The Arab world into the unknown

The Arab world into the unknown

Our friends Peter Harling and Sarah Birke contributed the following piece, a reflection on the state of the Arab world after a confounding 2013 that saw, for many, the dissipation of the enthusiasm of 2011. Harling is Senior MENA advisor at the International Crisis Group; Birke is a Middle East Correspondent for The Economist.

Two and a half years ago, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial, and proud that the region could awaken and, after centuries of foreign interference, set its own agenda. Opinions were also invariably sophisticated, with people speaking profoundly about societies they thought they knew and had started to reassess. 

This was a refreshing change from the pre-2011 tune of impotence. The region at that point, as its inhabitants saw it, was hostage to ossified regimes, intractable conflicts, worn-out narratives, and crumbling economies – not to mention Western hypocrisy, and schizophrenia, about urging client regimes to reform. Sterile agitation on the regional or international front, notably around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distracted from thorough stagnation in domestic politics. Commentary was a cyclical run through the latest episode of violence, round of sanctions, realignment of alliances, or half-hearted diplomatic ventures. Uninspiring solutions to lingering problems left citizens reluctant to choose, among players in this game, the lesser of evils. Standing up to the US (like firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or surviving an Israeli assault (as Hezbollah did in 2006 and Hamas in 2009) could certainly make you popular beyond your traditional base, but not for long. 

Less than three years after popular protests streaked across the Arab world, conversations appear to have come full circle. Optimism that societies in the region could no longer be ignored and would bring about change has reverted to doom and gloom. Outside observers have jumped from one label to the next: Arab spring to Islamist autumn to reactionary winter. All-too often, local residents view protests as a conspiracy, a naïve illusion or an ill-fated hope at best. Many see a stark choice between a failing old order and hegemonic Islamist rule—or war, as in Syria. Opinions are generally crude, aggressively intolerant and more rigid than ever. Interlocutors sport surprisingly definite conclusions about their home-region, no matter how fluid and contradictory the current trends actually are. 

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Morsi, more Yeltsin than Putin?

✚ The Terrible Twos - By James Traub | Foreign Policy:

Egypt's revolutionaries have begun to think of President Mohammed Morsy as their Putin, consolidating power and crushing dissent. But it's much more likely, as Sestanovich observes, that Morsy will prove to be Egypt's Yeltsin, presiding fecklessly over weak institutions and an increasingly fragmented polity. Yeltsin's Russia resisted demands for market reform from the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Morsy's government has spent months putting off an agreement with the IMF even as foreign exchange reserves dwindle down to a three-month supply. Morsy has been unable or unwilling to curb the hated security forces directed by the Interior Ministry, deepening the outrage at his high-handed political tactics. We should remember that Yeltsin was first seen as a bully, and only later as a weakling. Morsy's own position is hardly secure; he may react to his growing unpopularity by becoming more autocratic, which will in turn provoke more protest.

Some interesting thoughts on comparing the post-Arab uprisings situation to the former republics of the USSR. Limited relevance, but some more things to worry about...

Of flags in protests

Brothers in the Hood: Egypt’s Soft Powers and the Arab World

This is an interesting piece in Jadaliyya but I have a problem with this:

When Egyptian liberals complain of Islamist protesters waving Saudi flags in Tahrir Square, it needs to be pointed out that this is not so different from when liberals wave Tunisian and revolutionary Syrian flags. One has a conservative pan-Islamist agenda, the other a revolutionary pan-Arab one – both with an Egypt at the head.

Not really — on the rare occasions Egyptian protestors had Tunisian or Syrian flags, it was to express solidarity for those revolutions. Since Saudi Arabia was not having a revolution, one can assume it was either an indication of allegiance to the Saudi monarchy or the regime's religious viewpoints. There's a big difference there. 

Will Arabs turn out for Gaza?

Will Arabs turn out for Gaza?

Lynch has this right:

Morsi has demonstrated his preference to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy here, offering some sympathetic rhetoric and a visit from his relatively anonymous Prime Minister but thus far avoiding dramatic gestures such as opening the border with Gaza or throwing Camp David on the table.  But as much as Morsi values solidifying relations with the U.S. and the international community, and is constrained by the status quo orientation of the Egyptian military and foreign policy apparatus, he may also see real opportunities to gain domestic popularity and assert Egyptian regional leadership.  Morsi's conversations with Erdogan may be implictly focused as much on coordinating to avoid a bidding war over Gaza which pushes both countries towards overly risky moves.  But it is not clear that such a stance can be maintained if the tempo of protests and the human toll of the war escalates.  

The coming days will, among many other things, offer some of the first real evidence about the strategic effects of the Arab uprisings.  It is important to recognize how limited the response of the Arab public and leaders has been thus far.  But it's also important to recognize how quickly this could change, and how unsurprising this would be should it happen.  The Arab uprisings have introduced far greater unpredictability and complexity into everyone's calculations, raising the potential payoff to dramatic political gestures and decreasing the confidence of rulers that they can safely ignore public demands.   All of those ready to confidently dismiss the possibility of such rapid developments should go back first to read what they wrote about Tunisia in December 2010, Egypt in January 2011, or Syria in February 2011.  All the more reason for all parties to push hard for a ceasefire now, so that it isn't put to a test.  

So far Morsi has handled this well: he has done enough in terms of domestic opinion and perhaps even more importantly the Brotherhood base. His inner circle feel content that they calibrated their reaction correctly. But that's today. If this continues, it may be that Morsi will be constrained by US threats and other considerations, for now, and take a humiliation that Netanyahu may be interested in giving him. But even if things don't change immediately, it will have set in motion the preparations for a strategy to act differently next time.

The Children Devour the Revolution

The Children Devour the Revolution 

BEIJING - The Arab Spring that swept away dictatorships across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 unnerved many in the Chinese leadership. Liu Yuan, one of the boldest and most ambitious generals in China's People's Liberation Army, was particularly shaken by what he identified as a fatal weakness of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi: his son. Until the revolution, Qaddafi's second-oldest son, Saif al-Islam, was seen as a Western-leaning reformer, a voice for modernization and democracy. And he was educated in the same class of prestigious overseas universities attended by dozens of princelings (the sons and daughters of high-ranking Chinese officials).

In an extraordinary closed door speech in February, notes of which Foreign Policy has seen, Liu cautioned that Saif exposed himself to the flattery, privilege, and ideological brainwashing of the "Western hostile forces" -amorphous enemies of Chinese communism. And he returned to Libya with ideas of liberty and democracy, which fatally softened the ideological defenses of his once-defiant father, Liu said, leading to his bloody demise. It is exactly this kind of Fifth Column that Liu fears could kill China from the inside.

Perversely, I think the Chinese general has it right — among many things, one cause of the regime's fall was their pretense to be something they weren't — democratic. The rest of this fascinating piece is on Chinese politics, btw.

Agha/Malley: This Is Not a Revolution

This Is Not a Revolution by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley | The New York Review of Books

Another almost melodramatically lucid-pessimistic view of the Arab uprisings and their consequences by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley. Much of the phenomena they describe is accurate, but what they object to is history in motion, which they see as more of loop. This is too depressed-romantic a view. There are terrible debts to be paid for the way power was organized in the Arab world over the last 60 years, they will be paid in blood. Let's get on with paying them, and not cry over spilt milk. But the idea that a restoration of the Ottoman model (in terms of a MB caliphate, not Turkish domination) is happening I find dubious.

I liked this bit:

The Islamists propose a bargain. In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering—as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours—Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?

Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader program—moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.

Agha and Malley lament the rise of the Islamists and the bizarre Gulf-financed taste for Western interventionism that creates opportunities for Islamists, and the retrograde views most Islamists advocate under the petrol-fueled influence of the Salafi international. There is a potential key to making things go differently: the collapse of Saudi Arabia as it currently is politically organized. Which probably means, for a while at least, the collapse of order in that country in the way we see in Syria today. But that is the solution that is always unpalatable to the way the world is run — it has little to do with the Arab world and its politics, the security of the Gulf regimes is not underwritten locally.

To get Western support, Arab secularists need to stop being stupid

Borzou Daragahi has a piece in FT titled Arab liberals need the west’s support (and a companion report here). He argues:

Close watchers of the Middle East knew the Islamists would be a major factor once Arab tyrannies were toppled. They have organisational capacity, popular support and international connections lacked by their rivals.

But what is most surprising, given the gutting they suffered at the hands of Arab dictators for the past few decades, is how strong, vital and persistent liberals, secularists and leftists in the region are becoming.

. . .

The challenge for the west and for the next US president, and a worthy subject for the next debate, is how to support liberal and secular political forces as well as the tolerant wings of the ascendant Islamist forces so that they pursue the pragmatist course of Turkey rather than the harsh, repressive vision of Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I'm all for greater Western support for like-minded people in the Arab world — rather than the betting on the Muslim Brotherhood as the new normal that has characterized, for instance, part of the Obama administration's approach. But it's not a one-way street. Arab secularists, leftist, liberal or conservative, have to not only be better organized and able to perform well in elections, but also stop having moronic attitudes towards the West.

Having lunch yesterday with a Western diplomat, he complained that for instance labor groups and other leftist forces refused to meet with him because they feared being accused of collaborating with Western forces. The MB, of course, has used the charge that secularists are Western-funded to tar them. The Mubarak regime used to do the same. But considering that Muslim Brothers spent much of the past 18 months ingratiating themselves with the West, they have to move beyond these fears and push back on these charges. And there is absolutely no reason for them to refuse to meet with Western officials, or form partnerships with like-minded political parties, trade unions, and other organizations in the West. The Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly impervious to attacks on having foreign ties, either, after all.

I believe in the electoral viability of non-Islamist parties, even if I despair of their divisions and organizational abilities. These things will improve. But I am simply dumb-founded by the stupid pseudo-nationalist positions some cling to. They need to multiply foreign ties and leverage them for political advantage. That's what the MB has been doing, even before it was in power. Why should secularists be any different?

Gresh on the key aspects of the Arab uprisings

Alain Gresh:

Même s’il y a des différences d’un pays à l’autre, une même volonté anime ces révoltes qui ont en commun trois caractéristiques :

1. La volonté d’en finir avec l’autoritarisme et la dictature, mais pas seulement au sens politique. Avant tout au sens d’arbitraire. C’est ce que disent les gens quand ils parlent de karama – de dignité. Ils veulent vivre dans une société où ils ne sont pas soumis à l’arbitraire du fonctionnaire qui les envoie «promener», du policier qui les maltraite ou les frappe, une société où tous les agents de l’Etat respectent les citoyens. Cela va bien au-delà d’une demande de démocratie.

2. La volonté d’en finir avec l’accaparement des richesses par une minorité, avec une libéralisation économique imposée par l’Union européenne, qui ne profite qu’à la clique au pouvoir et accroît la paupérisation de la population.

3. La volonté d’en finir avec un patriarcat oppressant qui marginalise une jeunesse instruite, mieux formée que ses parents et qui ne trouve pas de travail.

Révolte contre l’arbitraire, contre l’injustice sociale, contre la marginalisation de la jeunesse : ces trois facteurs sont communs à tous les soulèvements qui secouent le Monde arabe.

Three key aspects of the Arab uprisings: anti-authoritarianism with a libertarian streak and a focus on rule of law, a demand for socio-economic justice, and against what might be termed the geronto-patriarchy (i.e. the rule of old men). Seems about right, and if so it should bring major social transformations in the next decade.

Harling: Is the Arab world really in "winter"?

An excellent piece going beyond the superficial Arab spring/winter dichotomy, by ICG’s Peter Harling in Le Monde:

Ce qui rend les transitions en cours impossibles à juger, c’est qu’elles font apparaître d’innombrables tensions latentes au sein des sociétés de la région, au moment même où elles font disparaître les moyens traditionnels de leur gestion, puisque les procédés habituels des régimes sont très exactement ce que leurs sujets ne tolèrent plus. L’enjeu de ces renégociations consiste justement à recréer des mécanismes de règlement des conflits sociaux, sur des bases nouvelles elles-mêmes source de conflits. Il n’est dons pas surprenant de les voir susciter des désaccords, voire des violences. Le véritable point d’interrogation porte sur l’apparition de systèmes politiques accordant une importance centrale à la légitimité populaire, dans une région qui en a jusqu’à présent été dépourvue.

My translation:

What makes the transitions underway impossible to judge is that they have all brought to the fore innumerable tensions at the heart of the region’s societies, at the very moment when these societies are ridding themselves of the traditional means to manage these tensions, since the the usual means used by the regimes are exactly what their subjects no longer tolerate. At stake in these negotiations is precisely the creation of mechanism to regulate social conflicts, but on new bases which are themselves sources of conflict. It is therefore not surprising to see disagreements, and even violence. The real question mark is whether new political systems will appear that will give a central importance to popular legitimacy, in a region that has hitherto been deprived of such systems.

You really have to read the whole, very thoughtful piece – it’s a breath of fresh air from the morose reporting and alarmist analyses you see a lot these days (often corroborated by depressing if transient news). ICG often translates its staff’ analyses on their website, so check there in a day or two. An important point he makes at the end is the importance of mixing the uprisings with geopolitical games (Iran, for instance).

The Arab Spring, US foreign policy, the Status-Quo Lobby and the Dream Palace of the Zionists

I'd like to touch upon America and Egypt, because I've seen a lot of hand-wringing in American newspapers about the future of that relationship and a sense of misplaced buyers' remorse about the Egyptian revolution – misplaced because the US had little to do with the revolution, and because it is wrong-headed thinking about an unstoppable, irreversible event.

Generally speaking, the American foreign policy establishment is stuck on Egypt. It is having a hard time imagining a different Middle East. Its path of least resistance is banking on their financial and political relationship with the generals now in charge and maintaining the ability to project power in the region that it has had since 1945 to some extent and since 1990 in particular. If it continues on this path, which is unfortunately likely, because of the dearth of imagination in a foreign policy elite that has grown lazy in its imperial thinking, and because of the dire state of American politics, it will fail. 

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Overdoing Islamist panic

John Bradley, a British journalist who has written books about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has a new book out. And it's all about how the Arab uprisings were the most horrible thing ever to happen, how the Islamists have taken over everything, and everyone is stupid for hoping that some form of democracy might finally come to the Arab world.

Bradley's book on Egypt captured well the sense that things were coming to an end, and being subtitled "The land of the pharaohs on the brink of a revolution," he can claim uncanny prescience. But in fact, the book did not really predict anything specific other than the exhaustion of the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime, and had other problems. One of them was a very hostile treatment of Islamists — not that they don't deserve a cautious approach, but it was very much over the top — I remember for instance an odd passage in which Bradley gets pissed off with the then Deputy General Guide of the Muslim Brothers, Muhammad Habib, for speaking polished fusha rather than aamiya.

Since the Arab Spring — which Bradley has taken to calling the Salafi Spring — he has been resoundly negative and pessimistic, and often alarmist about the electoral victories of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt. I downloaded the first chapter of his new book, After the Arab Spring: How Islamist have hijacked the Middle East revolts and found him resolutely negative about Tunisia (Tunisia for Pete's sake!), only citing Tunisians who worry about the victory of Ennahda (in my experience a minority) and taking incidents that were likely political manipulations like the whole Persepolis affair of last summer as signs of an impending totalitarian imposition of Sharia law. He almost sounds nostalgic about the supposed liberalism of Ben Ali! 

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Parsing the EIU's Democracy Index

Just took a look at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index [PDF] to see how things had changed in MENA. First off, they note:

Despite the pro-democracy upheavals in the region and improvement in the region’s average democracy score in 2011, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains the most repressive region in the world—15 out of 20 countries in the region are categorised as authoritarian. Only in Tunisia has the Arab spring thus far resulted in significant democratisation, although some progress has been recorded in Egypt, Libya and a few Gulf states. Elsewhere there has even been regression in reaction to popular protests—notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

I picked out the scores for the countries were the most significant upheavals and/or political change took place in 2011:

A few notes on this:

  • I am not sure what their methodology is, but I suspect that once the institutional setup stabilizes Tunisia is set to pass into the second category, “flawed democracy”, rather than where it is now at “hybrid regime”. This just highlights once again what a fantastic success Tunisia has been thus far.
  • I am not sure Egypt deserves a lowering of its score considering the prevalence of martial law and media control that still exists. Not to mention the whole killing protestors thing.
  • It must have been very difficult to give Libya a score, considering that civil war prevailed for most of the year and chaos continues. Still, I suppose there’s no doubt it’s better than under Qadhafi.
  • Big jump backwards for Bahrain.
  • Interesting downgrade for Morocco. Not sure it’s entirely fair, but it may be related to other countries’ advance rather than Morocco’s fairly static situation despite the constitutional change and new government. The bottom line is that the score is still high — if the regime is even serious, we have to wait for implementation.

Towards a second revolution?

Activists' efforts towards organizing a "second revolution" on the anniversary of the 25 January uprising are underway. The above video, titled "The confessions of Omar Suleiman", is the latest attempt to create a viral campaign. Below is the full press release about it, but do watch it.

Cairo, Egypt, January 3rd 2012

A video compiling the works and testimonies of numbers of activists has been released on January 1st 2012 on Youtube. It calls for a second revolution on January 25th 2012, and has gone viral.

Reception of the video

- The video encountered an instantaneous viral success, especially on Facebook (45,000 shares in the last 48 hours), on Twitter and blogs.

- It was reviewed and posted the day of its release by 3 national newspapers El Wafd, El Badil and Al Youm el 7.

- Youtube stats indicate it has been viewed over 100,000 times to this date.

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Egypt was not Tunisia after all

Remember how, in early January, Egyptian officials and many a pundit warned that "Egypt is not Tunisia," suggesting an uprising against Mubarak was unlikely? I wrote about this in one of my first long pieces on the uprisings in the LRB, before Mubarak was toppled, and have thought about it a lot since. I take to task the centrality of the Egyptian uprising in a new piece in The National (part of a series of three looking at the Arab uprisings), and argue that Tunisia must be given its due. To me, the Tunisian revolution (because it is that, a revolution) was the most remarkable event of 2011, and I'm glad I got a chance to witness key parts of it.

It has often been written in the past year that the beating heart of the Arab uprisings is Cairo's Tahrir Square. In this view, the events that took place the month before in Tunisia were a mere precursor to the real deal - the Egyptian revolution - as if the Tunisians were simply the warm-up act for the star of the show.

The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after all, was the most unexpected and counterintuitive of events: Ben Ali's Tunisia had been a well-run, orderly little place with its share of social problems and a pervasive police state, but no real political fissure on the horizon. Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, on the other hand, was a disaster waiting to happen, in which an elderly president, his ineffectual son and a divided regime were gearing for battle as a leadership succession loomed.

In other words - from this perspective - tiny Tunisia was an uprising that could have easily ended differently if, during a few hours of panic on January 14, the president had not caved into the advice of his security chief and decided to leave the country. In expansive Egypt, long a gravity well of the Arab world, the spark of Ben Ali's downfall found ready kindle to unleash a much larger revolt that spread like wildfire.

I beg to differ with this analysis, which puts the horse before the cart. It is true that few saw the Tunisian uprising coming, despite waves of social unrest in the country's poor hinterlands in 2008 and the unceasing and dull brutality of Ben Ali's security forces. And it is true that the Tunisian revolt was less filled with tension and drama than the Egyptian one, which had the world's cameras perched above Tahrir Square and a people given to dramatic performances to enchant them. But we should not confuse the spectacular nature of the "Arab Spring", as brought to you by CNN and Al Jazeera, with its reality.

Arab Spring and Russia parallels

It's probably too early to tell, but the recent electoral protests in Russia are somehow reminiscent of what's happened in the Arab world not just in the last year, but in the last decade. An autocrat at the height of his powers, who maintains a strictly formal veneer of democracy on a micromanaged polititical system, is blindsided by the rise of a leaderless protest movement. He can't put the ringleaders in jail because there are none, or too many. He can't pin down an ideological movement because the protestors are leftists, liberals, conservatives and anarchists. This passage from TIME reminds me of Egypt:

The brightest response to the crisis from the government side is typical of Putin's system of managed democracy. The ruling party wants to engineer a liberal party to channel the energy of the young, educated and middle-class voters attending the latest demonstrations. "This is a gaping hole in the system," the United Russia official said. "We have no party that can absorb this part of society." Last summer, the Kremlin already attempted to create such a party, Pravoe Delo (Right Cause), by tapping the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, Mikhail Prokhorov, to run it. But he did not prove sufficiently loyal. As that party's list of candidates for the parliamentary vote was being formed, Prokhorov began pushing through his own men instead of accepting orders handed down from above. The reaction was swift, and revealed the Kremlin's almost pathological fear of competition. In September, Prokhorov was unseated as the leader of the party, a coup he blamed on the Kremlin's "puppet master," Vladislav Surkov, who has overseen the media and national politics throughout Putin's rule. Most of the protest votes in the elections then ended up going to the Communist Party, which got 19%, even though Russia's urban middle-class youth hardly wants to see it returned to power. Both the Communist speakers at Saturday's rally got a cold reception from the crowd; one was booed off stage.

[Hat tip to Blake who tweeted this fine piece.]

Walt on the Arab Spring

What does History Teach Us about the Arab Revolutions? | Stephen M. Walt:

But if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success. Why? Because once the existing political order has collapsed, the stakes for key groups in society rise dramatically. The creation of new institutions -- in effect, the development of new rules for ordering political life -- inevitably creates new winners and losers. And everyone knows this. Not only does this situation encourage more and more groups to join the process of political struggle, but awareness that high stakes are involved also gives them incentives to use more extreme means, including violence.

This is why I remain optimistic about the Arab uprisings — not because they'll deliver immediate benefits, but because they broke a failing pattern of state-society relations. Seeing what's happened in Tunisia alone makes it all worth it. (Or to put it another way, the Terror and the rise of Napoleon and 15 years of European war do not make the French Revolution a bad thing.) Do read the whole thing which has a lot of examples from history. 

How a top Israeli commander sees the Arab uprisings

This post, contributed by Paul Mutter, illustrates the evolving Israeli strategic thinking towards the Arab Spring and its consequences. Personally, I can understand this: the Arab uprisings means that Israel can no longer continue the same behavior as before. That must sting for the war criminal in charge of Cast Lead. [I.E.]

Some strange comments in a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies by IDF Major General Eyal Eisenberg, former commander of the Gaza Division during Operation Cast Lead and newly appointed Home Front Command Chief, seem to be throwing everyone in the defense establishment into a tizzy. Although Ynet reports that the remarks were approved by military censors before the speech, the defense establishment is moving quick to denounce them and demand that IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz reign in Eisenberg.

Much of what Eisenberg apparently said is it not new and has been expressed before by Israeli officials: the Arab Spring is a catalyst for disorderEgypt is facing total national collapseTurkey needs to tone done its rhetoric over the flotillaHezbollah is further entrenching itself in LebanonHamas and Iran are plotting their next moves against Israel.

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10000% worth it

With regards to Michael Scheuer's complaint that the Arab uprisings may have benefited al-Qaeda (via Angry Arab):

Speaking at the Edinburgh international book festival, Michael Scheuer said: "The help we were getting from the Egyptian intelligence service, less so from the Tunisians but certainly from the Libyans and Lebanese, has dried up – either because of resentment at our governments stabbing their political leaders in the back, or because those who worked for the services have taken off in fear of being incarcerated or worse.

"The amount of work that has devolved on US and British services is enormous, and the result is blindness in our ability to watch what's going on among militants."

The Arab spring, he said, was "an intelligence disaster for the US and for Britain, and other European services".

[. . .]

He said: "The rendition programme must come back – the people we have in custody now are pretty long in the tooth, in terms of the information they can provide in interrogations.

"The Arab spring has been a disaster for us in terms of intelligence gathering, and we now are blind both because of the Arab spring and because there is nothing with which to replace the rendition programme."

Quite aside that I won't really miss intelligence cooperation on rendition, torture and the training of security and intelligence officers (all things that should be investigated — for instance FBI access to the Ministry of Interior in Egypt, or the training that State Security officers received at FBI tranining facilities in Virginia), the bigger picture makes this so irrelevant I find it hardly worth bringing up.

The Saudi-led counter-revolution

The NYT covers the Saudi-led counter revolution, starting with a lede that is a hodgepodge of bombastic adjectives and mixed metaphors:

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia is flexing its financial and diplomatic might across the Middle East in a wide-ranging bid to contain the tide of change, shield fellow monarchs from popular discontent and avert the overthrow of any more leaders struggling to calm turbulent republics.

The NYT is obviously suffering from editorial cuts. OK, now that my writerly criticism is out of the way, to the meat of the story:

“We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this is happening,” Prince Waleed bin Talal al-Saud, a businessman and high-profile member of the habitually reticent royal family, told The New York Times’s editorial board, referring to the unrest. “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

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