June 27, 2009

Weekend Edition

Please allow me to deviate from the regular format of the blog over the weekends. I'm in the course of preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams. I have been reading some of political science's literature landmarks, and I would like to share with you some of the most remarkable quotes I have come across. There is nothing underreported about this!

As you may have guessed from my last Twitter update, I read George Washington's Farewell Address of 1796. I was impressed by the degree of clear-eyed realism that the first American President promoted. This is especially true when it came to the topic of my dissertation, alliances.

After asking his fellow Americans to enjoin "good faith and justice towards all nations," George Washington warns that this would occur only if the United States has no inherent emotional (dis)inclinations towards other nations.

"...[n]othing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded...The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interests."

Think about the following quote, when reflecting on America's contemporary Middle East alliances:

"...[A] passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interests exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification."

Think domestic policy here:

"Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favortie (ally) are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests."

Washington then makes his general case against permanent foreign alliances by arguing that "our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course." That course would enable us to "choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

George Washington's Farewell Address should be a compulsory reading for our foreign policy and national security establishments. Preferably, they should read Underreported.

June 25, 2009

Hizbullah's Self-Defeatism

I don't think I am the only one to note the uncharacteristically ill-considered statements that have been pronounced by the militant Lebanese party over the past few months. Observers of Lebanese politics, irrespective of their political affiliation, used to admire the group's shrewd politics, and charismatic speeches. This year, however, Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and his vice secretary general, Na'im Qassim, have been anything but diplomatic.

It all started with two infamous incidents that may have cost Hizbullah and its allies dearly in the last parliamentary elections in Lebanon. First, in what appeared to be a largely propaganda campaign aiming to influence the Lebanese elections, the Egyptian General Prosecutor arrested members of a Hizbullah cell in Egypt. The charges against the detainees, which included planning terrorist attacks on Egyptian soil as well as smuggling arms to Gaza, were propagated with unprecedented frenzy by the government-sponsored media. This presented a moment of truth for the Lebanese militia. Their proposition that they are a purely Lebanese group striving to defend Lebanon against Israel was put into question. But instead of letting the story die, Nassrallah bizarrely admitted his group's involvement in attempts to smuggle weapons into Gaza through the Sinai Peninsula. Although he did deny plans to bomb Egyptian touristic sites, Nassrallah unapologetically accepted responsibility for his cell's operation on foreign territory to smuggle arms.

Second, Nassrallah proclaimed May 7th as a "glorious day" for Lebanon. May 7th marks the anniversary of Hizbullah militants seizing control of Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut. But while the events that led to May 7th were complex, and there is plenty of blame to go around, one thing is absolutely certain: Sunnis did not appreciate it. For Nasrallah to celebrate that date prior to the elections was not only a misreading on his part of the Sunni constituency, but it also reflected unthoughtful overestimation of his party's electoral appeal amongst the non-Shiite Lebanese.

As you well know, Hizbullah's parliamentary alliance lost the elections soon after (for a myriad of other reasons too, to be sure). One would think that the organization's leadership would have reconsidered its political message's ever-diminishing appeal. But Sheikh Na'im Qassim came forward with another bombshell yesterday. In a very-underrported interview, he blamed the turmoil in Tehran on Western and American meddling, siding decidedly with the Khamenei regime. He then went on to imply that the protesters were driven by foreign forces and that the Iranian model of elections is praiseworthy. In doing so, he almost echoed Ahmadinejad's minister of interior's statements.

Can someone help me decode Hizbullah's recent political messaging? Why are they making these decisions? I would be very interested to find out.

June 24, 2009

Egypt's Young Unemployed

That 2/3 of the entire MENA region is below the age of 24 is a problematic prospect (an exponential population boom in lands encompassing few renewable water resources). That many of the young are unemployed is even more ominous.

Figures released yesterday by the Information and Decision Support Center of Egypt's Council of Ministers paint a grim picture of the situation in Egypt. About 21% of work-eligible young Egyptians (29 years old and younger) cannot find a job. To put matters in perspective, the current unemployment rate in the U.S., during one of the country's worst economic recessions, is below 10%.

But, I am not surprised. The state in Egypt has failed to regain jobs lost during the transition from a statist economy devised by Nasser into a semi-capitalist one championed by Sadat, and aggressively pursued by Mubarak. This spells trouble for Egypt's "social contract." The Egyptian population has surrendered the right to political participation, since Nasser's rule, in exchange for government employment. In fact, Nasser promised every university graduate (education is free, it should be noted) a government job. For better or worse, Mubarak has spent much of his time in the 'Abdin Palace trying to wean Egyptians off the government. The problem, however, is that Egyptians are failing to create jobs, or are simply ill-prepared to assume the kind of jobs a modern economy requires. This spells trouble for both Mubarak and the United States. When 20 of every 100 young Egyptians spend most of their time hanging out at the local coffee shop, smoking shisha financed by the meager allowance their parents give them, they are unlikely to silently accept the probable transfer of power from Mubarak to his son. Additionally, they are likely to fall prey to all sorts of "isms" that tell them why the world is such a nasty and an unjust place.

Unemployment in the Arab world was a problem, is a problem, and, unless something is done, will continue to be a problem.


The Israeli government is acting like a deer caught in the headlights. The Obama administration's persistent demands that all settlement activities be brought to a complete halt present a dilemma for Benjamin Netanyahu and his partners in government. On the one hand, should they continue to expand settlement activities under the rubric of "natural growth" (i.e. constructing more housing units in existing settlements), they are likely to confront mounting diplomatic pressure from Washington. Netanyahu can pay a heavy price domestically for compromising Israel's most valuable alliance. On the other hand, should they enact a freeze on construction in all settlements, they would be shooting themselves in the foot. In effect, Likud and its other partners would be surrendering the settlers' vote (and campaign contributions) to even more hawkish parties.

This paradox has left Tel Aviv/Jerusalem in utter confusion. On Tuesday, June 23rd, the Israeli military radio announced that Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the building of 300 residential units in Benjamin, a settlement to the west of Ramallah. Shortly after, the Israeli government denied the reports as baseless.

There also conflicting reports about why a planned meeting tomorrow, Thursday, in Paris between Netanyahu and George Mitchell was cancelled. Major Israeli newspaper, Yadiut Ahronout, claimed that Washington scrapped the meeting plans, because the Israeli government "did not do its settlement homework," as an anonymous senior American official supposedly put it. Hours later, a spokesman of the Israeli government said that Netanyahu asked for the meeting to be postponed, until he had "collected further information to present to Mitchell in a systematic manner." But, in the latest turn of events, Netanyahu aides say now that Ehud Barak would instead meet with Mithcell in Washington next week.

Meanwhile, Ian Kelly, a spokesperson for the State Department, emphasized the need for settlement freeze to be comprehensive. Yup, that's right... Not only would the Israeli government have to stop building in the West Bank, but they also need to stop building in East Jerusalem, presumed to be the future capital of Palestine. This might prove even trickier than the West Bank, given the strong emotional and religious attachment to the city as well as the presence of one of Israel's largest settlements Ma'lee Adumeem in the area. It is noteworthy that the recently-approved Israeli budget dedicates funds toward expanding settlements, including Ma'lee Adumeem.

Why are settlements bad? Not only have settlements dismembered the West Bank into unlivable cantons, where freedom of movement is highly curtailed, but they may also render the two-state solution, simply unfeasible. There will be too much population-mixing. The bi-national one-state solution would gain more credibility and urgency. I am not sure Netanyahu, or Livni for that matter, are willing to take that "risk."

June 23, 2009

No Comment! Just Happines and Joy.

Most people think it's a good things to get a recommendation for your blog from a preeminent writer like Tom Ricks. Well, it is... But, with it comes a tremendous responsibility. I hope Underreported will meet the expectations.

June 22, 2009

Military Exercises in the Gulf

While all eyes are fixated on the continuously unfolding events in Tehran, perhaps we ought to pay more attention to the Persian Gulf. Al Jazeera, Al Manar and the National are reporting large-scale Iranian military exercises in the Gulf and the Sea of Oman. The official purpose of the maneuvers is to raise "the operational and support capability" of the Iranian forces as well as the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the Iranian Air Force. According to Iranian media, the aerial and amphibian "Birth of Light," or Milad Nur, exercises will include “long-distance flights of around 3,600km (about 2200 miles) along with aerial refuelling from tanker to fighter jet and from fighter jet to fighter jet."

The three day-long exercises reflect the Iranian regime's misgivings about the mounting domestic unrest in the capital. During a much-anticipated Friday sermon, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei revealed his suspicions of a foreign role in the protests. Tehran may be wary of Israel, or even the United States, using the current turmoil to attack its nuclear facilities or make an attempt at regime change. The "Birth of Light" is an act of "swaggering", if you will, where Iran shows off its military abilities to demonstrate a potentially staggering cost for any possible act of military intervention or foreign-endorsed domestic subversion.

This is probably the kind of thing Obama had wished to avoid, when he warned against perceived "meddling" in Iranian politics. The Iranian regime is likely to ratchet up the rhetoric and intensify belligerent actions to thwart what it deems a foreign-engineered coup.

June 19, 2009

Why Underreported?

This blog has been long time coming.

It all started when I quit the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get married to a beautiful American woman. We moved to Boston where I pursued a PhD degree in Political Science. Being the news buff that I am, I expected America to have media that are freer, more diverse, more objective and, well, more profound than their Arab counterparts. I was mistaken. When it comes to covering news from the Middle East, U.S. media is often brief in content, shallow in understanding and uniform in perspective. Even worse, it seldom questions many of the assumptions guiding our understanding of the ever-dynamic region.

That was back in the summer of 2007. This spring, I was fortunate enough to intern for the Center for a New American Security, a national security think tank in Washington DC. One of my responsibilities was to compile a daily feed of news from the Middle East, about the Middle East. The CNAS news feed, as well as encouragement from one of my intellectual heroes (Tom Ricks), inspired me to start a blog bearing the title, "Underreported."

Underreported is unique insofar that it does not aim to rehash the news of the day. It actively searches for those articles of news that have fallen somewhere through the cracks, yet bear serious repercussions for both the region and the United States. Those are articles written on regional news website, in Arabic, English or Turkish. The news will usually be accompanied by my analysis, and updated every other day.

Finally, I should thank my co-contributor Oya Yegen, another Boston University comrade, who agreed to lend me a hand with Turkish news. If it is on Turkey, it is Oya's. This is the rule.

Thank you, and I look forward to being enlightened with your incisive comments.

Yasser M. El-Shimy