Call to Iraqi sunnis to boycott vote because of Falluja

This is bad:
"The clerics call on honorable Iraqis to boycott the upcoming election that is to be held over the bodies of the dead and the blood of the wounded in cities like Falluja," said Harith al-Dhari, director of the Muslim Scholars Association, a group of Sunni clerics that says it represents 3,000 mosques.
Hours earlier, the group issued a religious edict ordering Iraqi security forces not to take part in the siege. Of course, there is always a chance that clerics could rescind their call for a boycott, but the group has until now been fairly uncompromising in its dealings with the Americans and the interim Iraqi government.
Just as ominous was the withdrawal of the Iraqi Islamic Party from the interim government. The party was a member of the Iraqi Governing Council set up by the Americans during the occupation and has been held up by American and Iraqi officials as a model of Sunni participation in the political future of the country. In recent weeks, its leader, Mohsen Abdul Hameed, had been saying he intended to take part in the elections.
"After the attack on Falluja, we decided to withdraw from the government because our presence in the government will be judged by history," Mr. Abdul Hameed, an interim National Assembly member, said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
The move so alarmed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that he met privately with Mr. Abdul Hameed hours later. But the party stuck to its position, and an aide said in the afternoon that it was not clear that the group would take part in the elections.
"We haven't decided to withdraw from the elections; we're still going forward with the process," the aide, Ayad al-Samarrai, said. "But it will all depend on the general situation in Iraq."
See also Juan Cole for more on the Iraqi political reaction to the current military operation in Falluja.
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Neo-cons vs. realists

I have been working on this post on the future of US policy in the Middle East on and off since before the elections, but now that Bush has won it seems more useful. My feeling is that the neo-cons kept a low profile during the past six months to help with the Bush campaign, but will be back in force once the president decides who gets what job. So here's a round-up of articles I've read that discuss the forthcoming reshuffle of Bush's cabinet and White House staff below. It's long so you can only see the whole thing by clicking "more" below.
  • Acording to the Asia Times, key neo-conservative players were busily planning the next phase of what they call World War IV in the interlude provoked by the Bush re-election campaign's desire to avoid war in 2004.
    But while the neo-cons may be down, they are by no means out. As more than one foreign-policy analyst has noted, no neo-con within the administration has resigned or been fired, despite their responsibility for the Iraqi quagmire and public calls by even some senior Republican lawmakers and retired military officers that they be ousted.
    Some analysts have argued the neo-cons remain in place only because their departure now would amount to an admission by the administration - and thus Bush himself - that serious mistakes had been made. In this view, Bush would purge them in a second term, as he continued along the State Department's "realist" line.
    But a growing number of observers, particularly in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), are coming to the conclusion that the neo-cons may actually enjoy greater influence if Bush wins re-election.
    The other thing I found interesting about the article is the last line, which describes a meeting of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a neo-con outfit:
    Two days later, the FDD helped convene the Middle Eastern American Convention for Freedom and Democracy to elaborate a foreign policy towards the region by several dozen mostly sectarian groups, including the American Coptic Association, the American Maronite Union, the Southern Sudanese Voice for Freedom, the Assyrian American National Federation, the Chaldean National Congress, the American Middle East Christian Association, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa and the Washington Kurdish Institute.
    Neo-cons and these minority groups are playing a dangerous game. Manipulation of minorities by foreign powers is a sensitive issue in the Middle East and only serves to reinforce perceptions of minorities as fifth columnists. The fact that some minority groups -- notably Egyptian-American Copts and Lebanese Maronites -- often fabricate examples of persecution to gain the attention in the US. The point is partly to give their cause a higher profile and highlight the discrimination they feel exist, but also to sometimes purely economic or financial: minority "exiles" have been known to make their career from becoming spokesmen for their co-religionists.
  • A counter-opinion from Today, which thinks the realists are back:
  • With Mr Bush's re-election, we are likely to see a return of traditional Republicans, of foreign policy-makers more in harmony with conventional Republican ideas about America's role in the world.
  • Traditional Republican foreign policy concerns itself with the defence of American power and interests and views the promotion of democracy abroad as an often prohibitively expensive luxury.
  • It's founded on the principle that costs and benefits must be carefully weighed before taking action.
  • The aim of its policies is to produce maximum national security benefit at minimum cost. With Mr Bush's re-election, we are likely to see the US pull as many troops as possible from Iraq at the earliest reasonable date following Iraqi elections. It also means the United States will continue to play the role of world policeman but without the ideological context of a "world order" to give the role strategic coherence.
  • On the bureaucratic debate between neo-cons, realists and multilateralists it's good to revisit this Salon article from a month or so ago, penned by am irate and anonymous State Dept. officer.
  • The New York Times ponders what Bush's second term could mean for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process:
    The Bush administration's Middle East strategy since before the war in Iraq began last year has focused on the peace plan drafted by the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations, known as the road map. The plan outlines a series of reciprocal steps by Israel and the Palestinian leaders ending with the establishment of a Palestinian state.
    But neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have agreed to take their initial steps. Each side has charged the other with reneging on its promises, and administration officials acknowledge privately that the plan is dead, or at least in abeyance.
    In its place the administration supports the plan of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to withdraw military forces and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, hoping that the pullout would eventually lead to peace talks on broader issues. Mr. Sharon has won initial legislative approval for the Gaza pullout, and he has informed the Bush administration that he hopes to complete the withdrawal by next September.
    Instead of the road map, administration policy makers have begun discussing what Javier Solana, foreign minister of the European Union, calls the street map, a series of political arrangements worked out with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians to have moderates run Gaza and its security forces once the Israelis pull out.
    With Mr. Arafat ailing, administration, European and Arab diplomats said Thursday that the new plan had also run into difficulties, in part because of the threat of Hamas and other militant groups to hijack the security command in Gaza.
    In addition, administration officials and Arab diplomats say President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been uncertain about committing forces to training or providing security in Gaza, or to stopping infiltration of militants and arms from Egypt into Gaza.
  • Henry Kissinger weighs in.
  • So does William Safire.
  • In the Nation, David Corn suggests there are dark days ahead:
    "On foreign policy, the big question mark," says Norquist, "is, What has the President and the Republican Party learned from Iraq? Did he learn it was a bridge too far and doesn't want to do three more of these? Or will he think, 'We got elected, let's do Egypt'?" Bush, Norquist adds, could end up at odds with conservatives on the "empire front." He observes, "If this is perpetual war to achieve perpetual peace, then it's out of sync with conservative members of Congress and his own base. They don't want a permanent garrison state with high taxes, a draft and a big government." But Bush has committed himself to "staying the course" (whatever it is) in Iraq and also to remaking the Middle East. He has fully embraced the hubris and arrogance of the neocons. Why should Bush change his fundamental national security views when he has escaped punishment for hyping a threat, misleading the country into an unnecessary war and alienating much of the globe?
  • The Christian Science Monitor has a clever piece about the politics of the reshuffle:
    Some experts believe a battle could break out within the GOP over foreign policy if Bush suggests, especially by key appointments for a second term, that he is set on pursuing preemptive strikes, unilateral projection of power, and ad-hoc alliances over institutionalized pacts.
    "I see an internal struggle for the [Republican] party over the next couple of months between the neoconservatives and the realists, because both wings supported the president, and people will want something for their loyalty," says John Hulsman, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "It's an inside-the-Beltway battle that actually matters to the rest of the world."
    Much speculation centers on the futures of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice as key clues to the direction the second term will take. Mr. Powell and Mr. Rumsfeld embodied the tension throughout the first term - but especially after 9/11 - between prioritizing diplomacy and relegating it to a back seat in the Pentagon.
    On Iraq, Mr. Powell tried to rally the world to the US position, most notably with a UN appearance, but largely failed, and saw the State Department initially shut out of a postwar role. Rumsfeld put meat on Bush's "with us or against us" stance, dividing Europe into "new" and "old," and gathering much of his "new Europe" under the American wing in Iraq.
    Most insiders and Powell associates assume that Powell prefers to leave office, but may be reluctant to do so if Rumsfeld is not leaving, too. That leads some to speculate that he may stay on for a short time to avoid looking as if he is leaving foreign policy to an ascendant neoconservative influence.
    But some analysts say the key indicator will be what happens to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is considered the architect of the Iraq invasion and principal promoter of the Bush drive to reform the Middle East.
    "Wolfowitz is the bellwether to watch because he's the personification of the Iraq policy and so much of what this administration has done in the neocon vision," says Heritage's Mr. Hulsman. "If Wolfowitz is promoted, it's a pretty good sign that it's full steam ahead."
    Wolfowitz would likely face stiff resistance from both parties if nominated to a position requiring Senate confirmation, some analysts say, so they assume that, were he to move, he might go to the White House and the National Security Council.
    Cato's Mr. Carpenter says one reason he believes Bush will keep US foreign policy on a muscular course is that people like Wolfowitz, who were on watch when policies went badly, have not been held accountable and made to resign.
    "The president had ample opportunity to purge the administration of people who had a hand the Iraq debacle, but not a single one is gone," Carpenter says.
  • I think they have it right in two key points: no one paid for the mistakes of Bush I, and Wolfowitz is the key figure to watch to see whether the neo-cons will have more or less influence. With regards to the Middle East (excluding Iraq policy) both Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams, the NSC advisor on the Middle East, will be key -- the first for how much pressure for reform in Arab countries there would be (at least in the public discourse of the administration, but probably not in any meaningful real sense), the second for the peace process. It's interesting that there were consultation among Arab leaders, notably Mubarak and Assad, after the elections -- probably strategizing how to handle another four years of Bush. Also note that Bush has been talking to Mubarak about "his commitment to work for a Palestinian state," which might indicate as some people have argued that Bush would be less beholden to special interests in his second term and more willing to confront Ariel Sharon. I doubt it personally, if only because there are elections coming up in two years where the Republicans would like to consolidate their hold over the House and Senate, and because Bush's own views don't seem to make resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority. However, Arafat's death will probably make a big difference -- as long as there is a modicum of stability in post-Arafat Palestine and a new Palestinian leader that a) the US and Israel accept as an interlocutor and b) he can deliver the goods from the Palestinian groups, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Don't see who that might be apart from Marwan Barghouti though.
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    Follow-up on the Baradei affair

    As promised, here is the post-election follow-up on the allegation that Mohammed Al Baradei is covering up a secret Egyptian nuclear weapons program. It's long, so click "more" to get the whole thing. First of all, rather conveniently two new stories have come out of the IAEA since Libération published its article (which as far as I can see only AFP has followed up so far, but that's not surprising considering last night's momentous events.) The first story is that Al Baradei is conceding that the agency has no real solid information on the Al Qaqaa explosives theft aside a letter from an Iraqi interim government official:
    IAEA Director Mohammed ElBaradei confirmed in an interview yesterday that the sole source for the story that dominated the news last week was a letter sent to the agency on October 10 from an Iraqi official, Mohammed Abbas.
    "All we know (is that) the Iraqis reported to us the material is missing," Mr. ElBaradei told The New York Sun. "We have been out of Iraq for a long time. If it were destroyed I would be very happy, if it hasn't been destroyed I'd be very worried. But I have no clue."
    According to a Washington source, Pentagon and State Department officials now suspect Mr. Abbas might have acted on his own and was unauthorized to write a letter to the IAEA.
    Shortly after Mr. Abbas's letter was sent to Mr. ElBaradei, it was leaked to the New York Times and CBS, creating the political controversy regarding the missing explosives. After that, Mr. El-Baradei sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council, describing the Abbas letter to him.
    The rest of the article, which seems at least slightly hostile to Baradei (it's the New York Sun), covers allegations that IAEA officials deliberately leaked the letter, that Al Baradei is politicizing the Al Qaqaa information deliberately to influence the elections (well that didn't work), and that the Bush administration will oppose his going for a third term at the head of the IAEA. It also notes that Al Baradei, commendably but perhaps not to the taste of the US and Israel, supports a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The second story that followed Libération's scoop was that Al Baradei is now putting more pressure on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities. He took a somewhat more confrontational policy towards Iran during his annual General Assembly report on 1 November:
    El-Baradei's annual report to the UN General Assembly yesterday noted progress in understanding the nature of Iran's program, after the government had initially provided "changing and contradictory" information. But he cited some reversals in Iran's pledge to suspend uranium-enrichment activities.
    "I have continued to stress to Iran that in light of serious international concerns surrounding its nuclear program, it should do its utmost to build confidence through these voluntary measures. I have also asked Iran to pursue a policy of maximum transparency so that we can bring outstanding issues to resolution and over time provide the required assurance to the international community," el-Baradei said.
    One day earlier, Iranian lawmakers unanimously approved the outline of a bill that would force the government to resume the process of uranium enrichment.
    Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hussein Musavian, has said a compromise is still possible in negotiations with three European states offering to provide fuel for Iran's planned power plants.
    (A few days after I wrote the above lines, it was announced that Iran and France, Germany and the UK had indeed reached a tentative agreement.) But let's go back to the Egypt nuclear program issue. Libération's central claim is that diplomats (read spies) suspect that Egypt may have had a joint nuclear program with the Libyans. The French government had denied all knowledge of Egypt's nuclear program. A few days after Libération, published the article, the AP ran a story quoting diplomats saying that the IAEA had "discovered plutonium particles near an Egyptian nuclear facility and is trying to determine if they are evidence of a secret weapons program or simply the byproduct of peaceful research."
    In comments to The Associated Press, the diplomats warned against assuming Egypt might have contravened the Nonproliferation Treaty by trying to separate plutonium, a substance used to make nuclear weapons. The traces could be from a cracked research reactor fuel element or have other, non-military origins, said the diplomats on the condition of anonymity.
    "From time to time these things pop up in places they should not be at," said a diplomat familiar with the investigations of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. "Most of the time, there is a reasonable answer."
    Until the IAEA issues a formal report, of course, this is all speculation. But I really wonder about the timing of this -- the accusations against Baradei and the allegations that Egypt is processing plutonium -- in light of the current negotiations to get Iran to stop its nuclear program. Interestingly, yesterday Colin Powell said that US officials would probably discuss the matter with their Iranian counterpart in the forthcoming conference on Iraq that will be hosted by Egypt.
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    Some people have all the historical luck

    Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins on the European rediscovery of the Greeks that led to the Renaissance:
    What else can one say about it, except that some people have all the historical luck? When Europeans invent their traditions -- with the Turks at the gates -- it is a genuine cultural rebirth, the beginnings of a progressive future. When other peoples do it, it is a sign of cultural decadence, a factitious recuperation, which can only bring forth the simulacra of a dead past.
    From Waiting for Foucault, Still [PDF].
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    Arab dictators' wives club

    I find the way that Suha Arafat has emerged suddenly as a potential rival in the Palestinian leadership struggle rather amusing -- if you ignore that it's yet another slap in the face of the Palestinian people's quest for for dignity and decent leadership:
    In a one-minute telephone call to the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera, she set off a political storm Monday, accusing her husband's top aides of conspiring to replace the 75-year-old leader in a behind-the-scenes power grab.
    The 41-year-old Mrs. Arafat, who until now remained largely outside the political scene, said top officials aimed to "bury" her husband "alive." A Christian convert to Islam, she ended the phone call with "God is Great" — often used as a Muslim war cry.
    While the idea of Suha Arafat really being a contender in the leadership struggle is proposterous (and the AP and other press outlets should know better than to propagate this notion) it made me think of the roles that Arab dictator's wives have had from country to country. In Palestine's case, she had played a negligible role apart from serving as a conduit for Arafat's stash taken from PA funds. But if we turn to Egypt, Suzanne Mubarak plays in important role in the country, with some people even saying that she has a lot of influence on domestic politics (particularly health and education), the composition of the cabinet, and that she may even be behind the rise of her son Gamal as a possible heir. I don't know how much credence to give all this, but it is certainly true that she is a woman of great influence. Try to set up a NGO that deals with women, literacy, children, or education, and you'll probably be made an offer you can't refuse and be absorbed by "Mama Suzanne" and her National Council for Women, at which point virtually every activity you undertake will be subject to constant bureaucratic hassle and the whims of the first lady. While her endorsements do bring advantages, they can often also constrain the activities of a NGO (which will have to vet everything with her people to make sure they don't embarrass her). In other words, it's a poisoned chalice. In Tunisia, Leila Ben Ali owns a variety of businesses that her position had, of course, no influence in creating. For instance, she owns the country's near-monopoly ISP, which has milked the emerging internet market while complying with the state's need to have what is probably the most invasive monitoring of the internet in the region. Saddam Hussein's wife Sadija (who was also his first cousin) was the symbol of feminism in her country, as well as the leading public figure promoting education. Can't say she set that good of an example with her two boys, though. According to a widespread rumor reproduced in Said Aburish's biography of Saddam and elsewhere, Uday Hussein went to great extent to protect his mother's honor: In 1998, Uday killed Hanna Jajo, Saddam's most trusted food-taster and procurer of women. Jajo had acted as the go-between for Saddam and Samira, who became his second wife and the mother of now-teenage Ali. (Saddam remained married to Sajida, despite at least two other known marriages.) It was reported that Uday, said to be closer to his mother than to his father, arranged a party for Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian president, on the banks of the Tigris in downtown Baghdad. Across the river, on the Island of Pigs, Jajo was also entertaining. He and his rather rowdy bunch were shooting salvos in the air. Uday crossed the Tigris and asked Jajo to stop. Some time later Jajo fired again. Uday returned and clubbed Jajo to death. According to Aburish, Saddam was furious at Uday not only because Jajo was a "trusted" procurer of women and food-taster, but also because Jajo's father was his cook, which provided an added precaution against being poisoned since the father would not have wanted to poison his own son. Come to think of it, it seems that infamous Arab leaders' wives tend to come mostly from republics, not monarchies. Whenever there is some kind of regional meeting (usually on women's issues or some pageantry event) I kind of wonder what these women talk about, how much rivalry there is between them (are they all jealous of the young and beautiful Queen Rania of Jordan, or perhaps King Muhammad VI's wife?) and so on. Does anyone have good gossip on Arab first ladies?
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    Omar Sherif back on Arab screens

    Omar Sherif, the great Egyptian actor, has announced he will be returning to Arab cinema after a long absence. Sherif was one of the defining actors of golden age of Arab cinema in the 1960s, when he played doe-eyed heartthrobs in films by luminaries like Youssef Chahine (when he still produced good movies). But after the mid-1960s (when he starred in Dr. Zhivago), he mostly starred in Western movies, acting in a bunch of fairly poor or unknown movies until he made his comeback in the French film Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran and Hidalgo.
    According to the UAE based daily, Al Bayan, the first film Sherif plays the role of a Palestinian man who is shocked when he hears his son’s voice on the radio vowing to sacrifice his life for the sake of his land. The film holds the title “Al Manfi” (The Vanished). In the second film, Omar plays the role of a lawyer who defends a Palestinian child and tries to return him back to his family after Israeli soldiers kidnapped him and changed his name into a Jewish one.
    The third film Omar will star in is Egyptian under the title of “Ain Baba” (Where is Father), in which the actor plays the role of an immigrated businessman who discovers he has a daughter in Egypt. He returns to Egypt and goes on a quest in the hope of finding her and through the process more then ten different girls claim that they are his daughters.
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    Rethinking Cleopatra

    According to new research from medieval Arab sources, Cleopatra may not be quite the femme fatale we imagine her to be. Okasha El Daly, an Egyptian Egyptologist working in the UK, says that she may have been one of the great scientific luminaries of her age: Elisabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
    "Cleopatra is a scientist, a medical doctor, a woman who had invented a theory of mathematics and, above all, a well-known philosopher," Dr El Daly recalls from the many medieval texts he's read, which talked of how she "used to hold courtly seminars almost every week in which she sat with fellow scientists and philosophers and would discuss with them, on the same level, all sorts of philosophical and scientific issues." He adds that whenever they refer to Cleopatra, the medieval Arab scholars "always refer to her as a great eminent scholar and philosopher" and says they "thought very highly of that famous queen".
    Perhaps it's time for a remake of the Liz Taylor movie most of us think of when talking about her.
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    Saad's back

    Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian democracy activist who spent nearly two years in prison because of his activities before being finally acquitted, has published a courageous editorial that is making the rounds in the regional press: Egypt needs a president, not a latter-day pharaoh First of all, it's worth noting that this is perhaps one of the most strongly-worded editorials on the Mubarak regime to ever be published, and that it comes from one of the most prominent Egyptian intellectuals (even if he is marginalized in Egypt because of his pro-American views.) Secondly, remember that Ibrahim was arrested in 2000 on the day that Al Hayat published his article on "republicarchy" (goumloukiya) and the phenomenon in Arab states of hereditary republics. The article centered on Gamal Mubarak and the possibility that he was being groomed for succession, when that still seemed improbable (it doesn't now.) Ibrahim's new article focuses on the need for constitutional reform to provide more checks and balances to counter the powers of the presidency, introduce direct presidential elections with a real contest, and implicitly rejects another term for Mubarak. It would be great to see a real campaign asking that Mubarak step down -- petitions such as the one I mentioned recently are a step in the right direction, but this movement needs to gather momentum in the next few months, which the security services won't like. And we've seen what they're capable of doing to people who talk too much...
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    Fisking Arafat

    When Fisk is good, he's good:
    Sitting like an old and dying owl in his Ramallah headquarters, it must have struck Arafat that he had one unique distinction. Some "terrorists" -- Khomeini, for example -- die of old age. Some -- Gaddafi comes to mind -- become statesmen courtesy of mendacious folk like Tony Blair. Others -- Abu Nidal is an obvious candidate -- get murdered, often by their own side. But Arafat is perhaps the only man who started off as a "super-terrorist", was turned overnight by the Oslo agreement into a "super-statesman" and then went back to being a "super-terrorist" again. No wonder he often seems to be losing attention, making factual errors, falling ill.
    Like all dictators, he made sure that there was no succession. It might have been Abu Jihad, but he was murdered by the Israelis in Tunis. It might have been one of the militant leaders whom the Israelis have been executing by air attack over the past two years. It could still be, just, the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti. And, if the Israelis decide that he should be the leader -- be sure the Palestinians won't get any choice in the matter -- then the prison doors may open for Barghouti.
    Yes, Arafat might die. The funeral would be the usual excruciating rhetoric bath. But the truth, I fear, is that Arafat died years ago.
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    Librarian diplomacy

    James Billington, the librarian of Congress,visited Iran last week in what was the highest-level official trip by any US official since 1980, meeting with President Khatami (formerly the head of Iran's national library) and other top officials:
    Billington said the goal of his trip was to discuss acquiring Iranian publications.
    "We have a large collection on the Middle East and Islamic world, and we want to expand our collection," he said. "We're a world library, but our collection is not what it should be. The trip seemed important given our collection deficit and because the amount of material Iran has published" since relations were severed.
    Billington said he also met with top officials at Tehran's parliamentary library, toured the national archives and had talks with experts on topics including Iranian films, Sanskrit and Russian architectural influences in Iran. He discussed sonnets with Simin Behbahani, one of Iran's most famous female poets. And he consulted with architects about a new facility to house Iran's national library and archives, similar to talks in other foreign capitals. He also spent two days touring Isfahan, about 200 miles south of Tehran.”
    Good to see cultural exchange can still take place with the axis of evil.
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    Arafat: "We are not Red Indians"

    The last few lines of this interview with Yasser Arafat, apparently the last before he was hospitalized, seem to capture his character well. He stubbornly refuses to accept any mistakes whatsoever, yet does make the moving point that by opting for active resistance the Palestinians avoided politicide:
    He uncoiled a little, sagging back in his chair. He drank his soup from the lip of the bowl, Arab-style.
    Did he make any mistakes?
    "No."
    Did he make any tactical mistakes?
    He peered through the steam of his soup.
    "No."
    What did he achieve?
    "We have made the Palestinian case the biggest problem in the world," he said, with a grin. "Look at the Hague ruling on the wall. One hundred and thirty countries supported us at the General Assembly. One hundred and seven years after the [founding Zionist] Basel Conference, 90 years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Israel has failed to wipe us out. We are here, in Palestine, facing them. We are not red Indians."
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    Obama's flip-flops

    Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian-American whose work I greatly admire (and whose daily press round-up on Palestine, Iraq and the Middle East is a must-read), has written a great editorial on the implications for the Middle East that Bush's victory has. While I encourage you to read the whole thing, one of the most interesting parts of the article is about Barack Obama, the new superstar of Democrat politics, and how he has (like so many others before him) abandoned a nuanced stance on the peace process to endorse the Israeli position:
    Against this background, Bush has shifted the goal posts of the Palestine-Israel debate such that Likudist thinking is now viewed as centrist. This was demonstrated by Kerry's campaign which warmly endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies. But the bankruptcy of the discourse was brought home in a most personally disappointing way.
    Illinois swept Barack Obama, a rising star in the Democratic party, into the United States Senate with a stunning 70 percent of the vote - a rare Democratic gain. Obama, whom I've met many times, has served as my local state senator in the Illinois legislature. I found him to be an inspiring politician, not least because he appeared to understand Middle East issues and take progressive views supporting Palestinian rights and opposing militarism. He participated in many events in the Chicago-area Arab community including a 1998 fundraiser with Edward Said as the keynote speaker. I even made contributions to his campaigns.
    But following Obama's nationally-televised address at the Democratic National Convention everything seemed to change. In the campaign's final weeks, Obama proclaimed his support for tough sanctions and military strikes against Iran if it refused U.S. demands to give up its nuclear programs. According to the Chicago Tribune, Obama now says that the onus of peace in the Middle East "is on the Palestinian leadership, which ... must cease violence against Israelis and work 'to end the incitement against Israel in the Arab world." The unique fact about Obama's campaign is that he did not need to parrot the pro-Israel lobby's standard line to get elected. He ran effectively unopposed. Such a capable and ambitious man must have calculated that any hope of higher office requires that he not offend when it comes to Israel and its interests. This begs the question: If a man like Obama will not speak frankly when it comes to Israel, what hope is there for a change in U.S. policy coming from within the establishment?
    As they say in right-wing blogs, indeed.
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    Levine: We're all Israelis now

    Mark Levine, a historian of the Middle East and noted leftist activist, writes that we're all Israelis now:
    As I watch George W. Bush celebrate his reelection I realize I never could have imagined just how much like Israelis we would become. Think about it: in Israel, the majority of Jewish citizens support the policies of Ariel Sharon despite the large-scale, systematic (and according to international law, criminal) violence his government deploys against Palestinian society, despite the worsening economic situation for the lower middle class religious voters who constitute his main base of support, despite rising international opprobrium and isolation. Sound familiar?
    As for the country’s “liberal” opposition, it’s in a shambles, politically and morally bankrupt because in fact it was a willing participant in creating and preserving the system that is now eating away at the heart of Israeli society. Aside from occasional plaintive oped pieces by members of its progressive wing, the Labor Party can and will do nothing fundamentally to challenge Sharon’s policies. Why? Because they reflect an impulse, nurtured by the Labor movement during its decades in power, that is buried deep in the heart of Zionism: to build an exclusively Jewish society on as much of the ancient homeland as possible, with little regard for the fate of the country’s native inhabitants.

    (Via Juan Cole.)

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    Opposition writer roughed up

    A prominent columnist for the Egyptian opposition weekly Al Arabi (an organ of the Nasserist party) was kidnapped by security services, taken to the desert outside Cairo, stripped and beaten. Abdel Halim Kandil, who is a prominent columnist writing in one of the most vocal anti-regime publication in Egypt, told: reporters of his ordeal today at the Press Syndicate:
    Abdelhalim Kandil's newspaper, the weekly al-Arabi, condemned the attack and said it suspected the government of being behind the assault and a wider campaign of intimidation.
    Kandil said he was nabbed in his Cairo neighbourhood in the middle of the night as he was returning from the traditional meal taken by Muslims during Ramadan before fasting for the day.
    He was gagged and blindfolded, beaten up and stripped before being dumped on the main motorway between Cairo and Suez, he said, adding that his attackers told him to "stop talking about important people".
    Although that story does not make it clear, I heard from a reporter who was at the press conference and it's certain this was not just a random kidnapping but probably involved state security goons.And if that's so, press freedom and democracy in general just took a nose-dive in Egypt. Kandil, who wrote inflammatory pieces about the regime his Al Arabi -- making him one of the most-read writers in the country -- was also a signotory to the recent petition asking Mubarak not to run again. This could be a signal to all journalists to quiet down as next year's elections and presidential referendum approach. Update: Here is another, better article on what happened.
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    Libération: el-Baradeï accused of helping cover up Egyptian nuclear program

    The respected left-wing French daily Libération published a story implying that Mohammed el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is protecting his native country Egypt from investigation of a secret nuclear program. The article makes clear that this is speculation that is currently discreetly making the rounds at the IAEA and that is being pushed mostly by US diplomats, not that it has any tangible proof of this. It notes in particular that the US has been dissatisfied with the "moderate" approach to confronting Iran that el-Baradei favors (as do France and the UK).
    Reste à savoir si la polémique, qui demeure très feutrée et ne s'est pas encore exprimée sur la place publique, est fondée. Elle prend sa source dans le programme nucléaire libyen que le très versatile colonel Kadhafi a brutalement abandonné le 19 décembre 2003, permettant à l'AIEA de plonger son nez dans ses dossiers secrets. C'est ainsi, indiquent des sources diplomatiques occidentales travaillant sur ce sujet, qu'il a pu être établi que le programme clandestin avait des implications égyptiennes. Le programme lybien a consisté notamment à importer ­ pour quelque 500 millions de dollars ­ de l'uranium et des équipements de centrifugation, dont 10 000 centrifugeuses P (Pakistan) 2. Un programme important sur lequel, semble-t-il, Tripoli ne faisait pas que travailler pour son propre compte mais aussi, secrètement, pour les Egyptiens. Depuis, une certaine tension existe entre des pays membres de l'AIEA et l'Egypte, les premiers reprochant au Caire de n'avoir pas joué franc jeu. L'affaire est à ce point sensible, à cause des répercussions qu'elle pourrait avoir dans toute la région, qu'elle est traitée avec une grande discrétion, selon les mêmes sources diplomatiques.
    Translation: It remains to be seen whether this polemic, which remains low-key and has yet to be expressed in a public forum, is founded. It originates from the Libyan nuclear program that the very versatile Colonel Kadhafi suddenly abandoned on 19 December 2003, allowing the IAEA to stick its nose in its secret files. That is how, point out Western diplomatic sources working on the case, that it has been established that the clandestine program had Egyptian involvement. The Libyan program notably involved importing some $500 million of uranium and centrifuge equipment, including 10,000 P (Pakistan) 2 centrifuges. An important program on which, it seems, Tripoli was not only working for itself but also, secretly, for the Egyptians. Since then, a certain tension exists between member states of the IAEA and Egypt, with the former accusing Egypt of being dishonest. The affair is so sensitive that, because of the repercussions it could have across the region, it is treated with the utmost secrecy, according the same diplomatic sources.
    The Egyptian ambassador to the IAEA has already denied the allegations, but the spokesman for the IAEA itself has refused to comment, according to this AFP story. I'll have a second post later on this, after the elections, which provides background and digs up previous references to an Egyptian-Libyan nuclear program.
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    Another look at the Taba bombers

    It's amazing how quickly the Taba bombings have faded from memory and gone from an event that was meant to shake up Egypt to an almost non-event. Still, the latest update is that the Egyptian ministry of interior has issued a statement saying that Al Qaeda had no links with the bombers who were arrested about a week ago. That seems probable. There hasn't been extensive coverage of this in English to my knowledge, but the profile of the bombers really does not make them out to be mastermind terrorists of Muhammad Atta caliber. I did a story for The Times reporting the basic facts, but it got cut down a fair amount. I'm reproducing the relevant excerpts below:
    The [interior ministry] statement identified Ayad Said Saleh, a Palestinian living in the northern Sinai town of Al Arish, as the mastermind behind the operation. Saleh and one of his accomplices, Suleiman Ahmed Saleh Flayfil, were killed as they tried to escape the bombing scene but were caught by the explosion, suggesting that the bomb timers had malfunctioned and that the attacks were not intended to be suicide bombings.
    “This confirmed that the incident was not a suicide bombing operation as the Palestinian and Egyptian were killed as they escape from their vehicles after they had failed to set the timers properly,” the statement said.
    The two men were identified through DNA samples taken from body parts found on the scene of the bombing, it added.
    Two other men who participated in the operation – Flayfil’s brother Muhammad and Hamid Jumaan Jumaa Jumaan – are still at large.
    Investigations have also led to the arrest of five men – most of them Sinai Bedouins from Al Arish – who, while not directly involved in the bombings, participated in their preparation.
    The ministry of interior said that several of the men who were arrested owned or worked in small workshops were the put the bombs together with unexploded ammunition from wars fought between Egypt and Israel in Sinai. These were rigged to timers recuperated from washing machines and placed in vehicles that were stolen for the operation by a one of the men, who was a known stolen car dealer.
    Another one of the men arrested, a Bedouin from the area where the bombings occurred who owned a holiday camp, provided information to the bombers on the resorts that were targeted.
    Saleh, the alleged mastermind, worked as a driver, had a long criminal record, and was most recently involved in the rape of a young woman in his car. The statement said he had “recently become a religious extremist.”
    “[The attacks] were a response to the breakdown in the situation in the Occupied Territories and was targeted at Israelis staying in the hotel and the two holiday camps,” the statement said.
    The statement however did not mention whether the nine men were part of any organisation. Three groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings, including Al Jamaa Islamiya Al Alamiya (the International Islamic Group), Kataib Al Tawhid Al Islamiya (the Islamic Brigades of Belief in the Unity of God), and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. The last of these groups, named after a leading Islamist activist, was previously unknown but has repeatedly claimed responsibility for the attacks in the Arabic-language press and may be affiliated with Al Qaeda.
    Overall, the bombers -- if this is them, which some people doubt considering the extent of the damage caused by the bombings in heavily policed area -- don't really seem like Al Qaeda types. Petty criminals turned radical, perhaps. And the fact that they used old unexploded ordnance and washing machine timers doesn't inspire much confidence, either. Incidentally, a friend of mine who works at a local human rights organization has told me that there were massive arrests in Sinai during the investigation -- and a lot of torture and brutality against innocent civilians. His research will probably make it out as a report soon, but it's a reminder that these attacks only tend to worsen the already rather dire impunity with which police and security services operate in Egypt.
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