Syria: What happened at Jisr al-Shugour?

A few days ago a battle took place in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shugour that drove refugees into Turkey for the first time since the uprising started and was possibly a first sign of defection or mutiny from the security services. From the Economist:

An accurate version of what happened there is hard to confirm, because independent reporters are banned from Syria and the state media have plumbed the depths of mendacity. Usually, however, they flag up an event and give an indication, sometimes unintentionally, of its magnitude. Then they set about rearranging the facts. In the case of Jisr al-Shughour, they at first said that 20 members of the security forces had been killed in an ambush “by armed gangs” and then, within an hour, raised the figure to 120, declaring that “decisive” action would be taken as part of the state’s duty to protect its citizens. Probably the death toll has indeed been high.
But who killed whom remains unclear. Theories abound. Residents say people have been fighting back after helicopters and tanks killed at least 40 civilians during the weekend. Tanks have been massing menacingly around the city. But well-informed Syrians surmise that the number of dead servicemen was exaggerated in an effort to make ordinary people rally to the regime and that most of the victims were killed in clashes between the police and the army or within some security-force units after their members tried to defect or to mutiny—the last two possibilities being the ones that must really scare Mr Assad.
Compare with the version from SANA, the official government news agency:
The Syrian TV broadcast photos of the brutal massacres perpetrated by organized armed terrorist groups against the civilians and the army, police and security forces groups in Jisr al-Shughour in the province of Idleb.
Members of the terrorist groups used government cars and military uniform to commit their crimes of killing, terrifying people and sabotaging.
More of the same here, including gory pics.
Update: Also see this excellent narrative piece in Harpers, The Two Homs.

Out of Arabia

I have a piece in this week's roundtable in Bitterlemons International, on US foreign policy in the Middle East after the Arab spring. In it I make a radical argument (at least within foreign policy circles, outside of Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich anyway) that America needs to end its imperial posture in the Middle East, that the Arab spring provided an opportunity to articulate this and that Obama failed to do so clearly in his speech.

I call this argument "Out of Arabia" and the piece is here. The other contributions are by Dan Kurtzer, Joel Beinin and Chuck Freilich, and all but Kurtzer's are fairly critical of the Obama administration. Kurtzer's piece argues that Obama introduced a new idea of individual self-determination in his recent speech, with possible far-reaching consequences. All are worth a gander.

Egypt: A new constitution first?

A group of Egyptian NGOs, echoing calls from various political parties and youth groups, have issued a statement backing the Tunisian model of transition, namely that a new constitution should be drafted before parliamentary and presidential elections take place. This is a position that is gaining traction among a lot of people, reflecting in part a lack of trust in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and in part the fear of Islamist-dominated parliament in the next elections.

Although it might still me a minority opinion, I think this activism on the question of when a constitution should come is gaining momentum, and the reasons provided below make a persuasive case. What remains to be argued and fleshed out is how this new constitution would be formed. By an elected or an appointed constituent assembly? By a panel of jurists and selected (presumably by the SCAF) politicians? By representatives of all political parties (legal or not?) and youth groups? These are questions that need answering. 

But, just like yesterday's postponement of the elections for a constituent assembly in Tunisia from July 24 to October 23, it shows that best laid plans can change quickly if deemed necessary. As I've argued before, I don't think the issue of when to have elections is as important as how transparent they are. The Tunisians are delaying theirs to do a proper clearing of the electoral roll. The Egyptians, whether they have elections for parliament or for a constituent assembly, should do the same.

June 9, 2011

In the footsteps of the Tunisian revolution: A Constitution first

Press release

The undersigned human rights organizations call on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to engage constructively with demands from revolutionary forces to reconsider the agenda of the transitional phase and to give priority to the drafting of a new constitution for the country whose provisions will govern the institutions of a democratic regime. The constitution should be followed by presidential and parli

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On the National Democratic Party

Tahrir Square on January 29 2011, with the NDP building burning in the background

In mid-January, I found myself at a seminar in Rome presenting a paper on Egypt's National Democratic Party. Others spoke about the economic situation, the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian foreign policy. We all shared a gloomy view of situation in Egypt at the twilight of the Mubarak era and predicted trouble in the year ahead as Gamal Mubarak would make his bid to succeed his father. A couple of days later, I went to Tunisia to cover the revolution there, and then cut that trip short to make it back to Cairo by January 28, the day protestors defeated the police and security services across the country.

My paper on the NDP saw the party as the battleground of elite politics over the last decade, a place where different elements of the regime fought out their parcel of privilege and influence. The prize, of course was first and foremost a claim to the succession of Hosni Mubarak, but also for the less ambitious a place in the post-Mubarak order. In the end the NDP, alongside the security services, were the chief targets of demonstrators (the party's offices were looted and burnt in many places, much like police stations.) The paper was updated after the revolution, but still largely consists of a narrative of the NDP as a battleground of the regime between 2000 and 2010.

You get the various essays, titled Egypt: A Neo-Authoritarian State Steering The Winds Of Change, here (PDF 2.5MB) or just read the intro here.

On Egypt's social democrats

Warigia Bowman of Democratizing Egypt is launching a series of interviews with Egyptian politicians. She started off with Samer Soliman, an AUC professor who co-founded the Social Democratic Party. The interview is mostly personal, but here's an excerpt on Soliman's views of the emerging political spectrum:

The new parties in Egypt are emerging along an entire political spectrum. Some liberal parties exist. The Free Egyptians by Sawiris. The El Adl justice party is very wealthy, somewhat right wing. It is supported by big businessmen. The poor at this moment, and the lower middle classes do not have good representation. Al Ikhwan [The Muslim Brotherhood] represents them to a certain extent, but it is a right wing party. Our party, the Social Democratic Party, is on the center left. The Socialist coalition is a promising party. It has new blood. I am not sure if it is capable of getting 5000 signatures, but they have a fighting spirit. 

In a sense almost every new party in Egypt incorporates some social-democratic ideas, it's the new consensus. Parties for which it is a primary identity will have to devise means to communicate their difference to the electorate.

We hope to be doing similar interviews ourselves in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

ADC bans Syria freedom song

The state of Arab-Americans organizations in the United States is bad enough — they are largely ineffective, the community is divided along sectarian and national lines, they tend to be too uncritical of successive administrations in Washington — and then you get this outrage:

A leading Arab American group dropped a prominent Syrian-American musician from performing at their annual convention in a dispute over a freedom-tinged song that he was set to perform.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a longtime Washington civil rights group, repeatedly asked the German-born Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali to reconsider his piece choice, Jandali told POLITICO. When he refused, Jandali was told today that he couldn't perform at this weekend's event.

Jandali's "Watani Ana: I am my Homeland" doesn't specifically mention Syria or the broader Arab Spring uprisings, but is heavy on the themes of freedom and liberty. Jandali calls it a "humanitarian song." But lyrics include "oh my homeland, when will I see you free" and "When the land is watered with the blood of martyrs and the brave/ And all the people shout: Freedom to mankind."

Jandali himself declined to speculate why he wasn't allowed to perform "Watani Ana," and an official at the ADC, Nabil Mohamad, refused to explain its decision.

"Is is it the words? The scale of the music? Was the rhythm too slow? Did the melody maybe bother them?" Jandali asked POLITICO. "I really would love to hear their answer. It would have been a perfect song."

"It doesn''t mention the word 'Arab' or 'Syria' or anything," he said. "It''s a humanitarian song."

Ben Smith, the Politico reporter who wrote this story, says the head of the ADC is close to Imad Mustafa, Syria's ambassador in Washington, but only cites a blog post by Mustafa to confirm this. So that may not be the reason, but the decision is still inexplicable (and ADC members would not comment.)

One of my problems with the existing Arab-American organizations is that they are too uncritical of Arab governments, and some receive funding from them, especially Saudi Arabia. But they are not there to lobby for the Arab world. They are there to lobby for Arab-Americans. 

Update: The ever-opportunistic Jeffrey Goldberg uses this incident for a bit of demagoguery, although he rarely takes to task the much worse actions of organizations with extreme viewpoints like ADL and AIPAC in intimidating the Jewish-American community. No surprises here.

Review of ElBaradei's "The Age of Deception"

I must have been traveling when it came out, but I have a  review of Mohammed ElBaradei's new book, The Age of Deception, out in The National. The book is entirely about his time at the IAEA, so don't look for commentary on Egyptian politics here, but it does tell us about the man's character. That character has undergone several waves of assassination, from the propaganda of the Mubarak-controlled press in 2010 to those who see ElBaradei as some kind of Trojan horse for secularism post-revolution. Consider the lawyer who is currently trying to strip him of his Egyptian nationality (alongside Gamal Mubarak):

Meanwhile the lawsuit accuses ElBaradei of turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear weapons during his term as IAEA director. “ElBaradei had a stake in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which makes him unworthy of carrying Egyptian nationality”, it said.

ElBaradei's book is not the most riveting read — at the end of the day, it's a company man's diary — but it certainly puts to rest any notion that ElBaradei did not try to prevent (within his abilities as IAEA chief) the invasion of Iraq and the sexing up of its WMD dossier, or try to broker a negotiated outcome to the Iranian nuclear issue. From the review:

"Early on, I often got the feeling that the Arab world - and many westerners - expected me, as an Egyptian Arab and a Muslim, to show bias in favour of Iraq. Of course, I also heard that I was being tough on Iraq to prove my lack of bias. My only bias was that of an international civil servant: an insistence on independence, professionalism and treating all parties with equal respect."
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What the XXXX?

There sure are a lot of XXXs in this redacted Wikileaks cable, citing an Egyptian parliamentarian's speculation that Minister of Defense Hussein Tantawi and Director of Intelligence Omar Suleiman might thwart Gamal Mubarak from succeeding his father, back from 2007:

¶6. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX noted that hisXXXXXXXXXXXX (per ref B, a 
XXXXXXXXXXXX), is XXXXXXXXXXXX at the XXXXXXXXXXXX, due to what XXXXXXXXXXXX termed the continuing XXXXXXXXXXXX.  According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, MinDef Tantawi called him XXXXXXXXXXXX to ensure that XXXXXXXXXXXX was satisfied as to how XXXXXXXXXXXX was being XXXXXXXXXXXX.  XXXXXXXXXXXX said he engaged XXXXXXXXXXXX with XXXXXXXXXXXX, asking him to help get XXXXXXXXXXXX, as he has already XXXXXXXXXXXX and 
then replied that XXXXXXXXXXXX cannot be XXXXXXXXXXXX before he XXXXXXXXXXXX, as, "we are under terrible foreign pressure to XXXXXXXXXXXX, so cannot XXXXXXXXXXXX, as they will 
then criticize us for not XXXXXXXXXXXX too."  XXXXXXXXXXXX subsequent suggestion to XXXXXXXXXXXX both XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX went unheeded.  However, XXXXXXXXXXXX allegedly told XXXXXXXXXXXX that he had instructed XXXXXXXXXXXX to not 
undertake any procedures to divest XXXXXXXXXXXX of his XXXXXXXXXXXX; XXXXXXXXXXXX
therefore believes XXXXXXXXXXXX will be able to re-assume XXXXXXXXXXXX 
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The plight of Eritreans in Egypt

This post is by occasional contributor Dalia Malek, who works on refugee issues in Egypt and whom we hope will continue to provide insights into refugees and migration as well as Egyptian politics. You should also watch Channel Four's recently aired documentary looking at Eritreans in Sinai who tried to sneak into Israel.  

Asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt face a threat of deportation to countries where they risk persecution. This violates the cornerstone of international refugee law that prohibits such deportations—the principle of non-refoulement.

Refugees in Sinai have attracted media attention because Egyptian authorities have caught, arrested, shot, or even killed an increased number of those attempting to illegally cross the border from Egypt into Israel.

Others in Sinai have been kidnapped or held hostage by smugglers or traffickers who may have deceived these mainly-Eritrean individuals into believing that they can assist them with entering Israel for a high enough price. There are reports that they have led them as far as Sinai and then held them hostage until they can provide more money; in the meanwhile, they are subjected to torture, rape and other sexual abuses

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On Saudi spending

From an FP piece by Steffen Hertog, one of the best Saudi-watchers out there:

With a total estimated volume of $130 billion, the new spending measures are larger than the total annual government budget was as recently as 2007. They include the creation of 60,000 new jobs in the Ministry of Interior -- an agency that is already said to employ almost as many nationals as the whole Saudi private sector -- the building of 500,000 houses, the setting of a minimum wage of 3,000 Saudi Riyals ($800) in the public sector, one-time bonus payments for incumbent civil servants, the creation of a general unemployment assistance scheme, budget increases for various public credit agencies as well as supplementary funds for a number of religious organizations. Some of the spending is immediate, while other components will be rolled out during the coming years.

Many Saudis see the extra cash for religious institutions, including the religious police, as a reward for their vocal public stance against potential anti-regime demonstrations. Amendments to the Saudi media law announced in late April made it a crime to publish any material that insults the kingdom's grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Ulama and government officials. Dissidents feel that the regime is circling the wagons, and is underwriting its strategy with targeted patronage measures.

Emphasis is mine. Quick thought: Having been in some part responsible for making Pakistan what it is today, will the al-Sauds now make their own country like today's Pakistan?

The pessimists' view on Egypt

My academic friends Josh Stacher and Jason Brownlee, both noted students of contemporary Egypt and its authoritarianism, have a new piece in Comparative Democratization, a journal of the American Political Science Association. It's available as a PDF here. They set out the case that Egypt's prospects for a democratic transition are poor because there has not really been a split in the country's elite. (It's a lot more complicated than that, but it's difficult to pull out a representative passage as it's an academic piece — so best to read it all.)

I am much more optimistic than they are — and I suspect they might have been a bit more optimistic too had they had written their paper a month or so later (it looks like it was filed in April). They described the referendum as an endorsement of the SCAF but that narrative is now being reconsidered and debated, notably on the question of the SCAF's disingenuous use of the referendum as an endorsement of its transition plan (rather than, strictly speaking, nine amendments to the constitution). The fight regarding security officials and leading party members is also continuing, receiving an important boost as far as the NDP is concerned after April 8. Everything about the current moment is in flux, and while one should not have unrealistic expectations, there is a real desire for an improvement.

To say, as they do, that the current interim regime is just as authoritarian eludes the fact that this is a necessarily extraordinary transitional moment in Egyptian politics. I just don't see how it can be compared to the Mubarak era, even if it's still far from democratic. Still, it's a piece well worth reading.

Arguing with Noe on Syria

Nicholas Noe of Mideastwire has penned a HuffPo piece calling for an alternative to what he calls the "NeoLiberalCon" interventionism he thinks is getting traction in Washington and elsewhere, where the basic idea is to hasten the collapse of the Assad regime. I agree with him that this sounds like a terrible idea. But I'm not sure I like his alternative either:

In short, rather than only posing the formula of transitioning out of power or facing extreme isolation, growing unrest and a possible explosion, the Obama administration, Europe, other Arab states and Turkey could have -- and still can -- join together to offer a real roadmap for immediate stabilization and a medium-term transition towards democratic benchmarks.

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Ahmed Basiony at the Venice Biennale

Artist Ahmed Basiony, during the Egyptian revolution, a few days before his death.

In a review of Arab art at the Venice Biennale, a tribute to Ahmed Basiony - FT:

And so to Egypt, where wasted energy was also the inspiration for a performance piece by Basiony. In February 2010, he wired himself inside a transparent sweat suit and ran on spot for a month in a glass vitrine. The film of that happening is now part of an exhibition put together by two friends of Basiony, artist Shady El Noshokaty and curator Aida Eltorie. The other work is footage of the protests in Cairo last Janaury, which was shot by Basiony himself three days before he was killed by snipers.
Certain critics assert that the informal nature of this latter film invalidates it as art. How wrong they are. In an installation whose success depends on its simplicity, the juxtaposition of Basiony’s caged, relentless jog with his nerve-wrackingly unpredictable images of the crowds as they chant, pray and flee from police, is riveting. Watching those impassioned yet peaceful faces brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s declaration that he worked “in the gap between art and life”. That was long ago, and in another country. Basiony may be dead but the promise of his revolution lives on – not least in this year’s rich panorama of Arab art.


Qatar's new media law

Basically says, don't attack Saudi Arabia or Bahrain without our permission. Via POMED:

Qatar’s cabinet approved a new media law that is likely to be ratified during a meeting presided by Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Thani. The draft states that journalists will be able write freely, “except on issues concerning national security and friendly countries.” The Peninsula then adds, “There would be no censorship on the media.” The law does, however, prevent journalists from being detained without a court order, as is currently the case.

Regime suicide in Syria?

I really liked the column below, by Peter Harling in Le Monde, on Syria. It explains the uprising in Syria in two parts: first, a regime that once came from the provinces having, in its second and third generations, abandoned them and re-centered its economic policy on Damascus to the detriment of the provinces; and second, the return of a security elite that had previously been marginalized by Bashar al-Assad but that he is now relying on to repress the protesters. The conclusion: that Bashar probably does not have the clout or vision to dismantle that security core of the regime, and that the regime is headed for "collective suicide."

On another note, I am traveling this week and blogging will be very light.

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