Wolfowitz finances Bin Laden

That caught your attention, didn't it? Actually, this will happen if Wolfowitz does becomes president of the World Bank, which is financing the construction of a new passenger lounge at Sharm Al Sheikh airport. The company that won the contract for the project is none other than the Saudi Binladen Group, owned by Osama's family (which has condemned him strongly, it must be said.) The world works in interesting ways...
Read More

Pro-Mubarak demonstration

There was a new twist to the anti-Mubarak demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square today. Taking a play from the Lebanon playbook, Mubarak supporters staged a pro-Mubarak demonstration right next to the opposition's demonstration. They waved "Long Live Mubarak" signs and chanted "Down with the traitors." They also included a sprinkling of anti-occupation in Iraq and Palestine signs, presumably to boost their street credibility. As usual, both demonstrations were surrounded by overwhelming security. Presumably the pro-Mubarak demonstrators were NDP functionaries of one sort or another. I don't think it's much of a stretch to assume that this was inspired by the competing demonstrations that have occurred in recent weeks in Lebanon.
Read More

Blessed are the MEK?

My old friend Ashraf Khalil has a fantastic story in the LA Times on the Mujaheddin El Khalq's bizarre HQ in Iraq, Camp Ashraf:
Last week, MEK officials allowed a pair of journalists to visit Camp Ashraf, the first such visit by Western reporters since shortly after the Iraq war. The visit left the impression that if there is a definable line between commune and cult, the MEK might just be straddling it.
...
MEK cadres wear olive green uniforms, with matching, identically tied head scarves for the women. In talking, certain phrases and themes pop up again and again — suggesting a high level of political indoctrination.
Tehran is the "mullah regime," and the movement fighting the Iranian government has suffered "120,000 martyrs." The more than 400 people who have defected from the group in recent years are "quitters" who were too weak or selfish to "pay the price." Explaining why they chose to come to Camp Ashraf, most offer some variation on the theme of feeling guilty living abroad in comfortable exile while their people suffered back home.
Pictures of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi are everywhere in the camp, and members refer to Maryam's sayings and ideas in a manner that evokes Maoist China. Camp leaders acknowledge that regular Shiite Muslim religious observance is basically mandatory.
Direct contact with the outside world, including families, is rare. Phone calls, letters and e-mails are all routed through the central leadership.
Although the cult charge clearly rankles, MEK members also seem insulated from much of the criticism directed their way by a sort of circular logic.
Any accusations, negative articles or outside criticism are dismissed as the product of an Iranian campaign to discredit and undermine them. The complaints of some defectors that they were tricked into coming to the camp and then held against their will are the lies of those trying to get into the good graces of the Iranian intelligence services.
The LAT has had another few interesting Middle East stories for the past couple of days, following on the tradition of Anthony Shadid no doubt, including Megan Stack on Hizbullah and Monte Morin on insane levels of criminality in Iraq -- the latter is a must-read to understand the level of chaos there. Update: Speaking of the patron saint of Arab-American journalists, Praktike points to a great new Shadid piece here.
Read More

Revolution by SMS

One of the interesting things about the current anti-regime movement in Egypt is that its Pr is much more sophisticated than those of most of its predecessors. Consider for instance Kefaya's use to stickers over demonstrators' mouths -- a great picture that sums a lot of things up -- or the use of websites and online petitions to garner support. Another example is this SMS that I just received:
DOWN WITH MUBARAK
DOWN WITH AMERICA
JOIN 20 MARCH DEMO SUNDAY, 1 O'CLOCK, IN TAHRIR
So much for all those Arab democrats that are thankful to George W. Bush...
Read More

New stories in Cairo

Cairo -- the magazine, that is -- has put up some new stories on its site pending its next issue. They include:
  • A report on Ayman Nour's release.
  • A fascinating story on feudal land wars in a small village.
  • The traffic controllers' strike that had President Mubarak personally intervene.
  • The recent visit to Cairo by the Speaker of the Knesset, who addressed the Egyptian parliament from its floor for the first time.
  • A look at the Muslim Brotherhood's stance on the presidential elections. Interestingly there have been a few press reports that a new Brotherhood-linked party might be created.
  • Read More

    Fisk's article

    I am posting the aforementioned Robert Fisk article on who might be behind Hariri s assassination here. The highlights:
    The UN's Irish, Egyptian and Moroccan investigation team has now been joined by three Swiss bomb experts following the discovery that many of the smashed vehicles in Hariri's convoy were moved from the scene of the massacre only hours afterwards - and before there was time for an independent investigation. Yesterday, frogmen were sent into the sea off the Beirut Corniche to recover the wreckage of the one car in the Hariri convoy that was not taken away by the authorities because it was blasted over a hotel wall into the Mediterranean by the force of the explosion. If they successfully recover parts of the vehicle, they may be able to discover the nature of the explosives. First reports that Hariri was killed by a car bomb are now being challenged by evidence that the explosives - estimated at 600kg - could have been buried beneath the seafront avenue.
    A unique photograph handed to The Independent in Beirut - which is now also in the hands of the UN investigators - was taken on the afternoon of 12 February, about 36 hours before the bombing. It shows a drain cover in the road at the exact spot where the explosion was to tear a 30-foot crater in the highway, instantly killing Hariri and many of his bodyguards.
    The section of roadway is marked off by "no parking" signs which have been left there innocently by staff of the nearby HSBC bank. But a mysterious object can be seen on the left edge of the drain cover. Both the metal cover and an extensive area of roadway around it were atomised by the bomb.
    The picture also shows two buildings which the UN police officers are investigating as possible locations of the bomber who detonated the explosives: one is on top of the circular building in the centre of the photo - which houses a Beirut hotel as well as a Lebanese army retirement fund office - and the other is on top of the war-damaged Holiday Inn (far right) which has been empty for more than a decade. The balloon in the centre of the photograph regularly takes tourists on sightseeing tours of Beirut.
    Some members of the Hariri family have been told that the report of the UN inquiry team will be so devastating that it will force a full international investigation of the murder of "Mr Lebanon" and his entourage, perhaps reaching to the higher echelons of the Syrian and Lebanese governments.
    Hariri opposed the continued Syrian military presence in Lebanon and many Lebanese have blamed the Syrians for his murder. The UN investigators have become convinced that there was a cover-up of evidence at the very highest levels of the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence authorities.
    In their search for information, at least one Irish police officer has now interviewed Brigadier General Rustum Ghazale, the senior Syrian army intelligence officer in Lebanon, at his headquarters in Aanjar. He is believed to have pointed out to the police that his job was only to safeguard Syrian forces in the country - an assertion which will require more than a few grains of Syrian salt to be believed.
    More details than I expected.
    Read More

    Iraq: murdered US contractor warned of corruption

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

    English-language newspaper in Baghdad bombed

    Reuters is reporting that:
    An explosion has hit the offices of an English-language newspaper in central Baghdad and casualties are feared, witnesses say.
    Ambulances rushed to the scene, not far from Baghdad's national theatre and hotels housing foreign contractors.
    It was not clear whether it was a mortar or car bomb that caused Wednesday's explosion. The house was engulfed by flames soon afterwards.
    The Baghdad Mirror, edited by Iraqis, is Baghdad's only English-language weekly.
    I'd never heard of the Baghdad Mirror before. Two previous attempts at an English-language publication in Iraq failed (the Baghdad Bulletin and Iraq Today), this might have been another one. I wonder if it is the first time that journalists' offices are specifically targeted for bombing by the Iraqi insurgency.
    Read More

    "The dog had mistaken the Palestinian's identity"

    The brillant Amira Hass has a story in Haaretz that says it all:
    The Defense Ministry is blaming an army dog for the death of an innocent Palestinian, who was shot by Israel Defense Forces troops 10 months ago.
    According to Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim (Likud), the dog had mistaken the Palestinian's identity.
    Boim wrote this in response to a parliamentary question submitted by MK Azmi Bishara (Balad) about the circumstances of the death of a Jenin University lecturer last year. Bishara presented the question in May 2004 and received the answer at the end of February 2005.
    Haaretz learned from security sources that the inquest in the case was based on testimony from the soldiers only, and that no attempt had been made to question the widow of the deceased, who was near him when he was shot.
    As a rule, the IDF does not question Palestinians while investigating cases in which civilians are killed by Israeli fire, the sources said.
    Boim's answer is based on the IDF's investigation, which was reportedly carried out on April 28, 2004. On that same day, Haaretz published an article contrasting the IDF's version with the widow's testimony. The only dog she saw was with the soldiers, when they emerged from behind a large tree after shooting her husband, she said.
    Yasser Abu-Laymoun, a lecturer on hospital management at the American-Arab university in Jenin, was shot and killed on Friday, April 23, 2004, in an open field outside his village Taluza, near Nablus. His wife and sister were nearby.
    What utter contempt for humanity.
    Read More

    Sussman on Sharon's plans

    The second MERIP article I want to link to (here is my post about the first) is by Gary Sussman, a professor at Tel Aviv University. In this important article, Sussman articulates what I've always thought about Sharon's withdrawal plan from Gaza: that it's a sham designed, as Dov Weiglass famously said, to put the peace process "in formaldehyde" and encourage the idea that a Palestinian state already exists in Jordan.
    In the long term, the Israeli premier hopes that the Palestinian state will meld with Jordan. His assumption is that unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, his plan for a carefully managed transition away from direct Israeli rule over the majority of the Palestinians, will set this process in motion. Over time, Sharon calculates, contiguity between “Palestine” and its neighbor to the east, as well as increased trade, cultural ties and the “democratization” championed by the Bush administration, will induce Palestinians on both the West and East Banks of the Jordan to agitate for Palestinian-Jordanian federation themselves. If one assumes that Sharon has quietly held on to his once openly expressed belief that “Jordan is Palestine,” his break with his old supporters among the settler movements and the right becomes easier to understand.
    The argument is quite complex and detailed, so it is worth reading the entire article. The article is illustrated by a recent map [PDF, 1.6MB] of Israel and the occupied territories that speaks a thousand words.
    Read More

    Beinin on Egyptian social movements

    I had meant to post about these earlier, but the always excellent MERIP published two fine articles on its site recently. I'll post about them separately. The first, by Stanford Professor Joel Beinin, is about the growing number of strikes by government (and private sector) workers who are opposing the neo-liberal policies of Gamal Mubarak and his cronies, but also looks at other issues such as why the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is endorsing Hosni Mubarak for another term, the rise of Al Ghad, and other protest movements that have emerged over the past year. Beinin is a specialist on left-wing movements in Egypt and the Middle East, and the author of the classic on the topic, Workers on the Nile, as well as a book on Egypt's Jewish community, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, and on Iraqi Jews, The last Jews in Baghdad. He's also a frequent target of CampusWatch and similar neo-MacCarthyite organizations for his balanced views on Israel-Palestine (and he grew up in an extremely Zionist family in Brooklyn but saw the light while living in Israel.) Beinin's article notes the growth of popular opposition movements in Egypt across different sides of the political spectrum:
    Since 1952, no Egyptian head of state has been targeted directly in this manner. A taboo has been broken, and there is no telling where these popular movements may lead.
    He concludes:
    There is little doubt that Husni Mubarak will win even a relatively free election, assuming that he runs, because the political, media and educational infrastructure for a viable democratic political system does not exist and cannot be installed by September. A similar scenario would likely apply if the father contrived magnanimously to withdraw his name from the race in favor of the son. Consequently, the future of Egyptian politics will not be determined by the amendment of the constitution.
    Rather, it will depend on whether these popular political initiatives are capable of building a social movement for change. While such a movement has not yet coalesced, challenges to the regime by human rights activists, workers and other marginalized strata show no sign of abating and are becoming increasingly sharp. Ahmad Sayf al-Islam, the director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, assisted Human Rights Watch in its investigation of the al-Arish detentions. At the HRW press conference he accused the government of breaking into his home and stealing his laptop computer for a second time two days earlier. Sayf al-Islam’s exceptionally bold public statement addressed itself to “tyrants, pharaohs of Egypt” and concluded, “the fish starts rotting from the head. Don’t you smell the rot of our fish?”
    The most interesting part, about the strikes and resistance to privatization, is an important reflection on how the Egyptian regime is adopting market globalization to ensure it meets approval from Washington and elsewhere, as always at the expense of local people.
    Read More

    Who killed Hariri? The airbase conpiracy

    I just came across one conspiracy theory about Hariri's murder I'd never heard about before: it was done by the US (and possibly Israel) to remove Hariri and his opposition to building a massive airbase in Northern Lebanon:
    Hariri, a pan-Arabist and Lebanese nationalist, was known to adamantly oppose the construction of a major U.S. air base in the north of Lebanon. The United States wants Syrian troops completely out of Lebanon before construction of the base is initiated. Hariri's meetings with Hezbollah shortly before his death also angered Washington and Jerusalem, according to the Lebanese intelligence sources.
    It sounds rather ridiculous considering that Lahoud and the other pro-Syria politicians would be just as against such an airbase. Why not kill them too? Also, I've never heard of plans for an airbase in Lebanon, especially with the Incirlik base in Turkey is quite close. Part of the problem with this "who benefits" analysis is that, as in any crime case, you can't just rely on motive. Opportunity and capability also have to come into it.
    Read More

    Neighborly relations

    Fascinating story in the New York Times today about the Jordanian man allegedly responsible for last week's huge suicide bombing in Hilla in Iraq and the consequences that it is having on Iraqi-Jordanian relations. Raad Mansur al-Banna's family thought he was looking for work abroad until they received a phone call from Iraq last week telling them he had died a "martyr." What I find interesting is that the story was broken by a new Jordanian paper called Al Ghad (no relation to the Egyptian party) and that the reporter has been detained by Jordanian intelligence. One of the details he reported--and which fanned Iraqi outrage and has led to demos and an attack on the Jordanian embassy--was that Al Banna's family took out a large ad calling their son a martyr and inviting others to congratulate them on his death. The article points out that this sort of things enflames Iraqi Shia feeling that their Sunni neighbors are sabotaging them. Anyway, this Al Ghad paper may be worth watching.
    Read More

    Who killed Hariri? Fisk's theory

    Here are more details on the Fisk article I mentioned yesterday:
    In his article, Fisk said the report of the United Nations inquiry team "will be so devastating that it will force a full international investigation of the murder of 'Mr. Lebanon' and his entourage, perhaps reaching to the higher echelons of the Syrian and Lebanese governments."
    Speaking from New York, a UN spokesperson told The Daily Star that whatever President Bush would announce would not be based on the UN team's findings as the investigation is still ongoing.
    He said: "We can neither confirm or deny anything until the team returns to New York and presents its findings to the secretary general."
    According to The Independent, The UN team, made up of Irish, Egyptian and Moroccan investigators and recently joined by Swiss bomb experts, has discovered that many of the vehicles from Hariri's convoy "were moved from the scene of the massacre only hours afterward - and before there was time for an independent investigation."
    Now, one thing about Fisk is that among Middle East journalists he has a reputation for sometimes, er, making things up or at the very least exaggerating his case to get attention. It's slightly disturbing that he quotes no sources in his story. The Fisk report was brought up at the White House press briefing with Scott McClellan:
    Q Scott, on another matter, there was a report out of The Independent from a Beirut reporter, Robert Fisk, who said that the President was expected to announce on Wednesday that Syrian and perhaps Lebanese military intelligence officers were involved in Hariri's death. Is that true, and do you have any update on the investigation?
    MR. McCLELLAN: I have no idea where that report came from. The United Nations is continuing their investigation. It's important that the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Mr. Hariri, be fully investigated. And we look forward to seeing what the results of the investigation are. But the United Nations is continuing in their investigation, and we have not seen any update on that and any final results of that investigation.
    Q Can I follow up on that?
    MR. McCLELLAN: Sure.
    Q On Wednesday, the President is going to meet with the Lebanese Maronite Christian Patriarch. Is the President expected to -- planning to persuade him to get involved in this whole issue of getting Syria out of Lebanon?
    MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think he has been involved in the issue of supporting the Lebanese people, and letting -- and supporting their desires to chart their own course, free from outside intimidation and interference. That's one of the reasons the President invited him to come to the United States. His All Holiness is someone who has promoted the religious diversity and culture of the Lebanese people, and he is someone who has been a supporter of freedom and democracy in Lebanon.
    And the President -- in terms of the issue of Syria, the President continues to call on Syria to completely withdraw all their military forces and all their intelligence services as soon as possible. It's important that elections proceed without outside intimidation or interference so that they can be free and fair and credible. And that's something we continue to emphasize. We've seen some positive developments, but ultimately it will depend on the action, and not the words, by Syrian officials.
    Will President Bush make a declaration with the Patriarch at his side on who killed Hariri tomorrow? I think that would discredit the report more than anything else, if the report is indeed saying that. Unrelated bonus: from the same briefing, Helen Thomas lives!
    MR. McCLELLAN: And this President has been at the forefront of leading the efforts to achieve the two-state vision that he outlined of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. We are at the forefront of those efforts to support the aspirations of the Palestinian people. And we continue to urge all parties to move forward on the road map and meet their obligations.
    The United States is continuing to work closely with other countries and continuing to work closely with the parties involved to support their efforts.
    Go ahead, Helen.
    Q Diplomacy depends on policy. You can't sell what is unsaleable. If the policy remains that we will engage further in preemptive war, you cannot sell it to the Middle East, I'm sure, or anywhere else. So are you going to change any policy?
    MR. McCLELLAN: Our policy is to expand freedom and democracy and to support the aspirations of people --
    Q By gunpoint?
    MR. McCLELLAN: -- and support the aspirations of people in countries around the world that do not have the freedoms that we enjoy. And, no, Helen, the President made it very clear in his inaugural address that it is not primarily the use of arms. It is supporting the aspirations of the people in those countries and doing all we can to stand with those people as they seek greater freedoms. We are standing with the people of Lebanon. We are standing with the people of the Palestinian Territories. We are standing with --
    Q> We also invaded Iraq.
    MR. McCLELLAN: -- we are standing with the people of Iraq, and the people of Iraq have shown that freedom is a universal value. They stood up and defied the terrorists and went to the polls.
    Q And we invaded the country.
    MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Terry.
    Read More

    Who killed Hariri? An interpretation.

    For the past few days I have been emailing a friend in Lebanon about the current situation there and in Syria. Rather than repeat tidbits here and there, I’ve asked him to write up his impression of what led to the present state of affairs, particularly from the Syrian angle. What follows are his impressions after discussions with well-informed personalities there, including a theory on how a rogue element of the Syrian regime may have carried out the assassination of Rafik Hariri without the explicit permission or even knowledge of other elements of the regime. The hyperlinks were added by me for context (n.b. some of the links are bios from highly partisan sources. With that caveat, some of them are quite good.) The important lesson here is that the fragmentation of the Syrian political elite that followed Hafez Al Assad’s death might be crucial to understanding what led to where we are today and where both Lebanon and Syria will be going tomorrow. As for his theory on who killed Hariri, I'll post my two cents in the comments. The current situation in Damascus is intense. I gathered this from meetings with well-connected people and this is my construction. I don't know if it is right but if I were telling the story, this is how I would tell it and how I understand it. Basically, to understand the Hariri assassination, you have to look at the extension of Lahoud. To understand the extension, you have to look at the years leading up to it. Back in 2000, Bashar Al Assad was appointed by the Baath Party and security/military institutions because he is weak, in the hope that developing power centers (which emerged in the last years of Hafez Al Assad, whose rule was not as absolute as we are often led to believe) will be able to maintain their stakes in Syrian politics at his expense. This does not, however, indicate that he was powerless. His strategy was to appoint Syrian technocrats from abroad like Essam Zaim (who was snatched from the IMF, put in charge of State Planning and then moved to the Ministry of Industry before being out under house arrest after a confrontation with Prime Minister Mustafa Miro over a corruption scandal) and Ghassan Al Rifai (former minister of economy and trade before being kicked out.) Because of their lack of expertise in the political arena, both of the above were dealt with and marginalized. Others such as Head of State Planning Commission Abdullah Dardari remain in their posts but are constrained and encircled. Bashar felt this approach is futile. Bashar also noticed that there were the Israeli and Iraq/US threats that needed to be dealt with. The US, for its part, was constantly baiting Bashar to "prove" his leadership. Bashar was trying to but unable to successfully marginalize the Baath old guard or security services. Basically, things were going too slow. At the same time, two networks of corruption run from Damascus to Beirut. One is headed by Hariri and is connected to Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, former Head of Political Security and now Minister of Interior Ghazi Kanaan (who ran the Lebanon dossier between 1980 and 2000) and others. The networkother is headed by Lebanese President Emile Lahoud (with Bashar, his younger brother Maher Al Assad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf among others). These two networks compete with one another for at least 20% of the Syrian economy (but some estimate as much as 40%). Bashar feels that if he controls that network, he can make moves internally and consolidate. Lahoud is viewed as necessary. Other pro-Syrian Lebanese like former Foreign Minister Jean Obeid or Minister of Interior Suleiman Frangieh simply do not have the economic pull, control of corruption networks, or the links to security and military to check Hariri. So the decision to use Lahoud is not for the sake of economic gain through him per say, but to hit at or target Hariri's network. It is also an enormous miscalculation. Bashar, likely prodded by his family, failed to compute Hariri's links to France and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, there seems to be a feeler that by going after Hariri, it can make room for Walid bin Talal to replace Hariri which would give Bashar control over the economic networks in Syria and Lebanon. So they extend Lahoud’s presidential mandate and do so in a crude way that pisses Hariri off. He resigns and goes to Paris. Chirac is pissed and Hariri returns to Beirut via Damascus. He meets with Bashar and it does not go well. The message from France is that relations could be threatened. Instead of reacting positively, Bashar again miscalculates. After continuing to go after Hariri unsuccessfully (with him potentially being an obstacle - be it active or passive), witnessing the UN resolution 1559 and appointing people like Walid Al Muallim as deputy foreign minister handling Lebanon over Foreign Minister Farouk Al Sharaa's head, the situation gets more perilous. This feeds into further desperation and bad choices. Now, no one suggested to me that Bashar ordered the hit. But many think that, at least, Maher was involved. They thought by ridding themselves of Hariri that there would be a problem but that it would blow over and they could establish their dominance over the economic links through Lahoud. Now, Asif Shawqat (search "shawqat" on the link), the head of Military Intelligence, Maher has been removed from the Republican Guard to watch Shawqat's movements. Someone named Nukkari (now head of RG and loyal to Bashar) and Ali Younis (a big deal in the Alawi community, also loyal to Bashar) is head of the Struggle Companies (Sarayit al-Sara`a). This indicates that the confession is still backing Bashar through the security services. We know what happened next. The world has lined up against them. Khaddam is openly saying that he has nothing to do with the situation in Lebanon, the Saudi family (the side connected to Hariri) is livid, as are the French. The Egyptians are doing the US’ bidding. So why not pull out? Because if they pull out now and Lahoud falls (a likely possibility), they will lose Lebanon completely. If they stay they can keep some who influence on what comes next and the Assads can make sure they are in charge of economic developments. This is where we stand now and I think what accounts for their lack of withdrawing to date (despite the pressure) -- it is about controlling change. People in Damascus are pissed. Politics is openly discussed in restaurants and cafes. People feel scared and fearful of what comes next. The fatalism is frightening. Many think a military strike is coming (if not immediately then in a year). They want leadership from Bashar and he is not delivering. The stalemate in Lebanon is making for a blocked atmosphere at home. Many think Bashar wants to do a Baath Party congress to purge the older elements but can only do so if he is in control in Lebanon. People are running to Chatura (a Lebanese city right on the border on the Baalbek-Damascus road where many Syrians do their banking) daily to rearrange their finances. People believe in Iraq and Palestine as causes of the current situation, but not so much Lebanon. Not many benefited and it is seen as the bane of the regime. There is a feeling that Lebanon was always related to Syria (even before the Lebanese civil war). No Lebanese president ever went against at least a tacit “Blessing of Damascus.” Now, they are screaming "Syria Out!" and one Lebanese opposition MP called for doing a "Civilizing Mission" in Syria. So you can imagine how this is going over among proud citizens. Bashar is being blamed locally but there is no substantial mobilized opposition force. No “People Power” in the Sham to speak of at this point. This is complicating the stalemate domestically there. The exit from Lebanon is inevitable but it is how they go. Either they leave still possessing some influence (some sort of corruption network under Bashar faction's control) or they leave in retreat. If it is the latter, forget the peace process. Also, by closing Lebanon, Syria must open. Many feel that the regime will start exhibiting Saddam-like tendencies if pushed in this direction. Based on my feeling, Bashar is leaning back on the sect -- it is somehow more important at the moment than the other branch of how things are getting done. The place is not acting like a state at the moment. It is a really a damned mess. Bashar screwed things up but I feel it was the situation before the Lahoud extension that led to the miscalculation. He is more powerful than he was a year ago (but he is also now more isolated). People see his miscalculation as a lack of intelligence, ill preparedness before ascending to power, and naivety. It definitely was not well thought out and went against the advice of Kanaan and Khaddam (Bashar might of thought they were trying to dissuade him for personal rather than professional reasons). The Syrians will pull out of Lebanon and but only if they will be able to maintain their influence there. To completely lose Lebanon is likely regime-threatening. Indeed, as soon as Bashar feels like his economic road (and the only economic road) is open to Beirut, he will bring the troops home. When that happens, watch for a Party congress to convene to target the party's older elements. It will go down as one of the more awkward consolidations in recent memory in the Arab world.
    Read More

    Indefatigable Lebanese

    Things just keep getting more and more interesting, don't they? I agree with the Head Heeb:
    The size of the Hizbullah and opposition demos should also put paid to the theory that either side was manufactured ex nihilo by foreign interests. It simply isn't possible to mobilize crowds that size in a nation of four million without genuine popular support.
    The Hizbullah demo was not 1.5 million and today's was not 1.2 million (the highest number I've read for both.) Lebanon is a country of maybe 4 million so these numbers should be dismissed out of hand. But either side -- if they are entirely opposing sides, which I'm not convinced they are -- is definitely drawing around 20% of the population, which is unheard of anywhere in the world as far as I'm aware. A lot of it has to do with the geography and demography of Lebanon: it's a small country with decent roads (although the traffic jams on the already packed coastal highway must be insane these days) and several large population centers. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a country where people are highly politicized. This is why you see a fifth of the country on the streets at one time there but not, say, in Egypt. Mass media man Abu Aardvark zooms in. Clever. The Agonist has many links, including this one to a Robert Fisk story saying the UN is about to say the Lebanese and Syrian security services were behind Hariri's death. That link is pay-only, but you can read about it here. One more thought: I have no way of knowing this, but maybe some of the people on the streets at both the "pro-Syrian" and "anti-Syrian" demos were the same? It seems to me that there is a lot of common ground on both sides, despite everything.
    Read More

    Amarji

    This is the essence of my disgust: our leaders can’t tell the difference between mediocrity and strength.
    Still, even a mediocre inquisitor has sufficient power to detain and torture. This is the essence of my fear. And my terror. My would-be torturer will be a mediocre figure, working for a mediocre President, in a mediocre country, going through mediocre crises, that could have been averted through the application of a mediocre amount of wisdom (they had none), still the torture will be no less painful.
    Syrian poet and activist Ammar Abdulhamid, founder of the Tharwa Project and Dar Emar, author of the novel The Whore with The Trillion Vulvas and blogger.
    Read More

    Congress scuttles US aid to Palestinians

    Via Josh Marshall (who I hadn't read in a long time, which is my loss), it seems that Congress has successfully sabotaged a request by President Bush to give supplemental aid to the Palestinian Authority. Of all places the Israel Policy Forum is angry about this, suggesting Israel is:
    The Bush administration believes that bucking up the PA is critical if Abbas supporters are to prevail against Hamas in the July legislative elections (some observers say that right now Hamas would pull 45% of the vote, a result that could be disastrous for the US and Israel, not to mention the Palestinians).
    To demonstrate his commitment – and his view that it is a new day – Bush has asked Congress to provide $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority.  For Bush, that aid would constitute a US down payment toward implementation of his vision of “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”  Too late in the fiscal year for a regular Congressional appropriation, he “requested” what is known as a “supplemental.” He said it was a top priority.
    And what has been the Congressional response to that request?
    We found out on Tuesday. The answer was “yes, but….”   There were so many “buts” that they rendered the “yes” almost meaningless.
    The House Appropriations Committee attached a host of conditions to the aid which, amazingly, are more onerous than those placed on Palestinian aid when Yasir Arafat was in charge.  Not only does Congress rightfully demand an end to terrorism and incitement (which, is, of course, the Bush policy), it  wants “schools, mosques and other institutions…to promote peace and coexistence with Israel.”  It demands investigations into Yasir Arafat’s finances.  It wants the internet monitored for hate speech.  The list goes on and on.
    There is nothing wrong with conditions although adding additional conditions after Arafat has been replaced by a democratically elected leader is, at best, peculiar.  The President wants to show support for Abbas and what the Appropriations Committee did is send a mixed, even cold, message.
    The most remarkable part of the legislation approved by the Appropriations Committee is that it eliminates the discretion Presidents traditionally have to provide aid when national security requires it.  This “national security waiver” – the one President Clinton had when he was in charge -- would allow Bush to provide the Palestinian aid as he sees fit even if the Palestinians are unable to fulfill every single Congressional requirement.  The “national security waiver” is standard operating procedure.  A President, after all, cannot have his hands tied on matters vital to our security.
    Except in this case.  Following a full-court lobbying effort by opponents of aid – not including the Israeli government which supports aid  --  the waiver was dropped from the bill.
    It’s incredible.
    Why do so many powerful American backers of Israel hate the peace process much?
    Read More

    Rethinking "people power"

    Most of the articles I posted a few days ago were relatively optimistic about what was happening in Lebanon and the rest of the region. Now, after the huge Hizbullah demonstration, here are some more realistic analyses: Charles Harb -- Lebanon is not Ukraine (The Guardian)
    Syrian mismanagement of the Lebanese portfolio had been building up to a critical mass that only needed a detonator to explode. Neither the Iraqi elections nor Bush's phenomenal use of the word "freedom" led to the dramatic events in Lebanon. The assassination was not only the spark, but also the main motor behind the demonstrations. Current developments must be seen in the light of opportunistic exploitation by local, regional and international players rather than as a "democratic revolution".
    Tuesday's powerful counter-demonstration by government loyalists, especially Hizbullah, should rein in international euphoria. Beirut had never seen a crowd so large. Hizbullah's charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed a crowd of a million people, and reminded the world that "Lebanon is not Ukraine". Recent events do spur a glimmer of hope for positive, non-violent change. But if local and regional players want to see a Lebanon enjoying its "sovereignty, freedom and independence", then they need to take the complexity of social reality into account.
    (Harb is an AUB professor. He seems to think that the US doesn't really want regime change in Syria and that this is precursor to a confrontation with Iran -- hence dealing with Hizbullah first. Ya'nni...) Seumas Milne: It is not democracy that's on the march in the Middle East (The Guardian):
    The claim that democracy is on the march in the Middle East is a fraud. It is not democracy, but the US military, that is on the march. The Palestinian elections in January took place because of the death of Yasser Arafat - they would have taken place earlier if the US and Israel hadn't known that Arafat was certain to win them - and followed a 1996 precedent. The Iraqi elections may have looked good on TV and allowed Kurdish and Shia parties to improve their bargaining power, but millions of Iraqis were unable or unwilling to vote, key political forces were excluded, candidates' names were secret, alleged fraud widespread, the entire system designed to maintain US control and Iraqis unable to vote to end the occupation. They have no more brought democracy to Iraq than US-orchestrated elections did to south Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. As for the cosmetic adjustments by regimes such as Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's, there is not the slightest sign that they will lead to free elections, which would be expected to bring anti-western governments to power.
    (Also some interesting reflections on Syria's role in Lebanon and, at last, some denunciation of the sham election held in the Palestinian occupied territories. Rather over-the-top lefty, though.) Mary Wakefield: A revolution made for TV (The Spectator)
    The truth is that the Cedar Revolution has been presented and planned in just the same way as Ukraine’s Orange revolution and, before it, the Rose revolution in Georgia. But just because it is in American interests doesn’t mean it’s an American production. ‘The Lebanese people were watching the Ukrainian revolution very closely,’ a Lebanese academic told me. ‘The reason the Cedar Revolution looks so similar to the scenes in Kiev is that they set out, quite deliberately, to copy it.’ The Financial Times reported that a 32-year-old Lebanese businessman called Khodor Makkaoui founded Independence ’05 after Hariri’s murder brought people on to the streets. ‘My friends and I saw that lots of political parties were waving their own flags, and we thought we needed to have one visual identity which would be more impressive,’ he said. ‘We raised money from people we know and started printing Lebanese flags.’ Presentation is everything. In 1990, thousands of Christians demonstrated for weeks on end, calling on Damascus to withdraw its troops from the country. But Makkaoui wasn’t around to print flags or claim a colour, so the cameras didn’t take much notice.
    The truth is that, on the streets of Beirut, you could probably find a quote to support every attitude towards Syria’s presence in Lebanon. On Saturday night, in a hotel bar in the Muslim quarter, we met a Beiruti boy called Bashir. ‘How come you’re not at the revolution?’ Bashir shrugged, ‘Why would I be? That’s just for teenagers, to have fun.’ Don’t you want Syria out? ‘Don’t believe what you read in the papers,’ said Bashir. ‘The Syrians are OK. Anyway, the demonstration doesn’t matter. A thousand people won’t make a difference. America will make a difference.’
    (A very interesting reflection on the way major Western -- and regional -- television networks have bought the story fed to them by Washington and spun it accordingly, as well as the organization on the ground. Once again, see Nur Al Cubicle's thinking on this.) Also, this new Zogby poll of Lebanese attitudes is fascinating -- even if I don't give polls much credence generally. Take a look at the numbers:
    Who is responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri?

    Maronite

    Orthodox

    Sunni

    Shiite

    Druze

    The Syrian authorities

    17

    11

    11

    4

    22

    The Lebanese authorities

    6

    5

    9

    5

    10

    The Lebanese and Syrian
    authorities together

    30

    20

    11

    5

    22

    Israel

    9

    14

    16

    53

    0

    United States

    13

    22

    13

    19

    12

    International organizations

    4

    10

    21

    2

    8

    How will the assassination of former P.M. Hariri affect the security situation in Lebanon?

    Maronite

    Orthodox

    Sunni

    Shiite

    Druze

    The security situation
    will deteriorate

    16

    13

    26

    58

    16

    Other assassinations will occur

    17

    23

    15

    11

    27

    The Syrians will withdraw
    from Lebanon

    42

    29

    22

    7

    39

    No effect

    21

    26

    29

    21

    16

    What is the solution to the security situation in Lebanon?

    Maronite

    Orthodox

    Sunni

    Shiite

    Druze

    Reinforcement and deployment of the Lebanese army and security forces all over Lebanon

    20

    41

    47

    52

    5

    Complete withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon

    48

    23

    31

    35

    24

    Disarmament of all armed forces in Lebanon

    17

    16

    13

    5

    60

    Brining in international forces to implement security

    10

    7

    3

    2

    8

    Note how the Druze seem the most anti-Syrian... I'm not very familiar with the Druze-Syrian relationship, anyone care to enlighten me?
    Read More

    Ayman Nour freed on bail

    A bail of LE10,000 (about $1700) has been set but despite news reports (BBC, Reuters) it's not clear whether he has physically been released yet. It may just be the routine bureaucracy of being released from prison. Update: According to Al Had supporters there was huge crowd waiting for him at the prison. He's now out and was carried out on his supporters' shoulders. For those of you in Cairo, there is going to be a big party starting from 9pm at Bab Al Sharqeya, Nour's district.
    Read More