Chomsky on the Western Sahara and the “Arab Spring”

Chomsky on the Western Sahara and the “Arab Spring”

This is a well-deserved put-down of Chomsky on Jaddaliya:

Since last year, Noam Chomsky has argued that the so-called “Arab Spring” did not begin in Tunisia, but rather, it began in the Western Sahara. Chomsky slips into a dangerous framework that assumes the ongoing events in the region can be marked with a beginning, and an inevitable end that many have attempted to impose from Morocco to Yemen.

In several media appearances, Chomsky pointed to the October 2010 protests in Gdeim Izik as the beginning of the “Arab Spring.” Moroccan security forces brutally repressed the protests, resulting in the death of eleven people, and several hundred others were injured. If the “Arab Spring” refers to the recent wave of popular uprisings throughout the region, rooted in socioeconomic grievances and the opposition to authoritarianism, placing the Western Saharan struggle on this spectrum is dismissive of a long history.

It's not just a question of the futility of trying to find a starting point other than the death of Mohammed Bouzizi for the Arab Spring. If the protests-turned-riots at Gdeim Izik were the beginning, than why not the 2009 protests in Sidi Ifni in Morocco? Or the 2008 protests in Mahalla in Egypt? Chomsky picks the Western Sahara because it is a pet leftist cause — that's pretty much it. He appears to have no fine-grained understanding pf how those protests began (I was there, in Laayoune, just two weeks before they broke out and followed them closely as they turned from peaceful socio-economic protests into, after provocation and attacks by the Moroccan army, more violent and outright pro-Polisario riots). 

To tell the truth, I'm not sure what Chomsky has to contribute in our understanding of the Arab Spring. He has not been here. This is not his area of specialty. I've always found him over-rated, but while I might listen to what he has to say on the US Occupy movement or media issues, I'm pretty puzzled about what he knows about the current moment in the Arab world.

The Coptic papal elections

The Coptic papal elections

I didn't blog about Monday's election of the next patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, so here's a few links:

One of the interesting consequences of this election is the direction the church might take on issues of wider public interest — such as Egypt's new constitution. I don't expect a change of tack, but having an official pope elected and able to guide his flock will make a difference if, as expected, the debate over the constitution gets rougher.

More on Hamas' disappointment with Egypt

More on Hamas' disappointment with Egypt

From Nic Pelham's latest NYRB piece:

But Egypt remains the missing piece in Hamas’s regional jigsaw puzzle. With the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s ideological twin, the Gazan leadership anticipated a rapprochement, and on the night of Mohammed Morsi’s election victory, Hamas loyalists cheered in the streets. Hamas ministers prepared feasibility studies for a highway stretching from North Africa’s farthest reaches to Gaza, and appealed to Gulf labor markets to absorb Gaza’s jobless graduates. The Gaza-Egypt border crossing at Rafah “will open fully and Egypt will supply fuel, medicine, and electricity. No one will be refused entry,” mused Mahmoud al-Zahar, a veteran Hamas leader, as we sat in his garden in July on his return from a meeting with Morsi.

But after the initial welcome, Egypt backed off, swayed both by pressure from western powers negotiating an IMF package and by its security forces’ claims that Gaza was complicit in the August 5 attack. In late September, Prime Minister Haniya arrived in Cairo at the head of a twenty-man Gazan delegation only to find his anticipated audience with Morsi declined and his requests for upgrading ties rebuffed. Egypt, he discovered, remained noncommittal on the Qatari fuel it had blocked after the August 5 attack, on boosting Egypt’s supply of electricity and water to Gaza, and above all, on the launch of a free trade zone on the Gaza-Egypt border that would make Hamas a legitimate trading partner. In a further slight, the foreign ministry described Haniya as a visiting guest, not an official.

Passenger crossings between Gaza and Egypt at the main Rafah terminal, which had reached almost quarter of a million since the start of the year, fell back to levels of a year earlier. And at their common border, Egyptian bulldozers began digging up tunnels with a tenacity Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, had rarely shown. Tunnel traffic dwindled to a third of pre-August 5 levels: had it not been for a significant easing of Israel’s closures on Gaza the impact would have been intense. In a huff, Hamas removed the banner of a smiling Morsi and Haniya holding hands against the backdrop of the pyramids from the walls of its Gaza City parliament, and replaced it with a large portrait of Qatar’s Emir.

Pelham also scores an interview with leading Gaza-based jihadist Abu Walid al-Maqdisi.

Obama's new Syrian opposition council

Obama's  new Syrian opposition council

This really sounds like a legitimate body — an opposition council that has to be put together by the State Dept? Josh Rogin for The Cable:

Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.

The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.

The weirdest thing about this is that it doesn't even have Turkish support. Who if not Turkey needs to be behind this for it to even have half a chance to work?

Also look at the qualifiers used by this State Dept. source:

"There's a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda," the official said.

Sounds reassuring.

Egypt's draft constitution, translated

The full translation of the official draft of the new Egyptian constitution — which will probably be significantly revised in the next two weeks — has been made available by IDEA. You can get it here [PDF] and marvel at how badly it is written, starting from article 1:

The Arab Republic of Egypt is an independent unified and sovereign State that shall not accept division. The Republic enjoys a democratic system of government. The Egyptian people are part of the Arab and Islamic nation and are proud to belong to the Nile Basin and Africa and of its connections to Asia, and contribute positively to human civilization. 

It forgot to mention that they are ahsan nas and that their hair smells really good. 

I wish I had time for more serious commentary — the bits where it contradicts itself, the runway conservative populism, and many grey areas — but I simply don't.

Update: The Atlantic Council's Egypt Source has an alternative translation.

Zebda - une vie de moins

New song by French rap group Zebda, with lyrics by Jean-Pierre Filiu, about life in Gaza.

Filiu, who wrote one of the first books to come out on the Arab Spring last year, is a great model for polymath academic. As well as teach at Paris' SciencesPo, this former diplomat also collaborated with the fantastic cartoonist David B. to produce a comic about the US and the Middle East, Best of Enemies (get part one here) and has done various other collaborations with Arab rap groups (which he follows assiduously).

Nasser, the Muslim Brothers and the veil


This is a wonderful video of a speech given by Gamal Abdel Nasser in which he recounts a meeting with the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (at the time, probably Hassan al-Hudaibi) in which he tried to patch things up and, as he puts it, "set them in the right direction." He asks them what their demands are. The Guide replies that his first demand is that all women in Egypt be forced to wear the veil.

The interesting thing is that this line generates an uproar of laughter in the audience. One man shouts out, "why doesn't he veil himself."

With very dead-pan delivery Nasser continues. He says that he doesn't believe that this should be imposed on anyone, that it's a personal choice. The Guide insists, telling him that he should, as ruler, impose the veil. Nasser then relates that he replied: "Your daughter is studying medicine. She does not wear the veil. If you can't impose the veil on your daughter, what makes you think I can impose the veil on 10 million Egyptian women?"

The depressing thing is that, back then, you could mock the leader of an Islamist movement for wanting to impose an alleged religious duty. Today it seems it would trigger anti-blasphemy lawsuits.

Of course Nasser may be at least partly making this up. Although close to the Brothers before he assumed powers, and fully sharing their authoritarian streak, by the time he made this speech he was repressing them. It may have been convenient to ridicule them. But it's the audience reaction that is the most telling.

[Thanks, MG]

Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, in the NYT, write that Iraqis are continuing their sectarian fight in Syria:

BAGHDAD — Militant Sunnis from Iraq have been going to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad for months. Now Iraqi Shiites are joining the battle in increasing numbers, but on the government’s side, transplanting Iraq’s explosive sectarian conflict to a civil war that is increasingly fueled by religious rivalry.

Some Iraqi Shiites are traveling to Tehran first, where the Iranian government, Syria’s chief regional ally, is flying them to Damascus, Syria’s capital. Others take tour buses from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, on the pretext of making a pilgrimage to an important Shiite shrine in Damascus that for months has been protected by armed Iraqis. While the buses do carry pilgrims, Iraqi Shiite leaders say, they are also ferrying weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Syrian government.

“Dozens of Iraqis are joining us, and our brigade is growing day by day,” Ahmad al-Hassani, a 25-year-old Iraqi fighter, said by telephone from Damascus. He said that he arrived there two months ago, taking a flight from Tehran.

The Iraqi Shiites are joining forces with Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iran, driving Syria ever closer to becoming a regional sectarian battlefield.

Podcast #36: Mean Streets

Back for another podcast! Ashraf tells us about his ordeal in Tahrir Square, where secularists gathered against Muslim Brotherhood domination. We take a look at the political dynamics of the fight over Egypt's constitution, and the possible scenarios it could lead to. And finally we discuss the last US presidential debate, or at least the bits that have to do with the Middle East, and wonder at the lack of big ideas on either side.

Show notes:



Podcast #36:

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.

Mubarak family worth hundreds of millions, not billions, investigators say

Mubarak family worth hundreds of millions, not billions, investigators say

Bradley Hope in The National, on a government report on Mubarak's wealth:

The report, a copy of which has been obtained by The National, reveals that Mubarak and his family have cash deposits of some US$300 million, as well as additional funds, properties and company stakes of undetermined value.

The only assets held specifically in the ex-president's name are a villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh - number 211 located on 15,640 square metres of land - and a third-floor apartment located in the Mediterranean coast city of Marsa Matrouh.

Mubarak and his wife Suzanne also have unspecified amounts of "liquid funds" in accounts in the National Bank of Egypt, says the five-page report, dated October 16, 2011. The former first lady also has an account in the Paris-based bank, Societe Generale.

Read the whole thing, it's full of details. The total amount of funds believed to be stashed abroad by the Mubarak family and his aides: $1.2bn.

Hope also has a full list of Mubarak family assets here.

Of printing in Cairo and Flaubert's cards

Friend-of-the-blog and fellow gentleman flaneur Matt Hall has a new piece at PRINT magazine about Cairo's hectic printing district alongside Mohammed Ali St, which is where one gets business cards and other office stationary. The article is not online (you can get a copy of the mag through the link above though) but Matt has some extra material up on this blog he contributes to:

An excerpt:

When Flaubert travelled to Egypt in 1849 in the guise of an oriental adventurer, the famous novelist accompanied his friend Maxime du Camp to the summit of great pyramid. Precluding any sense of a pioneering accomplishment, Flaubert reached the summit at dawn only to find pinned to the capstone… a business card.

The light increases. There are two things: the dry desert behind us, and before us an immense, delightful expanse of green, furrowed by endless canals, dotted here and there with tufts of palms; then, in the background, a little to the left, the minarets of Cairo and especially the mosque of Mohamed Ali (imitating Santa Sophia), towering above the others. On the side of the Pyramid lit by the raising sun I see a business card: ‘Humbert, Frotteur’ fastened to the stone.

The card gave a Rouen address, Flaubert’s hometown. It had been placed there as a gag by Maxime.

My own contribution to the wonders of Egyptian business cards will be a lot less literary. I recently found this one, for an upholsterer, while cleaning out my desk:


Flaubert might have approved.

Egypt’s Draft Constitution Opens the Door to a Religious State

Egypt’s Draft Constitution Opens the Door to a Religious State

Ragab Saad, for the Atlantic Council's Egypt Source:

If this constitution passes, it will be the first Egyptian Constitution that adopts a specific religious doctrine for the state. It also means that ancient texts on Islamic jurisprudence, and others that may not even exist anymore, will become sources of Egyptian legislation from which a parliamentary majority may select what it wants from its provisions, instituting authoritarianism in the name of religion. This scenario is the driving force behind the insistence that the constitution provide for a democratic regime in Egypt based on the principles of "Shura" (or consultation). It is an ambiguous concept that has no specific legal characterization, but it refers to a legacy of jurisprudence that ensures that “Shura” does not belong to the ruler alone. This is the essence of democracy.

The political climate in Egypt appears volatile, heated, and tense, with no signs of the social or political consensus necessary for the drafting of a new constitution. In the event that the Administrative Court dissolves the current Constituent Assembly, President Mohamed Morsi will form a new assembly under the provisions of Constitutional Declaration he issued in August. The president will not likely be able avoid a renewed crisis in the Constituent Assembly, and by extension the perpetuation of the conflict between Islamist parties and civil political groups. However, it is worth noting that the civil forces have yet to formulate a clear vision on the formation of the Constituent Assembly if the court rules to dissolve the current Assembly.

Yup on all counts.

Egypt's judicial hot potato game

For weeks now, Egypt has waited for a verdict by the administrative court on the validity of the Constituent Assembly (CA) currently drafting a new constitution. Just a few minutes ago, it was announced that the administrative court has referred the matter to the Supreme Constitutional Court, the highest court in Egypt.

As a reminder, the current CA is the second to be formed, by negotiations that ended in mid-June. The parliament approved the law forming the CA the day before it was dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court, and although Mohammed Morsi ratified this law a few weeks after he took office, the legitimacy of the assembly is still contested by secularists — either because they feel it should not be formed based on a model from a dissolved parliament, or because they object to its composition. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the CA, largely as a secular tactic to have the courts shut down a constitution-writing process in which Islamists dominate.

The secularists' hope is that once the CA is dissolved, Morsi will use the power he gave himself on August 12 to appoint a new CA, which would be largely the same. And then the secularists plan to file more lawsuits arguing that Morsi does not have that right. Ultimately, they rely on the courts to take their sides.

Now that it's in the Supreme Constitutional Court's camp, they might take heart. That court's decisions have generally not been in favor of the Islamists. But at the same time, they see themselves as having a mission to avoid a vacuum. For this path ultimately points to either a political deal on the constitution, or, a complete breakdown in the transition process in Egypt, at least when it comes to the constitution.

As Elijah Zarwan tweeted:


Le Figaro: L'émir du Qatar affiche son parti pris pro-Hamas à Gaza

Le Figaro: L'émir du Qatar affiche son parti pris pro-Hamas à Gaza

Interesting speculation in this article by Georges Malbrunot:

À Ramallah, Naplouse ou Hébron, le pari du Qatar viserait en fait à préparer l'après Abbas, en imposant Meshaal, qui se présente de plus en plus comme un leader nationaliste. Le travail de sape contre Mahmoud Abbas aurait déjà commencé cet été… par la diffusion par la chaîne qatarienne al-Jazeera du documentaire sur l'empoisonnement supposé de Yasser Arafat par Israël, avec probablement l'aide d'une «main palestinienne» dans l'entourage du chef de l'Autorité.

Khaled Meshaal as Abbas' successor? That would be a very different Middle East.

Qatar's Gaza policy and Egypt

Qatar's Gaza policy and Egypt

From Qatari state television al-Jazeera's coverage:

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, is set to arrive in the Gaza Strip to inaugurate a $254-million Qatari investment project to rebuild the impoverished and overcrowded coastal enclave.

The leader of the Gulf nation will be the first head of state to visit Gaza since the imposition of a widespread international boycott of the Palestinian territory.

"This visit has great political significance," said Hamas government spokesman Taher al-Nunu.

"He is the first Arab leader to break the political siege."

The investment project seeks to build 1,000 homes for poor families in the devastated Khan Younis area in the south of the Strip.

The 41km-long Gaza Strip, home to 1.6 million people, sustained major damage during a huge 22-day Israeli military operation in December 2008 and January 2009.

Khan Younis has been particularly hard hit during the international blockade of Gaza, imposed since 2007, and during the half-decade before that. A 2011 EWASH report revealed that 90-95 per cent of Gaza's water is safe to drink.

In a phone conversation on the eve of the visit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the emir's intentions to help the people of Gaza, under an Israeli-led blockade since the Hamas takeover.

A late night statement from the office of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi said his country welcomed the emir's visit to Gaza, which it said were part of Egypt's effort "to break the siege on the people" of the territory.

The Qatari emir's visit to Gaza is indeed a massive boon to the Hamas regime there, and not just financially. They have wanted, and the international community has denied them, the kind of formal recognition this visits grants for years. And it will really sting Mahmoud Abbas and the PA, whatever nice words they have to say about it, because the erosion of the idea that the PA is the sole representative of the Palestinian people is the single most damaging thing for them.

The Qatari emir can't go to Gaza through Israel, and thus must make his way via the Rafah crossing and Egypt. This must be a difficult thing for Egypt to swallow: Qatar, which is lending $2bn this calendar year alone to support the Egyptian pound, is doing more politically and financially for Gaza than Muslim Brotherhood Egypt has. Egyptians have long fumed about "little Qatar's" over-active foreign policy and its meddling in Gaza, an Egyptian near-abroad. I suspect the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever its initial euphoria and dreams of reconquering historical Palestine, will have similar reservations about the Qatari visit. They have, in the past few months, been slowly adjusting to the reality that the Gaza-Egypt-Israel relationship is a complex one and no dramatic change in policy — such as opening the border to commercial traffic and effectively ending the Gaza blockade —  has yet come. More than that, officially Egypt still sticks to the protocol of considering Mahmoud Abbas as the representative of Palestinians and Gaza as under theoretical PA authority (or that the end state of Palestinian reconciliation should be a West Bank and Gaza united under PA control). Qatar's visit undermines this — at a time when Morsi is under pressure from his own over his Israel policy.


Notes on the US presidential debate

I just caught up with last night’s US presidential debate — arguably the one that would be the most interesting for this audience, especially as the first segment was devoted to the Middle East. The one thing that struck me most is how limited the debate was, how frequently the bromides came, how few exciting ideas either of the candidates had to offer in what has to be one of the most exciting times in recent Middle Eastern history.

The differences between the candidates was on the surface mostly slim, largely due to Mitt Romney’s “pivot to the center” ending up being a “I agree with Barack Obama but can implement his policies better” line. Of course, as Obama pointed out again and again rather effectively, Romney changes his take all the time. (Juan Cole has a list of Middle East-related flip-flops or Etch-a-Sketch moments here

I think Obama clearly did better in this debate on substance, in part because of some Romney unforced errors:

  • Iran does not need Syria for access to the sea
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of council that organized the Syrian opposition? This is probably the biggest indictment to date of the failure of the, erm, Syrian National Council.
  • Romney wants to arrest Mahmoud Ahmedinejad for genocide. He said in the debate: “I would make sure that Ahmadinejad would be indicted for genocide. His words amount to genocide.” And then his campaign spokesman doubles down and suggests the UN can arrest Ahmedinejad. For something he has not done.

According to Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, successfully indicting Ahmadinejad would be more than just a symbolic victory.

“I think it would remove probably one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-genocide members of that regime in Tehran,” he told TPM after the debate. As to whether he would actually be arrested: “I’m hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely.”

Others in the Romney camp seemed a little unsure of how the indictment would play out. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told TPM after the debate that the hypothetical charges wouldn’t even be about Israel, but about the violent repression of his own people.

“No, no, I thought he meant in terms of what’s going on internally in Iran,” Sununu said. “I think that’s what the reference was to.”

So Ahmedinejad is guilty of pre-cog genocide in Israel and genocide against his own people. Wow.

Other aspects of the debate were grimly familiar, notably he unprompted, almost incongruous, pledges of loyalty and undying love to Israel from Obama. But there was little of substance new or frankly interesting. The debate on Syria was surreal on the Romney side, and cautious on the Obama side (although I thought he made a good case for a cautious approach and the difficulty of finding “good Syrians” to back. ) Most striking was that both candidates reject direct US military intervention and Romney rejects a no-fly zone enforced by US planes.

On Egypt, Obama’s intervention was telling of the malaise in US policy circles over Egypt, which is perhaps deeper than that of Libya (although the Libyan intervention’s monstrous lovechild, the disintegration of Mali, made a front-row appearance). Romney raised Egypt having a “Muslim Brotherhood president” as a problem in itself. Obama talked tough about the points on which Egypt policy is focused:

  1. The rights of women and religious minorities;
  2. Cooperation on counter-terrorism;
  3. The “red line” of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty;
  4. Economic development.

Aside from the last point he kept talking of Egypt in terms of US applying pressure to obtain the results it wants. It definitely frames Egypt as a “problem” more than anything else.

You've come a long way, Andrew Sullivan

✚ You've come a long way, Andrew Sullivan

Nice to read this simple statement on the Daily Dish:

If humanitarian aid can be suspended for the struggling Palestinians, cannot military aid be suspended for the prosperous Israelis? It seems to me that aid of all kinds should have basic human rights strings attached to it. I would have suspended all aid to Israel when it refused to stop its settlement policy on the West Bank, but that's a little like being in favor of an immediate space station on Mars, given the Greater Israel lobby's grip on Congress.

So let me just reiterate something that has no chance of ever happening, but I might as well put on the record: we should treat Israel as any other recipient of US aid. If a country is occupying and settling land conquered through war, if it's treating a minority population with inhumanity, the US should stand up for Western values. It should not single Israel out; but we have to stop treating Israel as the exception to every other US foreign policy rule.