The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Do al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahri still got it?

The leader of al-Qaeda since Obama bin Laden’s death, Ayman al-Zawahiri, posted a new speech on 5 January that was chiefly targeted at asserting his jihadist credentials and denouncing the Islamic State. Since 2014 (when the Islamic State announced it has established its “caliphate”) especially, the rivalry between the two groups in Syria and Iraq has expanded to other fronts; this rivalry is not only based on theological disputes but also strategic ones, particularly concerning what are acceptable levels of violence against Shias and non-Muslim minorities and the order of priorities between fighting the taghout (local despots) and the West. Moreover, they have tended to be eclipsed by the Islamic State, whose spectacular brutality and control of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya (until recently) had made everyone’s public enemy number one.

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a top Jordanian expert on jihadist groups, dissects Zawahiri’s message in the piece below. He is rather scathing about what he sees as Zawahiri’s desperate plea for relevance. I certainly do not have his level of expertise, but I am not sure I share his view of al-Qaeda’s decline – the issue may be that the autonomisation of various AQ groups, especially Jabha an-Nusra, AQAP and AQIM – has now made “AQ Central” less relevant. But it is true that Zawahiri comes out as defensive in this latest video. Because I’m tempted to make analogies with hip-hop on just about every topic, one might say that this mirrors the discourse in Dr. Dre’s return to gangsta rap in his (fantastic) album 2001, in which he bemoans that people Forgot About Dre and that would do well to remember that he is Still D.R.E.. Except, you know, Dr. Dre is effortlessly cool and Dr. Ayman, well, a loser.

Thanks to the OGs at Industry Arabic for making this feature possible. Check them out for your Arabic translation needs.


Zawahiri and the Delusional Fight over Baghdadi’s Legacy

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, Arabi 21, 8 January 2017

It is indisputable that al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri is nothing like it was under Osama bin Laden. In his lifetime, Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was an icon for jihadists and a guiding model for global jihad. Every jihadist movement and organization strove to obtain its blessing and the honor of joining its structure and putting itself under its leadership. On the other hand, Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda lacks the legitimacy to represent global jihad.

Unlike Bin Laden, whose charismatic personality enabled him to preserve a cohesive bureaucratic organization and strong ideological discourse, Zawahiri has failed to maintain the group’s unity. There have been many defections during his reign, with increasingly dynamic rebellions and acts of disobedience, while his rhetoric has been plagued by contradictions, shifts, and disorder.

As the Islamic State group, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, faces a comprehensive, universal war and is occupied with repulsing the attacks of the international coalition led by the US (whom Zawahiri routinely describes as “Crusaders”), regional and local Shia forces (typically described by Zawahiri as “Persian Zoroastrian rejectionists [rafidah]”) and Islamic-Arab forces (which Zawahiri makes sure to accuse of blasphemy, apostasy and collaboration), Zawahiri has appeared in a new speech distributed by the As-Sahab Foundation under the title, “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow,” in which he attacks the Islamic State group and Baghdadi.

Zawahiri has been preoccupied with pushing back against what he calls a campaign of distortion, intimidation and demoralization waged against the “mujahideen.” Among those who have participated in this campaign, according to Zawahiri, are the “liars” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He has accused Baghdadi of deception and slander aimed at distorting the image of al-Qaeda and its activities, and has stressed that the priority of jihad should be to strike America.

It seems that Zawahiri’s reading of the conditions of global jihad are extremely confused and wrapped up in a state of denial which has made him unaware that the age of al-Qaeda has ended and that the world is now living in the age of ISIS – which has become the preferred model for new jihadists. Zawahiri’s speech is based on a wishful reading that predicts the decline and demise of ISIS, whose mantle will then be taken up by a new iteration of al-Qaeda.

Zawahiri’s speech did not mention any feelings of solidarity or any desire to reconcile with the organization, and instead carried out a relentless campaign against the group and against Baghdadi, without mentioning the disintegration, weakness and collapse that has befallen al-Qaeda.

In an attempt to restore and revive al-Qaeda at the expense of the Islamic State, Zawahiri has fallen into the Islamic State’s trap. By opposing ISIS for standing its ground, his speech lapsed into self-contradiction.

Instead of emphasizing the difference between al-Qaeda’s discourse and that of the Islamic State, he identified with it at the same time that he claimed to oppose and criticize it. He said that the “liar” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has claimed that al-Qaeda does not denounce un-Islamic regimes as blasphemous, falls in line with the majority opinion, has praised (ousted Egyptian President) Mohamed Morsi, and has even called for Christians to share as partners in power. He added that Baghdadi’s followers have claimed that al-Qaeda does not practice takfir against Shias.

Thus, Zawahiri, instead of saying, “Yes, we affirm our differences with ISIS about these foregoing issues,” pretended that al-Qaeda had held these positions since its inception — and this is, without a doubt, completely untrue.

These issues and others have been matters of contention between al-Qaeda and ISIS from the time of Zarqawi’s network up to Baghdadi’s state. In particular, al-Qaeda entered into a new phase upon the killing of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in a US special forces operation in Pakistan in 2011, which coincided with the Arab Spring revolutions.

At that time, Al-Qaeda inaugurated a number of transformations to adapt to the new circumstances. With the failure of the democratic transition process, al-Qaeda’s positions became contradictory, and it began to focus on building alliances with Islamic revolutionary and jihadist forces, and changed its priority from confronting America to fighting local regimes.

Leaders in the most active branch of al-Qaeda, in Syria, announced through the Nusra Front that they would refrain from confronting or striking America or the West in any foreign operations and limit their priorities to fighting in Syria and building ties with local forces – an approach which was also followed by al-Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabaab [in Somalia].

In his speech, Zawahiri attempts to revive the rhetoric of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow” — the title of his speech — belongs to a different era, when al-Qaeda saw itself as the vanguard of the Ummah.

However, Zawahiri’s fantasy of the Ummah belongs to an imaginary Ummah that does not see therein a representation of its aspirations regarding state and society. Even the groups closest to Zawahiri, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ahrar al-Sham movement, blame him for dividing and distracting the Ummah.

Even Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani broke ties with Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda and founded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with his blessings and commendation from his aides, such as Abu Khayr al-Masri and Abu Faraj al-Masri, notwithstanding the fact that Zawahiri considered the calls for al-Qaeda to stay out of Syria “flimsy.”

In his speech, Zawahiri revealed the extent of the contradictions and divisions inside al-Qaeda and its branches. In response to calls for al-Qaeda to be kept out of Syria in order to free Syrian groups from the “terrorism” label, Zawahiri said: “It is as if pleasing America was the purpose or path to victory in jihad, and as if al-Qaeda has become criminal because it antagonizes America and its corrupt agents in our lands. It is as if America was not annihilating Muslims before and after al-Qaeda was established.”

It is as if Zawahiri was indicating his dissatisfaction with al-Nusra Front cutting ties with al-Qaeda, a fact that came to light as a number of leaders rejected this decision, such as Abu Julaybib, Abu Bilal, Abu Hamam and others.

Zawahiri, in his latest speech, does not appear to be more than an observer and ideological guide with no real connection to the al-Qaeda organization and its branches. He does not issue orders or instructions, but incites, hopes, and beseeches. He is directing speeches at an imaginary Ummah, calling for the revival of jihad to liberate the Muslim nation from occupation by the infidels, as he puts it, saying that America and its allies are the primary target and reciting so-called crimes committed by the US that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda’s mission, such as the eradication of five million Vietnamese, the dropping of an atomic bomb on Japan, the killing of 60,000 Germans in the firebombing of Hamburg during World War II, and so on.

Zawahiri, as if he was in an introductory college course on refuting conspiracy theories, deflected accusations from al-Qaeda, saying: “Those with (hidden) purposes have accused al-Qaeda of different forms of collaboration. They have said that we are agents of the Americans formed in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion. They have said that we are Saudi agents formed with their financing. The rafidah, the new Safavids, have accused us of being American and Israeli agents. Their propaganda tools, in pure lies, say that the attacks of September 11 were a Zionist conspiracy and that they were a pretext for an American attack on Iran (which has not happened) even after 15 years of attacks — rather, their relationship has strengthened and they have become allies against Muslims in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Syria. The propaganda tools and servants of American bases in the Gulf have accused us of being agents of Iran working in their interests, and finally they warned against us because we are America’s enemies, and those who side with us inherit our crimes.”

Zawahiri, in his attempt to prove al-Qaeda’s legitimacy, falls into a historical ideological and moral dilemma. In attempting to delegitimize ISIS and Baghdadi, he says that the figure Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi[1] was “a role model for veterans of Saddam’s army officer corps and his intelligence services, who awarded the caliphate to Ibrahim al-Badri [the real name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], who used to kill his rivals in Kufa if they did not testify against themselves as infidels.” But Zawahiri himself, during the time of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, never tired of deflecting accusations away from that same organization, singing the praises of ISIS and the same men, and attacking those who fought against the organization as members of the Sunni Awakening and collaborators.

I believe that, in his speech, Zawahiri revealed a major disruption affecting al-Qaeda with his leadership — not only because of his loss of legitimacy to ISIS, but first and foremost because of his dwindling legitimacy among al-Qaeda and its branches.

Among his followers and supporters, accusations have been mounting that he is unable to confront ISIS, hesitant in dealing with it, indecisive in his positions, unable to maintain al-Qaeda’s appeal and ability to galvanize, and of losing control over the organization’s branches, which pushed him to rehearse al-Qaeda’s guide for action, “code of conduct” and aims — most importantly to impose sharia, unite the Ummah, release prisoners, etc. — and emphasize that the principles had been developed after consultation with all branches in order to hold them responsible.

It seems that Zawahiri’s legitimacy has been lacking among al-Qaeda’s followers and supporters, even moreso than among other jihadists, at a time when it had been possible for Zawahiri to recover something of al-Qaeda’s appeal by summoning Osama bin Laden’s charisma by appointing his son, Hamza bin Laden, whom the United States recently placed on its terrorist watch list. In a speech last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri presented Hamza as “son of the lion of jihad,” before going on to call upon the youth of Islam to fight against the “Americans, Jews, and the rest of the West.”

However, Zawahiri has appeared unable to understand the transformations at work and unable to control al-Qaeda. The group, which had depended for its organizational structure and ideological aspirations on both Saudis and Egyptians, has now become, in the age of Zawahiri, basically Egyptian. Everyone was surprised by the announcement through the Nusra Front’s media platform, Al-Manara Al-Bayda, that Zawahiri’s deputy would be Abu Khayr al-Masri.

It is no small irony that the announcement was not made through the As-Sahab Foundation [al-Qaeda’s media production unit]. The Nusra Front’s step of breaking ties with al-Qaeda revealed how weak and fragile Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda has become, and showed the dispute among various wings, leaders, origins and nationalities. It is no longer possible to play the Bin Laden card or enforce the Saudi line.

Before that, it had been possible for Hamza bin Laden to become “the new face of al-Qaeda.” His latest speeches had revived the image of his father. Last July, his words were consistent with his father’s when he said: “Al-Qaeda will continue to carry out its attacks inside your country and abroad in response to the repression suffered by the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and other Muslim countries.” He was decisive when he threatened America and the West and promised to avenge the death of his father, Osama bin Laden.

The bottom line is that, in his speech, Zawahiri appeared unable to comprehend the current transformations and was preoccupied with defending his choices, despite saying that al-Qaeda’s policies were not sacred writ. His concerns appeared largely narcissistic, as he was preoccupied with his own reputation and tried to place the blame on others — from the Islamic State and from his own group — for the organization’s dissolution and weakness. He took no notice of the campaign faced by ISIS, was unconcerned by the defeat of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and other opposition groups and their expulsion from Aleppo, and did not touch upon the state of his crumbling branches in Yemen and the Maghreb, which are being dispersed and losing effectiveness.

The Ummah that Zawahiri claims to represent has disappeared and withdrawn into itself – and in that sense it is not very different from what Zawahiri himself has become. Are we waiting in anticipation for another speech? I think not.


  1. A governor of Iraq under the Ommeyyad dynasty (seventh-eighth century) reputed for his ruthlessness.  ↩

Links 20 December 2016 - 9 January 2017

Happy new year - this is a short link dump as there was not much linking during the holidays.

LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brothers

Over the last two years much has been made of the splits within the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and prospects, or lack thereof, for reconciliation between the group and the military regime in Egypt. Many obstacles stand in the way of reconciliation: the regime’s official rejection of anything short of total surrender, an elite Egyptian opinion that can be more intransigeant than that of security leaders, splits within the Brotherhood including some radicalization, the often-voiced preference of some Brothers that Sisi’s departure should be a precondition for any deal, the legacy of the Rabaa Massacre and the brutal crackdown on the organization, and more.

The article below, from the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbullah, pro-Assad/Iran/Russia, anti-Saudi and vaguely “anti-imperialist left”, whatever that means) has a scoop that, through the auspices of Saudi intelligence, members of the Brotherhood’s “organizational” wing (an older generation of leaders who control the bureaucratic structures of the Brotherhood, have a history of accommodation with successive Egyptian regimes and care mostly about the long-term survival of the group) met with Egyptian intelligence to discuss reconciliation prospects. The news is surprising in the context of the current chill in Egyptian-Saudi relations, and of course predates the recent attack on Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral last week (after which the Brotherhood’s Istanbul-based “Crisis Office”, the more revolutionary trend opposed to the old leadership, put out an ill-worded statement essentially accusing the Sisi regime of having carried out a false-flag attack) which makes such reconciliation even more unlikely.

Nonetheless, the reconciliation story never quite dies down, and it is likely that channels of communication remain open, through proxies or directly, between the Sisi regime and some Brothers. The time may come when it will be needed, as both the military regime that has ruled Egypt in one form or another since 1952 and a Muslim Brotherhood that has reinvented itself several times since its founding in 1928 are nothing if skilled survivors. Watch this space.

Thanks to the translation pros at Industry Arabic for making this feature possible - help them help us by hiring them for your Arabic needs.

Finally, as we reach the year's end, please consider donating to keep this site going. Happy holidays!


Brotherhood moving towards "painful" settlement with Sisi: Preserving what remains of the organization

Mahmoud Ali, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 29 November 2016

At a time in which media discourse is in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group is seeking reconciliation or settlement with the Egyptian state and is having repeated meetings outside Egypt with Egyptian intelligence chiefs in order to look for a settlement satisfactory to both parties. Such activities may well cause surprise within Egyptian public opinion in the coming days.

The Muslim Brotherhood was forced to disclose a few details regarding the nature of the communications between it and the Egyptian authorities over the past few weeks, in light of the controversy that has arisen following statements last week from the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ibrahim Munir. Munir, who lives in London, had stressed that "there shall be no reconciliation with the Sisi regime that has killed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and there shall be no concessions regarding Mohamed Morsi's return to power, not to mention the return of the Shura Council and the People's Assembly, which were dissolved following the decision of then Minister of Defense, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi."

However, two days ago the «Brotherhood» published a report that was more like a press statement on a site close the London office, in which they stated "communications have been received from figures close to the regime, and others from within it, in order to attempt to envisage an end to the crisis in some shape or form, or at the very least, to achieve de-escalation between the different parties." The group said in the message that these communications were conducted with prominent Brotherhood leaders inside Egypt and also with some of the major leaders outside the country, revealing that there have been communications undertaken by former and current military figures in relation to this.

The Deputy Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood and his delegate Mahmoud Ezzat have striven over the past few days to stamp out opposition movements led by the organization’s foreign office to take control of the organization. He has conducted elections through which he has been able to increase the power of all of those obedient to him and those who prefer a settlement with the regime in exchange for de-escalation, the release of prisoners and an end to the current zero-sum conflict.

More than one leader of the Brotherhood has revealed the "news" -- details of the meetings and communications that have taken place with them during the past few days inside and outside Egypt. According to a Brotherhood leader from the office of the Brotherhood in the Saudi city of Jeddah, it was an official from the Brotherhood office in Riyadh that met a delegation from the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate in the past few days to discuss a political settlement.

Although Saudi Arabia did not publish any details of those meetings, the Brotherhood leader made it clear that the meeting was sponsored by Saudi intelligence services, while the Brotherhood delegation consisted of three members, headed by an official from the Riyadh office who was following directives from the Brotherhood office in London. At the forefront was Ibrahim Munir, a supporter of Mahmoud Ezzat's stance in Egypt.

At this time, Egyptian government sources have said that there is conflict between security factions within the regime regarding the settlement with the Brotherhood. Despite difficult political conditions and the shutdown of the general political climate in Egypt, security factions close to Sisi think that the Brotherhood will eventually submit to authority and that there is no need for attempts at reaching a settlement with them. In contrast, other security factions think that the Brotherhood issue needs to be resolved with a settlement in light of the domestic situation, as well as European and American pressure on Sisi to put the Brotherhood back on the political agenda, including an end to the execution of "Brotherhood" members. Mohamed Morsi was a product of American pressure, especially that of Secretary of State John Kerry to involve the Brotherhood in political life, as was the case in the days of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Given the fierce reactions of the Brotherhood’s base regarding the meeting, which provoked insults and accusations of treason directed at the organization’s old guard, Saudi Arabia believed that the news leak was to its detriment, especially as it had included the Muslim Brotherhood on terrorism lists for more than a year. This is what prompted the Kingdom to threaten Brotherhood leaders in Saudi Arabia with deportation in the event of similar leaks regarding Saudi efforts to sponsor a Brotherhood settlement with the regime in Egypt, according to the leader of the Jeddah office.

Domestic supporters of the Brotherhood were not far from the scattered details regarding the crisis and the efforts of historical leaders to seek a political settlement with Sisi's regime. As news of the Brotherhood leaders' meeting with the Egyptian General Intelligence delegation in Riyadh came in, large sections of Brotherhood supporters in the Middle Delta, Greater Cairo and some Upper Egypt governorates such as El Minya, Qena and Sohag expressed their support, on the condition of prisoners being released and an end to the current state of suffering endured by those being pursued and the organization as a whole, according to an account given to al-Akhbar by a Brotherhood leader in a Middle Delta district in Northern Egypt.

A Brotherhood leader in Istanbul went even further than this, saying that Saudi media personality Jamal Khashoggi has met with Brotherhood leaders in Turkey in the past few months, commissioned by Riyadh to gauge the attitude of the Brotherhood regarding a settlement with the regime. This is in addition to Saudi Arabia's advice to the Brotherhood to disappear completely from the forefront of the political scene and allow liberal or even independent Islamic personalities to occupy this position in Egypt so that the Brotherhood can avoid provoking regional and international parties.

Although the efforts by historical organization leaders to clear up the current crisis could be considered a positive step, there are obstacles between the Brotherhood and the regime that will serve as sticking points, blocking any attempts at a settlement in the near future. That is, unless the Brotherhood is able to accept a large number of losses. Of course, chief of these is its withdrawal from the political landscape, as well as accepting Sisi in power, and remaining silent regarding the Rabaa massacre and the thorny issue of Mohamed Morsi's trial.

With regard to the precise timing of the Brotherhood leaders' meeting with the Egyptian intelligence delegation in Saudi Arabia, a Brotherhood leader from Menufiya in northern Egypt told al-Akhbar that the meeting took place at the condolences for Prince Turki bin Abdulaziz, the brother of the Saudi King Salman, who died on 12 November. This leader revealed that the Egyptian delegation asked the Brotherhood’s representatives to let the historical leadership know that the Egyptian security services would like to meet and discuss a solution satisfactory to all. This was welcomed by the Brotherhood delegation, which admitted that it had gone to the condolences on the orders of Ibrahim Munir after communicating with Saudi intelligence.

In this context, the Crisis Office abroad – which is more in touch with the youth current within the Brotherhood – is glaringly absent from the question of settlement with the Egyptian regime. As such, it seems that Ibrahim Munir is heading toward a settlement that is “painful” for the Brotherhood in order to preserve what remains of the organization within Egypt and guarantee the return of fugitive brothers to their homes without facing prosecution from the regime.

Links 19 November - 21 December 2016
LinksThe Editors
New book: Daesh is not the point

Friend of the blog Peter Harling, who recently founded synaps.network, has just published Daesh is not the point: Counter-intuiting the Middle East. This is a collection of essays, including three (co-written with Sarah Birke and Alex Simon) that first appeared on this site over 2014 and 2015. It also features additional content, including a "postword" written by yours truly. If you liked those essays, and I know many of you did (they were hugely popular when first published), then please buy this book. Peter writes:

This books fights the Islamic State by not obsessing about it. As the Middle East continues to pass through a phase of historic upheaval and uncertainty, media coverage, political discourse and even policymaking remain largely fixated on the creature known as Daesh. Given the complexity of the forces driving change in the region, this Daesh-centricism is as reductionist as it is dangerous. This ebook aspires to step back from this mentality and present a measured, sensitive analysis of the long-term trends at work in the region. We have collected three previously published essays that acknowledge and explore Daesh for what it is: one constituent part in the region’s complex, fast-evolving ecosystem. Tying these essays together with new, unpublished analysis, we aim to lay the groundwork for a deeper understanding of the region’s convulsions.

The original essays have been removed from this site, but buy access to the ebook and you get the updated versions and support the Synaps project. Get it here.

In Translation: Trump and the Arabs

There has been a wide range of reactions to the election of Donald Trump as US president in the Arab world, ranging from horror to accommodation to cheers. Much of the Egyptian media – indeed, the Egyptian regime – sees in Trump hope that of a leader who will develop closer ties to Abdefattah al-SIsi, ending the funk in Egypt-US relations and declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group on a par with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In the Gulf, commentators close to the Saudi regime show cautious pragmatism, cheered by the anti-Iranian stance (even if they might not be so happy about the Iran nuclear deal being scrapped, since at least it contained Tehran’s nuclear ambition). Many right-wing Israelis are overjoyed by the prospect of a US president who not only promises to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but is overly anti-Palestinian and whose chief advisor hails from an “alt-right” movement many of whose members are pro-Israel and whose ideologues describe as “White Zionism”. And of course, many, many others fear (another?) war-mongering US president with openly Islamophobic views and, more generally, yet another element of uncertainty at a moment of regional turmoil.

But there is an argument to be made that, while Trump’s impact on the US may very well be dire, it will not mark such a significant shift for the region. First, Trump’s foreign policy ideas are basically non-existent. He will draw in advisors with radical and biased views, to be sure, but this happened before under George W. Bush and other administrations haven’t exactly been impartial mediators on many issues (see Israel-Palestine). Trump backing Assad or staying away from conflicts such as Yemen and Libya or seeking to extract a kind of tribute from the oil producing state of the Gulf can be seen as a more forthright departure from existing policy, not a radical departure. Indeed the thing to fear the most is geopolitical uncertainty, amateurism and military adventurism. But again, nothing entirely new. Only the idea of the “Muslim ban” offers something that pretty much draws universal condemnation in the region. The likes of veteran commentators AbdelBari Atwan, whose post-election commentary is reproduced below, are making these points. They likely underestimate the new and innovative forms of damage a Trump presidency could wreck.

This In Translation feature is only possible through the support of our friends at Industry Arabic – please check them out for your company’s Arabic translation needs.


Trump stunned many with his surprise victory… how did he achieve this ‘miracle’? What will his policies be towards in the Arab world? How will his friendship with Putin impact Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Gulf and Iran?

AbdelBari Atwan, Rai al-Youm, 9 November 2016

Defeating the American political establishment as embodied by its representative, Hillary Clinton, and defeating the mighty media empires, Donald Trump has won. He has also demonstrated that opinion polling lacks credibility and is fatally flawed, and proven wrong countless political analysts, experts and think tanks who predicted that he would be quickly and decisively defeated.

The leaders of the Republican Party and its elite in Congress and the House of Representatives washed their hands of him, describing him as ignorant and lacking political experience, but he faced them down, parrying their blows with blows of his own. Demonstrating a deep reading of popular sentiment and engineering a message that effectively reached out to the electorate, he proved that he better understands the American people and its demands than the party.

Americans, as this election has demonstrated, are tired of their schizophrenic governing elite, which fails to understand their concerns, problems and ambitions. This is why they put their trust in this “rebel” against the political establishment and gave him their votes.

We in no way disagree with the many who condemn this man, or with the numerous criticisms of his personality and behavior, but at the end of the day, judgment resides in the hands of the people and at the ballot boxes. It is hard to imagine how a millionaire who travels by private plane and luxury yacht could present himself as the representative and defender of the rights and demands of the poor and marginalized. However, the frustrated of America believed him and entrusted him with their votes, perhaps because he is candid and spontaneous, unlike the ruling establishment’s professionals and politicians.


Facing vicious and personal attacks in the media about his character, family life and financial honesty, he kept the course through the media’s minefields to defeat his 16 rivals for the Republican party nomination before prevailing over the greater challenger, Clinton, to arrive in the White House wearing his bright red tie.

He is racist, right-wing, and belittles and harasses women. He despises Islam and Muslims and wants to shut them out along with the poor of Mexico and Latin America. But why is this surprising? Are we not talking about America, the country that assails us with tanks, missiles and agents, that kills millions of us, that plants the seeds of sectarian war, changes regimes and spreads murderous chaos? And is Mrs. Clinton really full of love for Muslims? Did she not threaten to intervene militarily in Syria, enthusiastically back the invasion and occupation of Iraq, urge the murder of an Arab leader (Qadhafi) and fail to show any basic human respect towards him once he died?

There may have been differences between candidates in the presidential elections when it comes to many matters of domestic and foreign policy, but they were united in their contempt for Arabs and therefore Islam. The only difference was the manner in which they expressed it.

Today, when Trump went to the heart of the White House, it dawned on us that we would have to work with this loathsome person as president. More than other presidents who provoked the ruling establishment, it is clear that he will have to change his behavior and stances or else face the risk of assassination. His threat to repeal or amend many of the provisions of the Iranian nuclear agreement may indeed be shelved since the agreement concerns the five major powers plus Germany, not just Iran and America, and since cancelling the deal would result in Iran resuming its enrichment of uranium and acquiring nuclear weapons, possibly leading to war to prevent that from happening.

We disagree with the many who bought into the stereotype sold by the powerful media and political establishment, which described him as an unpredictable madman unqualified to lead any state. If that were the case, he would not have received a majority[^1] of the votes of approximately 300 million US citizens in free and fair elections.

Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladmir Putin is not a shortcoming or a mistake. We think differently and believe the cup is half-full. This obvious admiration for Putin may lead to more cooperation between the two major powers on pressing issues, particularly the wars of the Middle East. Is it necessary for the presidents of two major powers with a tense relationship and ongoing cold and hot wars to themselves be antagonistic towards one another? Have we forgotten that war between them is conducted on our land and that the victims are our people and children?

Trump threatens to move the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem. We have started to clamor about this disastrous idea — and it would really be a disaster — but what can we do? Do we have the power to prevent it, given the painful condition of the Islamic world at present? Did we prevent the occupation of Jerusalem or its Judaization? Is there anyone championing the members of the resistance in the occupied territories who are losing their lives, so as to protect Palestine’s Arab and Islamic identity?

Another point that many people are stuck on is Trump’s threat to ban Muslims from entering America. This behavior is racist, detestable and fascist. However, we should ask, have Arab countries, and especially Gulf countries, opened their borders to Syrian refugees or Iraqi refugees before them? They are the countries that bear the greatest responsibility, having spent billions of dollars trying to topple the Syrian government and supported the invasion, embargo and regime change in Iraq.

Why should our response not be to prevent Americans from entering the 50 Islamic countries around the world? Why should Muslims go to America at all? There are many other alternatives, and we don’t think that Muslims will die of grief if they can’t go to America as visitors and immigrants. They should turn their attention to corrupt Arab leaders who waste their resources, steal the fruits of their labor and place the proceeds in American banks, and instead work towards good governance, social justice and political and economic reform.


We do not support President Trump, nor do we support any American president, because we absolutely believe that most of our troubles have been caused by America and the Arab leaders allied to it. However, we wanted to provide a different analysis of the political earthquake caused by this American election, and how to deal with it. We also wanted to say that we, as Arabs and Muslims, who have only rarely experienced this thing called an election, must rely first and foremost on ourselves.

America is changing. Trump in the White House represents the beginning of this change. It is only logical to conclude that we too must change, learn from our disastrous mistakes, and stop being subordinate to our American backers who want to impose the jizya[^2] on us and plunder the remainder of our resources.

[^1]: Atwan writes before the final tally showing that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.

[^2]: A tax historically levied on non-Muslim subjects in Muslim states; in this case Atwan uses it to in the more general sense of tribute.

Links 10-18 November 2016
LinksThe Editors
Links 1-9 November 2016
LinksThe Editors
The Democratic Party establishment is finished after Trump

Before Trump was elected, everyone was saying the Republican Party will need overhaul after the election. The Republicans - even the ones who were anti-Trump - are now rushing to feed at the trough. As Jim Newell writes for Slate, it's the Democratic Party that needs a radical overhaul. 

The party establishment made a grievous mistake rallying around Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t just a lack of recent political seasoning. She was a bad candidate, with no message beyond heckling the opposite sideline. She was a total misfit for both the politics of 2016 and the energy of the Democratic Party as currently constituted. She could not escape her baggage, and she must own that failure herself.
Theoretically smart people in the Democratic Party should have known that. And yet they worked giddily to clear the field for her. Every power-hungry young Democrat fresh out of law school, every rising lawmaker, every old friend of the Clintons wanted a piece of the action. This was their ride up the power chain. The whole edifice was hollow, built atop the same unearned sense of inevitability that surrounded Clinton in 2008, and it collapsed, just as it collapsed in 2008, only a little later in the calendar. The voters of the party got taken for a ride by the people who controlled it, the ones who promised they had everything figured out and sneeringly dismissed anyone who suggested otherwise. They promised that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the Electoral College. These people didn’t know what they were talking about, and too many of us in the media thought they did.
We should blame all those people around the Clintons more than the Clintons themselves, and the Clintons themselves deserve a ridiculous amount of blame. Hillary Clinton was just an ambitious person who wanted to be president. There are a lot of people like that. But she was enabled. The Democratic establishment is a club unwelcoming to outsiders, because outsiders don’t first look out for the club. The Clintons will be gone now. For the sake of the country, let them take the hangers-on with them.

Off with their heads – it's time to declare open season against the Clintonistas.

Links 18-30 October 2016
LinksThe Editors
Links 7-17 October 2016
LinksThe Editors1 Comment
Christopher Davidson's "Shadow Wars"

Christopher Davidson is a British academic and the author of several books on the Gulf (generally quite critical of the petro-monarchies there.) Longtime reader Amjad compiled together an interview Davidson gave on Twitter on the occasion of the release of his new book, Shadow Wars. We are reproducing the interview below – with light editing for punctuation etc. – as it may be interest readers for its out-of-the-mainstream approach to the Arab Spring. It’s not an endorsement of the book, which we have not read, but looks interesting if it sheds light on the policies of Gulf states during the last six years.

In the long view, to what degree are Western governments responsible for the ongoing conflict in Syria?

The Western powers have repeatedly sought to interfere in Syria for a number of decades - the latest conflict is born out of using 'Arab Spring' as diplomatic coverage for the overthrow of an antagonistic regime to the interests of the West's allies While UK had plans pre-2011 to use Syrian Muslim Brotherhood & 'armed men', in 2011 strategy shifted to West's allies funding proxies.The latter (Saudi, Qatar, etc) expected a Western airstrike intervention (as with Libya), and, frustrated, had to push US's 'red lines'.

Did the West have a part to play in the failure of the Arab Spring?

The nationwide revolutions in Tunisia & Egypt saw discomforting overthrow of dictators who had opened up their economies to Western investment & had played the game of the 'War on Terror'. Their overthrow wrong-footed the US govt. But very rapidly a series of counter-revolutions began (or rather 'reactions') as the West's key regional allies began to sponsor (1st) Islamist parties that could continue to prevent formation of inclusive, democratic (& secular) societies, & could uphold capitalist structures and (2nd) hard-man 'deep state' military dictatorships, when Islamist parties proved unable to keep people off the streets. The 'Plan B' was then to re-direct the 'Arab Spring' to states antagonistic to West (Libya, Syria, etc) & willfully foster revolutions. Saudi, UAE, Qatar, etc., all played key roles at govt level in destabilizing these long targeted Arab states, under Arab Spring banner. As 'revolutions' in Libya/Syria failed to garner full national support, a mix of direct interventions (Libya)& indirect (Syria) was needed.

Why don't we hear much about Yemen?

Yemen is commonly perceived as a problem for the US/UK, as their key ally Saudi is haplessly bombing civilians. But in many ways the conflict helps keep the two main regional powers (Saudi & Iran) in a useful stalemate behind their proxies. The US can now trade freely with both sides (since the Iran deal), & can keep Saudi arms spending high, even at a time of low oil prices. Saudi is no longer the world's oil swing producer thus has lost its centrality in US foreign policy. The Yemen fiasco/tragedy puts Saudi in a very difficult position, as it still relies on US protection (as evidenced today), and has nowhere else to really turn to. A good comparison would be the costly Iran-Iraq stalemate of the 80s: the US's Arab allies supported Saddam, while the US found a secret means of supplying Iran with what it needed (Iran Contra) so as to keep it 'in the game' & prevent neither side from winning.

Do you think the Russians think we are as bad &corrupt as we think they are? Are we just as bad as each other?

In Syria, Russia has responded to a formal govt request for assistance. It is constrained in being able to bomb ISIS As the US-led coalition effectively operates no-fly zone over most of ISIS's territory. Russia/Syrian/Iran aircraft cannot fly there The US even has an airbase in far north-east of Syria, barely miles from easy ISIS targets. But turning to the bigger question Russia is rightly anticipating that any further intervention (e.g. ground troops) could lead to a repeat of an Afghanistan situation where in the 80s it intervened to help the People's Democratic Party against an Islamist extremist uprising backed by the US/UK in cooperation with Saudi/Pakistan, which eventually led to Soviet forces getting their own taste of a Vietnam (the US's objective) Today in Syria (& Iraq) we see many of the same characteristics of the 80s jihad in Afghanistan, with heavy accompanying propaganda.

What did you hope to achieve when you set out writing this book?

By drawing on recently declassified documents, leaked correspondences, interviews, and court subpoenaed files, the aim was to tackle an entire 'regime of knowledge' that largely depicts the Western postcolonial involvement in Arab world as being benign.

Moving beyond the obvious examples of the 2003 Iraq invasion, it aims to show how an elaborate network of proxies & clients have helped ensure access to cheap resources & cheap labour for foreign companies and (e.g. in 2011) have been co-opted to remove threats More broadly, it used comparative historical analysis to demonstrate that fingerprints of earlier counter-revolutions from 20thC can be found all over the Arab Spring counter-revolutions. Including the UK-US actions in Russia (post revolution), Malaya, Kenya Guatemala, Iran (1952), Syria, Iraq (1950s-60s), Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua (great example), Afghan jihad, jihadists in Balkans, etc.... And in terms of aims for the book: if one wants the MidEast to recover, one must identify the real root causes of its afflictions

And if one wants the essentially peace-promoting Islamic faith to be saved, one must identify how it is being co-opted by external powers (with local, reactionary allies) to generate extremist cults capable of stifling (and fighting) progressive/nationalist forces.

In Translation: The abusive Egypt-Saudi relationship

Over the past week, the most serious crisis in Egypt-Saudi relations since the June 2013 coup against Mohammed Morsi has taken place. It is likely to be well-short of the divorce many have argued is impending (after all only last month Saudi Arabia deposited $2 billion into the Central Bank of Egypt), but is nonetheless significant enough to have raised tensions in the media on both sides of the Red Sea. In addition to vocal Saudi attacks against Egypt in the media, Saudi Aramco has suddenly suspended delivery of oil products (at low costs), a form of in-kind support that has been going on for over three years.

The immediate cause appears to have been Egypt’s UN Security Council vote in favor of a resolution on Syria proposed by Russia. However, Riyadh has been souring towards Cairo for several months, between frustration with the Sisi regime’s lack of support in Yemen, its outright opposition to an anti-Assad position in Syria (Egypt being concerned with the potential rise of Islamists there and generally aligned on Russia’s position), and the occasional incident such as the anti-Wahhabi line Cairo has espoused, most recently in at a conference of Muslim scholars in Groszny, Chechnya (note the Russia thread in these elements.) More generally, there have been grumblings that Saudi Arabia, itself under financial stress due to low oil prices, isn’t exactly impressed with how Sisi has decided to spend aid estimated at over $40 billion in the last three years.

There has been much discussion of all this in Egyptian and Saudi media, but the attention our Egyptian friend Amira Howeidy was piqued a few days ago when she noticed an anti-Saudi piece in El Watan, a daily newspaper known for its proximity to the Sisi regime and security services in particular. We have translated this piece below, as an example of the media wars between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It would be a war that one would think Cairo can ill afford at a time of tremendous economic stress (supply shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation, restrictions on bank transactions, the collapsing value of Egyptian pound on the black market - think Argentina in 2001-2002), and indeed Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has rushed over to Riyadh to clear the air and President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has reiterated his deep commitment to the security of the GCC (the loose codeword for “we got your back in the case of a coup, against Iran or if the Americans betray you”). And he denies the oil thing has nothing to do with the UN vote. But the Egyptian media (at the higher end, even) mostly hovers between a defense of Egypt’s autonomy, veiled threats about having an Iran option, and assurances that Egypt-Saudi relations are unassaible even as it indulges some good old fashioned Saudi-bashing.

How long can this all last? I tend to see less of a turning point and more of a tiresome, ongoing negotiations. The relationship is based on a kind of asymmetric passive-aggressive perpetual renegotiation. What Egypt is saying, in effect, is: “I am an unreliable, disrespectful client that openly takes you for granted and jibes against you at every possible turn, but I know you will eventually come back to me because you are more afraid of my weakness and nuisance capacity than of my potential strength. So when is that next check coming?” Egypt has gotten away with it in its relationship with the United States for at least the last 15 years, after all, so why not Saudi Arabia?

Our thanks go to Industry Arabic for making this feature possible.


Saudi Arabia paying the price for harboring terrorism and violent armed groups

Abdel Wahhab Issa, El Watan "السعودية تدفع ثمن احتضانها للإرهاب وجماعات العنف المسلح"), 12 October 2016

The era of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, witnessed a fierce war against terrorist organizations and groups, during which the kingdom staved off the influence of al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region and the Gulf. This came after Saudi Arabia had spent decades undertaking sponsoring these groups, especially during the war in Afghanistan. Before his death, the efforts of King Abdullah culminated in the publication of a list of banned terrorist groups, on which the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda came first. However, when King Salman bin Abdulaziz took over the reins of power in Saudi Arabia, terrorist groups were able to obtain financial and military support directly from the kingdom. It reverted to harboring these extremist organizations, granting them material and military support, especially in Syria and Yemen, and abolished the list of terrorist organizations. By contrast, when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz assumed power in Saudi Arabia, he began with an all-out war against terrorism, especially following the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, during which tensions were heightened in the existing relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood. This came as a result of the Kingdom's discovery, according to the opinion of political researcher Yousri al-Azabawi, of the Brotherhood's role in the fragmentation and division of the Arab states. As such, the kingdom began to co-operate cautiously with the organization while closely monitoring the situation. Following the June 30 Revolution, the discord between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia reached a breaking point after King Abdullah gave his blessing to the popular revolution that overthrew the group. In fact, this lead to Saudi Arabia banning the Brotherhood and regarding it as a terrorist organization. King Abdullah did not stop at combating the influence of the organization, but rather he also began to support the military maneuvers launched by the international coalition against ISIS. This led to the organization carrying out several terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabian territory in retaliation against King Abdullah and his war against terrorism. King Salman took power as the successor to King Abdullah with a view to bringing about total change, with Saudi Arabia turning away from the war on terror strategy in favor of supporting al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood in Syria and Yemen. In Syria, King Salman has given military and material support to the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, under the pretext of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. A report in the newspaper The Independent, citing Turkish officials, stated that Saudi Arabia is sending funds and weapons to the al-Nusra Front and that Turkey is facilitating the group's entry into Syria. It was also indicated that there was an agreement concluded early last March between the two countries, after a meeting in Riyadh attended by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The first proposal was that the two countries should work to "fill the vacuum of failed Western intervention in Syria,” especially after the failure of Western nations to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. It was also proposed that the two countries extend support for the armed opposition there – in reference to the al-Nusra Front – in what is the first such agreement between Saudi Arabia and Turkey following strong discord between them during the days of the late king. The Brotherhood's relationship with Saudi Arabia has improved considerably under King Salman inasmuch as, according to Brotherhood sources in Saudi Arabia, they have undertaken to mediate a reconciliation between the two parties. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has hosted the leader of the Brotherhood in Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Ennahdha Party, more than once. With its funds, Riyadh has become a fertile breeding ground for all leaders of terrorist groups, receiving them in the royal palaces, whether it is the Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, or [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal, among others. As for Yemen, Saudi Arabia has supported the Brotherhood there against the Shia Houthi group, with the kingdom having led a Gulf alliance in launching a military operation named “Decisive Storm.” Co-operation between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia was also clearly evident in Yemen, after everyone in al-Qaradawi’s International Union of Muslim Scholars, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, the Syrian and Jordanian Brotherhood and Ahrar al-Sham declared their support for Operation Decisive Storm. Saudi Arabia is now paying the price for harboring terrorist organizations both in the past and currently, at the hands of King Salman, especially al-Qaeda, who are responsible for the events of September 11. This follows the passing of legislation in the United States Congress this past September, which allows families of victims of the September 11 attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government for damages. This had previously been obstructed by the White House, after the US President Barack Obama used a presidential veto to block the bill. However, the United States Congress overrode his veto.

Links 28 September - 6 October 2016
LinksThe Editors
The Syrian Trauma

Sit yourself down to read, without distraction, this essay by our friend Peter Harling. It drives through, with unforgiving force, through the apathy that many of us who watch Syria from afar (and indeed those of us for whom Syria is a professional interest). There is a "Syria" out there that is synonymous with evil, misery, apocalypse and the collapse of a regional, or even global order. There is a "Syria"that is a "problem from hell" or an argument about i teventionism. And then there is Syria, the country, the complicated people, which is what Peter is reminding us to listen to:

Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively.

Our massive moral failure has been a source of public embarrassment and personal unease for many officials involved in the conflict’s management. Gradually they have been gravitating toward a solution to their own psychological tension: “stopping the violence” to appease themselves, even at the expense of diminishing any prospect of closure for Syrians. Such self-centeredness has become, in itself, an obstacle to any progress: all the policy talk about “what can we do” will remain empty until its meaning becomes “what can we do for millions of Syrians” and not “what can we do to rid ourselves of the problem.”

Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?

AsidesThe EditorsSyria