What is Binladenism?

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has a thoughtful review of recent books on Jihad and Binladenism by Max Rodenbeck. Some of the discussion draws a comparison between decontextualised calls for Jihad and the aimless anger of anarchist groups operating in Europe in the 1970s (such as the Red Brigade). Olivier Roy suggests that, despite the Islamic discourse adopted by bin Laden and others, their method and position is peculiarly western:
"The real genesis of Al Qaeda violence has more to do with a Western tradition of individual and pessimistic revolt for an elusive ideal world than with the Koranic conception of martyrdom".
This seems to me to be a more useful approach to modern violence of this kind than recent attempts to identify the harmful ideology behind the attacks in London or Sharm el-Sheikh. In the UK, a lot of attention has recently been paid to the fiery clerics operating in Britain who are thought to have inspired the London bombers. This is relevant and useful, but at the end of the day, the violence is carried out not by those clerics, but by their hearers. Comparisons with 1970s anarchists, or even with their 19th century forebears in Russia, suggests that it is nihilism in search of the cause that is the constant in the most savage acts of this kind. Looking at Binladenism, it seems that nihilism is the essence and the pursuit of a caliphate is the accidence. Which leads to the conclusion that defeating the ideology of Binladenism will bring only temporary respite from acts like 9/11 and the London bombings. (Incidentally, the New York Review of Books publishes some excellent articles on the Middle East, many of which are free on the website. This issue has an illuminating essay on the Ahmadinejad phenomenon in Iran by Christopher de Bellaigue, and a somewhat alarmist look at rising Iranian influence in Iraq by Peter Galbraith. Last month had an essay on the PA and Hamas by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha).
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Fighting corruption, recent history

Freedom House, a US lobbying group/think tank, offers an assessment of accountability, civil liberties, rule of law and corruption in Egypt as part of their 'Countries at the Crossroads' report. The report contains a summary of some of the developments in the four areas until September 2004. For me, the report raised two questions. Discussing recent anti-corruption efforts, it points out that
The campaign’s near-total focus on senior officials in President Mubarak’s NDP has been concurrent with the political rise of his son, leading to speculation that the crackdown is simply clearing a path for an increasing public role for Gamal....

Egypt has a number of agencies that could, if properly empowered by the president, promote transparency and fight corruption. A central auditing agency, working out of the prime minister’s office, is engaged in privatization of government assets and strives for financial transparency. 42 The Administrative Control Authority is Egypt’s primary anticorruption watchdog,43 although it does not have jurisdiction to investigate accusations of corruption against certain categories of state employees. All of these agencies are directly tied to the executive branch and thus the presidency; therefore, reform (with public accountability and transparency as part of that overall agenda) is only possible if the president wants it.

Given the rumoured shake-out in the state-owned media, should we assume that the patronage networks at al-Ahram and al-Gomhouriyya will simply be replaced by new patronage networks headed by cronies loyal to the new generation of rulers rather than to the septuagenarian leadership? Or have the rules of the media in the Arab world changed so much - as Brian Whittaker suggested in his Guardian column a few days ago - that state media empires of the kind so useful to Safwat Sherif and his clients are a thing of the past? A second question comes from the report's mention of a period of parliamentary diversity in Egypt after the 1987 elections, when independent and opposition MPs held 30% of the seats in parliament (the NDP has since taken firm control of parliament). Was this parliamentary diversity reflected in the broader political environment? Was the executive ever questioned or tested by parliament in this period? And how and why did Mubarak allow this diversity to come about? I'd be grateful if anyone can shed light on this.
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It's not an Arab country (though Arabs live there), but the Iranian election is big enough for comment. Moreover, the election of a hardliner to the presidency is sure to have an impact far beyond Iran's border on Arab Persian Gulf states. Ahmad Ahmedinejad's victory brings to an end 15 years of factional squabbling inside the Iranian regime. The leadership now controls all of the key institutions of state, and the reformers will have to regroup and plot outside the government, trying to build grassroots support. However, Ahmadinejad's policies may do more damage to the regime over the next five years than the previous 15 years of inaction. While forces allied to the Iranian regime such as the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) and the Basij (a paramilitary volunteer militia) doubtless contributed to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory on 24 June, his win was largely due to the appeal of his anti-corruption and implicitly anti-clerical platform. Ahmadinejad comes from the Abadgaran movement (the Developers of Islamic Iran) that has sprung up in the past ten years in response to the rise of the reform movement and growing criticism of government incompetence. The Abadgaran believe that Iran's many problems - unemployment, a demographic bubble, slow economic growth, questions over the legitimacy of the regime - can be addressed using technocratic scientific methods. Many members of the Abadgaran have backgrounds in the Pasdaran or the Basij, and their political experience was shaped by the revolution and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war - they now yearn for the ideological certainties of those years (one member of the movement I met in Tehran had a photograph of an Iranian soldier who had just been severly wounded on his wall as an inspiration). IranIraq The Abadgaran is a movement of laymen, though its members are personally loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the heir to the Iranian Revolution and the personification of one of its central principles, velayet-e faqih (the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent). Clerics, such as Ahmadinejad's rival, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, have been criticised over the past 25 years for their poor management of the economy and their corruption. The rise of the Abadgaran allows the clerical leadership to withdraw to more secure positions within the regime - the Leader's office, the Guardian Council and the Judiciary - while keeping the regime secure and strong in the hands of loyal lay experts. The Abadgaran present themselves as technocrats with the expertise to solve the country's problems. However, their record over the past few years has been poor, and they are likely to do more harm to the Islamic Republic in the long term than good. The Abadgaran took control of Tehran City Council in February 2003, and have been the leading faction in parliament since flawed elections in 2004. Among their first acts in parliament was to rewrite laws on foreign investment in order to throw out Turkish investors who had signed contracts to run Tehran's new airport and build a new mobile phone network. The airport contract was torn up on national security reasons (Turkey is friendly with Israel) after Pasdaran rolled onto the runway just after the new airport opened. The Turkish firm has withdrawn from Iran after its stake in the mobile JV was reduced to below 50%. Abadgaran members of parliament have also blocked other reform legislation from the outgoing Khatami government, as well as forcing the resignation of one of Khatami's ministers. The movement has also dipped fairly liberally into the oil fund, which is supposed to hold excess oil revenues, in order to distribute oil wealth directly to the people in the form of subsidies and cheap loans. Abadgaran policy under Ahmadinejad is likely to have a catastrophic effect on Iran's oil industry (which has still not fully recovered from war and revolution). Iran already consumes 1.5 million of its 4 million daily production of oil. It also spends around $3 billion a year on fuel imports. Continuing fuel subsidies will increase fuel consumption to the extent that Iran consumes more than half of its production. This would make it weak in OPEC, and seriously reduce its revenues, threatening an already weak economy. Observers have been predicting the end of the Islamic Republic for 25 years now, but economic suicide on the Abadgaran model could the policy that finally kills it. Still, Ahmadinejad and the Abadgaran offer an easily digestible economic and political populism that must have seemed particularly appealing on election day next to the other candidate, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Hashemi Rafsanjani had already been president for eight years, presiding over a high-spending consumer boom in the early 1990s that eventually led to a virtual debt default by Iran. He was universally seen as corrupt and unprincipled; many reformers and moderates held their noses as they voted for him on 24 June... Ahmadinejad's win is sure to sharpen the confrontation between the US and Iran over nuclear issues, Iraq and Hizbullah, among other things. Ahmadinejad believes in a strong Iran; his leader, Ali Khamenei, is a shrewd observer of Iranian trends but knows little of the outside world. This combination of ignorance and resolve is exactly the sort of thing that will fuel the more aggressive members of the Bush administration as they consider Iran policy. It will also alienate potential friends such as the EU and Japan. In many ways, Ahmadinejad's victory serves the Bush administration right. The US once again showed its tin ear for all things Iranian two days before the election when it denounced the exercise as a sham (having endorsed equally, if differently suspect votes in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories earlier this year). The US proclamation was accompanied by the usual bluster, "the US stood by Iranians in support of freedom". This is exactly the sort of thing that gets all Iranians' backs up, and sends them to vote for people like Ahmadinejad. Now, the Iranians, the EU and the US has to deal with a bunch of people who long for the good old days revolution and the war. Good luck.
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Ahvazi Arab nationalists claim Iran bomb

Iran appears to be another of Iraq's neighbours to suffer from an overflow of violence from Iraq. Bombings in Ahvaz and Tehran earlier this week, the worst Iran has suffered in several years, have been blamed by Iranians on al-Qaeda style groups, the US, or even on their own government (the argument being that the regime is trying to scare reform-minded voters away from polling stations on 17 June). However, a vivid film posted on an Ahvazi Arab nationalist website seems to show that Arab separatists were responsible for the bombings in Khuzestan. Ahvaz Khuzestan province shares a long border with Iraq, and some of the most vicious fighting in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war was along the frontier. Most of Khuzestan's ancestral population is Arab, and the region is home to most of Iran's oil fields, as well as good number of its refineries. Khuzestan only came under firm and direct control from Tehran in the 1930s; before that Arab tribal leaders treated directly with British representatives in the Gulf and oil developers. Arab-Iranians in Khuzestan have complained for many years that they do not receive a fair share of the region's oil revenues. They also argue that while many Arabs are employed in the oil industry, a glass ceiling prevents most of them from gaining the top managerial positions in the national oil company NIOC. The resentment has bubbled away for many decades, and the central government has made sporadic and generally short-term attempts to address Ahvazi criticisms. Ahvaz saw severe protests in April 2005 when rumours circulated that the government intended to move Arabs away from the area. It now seems that, despite border patrols that have made the Iran-Iraq border one of the most secure of Iraq's post-war borders, violent Ahvazi nationalists have been able to mount attacks in the heart of Khuzestan. It is difficult to imagine that the violence and absence of law in areas of Iraq has not made the task of such attackers easier. Few Arab Ahvazis appear to be pursuing a separatist agenda, but the campaigns of Arab Ahvazis to secure a better deal from the Iranian government will doubtless suffer following the recent bombings and the subsequent crackdown. For the Iranian government, nationalists can now be blamed for the Ahvaz bombings. However, the Tehran bombs, and another blast in Baluchistan on 15 June, remain unsolved.
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Mubarak to name V-P (if he wins)

President Mubarak will name a vice-president after he wins presidential elections in September, according to his spokesman cited in the FT on 14 June. This confirms everyone's expectations that Mubarak will run and win in September. Naming a successor also means that Mubarak will have to come off the fence on talk of succession; until now, he's always pointed to the constitutional mechanism for deciding the president. This announcement means another round of "will-he, won't-he" president-centred specualation, following the earlier 'uncertainty' about whether he would run for president at all. Guessing who will be the VP will distract attention away from the fairness of presidential and parliamentary elections later this year. Still, the choice of VP will indicate how Mubarak sees the future of the regime. Unless, like the Iranians, he names more than one vice-president...
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Madrasas breed terror

After years of learned and not-so-learned comments explaining that the Taliban and Sunni chauvinism in Pakistan - not to mention the 9/11 attacks - were linked to thousands of madrasas that had sprung up in Pakistan, a couple of social scientists at Harvard have put the received wisdom to the test and found that only a small proportion of Pakistani children receive a full-time education in religious schools. They discovered that a far more important trend in education in Pakistan - as in many developing countries - has been the rise of private schools. The findings of the report, "Religious School Enrollment in Pakistan: A look at the Data", are a sobering comment on the covering of Islam that has passed for analysis and even policymaking in the US over the past four years. Mind you, let's not ignore the fact that some people in Pakistan have developed some very violent attitudes not only towards western policies towards Islam, but also towards their Shia countrymen.
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Iraq: murdered US contractor warned of corruption

The LA Times has a well-researched story on an American arms dealer who was killed in Iraq after he warned US officials of corruption involving a contract to rapidly supply the Iraqi army with tanks ahead of January 2005's Iraqi elections. The story adds another dimension to reports in January this year that Hazem Shaalan, the Iraqi Defense Minister, had flown $200 million in cash to Lebanon to buy equipment for the Iraqi army. Shaalan has always been dodgy. He's consistently pointed the finger at the Iranians for causing all the trouble in Iraq, but has never followed through with evidence. He wanted to level Najaf when Moqtada al-Sadr's militia took over the city last autumn, though wisdom prevailed. When former Pentagon sweetheart Ahmed Chalabi raised questions about flying $200 million to Beirut, Shaalan threatened to have him arrested. Perhaps he's just making up for being defense minister of a country that doesn't have an army.
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Last taboo

You will find below the first post by Simon Kitchen, a new occasional contributor to arabist.net. Simon comes from an economic and risk analysis background, a perspective that I am sure will enrich the debate. [issandr] In all the current discussion of political reform in the Middle East, and a possible dynastic succession in Egypt, the role of the military goes all but unremarked. Yet the Egypt military establishment continues to play a vital economic (perhaps a third of GDP is under military supervision or influence) and political role, and arguably has a veto over political reform and the succession of Gamal Mubarak as the next president of Egypt. Discussions over the candidacy of Saad ed-din Ibrahim and Nawal al-Saadawi, and possibility of more open elections in Egypt in 2004 are interesting, but they also function as a smokescreen, occupying the press and civil society while real power lies outside the NDP and the cabinet. During June 2004, Egypt was nominally governed by Prime Minister Atef Ebeid for nearly three weeks while President Mubarak recovered from surgery in Germany. But Ebeid was a lame duck, his pending resignation having been announced the week before. So who was in charge? The answer, in all likelihood, was Mubarak’s lieutenants in the military and intelligence establishment. Rami Khouri of the Daily Star raises the problem of the military’s role in Middle Eastern politics in an op-ed in the Daily Star. He mentions a recent report from the Brookings Institution, a centrist (at least by US standards) think tank, that examines the military establishments of Egypt, Pakistan and Syria, and their roles in influencing politics from behind the scenes. The report describes the ubiquitous of former and serving military and intelligence personnel at many levels of civilian life, and argues that civilian control over the military must be reestablished. The lewa (general) is an over-familiar sight in the Egyptian popular imagination: generals serve as the governors of Egyptian provinces, are in charge of gathering statistics, and are invoked in legal disputes as sources of wasta (political influence). Their sons are among Egypt’s most influential businessmen, something they have in common with their peers in Syria and Algeria. Algeria, oddly, is absent from the Brookings Institution’s report, even though the Algerian military establishment, the pouvoir, has also laid its deadening hand on political and economic reform. (Also absent, perhaps more understandably, is Israel, which has generally separated civilian and military authority. However, the lines seem to be blurring in Israel, with Shaul Mofaz quickly moving from Chief of Staff to Defence Minister in 2002. Moreover, current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon considered a less democratic route to power, a military coup, in 1967.) Western governments regard the military in Egypt – as in Algeria and Turkey - as a safe pair of hands, a bulwark against potentially disruptive Islamist and popular movements. The US state department sees the relationship with the Egyptian military as the cornerstone of the US-Egypt relationship; the Egyptian military sees the US as its most important ally. But the military is deeply conservative, and its attitudes are detrimental to Egypt’s political development: it’s ‘no beards’ rule has barred the Muslim Brotherhood from reasonable political participation since the 1970s, and has given the Brotherhood the easy legitimacy of an illegal opposition group. The Egyptian military plays its cards close to its chest, and it is difficult to gauge this corporate group’s attitudes to contemporary issues such as reform and the succession. I have heard that the military is now more positive about Gamal Mubarak’s succession than it was 18 months ago, having been persuaded that Gamal has intelligent associates and that his succession will be accepted by Washington. But the Brookings report is not the first to have mentioned Omar Suleiman, director of General Intelligence, as an alternative successor. Even if Gamal does succeed, he will likely be closely supervised by his father’s military peers and associates.
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