Adam Shatz: Writers or Missionaries?

This is an important essay by Adam Shatz in The Nation, in which he reflects on how his own writing on the Middle East has developed over the years and, more broadly, how the region is written about: 

I still stand by most of the positions that I took when I was starting out. But when I re-read the articles I published then, I find the tone jarring, the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect. I have the same reaction when I read a self-consciously committed journalist like Robert Fisk, who seems never to doubt his own thunderous convictions. I recently re-read Pity the Nation, his tome about the Lebanese civil war, and I was struck by how little Fisk tells us about the Lebanese, a people he has lived among since the mid-1970s. For all his emoting about the Lebanese, their voices are never allowed to interrupt his sermonizing. That I agree with parts of the sermon doesn’t mean I have the patience to sit through it. Fisk’s book, which once so impressed me, now strikes me as a wasted opportunity, unless journalism is understood as a narrowly prosecutorial endeavor, beginning and ending with the description of crimes and the naming (and shaming) of perpetrators. And yet Fisk’s example is instructive, in a cautionary way. It reminds us that immersion in the region isn’t enough: it’s how you process the experience, the traces that it leaves on the page. The Fiskian cri de coeur substitutes rage for understanding, hang-wringing for analysis.

A fascinating read, especially in how he explains his initial approach to the region was through the prism of Algeria – "Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism."

Charles Glass on the CIA's Arabists

Charles Glass reviews a new book on the history of the CIA's Arabists for the TLS:

In 1947, two American intelligence operatives, Miles Copeland and Archie Roosevelt, flew from Washington to the Levant together to take up posts in, respectively, Damascus and Beirut. Copeland described the pair at that time as "me a New Orleans jazz musician and Tennessee riverboat gambler, he a member in good standing of what passes for nobility in America". The two became friends and co-conspirators, who, together with Archie's cousin Kim Roosevelt, did more to mould the modern Middle East than the so-called policy-makers in Washington. Hugh Wilford tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency' s three musketeers in this absorbing account of romantics enchanted by Kiplingesque myths and the Lawrence of Arabia legend, who cynically harboured the self-contradictory ambition of democratizing the Arab world and Iran while arrogating all decisions to themselves.

. . .

When Copeland arrived in Damascus in 1947, Syria had an elected parliament and prime minister under a democratic constitution similar to that of the Third Republic in France. It did not take Copeland long to strike up a friendship with the Syrian Army's chief of staff, the Kurdish Colonel Husni Zaim, and turn his thoughts to politics at a time when the civilian government was delaying a treaty to permit an American oil pipeline through its territory from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Lebanon. Roosevelt had been cultivating what he called the "young effendis" and Copeland the "right kind of leaders" to drag the Arab world away from Britain and France and into the American century. Zaim seemed perfect. As Wilford writes, he told Copeland that there was "only one way to start the Syrian people along the road to progress and democracy", pausing to slash at his desk with a riding crop, "with the whip".

Worth a read. This story has been told many times, and in this book from Glass' description it is told through the lens of CIA operatives being pro-democracy romantics. Dubious proposition to say the least...

The baltaga state

Andrea Teti, writing for the indispensable MERIP, gets it – this is precisely how I see the Egyptian state and its actions:

The arrest, trial and often torture of journalists, activists and students from across the political spectrum has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice or security. Even comedians are harassed. These actions are best understood as a mafia-style warning, the content of which is fairly obvious: For anyone opposing the regime installed since the 2013 army coup, there is no safety in the law, nor in Western governments, nor in the international media. The use of violence to repress or stir up conflict useful to the regime is nothing new. The regime wants it to be clear that it can imprison anyone, any time, no matter how absurd the charges, how surreal the evidence or how great a travesty of justice the trial. In fact, the absurdity of the evidence and the Kafkaesque legal process are not an aberration. On the contrary, the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.

. . .

Every criminal gang worth its salt knows it needs to keep the local population dependent and scared enough to believe there is no alternative, and duped enough into thinking that there is at least a veneer of morality covering what the racketeers do.

Egyptian nationalists don't like to hear it, but the leadership of their beloved military – whatever the merits it once had – has devolved into a mafia, no more, no less. Understanding that is the beginning of understanding what is happening in Egypt, and the risks it entails considering the region's other mafia states were the Assads' Syria and the Husseins' Iraq. And look where they are now.

Rape in Egypt

Hend is not a Brotherhood member or supporter. But in the run-up to June 30 and Morsi’s removal by the military following mass protests, she said publicly that Egypt was in store for a coup, and that she feared Brotherhood rule would be replaced by what she described as Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brand of  “military religious fascism.”

She publicly denounced the clearing of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in in August 2013 as a massacre. At this point, she says, the telephone threats started again. On social media, she was called a “Brotherhood whore." Someone tweeted her telephone number and described her as a Brotherhood supporter. Surveillance by plainclothes men, which had started under SCAF but stopped under Morsi, intensified.

Three men on rotating four or five-hour shifts stationed themselves outside her home, she says. They followed her. On one occasion one of the men followed her to a café, sat at the table next to her and ordered coffee.

“Then he looked me in the face and photographed me,” Hend says.

“The monitoring isn’t about keeping tabs, it’s a threat to tell me that they’re watching me,” she adds.

Matters worsened at the end of 2013. She has long known that her phone was tapped, but then printouts of her emails and private online chats with her partner were slipped under her door. At the beginning of December 2013, she was asked to go to the headquarters of the National Security Agency.

“They played good cop, bad cop with me. An officer said, ‘You’re educated, you can travel. Why don’t you leave the country?’ Then they told me that they had recordings of me speaking about the military during the SCAF era and that they would hand them over to the media and claim that they were made recently. ‘The people will eat you alive,’ he told me.”

Hend says she then received threats of violence ahead of a march to parliament the same month. She was told by security personnel that she would be arrested under the newly passed Protest Law which made protests held without permission from the Interior Ministry illegal.

On December 26, Hend was alone late at night in a secluded, non-residential, street of central Cairo. She remembers that it was icy cold. As she was putting things in a car she had borrowed from a friend, three men appeared from behind and grabbed her.

This story by Sarah Carr in Mada Masr is a very hard and very important read. It shows the lengths to which Egypt's new regime is willing to go -- the kind of unchecked brutality it's allowing if not encouraging. Reports of sexual violence against men and women -- always a feature of repression and detention here -- have been increasing in recent months, despite official denials. (There are also unverified reports on social media of Islamists taking revenge on officers who have committed sexual attacks).

This story reminded me of the plain-clothes creeps who threatened a female Egyptian colleague during the 2011 uprising, in an eerily similar way -- using a knife, very foul language, and threats of sexual assault. Except back then they didn't follow through with it. 

 

 

In Translation: Think it over, judges!

There have been several examples in the Egyptian press lately of extremely belated hand-wringing. Now Lamis Elhadidy -- a former media advisor to Hosni Mubarak, fierce supporter of President El Sisi and talk show who host who has featured many times in our Egypt in TV columns -- comes out and says it: Some of the recent judicial rulings are not very beneficial to the country. She asks judges, with all due respect, to "reflect" a little more. Given how much Elhadidy has acted as a mouthpiece for the post-June 30 regime, it's fair to assume that this is a message. We bring you this latest entry in our In Translation series as always courtesy of Industry Arabic, a great professional translation service. 

The Judges

Lamis Elhadidy, El Masry El Youm, June 30

I choose my words carefully before talking about the judiciary. It is an emotional topic, and any unconsidered approach may be understood incorrectly or expose one to accusations of insulting the judiciary, wanting to politicize the institution, or “lacking patriotism," alongside other prefabricated charges.

But honesty requires that we do not shy away from speaking the truth, nor fear blame. I hold great respect for the judiciary and its officials; I am certain of the lofty position that it has occupied throughout Egypt’s political history, and that it is one of the few institutions that stood steadfastly against attempts at encroachment from various political regimes. However, those within the judiciary themselves may need to pause in order to frankly and honestly analyze the results of recent rulings and their influence on the path of the nation as a whole.

An independent judiciary, whose independence we all defend, does not imply that the institution is separate from the nation, or that it operates on an island with no connection to what is going on around it, in terms of international repercussions, challenges, or ambushes. An independent judiciary means that the institution does not experience any form of pressure from other branches of the government, especially the executive branch, and that the judge rules from his stand justly and according to the law -- the law that was promulgated in order to administer justice, set the scales, and reform society, not handicap it.

With this in mind, the judiciary's wise and senior figures must pause and evaluate some of the most recent rulings and their influence on the nation’s path. Egypt is facing ambushes both domestically and internationally, and they must consider how—unfortunately—some of these rulings have obstructed our path, to the extent that these rulings have even been employed by enemies to fuel denunciation and intensify international hostility toward the June 30th Revolution and the new Egyptian regime. All of this comes in addition to the heavy financial losses that we have suffered.

The rulings to renationalize companies that were privatized decades ago and the resulting legal cases cost billions of dollars in international arbitration. The death sentence rulings [of hundreds of alleged Muslim Brotherhood members, tried en masse] were immediately appealed by the public prosecutor, but their impact remains ineradicable as they formed the largest concurrent batch of death sentence rulings in human history. And -- despite my absolute disapproval of Al-Jazeera’s approach and the poisonous lies that it broadcasted -- the case of the Al-Jazeera journalists is also one of the rulings that have created disastrous international consequences for Egypt. Every bit of progress that we make on the diplomatic and popular front takes place through great pains; every constitutional and electoral mandate proves that the path of June 30 is our goal. And then these rulings come along and drag us two steps backward. Then we begin the series of justifications and explanations, affirming that the judiciary is not politicized, that there are other stages of litigation, and that there is no intention to suppress opponents, silence them, or otherwise.

We have failed – and I mean that we have all failed -- to explain the grounds of these rulings or the reasons behind them sufficiently to convince the world of their logic. It appeared to the world as though we have a unique judicial system with no relation to the global system, which is no longer acceptable internationally. Egypt cannot live divorced from international law.

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Why the US stuck with Maliki

Pretty fascinating account by an insider of the arguments and interests that led the US and the Iraqi political elite to stick with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is now being largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq. 

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

Finkelstein: The US and Egypt one year after the coup

Norman Finkelstein his usual acerbic self:

The first thing to note is the oddity of a democratic transition that begins with an anti-democratic coup. It’s not every day that the overthrow of a democratically elected government, the jailing of the democratically elected president, and the mass slaughter of the unarmed supporters of the democratically elected governing party constitute stepping stones to democracy.

. . .

To assess Egypt’s recent election, it might be useful to conduct a simple thought experiment. As is well known, President Barack Obama’s popularity has plummeted among the American people. A majority do not approve of the job he’s doing, and many among them positively detest him. Let’s imagine if the Republican party, capitalizing on this popular discontent, orchestrated an army coup to remove Obama from office, slaughtered his unarmed supporters in a series of bloodbaths, declared the Democratic party a terrorist organization, banned it and jailed its leading members, then arrested the other opposition leaders and prohibited any and all public dissent. Finally, to appease international opinion, Republicans held an “election” in which the only other candidate was Jesse Jackson. 

Jesse Jackson? Surely one would choose a unelectable Republican rather than an unelectable Democrat – Ron Paul perhaps?

It's a pretty shallow piece but US policy certain gets the skewering it deserves. 

A Ramadan poem: Mobile Mosque

Mada Masr is publishing a series of three poems by Sherif S. Elmusa on Ramadan. They are lovely. Here is the first. Ramadan Kareem. 

The metro in Ramadan is a mobile mosque.
The dry lips recite verses
from plastic-covered Qurans.
They say prayers,
like the prayers of the Ancients,
“easy on the tongue, vital for the scale.” 
Their eyes are kept ajar, as if to shield
the mystery from too much light.

In this blessed month our pleas pass,
without inspection,
through the wide open gates of heaven,
and the angels fly, on high alert,
grandmother would say, then turn
to me and ask why I didn’t fast.

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Killing Israeli and Palestinian children

After the bodies of three abducted Israeli teenage settlers were discovered on June 28, Palestinians have been targeted indiscriminately by "extreme rightist" Israeli mobs and now there is news that a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was killed, almost surely in retaliation. 

Before that latest piece of news had broken, Israel had already launched "retaliatory strikes" on Gaza and "sweeps" in the West bank, bombing over 30 locations, arresting hundreds and killing at least 8, including a 14-year-old boy. Hamas had denied involvement in the attack, although Israeli officials say it is responsible and "will pay."  

And Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa had this to say:

No mother should have endure the murder of her child. No mother or father. That does not only apply to Jewish parents. The lives of our children are no less precious and their loss are no less shattering and spiritually unhinging. But there is a terrible disparity in the value of life here in the eyes of the state and the world, where Palestinian life is cheap and disposable, but Jewish life is sacrosanct.

This exceptionalism and supremacy of Jewish life is a fundamental underpinning of the state of Israel. It pervades their every law and protocol, and is matched only by their apparent contempt and disregard for Palestinian life. Whether through laws that favor Jews for employment and educational opportunities, or laws that allow the exclusion of non-Jews from buying or renting among Jews, or endless military orders that limit the movement, water consumption, food access, education, marriage possibilities, and economic independence, or these periodic upending of Palestinian civil society, life for non-Jews ultimately conforms to the religious edict issued by Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, saying "a thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail."

Israeli violence of the past few weeks is generally accepted and expected. And the terror we know they will unleash on our people will be, as it always is, cloaked in the legitimacy of uniforms and technological death machines. Israeli violence, no matter how vulgar, is inevitably couched as a heroic, ironic violence that western media frames as “response,” as if Palestinian resistance itself were not a response to Israeli oppression. When the ICRC was asked to issue a similar call for the immediate and unconditional release of the hundreds of Palestinian children held in Israeli jails (which is also in contravention of international humanitarian law), the ICRC refused, indicating there’s a difference between the isolated abduction of Israeli teens and the routine abduction, torture, isolation, and imprisonment of Palestinian children.

Here is the whole piece. 

The misgovernment of Iraq

In April, Iraqi lawyer Zaid Al-Ali wrote a remarkably prophetic article arguing that Nouri al-Maliki, who had convinced many Iraqi voters in the just-concluded elections that he was a strong man, was actually presiding over a rapidly weakening state. The armed forces were a "paper tiger," he argued, sapped by corruption and politicization and unwilling to fight. Six weeks later the Islamic State struck and proved Al-Ali right, as Maliki's forces in the north melted away.

The full details of just how badly Maliki governed Iraq can be found in Al-Ali's book, The Struggle for Iraq's Future, an account of misrule in the country since 2003. One particularly cutting anecdote, in which Maliki kept in use a demonstrably fraudulent bomb detector, apparently to save face, at the cost of hundreds of lives, is excerpted on The Arabist here. Read in light of the fall of Mosul, the accounts dramatize how the same instincts that propel a political leader to extend control over all the institutions of state leave those very institutions fragile, led by opportunists and functionaries. That a ruthless leader does not make for a strong state is a lesson that the Arab world should have had ample opportunity to learn, yet many here still keep falling into the same trap.

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Shame on Al Masry Al Youm

The degradation of public discourse in Egypt continuous its spectacular course, a spiral of falsities, smears, and calls for vigilantism from supposed "intellectuals."

Here -- thank to our friends at Industry Arabic, a great professional translation service -- are excerpts from two op-eds published recently in the privately owned Al Masry Al Youm (a newspaper that back when it was launched in 2005 was celebrated as "opposition" and "independent" and that broke some genuine scoops regarding voter fraud). In the first, playwright Ali Salem -- invoking the antecedent of a mysterious splinter group in 1970s France that called itself "L'Honneur de la Police" and claimed several assassinations -- calls for the police in Egypt to form extra-judicial death squads. In the second column, which was taken down after an outcry (and a strongly worded protests from the Brazilian ambassador in Cairo), a certain Dr. Nassar Abdallah argues that Egypt should learn from Brazil's example, claiming that country's decision to hunt and kill street children was part of its economic miracle. Neither column is in the least bit satirical. 

The Honor of the Police Group, Ali Salem, Al Masry Al Youm, May 30

An "Honneur de la Police" organization working in complete secrecy would have greater ability to obtain the required information. Human beings have a natural inclination to help the strong, provided that they guarantee their safety. Ultimately, the important thing is that anyone who sets fire to a police APC finds will find his house set on fire the same night by unknown actors. If you monitor a police officer's movements in order to kill him, you and your family should know that you will be killed the very same night.

Am I inciting the police to imitate their peers in France to protect themselves and defend their personal honor? Yes, I am inciting them to do that. I am inciting the men of the Egyptian police to kill any vile murderer who thinks that no one will pursue him and exact punishment.

Is what I am calling for an infringement of the law? Yes, by all means. "Raise your voice a little so I can hear you." Yes, what am I calling for is not legal, but it is just by every standard. The greatest and most sacred human right is the right to self-defense. What I am asking is to allow police officers – of which my father was one – to defend their lives and honor as members of the most honorable profession, and let conventional legal forms have their due afterwards.

Street Children: The Brazilian Solution, Al Masry Al Youm, Nassar Abdallah, June 20

Due to these considerations, the Brazilian security apparatus at the time resorted to an extremely cruel and outrageous solution to deal with the street children phenomenon. It consisted of widespread hunting and cleansing campaigns in which thousands of them were executed like stray dogs in order to prevent the harm and risks they presented! The other forces in Brazilian society realized that what the police were doing was a crime in every sense of the word, that these children were in reality victims, not criminals, and that it is horrendous to execute people for crimes that they did not commit. Everybody realized that, but almost all of them turned a blind eye to what the police were doing because they all stood to benefit from it. The political leadership did not officially announce that they backed the police's actions, but they did not try to put any security official on trial because they knew that the alternative to executing street children was to rehabilitate them. The problem with that was that it would require a huge budget that would necessarily come at the expense of providing job opportunities for citizens who had lost their jobs, and this would put their economic reform plan at risk of failure.

Average citizens – even those who openly denounce the execution campaigns, deep down appreciate the seriousness of the government's reform program and feel relieved that the street children are disappearing from the streets of the main cities, where they can now go out with their sons and daughters without fear. Although some media outlets denounce the campaigns, they still keep reminding citizens of the street children's aggressive nature and the crimes that they will no doubt commit in increasing number if they are left to their own devices. Meanwhile, the human rights organizations that have heroically defended street children's right to life have been attacked for applying a double standard in that they do not take into account the right of average citizens to safety.

In this way, the Brazilian solution succeeded in clearing the main streets of major cities from street children and driving the ones who remained into the slums. However, this success should not be attributed to the cruelty involved, but first and foremost to the fact that the will to reform existed among Brazil's political leadership, which fought corruption and provided millions of job opportunities to Brazilians, and then was able to transform an economy on the brink of bankruptcy to one of the most important global economies. This is the lesson that should be heeded by anyone trying to learn from the Brazilian experience.

Egypt in TV

Sometimes when one does not get enough attention, one is pushed to strange things to get it. This is presumably what motivated Gaber el-Karmouty to give up thirteen minutes of his talk show to play the national anthems of all the Egyptian-regime-friendly Arab states while sporting a dishdasha (complete with a shemagh,a keffiyeh and the Egyptian flag one on top of the other at minute 11) and holding up the flags of said countries, except for Jordan’s. "(They) tried to send someone to the Jordanian embassy to get a big flag but failed." Hence, the print out.

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Palfest, part two

The second installment of my diary of the Palestine Festival of Literature went up at Bookforum over the weekend:

The daily life of Palestinians is constrained by an intricate complex of physical and bureaucratic barriers. Nowhere are the divisions and inequalities more dramatic than in Hebron. In 1994, after a far-right Israeli named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque that surrounds the patriarch Abraham’s tomb and killed twenty-nine Palestinians, the holy site was divided into a mosque and a synagogue. Muslims and Jews look at the same tomb from separate barred windows, bullet-proof partitions between them. Four hundred ultra-Orthodox settlers live in the city proper, alongside nearly 200,000 Palestinians. To accommodate and protect them, the government has shut down the main commercial thoroughfare, putting thousands of people out of work. Billboards explain that the street was closed due to the violence of the Second Intifada. Fifteen years on, settlers harass Palestinians, throwing bleach on the wares of shops and attacking children on their way to school. While we holders of foreign passports make our way past checkpoints down the ghostly street, Palestinians must take a much longer and more circuitous route to get from one side of the city to the other.

In a place this segregated, one is forced take sides. (The Jewish or the Muslim entrance? The settler road or the one open to Palestinians?) By the end of the week everyone at Palfest is overwhelmed, not just by the touring schedule and the flow of dispiriting details, but by the constant effort of positioning oneself—one’s work, one’s words—in relation to this terrible, lopsided fight.

The first installment is here. I also wrote something on all the lines that criss-cross Israel-Palestine (segregating Israelis and Palestinians, but also dividing Palestinians from each other, and from their Arab neighbors) for Mada Masr. 

Below is a performance by the very talented British-Egyptian playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz, who composed this after a visit to Hebron and performed it two days later in Ramallah:



Maliki's most solemn hour

Maliki's most solemn hour

As the Baghdad government reels from the humiliating loss of Mosul to insurgents this week, ISIS resolves to succeed where al Qaeda failed in Iraq.

Some analysts said during the Second Gulf War that al Qaeda would be trading up from Afghanistan if it secured a base in Iraq. It was a prescient thought, but perhaps premature: between 2007 and 2010, Iraqis by and large rejected that fate for their country and dealt a body blow to the foreign Sunni jihadists who entered the country. But then the Syrian Civil War began. Non-Syrian jihadists entered Syria in numbers - though so too did foreign brigades sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah - and many of the Sunnis among these fighters came from nearby Iraq to fight in solidarity. Ironically, some had once been agents of Syrian state-sponsored terrorism. The most significant of these "new" groups has been the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which over the past year has spent as much time fighting other Syrian rebels groups as the Syrian Arab Republic's forces. ISIS was once aligned with al Qaeda's central command, but has since gone its own way. Though increasingly a multinational conglomeration after absorbing many of the Nusra Front's foreign fighters, it has only one strategic goal today: that of gathering all Sunnis living in "Greater Syria" under its rule. 

"Many [ISIS fighters] have come from Afghanistan and Iraq," says Syrian activist Abu Ibrahim Ar-Raqqawi, describing their rule in his country's northern reaches as an effort to build a state, "cleanse" it (especially of rival anti-Assad actors), and only then begin the fighting against Assad in earnest. "Our Syrian fighters are farmers and masons, they don't have that experience." Indeed, and ISIS has delivered on what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could not. It has set down foundations for an emirate in the Sunni heartland abutting Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Caucasus Mountains. ISIS is not al Qaeda. And because of this difference in priorities, it has done what al Qaeda failed to do: secure, as Aymenn Al-Tamimi tweeted, "contiguous territory, [a] series of linked strongholds, [and] provision of services." For much more than mere shakedowns of rich merchants and handing out candy to children is planned for northern Iraq in the coming weeks.

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A diary of the Palestine Festival of Literature

All last week I was traveling through the West Bank with PalFest. It was an exhausting, moving, enlightening experience. I was introduced to many great writers, poets and performers and to half a dozen cities: Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Haifa, Akka and Nablus. I've written a diary of the trip for Bookforum; the first of two installments is here

Graffiti on the wall of a community center in Hebron

Graffiti on the wall of a community center in Hebron

 

June 1

We’re on the move again. Because so many Palestinians can’t travel, Palfest brings writers from around the world to them. And because Palestinians can’t even move freely from one West Bank city to another, the festival travels every day, to reach as many people as possible.

We take the Qalandia Crossing from Ramallah to Jerusalem. After passing through the checkpoint’s narrow metal chutes and heavy turnstiles, we emerge on the other side of the giant cement wall that Israel began building twelve years ago, and that zig-zags across the West Bank. The Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana is reminded of checkpoints in Baghdad, and marvels at how easy it is to “make things familiar that are unacceptable.”

Jerusalem’s Old City is beautiful and bitter. Little by little, day by day, its Muslim residents are stripped of land and homes and residency permits. Israeli settlers have occupied about eighty buildings in the Muslim and Christian quarters, covering them in flags and barbed wire.

In the evening, on the esplanade of the Burj Al-Luqluq Social Center, the local poet Najwan Darwish reads from his collection Nothing More to Lose, recently published by NYRB Classics. His poem “Jerusalem (I)” opens:

“We stood on the Mount

to raise a sacrifice for you

and when we saw our hand rise

empty

we knew

that we were your sacrifice”

The reading is nearly drowned out by the sound of nearby fireworks, set off to celebrate a neighborhood resident’s release from prison.

To learn more about the festival, see here and here

Tunis: "Things are bad, but that's normal"

Last month I was in Tunis for a conference on Arab intellectuals and historical transformations in the region.  I wrote up something about it for the LRB blog:

On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. ‘He’s been there ten days,’ a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. ‘He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.’ The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.

I was in Tunis last month for a conference entitled Intellectuals and the Historic Transformations in the Arab World. The first speaker was the historian Hichem Djait. He gave a brief history of Arab intellectuals and their persecution by authoritarian regimes, before concluding that they have lost influence across the region. ‘The Arab world took a step towards democracy, but one has the painful impression that it is not ready,’ he said. Instead, the uprisings have ‘exacerbated very strong and very violent tensions’. In countries that are tearing themselves apart, what role is there for intellectuals?

Must watch: Egypt's lost power

Al Jazeera English does a great first dig into the EMG gas deal between Egypt and Israel –theft from the Egyptian people involving many who are still in power in Egypt today, and with the blessing of the United States. It underplays the extent to which Hussein Salem was a key member of the Egyptian intelligence establishment, close to Field Marshal Abu Ghazala (Mubarak's chief rival in the early 1980s) and granted some protection from the Reagan administration after being caught in one of the scams in the US-Egypt military aid relationship. It's a story at the heart of how corruption, power, and strategic interests interact in the Middle East – very much worth watching.

Penalty card for Qatar

Penalty card for Qatar

A "plot to buy the World Cup" comes to light, but will raking FIFA over the coals make a difference for Qatar's overheating guest workers?

During the Cold War, Taiwan and the People's of Republic of China routinely threw money at smaller countries in order to get them to switch their recognition from one China to the other at the UN. It was the most blatantly bullion-based diplomacy one could observe then, in a world of it. The World Cup bid involves some dynamics, except - since it is the World Cup - the stakes are even higher than the Two Chinas Policy. Brazil is hosting the next one; then Russia will do so in 2018, and to Qatar goes the 2022 honor. Some football officials have complained about the poor climatic prospects for players in the Gulf's summer heat on that date - yet the heat is even worse for the guest workers barred from organizing unions to protest the policies Qatar exercises over them. As the current controversy in Brazil shows, for the prestige of the World Cup, there are few prices that host countries politicians and their lobbyists won't pay to win that honor. 

So far, assertions that "football cannot tolerate a World Cup built on the back of workers’ abuse, misery and blood" have failed to derail the massive Qatari effort. Whether the latest round of scandal will make a difference is yet to be seen. And it is one whale of a scandal, even by FIFA's poor reputation. According to The Sunday Times, Qatar bought up votes from Confederation of African Football (CAF) member associations and important football executives worldwide ahead of the World Cup 2018/2022 vote with lavish junkets and "donations" cumulatively worth millions of dollars.* Potentially compromised parties in Asia, Europe, and Latin America have also been named in the Times, including the infamous (and now censured) Trinidadian ex-FIFA executive Jack Warner. Football associations in Somalia, Cameroon, Djibouti, Sudan, Burundi, the Gambia, Sao Tomé, Zambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Swaziland, Togo, and Nigeria were all specifically named in The Sunday Times' expose. 

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