Sunday, February 27, 2011

Andrew Bacevich's Excellent Prescriptions for US in Middle East

Published at Newsweek's site, and definitely worth reading in full, and carefully . . .:

Strategy: Sit On Your Hands

Washington’s instinct is to meddle in the Mideast. Tamp that urge.

Welcome to the New, Democratic Iraq

The WaPo's Stephanie McCrummen with a story that ought to have been noted all over the media - and I've found only a few references to it via Twitter search.

Iraqi security forces detained about 300 people, including prominent journalists, artists and lawyers who took part in nationwide demonstrations Friday, in what some of them described as an operation to intimidate Baghdad intellectuals who hold sway over popular opinion.

On Saturday, four journalists who had been released described being rounded up well after they had left a protest of thousands at Baghdad's Tahrir Square. They said they were handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution by soldiers from an army intelligence unit.

"It was like they were dealing with a bunch of al-Qaeda operatives, not a group of journalists," said Hussan al-Ssairi, a journalist and poet who described seeing hundreds of protesters in black hoods at the detention facility. "Yesterday was like a test, like a picture of the new democracy in Iraq."

McCrummen goes on with details of the horrible treatment Maliki's people meted out to them.  One of the journalists was accused of being a member of the (mostly Sunni, now outlawed) Baath party.  Turns out he was a member of al-Da'wa - the same Shii religious party that Maliki heads! 

McCrummen finishes with:

Just before they were freed, however, Hadi was held in a room where about 300 people sat on the floor. They had black hoods over their heads. Many were groaning, their shirts bloodied. Some wore suits and ties. An elderly man had passed out. Hadi recognized a friend, a TV broadcaster, among them.

"This government is sending a message to us - to everybody," Hadi said Saturday, his forehead bruised, his left leg swollen.

Gathered at a house in the afternoon, which was quiet the day after the Friday protests, Hadi's colleagues told similar stories as they smoked cigarettes. Many said that despite their treatment, they considered the protest successful.

"It's put pressure," said Raad Mushatat, a filmmaker who was not detained. "The government is scared. But they do not scare me anymore."

Be prepared, everyone.  Thomas Ricks commented about a year ago that the Iraq war might be only half over.  I have a sinking feeling that we're going to find out that he was right.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Iraq's Deadly "Day of Rage"

Thousands of Iraqis did indeed turn out today, all across the country (in Basra, in Baghdad, in Mosul, and elsewhere), to demonstrate, mostly against the Maliki government's continuing inability to provide basic services (everything from safe drinking water to electricity) - but as the WaPo report notes, there were some voices crying out for Maliki himself to step down.  At this point, there's not much chance of that happening.  After all, he was indeed elected by a legitimate ballot-vote, and he has powerful (though sometimes fickle) allies (like Muqtada al-Sadr) to bolster him.  But, for me, two things stand out:

  • A number of people have been killed - anywhere from 5 (according to the BBC account) to as many as 13 (according to WaPo) - none of them, apparently, by "terrorists" affiliated with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq, or Baathist/Saddamist types.  The reports I've read don't specify, but the deaths seem to have come at the hands of government security forces.
  • Maliki took extraordinary measures to prevent protesters from congregating in Baghdad, imposing strict curfew and flooding the city with thousands of soldiers.  What I see in that is (1) his readiness to brandish and come down with an iron fist if necessary to quell dissent; (2) his awareness - and fear - that as long as basic economic demands are not being met, his regime will be walking the knife's edge.  And the more protesters killed by Maliki's enforcers, the more outcry, and the more vengeance required.

And . . . the regime will be walking that knife's edge at a time when the US troops that for so long kept him propped up, are on the way out.  To impose security, he will need to rely on his own security forces.  They number in the hundreds of thousands; they are increasingly well-trained; they are not averse to using torture to impose their will; but they are also riven by internal divisions and disorganization (as the ICG report of a few months ago documented quite copiously, much of it due to the fact that they comprise the former militias of diverse Shii parties (especially ISCI and al-Da'wa) that have not always played well together.

Maliki Tarring Legitimate Protest with Baathist Brush?

Today is slated to be a "Day of Rage" in Iraq, with thousands of protesters expected to take to the streets to insist on better services and less corruption from the Maliki government.  US officials continue to tout the progress of Iraq's new democracy, the installing of which has cost the US billions of dollars and thousands of lives, as well as ripped apart Iraqi society.

A "real" democracy allows peaceful protest and dissent.  But if recent pronouncements from both al-Maliki and his Shii religious allies are any indication, there's a strong possibility that today's protests will be met with a very harsh response.  Evidently, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most highly respected religious figure in the country, has expressed concern that the protests will be infiltrated by Baathist and al-Qaeda elements, and is therefore advising his followers not to join the protests.  Muqtada al-Sadr has once again returned from Iran, and has advised his followers to hold off on such protests for six months - probably because he recognizes how fragile Maliki's situation is and would rather his followers not imperil it.  Now, Mr. al-Maliki himself has advised Iraqis to stay away, claiming that the protests are backed by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  As noted in Al-Jazeera's report,

 "I call on you...not to take part in tomorrow's protest because they are suspicious," al-Maliki said.

"I call on you to be cautious and careful and stay away from this (event)."

He said that he did not want to deprive Iraqis of their right to protest legitimate demands, but wanted it to happen with someone other than "Saddamists, terrorists and al-Qaida'' standing behind the march.

"Frankly speaking, they are planning to take advantage of tomorrow's demonstration for their own benefit,'' he said.

All of this suggests that, especially if the protests today are large and rambunctious, it could be open season on the protesters, who now have been warned by both the prime minister and two of his most important religious props to stay off the streets. Those who take to the streets will be assumed to be collaborators with al-Qaeda, the Baath party, and other nefarious Sunni elements.

Here's hoping that this scenario doesn't play out.  But if it does, and al-Maliki's security forces resort to violence to quell legitimate dissent (of which, Iraqi politics now has an abundance), will Obama-Clinton have the courage to come down hard on their protege?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Israel's Hard Choices

Rather impressive piece by NYT's Steven Erlanger on how Israeli leaders and analysts are fretting over the decline of so-called "Arab moderates"; impressive in that instead of resorting to the usual WINEP crowd for sources, Erlanger brings in comments from Rami Khouri, Gilles Kepel, Marwan Muasher, and Olivier Roy, who tend to be more knowledgeable and more sympathetic to Arab concerns.

Bottom line is that no one can be sure about how the weakening of autocrats and empowering of more populist elements - both Islamist and secularist - will re-shape Israel's security in the region.  Some Egyptian leaders have pledged to uphold the peace treaty that emerged from the 1979 Camp David Accords; others say that the treaty needs to be reconsidered.  But there's good reason to believe that Israel will face more pressure from its neighbors to reach an acceptable settlement with the Palestinians.  According to Erlanger, the prevailing sentiment in Israel is to hunker down and make no "concessions" in terms of territory, as Israel may not be able to count on the kind of "stability" that characterized its relations with Mubarak and his ilk.

I can't imagine that such a hunker-down approach is going to cut it very long on the re-charged Arab street, where people are very aware that Mubarak et al. were long content to play ball with the US and Israel and meanwhile acquiesce in the starvation of fellow Arabs in Gaza and the humiliation of them in the West Bank.  And Arab Palestinians sense that the tables have been turned on Israel, that Israelis are nervous, and that this might be a good time to re-assert their demands for the kind of self-determination for which fellow Arabs in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya have been fighting and dying.  As Tony Karon notes (in an initial post to Time's new blog, "Global Spin"), Hamas and Fatah have chosen this very time to re-engage in talks to form a unity government.  Odds are, it will come to nothing, as have previous attempts; but
 "[Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad's outreach to Hamas signals acknowledgment of the failure of the peace process as we've known it until now, and a casting around for alternatives. . . .

with their leaders now essentially admitting what most already knew -- that the U.S.-led peace process is going nowhere -- and a wave of largely non-violent mass action sweeping the region as citizens of the Arab world demand their rights, the era of the photo-opportunity peace process is at an end. And the Palestinian public may demand a greater say than their leaders have thus far allowed in what comes next.
Israel can wait for the pressure to build; or, it just might find it wiser to find a release valve for that pressure: by getting serious, finally, about compromise, and about justice for its dispossession of so many thousands of Palestinians over the past 60+ years.

Hunkering down, curling up into a sea-urchin-like little ball to ride out the current tide, may leave Israel washed up on a very lonely shore.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Libya, Bahrain, Oil Prices - and Martian Landings

Sitting in a faculty meeting a couple of days ago, a colleague stunned all of us when he noted that when he referred to recent developments in Egypt while conversing with one of his (political science) students, the student peered at him with that glassy-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look that so many of us know, and asked, "Huh? What are you talking about?"  You could have sworn that the student had just landed from Mars.

Segue now to local (Saginaw-Flint-Bay City, Michigan) TV news last night, with the lead story featuring 2 to 3 minutes of clumsy interviews at local gas pumps, with motorists pissing and moaning that the price per gallon had shot up as much as 30 cents in one day, but making no mention of any knowledge (or concern) as to why prices had shot up.  Only then - priorities properly established - did the news-show anchor cut in with all of 15 seconds of film from Libya, and dutifully read from the teleprompter that perhaps 300 have been killed.  

How can people with - at their fingertips, literally - so many potential avenues to be not-clueless, be so clueless?

Well, as Rami Khouri now hints (in the Daily Star) - and the CFR's Michael Levi warns (in Financial Times) - Americans had better start clueing in, pronto.  If current trends do indeed persist, and popular representation takes greater hold in oil-producing Arab countries, and "the people" (rather than "the regimes") take more charge of decision-making as to the disposition of petroleum resources - if America's ties to Middle Eastern oil go from Dick Cheney's wet dream to his worst nightmare - the "We the People of the United States" may begin to find that (to channel Cheney again) the "American [oil-based] way of life" is indeed "negotiable."

Levi warns us that 

New approaches to oil market speculation are also needed. The G20 is currently overhauling rules in response to the 2008 oil price spike, which saw prices rise to $147 a barrel. However this was driven by economic factors – particularly surging Chinese demand – not a geopolitical shock. The responses have, understandably, focused on how to deal most effectively with similar circumstances in the future.
The type of speculation that would follow disruptions in Saudi Arabia or Iran, however, could be different. In such cases speculators would be responding to elusive political changes, rather than steady economic developments. Speculation is normally healthy, but their moves could add volatility as panicked traders hoard oil. It would be wise to consider and, if necessary, prepare for exceptional new restrictions on speculation during such moments of extraordinary geopolitical stress.
None of these measures replaces the need for a long-term transformation in the global energy economy. But such broader thinking must not crowd-out short-term measures to cope with present problems. We don’t know how our newly globalised economy will respond to a sharp geopolitical oil price shock. But we should prepare, before we find out the hard way.
Rami Khouri's essay again reflects the excitement and optimism about the Arab future that have been so palpable ever since Mr. Mubarak bailed out to his villa. And he looks hopefully to a future when Arab peoples - not those autocrats who have been all too content to do the West's bidding when it comes to regulating and expending their countries' oil.  He's wise enough to recognize that that day may be a while in coming. Speaking first of Libya and Bahrain (where the outcomes still hang in the balance):
If these two states that are deeply anchored in the Arab oil and energy world pursue policies that are faithful to their people’s sentiments, we could see major changes in how Arab countries work more closely together to pursue more collectively beneficial domestic, regional and global policies (as Western Europe did after World War II, for example). More democratic Arab countries with plenty of money are likely to become more sovereign countries, rather than puppets of Western powers or hostages to Israeli concerns (for example, seeing their armed forces limited by what Israel allows Western countries to sell them).
Sovereign and wealthy Arab states that think for themselves are likely to make major adjustments in their relations with the three major non-Arab regional powers, namely Israel, Turkey and Iran. This would mean being more critical of Israel, less hostile to Iran, and more inclined to associate more closely with Turkey and its impressive economic and regional policies. If the United States, Europe and others abroad deal equitably with the Arabs, and also address Israel and Iran on the basis of law and legitimacy rather than naked self-interest driven by indigenous emotionalism and pro-Israeli political blackmail, they will find themselves welcomed as valuable friends and partners across the Arab world.
The changes under way in Tunisia and Egypt point the way to a historic change in how Arab countries are governed and what policies they pursue. The transformations that have been unleashed and are spreading across the region will need years to settle into a permanent pattern of new policies and governance systems. When such changes reach the Arab countries associated with oil and energy, like Libya and Bahrain, as has been happening these weeks, the stakes suddenly become much greater.

From the perspective of the citizens of these countries, however, the process at hand is the same. Arab men and women want to be treated like human beings and citizens, with God-given human and civil rights. The advent of citizens with full rights and freedoms in Arab oil-producing states is a novelty that they and the world have never known. We should welcome it with open arms, because it may mark a very important boost to the development of the entire Arab region in a more rational, balanced, sustainable and accountable manner than has happened in the last several generations.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Egypt's Revolt, Lebanon, and Iraq

Last week, Lebanon Daily Star editor Michael Young published an essay in The National that analyzed the impact of Mubarak's overthrow in Lebanon.  He noted especially that Mubarak's fall was celebrated there by Hezbollah, the Shii religious/political party currently in the ascendant against the Sunni bloc led by Saad Hariri.  And, of course, Iran's leaders celebrated Mubarak's fall as well, as a defeat for US and Israeli interests.  But Young also finds reason for the now-minority Sunni of Lebanon to take heart as well:
If Egyptians could overcome their fear of the superior firepower of security forces; if they could impose justice on an unjust leader; and if all this could send shockwaves of pride throughout the Middle East, because Egypt once again was a vanguard for Sunni Arabs, then there is no reason these messages cannot echo in Beirut. Hizbollah and Syria's guns can be overcome, justice in the Hariri assassination can triumph, and Sunnis in general can be the stronger for it.
Lebanon currently struggles to form a new government, which will be led by a Sunni, Najib Muqati, who has Hezbollah's support.  Young here seems to exhort Lebanon's Sunni to stand fast and persevere against the rise of Hezbollah, against whom (and Syria) Young has frequently displayed his own deeply held hostility.  In the process though, he seems to set up a functional equivalence between Mubarak (a secular autocrat who was often content to do the US's bidding) and Hezbollah (a religious party that despises the US) - and that, to me, undercuts his argument to some extent.  Nonetheless . . .

Over the last few days, hundreds of Iraqis, obviously inspired by the events in Egypt and Tunisia, have flocked to city streets to protest the ongoing lack of electricity and economic opportunity.  But, let's note, Iraq too, like Lebanon, is a volatile nation with a newly ascendant Shii majority that now dominates the government, much to the expense of previously dominant, though minority, Sunni population.  A number of commentators have referred post-2003 to the "Lebanonization" of Iraqi politics and society (even if Lebanon's sectarian checkerboard is much more complex).

As yet, I've read nothing that signals that the current Iraqi demonstrations have been motivated that much by Sunni anger against Shii domination, but it's a no-brainer to assume that, especially in the wake of how badly the Sunni-supported Iraqiya party was dissed after last March's elections, that anger is there, and still simmers.  It may be prudent to be very alert for such signals.

And, it may also be prudent to be alert for other indications of what some (like Nir Rosen,  Anthony Shadid and Rami Khouri) have hinted at: a rejuvenated sense of pan-Arabism in the Middle East, rooted now mostly in the electronically expanded connectivity and shared experience among young, techno-savvy Arabs who are fed up with autocrats and with the political and socio-economic limitations they represent.  In Iraq, pan-Arabism - especially under Saddam, but even earlier - came to be identified both with Sunni political domination and with Iraqi Sunnis' desire to associate their aspirations with those of fellow Arabs across what was a Sunni-dominated Middle East.  But in the beginning, pan-Arabism was a movement meant to cut across Sunni-Shia sectarian lines, in favor of a shared "Arabness" based on history, custom, and (especially) language.

In a recent essay by Franck Salameh in The National Interest, the entire idea that we might be seeing a renaissance of pan-Arabism was well and thoroughly trashed. Still, I wonder to what extent Iraq's Sunnis might seek empowerment through identifying with fellow Sunnis in Syria in their resistance to Hezbollah's rise - or with fellow Sunni youth across the Middle East - in Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, even Morocco now.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

More about the Stakes in Bahrain

Excellent analysis from Doyle McManus of the LA Times.  He concludes:
So the aim of U.S. policy in the short run is to head off that crisis [an overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain] before it happens — to persuade all sides to de-escalate and start negotiating. The long-term aim of U.S. policy is to strengthen the crown prince and the modernizers, but also to keep the Navy headquarters, which means not rocking the boat too hard.

Standing for democracy and monarchy at the same time has always meant walking a fine line between change and stability, but it is especially difficult now. An increasingly educated public, with access to news from the rest of the world, can tell the difference between ersatz democracy and the real thing.

In Bahrain and elsewhere, history is calling our bluff.


With UNSC Veto, Obama is on the Wrong Side of History

If there was ever a tailor-made opportunity for Mr. Obama to show that he really means business about justice for the Palestinians, it arrived yesterday in New York.  Placed before the UN Security Council was a resolution tabled by Arab states, and supported by more than 120 co-sponsors, condemning ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank as illegal.  Again, for any who may have forgotten: such settlement construction is clearly illegal according to international law. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank has been condemned in several earlier UN resolutions as well as by the International Court of Justice.  And, the US's official position has been, all along, that the occupation is illegal - which is why, despite countless complaints from the Christian Zionist right in the US, the US still maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem.

The US vetoed the resolution. NYT report is here; the LA Times report includes much more background on the history of condemnations of Israel's de facto colonization of the West Bank; the WaPo report is here, where Colum Lynch cuts to the chase right at the top:
The U.S. vote killed off a measure that was supported by the 14 other members of the Security Council and isolated the United States on a crucial Middle East matter at a time of political upheaval in the region.

Although U.S. officials have consistently criticized the settlement policy, a vote in favor of the resolution would have angered Israel and its U.S. supporters, including Republican lawmakers, who had urged the Obama administration to stand with Israel at all costs. . . .

the administration stood far apart from even its closest allies. Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement arguing that the resolution would have advanced the peace process.

Poor Susan Rice, the US rep to the UN, was reduced to mealy-mouthed statements to the effect that, golly, we really don't like those settlements, but the resolution is so unfair to Israel, and it would have just hardened the positions of both sides. The US's/Israel's official stance is that a resolution will come only from direct negotiations between the two sides during the ongoing, never-ending, doomed-to-failure "peace process" - the only discernible result of which is that it has allowed Israel to stall, string things along, buy time - pick your own metaphor for delay - in order to keep colonizing the West Bank to the point where there will be nothing left for a Palestinian state.  This, of course, is perfectly OK with the myopic Christian Zionist, mostly white Republican, AIPAC-bought Bible-bangers whose numbers in Congress got a huge boost from the November 2010 elections.

So, what exactly has Mr. Obama "achieved" with his veto:
  • Any remaining hopes that any in the Muslim world might have attached to his famous 2009 Cairo speech - which had become infinitesimally tiny before Friday's vote - are completely gone.
  • Palestinians will understand that they can expect nothing from the US as a broker for peace, or as a source of leverage with which to budge the Netanyahu government on any issues of real importance in "negotiations.'
  • Palestinians will understand that they will never get help - or justice - from the UN.  The US has the power, through its veto, to unilaterally squash any binding resolutions from the Security Council. The last time the US used its veto was almost 5 years ago, when Bush directed the US rep to veto a UNSC resolution demanding that Israel withdraw troops from the Gaza Strip. Yesterday's was Obama's first use of the US veto power.
  • With nowhere else to turn, Palestinians may conclude that they can rely only on themselves to make a difference.  Their options are non-violent protest or a new intifada.  With either, the IDF has the muscle to squelch it.  Congress would applaud the squelchers; most of the rest of the world might work harder to isolate Israel (and would be demonized as "anti-Semites" for their efforts); but the US would stand with Israel (after all, there's a presidential election coming in less than two years!).
  • As Lynch noted in the WaPo, the US has now isolated itself even more in the Middle East, at a time when the so-called moderate Arab allies are facing populist revolts (see Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan) and the major regional players have begun to stand up against the US and Israel.  Turkey's relations with Israel have soured, and show no signs of significant improvement.  The fall of Hosni Mubarak may bring a new Egyptian government that will distance itself from the US as well as put the already cold peace with Israel even deeper in the freezer.

It ought to be obvious by now that people across the Middle East - and led by its vocal, dissatisfied, and increasingly connected youth - are speaking out for a principle for which the US claims to be a shining beacon and a staunch advocate: self-determination.  They demand popular-elected, representative government, respect for Islam and Muslim institutions, and autonomy in international relations.  Despite Mr. Obama's shining words of encouragement to protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, the US historically has placed itself on the wrong side of those demands - backing autocrats whose support it has bought or bullied, and refusing to reach out to Islamist groups whose ideas (whether the US likes it or not) reflect the beliefs, values, and aspirations of millions of people.

In vetoing this UNSC resolution, Mr. Obama has placed the US on the wrong side of the issue of the Palestinians' right to self-determination.  By extension, he has placed the US on the wrong side of its own historical declarations of its beliefs and values.  In the process, he has deepened both the US's and Israel's global isolation by enabling both nations to thumb their noses at both global opinion and international law.  By so doing, he has also, I would submit hastened the day when
  •  Israel's legitimacy and viability - and with them, the Zionist dream - may be extinguished.
  • America's ability to influence events - and protect its interests - in the Middle East may be extinguished as well.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Stakes in Bahrain

Graham Fuller's NYT op-ed provides a succinct overview of what's at stake in Bahrain -  a small island that punches way above its weight in terms of its impact on US strategic considerations: The US Fifth Fleet is based there, and as Fuller notes, that is by no means secure if the regime goes down.  Fuller notes toward the end:
Washington is now faced again with another hard choice — the legacy of shortsighted decisions made over decades: Continue to go with local repressive regimes out of a misguided sense of “American interests”? Hold on to unpopular military bases at all costs — thereby deepening local anger and perhaps giving Iran ultimately a greater voice in events?

Or should it quietly drop support for this repressive regime, allow events to take their course and accept that long-overdue change is coming? How long can we hold on to another ugly status quo? It’s really about how bad the change will get the longer we wait.

But as he also noted earlier, the last thing the Saudis want is to see a Shia-backed revolt take wing in Bahrain, because it will lift the Shii minority who dominate the oil-rich region of Saudi Arabia along the Gulf.

Real dilemma for Obama-Clinton.  Backing a more representative system in Bahrain means dissing the Saudis - as well as a propaganda lift for the Shia-dominated regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Israel says Iranian warships near Suez

Avigdor Lieberman: "insolence of the Iranians is growing from day to day"

Dear pot: hello from kettle . . .

Egypt's "Democracy": Can the Dream be Realized?

I've committed to sending off a book mss by end of this week, so I'm going to make this post brief.  I have to say that, after the euphoria of Mubarak's stepping down, I've begun to sober up - and have also begun to worry that Egyptians are going to have to deal with what may turn out to be a long and vicious hangover.

Why? Because even with all the happy-talk about impending democracy, the empowerment of the Egyptian people, etc., and the military's promises to hand over the reins to civilian rule after the constitution is amended . . . the fact of the matter is that the military is firmly in control, military leaders have controlled Egypt since 1952, and the military is not likely to subordinate itself to civilian authority in the foreseeable future.  I recommend two recent essays that make these very sobering points quite well: Prof. Mohammad Ayoob's recent essay at the Foreign Policy site, and (for an even more sober appraisal) George Friedman's at Stratfor. Friedman's essay is like a bucket of cold water over the head: in essence, he says, what Egypt experienced was a military coup in which the generals used the protesters to oust a former general - one of their own, as it were - who (to use an old expression) got too big for his britches when he tried to groom his son as his successor and, in the process, hoped to turn a military regime into a hereditary dictatorship.  So, Mubarak's gone, the people rejoice and talk of democracy, but the generals have gotten exactly what they wanted, and are in a position to call the shots for the foreseeable future.

None of this is lost on Leon Hadar, who foresees (at The American Conservative) that, after the bubbles have burst,
Once the current revolutionary fervor in the Middle East has subsided, it is quite likely that contrary to hopes (of liberal democracy) and fears (of rise of the Islamists), the final outcome will instead resemble the post-1848 scene in Europe. One should probably refrain from “shorting” the Arab autocrats who have proven to be the ultimate political survivors of our time: the Saudi royal family has been reigning for close to a century, while the military has ruled Egypt since 1954. Expect the Assads and Gaddafis and the rest of these characters to employ a blend of limited military force, co-option of resentful elites, and modest political and economic reforms to try to weaken the insurgencies. This form of Middle Eastern counter-revolution could prove to be quite effective for a time, providing the U.S. with breathing space to reassess its policies—as opposed to being humiliated at the sight of its clients being driven out of power.

That the US needs to reassess its policies should be, by now, a no-brainer. I'm sure that's happening in the White House and elsewhere inside the Beltway at this moment.  Whether that will bring real change to US policies is another question.
And, pondering recent events in Egypt, I'm remembering some observations in the wake of the summer 2009 elections in Iran, where it was alleged that Ahmadinejad was re-elected by an obviously rigged ballot.  That there were irregularities in the balloting process seems certain, but some observers noted that, with all the focus on the young, educated, techno-sophisticated, photogenic protesters in Tehran, the ruling party did indeed receive millions of votes, many of them from conservative rural citizens from remote areas to which news and camera crew coverage didn't reach.  What about the conservative rural citizens of Egypt, including those villages and towns in Upper (southern) Egypt - none of which (as opposed to Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez) got any real coverage in the Western media or an Al-Jazeera?  When it's crunch time, are they going to line up with secular democratizing reformers, or with the forces of "stability"?

George Friedman makes the point that in a real "revolution," even the military cannot withstand the power of the people.  So far, in Egypt, they haven't had to.  It still remains to be seen whether the power of the people can indeed prevail there, or in Yemen, or Jordan, or elsewhere among those Middle Eastern democracy dominoes that so many of hope to see fall.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Egypt's Treaty with Israel: the IDF's Enabler?

Over the more than 30 years since the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt after the Camp David accords that Jimmy Carter engineered, the standard wisdom has enshrined both Menachem Begin and Anwar al-Sadat as visionary peacemakers who hoped to blaze the trail to a new era in the Middle East.  And after his assassination in 1981, Sadat was, for all intents and purposes, canonized in the West as a martyr for peace.

The recent revolution in Egypt, however, marked the (we hope) end of a military-grounded autocracy of which Hosni Mubarak was the last manifestation, but Anwar al-Sadat was a part.  A number of writers recently have re-examined Sadat's career, and exposed him as an autocrat who pandered to various influences - foreign and domestic - as it suited his own purposes.  The treaty with Israel was a case in point.  His true motive for negotiating with Begin was to regain the Sinai, as well as ingratiate himself with the US and plant his regime's lips firmly around the American foreign/military-aid teat.

Patrick Seale has now penned an essay that casts that treaty, not as a milestone on some path to peace, but as an enabler for Israel's brutal military domination of the Palestinian and Lebanon, and even the IDF's destruction of Saddam's Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981.  Seale lays a lot of ills at the feet of the treaty - and I'm generally not a fan of such mono-causal explanations -  but his take is worth reading.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Max Boot: US needs to stay in Iraq. Could it happen?

Boot's latest op-ed  (in the LA Times) makes the point that Iraq's future is hardly assured; and that American media and the American public have turned the page.  Boot is correct, on both counts.  But I can't imagine that the US will back off the current timetable, which slates all US troops to be out of there by end of this year. Why?
  • The US can't afford it.  With all the money swirling into the black hole that is Afghanistan, with US troops increasingly stressed by multiple tours and over-exposure to battlefield trauma, and with a president who has insisted steadfastly that the US will leave, the American public will not stand for it.
  • Iraqis won't stand for it.  Whatever whisperings may be going on behind the scenes, the Maliki government has likewise been steadfastly, and publicly, insisting that US troops are going to be out by year's end.  Muqtada al-Sadr, the "firebrand cleric" whose Shii religious party is a major component of Maliki's coalition, has made it clear that he will accept no other outcome - and he has a devoted, well-armed militia (the Promised Day brigade, a carry-over from the Mahdi Army that took a toll on US forces in Najaf in 2004 and in Baghdad during the Surge) that he can call out if US forces extend their stay.  (And it's probably safe to assume that, if that were to happen, Iran would funnel arms and supplies to Sadr's militia - and, for that matter, to any other Shii insurgent force - or even a Sunni force if Iran believed they could keep them in check down the line - that wanted to step up to resist the Americans.

There may be a wild card here, though - the Kurds.  There still exists a very volatile fault-line in Iraq's north and northeast, in the ethnically mixed Arab-Kurd-Turkmen region along the frontier between the region controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad.  The only US forces still on a largely combat footing in Iraq are those who are teaming with Arab-Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga troops to patrol the region - the idea being that the presence of the US troops will help Arabs and Kurds learn to work together.  The success has been, at best, mixed.

Now the clock is winding down. When US forces are out, it's likely that this mixed-ethnic region will heat up. Given the long history of attacks and atrocities they've suffered at the hands of predominantly Arab regimes in Baghdad (going back to the days of the British mandate and Hashemite monarchy), and their sense of friendship and cooperation with the US after the Desert Storm war (when the US sent food to Kurdish civilian refugees, maintained no-fly zones over Kurdish territory, and helped foster the development of an autonomous KRG years before the 2003 invasion), why should anyone be surprised if the KRG's leaders ask the US to station forces on Kurdish territory even after the 31 Dec. 2011 deadline?

This would signal, of course, the end of any dream of a unitary, Arab-Kurd Iraq - something that the US has generally said, over the years, that it wanted to see.  But, as I said, given the deep, long-felt distrust between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds, if the KRG decides, in the wake of the US final pull-out, that the Baghdad government is more threat than partner, it already has strong working ties with the US - and, for that matter, with Israel.  And more than any dream of a unitary Iraq, what Kurds prize most is their autonomy - and their survival.

A lot would hinge, of course, on Obama's willingness to leave some US forces in Iraqi Kurdistan.  But if such a scenario were to unfold, you can surely expect John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as the soon-to-be-exiting Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman, to lead the chorus singing hosanna's for the brave Kurds.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt's Challenges - Around the Corner, and Down the Road

Egyptians' joy will linger long, but many challenges lie well down the road, as well as right around that corner they've just turned.  Anthony Shadid makes a nice stab at many of them in his NY Times analysis today.  I also recommend reading George Saghir's recent take (first posted to Joshua Landis' excellent Syria Comment blog) on what faces Syria, which hasn't turned that corner, but where the problems mirror those in Egypt - among them, skyrocketing population growth coupled with poor economic performance. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Next Crisis? Mubarak Out. Army In. Gaza?

With all the joy of Mubarak's departure, there's not yet been a raft of reporting out of Gaza, where Mubarak played ball with the US-Israel axis by blockading its border, including the Rafah crossing.  But the LA Times notes,

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation was announced Friday, Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza spilled into the streets as horns were honked and guns were fired in celebration, CNN reported. Small Palestinian celebrations also began in the city center of Ramallah, the West Bank capital.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said many see Mubarak's resignation as an opportunity for those in Gaza.

"We call upon the new Egyptian leadership to take an immediate decision to lift the blockade of Gaza and open Rafah [border] crossing permanently to allow people's free movement and in order for the reconstruction process of Gaza to begin," Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

But will they?

  • The US will be pressuring the generals to keep the blockade up.
  • Israel - ditto, not that they have the US's leverage with the generals.
  • The Palestinian Authority of Messrs Abbas and Fayyad? Police have been called out to suppress protests in the West Bank in support of the Cairo demonstrations. The last thing Abbas and al-Fatah want is any kind of victory - or even a psychological boost - for Hamas.  (Sad comment on the current state of Palestinian nationalism.) Obama and Netanyahu will be squeezing Abbas to shut up about the Gaza blockade, so as not to give Hamas (and, in their calculations, Hezbollah/Syria/Iran a victory vs. Israel).  But can Abbas afford not to support a call for Egyptian lifting of the blockade without completely, irretrievably shredding any remaining credibility he has as a "Palestinian" leader?

But it's safe to assume that a majority of the Egyptian "street" wants the blockade lifted.  The Muslim Brotherhood surely wants that; and Mr. el-Baradei asserted publicly that a new democratic regime in Egypt would focus its attention on lifting the blockade as a high-priority item.

Might it be at this point that, with Fox/AIPAC/WINEP/AbeFoxman/Pastor Hagee/Wolf Blitzer and all the horses they ride in on screaming at them, "Don't you dare let those Hamas terrorists escape from Gaza!", Obama-Clinton-Gates decide to advise the Generals in Cairo, "you let this happen, and you can kiss good-bye to those billions of bucks worth of weaponry, tanks, and training."?

Their options?
  • Knuckle under, and deal with the civilians as they might, OR
  • Close ranks with the civilians, maybe even close the Suez Canal for a while, just to signal that they won't be pushed around on this matter,
  •  Find a new patron to provide military hardware.
I hear China makes some pretty good stuff.

A Great Day for Egypt, But Heavy Lifting Still Ahead

News services, Twitter, you name it, are ablaze with news of Hosni Mubarak's hand-off of power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  We can expect now (especially as the Sunday papers are prepared) a veritable deluge of analyses of what it all means - for Egypt, for Middle Eastern democracy, for the "war on terror," for the US's standing in the region, for Israel.

But let's not forget, even in this moment of jubilation, that a lot of the heavy lifting has yet to be done.  One of the protesters put it well:

Abdel-Rahman Samir, one of the youth organizers of the protests, said the protest movement would now open negotiations with the military over democratic reform but vowed protests would continue to ensure change is carried out.

"We still don't have any guarantees yet — if we end the whole situation now the it's like we haven't done anything," he said. "So we need to keep sitting in Tahrir until we get all our demands."

The generals are now in charge.  They have promised to heed the will of the people, but, as generals have always been wont to do, they undoubtedly will be feeling their duty to lead them.

A number of people have held up Turkey's current democracy - even led as it is by an Islamist party - as a model for Egypt.  From its founding, the Republic of Turkey was set up as a Western-style, secular republic, but governed as a one-party state under the essentially dictatorial control of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk.  The decades between Ataturk's time and the current democracy witnessed volatile episodes when governments were ousted by the highly respected Turkish military, which often executed and imprisoned political leaders who, in its view, had led the republic astray. (And even today, Turkey's generals are seen as anxiously eying the AKP-led government of Mr. Erdogan, although popular feeling by and large seems to support him.)

There's no law that says that Egypt now has to endure decades of volatility before a truly democratic system is in place.  But let's be realistic:
  •  the generals are in control,
  •  the Egyptian military has been the bedrock of the Egyptian state for almost 60 years
  • every Egyptian leader since 1952 - Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, Hosni Mubarak - was a high-ranking military officer.

The coming negotiations - indeed, to use a very popular word of late, the transition - are likely to be fractious; lots of chefs stirring the pot and wanting to add their own special ingredients. (Check out this chart posted at Arabist, and you may get a sense of the complexities that most MSM and bloggers' reports seldom got at.  It's not simply young seculars vs. Muslim Brothers in the opposition.)

In other words, the negotiations may be disorderly.  (And why not? This is something completely new in Egypt's experience.) Generals tend to hate that, and when disorder persists, they tend to impose order, according to their own rules.  And given its long service and earned respect (and ensuing sense of entitlement), the military is going to feel entitled to apply to (or withhold from) whatever gets cooked its imprimatur.

The protesters have won an incredible victory, one over which any of us who despise autocracy and corruption ought to exult.  Many have died to secure that victory; many more have been injured, some of them grievously or permanently,

But it may be fair to say that much of the hard work - and many pitfalls - lie ahead.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mubarak: Wily Manipulator, or Defiant Dodderer?

Just when Egyptians, the CIA, and much of the world was sure that, at long last, he was going to step down, Hosni Mubarak seems to have surprised them all.  In a speech that Prof. Marc Lynch characterized as "the worst speech ever," Mr. Mubarak defied the thousands thronged in Tahrir Square by announcing that he would not leave, would not resign, but would hand over some of his power to his recently hand-picked vice-president and crony, Omar Suleiman - a step that, in his interpretation of it, Egypt's constitution allows him to do.

Mr. Suleiman then followed with a speech of his own, exhorting the demonstrators to go home (because their voices had been heard) and admonishing them against tuning in to foreign cable news services (read Al-Jazeera, mostly).  In the regime's spin, it's foreign influences who are trying to sow chaos.

All the accounts I've read of today's events capture a sense of absolute incredulity, followed by searing anger, at these developments.  What could Mubarak be thinking? One might conclude that, as a veteran of 30 years of sitting atop the pyramid of state and swatting away all comers, Mubarak is a shrewd, wily manipulator who feels he's still grasping a trump card: the Egyptian military, upon whose loyal shoulders Egypt's political leadership has perched ever since 1952.  As Nancy Youssef writes for McClatchy, the army's next move is a huge question mark.  And Egypt's future hangs in the balance.  The assumption is that the upper echelons of the officer corps would be most inclined to stick with Mubarak and some version of the status quo.  They receive tremendous social respect - and personal opportunity for enrichment - as officers, as well as access to the training and sophisticated weaponry that Mubarak's partnership with the US (and peace with Israel) have afforded.  But, as Youssef notes, the rank-and-file are conscripts, and in many cases, the brothers or cousins of demonstrators.  If called upon to do so, will they fire into the crowds?  For that matter, will the captains and majors follow orders to do so issued from the generals, or will they decide that the people's respect for the army cannot be sacrificed on the altar of regime loyalty - and specifically, loyalty to an aged group of men who have come to take too much for granted.  The concerns of Egypt's politicians are noted by Financial Times' Roula Khalaf:
Egypt’s army, an opaque institution which has operated behind the scenes, has won the respect of many Egyptians precisely because it has not directly interfered in politics, leaving the running of the country to the presidents that it has chosen for decades. . . .

But among politicians in Cairo, the enthusiasm for the engagement of the army was more cautious, amid concerns that the amicable behaviour of the rank and file – soldiers who are as frustrated as the rest of Egyptians – would not extend to the senior leadership, which has huge vested interests in the current regime, including the expansion of the military into an array of businesses.

The WaPo's Stephen Stromberg characterized Mubarak's speech as an
 "overstuffed, incoherent monstrosity . . . .the uninspiring, self-righteous rambling of a man who has had tens of millions of Egyptians as a captive audience for 30 years, a personality that has terminally confused the will of his people for his own, what they would like to hear with what he would prefer to say. He hasn't had to authentically lead people for decades -- state television would carry anything he wanted it to. That has resulted in the boorishness that comes with the long-term exercise of unchecked power"

Indeed, it seems to represent the workings of the mind of a defiant, stubborn, perhaps partly senile old man who refuses to accept the reality that confronts him now, but from which he has insulated himself for so long. 

I'm hoping that the lower echelons and rank-and-file of the army will see that as well, and will refuse orders to fire on the crowds that surely will number close to the promised million tomorrow.  I'd also bet that Obama, Clinton, and Gates are doing whatever they can to reach out to Egypt's field-level officers, to tell them that firing into the protesters will mean the end of any access to US military largesse, but that siding with them will keep the training and weapons coming, as well as ensure that the Egyptian military will retain the respect that will be needed for it if a new civilian-led democracy is able to thrive and Egypt to re-emerge as a truly respected leader of the Arab world.

If it comes, finally, that democracy will surely include representation from the Muslim Brotherhood.  By all means, check out James Traub's fine essay at Foreign Policy. The title and subtitle say it all:
 "Don't fear the Brotherhood. Running away from the Islamic party is exactly what the entrenched Egyptian ruling class wants America to do. "

A New Era of Arab Democracy?

Multiple reports this morning that the Egyptian army has hunkered down in long meetings with Hosni Mubarak, and that he will announce his resignation in a few hours. (Even the CIA is saying so.)

Does this mean an instant transition to democracy there?  Not necessarily.  The Egyptian military has a lot invested in the outcome of all this.  The NY Times now reports:

Egypt’s armed forces on Thursday announced that they had begun to take "necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people,” a step that suggested the military intends to take a commanding role in administering the strife-torn nation. . . .

Officials in Mr. Mubarak’s government have been warning for several days that protesters faced a choice between negotiating in earnest with the government on Constitutional changes or having the military step in to guard against a descend into political chaos. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit seemed to add a further ominous tone to those comments today, telling Al Arabiya television,

“If chaos occurs, the armed forces will intervene to control the country, a step which would lead to a very dangerous situation.”

The protesters want democracy headed by a civilian government; the military may have other ideas.  The next day or two may tell a huge story.

But if you want a blueprint of how the US and the West ought to be approaching the possible advent of democracy in Egypt, you could do worse than to consult this brief essay by Amjad Atalah and Daniel Levy at The National Interest website:

Here are three ways to begin to reassert a foreign policy for the Middle East consistent with American values and interests:

First, support free, fair, open and inclusive elections, respect the results and emphasize civilian over military supremacy in decision-making and governance.

Second, embrace those who embrace political values consistent with our own. When millions of people are in the street demanding change, the US government must side with demands for freedom. Preferably this will be an American position even prior to the breakdown of the old order. Besides increasing U.S. credibility with the masses of young people who are destined to become tomorrow’s leaders, it also lends seriousness to American protestations when pro-democracy activists come under threat. The U.S. should reconsider the balance in aid to the region between civilian needs versus military hardware and training shifting emphasis away from the latter.

Finally, apply a common standard to Israel and Arab states alike. Ideally, deliver on freedom and equality for Palestinians alongside Jewish-Israelis. At a minimum, distance the U.S. from the occupation and discriminatory practices pursued by Israel, and embrace that part of Israeli society which shares American values. Israel’s security within the 1967 borders is a legitimate U.S. concern but the cost of America supporting, or facilitating, occupation and inequality will become unsustainably burdensome in an era of Arab democracy.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Afghan Air War Doubles

As reported in Wired.  Petraeus is playing beat the clock; a lot of Afghans, many of them civilians, are paying the price for him to maintain his reputation.  And it's only going to get worse as winter lifts, the roads and passes open, and the situation heats up - both literally and metaphorically.

Before this is done, Obama may someday find himself dealing with the same kind of travel problems that have beset George W. Bush and half the Israeli cabinet.

Obama ripped in Congress over Egypt, Lebanon

And, as the WaPo notes, two of the big rippers are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Gary Ackerman, who happen to be two of the big dippers from the AIPAC honey-comb.  Puzzling that they are ripping Obama for not insisting on a quick transition to democracy in Egypt, even as Netanyahu and his people are fearful of that very thing, for fear of the Muslim Brotherhood slipping into power.

Or . . . do they "get it" - that the chance of a Brotherhood takeover is relatively slim (as so many experts - including Reuel Marc Gerecht, neocon and Likud darling - have tried to make plain)? 

Makes you wonder how much even Bibi believes his own rhetoric about the possibility of Egypt becoming a new Iran.

UPDATE - OK, I am way off base with the above, as this update makes plain,  Ros-lehtinen and Berman evidently excoriated Obama for even allowing the possibility that the US might countenance the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in a more democratic Egypt.  Quoth the lovely Ileana:
"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently reexamining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important non-secular actors. The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."
So, no, they don't get it.  Silly me.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tariq Ramadan on the Muslim Brotherhood and Middle East Reform

Eloquent and informed essay on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood - its history and its current situation - by Tariq Ramadan, a leading scholar of Islamic studies, who also happens to be the grandson of the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al-Banna . . .

America's Islamist Hypocrisy: Egypt and Iraq

A piece in today's WaPo starts with two stupid questions: Is the Obama administration in direct contact with the Muslim Brotherhood? And, would it accept the group as part of a new Egyptian government?

Answer to question 1: I hope so. If they aren't, and they hope to have an ear to the ground in Egypt, then they're fools.

Answer to question 2: I hope so, but if they won't, it's their loss (and Israel's), not the Egyptians' - who by now probably could give a rat's behind about Obama's opinion about how they decide to shape any new democracy (which, in itself, is by no means a done deal).

It's high time that the US get over itself - and its self-assigned prerogative to dictate whether governments with Islamist parties are to be considered "legitimate" or not, usually according to whether or not they are "friendly" to Israel.

Actually, the hypocrisy in all this is ridiculous. Consider the following:

  • Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has been around since 1928, when it was established under the leadership of a school-teacher, Hasan al-Banna.  As happens with all such organizations, its ideology and positions have evolved over time, but in recent decades its mainstream has abjured violence (though not in resistance to foreign occupation) and has attempted to work peacefully within the framework of Egypt's flawed, corrupt political system, from which, of course, it has been mostly shut out.  But now, with the winds of democracy picking up in Egypt (something that the US says that it's all for, on principle), the possibility looms that the Muslim Brotherhood might gain representation in a new government - and US and Israeli commentators are enraged, or terrified, because they are "bad Muslims."
  • Iraq's Shiite "fundamentalist" Dawa and ISCI (Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq) parties have not been around nearly as long, but like the Muslim Brotherhood, they hope to see the eventual development of a state governed in accordance with sharia. Their more conservative elements - like those in the MB - espouse restrictions on women that many in the US find abhorrent.  But in contrast to the "outlawed" - and vilified - MB, the US embraces both Dawa and ISCI as central players in the newly "democratic" Iraq.  Indeed, Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has been a leading member of Dawa for many years, as has been his predecessor (and still a major political figure), Ibrahim al-Jaafari. 
  • Moreover, Iraq's parliament includes a substantial delegation from the (likewise) Shiite fundamentalist party led by Muqtada al-Sadr, himself the scion of a leading clerical family. (His father and his uncle were extremely influential religious leaders in the era of Saddam's Baathist regime, with strong ties to Iran's Shiite leaders, whom the US reviles.) And a central plank in the Sadrist party's platform, as it were, is resistance to the US occupation in Iraq (and, for that matter, to Israel and Zionism); indeed, Muqtada's Mahdi Army militia undoubtedly accounted for the deaths of dozens of US soldiers in the Baghdad area during the "Surge" and also rose up in a nasty insurrection against US troops in Najaf in 2004.  Prime Minister al-Maliki's current ruling coalition counts on the support of the Sadrists.
  •  Finally, a red-line that the Iraqi government will not come near, much less cross, is recognizing the legitimacy of the state of Israel.  You will likely not see, for quite a long time, an Israeli embassy in Baghdad, or an Iraqi embassy in Tel Aviv.

Now, the US admittedly has bones it would love to pick with the Sadrists - but the fact of the matter is that, beginning with George W. Bush and up to this day, the US has pointed to Iraq - with a government led by - not simply seating at the table - a conservative Islamist party with another conservative, Islamist, explicitly anti-US and anti-Israel party at its side - as a shining example of a new Middle Eastern democracy.

The hypocrisy is truly breath-taking.

More Hasbara from Richard Cohen

The WaPo's Richard Cohen with more hasbara, though this time with a patina of what he seems to think will pass for historical perspective.  But he's banging the same worn-out drum he's been pounding ever since Tahrir Square began to fill up:
  • Obama-Clinton need to shut up about Egypt;
  •  Egypt's not ready for democracy (although now, it's the entire Arab world, which, he says, needs to go through the kind of messy political evolution that East Europe did after World War I and to the present).

What he's really saying?
  • Democracy in Egypt = big bad Muslim Brotherhood will sneak in and take over.
  • Egypt will then abrogate its treaty with Israel.

This despite the insistence of so many experts, so much better informed that Cohen (including now, direct from the neocon right wing, Reuel Marc Gerecht), that this is an unlikely scenario, for reasons I don't have time to get into.

As usual, for Cohen, it's all about what's best for Israel.  And his apparent conviction that what's best for Israel must be good for the US. 

So, if democracy means that anti-Israel elements get a voice in Arab governments, then those Arabs will simply have to do without.

"Mubarakism without Mubarak"?

Daniel Luban at Lobelog cites Jim Lobe's description of where Egypt seems to be heading at this point - and this, despite the reports that the crowds that have turned out today for protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square are perhaps the largest ones yet, and have been re-energized by the release and emergence of Google exec Wael Ghonim (see videos at Mondoweiss). Add now, here in the US, a new Gallup poll shows that huge majorities in the US favor the protesters.

Even the major national dailies are beginning to call out Obama-Clinton for what seems to be increasingly obvious: the US is putting its money on the stability horse and its new jockey - or as Glenn Greenwald calls him, "Obama's Man in Cairo" - General and Vice-Pres. Omar Suleiman, who (according to the NY Times):
says he does not think it is time to lift the 30-year-old emergency law that has been used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders. He does not think President Hosni Mubarak needs to resign before his term ends in September. And he does not think his country is yet ready for democracy.

But, lacking better options, the United States is encouraging him in negotiations in a still uncertain transition process in Egypt. . . . The result has been to feed a perception, on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, that the United States, for now at least, is putting stability ahead of democratic ideals, and leaving hopes of nurturing peaceful, gradual change in large part in the hands of Egyptian officials -- starting with Mr. Suleiman -- who have every reason to slow the process.
The Times' take jibes well with those of other informed, seasoned observers - among them, Tony Karon and Michael Wahid Hanna (both at Time magazine's site) - that
  • the Egyptian military (which is the basis of Mubarak's, and Suleiman's power, as well as the underpinning for every Egyptian ruler since the Naguib/Nasser revolution of 1952) is taking the situation in hand, intent on essentially preserving the status quo
  • the US and its European allies are content to see it happen.
As a group, all concerned are running out the clock.  Indeed, according to Joshua Stacher (writing at Foreign Affairs),
Despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt's democratic window has probably already closed.

For the protesters, and for all throughout the region - and in the US - who hoped for real democratic change in Egypt, and beyond, this, of course, cannot be enough.  Rami Khouri puts it with eloquent succinctness:

Just changing generals is not freedom

He goes on:
The dilemma for the brave Egyptians who have risked, and in some cases lost, their lives is that it is now clearer than ever to them and all other Arabs that the rights of Egyptians to live freely and determine their own lives are hostage to concerns of significant foreigners. Americans and Europeans are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood might play a leading role in a new government, and American and Israeli politicians and media commentators, for the most part with only some exceptions, are more concerned about the rights of Israelis to live in security than the rights of Egyptians to live in freedom.

The armed forces, it seems, are the key to moving forward toward real political change in Egypt while avoiding more large-scale violence or chaos. That is a dubious prospect because it is precisely the diminution of the role of the armed forces in governance, rather than their assuming center-stage, that holds the key to genuine transition to democratic, accountable and stable governance in the Arab world.

The cruel irony is that the Egyptian people are being denied an opportunity to define themselves through a civilian transitional government in favor of military control, when the Egyptian people probably have more experience than any other people in the world in running their own affairs, given their 5,500 years of urban life and public authority. Arab leaders throughout the region are doing a softer version of this sad dance, in which they propose limited changes and superficial engagement with opposition forces in order to essentially maintain the status quo of security- and military-ruled states.

What is the alternative? It will not come from Arab leaders, or aging Arab generals. It is for Arabs everywhere to persist in their cry for self-determination and the right to live as free human beings, and to keep demanding that government spending and military-security organizations both come under civilian oversight through credible representative institutions.

It is also time for American and European governments – for one moment, for just one brief, shining moment – to declare that they truly support the rights of Arabs to taste genuine liberty, and human and civil rights, rather than to engage in an embarrassing scramble to find the next Arab general to take over from the last Arab general.

Eloquent pleas such as this, unfortunately, may not be enough to get it done.  But Egyptians taking power into their own hands to find a way to force the hands of the US and its allies - well, perhaps there's something there.  News now is that 6000 workers have gone on strike along the Suez Canal.  Al-Ahram (Egypt's semi-official pro-regime news agency) reports( also, here):
Suez Canal Company workers from the cities of Suez, Port Said, and Ismailia began an open-ended sit in today. Disruptions to shipping movements, as well as disasterous econmic losses, are expected if the strike continues. Over 6000 protesters have agreed that they will not go home today once their shift is over and will continue their sit-in in front of the company's headquarters until their demands are met. They are protesting against poor wages and deteriorating health and working conditions.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Wikileaks exposes Omar Suleiman as Israel's Favorite

As reported in the Daily Telegraph, which headlines "Israel's Secret Hotline to the man tipped to replace Mubarak" - and it's now apparent that Obama-Clinton are fully on board with Omar Suleiman as the Egyptian leader during the "transition" to a reformed government.

The cable, as released by Wikileaks, points to cooperation verging on warmth between Suleiman (Soliman) and Israeli officials during discussions held in 2008:
Hacham was full of praise for Soliman, however, and noted that a "hot line" set up between the MOD and Egyptian General Intelligence Service is now in daily use. Hacham said he sometimes speaks to Soliman's deputy Mohammed Ibrahim several times a day. Hacham noted that the Israelis believe Soliman is likely to serve as at least an interim President if Mubarak dies or is incapacitated. (Note: We defer to Embassy Cairo for analysis of Egyptian succession scenarios, but there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.)
This certainly adds an arrow to the quiver of populist demonstrators in Egypt who want to see the Old Guard of the Mubarak regime moved out.  The majority of Egyptians - and this includes many, many more than just members of the Muslim Brotherhood - see their government's ties with Israel as a humiliation, and especially when their government is actively complicit in Israel's blockading and slow starvation of Arabs in Gaza, just across Egypt's border in the Sinai.  Muhammad el-Baradei, the Nobel-winning diplomat who many Egyptians see as the leading spokesman of the political opposition to Mubarak, has already told the press that a new government would take steps to remedy that acquiescence.

For Israel and the US, and the Mubarak regime, of course, Gaza = Hamas = Muslim Brotherhood = evil terrorists, even if Hamas was elected to power in the Palestinian parliament in 2006 - in elections that Condi Rice supported, Jimmy Carter's group vouched for, and then the US and Israel disavowed after the fact.

Mubarak's Going Nowhere

WaPo's report of late this afternoon indicates that Mubarak plans to stay put, and that the US is not pushing back.  Protesters are still keeping vigil in Tahrir Square in Cairo, but things have settled down somewhat.

Mubarak is also going to try to buy some loyalty - and some time - with an announcement that starting in April, the 6 million Egyptians on the public payroll will be getting a 15 percent pay raise - which will cost a little shy of $1 billion.  My first thought was, where's the money coming from?  Silly me.  The US wants to keep things stable; so perhaps we can use our China credit card again?  Or, even simpler, the Saudis likewise want stability more than anything else - and with the price of oil moving upward so steadily - hey, Hosni, you need a billion bucks to help keep the lid on things? Not a problem.

If there's to be any faster movement toward a more democratic system, the impetus will need to come from the protesters on the street.  But I think that the military's view will now be, you guys have had your chance to vent.  Any more major outbursts though, we may need to take the gloves off, to get you off the streets.

I would so love to be so wrong on this.  But when people are this angry, and begin to sense that they're being played and are once again going to be stiffed (by a combination of their own military and the acquiescence of the US and the European powers (who seem to be letting the US call the tune), it provides an opening for "radical" groups who are ready to resort to violence as a way of saying that the people will no longer be ignored.

Egypt's Potentially Bogus Transition

Rami Khouri (in today's Daily Star) very eloquently makes a point that others have begun to address as well: Egypt's military, which has dominated political life there since 1952, is not about to relinquish its power over the Egyptian state:
The armed forces, it seems, are the key to moving forward toward real political change in Egypt while avoiding more large-scale violence or chaos. That is a dubious prospect because it is precisely the diminution of the role of the armed forces in governance, rather than their assuming center-stage, that holds the key to genuine transition to democratic, accountable and stable governance in the Arab world.
Although the US is insisting (though hardly with the voices of its various spokespersons united) that Hosni Mubarak needs to exit the political stage (and even he says now, in his interview with Christiane Amanpour, that he's tired of being president), that does not mean he's going to leave all that soon.  And his V-P Mr. Suleiman, who's going to be meeting with opposition representatives, is himself a military man (and, as Juan Cole notes, the guy who oversaw Egypt's role in the rendition and torture of alleged "terrorists" as W. was waging his "war on terror" - hardly, it would seem, a paragon of democracy and human rights).  I hardly expect him to "fight the powers that be.")

At the end of the day - the "transition" process - I sense that the "new" Egypt is going to incorporate at 75% of the "old" Mubarak-regime Egypt.  The reformers may succeed in getting a few bones tossed to the thousands who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, but the forces of "stability" are going to win out.  Either Mr. Suleiman or perhaps a younger officer will take the helm - or, at best, a civilian leader who will profess fealty to the military and promise not to undertake any programs that don't suit its agenda.

And, I'll wager, Obama-Clinton will give it a ringing endorsement as the vanguard of the "new Middle East" - and a year from now, we may wonder what all the fuss was about last January.


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