December 23, 2009
No where to go...
If you thought the humanitarian situation in Gaza could not get any worse, think again. After a three year-old Israeli blockade on the movement of people and goods to and from the densley-populated Palestinian Strip, and a devastating military campaign by the Israeli Defense Forces in late 2008, the life of ordinary Gazans is about to become even harder. When Hamas ousted Fatah officials from Gaza, supposedly to preempt a Fatah coup, Israel imposed a harsh blockade that was meant to drive the besieged population to depose Hamas. As usually is the case with sanctions, the average citizen comes to bear the brunt of adverse living conditions while the regime remains in power virtually intact. The blockade largely restricted average Gazans' access to vital medical supplies, fresh vegetables, livestock, clean water, gas, etc. Poverty and unemployment became the unchosen lifestyle of about half of the 1.5 million residents of the Strip. Confronted with these conditions, Gaza's only lifeline became the scarce goods that Tel Aviv does, in fact, permit into the territory, and the flourishing business of tunnel smuggling. According to the smugglers' own estimates, they deliver approximately 60 percent of Gaza's material needs from the Egyptian side of the border.
To be sure, Israel is not the only party to blame for the plight of Gaza. The Fatah-Hamas chasm has Ramallah hoping for the collapse of Hamas' rule in Gaza at any expense. Hamas, on its part, recently rejected a deal that would have paved the road for reconciliation, as it sits back and watches the ever-declining popularity of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbass. Yet, it is Egypt that deserves singling out for its collaboration with Israel in enforcing the blockade on Gaza.
When Israel waged its latest war on Gaza, President Hosni Mubarak made it abundantly clear he was going to neither allow refugees to escape the war by crossing the border into Egypt, nor allow goods to be transferred into the beleaguered territory. His decision aimed to accomplish three objectives. First, he sought to prevent the establishment of potentially permanent refugee camps in Sinai, a la Lebanon. Second, Mubarak, no fan of Islamist movements, was also hoping for the downfall of Hamas. Third, Cairo wished to present itself as a useful ally for the United States whose blessing of the armed campaign was implicit.
The above-stated goals are very much the cornerstones of Egypt's relentless campaign since to crackdown on smugglers and its latest decision to construct a steel wall along the borders with Gaza. As news emerged that Egypt was in the process of building a 10-14 kilometer long, 30 meters deep steel wall along the border with Gaza, the Palestinian Strip morphed into panic mode. Long lines formed before gas stations, and citizens started stocking whatever food is available in the markets. Demonstrations along the border broke out almost instantly after the news of the wall broke out.
Hamas reacted angrily by renouncing the French-American-Egyptian plot to further besiege Gaza. Hamas-controlled Palestinian Legislative Council called issued a statement expressing its desire for Egypt to be tried before the International Court of Justice. PA President Mahmoud Abbass, however, emphasized Egypt's sovereign right in building the wall. Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman warned against intervening in matters concerning Egypt's national security.
Egypt's decision to tighten the blockade on Gaza would prove catastrophic to Cairo for three reasons. First, Egyptian and Arab public opinion is going to turn even more sharply against the Egyptian regime. Second, Egypt's erstwhile diplomatic clout in the region would be reduced to a relic of the past. Without credibility on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Cairo would find it increasingly difficult to exercise influence beyond its borders. Syria, Qatar, Turkey and Iran are already filling that vacuum. Third, by enlisting Abbass in defending this project, Fatah becomes further discredited and de-legitimized amongst Palestinians. Finally, Egypt is making herself part of a conflict in which she does not need to be. There are no overriding national security concerns in Egypt to warrant this action. The building of this wall would pit Cairo in a direct, and unnecessary, enmity with Hamas (and potentially the Gazan population).
The steel wall would not end Hamas' rule in Gaza. It is possible that the Mubarak regime pursues this policy to ensure Washington's support for Gamal succeeding his father at the helm of Egypt in 2011. It is also possible it is a desperate attmept to pressure Tehran. Whatever the goals, they are unlikely to be achieved. Even worse, as the world marked the twentieth anniversary of the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall, Egypt follows Israel's lead in building yet another wall surrounding the Palestinian people.
December 16, 2009
Israeli police at the gates of Al-Aqsa mosque
In a speech before the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Dr. Walid Khalidi offers a Muslim perspective on the history, present and future of Jerusalem. Any one interested in understanding why Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims care so much about Jerusalem must watch the following clips of Dr. Khalidi's speech:
December 4, 2009
November 23, 2009
The resumption of a beautiful friendship? (AP photo)
Ever since Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan walked out of the Davos Summit meeting in protest of Israel's war on Gaza, Israeli-Turkish relations have undergone a steady downward spiral. Erdogan was, in fact, furious at Israel's unilateral campaign that undermined progressing Israeli-Syrian peace talks under Ankara's mediation. Tel Aviv did not take kindly to Erdogan's action, and asked Ankara to more or less mind its own business. Since then Turkey withdrew from scheduled NATO military maneuvers in the Mediterranean citing Israel's participation as the reason, and wishes to cancel orders for Israeli-made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Erdogan, furthermore, stated his preference for dealing with Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan's president, over Benjamin Netenyahu. This comes at a time, when Turkey is pursuing a policy of mending relations with all of its neighbors, including Armenia, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
When Netanyahu said Turkey would no longer be a mediator of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, observers assumed he had just hammered the last nail in the coffin of Turkish-Israeli relations. This judgement might turn out to be premature, however. First, the alliance between the two non-Arab Middle Eastern states is well-established; it is likely to supersede the reign of Erdogan's AKP party. The Turkish military, known for its remarkable autonomy, has had frequent contacts with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Private companies on both sides have made substantial investments in their counterpart's economy. Second, a recently-launched charm offensive by Israel's Industry, Trade and Labor minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer may cool the tempers on both sides. On his trip to Ankara, Ben-Eliezer was accompanied by a number of Israeli businessmen seeking to buttress the two countries' trade. Ben-Eliezer went so far as to contradict his prime minister and emphasize Turkey's importance in mediating the conflict between Tel Aviv and Damascus.
Though Turkey's deputy prime minister stressed the need to improve bilateral ties, obstacles to a resumption of the status quo ante abound. Speaking to Israeli newspaper Yadi'ut Yahranut, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman described Ben-Eliezer's visit as "important, but not coordinated with the foreign ministry." Additionally, Turkish public opinion has been turning sharply against Israel following the war on Gaza which left 1400 Palestinians dead, mostly civilians.
It remains to be seen whether the Israeli minister's visit constitutes a thaw in otherwise chilled relations or would prove to be too little too late. I am inclined to argue Turkish-Israeli relations are unlikely to return to their pre-Gaza status.
November 19, 2009
(Cartoon from Al-Quds Al-Arabi)
Amid rumors of attacks on Egyptian fans in Khartoum, Cairo has taken the shocking (un)diplomatic step of withdrawing its ambassador from Algiers. The Egyptian foreign ministry had earlier summoned the Algerian ambassador to hand him a letter of protest over the behavior of Algerian fans.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese foreign ministry rejects reports in the Egyptian media of widespread Algerian attacks on Egyptians in Khartoum following the game. FIFA is going to investigate the attack on Algeria' national team in Cairo. Egypt is likely to be fined over the incident.
November 16, 2009
(Give them bread and soccer!)
Egyptian economist Galal Amin once wondered in palpable remorse: "Whatever happened to the Egyptians?!!" Amin traced in the book that bears the same title the devolution of etiquette and gentlemanly behavior among Egyptians. Following the pre-Egypt vs. Algeria World Cup qualifier game, I personally wondered: "whatever happened to the Egyptians?!" Though Egyptians are generally known for their hospitality towards foreigners and strong pan-Arab convictions, Cairo over the last week morphed into an anti-Algerian hub. Egyptians' vexing animosity towards their Jewish neighbors might have just been replaced by anti-Algerian sentiment.
It all comes down to soccer politics (or more aptly sucker politics.) The soccer match held in Cairo last Saturday was going to determine which of the two Arab and predominantly Sunni Muslim nations was going to qualify to the South Africa 2010 World Cup. Both countries have not qualified in at least a decade. A war of words between sports commentators quickly developed into sporadic attacks on Algerians in Cairo, and a stoning of the Algerian national team upon their arrival.
The Algerians predictably cried foul and asked the FIFA to intervene. Egyptian police ludicrously claimed the Algerian players had attacked themselves. Hours later, high-level Algerian officials were on the phone with their Egyptian counterparts. The promise of violence between the two nations' fans loomed large over the game. Luckily for the Egyptians (and perhaps the Algerians who attended the game) Egypt won by two goals.
For those who watched the game on television, another disturbing show was on. Tens of thousands of Egyptians painted their faces in red, white and black, or simply wrapped themselves in their country's flag. They chanted demeaning and offensive songs of their North African counterparts. It was a show of (uncharacteristic) super patriotism and perplexing hatred of Algerians. These displays were uncalled for, to put it mildly. Indeed, a number of commentators found it hard to decipher where this is coming from. Egypt and Algeria have traditionally enjoyed a harmonious relationship, since Nasser aided the anti-colonial liberation movement in Algeria. This support prompted a retaliatory invasion of Egypt in 1956 by France (Britain and Israel partook in the aggression for different reasons) that proved costly.
So, where is this coming from? Let me suggest a couple of possibilities. First, Egyptians' fixation over soccer has little to do with their excessive love for the sport (and it is excessive indeed). Despite a backdrop of growing political oppression, strategic frustrations, economic stagnation, rising unemployment and societal upheaval, soccer offers Egyptians an opportunity to win. In an age when Egyptians feel hopeless, soccer is their only hope; Abu Trika is their new prophet.
Second, keenly aware of its own unpopularity and shortcomings, the Mubarak regime is desperate to use soccer to make itself more palatable. Not only does the Egyptian president proclaim himself the "guardian of Egyptian sports," (a title only cited when Egyptian teams are victorious), but his son, and presumed successor, Gamal attends the game in the stadium to beef up his "ordinary citizen" credentials. If Mubarak's son is to inherit the presidential palace, he has to also inherit the guardianship of Egyptian sports. Every time the Egyptian team scored, the camera would cut into footage of a celebrating Gamal Mubarak. In short, the Mubaraks have a vested interest in the elevated tension and anticipation surrounding the game. It is an opportunity to advertise Gamal Mubarak to as many Egyptians mesmerized to their television sets as possible.
Algerians have counter-attacked by destroying Egyptian properties in Algiers and harassing Egyptian citizens. Little do they know that Egyptians' anti-Algerian tirades emanate not from antipathy, but from exasperation with the prevalent socio-economic and political conditions in Egypt. Soccer riots in Egypt are the continuation of politics by other means.
November 12, 2009
Deal or no deal?! Berri, Al-Hariri and Nasrallah.
After several months of stalled talks, Sa'd al-Hariri, the prime minister-designate of Lebanon, was finally able to form a unity government. Al-Hariri heads the "14 Azar Movement," a pro-Western parliamentary coalition that won the majority in this summer's elections. Although 14 Azar's victory exceeded most expectations, cracks did show within the coalition. First, Waleed Jumblat's Druze party defected to the Hizbullah-led opposition. Second, Amin Al-Jemail's "Lebanese Brigades" publicly denounced Hariri's decision to appoint only one minister from the Brigades in the ineffectual Social Affairs ministry. The Lebanese Brigades also called for a review of the structure of the coalition. These protests emanate from a growing sense of irrelevance among Maronite Christians and Muslim Druze, two minorities whose demographics and political clout have been diminishing vis-a-vis the Sunnis and the Shi'a.
The new government is more or less the fruit of a deal between Hizbullah and Hariri's Future party. The deal was arguably made on their behalf during King Abdullah's visit to Damascus in October. This episode reveals three things about Lebanon. First, external patrons still call the shots. Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia are all heavily invested in domestic Lebanese politics. Second, the power of arms (Hizbullah via Iran and Syria) and the power of money (14 Azar via Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries) dictate the relative balance of power among the sectarian political actors. In the annual conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington, Sami Al-Faraj, the head of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies openly bragged about the financial influence of the Gulf Sheikhdoms in determining the outcome of the Lebanese elections. Finally, the Shi'a and Sunnis growing populations have indeed eclipsed those of other sectarian groups, most notably the Druze and the Maronites.
But there is hope yet for a stable Lebanon. The new government not only enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia and Syria, it also enjoys the support of Hizbullah. Lebanese president Michell Souleiman threw his lot behind it too. This could indeed bode well for the stability of Lebanese politics for the foreseeable future. To be sure, national unity governments often avoid tackling controversial and divisive issues whose mere discussion may well bring down the coalition government. This is why such issues as reforming electoral laws and Hizbullah's arms are not likely to be addressed by this government.
More trouble can come yet from the southern borders. Israel claims to have intercepted an Iranian arms shipment bound for Latika, Syria. The missiles are alleged to have been sent for Hizbullah. A number of senior Israel Defense Forces figures have also warned Hizbullah of massive retaliation, should the Lebanese militia avenge the assassination of its military mastermind, Emad Moughneih. Hassan Nassrallah, the Secretary General of Hizbullah, speaking on "Martyr's Day" issued a stark warning for Israel not to launch a war on Lebanon, or risk the "crushing of its army." He neither affirmed nor denied the Israeli claim of his group's possession of 325 kilometer-range missiles, though he promised any land invasion to be nothing short of a quagmire. Hizbullah's political bureau chief Mohammed Qomati also warned that "all cities, military bases, factories, and settlements in Israel are within the organization's firing range." Qomati continued, "The enemy knows that any offensive initiated under the current conditions will ensure his total defeat, will change the balance of power in our favor, and will bring about the end of its entity."
Hizbullah's secretary general had select words for the Obama administration as well. After accusing Washington of deliberately backpedaling on the settlements stance, he admonished his followers that the Obama administration's "infinite" commitment to Israel's interests security is unprecedented. Nasrallah painted a pro-Israeli Obama administration that does not care about the needs of the Arab world. The Cairo speech was a scam, he implied.
As Hariri struggles to stabilize his country domestically, Lebanon's foremost challenge appears to be avoiding another devastating war with Israel. Neither Nasrallah nor Ashkinazi are helping.
November 3, 2009
Observers of Egyptian politics had predicted the annual convention of the ruling National Democratic Party would address the issue of "succession." Would Gamal Mubarak be annointed by his party as the presidential candidate for the upcoming elections in 2011? Would his father retire, and make sure the transition is smooth? Or would Hosni Mubarak assert himself as the president of Egypt until death do them part?
For the speculators, the convention appeared rather underwhelming. The anticipated speeches by the Mubaraks and Ahmad Ezz, the NDP's billionaire secretary-general of coordination, left the questions unanswered. The clouds surrounding the future of post-Mubarak Egypt still loom large. What most NDP officials did in their speeches, however, was wage scathing attacks on the opposition, with the popular Muslim Brotherhood receiving the lion's share. To be sure, Hosni Mubarak's speech amounted to no more than a statement rehashing his old cliche's about Cairo's paramount regional influence. The others did the dirty work.
The attacks on the Muslim Brothers were unprecedented, and visibly prearranged. Having arrested many senior members of the Islamist group, including prominent moderates, the Mubarak regime seems to be turning up the heat even further. The convention included threats to arrest the group's supreme guide, confiscate its possessions, block its media access and ban the organization from partaking in the next parliamentary elections. This escalation does not seem to be justified by any recent conduct on the part of the Ikhwan. On the contrary, Mahdi Akef's tenure as a supreme guide is characterized by timidity and indecisiveness. The Brothers did not react meaningfully to the arrest of many of their senior members. They have even ruled out the possibility of contesting the 2011 presidential elections. So, what is this all about?
Two reasons come to mind. First, the Mubarak regime has been studiously working to pave the ground for Mubarak, Jr. to assume power after his father. The NDP-dominated Egyptian parliament introduced a constitutional amendment guiding presidential elections that is custom-tailored for Mubarak's son. The presumed successor has also made numerous trips to Western capitals, most notably Washington D.C. to reportedly win their support for him. The Muslim Brotherhood, as the largest, best-organized and most popular opposition group in Egypt, constitutes the single foremost obstacle to the Mubaraks' plan. The regime is wary of their reaction to the prospective succession, and would rather not make deals with them to facilitate the process. By waging a verbal offensive on the group, the NDP hopes to neutralize them out of the upcoming transfer of power. The idea is that the Islamists would opt for their classic model of social charity rather than active political participation. If the Brothers refrain from intervening, there will be no strong hurdle to the Mubaraks remaining in the 'Orooba presidential palace.
Second, the Ikhwan are undergoing internal turmoil. Having not taken noteworthy measures to protest the arrest of leading members, many cadres are starting to question the leadership, a hitherto taboo within the 91 year-old organization. Additionally, Akef surprised the groups' members by announcing his intention to retire from the supreme guide position, a decision not made by any of his predecessors. Speculation is aplenty regarding the person who would replace Akef. The NDP wishes to capitalize on this sense of uncertainty within the organization, and force them to be preoccupied with their internal affairs for a while.
The NDP's recent escalation against the Muslim Brothers seems to be driven by anxiety about the prospects of ensuring a smooth power transition from Hosni Mubarak to his son as much as by the Islamists' weak leadership. The plan misses two critical aspects about Egyptian politics, however. First, the Muslim Brothers will continue to remain the most potent and popular political force in Egypt for the foreseeable future, thanks in no small measure to the services they provide to the populace. Second, Mubarak and his son are profoundly resented by Egyptians who are exasperated with their ever-declining living standards, and diminishing political freedoms. The Muslim Brotherhood may be neutralized when the transition occurs, but will Egyptians?
August 15, 2009
Cheering Supporters of Hizbullah
"We do not seek a war, and we are not afraid, but it may well be that Israel wants a war (with Lebanon) of which it is frightened." This sums up the message of Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in his speech on August 14th marking the third anniversary of the exit of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon. Nasrallah gave a typical crowd-rousing speech; but his charisma to the Arab public is not a surprise. His counter-threats are. For a few weeks, Israeli officials, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, issued various threats against Hizbullah and Lebanon. They warned primeminister-elect Sa'd El-Hariri of including the Shi'a party in a national unity government, or else all of Lebanon's infrastructure will be fair game in a prospective war. Tel Aviv's hawkish rhetoric seemed to emanate, in part, from growing concern over Hizbullah's expanding armaments.
Nasrallah analyzed the situation differently, however. He claimed Israel wanted primarily to hamper the formation of the national unity government in Beirut by renewing internal controversy regarding the role of Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israel, according to Nasrallah, also wished to modify the mandate of the UNIFIL forces, so they can actively intercept the movement and operations of Hizbullah personnel and arms. On both accounts, Tel Aviv was disappointed. First, the controversy over Hizbullah's strategic posture in Lebanon does not appear to be an overriding concern for the March 14th bloc any more. They may have come to accept it as a fait accompli. Nasrallah shrewdly capitalized on that by reinforcing the concept of a new Lebanese national security that comprises both a strong national army, and the irregular guerrillas of Hizbullah. Even more significantly, representatives of virtually all Lebanese parties (ruling and opposition)and the Presidency attended Hizbullah's "Divine Victory" ceremony. It was especially telling to see Taymour Junblat, son of Druze Leader Walid Junblat (recently defected from March 14th) among the seated VIPs.
Perhaps last night's most important statements were the warnings that Tel Aviv will be bombed, should Israel target Beirut or its Southern Suburbs (Shi'a neighborhood considered Hizbullah's stronghold), and that the "Resistance's" missile can now reach any point on Israeli proper. Nasrallah went further to promise the Israeli Defense Forces a crushing defeat and a lot of "surprises", should they venture once more into Lebanon's south. All of this fiery rhetoric comes at the backdrop of intense speculation of Hizubllah's possession of high-precision missiles capable of carrying heavy war heads (600 kilograms of explosives), anti-air craft batteries and anti-ship guided missiles.
It may remain a mystery whether the Lebanese militia does in fact hold such advanced weaponry (their arms' sophistication exceeded most analysts' expectations in 2006). One thing is clear, however, Israel will think twice before marching into Lebanon. Israel's stated aim of war in 2006 to root out the "Islamic Resistance" from Southern Lebanon looks more distant than ever in 2009. More ominously for Tel Aviv, Israel's entire population is now at risk, as well as all of its industries. Hizbullah's strategic posture is unprecedented insofar that this is the first time, since its inception that Israel's home turf may suffer significant damages and losses. It used to be the case that Arab-Israeli wars were fought on Arab lands, and civilian casualties most confined to those of Arabs. This may no longer be the case.
August 9, 2009
I had the good fortune of reading a book praised by Dr. Andrew Bacevich as the "most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy." The Irony of American History is a book that does not fit neatly into a single genre. It is a work of philosophy, theology, foreign policy analysis, international relations theory and sociology written in impeccable prose. Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian, professor and writer, can be described as the founder of Christian Realism. Christian Realism is a conceptual framework which pursues a clear-eyed comprehension of world events, and principally recommends a humble approach to international relations and history.
The genius of Niebuhr's book rests less with its multi-disciplinary postulations, as impressive as those are, and more with its vision of man, the state and history. To Niebuhr, the individual human is virtually mystic by definition. Scientific and ideological approaches claiming to interpret/predict his/her behavior are bound to err. He laments the fact that "the realm of freedom which allows the individual to make his decisions within, above and beyond the pressure of causal sequences is beyond the realm of scientific analysis." Modern culture's tendency to behaviorize man prompts some to endeavor to manage human nature itself.
Attempts to manage human nature engender delusions about managing history as well. In the author's words, "[m]odern man's confidence in his power over historical destiny prompted the rejection of every older conception of an overruling providence in history. Modern man's confidence in his virtue caused an equally unequivocal rejection of the Christina idea of ambiguity of human virtue. In the liberal world the evils in human nature and history were ascribed to social institutions or to ignorance or to some other manageable defect in human nature or environment." It follows from this reasoning that human nature and history are improvable. Such a task, Niebuhr would argue, is a fool's errand. The irony is we are as guilty as our foes of that charge. The irony is also glaring in the contradiction between preaching and practice. In Niebuhr's era, for example, the Communists sought to establish a just, free and classless society that would eventually supplant the state through a coercive totalitarian state. The United States, furthermore, was (and is) the vanguard of free liberal nations through the most powerful army in the world. The former failed to found such a community, and the latter sacrificed a lot of its liberty.
The Irony of American History, Bacevich contends, contains four compelling "truths." These are the "persistent sin of American Exceptionalism, the indecipherability of history, the false allure of simple solutions, and, finally, the imperative of appreciating the limits of power." First, the idea that whatever America does must, in essence, be virtuous and right is derived from the way the national myth was devised. Niebuhr explicates America was, in many ways, the new Israel of the chosen people, or rather people who chose to discard the "vices of Europe" and start afresh "in a corrupt world." Washington's emergence as the zenith of world power after World War II did not seem to alter the way Americans perceive their providentially-favored country. Niebuhr himself does not cringe from using such terms as "imperialism" and "hegemony" to describe America's superpower status. In the Niebuhrian paradigm, there is no room for terms like "reluctant intervention" or good vs. evil. Virtue is a lot more ambiguous than we are likely to confess.
Second, the forces of history are far greater than our oft-misguided attempts to manipulate its outcome. These forces are virtually impossible to quantify or neatly delineate. Niebuhr decries that "[m]odern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management." He further admonishes that even superpowers are "caught in a web of history in which many desires, hopes, wills, and ambitions other than their own are operative." Also, "the recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning." The unfortunate example of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq comes to mind. All the arms and contractors of the world's sole superpower failed to render Iraq the type of a safe democratic nation, Washington may have envisioned. This points ties to the following "truths;" power, particularly its military component, is less efficacious (and less desirable) than we may think. Niebuhr advised equilibrium rather than coercive change. The nation's leader must find the common areas where national and international interests meet, not diverge. This is the "art of statecraft." He finally recommends "a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of [history's] perplexities."
So what is so ironic about America's history? I'll leave you with Niebuhr's definition of irony, and it'll probably make you reflect on our nation's history. "Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous…If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits—in all such cases the situation is ironic." Niebuhr is correct about the irony inherent in these situations, but the irony is universal to all great powers, not merely America.
* Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
August 5, 2009
Abbass Overshadowed by Arafat!
On its second annual conference this week in Bethlehem, Fatah has no good options. It is squeezed between an occupation that demands that Palestinian territories be pacified and neutralized, and a populace skeptical of the Palestinian Authority's relationship with Washington and Tel Aviv. This “paradox of representation,” as Political Scientist Tamim Al-Barghouti coins it, came to the fore with Abbass’ takeover of power in Ramallah.
Arafat, the main founders of Fatah/ the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), spent much of his time in Ramallah balancing between the two opposites, however unsuccessfully. He signed several peace agreements, intermittently cracked down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, and offered major concessions regarding Palestinian "rights" to historical Palestine. On the other hand, he aided and funded Fatah's militia "Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades," turned down the Camp David Agreement (for arguably good reasons) and turned a blind eye to the eruption of Al Aqsa Intifada. The promise of establishing an independent Palestinian state was the foundation of his regime’s popularity, and for that he was, in effect, parachuted back to the Palestinian Territories from his Tunisian exile. His reign ended in besiegement, destruction of West Bank infrastructure and an ongoing occupation.
Since Arafat's death, Fatah has opted for better relations with America and Israel, even when a peace agreement could not be any further. Fatah consistently refused to join hands with the Gaza-based Hamas government, arrested Hamas militants in the West Bank, all but ended Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ operations and launched numerous unsuccessful talks with Israeli officials. Seeing no material improvement in their living conditions, let alone a cessation of the Israeli occupation, Palestinians predictably turned towards the "resistance" paradigm of Hamas.
In its annual conference, Fatah appears perplexed, irrelevant and weak. First, Hamas banned Fatah members from travelling to the West Bank to attend the conference (until Ramallah has released Hamas detainees). Second, Farouq Al-Qaddumy, a senior Fatah official in Tunis, launched an unexpected attack on President Abbass prior to the conference, in which he accused him (and Fatah tycoon, Mohammed Dahlan) of collaborating with the Israelis to poison Yasser Arafat. Qaddumi blasted the Palestinian President, furthermore, for being corrupt, and having his forces trained by U.S. General Keith Dayton. Qaddumi's words mirror the substantial disenfranchisement felt by Palestinian refugees, particularly those who are members of Fatah. Third, many Fatah members are dismayed with the appointment of the non-partisan Salam Fayyad, as head of the West Bank Palestinian government. This appointment denied them many of the benefits associated with running a government that relies financially on foreign aid. The discontent goes beyond Fayyad, to be sure. There is an old guard-new guard rivalry within Fatah, and, more significantly, there is disenchantment with Abbass' seemingly futile all-dialogue all-the-time approach towards Israel.
On its part, Hamas not only blocked Gazan Fathawis from travelling, but launched severe criticisms of its rival in the West Bank. Most of the criticism, nonetheless, was directed at Abbass who was accused of abandoning the "Palestinian national project... and national goals." Fawzi Barhoum, senior Hamas official, claimed Fatah assisted Israel in its recent war on Gaza. Abbass had, in fact, attacked Hamas on the conference's first day, accusing it of "darkness and terrorism" as well as plotting to assassinate him. Fatah’s predicament is Palestinians are more likely to find more truth in Hamas’ accusations of Abbass than the other way around.
The overarching question the Palestinian President (whose constitutional term in office ended last January) had to answer in the conference is: what is the future of the national liberation movement of Palestine? On that, his answer, for many Palestinians, left a lot to be desired. Abbass emphasized principally diplomacy, and, to a lesser extent, the exclusive concept of "legitimate" resistance. The foregoing concept is unlikely to find much popular backing, as they have come to see the West Bank government forces, as instruments to crack down on the classical resistance model of “armed struggle.” The President’s outspoken attack on Hamas, and implicitly other militants, reveals Abbass' desire to mend his own fences before solidifying a united national front. To be sure, a Fatah divided house cannot make peace with Hamas. Nevertheless, Abbass sounded more like a partisan figure than a national leader. This does not bode well either for the future of Fatah or that of the seemingly endless Cairo reconciliation talks with Hamas.
During the Gaza war, Tel Aviv and Washington quickly realized the full extent of Fatah's irrelevance. Hamas was calling the shots. Fatah could not be relied on to topple Hamas, or even assume power, if Israel did the job. If Israel wants a solution to the missile crisis in Gaza, it must negotiate with the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. After the conference ends, Fatah would be as irrelevant as ever. It will continue to suffer the debilitating legitimacy crisis it has been experiencing, since Arafat’s death. The Palestinian electorate may not be so kind to Abbass’ party in the next parliamentary elections next year. If Fatah is to make gains, it seems it would be the fruit of Hamas’ own making.
Here is the full text of Abbass' conference speech.
August 1, 2009
John Quincy Adams
How can America’s foreign policy be assessed? This series of weekend blog entries contends that some of the best criteria against which Washington’s international relations could be judged have already been laid by the founders’ expectations and prescriptions. This week, we examine some writings and speeches by John Quincy Adams, Alexis De Tocqueville and James Monroe.
What has America done for the benefit of mankind? As odd as the question may sound, John Q. Adams found himself compelled to come up with an answer about two centuries ago. The inquiry, at the time, pertained to America’s very rationale for independence. European powers were interested in subjugating the erstwhile American colony. It is still now relevant insofar that we observe how much the United States conformed to or deviated from President Adams’ answer.
To Adams, America since its founding has extended a “hand of honest friendship, equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.” America has also defended equal liberty, equal justice and equal rights. More crucially, America, unlike the hitherto European states, respects the independence of other nations, abstains from “interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings.” “America is the champion and vindicator only of her own,” as she does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”
President James Monroe delivered an equally unequivocal assertion regarding Washington’s intentions and policies. “It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparations for our defense.”On that very later point, De Tocqueville once noted that due to her geographic position and weak neighbors, America does not have much “foreign interests to discuss.”
The questions now are: 1) has America’s foreign policy lived up to Adams’ and Monroe’s expectations? If not, 2) did she reluctantly or willingly abandon those principles? Does Washington really lack foreign interests because of her unique geography? Finally, if we had to change course from what John Quincy Adams avowed were America’s benign policy, the original question remains unanswered: 3) what has America done for the benefit of mankind?
July 29, 2009
It has been more than a month, since the March 14th coalition won the Lebanese parliamentary elections. The delay in the agreement on the government’s formation was expected, given Lebanon’s inherently polarized politico-sectarian system. Three years ago Hizbullah and Amal walked out on the government triggering a constitutional and legitimacy crisis for Beirut. The crisis, then and now, lies in the opposition’s understanding of the nature of Lebanese politics. Whilst the parliamentary majority felt it was natural that it would rule as any given majority would, the Hizbullah-led opposition (comprising various Christian, Druz and Sunni parties) bid to differ. Their line of reasoning holds that Lebanon’s splintered sects must be ruled by consensus rather than majority. The voters appear not to have responded enthusiastically to the latter proposition.
Three years ago, the opposition's fervent demands for what they termed the “guaranteeing third” of government ministries (enjoying veto power effectively) threw the country into an acute political crisis that lasted for two years. After the recent elections, similar demands were made of prime minister-elect Sa’d Al-Hariri. This time around, however, the opposition’s demands fell flat, as it took less than two months for Hariri to forge an agreement on the new government. Hizbullah has cleared the way for the new government to form, signaling its content with its prospective configuration.
The National reports that “according to political sources in Beirut and reports in the local media, the parties have agreed to a format that would give the majority 15 seats, the opposition a 10-seat portion and allow President Michel Suleiman, who is widely seen as an independent, five seats to prevent a plurality by the majority.” This arrangement would, in effect, award President Suleiman, known for his impartiality, veto power over government decisions. Speaker of the parliament, and head of Hizbullah-allied Amal movement, Nabih Berry affirmed the details would be hammered out in two days, and that “principally the government has been formed.”
Al-Akhbar and An-Nahar newspapers published lists of probable candidates for the ministerial positions in the new government.
The rapid political progress in Beirut is explained less by the appeal of the 15-10-5 formula to the opposition, and more by the menacing developments along the southern borders. The Likud government has tried to diplomatically capitalize on an explosion in a southern Lebanese village, which seemed to have been caused by stocked Hizbulla ammunition in a residential house. Tel Aviv asked for renegotiating the 1701 Security Council resolution governing the mandate of the United Nations Interim Forces In Lebanon (UNIFIL). After threatening that “Israel will not stand idly by,” Al Quds Al Arabi reports that four Mirkava tanks moved alarmingly close to the disputed borders, and that several Israeli jets violated Lebanese airspace flying over the Biqa’ Valley and Hassbia.
On his part, Nasrallah looked unshaken by the threats, as he issued his own. In a typical televised speech, Nasrallah warned that an Israeli attack on Hizbullah stronghold of Beirut’s Southern District (devastated during the last war), would induce retaliation against Israel’s biggest city of Tel Aviv. If Israel were to bomb Beirut, Hizbullah will attack surprising targets in Israel (possibly Israel’s nuclear reactors). Concerns over the eruption of a new war between Israel and Hizbullah are so serious that the meeting between Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, and US secretary of defense, Robert Gates, was clouded by discussions over the potential confrontation.
Hizbullah’s willingness to permit the Hariri government to form is an attempt to ensure a stable domestic front, should external development take an ugly turn.
July 27, 2009
On their way to prison, Muslim Brotherhood members look upbeat!
Center for a New American Security non-resident fellow, Marc Lynch, wrote a remarkable blog entry a few days ago criticizing the recent crackdown on "moderate Islamists" in Egypt. Lynch astutely notes that the effort appears to deliberately radicalize moderate elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Al-Ikhwan.
Cairo has long played this game. It has consistently persecuted moderate (especially secular) elements of the opposition. Mubarak's best foreign policy mantra has been it is either me or the radical Islamists. Alas, the international community has taken the bait every single time. The boogeyman policy works.
There was even juicier news broken by Al-Shorouk Al-Jadeed newspaper. According to "informed official sources," the Egyptian regime was not after a confrontation with the Ikhwan (in reference to the latest round of arrests), but was rather driven to it to “maintain stability”, and curtail the Brotherhood’s foreign contacts. It is not a secret that some Ikhwan figures have pursued dialogues with American and European officials.
The real bombshell is that a senior National Democratic Party (NDP) official sent an offer to the Ikhwan’s leadership urging them to cease their contacts and anti-government campaigns in exchange for releasing detained Muslim Brotherhood members. The Ikhwan were also asked not to run candidates for all seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections, and to tacitly endorse Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his ailing father.
The offer was partially accepted by Mahdi Akef, the Ikhwan’s Supreme Guide. Akef’s counteroffer stressed the need to release all detained and imprisoned Muslim Brothers, and assured the NDP of his willingness to withhold candidates from running in 2010. His offer did not include assurances regarding the group’s stance on Gamal Mubarak’s likely bid for the presidency. Akef’s counteroffer has not been accepted by the NDP yet. The reports have been vehemently denied by Ali El-Din Hilal, the NDP’s media secretary general. Akef, in turn, denied that there is a deal with the “ruling regime,” instead confirming his receipt of an offer.
These reports and others indicating government support for minor opposition parties set the tone for the upcoming confrontation. The Mubarak regime is increasingly nervous about the Ikhwan’s performance in the next parliamentary elections, and their reaction to the succession of Hosni Mubarak by his son. It is conceivable that Mubarak, whose old age and poor health are too visible to mask, is willing to ensure that his son takes over, prior to his death. The only viable opposition movement in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood; hence, Cairo’s deployment of a carrot and stick policy. The moderate Islamist group’s refusal to sing along muddies already murky waters. What is next for Egypt?
July 26, 2009
I will start posting again tomorrow with more inside stories than ever before. Or so I hope!
From Egypt's Northern Coast,
Yasser M. El-Shimy
July 13, 2009
I am rather pleased to announce that I will be going to Turkey and Egypt this summer, for the next one and a half months. During this period, I should post qualitatively more "underreported" news items, though perhaps less frequently. So please bear with me, if I don't update every other day. I hope the posts will provide better insights into developments on the ground, as I write from Cairo or Istanbul.
Thank you for your time.
July 10, 2009
(British Ambassador Frances Guy veiled for a meeting with Lebanese Shiite Spiritual leader Sayyed Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, regarded by many as religious figurehead for Hizbullah's followers)
After eight long years of mixing oranges and apples, the Europeans appear to have finally learned the distinctions between constituency-based and societally-active Islamist militant movements, on the one hand, and takfiri, transnational terrorist groups, on the other. The former, notably Hizbullah and Hamas, have grievances founded primarily on nationalist grounds. These grievances relate, for the most part, to their nations' loss of land in previous armed confrontations with Israel. Their overriding objective is to reclaim of these territories, as well as gain political power. The latter, however, is interested in a much grander project that finds little sympathy amongst Muslims. The Al-Qaeda-types seek to depose all heads of state in the Muslim world, get rid of foreign occupation, and establish a Caliphate system. In pursuit of these objectives, takfiri groups have no qualm about murduring every one standing in the way, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
That the differences are glaring between both camps is easy to conclude. Nevertheless, Western government have long refused to acknowledge, at least not publicly, the differences, preferring to lump all militant Islamist groups in an uneasy monloithic bloc. In some instances, non-violent Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were thrown into the mix.
It is no secret that the aforementioned strategy have not yielded progress on any front. The situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Lebanon are virtually the same now as they were a few years ago. But we might be witnessing a reverse of the tide. On June 9th, Hizbullah Member of Parliament, Muhammad Ra'd, held a 2 hour meeting with a British parliamentary delegation, accompanied by the British ambassador in Beirut, Frances Guy. The delegation included members of Britain's three largest political parties, the Labor, the Conservative and the Liberal Democratic parties. Ambassador Guy had previously met with MP Ra'd last month.
Yesterday, French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, announced his intent to meet with representatives from the Shi'a Lebanese militant party. If the meeting does take place, it would be the first such meeting between a high-level European diplomat, and a member of a group identified by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, there are rumors that the EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, will be meeting soon with Hizbullah's Hussein Al Hajj Hassan. There is definitely no dearth of Europeans meeting with Hizbullah.
Could it be that the Europeans have suddenly become more nuanced in their foreign policy posture towards the Middle East, whereas the United States has not? Probably not. I think the Obama administration is already stretching the limits of its domestic constituencies by appointing an ambassador to Syria, seeking dialogue with Tehran and opposing expanding Israeli settlements. Washington may have tacitly supported this engagement process, which the US itself cannot pursue, to test the waters, and see how much can be agreed on diplomatically with Hizbullah. After all, Hizbullah is not on the EU's list of terrorist organizations.
I would like very much to hear your thoughts on the reasons behind this series of meetings between European diplomats and Hizbullah members of parliament.
July 8, 2009
July 1, 2009
Despite Prime Minister Erdogan's statements that Turkey is not and will never be hit by the global financial crisis, all economic indicators point that the Turkish economy is officially in a recession. In the first quarter of 2009, Turkish economy has shrunk by a whopping 13.8 percent, making the decline second only to the country's 1945 World War II economy. This is exacerbated by a growing unemployment. According to the Turkish Board of Statistics, youth unemployment rose to 28.6 percent from 21.5 percent since last year. Considering that Turkey's unemployed young population has always been a concern for European countries, these figures have implications beyond Turkey's domestic politics. As we highlighted in our June 24th blog entry, unemployment among the youth is a problem throughout the Middle East.
The government of Erdogan has taken pride in (and credit for) the booming economy, and has repeatedly claimed that the global financial crisis will miss Turkey. Ankara also delayed an IMF deal fearing a public backlash during the municipal elections, although the overall growth rate of GDP has fallen from 4.7 percent in 2007 to 1.1 percent in 2008. We expect to see whether the AKP will go continue hiding its head in the sand or will acknowledge that Turkey is now officially in recession. If Turkey's economic malaise persists, the AKP will be hard-pressed to win another parliamentary commanding majority in 2011.
Ankara needs the EU more than ever now, but ironically the sluggish performance of its economy will further undermine its odds of membership.
Egypt has been hosting the soap opera-like negotiations to prove the reselince of its (ever-diminishing) regional role. Mubarak also wishes to undo some of the political damage he sustained for helping Israel blockade Gaza during the Gaza Offensive and beyond. The latter policy proved neither effective in toppling Hamas from power (a goal espoused by Cairo for the last two years), nor particularly popular in the Muslim world. In fact, the Egyptian regime was decried by protesters around the world, and widely vilified on Al Jazeera's coverage of the war. The latest news from Cairo, however, reveals the country's continuing inability to mediate regional conflicts as efficiently as the mini-state of Qatar (the host and funder of Al Jazeera News Network) does.
If you expected the irreconcilable differences between Hamas and Fatah to be regarding recognition of Israel, the role and membership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the formation of national unity government, etc., you'd be mistaken. While the two parties struggle to find common ground on these issues, Hamas and Fatah have been apparetnly arresting each other, even as "national reconciliation" talks are held. Negotiation experts would probably define this as a non-confidence-building measure. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Gaza-based prime-minister, blamed the failure of the negotiations on Fatah's "intransigence" regarding the release of Hamas political prisoners (Hamas activists and militants detained by Ramallah's security forces). Haniyeh went on to blast his "brothers in Fatah" for being controlled by the demands of Israel and the United States. Fatah has recently launched a crackdown on some Hamas figures in the West Bank, resulting in the infamous Qalqilya incident. Shortly after the collapse of the talks, it was reported that 10 Hamas members were rounded up in the West Bank on the claim they were planning attacks against Ramallah government figures. Yet, Fatah insisted that some 468 of its memebers are alreadly held by Hamas (a charge Hamas denies), and Presdient Abbass held the Islamist movement responsible for the talks' failure by prioritizing "factional interests" over national reconciliation.
The talks were supposed to end on July 7th with a national unity agreement. Instead, the news came from Cairo that July 25th-28th is the new date for yet another round of talks. This hardly comes as a surprise. Not only has Egypt failed to play an active mediating role conducive to an agreement, but in many cases Cairo blatantly took the side of Fatah.
The Palestinian factions have their own reasons for perpetuating the status quo as well. Hamas wishes to reinforce itself as a fact of life in Gaza. In other words, the longer Hamas clings onto power in the Strip, the more likely that Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Washington would have to accept the organization as a partner in a future peace agreement. Hamas may also be cherishing the victim's image that boosts its popularity among Palestinians, whilst depicting its secular rival as a stooge for the Israeli occupation. On the other hand, Fatah is adamant to demonstrate its relevance. The secular organization's populartiy is sagging, its reach of authority is confined, and its internal cohesion is in question. Abbass and the Fayyad government are trying to remain relevant by showing their ability to counter Hamas' growing influence in the West Bank. Abbass, after all, knows he is the preffered peace partner.
I would like to hear your thoughts on how Arab-Israeli peace can be reached in light of the ongoing rift between the two main Palestinian parties. Or can it be reached with two different authorities?