Interview: Stephen Starr on Syria, part 2

This is part two of Paul Mutter's interview with Stephen Starr. Read part one.

Do you have any advice for correspondents on this matter, to better report on this “silent majority”?

I don’t want to give advice on this. You can’t go from a rebel-held area – and you can’t shoot photographs in rebel-held areas – to regime-controlled areas. You can’t pass, and even if you do get in, you can’t behave in the same way. In areas under the FSA’s control, you can take photographs, you can speak to people and get direct quotes, you can get a pretty good picture [of what’s happening in the area]. But if you try to do that in Damascus, in areas under the regime’s control, you won’t last five minutes: you’ll be picked up by the regime’s security You can’t go out into the streets of central Damascus with a camera and just ask people what’s happening. There’s security everything.

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Morsi reminds The Economist of Mubarak

Egypt: Dictatorship, democracy, dictatorship? | The Economist

Bottom line in this good overview:

Mr Morsi seems to have forgotten the sensitivity that a country freshly freed from decades of despotism might feel towards anything with an odour of dictatorship. Secretive and inward-looking, the Brotherhood appears surprised by the depth of mistrust that many Egyptians, including pious Muslims of every social class, feel towards them. The Islamists’ constituency remains large and their organising power formidable. “They will rally the poor with the slogan: to be a Muslim, vote yes for the constitution and confound the infidels,” predicts Muhammad Nour Farahat, a law professor at Cairo’s Zagazig University. Yet even if Mr Morsi and his Brothers manage to pull this off, a heavy cloud will remain over their rule.

Interview: Stephen Starr on Syria

Contributor Paul Mutter interviewed Syria expert Stephen Starr at NYU this week about his book on the conflict there, and his impressions of Syria since last winter when he departed the country. Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising and — full disclosure — Mutter's editor at Near East Quarterly. This is part one of the interview, part two will be published tomorrow.

How common are nonviolent demonstrations now in Syria today?

In terms of to what extent there are people still protesting across the country, I think there’s certainly a lot less now than there were in the first six months … I think there’s three main reasons for that: one is that [more] people don’t see peaceful protests as a way of achieving what they want to achieve, which is the downfall of the regime. And they see that the armed element of the uprising has taken precedence over the protests, and they see the regime so violent that they feel that peaceful protesting is going to stop the regime when they use guns and shelling … they’ve carried out airstrikes against protestors in Idlib Province, whereas before when they had a presence of troops on the ground they would shoot or shell them. Another reason … is that a lot of people who took part in recent protests but were detained were often radicalized by the violence and the torture they experienced while detained, and when they got out a lot of people took up arms. Now, when I say a lot of people, though, [we have to be cautious since] you can’t put a number on it. These guys got out, they saw firsthand what the regime was doing, and felt that the only way to beat the regime was to pick up a gun and fight back using violence And the third sense is the feeling that, generally speaking, peaceful protests haven’t achieved what they wanted to do. In the beginning, it was very much obviously about peaceful demonstrations, these were the cornerstone of the revolution. And I think that certainly, there’s revolt fatigue amongst protestors. I see a lot of frustration among people trying to maintain peaceful protests, other kinds of non-violent dissidence against the government.

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What Dr Morsi learned from Dr Zaius

(Alternative link to video)

Some out there on the internets are confused about Mohammed Morsi's Planet of the Apes reference. Here's the scene he was referring to — just before Charlton Heston rides away on the beach to make a startling discovery, Dr Zaius tells him about what the humans will bring, as revealed in the twenty-third scroll of the apes, ninth verse:

'Beware the beast man, for he is the 
devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, 
he kills for sport, or lust or greed. 
Yes, he will murder his brother to possess 
his brother's land. Let him not breed 
in great numbers, for he will make a desert 
of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him 
back into his jungle lair: For he is the 
harbinger of death'.

In the TIME interview, Morsi says:

But at the end, I still remember, this is the conclusion: When the big monkey, he was head of the supreme court I think — in the movie! — and there was a big scientist working for him,  cleaning things, has been chained there. And it was the planet of the apes after the destructive act of a big war,  and atomic bombs and whatever in the movie. And the scientists was asking him to do something, this was 30 years ago: “Don’t forget you are a monkey.”  He tells him, “don’t ask me about this dirty work,.”  What did the big ape, the monkey say? He said, “you’re human, you did it [to] yourself. “That’s the conclusion. Can we do something better for ourselves?

So I think he actually remembers the gist of it pretty well. The man knows his ape scripture.

Spaghetti time for Morsi

Transcript: TIME’s Interview with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi |

I literally burst out laughing read the first paragraph of TIME's interview with Morsi:

TIME: You’re on the world stage now.

President Mohamed Morsi: (in English) The world stage is very difficult. It’s not easy to be on the world stage. The world is now much more difficult than it was during your revolution.  It’s even more difficult. The world.  More complicated, complex, difficult.  It’s a spaghetti-like structure. It’s mixed up. So we need to somehow take things, easily, so we can go together, the whole world --  peacefully, peacefully, hopefully, all kinds of peace.  I think you know that in general people like to say that we should keep peace by all means. I’m not talking about peace by its traditional meaning. Peace of mind, peace of heart, peace of living together, socially, culturally, not only militarily.

Update: OMG — it only gets better, I think here he calls the head of the SCC a monkey:

I remember a movie. Which one? Planet of the Apes. The old version, not the new one. There is new one. Which is different. Not so good. It’s not expressing the reality as it was the first one. But at the end, I still remember, this is the conclusion: When the big monkey, he was head of the supreme court I think — in the movie! — and there was a big scientist working for him,  cleaning things, has been chained there. And it was the planet of the apes after the destructive act of a big war,  and atomic bombs and whatever in the movie. And the scientists was asking him to do something, this was 30 years ago: “Don’t forget you are a monkey.”  He tells him, “don’t ask me about this dirty work,.”  What did the big ape, the monkey say? He said, “you’re human, you did it [to] yourself. “That’s the conclusion. Can we do something better for ourselves?

I saw it 30 years ago.  That is the role of the art. This is the very important role of art.  Gone with the Wind has been treating social problems. Five in Hell. That was the Arabic title. Five Americans working behind German lines and they were using primitive military devices. I think it was Charles Bronson or something like that.  My hard disk still carries a few things!

Update 2: I'm sad now:

2012 is the best year for the Egyptians in their lives, in their history. 

Holy crap

Egypt constitution draft to be finished Wednesday | Reuters

Nov 28 (Reuters) - The head of the assembly drafting Egypt's new constitution said the final draft would be finished on Wednesday, and three other members of the assembly told Reuters the document would be put to a vote on Thursday.

"We will start now and finish today, God willing," Hossam el-Gheriyani, the assembly speaker, said at the start of a meeting of the constitutional assembly in Cairo. He said Thursday would be a "great day", without elaborating, and called on the members who had withdrawn from the body to return.

Even if it's approved tomorrow, there has to be a referendum on it. Victory is not guaranteed and a referendum will take at least a couple of weeks to organize. The supervisory commission to run it would be difficult to form, because it has to include senior judges who would likely boycott it, and judges are supposed to also be present at polling stations. All this points to a royal mess, a constitution that has no legitimacy among a big part of the public, and gives the opportunity to the Salafis — whose votes the Brothers now need to approve the latest draft — to introduce modifications to the text. 

I wonder if there are Constituent Assembly members left who oppose this — they might delay the process through a technicality, creating enough time for the SCC to rule (one way or the other) on the legality of the Assembly.

Paranoid about the courts

The revolution in crisis | Egypt Independent

Nathan Brown - who is being called "The Nate Silver of Egyptian politics" on Twitter write about the fight between the judiciary and the presidency:

The president was explicit in why he felt the need for the November declaration: He feared the SCC was about to turn back the revolution by disbanding the Constituent Assembly, the Shura Council, and perhaps even the president’s August constitutional declaration that had removed the military’s stranglehold over the country’s political system.

Is the SCC a body filled with SCAF sycophants and handpicked Hosni Mubarak stooges? 


All members of the court were indeed formally presidential appointments. But most were nominated by the justices themselves; their appointment by Mubarak was a formality.

The former chief justice, Farouk Sultan, was indeed a direct Mubarak pick, but he had only one vote and retired over the summer. He was replaced by a president picked by the court’s own justices. 

I don’t wish to make it sound as if the old regime’s habits left the court completely unaffected. There were subtle ways that the bold court of Chief Justice Awad al-Morr’s days, in the 1990s, was gradually tamed by the regime.

Bottom line: the Supreme Constitutional Court is a mixed bag. Brothers like to point to statements made by Tahani al-Gebali, who famously told the New York Times last summer that she's ready to do anything to back the army and thwart the Brotherhood. Senior officials I've talked to say they have evidence that the court had already decided to rule against the Constituent Assembly, the Shura Council and the August 12 decree with the aim of bringing back the army. Might be true regarding the first two — but we can't know for sure. As for the third, it seems unlikely: after all, the army itself chose to leave the front row of politics. Why come back now?

The SCC is making a statement later today. We'll see how they react to these allegations.

No compromise so far..

Why did the Western media report today that Morsi has compromised his position? As far as I can see the MB has softened its language (with vague promises of "national dialoge") but not its position. See Ikwhanweb's increasingly bitter Twitter feed: "no turning back,decree is staying, those not willing to reach to a point of stability will be held accountable to God & history."

And speaking of Ikhwanweb, where do they get off describing the protesters as "liberals, secularists and filuls"? I guess you just need to take one look at this crowd of mostly veiled women to know they're all that. 

Not that the opposition doesn't have some blindspots of its own. The longer the protests last and the bigger they get, the more maximalist the protesters' demands become (another familiar phenomenon). Now some say they want the declaration rescinded, a new constituent assembly, and Morsi to step down (the last demand in particular makes little sense). Tempting as it is to dream of pushing a "Restart" button on the whole deeply flawed process, I don't think it's realistic, or fair to the Islamists and their supporters. Let's just focus on limiting Morsi's dictatorial powers and re-establishing judicial review. Then start negotiations -- again -- on a more representative constituent assembly. 

Hanna on Morsi's mindset

Morsi’s Majoritarian Mindset - By Michael Wahid Hanna | The Middle East Channel

A good piece that lays out a key issue in the current crisis — the contempt in which the Muslim Brothers, by and large, hold other political forces:

Morsi's majoritarian mindset is not anti-democratic per se, but depends upon a distinctive conception of winner-takes-all politics and the denigration of political opposition. Winning elections, by this perspective, entitles the victors to govern unchecked by the concerns of the losers. This polarizing approach to politics bodes ill for the future of Egypt's troubled transition at a foundational moment when the country is fashioning a new constitutional order. This chronic overreach has cemented the divide between Islamists and non-Islamists and heightened suspicions of the Brotherhood's ultimate intentions.

It's not just Morsi, it's also the opposition

Both Egypt's President and His Opposition Adopt Extreme Positions -

My latest for Latitude — an excerpt:

If Morsi’s critics rightly oppose the decree, however, they also leave little room for compromise. They won’t address some of the underlying problems that the president’s admittedly extreme step sought to address. And they refuse to begin any dialogue with Morsi until the decree is rescinded.

Morsi is unlikely to cancel the measure outright. And the Egyptian judiciary, which is deeply divided about it, has given him leeway to implement at least parts of it as acts of sovereignty. That’s a somewhat mystifying legal doctrine, and it leaves plenty of room for interpretation. But will the opposition negotiate over what must go and what can stay? Also, can it hammer out a deal — of the kind Morsi should have sought in the first place — to ensure that the drafting of the constitution can continue without interruption?

Now that the opposition has an opportunity to humiliate the president, it is in no mood to compromise.

But this is wrong-headed. Over time, Morsi’s critics run the risk of appearing intransigent to the general public, especially if he starts making concessions. ElBaradei and others in the opposition need to make concrete counterproposals, notably about the future of the constitution-writing process.

Finding a consensus that everyone can live with should be the end goal both for Morsi and his opponents, some of who are guilty of the lazy hope that the intervention of third parties — judges, generals — will solve their problems. Just as it needs a president who listens, Egypt needs a loyal and constructive opposition.

The people demand plain language

Morsi fails to defuse anger over decree -

From Heba Saleh's FT report on the confusion about whether Morsi and judges are still at loggerheads about his decree:

“I do not know what ‘acts of sovereignty’ are,” said Khaled al-Sayed, a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance party. “They [the government] should use plain language. We want [Mr Morsi] to withdraw his decree and we are going out tomorrow to demonstrate.”

Amusing that this "acts of sovereignty" business has everyone flummoxed (despite Nathan Brown's best attempt to explain). Someone better start speaking more clearly soon or it might get a lot less amusing.

Some criticism of ICG's take on the Morsi crisis, and a rejoinder

A Way Out of Egypt’s Transitional Quicksand - International Crisis Group

This alert put out by ICG has some decent suggestions about breaking the impasse that Morsi's decree has put Egyptian politics in, and rightly states that the opposition needs to act more maturely in defusing the crisis (I make a similar argument in a forthcoming piece). But this part is plain wrong:

Morsi’s decision arguably enjoys broad support from a citizenry yearning for stability. Opposition calls to rally in Tahrir Square belong more to the realm of nostalgia than to that of effective politics: the revolutionary zeal of 2011 has long exhausted itself, and any violence likely would rally a majority to the president’s side. Without meaningful grassroots popular backing, the non-Islamist opposition typically has resorted to obstructionist politics rather than formulate a positive agenda. Its demand for a complete rescinding of the declaration is unrealistic, as Morsi has staked much of his political capital on this move.

There is no reliable information on what the general public thinks of Morsi's decree, but anecdotal evidence suggests there is quite a bit of opposition to it. Likewise, the rallies in Tahrir Square appear to be more than nostalgia, since they are getting quite large numbers, and therefore there does seem to be some grassroots backing. The point about obstructionist politics remains, though — the opposition has yet to articulate how to solve the larger problems that Morsi tried to tackle with his decree.

Britain and the Palestinian vote at the UN

Britain ready to back Palestinian statehood at UN | World news |

Don't welcome this move by Britain — a source of so much of the modern Middle East's woes — they will only back the Palestinians if they jettison the rights other nations have to pursue war criminals:

On Monday night, the government signalled it would change tack and vote yes if the Palestinians modified their application, which is to be debated by the UN general assembly in New York later this week. As a "non-member state", Palestine would have the same status as the Vatican.

Whitehall officials said the Palestinians were now being asked to refrain from applying for membership of the international criminal court or the international court of justice, which could both be used to pursue war crimes charges or other legal claims against Israel.

Abbas is also being asked to commit to an immediate resumption of peace talks "without preconditions" with Israel. The third condition is that the general assembly's resolution does not require the UN security council to follow suit.

Update: France looks like it will recognize Palestine, apparently without condition.

Morsi's effrontery, according to Bloomberg

Egypt’s Mursi Poses Dilemma as U.S. Assesses Power Grab - Businessweek

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi poses a quandary for the Obama administration as it struggles to respond to the democratically elected Islamist leader’s power grab -- which he made without any advance notice to Washington.

The effrontery of making a dictatorial power-grab without consulting with Washington first! How dare he?

Is there even agreement on where Egypt's crisis is headed?

Some outlets report Morsi has sealed a deal with judges, others say he hasn't. Take a look at some of the headlines you'll find on the front page of a Google News search for "Egypt":

Bottom line: the Supreme Judicial Council has given an opening to Morsi, but there is still no deal that they accept or even one that Morsi has clearly outlined. The protests are taking place, the opposition still demands that the decree is fully rescinded, Morsi will not do that, so the situation is mostly unchanged unless some senior judicial figures start outlining the terms of a compromise of the opposition starts talking to the presidency about what a compromise could be. Indeed, judges alone cannot end this crisis, the opposition has to be willing to negotiate, too — and most importantly, Morsi needs to make whatever he has in mind clear. Right now, no one can figure out where things stand.

The FSA's new media-military offensive in northern Syria

Enduring America, a useful sources for media summations on Syria and (highly-debated) FSA claims of successes suggests that FSA forces are indeed increasingly gaining ground against Assad:

For several weeks there has been a growing number of rumors, low-quality Youtube videos, and eyewitness reports that suggested that not only was the FSA winning in Deir Ez Zor, Lattakia, and Aleppo, but it was on the brink of major victories in all three provinces. Similarly, there is a growing body of inconclusive evidence that the FSA is surging in Daraa province, and was increasingly effective in and around Damascus. While individual reports of this nature may or may not each be true, the trend lines were beginning to look clear.

The spread of the rebellion throughout the country means that even the vaunted internal security forces have to weigh whether moving one force to Point A will weaken Point B fatally, is surely impacting developments on the ground – desertion and heavy casualties continue to mount for the state’s forces. And Syria’s unwillingness to pursue the fight all the way to the Turkish or Iraqi borders for fear of igniting a wider conflagration must give breathing room not just to refugees, but to arms smugglers and militiamen:

For more than a week … that body of evidence has been harder and harder to dismiss as noise and rumor. With well documented victories yesterday, the FSA has encouraged us to post headlines that we have been sitting on for a long time.

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Flight Records List Russia Sending Tons of Cash to Syria - ProPublica

Flight Records List Russia Sending Tons of Cash to Syria - ProPublica

Important story:

This past summer, as the Syrian economy began to unravel and the military pressed hard against an armed rebellion, a Syrian government plane ferried what flight records describe as more than 200 tons of “bank notes” from Moscow.

The records of overflight requests were obtained by ProPublica. The flights occurred during a period of escalating violence in a conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead since fighting broke out in March 2011.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is increasingly in need of cash to stay afloat and continue financing the military’s efforts to crush the uprising. U.S. and European sanctions, including a ban on minting Syrian currency, have damaged the country’s economy. As a result, Syria lost access to an Austrian bank that had printed its bank notes.

Thoughts on the current crisis

* The Brotherhood has badly misread the national mood and its own popularity. In these volatile times, it continues to practice politics as judo -- looking for a sudden, stunning move with which to overpower its opponents and impose its will. Hence a constitutional declaration hatched in secret and sprung on the public. How could the Brotherhood think there would be no backlash -- in a country that has just ridden itself of three-decade-long dictator -- to the overwhelming concentration of power in the hands of a new president? 

* There is great disingenuousness and suspicion on both sides of the current confrontation. The Brotherhood has alleged that the protesters are being manipulated, are thugs, and that they didn't pray on Friday. Meanwhile, it's hard to stomach some of the most egregious Mubarak era figures grandstanding about the need to protect democracy and the independence of the judiciary.

* Sacking the corrupt public prosecutor and re-trying police and regime figures were indeed revolutionary demands. The real problem with Morsi's declaration is its second half (where Morsi sets himself, the consitutent assembly and the Shura council above the law and gives himself sweeping leeway to take measures to defend the revolution). The opposition should make it clear. 

* There is no doubt in my mind that, yes, filul and elements of the so-called deep state -- the ones that supported Shafiq, and have the most to lose from a reform or restructuring of the state bureaucracy -- must be joining in and fomenting the current conflict. One of the difficulties of the current moment is how many different and murky agendas are at play at once. Both sides are convinced that what they are doing is for the greater good. The Brotherhood has stumbled badly but will not admit it; its opposition, while suddenly having found momentum, still lacks cohesion or even clarity. 

* The repeating pattern of events is arresting. I continue to think that calling the Freedom and Justice Party "a new NDP" is lazy and inaccurate. But once again we have a president who is either incapable or unwilling of reigning in his own Ministry of Interior. We have a wall at the end of Kasr El Aini street, and the offices of the ruling party going up in flames. We have rock-throwing 14-year-olds with nothing to lose (their enervated revolt has been the engine of the uprising but the physical and emotional fallout of these cycles of violence will also be its price for many years to come). Tomorrow, we will have rival rallies, parallel narratives and mutual accusations. It is all so strangely familiar. 


How Morsi makes policy: Samer Morqos edition

Mursi decree "crippling to democratic transition" - Former presidential adviser Asharq Alawsat

This is how Morsi has ruled so far: with a kitchen cabinet of close confidantes, and without even consulting the advisor he appointed to be in charge of democratic transition questions on a matter that has everything to do with that:

Morcos stressed that he had accepted this position “in order to participate in the democratization process in Egypt, however what has happened, regarding President Mursi’s decision, represents a disregard of this process.” He also revealed that he was not consulted on this new constitutional declaration, which ultimately places control of the legislative, executive, constitutional and judicial authority in Mursi’s hands, adding that he only learnt of this when the decree was officially announced on television. Morcos asserted that this decision “violates all the democratic norms and traditions” as well as the special portfolio – democratic transition – that he was appointed to oversee.

How could this man not resign?