Links 5-9 October 2011

I won't take up your time with yet another commemoration of Steve Jobs, but I wanted to say this: pretty much everything on this site, including the software that started me blogging, is made with products he conceived. He created wonderful things — and I keep thinking that is Steve Jobs had grown up in, say, Syria, none of it would have seen the day. Also, you have to watch the video at the end of this.

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The Strange Power of Qatar

The Strange Power of Qatar, Hugh Eakin’s piece in the NYRB, is an overview of Qatar’s recent foreign policy well worth reading.

But I disagree with Eakin’s conclusion, reproduced below, that Qatar is merely using the Arab Spring to divert attention away from its domestic situation. I simply don’t see anny opposition movement making any demands in Qatar, whatsoever. The vast majority of the population is satisfied. Like the rest of the small oil-rich countries of the Gulf, there may be an avant-garde that would like to see more democratic institutions, but there does not seem to be any mass dissent by nationals (foreign workers may be another thing.)

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Mitt Romney's oddly familiar foreign policy

Asa’ad AbuKhalil (aka Angry Arab) had a good piece on the fact that Walid Phares is advising Mitt Romney:

Phares’ first career began early in the Lebanese civil war of the 1975-1990 when he allied himself with the right-wing militias, armed and financed by Israel. In his official curriculum vitae, Phares describes himself as a writer and lawyer in Lebanon at this time but he was more and less than that. He assumed a political position in the hierarchy of the militias and founded a small Christian party in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

After General Michel Auon assumed the presidency of Lebanon in 1988, Phares joined the right-wing coalition known as the Lebanese Front, which consisted of various sectarian groupings and militia. The Front backed Gen. Auon in his struggles against the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad and the Muslims of Lebanon. Phares’s role was not small, according to Beirut newspaper accounts.. He served as vice chair of another front’s political leadership committee, headed by  a man named Etienne Saqr, whose Guardians of Cedar militia voiced the slogan “Kill a Palestinian and you shall enter Heaven.” (Saqr later moved to Israel, and then Cyprus.) The Front was also backed by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a bitter foe of the Syrians. It seems unlikely that Romney knew much about this chapter in Phares’ career when he tapped him as an advisor.

In all fairness, whatever the nutty Phares is doing for Romney, it seems like some pretty familiar people are also getting a word in. Mitt Romney gave his first foreign policy speech, on October 7 in North Carolina. It sounds eerily familiar to neo-conservative tropes. What’s the first item on his agenda, for example?

Today, I want you to join me in looking forward. Forward beyond that next Recognition Day, beyond Ring Weekend to four years from today, October 7th, 2015.

What kind of world will we be facing?

Will Iran be a fully activated nuclear weapons state, threatening its neighbors, dominating the world’s oil supply with a stranglehold on the Strait of Hormuz? In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world.

By 2015, will Israel be even more isolated by a hostile international community? Will those who seek Israel’s destruction feel emboldened by American ambivalence? Will Israel have been forced to fight yet another war to protect its citizens and its right to exist?

So first the telling sign of putting Israel as the number one issue, but soon you’ll recognize that the neo-cons are back with their old Project for the New American Century:

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In Translation: Fahmi Howeidy on Iran, Syria and Bahrain

We bring you another commentary piece from the Arab media in translation, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a  full-service translation company founded by two longtime Arabist readers, which specializes in English-Arabic-French technical, legal, and engineering translation management services.

Fahmi HoweidyThis week I selected an article by Fahmi Howeidy, a conservative Egyptian columnist who is widely believed to be the most influential pundit in the Arab world. Howeidy is well-connected and writes for multiple audiences (he is syndicated in Egyptian papers and several Gulf-owned ones). He has long championed a kind of elitist Islamo-populism which I personally abhor, but does have some resonance in the region. At his best, Howeidy is (was?) incredibly cutting of (some of) the regimes in place; at his worst he defends silly conspiracy theories and makes crude, unsupported attacks against his ideological enemies — including at times rather nasty personal attacks.

In recent years, Howeidy had been a defender of Iran in its standoff with Israel and the United States. As the author of several books about Iran with excellent access in Tehran, he consistently defended the Islamic Republic and its foreign policy. Even when the Hizbullah and the Iranian Republican Guards were said (plausibly) by the Mubarak regime to have operated an espionage network with links to Hamas in Gaza, Howeidy slammed the Egyptian regime. This shocked many at the time, since after all covert operations had been uncovered and public opinion tended to be critical of any foreign meddling. In other words, there was a time when, for Howeidy, Iran could do no wrong.

In the column below, Howeidy reports from a conference in Tehran and slams the Iranian stance on Syria, going as far as arguing that the Islamic Republic “has lost its moral compass.” He comes out strongly against the Assad regime and makes a compelling argument that what he had admired about Assad — his commitment to the “Resistance Front” against Israel and the United States’ imperial policies in the last decade — cannot take precedence over the regimes’ murdering of its own population, and that it further risks souring that population on supporting the Resistance Front. I recommend reading alongside Rami Khouri’s latest column, on the fall of Iran’s star in the Arab world this year. Howeidy’s take may be the surest sign of this trend. Finally, his equivocating on Bahrain in the latter part of the piece is also interesting — Howeidy is not quite ready to abandon the Bahraini royals, and their Gulf allies…

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Stuck on the bus

This video by Alaa Saadeh is a funny allegory for the situation in Egypt these days. A group of Egyptians needs to get to the neighborhood of Imbaba, but their trip falls apart when the driver overcharges and one customer refuses to pay. The young man's principled objection isn't shared by other passengers, who each have their own interests, priorities and needs. The tension between standing up for your rights and getting on with your life -- the problem of defining a common, shared interest and the chaos that ensues when you can't -- is all very relevant. It also reminded me of another recent, brilliant transport metaphor for Egyptian politics. 

Thirty years ago today

Maria Golia, right, enjoying a goza.

Friend of the site Maria Golia — the author of Cairo: City of Sand and Photography and Egypt — sent in the piece below, an extract from Nile Eyes, her unpublished novel about Cairo in the 1980s. It is about how she spent 6 October 1981 — the day that 30 years ago Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated, ushering in the Hosni Mubarak era.

On October 6, 1981 while President Anwar Sadat was being assassinated at his Victory Day parade, I was close by, shooting a TV ad for Egyptian laundry soap. As a fair-skinned, dark-haired foreigner I’d been cast as the ideal Egyptian housewife, never mind the other four million girls who’d been born for the role. The borrowed child I held in my arms was indeed unconvinced. His howls nearly drowned out the ominous noise of helicopters, sirens and sonic booms. I didn’t realize it then, but my presence before the camera was symptomatic of the policies that had provoked Sadat’s demise, and would paradoxically gain greater momentum after his death. I was a tiny ripple in the gathering wave of commercialism, the vanguard of Egypt’s 'open market' era.

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Of Saudi Arabia and US policy

This BeastWeek piece by Eli Lake touches on the important topic of the Saudi-led counter-revolution and US policy: 

Retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who served as national security adviser in 2009-10, told a private meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the United States' Persian Gulf allies interpret the president's handling of the Egyptian revolution as a sign that Washington will dump their monarchies or governments if enough demonstrators take to their streets, according to a recording of the speech reviewed by The Daily Beast.

“We have paid a price,” Jones said of the decision to call for Hosni Mubarak's ouster. “Our policy with regard to Mubarak as interpreted by some of our closest Arab allies in the Gulf has not gone over well.”

“In their interpretation of our dumping President Mubarak very hastily, [it] answered the question of what we would be likely to do if that happened in their countries. So there is a chasm there that somehow has to be bridged,” he added.

Of course these "closest allies" are mostly Saudi Arabia, whose regime basically made 9/11 possible and then was very happy as the US tried to blame Iraq for it, then spent the last decade backing extremists groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as more generally financing extremist networks across the Arab world. And that is now backing the counter-revolutionary movements in the Arab world and underwriting poorer corrupt monarchies. If the Saudis are pissed off, this article does not really make clear what the price is. The kind of financing of religious radicals and conservative forces is something Saudi Arabia did before the  Arab uprisings, and is continuing to do after. The US did nothing about it before and won't do anything about it now, for various reasons, the most important of which is a foreign policy devised by military planners, oil executives and lobbyists.

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On Tony Blair and the Quartet

Above is the video of Peter Oborne’s recent Channel Four documentary on Tony Blair, his fortune made from consulting, and his very pro-Israel position as the Middle East Quartet’s representative.

Oborne focuses on possible abuses of his position at the Quartet for business purposes, but Blair’s diplomacy is well-worth examining too. In a sense, the problem is not so much Blair’s appointment at the Quartet as much as the Quartet being only a US tool, with the EU, UN and Russia having little say in how it goes. The EU, despite the difference in its policies on Israel/Palestine, has been particularly hampered by its presence in the Quartet, which dilutes the differences among EU members. It’s the Quartet that should be dissolved, and with it Blair’s job: i.e., the problem is not just Blair.

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US aid and diplomacy budget cut, except...

In the US, both the House of Representatives and the Senate are working on bills that would make deep cuts to the US foreign aid budget. These cuts will undermine the Obama administration’s policy of relying more on such aid as a completement to US power, reduce the ability to open consulates and finance international organizations, and make any idea of a “Marshall Plan” for the post-uprisings Arab world completely moot. But of course there is an exception:

The Republicans also attach conditions on aid to Pakistan, Egypt and the Palestinians, suspending the latter entirely if the Palestinians succeed in winning recognition of statehood at the United Nations. However, one of the largest portions of foreign aid — more than $3 billion for Israel — is left untouched in both the House and Senate versions, showing that, even in times of austerity, some spending is inviolable.

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Announcing NOCMES

Update: You can catch a livestream of Rami Khouri Josh Stacher's appearance tonight here and listen to a WKSU radio interview of Stacher here

There's a new Middle East Studies association in the US, co-founded by former Arabist contributor Josh Stacher, that will be bringing some fantastic speakers to the Cleveland area — starting with the man I consider to be one of the finest commentator on the region, Rami Khouri, tonight and tomorrow night.

Check out the NOCMES website for more info, and here is the Fall speaker schedule. Some events will be streamed or archived (including Khouri's two talks). You can also follow NOCMES on Twitter at @nocmes.

Full info below.
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UAE: Electoral hangover

There was a dismal voter turnout in the United Arab Emirates for the Federal National Council elections, only 28 percent of the roughly 130,000 eligible voters cast a ballot. Before the polls closed, there was optimism that turnout would exceed expectation. The Dubai Media Office, which represents the government of Dubai, tweeted:

National Election Committee: The extension of voting period is due to the increasing turnout of voters at polling stations #UAE

Election Commission in Western Region: Huge turnout is clear & thanks for voters for their response & cooperation #UAE 

However, when the final turnout numbers were reported, it was clear the vast majority of eligible voters did not participate in the UAE’s democratic experiment. In 2006, when the electoral college was considerably smaller, 6,500 people, turnout was 74 percent.

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Bahraini justice on trial

Last week was a bad week to be on trial in Bahrain. 

On September 29, a military court — or what Bahrain calls the National Safety Court — sentenced 20 medical professionals from five to 15 years in jail on charges that included inciting to overthrow the regime, possession of weapons, and forcefully taking over control of the main medical complex, Salmaniya Hospital. 

The medics all say they are innocent and the international community has not found fault with them, but they have found fault with Bahrain’s courts.  

“These are medical professionals who were treating patients during a period of civil unrest, as their ethical duty requires them to do. To imprison them as part of a political struggle is unconscionable,” said Physicians for Human Right’s Chief Policy Officer, Hans Hogrefe, in a press statement.  

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Tahrir, the movie

At Ferrara's international journalism festival (put on by the excellent Italian paper Internazionale) I saw the film Tahrir this afternoon. I was afraid it might be too familiar, or sentimental, or iconographic, but it was lovely. Italian film-maker Stefano Savona spent days in Tahrir Square and got some amazing footage. Here for example is a clip of the protesters fighting to defend the square from pro-Mubarak thugs:

And here is a completely different side of Tahrir: the funny, moving, poeting chants that inspired protesters came up with on the spot:

What's just as interesting are the long conversations between the young Egyptias the film-maker followed around the square, discussing (with remarkably clarity and insight) all the questions and difficulties of the coming transitional period. It was quite emotional for me to watch this film, at this moment, when the revolution's promises are so far from realized and when the aims and sacrifices of those involved in it have been (despite official lip service paid to the "glorious revolution") distorted and disparaged by the army, the security services, former regime elements and a disturbing number of media outlets. It's a good reminder of all the outrage, courage, and optimism on display during those 18 days, and of their continued potential. The film is playing in New York on October 2 and 4. And I really hope it will be showing in Egypt soon. 

Michele Bachmann: Obama caused the Arab Spring

That's right: a Republican is giving Obama more credit than even his own party will for influencing the "Arab Spring." MSNBC broke the story, capturing footage of Michele Bachmann, GOP presidential hopeful saying that:

"Just like Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s [who] didn’t have the back of the Shah of Iran, we saw the Shah fall and the rise of the Ayatollah. And we saw the rise and the beginnings of radical jihad which have changed this world and changed this nation."

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