roughly equal power and influence. In both Egypt and Bahrain, the protesters have had strength only when they are on the street, visible to the world in whatever numbers they can muster. In other words, their strength is in their numbers, their camaradeirie and their solidarity. As soon as they send a delegation in for negotiations with the government, the delegation is a small isolated group, overwhelmed by the awe and power of a well-entrenched state. When the protest movement is fluid and spontaneous, again as in Egypt and Bahrain, no delegates can be fully representative anyway and in the end any political settlement has to be endorsed by 'public outcry'. If the crowds are satisfied, they will drift away. If they are not satisfied, they will turn up again the next day. That's what happened in Egypt. When Mubarak said he would step down in September, the crowds stayed and grew in numbers. When Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had handed power to the military council, they cheered and went off to celebrate.
    When the Egyptian protest movement  was in roughly the same stage as the Bahraini movement is in today, the US position was that Mubarak should go immediately. Their position on Bahrain is markedly different. There's no suggestion that the Khalifa family has lost legitimacy through using brutal force against mainly peaceful protesters or by calling in troops from a neighbouring country, a country overtly hostile to the Bahraini protest movement and to any progress towards democracy or constitutional monarchy in any of its smaller neighbours.
    There are several factors at work here:
    * The United States believes for the moment that the Khalifa family has a chance of surviving, even if it has to make some serious concessions to stay in power. The Bahrain protest movement has by no means been uniformly or consistently republican, so concessions by the Khalifas might split and weaken the movement. Although Clinton deplores the use of force in public, she might have calculated that the combined power of the Saudi and Bahrain forces might overawe the protesters. For sectarian reasons, the Gulf forces can at least be expected to be more cohesive and less scrupulous with the opposition than the army and police were in Egypt.
    *  The Obama administration, spooked by the Saudi reaction to its position on Egypt, may indeed be less sympathetic towards another Arab uprising against a friendly ruler who provides useful geostrategic services to the United States: a base for the Fifth Fleet in the case of Bahrain, overflights right and quick passage for US warships through the Suez Canal in the case of Egypt.
    * The Iran factor is crucial, in the eyes of both the United States and Saudi Arabia. No one doubts that a truly representative Bahraini government would be less hostile towards Iran, even if it does not embrace Tehran wholeheartedly. Any crack in the wall Washington has tried to build around Iran would be interpreted as a strategic defeat, including at home, where anti-Iranian sentiment runs high.
    * The Bahraini monarchy is more important to Saudi Arabia than the Mubarak presidency was, and Saudi views count in the White House. Bahrain has many of the features of a Saudi protectorate, and the disruption of the status quo on its doorstep, within its sphere of influence, is a direct affront to Saudi authority. In this case, the Saudis, and the Bahraini ruling family in their train, may well decide to ignore American and other calls for restraint.

    The next step is up to the Bahraini protest movement, which has shown remarkable resilience and seems determined to pursue its campaign. But given the polarization in Bahraini society, unfortunately along mainly sectarian Sunni-Shi'i lines, the country could face a more bitter and possibly more bloody conflict than in homogeneous Egypt. As in other restive Arab countries, the United States will shift its position according to its assessment of the probable outcome.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Towards rejection of constitutional amendments in Egypt?

** Update - Essam el-Erian of the Muslim Brotherhood, speaking on ON TV just now, said the Brotherhood is telling its members they are free to vote in the referendum according to their personal views. If that is indeed the Brotherhood's official position, it must change the dynamics in favour of rejection **
The debate over the Egyptian constitution has shifted quite dramatically over the five weeks since the military council took power and there's a chance that voters will reject the proposed amendments when they vote on them in a referendum on Saturday. If they do, that would mark a precedent of some significance - in all previous referendums on constitutional changes (and there have been four of them since 1971) a powerful president and the whole apparatus of the state were behind the proposals and made sure they passed. This time the debate has been open, substantial and lively, with many of the contributions hostile to the limited proposals on offer.
    Superficially this might seem surprising, given that the country has been living in a constitutional vacuum since February 11, when the military council took power, an act which was in itself unconstitutional. Attempts to arrange a constitutional transfer of power collapsed because Hosni Mubarak was always one step behind the demands of the protest movement and in the end he ran out of options. The military council then 'deactivated' the existing constitution and asked a committee to draft amendments to make it more democratic, concentrating on opening up the field of possible  presidential candidates and on steps to ensure free and fair elections. 
    But the experience of the past five weeks has shown that it is possible, if slightly inconvenient, to run a country without a constitution and the idealists who favour a fresh start through a constituent assembly (a 'second republic' as the French would say) have been gaining ground as the revolution advances.
    The objections to the proposed amendments are quite persuasive:
    * If they approve the amendments, the Egyptian electorate will in effect be reactivating the whole of the rest of the old constitution, which gives excessive powers to the president and fails to provide effective checks and balances between the various estates (executive, legislature, judiciary and so on).
    * The political groups that took part in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak say  the old constitution has lost any legitimacy it ever had and is irreparable. It has been replaced by what they call a 'revolutionary legitimacy', which they want to see enshrined in a document drafted according to a completely different vision of the relationship between the state and the people.
    * Under the amended constitution the president and the next parliament would take on the task of drafting further changes to the constitution. But many Egyptians say that a hastily elected parliament will not be fully representative, because political forces excluded from the political arena for the past 30 years need more time to organise. The main  beneficiaries of early elections would be the Muslim Brotherhood and local strong men associated with the discredited National Democratic Party, which dominated parliament from the mid-1970s. A constituent assembly could be more representative, although there is no consensus of how the participants would be chosen. Not surprisingly, the Brotherhood and the rump NDP are the main forces asking their supporters to support the amendments.
    * Even the most prominent candidates for the presidency - Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei - say they would prefer to seek election under a new democratic constitution which has broad popular input and support. To take power under a constitution contested by significant political groups would diminish their authority.
    * The military council appears to have chosen the fast-track option because it did not want to stay in power beyond six months. But public sentiment has gradually shifted, giving more weight now to a thorough overhaul of the system of government and less weight to sensitivities about the dangers of military government. Despite the council's excessive caution and occasional heavyhandedness, the generals deserve some credit for convincing Egyptians that they are not a threat to democracy.
    * Although some Egyptians remain worried about the consequences of a 'no' vote, the campaign for a constituent assembly appears to have momentum and the many advocates of rejection must have some confidence that their view will prevail if the referendum returns a convincing 'no' vote.

    The Arabist quotes  an opinion poll as saying that 49 percent of people are against the proposed amndments, 36 percent are in favour, 13 people are undecided and 2 percent won't vote. The big change is in the number who say they won't vote: in previous referendums the real turnout may have been less than 10 percent, especially if one excludes all the public-sector employees bussed to polling stations. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that people who would never have dreamt of voting in the past are now examining the arguments in detail and asking how they can take part. That would be an achievement in itself. Since the Brotherhood will vote in favour, the referendum will also be a test of the movement's real electoral weight and the mobilizing capacity of the new untested forces which the revolution has activated.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Obama and Rebellious Arabs

Someone in the White House has been speaking to the big US newspapers, trying to persuade them that President Obama has a strategy for reconciling support for Arab democrats and saving Arab autocrats who have worked for US interests for decades. The Wall Street Journal says the Middle East strategy he has settled on is "(to) help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait." The New York Times version says: "President Obama has adopted a policy of restraint. He has concluded that his administration must shape its response country by country, aides say, recognizing a stark reality that American national security interests weigh as heavily as idealistic impulses." Both stories distort the reality of the way Obama handled the popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. "The more cautious approach contrasts sharply with Mr. Obama’s response in North Africa, where he abandoned a 30-year alliance with Hosni Mubarak," said the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal says Obama "pushed for immediate regime change in Egypt" and adds: "The (new) strategy also comes in the face of domestic U.S. criticism that the administration sent mixed messages at first in Egypt, tentatively backing Mr. Mubarak before deciding to throw its full support behind the protesters demanding his ouster." I fail to see what's new in the new strategy. My recollection is that in the Egyptian case the United States did its best to save the regime, right up to the last hours, by favouring a transfer of power to short-lived Vice President Omar Suleiman, who was a dependable clone of Mubarak and would probably have perpetuated exactly the same police state and the same collaboration with Israel as Mubarak himself enforced for decades. In the end Mubarak gave up power because hundreds of thousands of Egyptians refused to leave the streets and the Egyptian army decided he was no longer able to govern the country. Obama's views were very much a minor consideration in a domestic drama. Shaping policy country by country has always been a bedrock principle of US foreign policy, anyway. "We do not have a cookie-cutter approach to policy" is one of the favourite expressions of US State Department spokespeople.  As I wrote during the Egyptian uprising, Obama's policy at any given juncture in any given Arab country depends on Washington's assessment of the chances that the Arab ruler will lose power and on its assessment of what threat that poses to US interests. If the White House thinks its Arab autocrat has a chance to pull off a 'reform' stunt (promise reform to win time, without any sincere intention of following through, as Mubarak did in 2005), Washington will go along with him. Once the White House knows the Arab autocrat has played his last card and failed, Obama will jump ship and start to woo his successors, in the hope of salvaging what he can for US interests. In the case of Libya, principle plays no part in US restraint: the United States has no compelling reason to save Muammar Gaddafi, despite his cooperative behaviour in recent years, but on the other hand it sees many risks in military intervention on behalf of the rebels. For the moment the White House thinks the Khalifa family in Bahrain has a chance of surviving, so it supports its 'reform' agenda. If the protests grow and the Khalifas look likely to fall, it will soon change tack. Even if the Saudi army intervenes to save the Khalifas, the White House will gauge its response, again, to its assessment that the Saudi intervention will succeed. There's nothing very reprehensible about that: Obama's making the best of the hand he inherited from years of misguided US policy in the Middle East. But the influence of the United States is severely limited in all of these countries, when the people in the streets have their eyes on freedom and the rulers have visions of exile, humiliation or worse. They are playing for much higher stakes. As the Wall Street Journal puts it: "Officials said the administration's response in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere could change if people take to the streets en masse, rejecting offers made at the negotiating table, or if the U.S.-backed governments crack down violently."      

Americans on Islam and Violence

The Pew Reseach Center has put out the results of its survey on the attitude of Americans towards Islam and propensity to violence, to coincide with the congressional hearings called by Rep. Peter King. Fairly predictably, it shows a very strong correlation between rightist politics and the belief that 'Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence'. Ethnicity and religious denomination also seem to correlate, along the scales white-Latino-black and Protestant-Catholic-'unaffiliated'.  The prevalence of the association between Islam and a propensity towards violence is still high among Americans (at an average of 40 percent), but perhaps not as high as one might expect by reading the online comments posted to almost story relevant to the subject. One encouraging sign is that fewer young people say they believe there is any link. What the survey does prove is the persistence and prevalence of essentialist ideas about large religious communities. Maybe it's time that educational curricula made a deliberate effort to explain the diversity of opinion within such communities, emphasizing the way that believers, as individuals and as groups, emphasize the doctrines that suit their worldly interests and political dispositions. Any religion that has existed for so many centuries across such a vast geographical expanse offers a wide range of alternative doctines, many of them incompatible or contradictory. 'Islam' as a stable unitary construct hardly exists, except in the most banal sense, however much both Muslims and their enemies might claim that it does. Only individual Muslims can endow the label with meaning, and each Muslim does so in a way that is never identical to the way other individual Muslims do so. This is widely accepted among theoreticians (Aziz al-Azmeh comes to mind - "There are as many Islams as there are situations which contain it"), but it's clearly taking quite a while for this to sink in among the general public. One day, the Pew Research Center might offer people who respond to such surveys an option reflecting this insight.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Why the US and its friends should stay out of Libya

Nine good reasons why the United States, Britain, NATO and everyone else should resist any impulse to intervene in the Libyan civil war, even through imposing a no-fly zone to stop the Libyan air force bombing rebel positions:
    1. If the rebels win, the next rulers will be vulnerable for the rest of their political lives to accusations that they came to power through foreign arms. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, despite numerous elections over seven years and the reduced presence of US forces, the protest movement can still credibly claim that it is opposing a government of occupation. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai still controls only a small part of the country and the Taliban draw much of their support from the perception that he was installed by foreign forces.
    2. Britain and the United States cannot know for certain that military intervention has majority support within Libya. True, some Libyan rebels and the council in Benghazi say they favour a no-fly zone but no one has any idea how representative they are of the population as a whole. Military intervention will give credence to Muammar Gaddafi's argument that his supporters are fighting to preserve Libyan sovereignty from outsiders, and could persuade some Libyans who are now undecided to throw in their lot with the colonel. Libya had a long and bitter experience with Italian colonialism: foreign intervention will remind them of that experience.
    3. Military intervention in  Libya will strengthen the position of other autocratic leaders throughout the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia for example, by reframing the conflict between the autocrats and the various protest movements as one between patriots and imperalist intruders. The Egyptians who overthrew President Hosni Mubarak last month, for example, appear to be overwhelmingly opposed to intervention, however much they would like to see Gaddafi overthrown.
    4. If a no-fly zone fails to achieve the objective (presumably enabling the rebels to win), the intervening powers will find themselves compelled to escalate the level of intervention. They could easily be drawn into actions such as bombing the Bab al-Aziziah barracks and other strategic locations from the sea or by air. If the conflict is protracted, they will end as full participants and will share responsibility for the outcome, possibly to the extent of helping to choose the post-conflict government. That would completely contradict the logic of the Arab uprisings, which in several cases reflect an indigenous revolt against rulers who gave the interests of outsiders precedence over the interest of their own citizens.
    5. Gaddafi can be defeated from within if enough Libyans defect and enough of his military units refuse to fight. Many have already defected and his armed forces are in serious disarray. No tyrant can survive without active supporters. In the end the conflict in Libya should be decided on the basis of what individual Libyans decide is best for themselves and their country. Of course, defecting can be fraught with risks. Some Libyans will not have the courage to do so and others might be executed if they make the attempt. That is a price that Libyans will have to pay for freedom, as did many hundreds of Egyptians.
    6. Military intervention by the United States and Britain would be transparently opportunistic. The governments of these same countries did their best in the mid-2000s to reach out to Gaddafi and his family, even to the extent of exaggerating the concessions he made on weapons of mass destruction, mainly so that their oil companies would have access to Libyan oilfields and so that their other companies could sell goods and services to the Libyans. Their sudden enthusiasm for overthrowing Gaddafi appears to be a response to domestic public opinion, driven by reports of heavy civilian casualties in the conflict. But the conflict has since evolved into a traditional civil war between Gaddafi's military units and armed rebels who have seized arms and ammunition from government depots. There is little evidence that government forces are now deliberately targeting civilians, rather than fighting against rebels operating in populated areas.
    7. There is no basis in international law for any foreign intevention without approval by the United Nations Security Council, which the United States, Britain and France seem unlikely to obtain. The world has had enough of 'coalitions of the willing' and unilateral military actions based on spurious legal grounds.
    8. Foreign intervention would play into the hands of jihadi groups such as Al Qaeda and restore some of the influence they lost when Egyptians and Tunisians proved that political action can bring down unpopular leaders. Any foreign forces on Libyan soil would probably end up as targets for such jihadi groups, as in Iraq, even if such groups do not exist inside Libya at the moment. 
    9. If a humanitarian crisis develops, such as severe food shortages or a complete breakdown in medical services for the casualties, the civilian agencies of the United Nations and the ICRC could step in without military intervention, as they have done in innumerable civil wars over many years.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Egyptian State Security Documents

The Egyptian State Security documents which have started to leak out are a treasure trove for historians, lawyers, political scientists and anyone else interested in how power corrupts, especially when no one has challenged that power for almost 60 years. I very much hope that someone is collecting them as systematically as possible under the circumstances and that they will lead to some prosecutions. The overwhelming impression is of the banality of evil, as though the people who wrote these reports and orders were just going about their daily business, like shipping clerks or sales managers filing reports on their activities. Although many of them are marked 'secret', there's no sense that these police officers had any qualms about what they were doing, which was often diametrically opposite to the state's declared policy, for example on mistreating detainees, free elections or judicial independence. So even the hypocrisy is banalized.
    The ones I have seen on the Facebook page (all in Arabic), most of which come from Beheira province northwest of Cairo, contain evidence that:
    - State Security intervened in the judiciary, drawing up lists of judges who would be 'cooperative' as election supervisors (and presumably excluding those who were not from the electoral process
    - State Security, as we long suspected, excluded candidates associated with the Muslim Brotherhood from elections. State Security gave instructions that registry clerks keep two sets of books to record candidacies, one of them complete and one with all undesirable candidates excluded.
    - State Security gave orders that detainees should be held until they had recovered from injuries inflicted during questioning, presumably so that the injuries would not show when they came out.
    - State Security hacked its way into people's email accounts, though it seems to have faced some technical problems doing so.
    - State Security obtained lists of people who had not obtained voting cards and then had false identity cards issued so that people working for the state could vote on their behalf, presumably for favoured candidates.
    - State Security sometimes determined who could appear on which television talk show, even on privately owned channels, excluding those deemed hostile.
    - Some time during the last few weeks, State Security officials proposed that the government (presumably the Ahmed Shafik government) announce the dissolution of State Security, while in fact preserving the institution under a different name.
    - State Security drafted proposals it thought could 'strengthen the position of candidates from the (ruling) National Democratic Party'.
    - President Mubarak intervened in the parliamentary elections of 2005, telling Information Minister Anas el-Fiki to help Hossam Badrawi win in the Kasr el-Nil constituency. Fiki 'mobilised' the 4,000 employees of state radio and television to that end. (In fact, Badrawi lost to another NDP candidate - Hesham Mustafa Khalil!) Fiki also edited out part of an interview with Wafd Party presidential candidate Noman Gomaa because Mubarak was offended by some personal references to himself and to his son Gamal. State Security recorded these initiatives.
    - State Security ordered its branches to start shredding secret documents on February 26, for fear that protesters might attack police stations.

Christian protests in Cairo

Several thousand Egyptian Christians demonstrated outside the television building in central Cairo and closed down one of the big Nile bridges on Monday night. The background is a sad story which began with a romance between a young Coptic man and a young Muslim woman, which escalated into communal strife and ended with an attack on a church, which was set on fire. Al Ahram Online has a detailed account. It's quite a setback for the communal harmony we saw during the revolution, when Muslims and Christians made a deliberate effort to work together to bring down President Hosni Mubarak. Many Egyptians concluded at the time that the old regime had deliberately enflamed sectarian tensions to set Egyptians against each other rather than against the regime. Ministry of Interior documents, which may in fact be hoaxes or forgeries, have been circulating that suggest that the ministry had a role in the bombing of the church in Alexandria in the early hours of January 1 this year. A retired police general examined one such document on OTV a few days ago and declared it to be a fabrication, but few people at the time believed the government when it blamed the Gaza-based Army of Islam for the bombing. Hopefully the truth will out when prosecutors shift through all the State Security documents which they are examining. One of the slogans of the revolution was 'dawla madaniya' (a civil(ian) state) and enlightened Egyptians interpret that to mean a state where all Egyptians (whether born to Muslim or Christian families) have equal rights to choose their own religion, to marry anyone they choose and to build places of worships by the same rules. But resistance to 'secularism' is still strong and the term is still widely misunderstood. In this context, note what the new foreign minister, Nabil al-Arabi, wrote in El-Shorouk (Arabic only) shortly before he was appointed. The crucial passage reads:

We are at the start of a new phase in which Egypt should enjoy prudent governance which brings about sound democracy, respect for human rights and equality for all without any discimination. What is required is to establish a modern secular state governed by laws which apply to all, and this requires repealing the enormous quantity of laws drafted by what are called the 'law tailors' over the past years. The constitutional legal framework which has governed Egypt for the past 50 years must be reviewed thoroughly, seriously and transparently.
    But several of the commentators on Arabi's remarks express alarm at the word 'secular', which one interprets as 'denial of religion'. Another says the reference to secularism is 'disappointing'.
    The Christian demonstrators were overtly critical of the army, saying it failed to intervene to protect their church or the Christian villagers. One of the main chants last night was 'Ya mushir, ya mushir, saakit leeh?' (Field marshal, field marshal, why are you silent?). The field marshal is Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council which has been governing Egypt since February 11.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Cameron and Israel

When it comes to Middle East policy, British Prime Minister David Cameron is moving in the same direction as his predecessor Tony Blair, who ended his term in office as a rigid Islamophobe committed to the security of Israel whatever the Israeli government does to the several million Palestinians who have the misfortune to live under its jurisdiction.
     In a speech on Thursday to the Community Security trust, the British equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, Cameron conflated Zionism and Judaism in a way that is either na├»ve or mischievous, but certainly contradictory from the head of government of a country which espouses universal human rights.
     He said that Zionists had a right to advocate their views without fear and that it is possible to be both a committed Zionist and a loyal British citizen. He spoke about anti-Semitism, a foolish and despicable racist ideology born in Europe, as though it were synonymous with anti-Zionism, a principled international movement that rejects racism in all its forms.
     Here are some extracts from his speech:
It is absolutely wrong that in any of our universities there should be an environment where students are scared to express their Judaism or their Zionism freely. It is absolutely wrong that universities should allow speakers to spread messages of anti-Semitism and hate...
The point is that it’s possible – and necessary - to have more than one loyalty in life. To be a proud Jew, a committed Zionist and a loyal British citizen. And to realise there is no contradiction between them.
     In 1991, under pressure from the United States, the United Nations General Assembly repealed a 1975 resolution that described Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination. But there are limits to the jurisdiction of the United Nations General Assembly. If it decrees that black is white or that the Earth is flat, its decrees are meaningless. They cannot prevent reasoned debate.
     Zionists maintain that the international community of Jews have a historic right to the land known as Palestine for the two thousand years until 1948, on the basis of a spurious ethno-national link to a group of people who inhabited part of that territory during the 1st millennium BC. They say that this right overrides the rights of people who have lived on that land for many generations and who played no part in the alleged departure of the Jewish population. The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, in his recent book The Invention of the Jewish People, provides convincing evidence that most living Jews are in fact the descendants of Jewish converts who never lived in Palestine, while many Palestinians are probably the descendants of Jewish farmers who converted to Christianity or Islam over the past to millennia.
     Regardless of the historical facts, Zionism only makes sense in the context of the European racism of the 19th century, of which it is an offshoot. If Zionists do not often overtly claim ethno-national superiority over their Palestinian neighbours, it is only because excluding the Palestinians from their discourse has seemed a more promising strategy, given the stigma attached to racism. In practice, the Zionist strategy has been to pursue a process of ethnic cleansing, starting in 1948 and continuing to this day. To anyone who cares to look at the facts, Zionism is a form of racism. Cameron should know this.
     The British prime minister was wrong on several other counts. He said Israeli politicians should be able to visit Britain without fear of arrest when there is little prospect that any prosecution will follow. On the contrary, we need to put politicians of all nationalities on notice that the world is watching their actions closely and that, if they implicated in serious crimes against whole populations, they will not be welcome guests and may have to face investigation by an independent judiciary, whether in Britain or anywhere else that upholds the rule of law.
     On Iran's nuclear programme, which may or may not include plans to make nuclear weapons, Cameron adopted the same double standard as the United States and the rest of its allies. “We will not stand by and allow Iran to cast a nuclear shadow over Israel or the wider region,” he said. Why did he ignore the nuclear shadow that Israel has cast over the region for the past several decades with nuclear weapons the existence of which some Israeli officials have already confirmed? Israel's record as an aggressively expansionist state is well recorded, while Iran, which has no such record, is judged by outsiders' assessment of its unspoken intentions.
     Cameron, like many other ignorant Americans and Europeans, recycled the ancient theory that Arab despots ranted about Palestine to distract their populations from domestic repression:
But I fundamentally believe that what we are seeing now in North Africa need not be a new threat to Israel’s security. For decades autocratic Arab regimes have used the Palestinian cause to smother people’s hopes and aspirations. Their message to their people has been: never mind the lack of democracy here, focus on the injustices being done to your Palestinian brothers and sisters. Now young people are seeing through this and seeking their own economic and political rights and in the vast majority of cases doing so peacefully.
     In the cases of Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, this is nonsense. Mubarak rarely spoke about Palestinian rights and Israeli violations of international law. He cooperated with Israel in the blockade of Gaza and in attempts to undermine the representatives the Palestinians elected in the free elections of 2006. The fact that Israel pressed the United States to support Mubarak to the bitter end is evidence enough that the former Egyptian president served Israeli interests well. The young people of Egypt and Tunisia know this and they believe that Palestinians have the same rights to freedom and dignity as they do.
     When Cameron says, “I will always be an advocate for the State of Israel”, he does not speak for me. Israel must be judged by its actions and its statements. It does not deserve a blank cheque.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Carr on Friedman

Sarah Carr's response to Thomas Friedman's laughable list of 'factors which contributed to the Arab uprisings' is one of the funniest pieces of satire I have read in a long time. I especially liked My Moustache and the Cooper's Hill cheese-rolling and wake event (by the way, it really exists, unless Wikipedia has also been spoofed). But the comments on Friedman's article on the New York Times website give an alarming insight into the mindset of, well, people who post comments on the New York Times website. Many of them think Friedman shows brilliant insight, and they don't appear to be writing satirically. Many want to add credit to President George W. Bush and to his invasion of Iraq. A sad reflection of American narcissism, which remains alive and well despite a decade of American decline. 

Egyptian Prime Minister Resigns

A couple of minutes after I posted 'Positive Signs in Egypt', news came through that Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik has resigned and the military council has asked Essam Sharaf, a former transport minister, to form a new government. I imagine that his four hours on television last night was a factor in Shafik's decision. The media can indeed be powerful.

Some positive signs in Egypt

The pace of change in Egypt seems to be picking up, after a couple of weeks of uncertainty about the intentions of the ruling military council. First there was the decision last week to freeze the assets of the Mubarak family, pending an investigation into how they acquired their wealth, along with the accelerating publication of news stories about corruption in the old regime. El-Shorouk, for example, reports today that former Housing Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman assigned state land to the daughters of former Vice President Omar Suleiman at nominal prices below their market value, in violation of the normal procedures. The accumulating mass of evidence against many leading members of the old regime makes a counter-revolution less and less possible.
    The military council  has also been reaching out to a wider range of Egyptians. On Tuesday council chairman and acting head of state Tantawi met probable presidential candidates Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa of the Arab League, along with other leading figures. The council wanted to hear their voices on the phasing and timeframe for presidential and parliamentarian elections - a subject which is under active debate and on which there are many diverse opinions. Those who called what happened on February 11 a military coup and predicted that the generals would try to strengthen their grip should note that the council has told all visitors that it wants to leave office after six months. It is the politicians and the activists who brought down Mubarak who want to extend the transitional period so that parties can organize and so that the country can prepare a long-term constitution which is broadly accepted. The generals have preferred to patch up the existing constitution as quickly as possible but the public pressure for a more radical overhaul may be having an effect.
    A positive sign of the times was a four-hour discussion on OTV television on Wednesday evening, with Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, novelist and activist Alaa el-Aswany, businessman Naguib Sawiris (who owns OTV), broadcaster Hamdi Kandeel and public intellectual Amr Hemzawy. I only caught the last two hours but the indefatigable Zeinobia watched throughout and stayed up till 4 a.m. to tell the world about it. I doubt in the history of Egyptian television that any prime minister has submitted to such relentless and incisive criticism. Kandeel and Aswany, as politely as one can under the circumstances, told Shafik he should resign and told him that it was unacceptable that three old-guard ministers - Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdi, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Justice Minister Mmdouh Marei - remain in the cabinet. They also disagreed over the future of the State Security department, which the opposition wanted disbanded. Shafik argued that the country needed such an agency but the government would redefine its responsibilities and set strict limits on its powers. One worrying element was that Shafik (like all Mubarak's prime ministers) clearly has little control over those three ministries or over the choice of the ministers who run them. That's up to the military council. Aswany rightly pointed out the ambiguity this creates: the prime minister bears political responsibility for the activities and statements of those ministers but cannot get rid of them without the council's approval. So far the council has acted with great caution, making as few changes as possible, but in many cases it has eventually come down on the side of the demands of those who took part in the uprising against Mubarak.
    Taken together, all these elements suggest that the process of change is irreversible for the moment and the military council is gradually wising up to political realities it faces. The demands of the protest movement will not go away and the council is beginning to listen more attentively. The movement will not be silenced.   
    Another healthy sign is the course of the debate within the Muslim Brotherhood over the platform for the political party which the movement plans to launch. El-Shorouk reported on Thursday that the committee drafting the platform has agreed to drop the idea of a 'board of ulema' which would have had powers similar to those of the Guardian Council of the Revolution in Iran. Liberals criticized the idea when it appeared in a draft platform for a Brotherhood political party in 2008. The committee, El-Shorouk said, has also dropped an article saying that the state should have 'a civil character with some basic religious functions'. The new phraseology is to the effect of 'a civil state, not a religious theocracy or a military state'. El-Shorouk interpreted this as a sign that the Brotherhood would accept the theoretical possibility of a Christian head of state, a possibility which the earlier draft would have excluded. The changes suggest that, as predicted, the reality of political competition in a democratic atmosphere can make the Brotherhood more flexible and more centrist. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Fouad Ajami and the Invasion of Iraq Revisited

Even in a moment of joy and triumph for millions of Arabs, Fouad Ajami cannot wholly renounce one of his favourite themes - that the political behaviour of Arabs has been driven by inherited pathologies which set them apart from the rest of mankind. Even when he revels with Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans at their liberation from old tyrannies, he cannot resist the temptation to hold them responsible for their own long oppression. Their liberation, he writes in the New York Times, came when they finally saw the light - his own very idiosyncratic light, abandoning Arab nationalism and the cause of Palestine:
These rulers hadn’t descended from the sky. They had emerged out of the Arab world’s sins of omission and commission. Today’s rebellions are animated, above all, by a desire to be cleansed of the stain and the guilt of having given in to the despots for so long.
    There is no marker, no dividing line, that establishes with precision when and why the Arab people grew weary of the dictators. To the extent that such tremendous ruptures can be pinned down, this rebellion was an inevitable response to the stagnation of the Arab economies...Then, too, the legends of Arab nationalism that had sustained two generations had expired. Younger men and women had wearied of the old obsession with Palestine. 
        I disagree, not on some technicality, but profoundly and thoroughly. Individuals may sin, but to project those sins on to the whole Arab world - millions of people across several generations and more than 20 countries - is more than they deserve. Such a theory of collective guilt makes for powerful rhetoric, well-tuned to the preconceptions of Ajami's audience, preconceptions that he has made a good living out of humouring. But it's a little too close for comfort to some discredited 20th-century ideas that led to the deaths of millions. What sins did the young Egyptians who came out on the streets on January 25 have to expiate? Their failure to overthrow Hosni Mubarak when they were in their teens? Even the older generations, the ones who applauded the initiative and determination of their descendants, did not feel guilt, only regret that they had lived under tyranny so long. Most of them never connived in their own oppression. On the contrary, the main forces that conspired to oppress them were the very ones that Ajami serves and that he does not mention - the United States, the oil companies, the arms dealers, and all those who believed that ordinary Arabs should pay any price necessary for the sake of cheap oil and Israel's immunity from accountability. Ajami's reference to the demise of Arab nationalism and the 'obsession with Palestine' is a cheap shot, with little basis in reality. Arab nationalism in its traditional form has been on the decline for decades, but it may be evolving into a more pragmatic sense of Arab community, based on shared values and interests. The solidarity of the protest movements across national barriers has been striking - the common slogans, the use of each other's flags, the joy in each other's successes, the synchronicity. Whether the next governments of these Arab countries will abandon Palestine remains to be seen, but the dominant rhetoric for the moment is one of universal rights, including those of Palestinians. Ajami would like to see them pursue their narrow national interests. Hopefully they will ignore his advice.
    Ajami adds:
There is no overstating the importance of the fact that these Arab revolutions are the works of the Arabs themselves. No foreign gunboats were coming to the rescue, the cause of their emancipation would stand or fall on its own. Intuitively, these protesters understood that the rulers had been sly, that they had convinced the Western democracies that it was either the tyrants’ writ or the prospect of mayhem and chaos. 
    A good moment to review what Ajami wrote in Foreign Affairs in early 2003, just before his adopted country invaded Iraq, and to remember that his hands are stained with the blood of the scores of thousands of Iraqis who have died in that disastrous adventure, an adventure he supported with reckless abandon and knowing disregard for the bloody consequences ("There is no need to pay excessive deference to the political pieties and givens of the region," he wrote). His great hope at the time was that invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein would undermine Arab nationalism, disengage Iraq from the Palestinian cause, offer an alternative to 'anti-Americanism' and weaken Arab despots. Specifically on Egypt, he said: "There appears to be no liberal option of Egypt, no economic salvation... As the political life of the land has atrophied, anti-Americanism has taken hold... Iraq may offer a contrast, a base in the Arab world free of the poison of ant-Americanism."

    He added:

An Arab world rid of this kind of ruinous temptation (Saddam's imperial ambitions) might conceivably have a chance to rethink the role of political power and the very nature of the state. It is often seemed in recent years that the Arab political tradition is immune to democratic stirrings. The sacking of a terrible regime with such a pervasive cult of terror may offer Iraqi and Arabs a break with the false gifts of despotism.
    And on why the United States had to take on this great task:
It is the fate of great powers that provide order to do so against a background of a world that takes the protection while it bemoans the heavy hand of the protector.
    Some order, some protection!
    Not surprisingly, Ajami in 2011 does not even pretend that invading Iraq in 2003 had anything to do with the Tunisian uprising in December 2010 and all the events that have followed. The reason is simple: it was completely irrelevant.


Syrian adviser's hypocrisy

Bouthaina Shaaban, an eloquent political and media adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, joins the list of Arab officials who applaud the Tunisian, Egyptian and other Arab uprisings. But she has nothing to say about the repressive policies of her own government. In a commentary on the Syrian website Champress and in at least one Gulf newspaper this morning, Shaaban writes as though she lives in some other part of the world and is merely an enthusiastic observer of a regional revolt that is long overdue. It is true that her main objective is to dispute the theory that the Arab protest movement has turned its back on solidarity with the Palestinian people - one of the pillars of the legitimacy of the Syrian government, at least in its public discourse. I would even agree with her in that. All the Arab protest movements say that they are committed to universal human rights and that the treatment of the Palestinians by Israeli racists is one of the most egregious and chronic large-scale violations of human rights in the world. Those who are banking on Arab peoples turning in on themselves and ignoring the plight of the Palestinians are deluding themselves. On the contrary, new democratic governments will have to reflect the views of the people, who are overwhelming outraged at the way their previous governments connived in the fiction that successive U.S. administrations have sought an Israeli-Palestinian settlement based on equality and justice.
    But that doesn't mean we should overlook the plight of the Syrian people, who have been living for decades under a government which is just as oppressive as those in Tunisia and Egypt, if not more so. It just will not wash in March 2011 for someone working for the Syrian government to write:
With their spontaneous revolutions, Arabs are burying the mummy regimes once and for all. Enough with the age of frustration, apathy and despair! Like other Arab writers and intellectuals past and present, I laid my bets, in everything I wrote, on the fundamental nature of the values of freedom, dignity and justice for Arabs, the vitality of this people and the inevitability of rejecting the humiliation imposed by oppressive security agencies which spend more money on the equipment of oppression and torture imported from the West than on education and universities.
    When it comes to 'mummy regimes' and 'oppressive security agencies', Syria comes close to the top of the table. If the Syrian mukhabarat imported their torture techniques from communist eastern Europe rather from 'the West', or indeed if they invented them for themselves, it is quite irrelevant.
    She adds:
The old regimes could have reformed themselves gradually from within, as did the democratic countries themselves. But some rulers persisted in their tyranny; they ignored the will of their people and forgot their aspirations.
That is why people in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere went to the streets and demonstrations have become the only way to push the political regime and move it to the 21st century.
    Hypocrisy is always objectionable. When the perpetrator cannot even see his or her hypocrisy, especially in the case of someone in public office, it is alarming. The Syrian government has reacted to protests in Syria in exactly the same way as the Arab government reacted at first to protests there. If Shaaban wants to argue that Syria is different, she should argue her case, not just pretend that Syria does not exist. 

Sunday, 27 February 2011

US also needs to show some self-restraint

It's a very bad idea for the United States to intervene in Libya and I have no doubt that no one  credible in the Libyan opposition will accept such an offer. "We’ve been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and, as the revolution moves westward, there as well. I think it’s way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we’re going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The last thing any Arab rebellion (and that is what we have in Libya) needs is the kiss of death that any association with the United States would bring. If the US administration is reacting to domestic pressures, as it did in the case of its decision to veto the UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements, then it should resist the temptation. Even the vague offer could do damage. Who is giving advice to these US officials, and what is driving them?

Why I Can't Say Saudi Arabia is a Haven of Peace

I'm in Qatar for a couple of days for a workshop on the Egyptian revolution at the Qatar Foundation, but surprises have followed me all the way. First there was the news that a group of Qataris are calling for a Day of Rage on March 18, and a group of Saudis for a similar day on March 11. Then I heard the news of the protests in Oman on Saturday and Sunday. Then in my morning newspaper I read Rachel Bronson on why Saudi Arabia is safe for revolution, at least for the moment. She admits that 'It is dangerous business to predict events in the Middle East, especially in time of regional crisis', but on close examinations her reasons for excluding Saudi Arabia from the wave of protests look very thin indeed. Let's look at them one by one:
The country is different in some important ways. First, its economic situation is far better. Egypt's per capita gross domestic product is slightly more than $6,000, and Tunisia's is closer to $9,000. For Saudi Arabia, it is roughly $24,000 and climbing (up from $9,000 a little more than a decade ago). The Saudi regime also has resources to spend on its people. Oil prices are high and rising. On Wednesday, the king announced massive social benefits packages totaling more than $35 billion and including unemployment relief, housing subsidies, funds to support study abroad and a raft of new job opportunities created by the state. Clearly the king is nervous, but he has goodies to spread around. 
    Then she adds:
According to an analysis by Banque Saudi Fransi, joblessness among Saudis under age 30 hovered around 30 percent in 2009. Still, many of the king's key policy decisions - joining the World Trade Organization, creating new cities with more liberal values, promoting education and particularly study abroad - have sought to solve these problems. The country may be on a very slow path toward modernization, but it is not sliding backward like many others in the Middle East. 
    In fact that's a much higher youth unemployment rate that either Egypt and Tunisia and I'm not convinced that economic growth is an obstacle to revolution anyway. On the contrary, is it not conventional wisdom that autocratic governments are at their most vulnerable at times of high growth with uneven income distribution? The Egyptian economy has been growing strongly since about 2004, and the Tunisian economy hadn't been doing badly either. The Egyptian uprising was not driven by unemployed or hungry people, but by middle-class people who did not like the way their country had been hijacked by a narrow clique who ruled by rigging elections backed by police brutality.

    Her second argument:
Another difference between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors is that the opposition has been largely co-opted or destroyed. For the past 10 years, the Saudi government has systematically gone after al-Qaeda cells on its territory and has rooted out suspected supporters in the military and the national guard, especially after a series of attacks in 2003. Key opposition clerics have been slowly brought under the wing of the regime. This has involved some cozying up to unsavory people, but the threat from the radical fringe is lower now than it has been in the recent past. And the Saudis have been quite clever about convincing the country's liberal elites that the regime is their best hope for a successful future. 
    That sounds remarkably like Tunisia, and not a whole lot different from Egypt, at least in general terms. The serious opposition in Tunisia was either in jail, in exile or silent. In Egypt the parliamentary elections of 2010 gave the ruling NDP and like-minded independents all but a handful of seats. The Muslim Brotherhood was cowed and unwilling to take on the government until the protest movement showed signs that it might succeed. In Libya the government was even more successful in eliminating any form of domestic opposition, which had hardly raised its head above the parapets for 15 years. What took people by surprise in all three countries was that the opposition appeared from nowhere, from the silent majority which was thought to be dormant.
    Her next argument:
The loyalty of the security services is always an important predictor of a regime's stability, and here the Saudis again have reason for some confidence. Senior members of the royal family and their sons are in control of all the security forces - the military, the national guard and the religious police. They will survive or fall together. There can be no equivalent to the Egyptian military taking over as a credible, independent institution. In Saudi Arabia, the government has a monopoly on violence.
    Sounds remarkably familiar to me from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It took more than 300 dead, millions of people in the street and 18 days of daily protests to persuade the Egyptian military to move, but in the end they moved. Similarly in Tunisia. In Libya, Gaddafi's sons and loyalists controlled key military formations, but several of those have fallen apart. In times of domestic unrest, the loyalty of any military or paramilitary unit is fragile and can crumble into dust with remarkable speed when individual soldiers or officers face conflicting demands and loyalties. Those at the top of the command chain may also decide at any moment that an alternative ruler better serves their interests. Don't count on their loyalty, as many rulers have learnt to their cost throughout human history.
    Her last argument:
Finally, a succession plan is in place. Saudi Arabia has had five monarchs in the past six decades, since the death of its founder. There is not a succession vacuum as there was in Egypt and Tunisia. Many Saudis may not like Prince Nayaf, the interior minister, but they know he is likely to follow King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan on the throne. And there is a process, if somewhat opaque, for choosing the king after him. 
    I don't buy that one either. If Saudis don't like the Al Saud, why would they be reassured by the knowledge that Prince Nayef will rule them one day and that the same family will govern for ever? It's true that uncertainty about the succession added to the tensions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and made it easier to challenge the legitimacy of the ruling family, but it's the legitimacy that counts. Once a ruler or his family loses legitimacy, all they have left is brute force, and that takes us back to the previous argument.
    I'm not saying that the Saudi government is in trouble. I don't know and I'm not making predictions. But the events in Libya and now Oman certainly weaken the old 'rentier state' argument, which was previously one of the strongest arguments for why countries such as Saudi Arabia would be immune from the 'ripple effect' of the Arab revolts. 

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Tribal defections/splits in Libya

Al Jazeera reports that Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam, Gaddafi's point man for relations with Egypt and usually identified as Gaddafi's cousin, has resigned and is seeking political asylum in Egypt. By the old tribal adage 'My brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger', that should be the death knell for Gaddafi. Since Gaddafi is in fact still alive and fighting, at least early today, tribal affiliation clearly is not the only factor at work in the Libyan conflict. Television stations on Wednesday night also reported the defection of a senior security official in the east of the country who was a member of the Gadhadhfa, the colonel's tribe (hence his name).
    But the Egyptian newspaper al Masry al Yom carried an interesting story today about a more conventional split in the Awlad Ali, a large tribe which straddles the Libyan-Egyptian border. It quotes Mansour Awad of the Egyptian branch as saying: "Our cousins (i.e. close agnates) have been living in Libya a long time and have become naturalized. The tribe has kinship ties with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. We all used to love him and esteem him. But we are not pleased with the current situation, because he is bringing mercenaries  to attack our brothers. Because of that we have taken a decision: 'My brother and I against my cousin.' We have organized a demonstration and we're waiting for the army to open the way for us to reach them there."
    The report goes on to say that members of the Awlad Ali were indeed chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans at the Salloum border post and holding placards calling for him to be tried. It says that Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam visited the border post on Tuesday and was unhappy to find people protesting against the Libyan leader. Gaddaf al-Dam then went to Siwa, it says, and found similar protests there.       
    Al Arabiya's English-language website has a similar report but adds that the purpose of Gaddaf al-Dam's trip to Salloum was to recruit Awlad Ali to fight on Gaddafi's side in the conflict. "(Gaddaf al-Dam) is reportedly contacting several airline companies in an attempt to obtain huge planes to transfer mercenaries from different African countries to Libya to crush the revolution. The mercenaries are said to be specifically heading for Camp 27, headed by the Libyan leader’s son Khamis Gaddafi," Al Arabiya added, without citing any source.