Mufti of Egypt against women presidents

Book-banning, Bahai-hating, regime bigot-in-chief Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Mufti of Egypt, has decreed that women are barred from the presidency in Egypt.
"Under Islamic sharia (religious law), a woman cannot be head of state because it is one of the duties of the position to lead Muslims in prayer and that role can only be carried out by men," said the fatwa carried by leading state daily Al-Ahram. "If by political rights, we mean the right to vote, stand as candidate or assume public office, then the sharia has no objection to women enjoying them, but a woman cannot serve as head of state. "Women can stand as candidates for parliament or the consultative council, in so far as they can reconcile their duties with the rights that their husbands and children have over them."
I'm afraid this AFP article rather misses the point when it ends with the following paragraph:
But in a country where the Muslim Brotherhood is the main opposition group, social pressures still limit women's political role.
This implies that the MB is behind the growing conservatism of regime clerics, even though women's representation has steadily dropped under Mubarak (partly because he removed quotas in 1987) and the ruling NDP did not give much if any backing to female in the last elections (whereas the admittedly also bigoted MB fielded one female candidate). It is becoming increasingly clear that the Mubarak regime and the NDP has its own Islamo-conservatives, and in some ways they are worse than the MB. Just look at the recent uproar in the NDP over Farouq Hosni's veil remarks, the agitation of "clash of civilization" issues, and Mubarak's own pronouncements over Shias' loyalty to Iran. Who will rid us of these turbulent priests?
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Labidi on Tunisia's Islamist problem

Our friend Kamel Labidi had an op-ed a few days ago in the Daily Star about the clashes last took place in December between Tunisian security forces and Islamists probably associated with the Groupe Salafiste pour le Combat et la Predication of Algeria. If you've followed this story you will remember that there was a total media blackout during which the Tunisian media pretended that those involved were a criminal gang rather than an Islamist group. The PR man for the government was later fired. Rumors abound on the Tunisian online opposition media and blogs that this might have been part of an assassination attempt, that French security services are currently in Tunis investigating, and that it's possible that the brother of First Lady Leila al-Trabelsi (the biggest mafia in Tunisia and, many complain, the real power behind Ben Ali) used his clout to sneak in a weapon shipment that was delivered to the Islamists. Of course none of this is confirmed. Kamel's op-ed highlights the failure of the Ben Ali regime's "tough stance" towards Islamists and the damage he has wrecked on political plurality and free speech in Tunisia.
Friday, January 26, 2007 Ben Ali's dictatorship is creating more Islamists By Kamel Labidi Tunisian President Zein al-Abedin Ben Ali has on official occasions often referred to the legacy of the great Arab writer Ibn Khaldoun, born in Tunis in 1332. The last time he did so was nearly two months ago on the 19th anniversary of his coup against President Habib Bourguiba. This frequent mention of Ibn Khaldoun is somehow designed to show that Ben Ali is committed to the writer's legacy. This led Amnesty International to remind the Tunisian president in 2003 of one of Ibn Khaldoun's most important sayings: "Since injustice calls for the eradication of the species leading to the ruin of civilization, it contains in itself a good reason for being prohibited." The deadly clashes in the suburbs of the Tunisian capital between security forces and Islamist gunmen at the end of December and in early January took by surprise those who were under the illusion that an Arab autocrat of Ben Ali's ilk could learn anything from Ibn Khaldoun. According to official sources, the clashes left 12 gunmen dead and 15 under arrest, as well as two security officers killed and two others wounded. The episode dealt an unprecedented blow to the reputation of a state often publicized as one of the most effective in fighting Islamists and maintaining stability.
The blow to the credibility of Ben Ali's police state seemed more severe than that caused by the terrorist attack on an ancient synagogue in Djerba in 2002, which the government falsely claimed was the result of a traffic accident. At the time, Tunisians and the international community would not have known the truth had it not been for the German authorities. They sought out and publicly announced what had happened, mainly because most of the 21 people who died in the attack were Germans. That kind of terrorist attack might occur in any country. However, the December-January clashes that shook the southern suburbs of Tunis for more than 10 days were more serious. According to Interior Minister Rafik Haj Qassem, they involved a group of 27 individuals armed with weapons and explosives. Speaking recently at a meeting in Tunis of members of the ruling party, Haj Qassem failed to explain how such a huge quantity of arms could have been smuggled into one of the most tightly controlled states in the world. Nor did he reveal how the weapons could have made their way from the Algerian border to the outskirts of Tunis. Most Tunisians doubt, with good reason, that the government will ever reveal the whole truth about the members of the armed group, or respect the right of the surviving militants to a fair trial. Many people are convinced that the policy of anti-Islamist repression conducted since the early 1990s by Ben Ali has, in fact, radicalized youths. Such a policy went hand in hand with an unprecedented crackdown against free expression and political dissent. Many Tunisians acknowledge that dissidents have never been so mistreated, even under the French Protectorate. In this climate, most youths have lost interest in public life and in the values of equality and tolerance. At the same time, many of them have been attracted by radical Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda, with some Tunisians having traveled to Iraq to take part in the resistance against the US-led occupation. Others have been arrested while trying to leave Tunisia to receive training in neighboring Algeria, or trying to lend a helping hand to armed Islamist groups elsewhere. Similarly, the Tunisian regime's iron-fist policy has not prevented an increasing number of young women from defying the ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf, or former Islamists from returning to public life determined more than ever before to exercise their right to freedom of association and expression. The injustice inflicted on them led many political activists traditionally opposed to any dialogue with Islamists to cooperate with them against what both sides agree is the dire national threat of Ben Ali. The regime, by pursuing arbitrary arrests, torture, and unfair trials will only further empower Islamic radicals. After the recent deadly clashes, Ben Ali's top aides once again called for his "reelection" in 2009 (if that word can be used in what has been no better than a rigged selection process). The problem is that this might only further encourage those who believe that the only way to oust an Arab ruler like Ben Ali is through the resort to violent means. Kamel Labidi is a freelance journalist currently living in Arlington, Virginia. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
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Some links on the Iranian situation

  • The American Foreign Policy Council launches an ad campaign to help the Bush administration make its case against Iran.
  • The geriatric king of Saudi Arabia warns against the spread of Shi'ism -- even though there are probably more Christian evangelists in the Arab world than Shia ones. Pure, irresponsible, bigoted fear-mongering of the kind we've come to expect from the al-Saud family.
  • Some analysis of Iran's internal politics, including attempts to reduce the clout of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (Iran's George W. Bush), at OpenDemocracy.
  • Update: I forgot to add this important LAT story that examines the Bush administration's claims of Iranian armed support for Iraqi Shias and finds them lacking.
  • More of the same on the opposition to Ahmedinejad's populist saber-rattling by Gary Sick, in an interview with the Council of Foreign Relations. Sick also authored a short analysis of US Persian Gulf policy which I am pasting after the jump. It was originally published on the Gulf2000 project that Sick maintains and is a very interesting read by a top expert in this field.
America's Iran Strategy by Gary Sick of Columbia University It is commonly said that the United States has no Middle East strategy. That may not be true much longer. The United States has begun to establish the framework of a new coalition strategy in the Middle East that could rebuild tattered alliances, shift attention away from the Iraqi catastrophe, and provide a touchstone for policymaking that could appeal across party lines. The organizing principle of the new strategy is confrontation with and containment of Shia influence – and specifically Iranian influence – wherever it appears in the region. US allies in this endeavor are Israel and the traditional (and authoritarian) governments of predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. One unique feature of this otherwise unremarkable set of long-standing friendly governments is the possibility that the Arab states may subordinate their hostility to Israel at least temporarily out of their even greater fear of Iranian/Shia dominance of the region. One of the products of the U.S. armed intervention in the Middle East since 9/11 has been a shift in the fundamental balance of power. In the name of fighting terrorism, the United States empowered Iran. By removing the Taliban, Iran’s greatest threat to the east, and then removing the government of Saddam Hussein, its deadly enemy to the west, and finally installing an Iran-friendly Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history, the U.S. virtually assured that Iran – essentially without raising a finger -- would emerge as a power center rivaled only by Israel. It is one of the great ironies that U.S. policy would inadvertently make it possible for these two non-Arab states on the eastern and western flank of the Arab Middle East to dominate the traditional Arab heartland. The process was further accelerated by U.S. democratization policies that put its traditional Arab allies on the defensive. Although these were unintended consequences of U.S. policy, the effects dismayed friends and foes alike. From Iran’s perspective, it was a strategic gift of unparalleled proportions, tarnished only by the fact that its two major enemies had been replaced by a pugnacious U.S. military giant looking for new worlds to conquer. That tarnish was gradually removed as the United States found itself increasingly bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire, with a public fast growing disillusioned with the ugly realities of empire building in a hostile and unforgiving environment. Erstwhile U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere privately viewed U.S. actions as a failure at best and a betrayal at worst. They were ripe for a change. The origins of the new cooperative undertaking are murky, but they appear to have been galvanized by the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon the summer of 2006. This event was perceived by Israel, the United States and the Sunni Arab governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as an Iranian attempt to extend its power into the Levant by challenging both Israel and the Sunni Arab leadership. Whether Iran in fact had any direct control over the decision by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, to kidnap Israeli soldiers is far from clear; however, the perception of growing Iranian strength and reach – a fundamental shift in the Middle East balance of power – was unquestioned and hugely menacing to the traditional power brokers of the region. Initially they had to swallow their words of discontent as Hezbollah acquitted itself very creditably and entranced the Arab “street.” But once the war was over and Hezbollah began challenging the predominantly Sunni and Christian Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora, initial misgivings reemerged. In the following months we have seen a number of indicators of a new coordinated policy approach. Senior Saudi officials met privately with equally senior Israeli officials, which was itself a remarkable new development. The content of the discussions has not been revealed, but one of the participants was rumored to be Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Ambassador to Washington and presently Secretary-General of the Saudi National Security Council, one of the architects of the U.S.-Saudi collaboration against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and a wheeler-dealer of legendary reputation. During the same time period, Bandar began a series of private visits to Washington, meeting with U.S. officials at the highest level. Apparently these meetings occurred without the knowledge of the present Saudi ambassador who abruptly resigned after the information became public. The United States successfully shepherded a resolution through the United Nations Security Council denouncing Iran’s nuclear program and imposing limited sanctions. It was adopted unanimously, and it gives Iran 60 days to change its policies or the issue will be revisited. In the speech by President Bush announcing a troop increase in Iraq, he focused a surprising amount of attention on Iran. The announced increase of U.S. naval presence in the Gulf region together with the supply of Patriot anti-missile batteries to the Gulf were widely interpreted as warning signals to Iran. The United States is taking an expansive view of the UNSC sanctions by prohibiting a major Iranian bank from operating in the U.S. and leading a campaign to persuade others to do the same. In the meantime, Israel has maintained a drumfire of criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, including suggestions that if no one else is willing to act, Israel may be called upon to launch a strike against Iran on is own. Some of these developments were spelled by Deborah Amos of NPR in a special report on January 17 There have not been (and probably will not be) any formal announcements, but the accumulating evidence suggests that a major new strategy is being pursued. What are its moving parts? It is still early days, but here is my own interpretation of the division of labor that seems to be emerging: United States: -- Drop any further talk about democratization in the Middle East; -- Use its influence in the United Nations Security Council to keep the pressure on Iran (and to a lesser extent Syria) with sanctions and coordinated international disapproval; --Provide military cover for the Arab Gulf states as they take a more confrontational position vis a vis Iran (Patriot missiles, additional naval aircraft, etc.); -- Undertake a more vigorous diplomatic effort to find a settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, recognizing that even limited visible progress will provide diplomatic cover for the Arab states if they are to cooperate more closely with Israel; -- In Lebanon, provide covert support for efforts to support the Siniora government and to thwart Hezbollah, probably in close cooperation with Israeli intelligence; -- Organize dissident movements in Iran, primarily among ethnic groups along the periphery or other targets of opportunity, to distract and potentially even destabilize the Tehran government; -- In Iraq: (1) keep attention focused on Iran, including raids and general harassment of its representatives; (2) keep U.S. forces in country to prevent the situation from descending into full scale civil war or a breakup of the country (or, as Henry Kissinger presents it in a recent article, combining both points: “They [U.S. troops] are there as an expression of the American national interest to prevent the Iranian combination of imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend”); and (3) consider engineering a more Sunni-friendly government, especially if Prime Minister Maliki is unwilling or unable to control the Shia militias; Arab States (the six Gulf Cooperation Council states plus Jordan and Egypt – 6+2): -- Provide major funding and political support to the Siniora government in Lebanon and work to undercut Hezbollah’s influence and image; -- Attempt to woo (or threaten) Syria away from its alliance with Iran with promises of money and support of Syrian efforts to regain the Golan Heights; -- Provide facilities and funding to assist the various U.S. initiatives above; -- Attempt to bring down the price of oil, which will remove some political pressures on Washington and make life more difficult for Iran. Israel: -- Provide intelligence support to U.S. (and potentially Arab) anti-Hezbollah efforts in Lebanon; -- Keep international attention focused on the Iranian threat as a uniquely dangerous situation that may even demand Israeli military intervention; -- Use long-standing Israeli contacts, especially with the Kurds in Iraq and Iran, to foment opposition to the Tehran government; -- Be prepared to make sufficient concessions on the Palestinian issue and the Golan to provide at least the perception of significant forward motion toward a comprehensive settlement. A tripartite strategy of this sort has a number of appealing qualities. By keeping attention focused as fully as possible on Iran as the true threat in the region, it tends to change the subject and distract public attention from the Iraqi disaster. It provides something of real value to each of the participants, but most of the distasteful parts of the plan are plausibly deniable so they will not have to be explained or justified in great detail to skeptical observers in any of the countries involved. In the United States, the antipathy to Iran as a result of the hostage crisis in 1979-81, inter alia, is so strong that such a strategy is likely to have widespread appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike, with enthusiastic endorsement from pro-Israel lobbying groups. Perhaps most important of all, it provides a single, agreed enemy that can serve as the organizing point of reference for policies throughout the region. Like the cold war, this can be used to explain and rationalize a wide range of policies that otherwise might be quite unpopular. The Holy Grail of U.S. Middle East policy has always been the hope of persuading both Arab and Israeli allies to agree on a common enemy and thereby relegate their mutual hostilities to a subordinate role. Trying to get the Arabs to conclude that the Soviet Union was a more immediate threat than Israel was always a losing proposition, though it did not prevent several U.S. administrations from trying. But Iran, as a large, neighboring, non-Arab, radical Shia state, may fulfill that role more convincingly. The advent of Mr Ahmadinejad in Iran, with his extravagant rhetoric and populist posturing, makes that a much easier sell than it was under President Khatami. More than anyone else, Ahmadinejad is responsible for the appeal of this strategy. He has done immense – and perhaps irreparable – damage to Iran’s image in the world and its genuine foreign policy objectives. The fact that Iranian parliamentarians are banding together in opposition to him and his policies is evidence that this has not gone unobserved in Tehran, but it may be too late. Will the strategy work? Well, it does NOT necessarily mean an immediate recourse to military conflict, as some are predicting. The underlying fundamentals have not changed: none of the tripartite protagonists stand to gain by an actual war. Especially after the Iraqi experience, it is widely understood in Washington that a war with a country as large and as nationalistic as Iran would be immensely costly and almost certainly futile. Moreover, there is no halfway house. You can’t do a quick air strike and realistically expect it to end there. The situation would inevitably escalate and ultimately require boots on the ground. That is a bridge too far for the United States at this juncture. However, the strategy is deliberately provocative and risks prompting a belligerent Iranian response (or perhaps it is deliberately looking for a belligerent response} that could quickly escalate into an armed exchange. So the threat of military action is not insignificant. Will the new policy persuade Iran to change its policies? Probably not, although knowledgeable Iranian political observers say Iran is actually ripe for a deal that would deal with both the nuclear and the Iraqi issues. Iran will have a celebration in a few weeks about its initial success in running a linked series of centrifuge cascades. That would be the moment when they could accept at least a temporary suspension of enrichment activities without renouncing their national “right to enrich.” If the Europeans (and Americans) are interested in moving to a settlement of the nuclear issue, that would be the moment to revisit and/or creatively reformulate the array of proposals – Iranian and European – that are already on the table. The new tripartite strategy, however, is not really about Iran but about the three protagonists. It brings them together, gives them a common purpose, offers an alternative to the current misery of reporting about Iraq, and provides a focus for future planning that might gain a wide measure of support. Unfortunately, that suggests that actually finding a negotiated solution with Iran is very much a secondary priority.
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Saddam is dead, long live SADDAM

I have an op-ed about US strategy in the Middle East and the growing Sunni-Shia divide over at TomPaine.com. Let me know what you think. Later today I will post a hyperlinked version here. Update: The New Saddam Making a renewed appearance in the State of the Union address this year was Iran. Bush set out an agenda that puts the U.S. on a path of confrontation with Iran—the latest installment in the haphazard collection of ideological fads that passes as Middle East policy in Washington these days. Having made a mess of Iraq, continuing to refuse to play a constructive and even-handed role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and having gotten bored with democracy promotion, the Bush administration now appears to be fanning the flames of sectarian strife region-wide. Since September 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials have made trips to the Middle East to rally the support of what Rice has described as the “moderate mainstream� Arab states against Iran. This group has now been formalized as the “GCC + 2,� meaning the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman) as well as Egypt and Jordan. I suggest that this new coalition be renamed to something less technocratic: the Sunni Arab-Dominated Dictatorships Against the Mullahs, or SADDAM. I have to confess I was inspired by historical precedent. In the 1980s, some of you may remember, there was another Saddam who proved rather useful against Iran. Saddam invaded Iran without provocation, sparking an eight-year-long war that was one of the 20th century’s deadliest. Along the way, the U.S. and the Arab states listed above provided much in funding, weapons and turning a blind eye when Saddam got carried away and used chemical weapons against Kurds (it did not raise that much of a fuss when he used them against Iranians, either). By forming SADDAM, the Bush administration hopes to do several things. Firstly, encourage countries with ambivalent policies towards Israel to accept a new regional security arrangement with the Jewish state firmly as its center—the holy grail of the neo-conservatives who, despite reports to the contrary, continue to craft U.S. Middle East policy. (Otherwise, why would Elliott Abrams still have his job?) Secondly, it is securing the support of these countries against Iran, in preparation for a possible strike against its nuclear facilities or some other form of military action, or at least to ensure the recently announced United Nations sanctions against Iran are effective. One tactic is getting the oil-producing SADDAM countries to up production and bring the price of the oil barrel back to under $50, as Saudi Arabia is obviously doing by boycotting calls by fellow OPEC members to cut production. At stake is limiting one of the biggest effects caused by the administration’s decision to invade Iraq (and subsequently failing to maintain order): the rise of Iran as a regional power. Long under-represented in the regional balance of power for a country of 70 million souls with large oil reserves, Iran has seen two hostile neighboring regimes fall (the Taliban and Saddam Hussein) and has become an important player in the internal politics of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, where it is supporting political actors who threaten clients of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. There is good reason to worry about Iran’s ascent: The regime has a track record of fanaticism and has made several distasteful pronouncements against Israel and Jews, particularly under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. But before Iran topped the news agenda, most SADDAM countries had begun to recognize that Tehran had an inevitable role to play in regional politics and had begun diplomatic negotiations aimed at formalizing relationships severed since 1979. The new SADDAM is much more collaborative (and less mercurial) than the old Saddam. The aging autocrats and puppet kings that make it up are getting some nice trade-offs for their support, most notably the abandonment of the Bush administration’s last policy du jour, the “Forward Strategy for Freedom.� You may remember another Bush speech—delivered at his inauguration in 2005—in which he said: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.� Well, with the new SADDAM policy, you get something more along the lines of “I know we previously encouraged you to stand for liberty and all that, but if you live in tyranny and hopelessness we will ignore your oppression and excuse your oppressors. When you stand for liberty, we will look the other way.� Just ask Ayman Nour, the Egyptian opposition politician who in 2005 was the darling of the “Arab Spring� but now lingers in jail on trumped-up charges, being denied proper medical treatment for diabetes. Egypt used to top the list of countries under pressure to democratize from Washington—President Bush mentioned it specifically in several speeches—but when Rice visited Cairo earlier this month, the talk was all about Iraq and Iran. There was zilch about democracy, or even Nour’s condition. A few days later, when interviewed by The Washington Post , which has campaigned for Nour and other Egyptian democrats, she meekly protested that the policy still stood, but that “it's not easy and it's not going to be concluded on our watch and there will be ups and downs.� The new anti-Iranian alliance with SADDAM appears to be deliberately reviving an old divide in the Islamic world between Sunni and Shia Muslims. To convince their populations, which are generally aghast at U.S. policy in Iraq and Palestine, that Iran is the real enemy (although, unlike say Israel, it has never in modern history been the first to attack an Arab country or threatened to use nuclear weapons against them), the SADDAM regimes are engaging in anti-Shia hate-mongering. State-backed clerics and journalists are recuperating the poisonous anti-Shia language typically heard from Iraqi jihadists to lure public support away from Iran and its allies (notably Hezbollah and Hamas, which are widely admired for their resistance to Israel occupation and aggression) and prepare the ground for a confrontation with Tehran. This policy will have disastrous consequences. Not only will it further discrimination against the already downtrodden Shia minorities in SADDAM countries, but it will encourage the adoption of exactly the kind of intolerant ideas Osama bin Laden and his ilk have tried to spread for decades. The perennial losers will be those Arabs (and Iranians) who struggle for a more tolerant and democratic political culture. We’ve been down this road before.
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HRW: Saudi persecuting Ahmadis

HRW has sent an open letter to King Abdullah of "mainstream moderate" Saudi Arabia urging to put an end to a campaign of persecution against Ahmadis:
Your Majesty, We write to urge you to put an immediate end to Saudi Arabias nationwide campaign to round up followers of the Ahmadi faith who have committed no crime. The campaign appears organized and designed to detain and deport all Ahmadis in Saudi Arabia because of their religious belief. Saudi Arabia has so far arrested 56 non-Saudi followers of the Ahmadi faith, including infants and young children, and deported at least 8 to India and Pakistan. All of those arrested face deportation as soon as a flight becomes available. All but two are legally in the country, mostly long-term residents of Saudi Arabia, and have not been charged with a crime. Many other Ahmadis in Saudi Arabia, a small community of foreign workers in the country primarily from India and Pakistan, are reportedly in hiding or have left the country voluntarily for their own safety.
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the crossing (and the CSF conscript)

Inspired by sandmonkey’s remark on gifts to Egypt from foreign revolutionaries, I went to see the 1973 War Panorama the other day – also to learn more about the war’s first half. (For some reason, the show stopped before the IDF built four pontoon bridges crossing the canal into the other direction and before Egypt’s Third Army got trapped.) The panorama is a gift from North Korea: Now my visit got quite a sad note to it, if you see this CSF conscript who is so scared from his superiors that he does not dare to answer which two countries were fighting in the 1973 war and in which year it started. (See this post on 3arabawy.) Back to The Crossing: I’ll hire these guys next time I need to cross Salah Selim during rush hour. I’ll hire these guys next time I need to cross Salah Selim during rush hour. PS: On a (maybe not) related note, I’d sponsor one shark soup for anyone who can tell me the secret history of the Korean restaurant deep inside the Cleopatra bunker on Midan Tahrir. Update: The sign on the first picture reads Panorama creators D.P.R. Korea 1989. I'll try to enlarge the pictures.
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State of the (dis)Union

I watched President Bush's State of the Union address last night. After calling for a balanced budget (I'm not sure if it was such a priority for the Republican Congress to balance the budget, but anyway..), health care tax credits, and immigration reform, he got to the main thrust of his speech: a defense of the war in Iraq and a request for support for "the surge." I have to admit that most of it was so familiar that it barely registered The president reiterated US commitment to Middle East democracy, although as has been noted on this blog, Rice's recent tour of Arab autocrats is just one sign of our complete abandonment of any pressure for serious democratic reform in the region.
Free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies -- and most will choose a better way when they're given a chance. So we advance our own security interests by helping moderates and reformers and brave voices for democracy. The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity. And I say, for the sake of our own security, we must.
About Iraq, he had this to say:
If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime.    A contagion of violence could spill out across the country -- and in time, the entire region could be drawn into the conflict. For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is the greatest ally -- their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens, new recruits, new resources, and an even greater determination to harm America.To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September the 11th and invite tragedy. Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq and to spare the American people from this danger.[...] Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work.
The response to this speech has been underwhelming. I saw headlines this morning saying the president "pleads" and "begs" for support, and that his policy faces "challenges." You can read the whole State of the Union here. You can read the Democratic response (it's much shorter and more interesting)--given by newly-elected Senator Webb, who's son is serving in Iraq--here.
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Lebanon in flames

Is another civil war about to start in Lebanon? The general strike called by Hezbullah and its allies yesterday turned into a day in which 3 people were killed, dozens injured, and gangs of Sunni and Shia youth threatened and insulted each other. Novelist Elias Khoury and historian Fawwaz Traboulsi--two major Lebanese intellectuals--are in New York at the moment and spoke at NYU the night before last. I'm not in any way qualified to analyze the labyrinthine politics of Lebanon, but I'm going to summarize some of the main points made during this talk. Khoury and Traboulsi said that it is not in Hezbullah's interest to start a civil war, and that Hezbullah knows this; but the movement it started--which has been using the exact same methods as last year's "cedar revolution" to topple the government--has now painted itself into a corner, and Hezbullah's allies (Syria and the party of Christian General Michel Aoun) may be pushing for a war because they have virtually nothing to lose from it. Khoury referred to "the tragedy of Hezbullah"--that it is "bigger than Lebanon" (a pan-Islamic movement) and "smaller than Lebanon (it only represents one sect within the country and therefore can never take full power). In his analysis, it has long been a Syrian calculation to entrust Lebanon's military resistance to the Israeli occupation (Hezbullah ousted the Israeli after years of fighting in the south) to a group that could not, when victorious, represent the whole country and hope to come to power--Khoury points out that a more widespread, leftists, national resisance movement was decimated by assassinations in the 1980s. Thus in his view Hezbullah is as much a tool of Syrian as of Iran. Which points to another facet of the situation in Lebanon: the way every group there has an outside backer. It is common-place to speak of Hezbullah as "backed by Iran," but Traboulsi and Khoury were at pains to make clear that the way politics works in Lebanon is that every major player turns to powers outside the country to solidify its position--or is used by powers outside the country to promote their interests (the government is backed by the US, for example, the Sunni community by Saudi Arabia). The connection between Lebanese politics and regional politics is one reason that--seemingly overnight--the main sectarian conflict has become that between Sunni and Shias, not Muslims and Christians. This new divide is one of the many consequences of Iraq.
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On Hillary

Imagine if Hillary Clinton wins the 2008 US presidential elections. Statistically speaking, she is likely to be re-elected in 2012 (most presidents have been) and therefore remain president until 2016. This will mean that between 1988 and 2016 two families will have shared the presidency -- 28 years of Bushes and Clintons. You could even add another eight years if you consider that George H. W. Bush was a relatively powerful VP under Reagan because of his intelligence and foreign policy background and was even acting president for eight hours on 13 July 1985 when Reagan underwent surgery. If this happens, a generation -- my generation -- will have spent the time between its teenage years and its middle age ruled by two feuding families. That will be oddly familiar for those of us with Arab origins, a situation reminiscent of Kuwait's succession system or the much-gossiped rivalries of Saudi princes. So it seems that Arabs don't only have political lessons to learn from America, but that they can export some of their cherished political values too. But for some reason, I don't take much comfort in that.
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New Torture Cases

From the Shebab Kifaya mailing list. Haven't verified the information or obtained the victim's full and informed consent to publish the details here, so names and details redacted for the moment:
Citizen [...], known by [...] was subject to severe beating and use of electricity on sensitive parts of his body at the state security intelligence headquarters in the city of [...] by the hands of officer [...]. [...] had been arrested in the early hours of the [...] from his house in the district of [...] in the city of [...], Gharbeyya governorate in the Delta of Egypt. [...] woke up at about 2 a.m. upon a heavy knocking at his door. As soon as he opened the door the police was all over the house. [...] asked for the prosecutor's permit to search the house, upon which the state security officer reached into his pocket, got out a small piece of paper, which [...] did not read, returned it back into his pocket again and said: "This is the permit. And even if there is no permit, I shall detain you as I wish". The police then took [...] down into the police car, then went up again in arms to search his house causing panic to his wife and children. The police took school books and botebooks of the children, a praying carpet, a computer which was searched by the officer himself at the state security office in violation of the law which states that examination of a computer should be carried out by the technical office upon an order of the prosecution. As soon as [...] arrived in the state security office in [...] he was beaten, slapped and kicked all over his body by officer [...] and [...]. Then [...] stripped [...] of all his clothes, forced him to the floor on his back with his hands tied and eyes blindfolded. He then put a chair between his legs and used a baton to pressure sensitive parts of his body. While [...] was screaming of pain, officer [...] was laughing and saying: "I shall make you lose your manhood totally. You will sleep with your wife with no difference between the two of you!!" After 20 hours of torture, [...] was referred to the prosecution charged of membership of the Muslim Brotherhood. His file was registered as administrative case no. [...]. [...]'s lawyer has filed a complaint to the public prosecutor's officer and the National Council for Human Rights.
Perhaps the formal complaint with the prosecutor's office makes this fair game for public distribution, but absent confirmation, and given Imad al-Kabir's momentary retraction of his story in the face of intimidation after the details of his case were publicized, I'm erring on the side of caution. It's rare for members of the Muslim Brotherhood to face torture these days. Those who do tend to be young, rank-and-file members from the governorates, like this unfortunate man from Gharbeyya. More senior members, and members from Cairo, now generally say they are not physicaly abused in custody. Update: Hossam reports on another Kifaya anti-torture initiative here.
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Chinese lessons

From a WaPo piece on Rice's recent Middle East tour:
At one point, Rice said that the difficult circumstances in the Middle East could represent opportunity. "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity," she said in Riyadh. "And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity." But Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, has written on the Web site http://pinyin.info, a guide to the Chinese language, that "a whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation." He said the character "ji" actually means "incipient moment" or a "crucial point." Thus, he said, a wei-ji "is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry."
It would be comforting to know that top policy-makers do not get their strategic thinking from pop psychology books. But then again we are dealing with a president that got excited about democratization because he read Nathan Sharansky's book and a few years later apparently got bored with the whole idea. Update: I forgot to include these choice quotes from Neil King's article in the WSJ:
While traveling this week through the Middle East and Europe, Ms. Rice engaged in several long historical tutorials with reporters in tow. Her point in referring back to the Cold War, she said, isn't to argue that history repeats itself or that the analogy is exact. "The reason that I cite some of these other times, like Europe, is that it is so clear in everybody's mind that the United States and its allies came out victorious at the end of the Cold War," she said in Kuwait. "But if you...look at the events that ultimately lead to that, you would have thought that this was failing every single day between 1945-1946 and probably 1987 or 1988." Her contention is while things may look bad now in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, history is on the administration's side. She pushed a similar argument to reporters last month. The Middle East is "moving toward something that I am quite certain will not have a full resolution and that you will not be able to fully judge for decades," she said. Critics dismiss Ms. Rice's references to the Cold War as both convenient and a sign of her limited frame of reference. The challenges facing Europe in 1946, they say, bear little similarity to those of the Middle East in the 21st century. "The administration's reservoir of historical analogies seems limited to the 1914-1991 period. And it's all about Europe," said Adam Garfinkle, a former Rice speechwriter who edits the foreign-policy journal The American Interest. "No one in a senior position in this administration seems to have even the vaguest notion of modern Middle Eastern history." When asked this week about what moments in Arab history inform her thinking, Ms. Rice said she had read about "the British experience" in Mesopotamia in the 1920s, which led to the founding of modern Iraq and the withdrawal of British forces. "I know a number of things that went right, and I know the things that went wrong," she said.
What also comes out in the article is the idea that Rice's main strategic objective is securing a new regional arrangement that favors Israel:
On this trip, which wrapped up in London, Ms. Rice has portrayed her main mission as firming up what she calls "a new alignment" of moderate states allied with the U.S. to push back against Iran. Ms. Rice also has shown a new interest in trying to promote an Arab peace deal with Israel after years of inactivity. Four years ago, the administration theorized that the U.S. invasion would spawn a democratic Iraq, on good terms with Israel, that would break the regional mold and compel erstwhile enemies to end hostility toward the Israelis. Now, Ms. Rice says it is the Iranian ascent wrought by the war that makes Arab states more open to negotiations.
Yet, the leading initiative for Arab-Israeli peace is an Arab one and was announced in March 2002 in Beirut -- and been ignored by successive Israeli administrations, as well as the Bush administration. So it's not so much peace that they are interested in, but have their cake and eating to. Understandable from an Israeli right-wing perspective, but should American politicians be towing the same line? [Thanks, X]
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King PS2 goes nuclear

So it appears from this Haaretz interview of King Abdullah "PS2" (like most people he can't find a PS3) that Jordan is joining the fast-growing gang of Arab countries with civilian nuclear programs and an ambiguous attitude as where there is going to be anything more than just civilian. The boy-king says Jordan has to even though it probably can't afford to, because of those nasty Iranians and their Shia crescent. Which is probably a lot of bull -- if Jordan gets a nuclear power station, it's because men with little black briefcases will have toured Arab capitals trying to sell multi-billion dollar plants with the backing of their governments. If Jordan goes though with, you can bet its power station will be mostly funded by the US taxpayer thanks to the Bush administration pandering to the nuclear energy lobby. That is not to say that other strategic considerations aren't important, most notably Jordan's long-term energy security. But this is not Iran's nuclear program for sure -- unless the Jordanians mean that they want to have a nuclear bomb too, but that's not want he's saying:
"But, the rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region. Where I think Jordan was saying, 'we'd like to have a nuclear-free zone in the area,' after this summer, everybody's going for nuclear programs. "The Egyptians are looking for a nuclear program. The GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] are looking at one, and we are actually looking at nuclear power for peaceful and energy purposes. We've been discussing it with the West. "I personally believe that any country that has a nuclear program should conform to international regulations and should have international regulatory bodies that check to make sure that any nuclear program moves in the right direction."
I was actually more interested in other parts of the interview that were highly telling of King PS2's personality. 1. He thinks of himself as a representative of the US government:
I can say that on behalf of the U.S. president and the secretary of state, and I've talked to both, that they're very serious and very committed to moving the peace process forward, because they realize the dynamics of the region at the moment.
2. He's unhappy about Israel losing to Hizbullah last summer and doesn't bother to mention the irresponsibility of Israel's actions:
The frequency of conflict in this region is extremely alarming, and the perception, I believe, among Arabs, and partly among Israelis, is that in the summer Israel lost this round... And that creates a very difficult and a very dangerous precedence for radical thinking in the area. The stakes are getting higher and higher.
But now I suppose I have to reluctantly recognize other bits of the interview were interesting, and I suppose no head of state can give very revealing interviews anyway. Still, his unwillingness to be a tougher critic of Israel, the main "saboteur" of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, is regrettable.
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A petition

My friend Sandmonkey and I disagree on most things (because he's wrong!), but a few days ago he spotted reports of an Egyptian blogger attending a conference in Israel who said things that have raised the Egyptian blogosphere's collective eyebrows. Among other things, he alleged that we are all opposition journalists, there are only 100 of us and he knows us all, and we spend vast fortunes at internet cafés where we hold conspiratorial meetings. In fact there are well over 6,000 Egypt-based bloggers, the vast majority of which are not political, and even the political ones are generally not linked with the opposition, although they might support Kifaya or other movements. To read more about it, see the petition a bunch of us have signed to alert the Israeli organizers that they have been duped -- the so-called "blogger" appears to be a US-based Egyptian academic who puts up his scholarly articles online. It's one thing to want to speak about blogging in general terms as an academic, but another to paint a vibrant and diverse group of bloggers as a cabal of spoilt rich kids with political agendas. And kudos to Sandmonkey -- the very proof that the Egyptian blogosphere is not what you might expect it to be -- for putting it all together.
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cheap dig

nose-guard.jpg Ok ok. My apologies to the fine boys who come out to make sure that law and order are maintained during these demos. Sometimes you just can't resist though. Today's Kefaya demo at Sayeda Zeinab mosque, marking the thirty-year anniversary of the Bread Riots, was more energetic than usual, and the crowd seemed more diverse. At the same time security seemed more at ease, though the tactics followed routine practise: squish the protestors into the smallest possible space and keep a troupe of beltagaya posted around the corner just in case. I've posted a couple of other shots of the proceedings on my flickr site. Also see Hossam Hamalway's report here or check out a contemporary account of the events by Henry E. Mattox, economic reporting officer at the US Embassy at the time. He seems to have observed the events from the vantage point of his office, but he did offer this:
The root cause of the recent unpleasantness was what we in the economics racket call in technical terms an effort to extract blood from the corpus of a turnip.
And then he went on to describe how the government has "painted itself into an uncomfortable corner" with "this subsidy lashup." Worth noting that Sadat's government got itself out of the corner not by easing off subsidies while doing something about the repressive and corrupt mode of economic "management" that they enabled, but by a cheap sleight of hand: keeping the price of bread the same while reducing the size of the loaves (oh yeah, and bashing a lot of heads). So the working class today finds itself in the same position as 1977: dependent for their daily bread on a regime that acts like a violent dead-beat dad, at once stifling the ability of those without the capital to buy up state assets at knock-down prices to support themselves, and unable to provide an alternative. Mattox's conclusion also says much about the nature of US-Egyptian state-level relations, though perhaps unintentionally. After bemoaning the billions of dollars that the subsidies are costing the Egyptian government, referring to cutting out the subsidies as "bringing sanity" and hiding under his well-polished desk for several days, Maddox reports that "the natives are quiet again." What a relief.
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WaPo: "Lost in the Middle East"

The Washington Post takes the time to point the obvious and gets in some good old fashioned Hozz-bashing:
The new strategy explains a series of reversals of U.S. policy that otherwise would be baffling. In addition to embracing the Middle East peacemaker role that it has shunned for six years, the administration has decided to seek $98 million in funding for Palestinian security forces -- the same forces it rightly condemned in the past as hopelessly corrupt and compromised by involvement in terrorism. Those forces haven't changed, but since they are nominally loyal to "mainstream" Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and serve as a check on the power of the "extremist" Hamas, they are on the right side of Ms. Rice's new divide. So is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a thuggish autocrat who was on the wrong side of Ms. Rice's previous Mideast divide between pro-democracy forces and defenders of the illiberal status quo. In past visits to Cairo, Ms. Rice sparred with Mr. Mubarak's foreign minister over the imprisonment of democratic opposition leaders such as Ayman Nour and the failure to fulfill promises of political reform. On Monday, she opened her Cairo news conference by declaring that "the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship, one that we value greatly." There was no mention of Mr. Nour or democracy.
They should also mention that this US egging on of a Sunni-Shia conflict is the most irresponsible thing since... well, since the invasion of Iraq. My feeling is that while some Arab governments are at least partly encouraging this worldview to justify their backing of US policy -- see Sandmonkey's reflections on anti-Shia diatribes in the Egyptian press lately -- the main force behind this is the Bush administration, which against all common sense seems bent on escalating tensions with Iran. If some kind of regional conflict pitting Shia against Sunnis emerges, than the US will bear a great deal of the responsibility for having started it, and this will not be forgotten by the region's inhabitants. Over the last five years, major Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt had made some overtures to Iran and both sides were keen to improve relations. Trade with Iran has also increased over the last few years. Now talks of reopening embassies are over. This is not dismiss the problem posed by Iran's nuclear program, but between Iran having nuclear weapons and a region-wide second fitna, I know what I'd choose.
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NDP MP strips to protest amendments??!?

Intriguing story:
An Egyptian ruling party politician started to undress in parliament on Tuesday in protest at proposed constitutional amendments which perpetuate many of the Egyptian president's vast powers. In a debate on the amendments, details of which have not been released, member of parliament Mohamed Hussein objected to the article which gives the president the right to dissolve parliament. "Enough of that, enough. Should I take my clothes off?" he added, using a sarcastic popular expression used in response to someone's excessive expectations. When Hussein unbuttoned the waistcoat of his suit, speaker Fathi Sorour threatened to have him thrown out of the chamber.
A month or so ago I remember hearing about a group of 60 NDP MPs who wrote a letter of protest asking for the amendment of Article 77 to limit presidential terms to two. I do know some in the NDP believe this should be done, as well as many establishment commentators in the state press. But Hozz has made it clear it's not about to happen. Still, it's an interesting development to see NDP MPS -- the majority of which, remember, were elected as independents, defeating the leadership's chosen candidates -- getting some backbone. By the way, does anyone know more about this individual MP or those who demanded that Article 77 be amended?
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Israel, Syria dismiss peace talks

I've been looking at Israeli reactions to yesterday's revelation that a secret negotiations between Tel Aviv and Damascus had been going on since 2004 -- negotiations that yesterday Ehud Olmert rushed to dismiss, even insulting the mediators involved. This from Uzi Benzimann in Haaretz:
It is enough to observe the panicked responses in Jerusalem to the report by Akiva Eldar yesterday in Haaretz on the outlines of an agreement between Israel and Syria cobbled together in unofficial talks, to feel yet again that generations of governments of Israel, including the present one, are responsible in no small way for prolonging the Israeli-Arab conflict. Unlike the first 30 years of the state's existence, when the Arab world refused to recognize Israel, its neighbors have gradually come to terms with the reality starting in 1977. And since then, the Arab world has also started to bear responsibility, at least partially, for fanning the embers of the conflict.
Olmert's bureau raced yesterday to deny any connection, even a passive one, to the talks that took place in Europe on the Israel-Syrian conflict. Associates of Ariel Sharon, who, according to the report, was aware of the secret negotiations, did the same. The insulted added their voices to the deniers: A senior minister told Israel Radio that he is privy to all secret diplomatic moves and if he was not party to this, then there was nothing to be party to. And MK Yuval Steinitz said that he had spoken at the time with Sharon, who told him he ruled out any relationship with the present Syrian regime because of its ties to terror. A united front of deniers emerged, as if on command, to clarify that the Israeli government was not involved nor is it tainted by an attempt to come to an arrangement with Bashar Assad. This is a ludicrous spectacle, the irony of which fades in light of its depressing significance: Israel's leaders are trying hard to prove to its citizens that they are not involved in a move to end 60 years of hostility with its Syrian neighbor. These leaders are kowtowing to residents of the Golan Heights, the settlers and the American government. The desire to mollify them seems to be the government's top priority; otherwise, it is impossible to understand the complete and utter denial of the efforts reported by Eldar. It is as if Olmert decided that a confession on his part to any involvement in a channel of communication with Assad is politically lethal.
An editorial in the same issue basically argues along the same lines, accusing Olmert of using US hostility to Syria to distance himself from the deal (although it mistakenly states that Syria is a member of the "axis of evil"). Josh Landis has a long, comprehensive post with some Syrian reactions. As I suspected, it would be denied because it's not a great deal for Syria -- it's more the kind of deal they might be forced to accept if their backs were to the wall. It now seems clearer that this peace initiative has little chance of going anywhere until the Israeli government is ready to start public talks on this issue -- it has been unwilling to seriously discuss peace with Syria since the mid-1990s at least -- perhaps using the secret document as a basis of sorts.
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