Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Tunisian Whose Jihad Was For The People,Not God

By Robert Fisk
This commentary was published by The Independent on 05/03/2011

The second Arab awakening of modern history – the first was the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire – requires some new definitions, perhaps even some new words in at least the English language.

And some new calculator that will instantly register the old age of dictators and the growing army of the young. If you survive into senility, you can enter the category of great political criminals of contemporary history.
My Maghreb colleague Béchir Ben Yahmed has pointed out that after 42 years in power, Muammar Gaddafi is up there with the worst of them. Kim Il-Sung registered 46 years, Saddam a mere 35 years. Mubarak scored 32 years in the dictatorship stakes, Sékou Touré of Guinea 26 years, Franco of Spain and Salazar of Portugal, the same number. On this scale, Tony Blair's puny 10-years-plus substantially reduces his status as a war criminal, a man who might be allowed – instead of arraignment for the illegal invasion of Iraq – a lavish villa in Sharm el-Sheikh (where, after all, Cherie used to like to stay at the Mubarak government's expense).
Ben Yahmed suggests that in the violent case of Libya, we are dealing not so much with a revolution as with "revolutionary anarchism on the basis of tribalism", since Libya may be in the process of breaking apart. I'm not sure I agree – although the people of Benghazi will want Tripolitanians to know that they were their liberators. Gaddafi, indeed, has become a kind of "recidivist" although, even if the opposition has cried victory too soon, Gaddafi is now ruling only a "half-Gaddafi" state which can only be temporary.
And we will, I feel sure, have to redefine the nature of the act which lit the proverbial – and the real – match: the immolation by fire of Mohamed Bouazizi who, crushed by both the state and its corruption and then slapped by a policewoman, chose death to the continuation of qahr – which in English might be translated as "total powerlessness". He preferred, as Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama has remarked, "annihilation over a life of nothingness". Bouazizi, however, will not join the list of al-Qa'ida's favourite martyrs. He took no enemy lives with him; his jihad was one of despair, which is certainly not encouraged by the Koran. He provided proof that a suicider can unwittingly produce a revolution and become a martyr for an oppressed people rather than for God. His death – though I know I will be told that this decision is up to a Higher Authority – gave him no assurance of paradise; thus his act must be regarded as politically more important than that of the suicide bomber. He was, in fact, an "anti-kamikaze".
In a year in which the very last "Rue Pétain" has been deleted in rural France – Beirut replaced its own in 1941 with the downfall of the Vichy regime – it's only fair to say that an awful lot of Gaddafi's fawning tributes are going to have to be torn down in his rump state once it falls. Green Book museums – even, perhaps, the wreckage of his home pulverised by American bombs in 1986 – will eventually meet their fiery end. Staff at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek slunk off with Mubarak's portrait before midnight on the day of his overthrow; future guests will notice the faintly disturbing square of unusually light wallpaper to the left of the reception desk.
And there are plenty of Mubarak Streets, Mubarak Stadiums and Mubarak Hospitals to be renamed. Economist Mohamed el-Dahshan has referred to the "demubarakisation" of Egypt; I suppose all the Mubarak Streets must now become "The Street of 25th January" – the start of the latest Egyptian revolution – and I fear that if the 80 per cent Shias of Bahrain one day govern their country, there will have to be quite a lot of dekhalifaisation. And in Aden, desalehisation. And in Libya, deghadaffiisation has already begun.
But while the Egyptian revolution is – barring a counter-coup by Mubarak's old apparatchiks – the happiest story I have ever covered in the Middle East, I still fear much of this will end in tears, new "democracies" ending up much like previous regimes. Saudi Arabia remains the dark knight on my chessboard. Let's see what happens next Friday...
But I hope the new revolutionaries of the Arab world don't start, in their fervour, erasing the identity of whole cities. Benghazi should not become "The City of Eleven Martyrs" – as Stalingrad became the pathetic Volgograd – nor Tobruk retitled. The Tunisians adopted Carthage as the nom de plume of Tunis. Indeed, it is worth remembering the more recent history of the lands which we journalists are now racing across in our 4x4s. My colleagues travelling to Libya from the east swept past El-Alamein and on to Tobruk. Last week, I drove by night from Tunis in the west, my headlights glinting off signposts to the Kasserine Pass – where the Americans thought they would give Rommel a bloody nose but got a bloodier one themselves, courtesy of the Afrika Korps – and Mareth of "Mareth Line" fame. My own late foreign editor of The Times, Louis Heren, was "brewed up" in his tank outside Benghazi, and survived.
Oddly, everyone came to grief between Tobruk and Tunisia in the Second World War. Tobruk fell to the British in January 1941, was besieged by the Afrika Korps for 200 days, relieved by General Cunningham in November, captured by Erwin Rommel in June 1942 – "a disaster", Churchill muttered when he heard the news on a visit to the White House – but recaptured by the Allies five months later. Now it is the first city to be liberated by the anti-Gaddafi opposition. The French screenwriter Michel Audiard, who wrote the script for the Desert Fox movie Taxi for Tobruk, said that, in his opinion, "the only pleasant thing in war is the victory parade – everything before is shit!".
Who can disagree – providing, of course, the right people claim the victory? Recidivists? Anti-kamikazis? "Half-Gaddafi" states, revolutions, rebellions, insurrections, Arab awakenings; they are usually a bloody business. Yet I have to say that my favourite redefinition appeared in a wonderful cartoon in the Tunisian daily La Presse this week, after Beji Caid Essebsi was named prime minister. "In my opinion," says the cartoon Tunisian, "our real prime minister is called Facebook!"

Arabs Rise, Tehran Trembles

By Karim Sadjadpour
This commentary was published in The New York Times on 05/03/2011
IN “Garden of the Brave in War,” his classic memoir of life on a pomegranate farm in 1960s Iran, the American writer Terence O’Donnell recounts how his illiterate house servant, Mamdali, would wake him every morning with a loud knock on the door and a simple question: “Are you an Arab or an Iranian?”
“If I was naked,” O’Donnell explained, “I would answer that I’m an Arab and he would wait outside the door, whereas if I was clothed I would reply that I was an Iranian and he would come in with the coffee.” This joke went hand in hand, O’Donnell wrote, with an age-old chauvinism that depicted the Persians’ Arab neighbors as “uncivilized people who went about unclothed and ate lizards.”
The Islamist victors of the 1979 Iranian revolution intended to change things, to replace the shah’s haughty Persian nationalism with an Arab-friendly, pan-Islamic ideology. Yet Tehran’s official reaction to the 2011 Arab awakening shows that, at the heart of the Iran’s Middle East strategy, there lays a veiled contempt for Arab intelligence, autonomy and prosperity.
What many young Iranians see as a familiar struggle for justice, economic dignity and freedom from dictatorial rule, Iranian officialdom has struggled to spin as a belated Arab attempt to emulate the Islamic revolution and join Tehran in its battle against America and Israel.
The delusions of the Iranian regime are partly attributable to a generation gap. Tehran’s ruling elite continue to cling to the antiquated ideology of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose worldview was formed by decades of imperial transgressions in Iran. The demographic boom in the Middle East, however, has brought a wave of young Arabs and Iranians who associate subjugation and injustice not with colonial or imperial powers, but with their own governments.
Until now, Iran’s interests have been served by the Arab status quo: frustrated populations ruled over by emasculated regimes incapable of checking Israel, and easily dismissed as American co-dependents. A conversation I once had with a senior Iranian diplomat is instructive.
He complained, justifiably, about Washington’s excessive focus on military power to solve political problems. I posed a simple hypothetical: What if, instead of having spent several billion dollars financing Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad over the past three decades, Iran had spent that money educating tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites to become doctors, professors and lawyers? Wouldn’t those communities now be much better off and in a much stronger position to assert their rights vis-à-vis Israel?
“What good would that have done for Iran?” he responded candidly. (He himself had a doctorate from a British university.) “Do you think if we sent them abroad to study they would return to southern Lebanon and Gaza to fight Israel? Of course not; they would have remained doctors, lawyers and professors.”
Iran, in essence, understands that it can inspire and champion the region’s downtrodden and dispossessed, but not the upwardly mobile. Its strategy to dominate the Middle East hinges less on building nuclear weapons than on the twin pillars of oil and alienation.
Iranian petrodollars are used to finance radicals — Khaled Meshaal in Syria, Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and Moktada al-Sadr in Iraq, to name a few — who feed off popular humiliation. As an Arab Shiite friend once complained to me, “Iran wants to fight America and Israel down to the last Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi.”
At first glance, the fall of Western-oriented Arab governments may appear to be a blow to Washington and a boon for Tehran. The seeming consensus among Western analysts and pundits — that Iran will fill the Middle East power vacuum — is short-sighted.
While the relationship between Egypt and Iran — the regions two oldest and most populous nations — will likely improve, the competition between them will likely intensify.
Tehran’s ascent in the Arab world over the last decade has been partly attributable to Cairo’s decline. The potential re-emergence of a proud, assertive Egypt will undermine Shiite Persian Iran’s ambitions to be the vanguard of the largely Sunni Arab Middle East. Indeed, if Egypt can create a democratic model that combines political tolerance, economic prosperity and adept diplomacy, Iran’s model of intolerance, economic malaise and confrontation will hold little appeal in the Arab world.
Renewed Iranian influence in places like Bahrain and Yemen may also prove self-limiting. As we have seen in Iraq, familiarity with Iranian officialdom often breeds contempt. Polls have shown that even a sizable majority of Iraq’s Shiites resent the meddling in their affairs by their co-religionists from Iran. “The harder they push,” said Ryan Crocker, a former United States ambassador to Iraq, “the more resistance they get.”
Elsewhere in the Arab world, Iranian proxies like Hezbollah will increasingly find themselves in the awkward position of being a resistance group purportedly fighting injustice while simultaneously cashing checks from a patron that is brutally suppressing justice at home.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 will also, of course, have their effect on Iran internally. Iranian democracy advocates have long taken solace in the belief that they were ahead of their Arab neighbors, who would one day too have to undergo the intolerance and heartaches of Islamist rule. The largely secular nature of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have bruised the Iranian ego: were they the only ones naïve enough to succumb to the false promise of an Islamic utopia?
It has been said about authoritarian regimes that while they rule their collapse appears inconceivable, but after they’ve fallen their demise appears to have been inevitable. In the short term Tehran’s oil largesse and religious pretensions have seemingly created for it deeper, if not wider, popular support than many Arab regimes.
But the regime’s curiously heavy-handed response to resilient pro-democracy protests — including the recent disappearance of opposition leaders Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi — betrays its anxiety about the 21st-century viability of an economically floundering, gender-apartheid state led by a “supreme leader” who purports to be the prophet’s representative on Earth.
Tehran publicly cheered the fall of Egyptian and Tunisian regimes undone by corruption, economic stagnation and repression. Do its rulers not know that Iran — according to Transparency International, Freedom House and the World Bank — ranks worse than Tunisia and Egypt in all three categories?
A saying often attributed to Lenin best captures the sorts of tectonic shifts taking place in today’s Middle East. “Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.”
The uprisings may not all end happily. As history has shown time and again — notably in Iran in 1979 — minorities that are organized and willing to use violence can establish reigns of terror over unorganized or passive majorities. Whatever ensues, however, the Arab risings have revealed that Iran’s revolutionary ideology has not only been rendered bankrupt at home, but it has also lost the war of ideas among its neighbors.
Karim Sadjadpour is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Obama's Low-Key Strategy For The Middle East

By David Ignatius 
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 06/03/2011 
President Obama has been so low-key in his pronouncements about events in Egypt and Libya that it's easy to miss the extent of the shift in U.S. strategy. In supporting the wave of change sweeping the Arab world, despite the wariness of traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, Obama is placing a big bet that democratic governments will be more stable and secure, and thereby enhance U.S. interests in the region.
My own instinct, as someone who has been visiting the Arab world for more than 30 years, is that Obama is right. But given the stakes, it's important to examine how the White House is making its judgments - and whether intelligence reporting supports these decisions. 
Though the White House's response to these whirlwind events has sometimes seemed erratic, the policy, which has been evolving for many months, goes to the core of Obama's worldview. This is the president as global community organizer - a man who believes that change is inevitable and desirable, and that the United States must align itself with the new forces shaping the world. 
An Israeli official visiting Washington last week sounded a note of caution: "We are too close to the eye of the storm to judge," he said. "We need to be more modest in our assessments and put more question marks at the end."  
But the Obama White House doesn't feel it has the luxury of deferring judgment; history is moving too fast. Says one official, "It's a roll of the dice, but it's also a response to reality." If Obama has seemed low-key, he explains, it has been a calculated "strategic reticence" to send the message: This is your revolution; it's not about us. 
The roots of the policy shift go back to Obama's first days in office and his feeling that America's relationship with the Arab world was broken. Though Obama seemed to be accommodating the region's authoritarian leaders, in August 2010, he issued Presidential Study Directive 11, asking agencies to prepare for change. 
This document cited "evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region's regimes" and warned that "the region is entering a critical period of transition." The president asked his advisers to "manage these risks by demonstrating to the people of the Middle East and North Africa the gradual but real prospect of greater political openness and improved governance." 
Six months later, street demonstrations were toppling autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, who looked in vain for support from Washington. Obama didn't come to the autocrats' rescue because he believed the transformations were positive developments. "We have a core interest in stability through political and economic change. The status quo is not stable," explains Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. 
The democratic youth movement sweeping the Arab world offered an "alternative narrative" to the versions of Islamic revolution put forward by Iran and al-Qaeda, says Rhodes. If this change scenario can succeed, threats to America will be reduced. 
The White House studied past democratic transitions in Indonesia, the Philippines, Serbia, Poland and Chile for "lessons learned." Officials noted that last week national security adviser Tom Donilon was reading former secretary of state George Shultz's account of the peaceful ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. 
This review has led U.S. officials to conclude that countries need to: bring the opposition quickly into the transition to achieve "buy-in"; make fast changes that people can see, such as freeing political prisoners; and sequence events, putting the easiest first, so that presidential elections precede parliamentary balloting and detailed rewriting of the constitution. 
How well does this idealistic agenda match up with ground truth? In interviews last week, intelligence analysts said that Islamic extremists don't seem to be hijacking the process of change. There are near-term tactical dangers, said one counterterrorism analyst, such as the escape of prisoners in Egypt and the potential weakening of the intelligence service there. But this official says there's no evidence that al-Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the turmoil. It took a week for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group's No. 2 official, to publish his windy and out-of-touch analysis of events in Egypt. 
Change will have its downside, but a second U.S. intelligence analyst offers this estimate: "This is a world we can live with. Our relationship with Egypt may be different and rockier, but I don't think it will be inherently hostile." As for the much-feared Muslim Brotherhood, it is currently planning to run parliamentary candidates in only 150 of Egypt's 454 districts, and no candidate for president.

Between Hilary And The Supreme Guide

By Tariq Alhomayed
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 05/03/2011
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said that Iran is seeking to influence the Arab revolutions, including the Egyptian revolution, by utilizing Hezbollah which has good relations with the [Egyptian] Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Hamas organization. She also said that Tehran is in constant contact with opposition forces in Bahrain.
Just one day after Clinton made these remarks, the Iranian Supreme Guide told a group of his country's security cadres that the revolutions taking place in the Arab world represented an Islamic awakening inspired by the Iranian revolution. So what is more likely, that Iran is influencing the revolutions that are taking place in our region, or that Tehran is trying to exploit the situation in the Arab world?
The reality, as we have said before, is that it is difficult to measure everything that is happening in our region with one yardstick. This is because it is not easy to compare the problems arising in our region with each other, even if Arab states share certain features such as having a young population or the presence of an urgent need for reform; this is not to say that the situation in one country is the same as the situation in another. For example, the situation in the Gulf States cannot be compared to the situation in the rest of the Arab region, whilst the internal makeup of Gulf States also differs, and each country in our region has its own special circumstances.
Here somebody might ask, does this mean that Iran is influencing the revolutions in our region? Of course, the answer to this is no, and it would not be fair to the revolutionaries to say this, however Iran is not hesitating to interfere in our region and exploit the prevailing feelings today. On the other hand, what is allowing Iran to exploit the situation is that the protestors' demands are not being taken seriously, whilst protestors in some states are attempting to copy the revolutions that have taken place in others, and these are two features that are dominating the scene today. There is a huge fire raging in our region, and some people are under the impression that in order to fix all their problems all they have to do is topple their regimes; however those who believe this are not taking the situation seriously. How will the Yemenis, for example, deal with a decaying economy and a confusing tribal system should the Yemeni president suddenly decide to step down from power? Early elections, or indeed waiting for the president's term in office to end, represent the ideal solution for the situation in Yemen, rather than what happened in Egypt, because Yemen is different. The other example is Bahrain, and is it reasonable that the demonstrators there failed to announce their demands until yesterday?
These are the problems, and these are the gaps that the Iranians are exploiting in order to infiltrate our region, and they are doing so for a number of reasons. Most importantly, Tehran wants to escape from its internal crisis, and anybody who believes that the Iranian crisis with our region is solely due to [Iranian president] Ahmadinejad is wrong and would be displaying their ignorance, for this crisis is represented by the entire Iranian regime. One of the objectives of the Khomeini revolution was to export this Islamic revolution to our region, and particularly the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the attempt to copy the Egyptian revolution in the Gulf States would certainly be futile, for all problems are not the same, nor are all regimes, and for example, is there a figure such as Gaddafi in the Gulf States?
We all want freedom, prosperity, and an end to corruption, but we cannot support pulling the roof down on the house due to glamorous slogans. The difference between us and Iran is that we want reform, whilst Iran wants to incite the region and fan the flames. Are some people, aware, for example, that there are no Friday prayer services for Sunnis in Iran?
I think this is something that we need to think more deeply about.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why Israel's Occupation Is Not Coming To An End

By Omar H. Rahman
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 04/03/2011

Political leaders all over the world indulgently believe they can convince Israel's politicians to end the occupation of Palestinian territory with doomsday scenarios and clever arguments, despite decades of experience to the contrary. It is more prudent to reason, however, that the determination to end Israel's occupation will be based on the same factors that all politicians consider when coming to a decision. How does the status quo affect me? What will it take politically to carry out long-term change? The unfortunate reality is that Israeli leaders today have little immediate incentive to confront the challenge of bringing the occupation to an end, despite the dire long-term implications of failing to do so. Therefore, instead of waiting for the day that a visionary Israeli statesman comes along, the world must take a stand and change the current cost-benefit analysis of occupation that Israeli politicians have thus far determined to be agreeable.

It is important to understand that the occupation of Palestinian land following the war of 1967 posed an immediate and irreconcilable dilemma for Israeli leaders. More than any other territory, Israel sought to keep the West Bank; however, it did not wish to incorporate the substantial Palestinian population already living there. It was a clear case of Israel wanting the dowry but not the bride, and today's situation is a direct manifestation of that dilemma. 

During the proceeding decades, the occupation of Palestinian territory was a fairly low-cost enterprise. Israel's military directly administered all aspects of daily life for the Palestinian population and provided minimal services as part of its responsibility as an occupying power. Then, during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, the political and military cost of controlling a civilly disobedient Palestinian population proved too much for Israel. For the first time, Israel was forced to deal with the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, the ultimate outcome of which was the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 on the White House lawn.

This interim agreement was intended to gradually draw back the occupation and replace it with Palestinian institutions, culminating in Israel's recognition of the Palestinian state. The actual result, however, was nearly the opposite: The newly created Palestinian National Authority gained relative control over direct population centers while the Israeli military deepened its occupation everywhere else. In essence, Israel relinquished direct responsibility over the people while continuing to claim the benefit reaped from the land. The interim phase of Oslo gave Israeli leaders the status quo they always desired and the illusion of an answer to the long-standing dilemma of their occupation. Today, not only does Israel not pay for the occupation, but the country actually turns a profit from keeping it in place and the incentive to bring it to an end has largely faded from Israeli public consciousness.

Indeed, commercial profiteering from the Israeli settlement enterprise spans every sector of the economy and has become -- what many would term -- big business. For example, Israel maintains complete military and administrative control over the Jordan Valley, the area of land directly west of the Jordan River that comprises approximately 30 percent of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley not only has significant natural resources; it is also the agricultural breadbasket of the West Bank and includes the Dead Sea, another major source of income. Israel operates an entire agribusiness industry out of the Jordan Valley whose products make their way to markets all over the world.

Israel also maintains control over, and free access to, Palestine's natural resources, including its electromagnetic sphere and vital water aquifers, not to mention Israel's decades-long reliance on Palestinian cheap labor. In fact, of the 800 million cubic meters of water drawn annually from aquifers in the occupied West Bank, Israel takes 688 million cubic meters and sells much of it back to Palestinians for commercial profit.

Moreover, Israel currently operates several major stone quarries on occupied land that it uses to produce cut stone and cement. While denying Palestinians the right to build their own cement factories, Israel exports 2 million tons of cement annually to Palestinians. Additionally, Israel has prohibited Palestinians from building their own electric power plants, although they remain able and have been offered assistance in that endeavor from third parties for years. Consequently, Palestinians buy 97.7 percent of their electricity from the Israel Electricity Corporation. Essentially, Israel is preventing Palestinians from building capacity so that, unable to provide for themselves, they can continue to exploit their markets.

The most blatant and well-known offense, however, is the restriction regime imposed by Israel on movement for Palestinians in the occupied territory. This regime raises the cost of doing business for Palestinians, giving Israeli companies a distinct competitive advantage in the Palestinian marketplace. Go to any Palestinian grocery store, and you will find it full of Israeli products because Palestinians have little viable alternative. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The list of commercial profiteering goes on and on; from tourism to construction to defense, Israel is making money from the occupation.

All of this distracts Israeli leaders from the reality that the occupation of Palestine is becoming a new form of apartheid. The moment Israel began transferring its civilian population to occupied territory was the moment this tragic process began. In so doing, Israel has created an entire system that facilitates the process of separation for the benefit of one people over another. Separate laws, roads, infrastructure, and the settlements are the living, breathing reality of the occupied Palestinian territory. Unless all of this can be dismantled, the two-state compromise will be an empty slogan with no future, and as many are beginning to forecast, it could help shape an uglier result to the dramatic regional shifts now in motion. But taking the initiative to prevent this outcome will not happen without incentive because the short-term costs and benefits remain in Israel's favor.

Unfortunately, the diplomatic process that was meant to achieve a permanent agreement in five years in the mid-1990s has been perpetuated for over 15, with the Palestinians being told they have no other recourse to freedom outside of negotiations. One only has to read the documents released by Al Jazeera and the Guardian to see for themselves that, even in negotiations, Israel has not been interested in reaching a final settlement that does not satisfy the aim of retaining its presence in the occupied territory. The United States has been complicit in this effort by blocking any initiative to resolve the Palestinian question outside of endless bilateral negotiations. The decision by the United States to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution reaffirming Israeli settlements as illegal is the most recent and illuminating example of this policy.

On the other hand, many Israeli leaders, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- who actually lives in an illegal settlement in the West Bank -- have argued that a two-state solution cannot be reached anytime in the near future. Instead, Lieberman proposes a solution of interim borders. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing the initiative of a so-called "economic peace." Both of these are forms of maintaining the status quo that only serve to destroy the possibility of two states by allowing the settlement enterprise to further entrench itself. However, the time for half measures and interim agreements is over. The answer to political immobility lies in affecting the decision-making process by essentially altering the cost-benefit balance of continued occupation.

There are several ways to produce this desired result. First and foremost, the international community must make it clear to Israel that there will be a political and economic price tag to its continued occupation. Simply scolding the Israelis is not enough to get them to act -- the international community must respond with economic and political pressure. Third states should act on their obligations as defined by the International Court of Justice and ban Israel's settlement goods from their markets. The United Nations Security Council should reinforce these bans with practical steps to identify and prevent third parties from doing business with, or in, the settlements. The Palestinian government has already adopted this approach and has taken the initiative to differentiate and boycott products coming from settlements. This policy does not deviate from international consensus on settlements, but rather provides a practical way for states to implement their declared positions in order to increase the political and financial costs of occupation.

A golden opportunity has also presented itself to the Palestinians, and they must seize this moment or risk losing it forever. Far from hurting or limiting their abilities, the end of negotiations has freed the Palestinians to act in their own best interests. The twin pillars of Palestinian national liberation, armed struggle and bilateral negotiations, have both been discredited for a failure to produce positive results. Yet all around them change is sweeping across the region through the force of "people power" being won on the hard work and sacrifice of their Arab neighbors. Although Palestinians have not been ruled for decades under the iron fist of a homegrown dictator, they have been oppressed and continually dispossessed by the strong arm of occupation. The exercise of popular nonviolent struggle against the instruments of occupation and the settlements should become the modus operandi of a neo-Palestinian liberation movement. In the same vein as Palestinians already peacefully protesting against Israel's wall in places like Budrus and Bilin, Palestinians across the territories must confront such instruments anywhere and everywhere they exist with vast, organized, and peaceful demonstrations. This includes the borders, beyond which large communities of refugees have been waiting in vain for 62 years for a resolution to their awful predicament.

As long as Israel is benefiting from the present state of affairs, it is unreasonable to expect Israeli politicians to dramatically alter the current situation in exchange for what may likely be large-scale upheaval. Moreover, the nature of Israel's fragmented political structure, where small parties wield disproportionate leverage, does not allow change to come easy. The best way to overcome this is through exerting pressure on the Israeli center by making it politically and economically inconvenient to support the status quo. Such action will have a dramatic impact on the way Israeli politicians perceive the settlement enterprise and the future of occupation. The era when Israel's occupation pays dividends must come to an end. Only then will we see a change.

Omar H. Rahman is an at-large journalist covering sociopolitical issues in the Middle East region. He is a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiations team and is currently based in Ramallah.

From Baghdad To Benghazi

By Charles Krauthammer
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 04/03/2011

Voices around the world, from Europe to America to Libya, are calling for U.S. intervention to help bring down Moammar Gaddafi. Yet for bringing down Saddam Hussein, the United States has been denounced variously for aggression, deception, arrogance and imperialism.
A strange moral inversion, considering that Hussein's evil was an order of magnitude beyond Gaddafi's. Gaddafi is a capricious killer; Hussein was systematic. Gaddafi was too unstable and crazy to begin to match the Baathist apparatus: a comprehensive national system of terror, torture and mass murder, gassing entire villages to create what author Kanan Makiya called a "Republic of Fear."
Moreover, that systemized brutality made Hussein immovable in a way that Gaddafi is not. Barely armed Libyans have already seized half the country on their own. Yet in Iraq, there was no chance of putting an end to the regime without the terrible swift sword (it took all of three weeks) of the United States.
No matter the hypocritical double standard. Now that revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush's freedom agenda, it's not just Iraq that has slid into the memory hole. Also forgotten is the once proudly proclaimed "realism" of Years One and Two of President Obama's foreign policy - the "smart power" antidote to Bush's alleged misty-eyed idealism.
It began on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first Asia trip, when she publicly played down human rights concerns in China. The administration also cut aid for democracy promotion in Egypt by 50 percent. And cut civil society funds - money for precisely the organizations we now need to help Egyptian democracy - by 70 percent.
This new realism reached its apogee with Obama's reticence and tardiness in saying anything in support of the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. On the contrary, Obama made clear that nuclear negotiations with the discredited and murderous regime (talks that a child could see would go nowhere) took precedence over the democratic revolutionaries in the street - to the point where demonstrators in Tehran chanted, "Obama, Obama, you are either with us or with them."
Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman, however, the administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.
Iraq, of course, required a sustained U.S. military engagement to push back totalitarian forces trying to extinguish the new Iraq. But is this not what we are being asked to do with a no-fly zone over Libya? In conditions of active civil war, taking command of Libyan airspace requires a sustained military engagement.
Now, it can be argued that the price in blood and treasure that America paid to establish Iraq's democracy was too high. But whatever side you take on that question, what's unmistakable is that to the Middle Easterner, Iraq today is the only functioning Arab democracy, with multiparty elections and the freest press. Its democracy is fragile and imperfect - last week, security forces cracked down on demonstrators demanding better services - but were Egypt to be as politically developed in, say, a year as is Iraq today, we would think it a great success.
For Libyans, the effect of the Iraq war is even more concrete. However much bloodshed they face, they have been spared the threat of genocide. Gaddafi was so terrified by what we did to Saddam & Sons that he plea-bargained away his weapons of mass destruction. For a rebel in Benghazi, that is no small matter.
Yet we have been told incessantly how Iraq poisoned the Arab mind against America. Really? Where is the rampant anti-Americanism in any of these revolutions? In fact, notes Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, the United States has been "conspicuously absent from the sloganeering."
It's Yemen's president and the delusional Gaddafi who are railing against American conspiracies to rule and enslave. The demonstrators in the streets of Egypt, Iran and Libya have been straining their eyes for America to help. They are not chanting the antiwar slogans - remember "No blood for oil"? - of the American left. Why would they? America is leaving Iraq having taken no oil, having established no permanent bases, having left behind not a puppet regime but a functioning democracy. This, after Iraq's purple-fingered exercises in free elections seen on television everywhere set an example for the entire region.
Facebook and Twitter have surely mediated this pan-Arab (and Iranian) reach for dignity and freedom. But the Bush Doctrine set the premise.

The Muslim Brothers In Egypt’s ‘Orderly Transition’

After the revolution, a newly respectable Muslim Brotherhood, supportive of the army, is emerging. Could it become the best bet for the ‘orderly transition’ that Egypt, and the US, hope for?
By Gilbert Achcar
This commentary was published in Le Monde Diplomatique March 2011
Egypt’s uprising, contrary to most predictions, was initiated and driven by coalitions – including political parties, associations and internet networks – which were dominated by secular and democratic forces. Islamic organisations or their individual members took part on an equal footing with groups of marginal importance before the uprising, and with groups closer to eastern European dissidents of 1989 than to the usual mass parties or revolutionary elites of social revolutions.
The discretion of Tunisia’s Islamist movement can be explained to a large extent by the harshness of its suppression under Ben Ali, impeding the ability of the Islamic Nahda party to act. However, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was also discreet, but for the opposite reason: because it was a party tolerated by the military regime (although not legalised).
Anwar Sadat, when he came to power after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death in 1970, favoured the Brotherhood’s return to the public stage and its enhanced position as a counterbalance to the Nasserist or radical left. The Brothers fully subscribed to the economic liberalisation (infitah) of Sadat when he embarked on dismantling Nasser’s legacy. This led to increased influence of members of the new Egyptian bourgeoisie within the Brotherhood. Even so, it continued to assert its piety against rampant corruption; this was a key argument for the petit bourgeois, the Brothers’ favourite constituency.
The Brotherhood built itself as a reactionary religious political movement, whose main concern was – and still is – the Islamisation of Egypt’s political and cultural institutions and the promotion of sharia as the basis for legislation. This programme is summed up by its main slogan: “Islam is the solution”. At the same time, the Brotherhood has served as a political antidote to extreme and violent fundamentalist groups.
Sadat continued to play the religious card to legitimise his power ideologically in the face of social and nationalist opposition. He tried to compensate for the impact of the unpopular peace treaty he signed with Israel in March 1979 (less than six weeks after the Iranian revolution) by amending the constitution in 1980, making sharia the “principal source of all legislation”, even though Egypt has a sizeable Christian minority. The concession was not enough to win the Brothers’ support for the peace treaty. So Sadat decided to deal them a stopping blow. In 1981, only months before his assassination by extreme Islamic fundamentalists, he launched a major wave of arrests against the Brothers.
Hosni Mubarak, succeeding Sadat as president, soon released them. At the beginning, Mubarak played it restrained and moderate, in contrast to Sadat’s flamboyant style. He tried in his turn to come to terms with the Brothers in order to win popular support, while perpetuating the controlled freedom introduced by Sadat to check their development.
The Brotherhood’s relations with the regime were strained in 1991 when Egypt joined the US-led coalition against Iraq in the first Gulf war. This was a turning point in relations between the US and its Saudi ally, on the one side, and the regional camp of moderate Sunni Islamic fundamentalism to which the popular Algerian, Egyptian and Tunisian Islamist parties belonged. To the great displeasure of the Saudi monarchy, which had been cultivating links with these parties, they joined the anti-war protest. Their rupture with Saudi Arabia accelerated the repression that struck them at various degrees during the 1990s, with the consent of the US and Europe.
Attempts to please
Since the turn of the century, the Brotherhood has been torn between the conservative timidity of its older leaders and pressure from part of its younger members for active demands for political freedoms. It was thus careful not to antagonise the regime, while engaging in democratic and nationalist protest. Its members took part in the protest coalition Kefaya (Enough). This began out of solidarity with the second Palestinian intifada, developed in opposition to the 2003 war against Iraq and established itself as a force fighting against Egypt’s dictatorial government and a likely dynastic succession.
Those Muslim Brothers favouring greater political boldness were encouraged in 2002 by the electoral rise to power in Turkey of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative Muslim party. Its success in government seemed to confirm the possibility of a model previously thought unworkable. The brutal end of the electoral process in January 1992 in Algeria, and the forced resignation of Necmettin Erbakan in 1997 in Turkey (removed by the army a year after becoming head of government), suggested that the parliamentary route was blocked to Islamic inspired movements in countries where the military stood behind political power.
The new AKP Turkish experience was a change, as both the US and EU gave it their blessing. The Bush administration, after the collapse of the “weapons of mass destruction” pretext that it had given for the invasion of Iraq, took up “democracy promotion” as its prominent policy goal in the Middle East. Encouraged by developments in Turkey, voices in Washington extolled the virtues of a more open attitude to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Under pressure from the US, Mubarak introduced greater pluralism in the 2005 elections and granted more seats to the opposition, mainly the Brothers. He hoped to demonstrate that free elections in Egypt would benefit the Brotherhood more than any others. A few months later, in January 2006, the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine ultimatey convinced the Bush administration to give up on democracy in the region, particularly in Egypt.
Barack Obama’s accession to the US presidency, and his speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009 supporting the democratisation of the region (and his snubbing of Mubarak) galvanised Egyptian opposition. After some hesitation, the Brothers associated themselves with the National Association for Change, the predominantly liberal coalition created in February 2010 with Mohamed ElBaradei as its figurehead. But several months later, ignoring the liberal opposition’s calls to boycott the parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood participated in the first round, hoping to retain a good share of representation in parliament. The result meant that it had to boycott the second round. It was left with a single MP (expelled from the Brotherhood for failing to observe the boycott), against 88 in the outgoing parliament.
These elections exasperated Egypt, where 44% live on less than $2 a day, where a greedy, self-serving bourgeoisie flaunt a luxurious lifestyle only matched locally by the rich from the Gulf’s oil monarchies seeking a “One Thousand and One Nights” experience on the Nile. Egypt was a powder keg. Tunisia was the spark. Networks and coalitions of young opposition called for demonstrations on 25 January. The Brotherhood decided not to associate itself with this for fear of the regime, and it wasn’t until the third day that it joined the movement. Its leaders were careful to praise the army, knowing that this hard kernel of the regime would be called upon to resolve the situation.
When Mubarak appointed as vice-president the chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, Omar Suleiman, and he in turn called the opposition to “dialogue”, the Brothers’ leadership agreed to meet. This concession, after their refusal to join the initial phase of the protest, contributed to discrediting them in the eyes of the youth leadership (the shabab). When Mubarak finally stood down, the Brotherhood praised the military junta, while demanding the release of prisoners and lifting of the state of emergency, and announced a plan to establish a legal political party.
No dominant role
The Brotherhood got in line to contribute to the “orderly transition” that the US had advocated from the start of the Egyptian uprising. It declared it had no aspiration to take office, and wanted only democratic rights. Essam el-Errian, one of its leaders, explained in The New York Times on 9 February: “We do not intend to take a dominant role in the forthcoming political transition. We are not putting forward a candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for September.” The Brothers “envision the establishment of a democratic, civil state” but oppose the “secular liberal democracy of the American and European variety, with its firm rejection of religion in public life” (1).
During a press conference the same day in Cairo, el-Errian emphasised that the Brotherhood is “against a religious state”, that is, a state run by religious leaders as in Iran, but stands “for a civil state with a religious reference” (2). The Arab term used – marja’iyya – can refer to a legal-theological authority responsible for verifying the compatibility of laws voted by parliament with Islam, and equipped with a legislative veto. This is what the Brotherhood’s draft programme, made public in 2007, envisaged, but it was not formally adopted. It had been criticised in particular for declaring that women and non-Muslims would be barred from becoming president of Egypt.
To secure the Brotherhood’s support, the military named a prominent member – the lawyer and former member of parliament (and author of an anti-secular book), Sobhi Saleh – to its constitutional revision committee. As head of this committee, the military chose Tariq al-Bishri, a judge who went from Nasserist-inspired nationalism to ideas that underlined Egypt’s Islamic identity and the need to base its laws on sharia. In the sermon he gave in Cairo during the huge rallies on 18 February, the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, urged workers on strike to desist and give the army time, while also calling for a change of government.
The “orderly transition” is taking shape, as envisaged by the military with US backing: the course is set for transition to an electoral democracy under the army’s control, as took place in Turkey between 1980 and 1983. Another facet of the “Turkish model” looms on the horizon: the possibility of an Islamic-inspired political party eventually coming to power, running Egypt in cooperation with the military. This could prove easier in Egypt, since its army does not uphold secularism as the Turkish army claims to do. But such an arrangement will remain problematic if the Brothers do not carry out the type of makeover the Turkish AKP undertook, and for as long as they arouse the suspicion of the US and Israel’s hostility for their attitude towards Palestine.
If the revolutionary potential of 25 January lasts and becomes radicalised (a wave of social struggles have followed Mubarak’s resignation; see Egypt: first democracy, then a pay rise), Egypt might well see the growth of a leftwing mass opposition. Then the Muslim Brotherhood would seem the lesser of two evils, for the US as much as its Egyptian military clients.
Gilbert Achcar is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and author of The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, Metropolitan, New York, and Saqi, London, 2010
(1) Essam el-Errian, “What the Muslim Brothers Want”, The New York Times, 9 February 2011.
(2) “Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun: Narfud al-Dawla al-Diniyya li annaha dud al-Islam”, Ikhwan online, 9 February 2011.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Historical Narrative What Lies Beneath The Gaddafi Rebellion

By Robert Fisk
This commentary was published in The Independent on 03/03/2011

Poor old Libyans. After 42 years of Gaddafi, the spirit of resistance did not burn so strongly. The intellectual heart of Libya had fled abroad.

Libyans have always opposed foreign occupiers just as the Algerians and the Egyptians and the Yemenis have done – but their Beloved Leader has always presented himself as a fellow resister rather than a dictator. Hence in his long self-parody of a speech in Tripoli yesterday, he invoked Omar Mukhtar – hanged by Mussolini's colonial army – rather than the patronising tone of a Mubarak or a Ben Ali. 

And who was he going to free Libya from? Al-Qa'ida, of course. Indeed, at one point in his Green Square address, Gaddafi made a very interesting remark. His Libyan intelligence service, he said, had helped to free al-Qa'ida members from the US prison at Guantanamo in return for a promise that al-Qa'ida would not operate in Libya or attack his regime. But al-Qa'ida betrayed the Libyans, he insisted, and set up "sleeper cells" in the country. 

Whether Gaddafi believes all this or not, there have been many rumours in the Arab world of contacts between Gaddafi's secret police and al-Qa'ida operatives, meetings intended to avoid a recurrence of the miniature Islamist uprising that Gaddafi faced years ago in Benghazi. 

And many al-Qa'ida members did come from Libya – hence the frequent nomme de guerre of "al-Libi" which they added as a patronymic. Natural it then was for Gaddafi, who once hosted Abu Nidal's Palestinian assassination groups (who never betrayed him), to suspect that al-Qa'ida lay somewhere behind the uprising in eastern Libya.
It is only a matter of time, needless to say, before Gaddafi reminds Libyans that al-Qa'ida was a satellite of the very Arab mujahedin used by the United States to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Yet Libya's own ferocious resistance to Italian colonisation proves that its people know how to fight and die. In "Tripolitania", Libyans were expected to walk in the gutter if Italians were walking towards them on the same pavement and Fascist Italy used aircraft as well as occupation troops to bring Libya to heel.
Ironically, it was the forces of the British and Americans rather than the Italians that liberated Libya. And they themselves left behind a legacy of millions of landmines around Tobruk and Benghazi that Gaddafi's weird regime never ceased to exploit as Libyan shepherds continued to die on the old battlefields of the Second World War.
So Libyans are not disconnected from history. Their grandfathers – in some cases their fathers – fought against the Italians; thus a foundation of resistance, a real historical narrative, lies beneath their opposition to Gaddafi; hence Gaddafi's own adoption of resistance – to the mythical threat of al-Qa'ida's "foreign" brutality – is supposed to maintain support for his regime.
Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, however, the "People's Masses" of Libya are a tribal rather than a societal nation. Hence two members of Gaddafi's own family – the head of security in Tripoli and the most influential intelligence officer in Benghazi – were respectively his nephew, Abdel Salem Alhadi, and his cousin, Mabrouk Warfali. Gaddafi's own tribe, the Guedaffi, come from the desert between Sirte and Sebha; hence the western region of Libya remains under his control.
Talk of civil war in Libya – the kind of waffle currently emerging from Hillary Clinton's State Department – is nonsense. All revolutions, bloody or otherwise, are usually civil wars unless outside powers intervene, which Western nations clearly do not intend to do and the people of eastern Libya have already said they do not wish for foreign intervention (David Cameron, please note).
But Gaddafi went to war in Chad – and lost. Gaddafi's regime is not a great military power and Colonel Gaddafi is not General Gaddafi. Yet he will go on singing his anti-colonial songs and as long as his security teams are prepared to hold on in the west of the country, he can flaunt himself in Tripoli.
And a warning: under UN sanctions, Iraqis were supposed to rise up against Saddam Hussein. They didn't – because they were too busy trying to keep their families alive without bread or fresh water or money. Saddam lost all but four provinces of Iraq in the 1991 rebellion. But he got them back.
Now western Libyans live without bread or fresh water or money. And Gaddafi yesterday spoke in Tripoli's Green Square with the same resolution to "rescue" Benghazi from "terrorists". Dictators don't like or trust each other; but unfortunately they do learn from each other.

From Lebanon, With Pessimism And Hope

By Waleed Hazbun from Beirut
This commentary was published in The New York Times on 03/03/2011

On the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 11, I received a text message from a colleague. The dinner she was hosting would be delayed a hour “on account of revolution.” The delay was not a surprise since everyone I know had been riveted by the dramatic events shaking the Arab world. As scholars of Middle East politics and culture we have been following them since long before 9/11. And in recent weeks, we have formed a transnational social network tracking, taking part in and commenting on events in real time.

Like most of our American academic friends, both my wife and I have lived in various countries in the Middle East — including Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. It was largely a desire to more closely follow and experience the ongoing geopolitical changes in the region that drove me last September to relocate from a previous academic position in Baltimore to the American University of Beirut. It is both challenging and exhilarating to teach international relations and U.S. foreign policy here. The students come from many different national backgrounds and political orientations. Lessons about war and geopolitical change are not abstractions here; they penetrate our fears and hopes on a daily basis.
As it turned out, our dinner on that Friday evening felt like a New Years’ Eve party. Colleagues and friends, many with friends and family in Egypt, celebrated what felt like the dawn of a new era. After decades of stifling authoritarian rule in the region, there was now hope for a future full of creative possibilities across the Arab world.
Many who are critical of the U.S. role in the Arab world have been joyful. A week before the events of Feb. 11, I spent an afternoon at a local café frequented by leftist intellectuals and activists. Projected on a large wall, Al Jazeera footage showed live scenes of the mass protests in several cities across Egypt. As a Lebanese friend was heading out with a group to protest at the Egyptian embassy, I overheard him declare, “If Egypt falls that will be the beginning of the end of the American empire in the region.”
Here in Lebanon and elsewhere, there is a strong hope that Egypt will return to a role as a major political and intellectual force in the Arab world. Many Arabs still hold memories of the Egypt of the 1950s. Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and sought to rid the region of the remnants of colonial influence. Cairo was the center of vibrant Arab cultural production, such that many understand the Egyptian dialect from the Egyptian films that often play on Arabic television. In recent decades, however, Egypt’s regional role has been constrained by its domestic system, limited by its economic and strategic dependence on the United States and overshadowed by Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf States that have used their wealth to dominate much of the region’s media, buy political influence and build shiny urban enclaves packed with showy high-rise buildings staffed by expatriate professionals.
The influence of petrodollars and the pull of the Gulf are felt across the Middle East, but its effects reverberate sharply here in Beirut. Before its civil war, Lebanon played a central role in the Arab world, sustained by its economic openness, cultural vibrancy and political pluralism. But now, as Beirut rebuilds itself, the cities of the Gulf are overshadowing it with their new museums and universities. While visitors from the Gulf sustain Beirut’s tourism and real estate market, businesses there draw many of our graduates who cannot find work elsewhere.
So even as uprisings spread day by day across the region, the view from Beirut is a mixed one.
It is not clear what the uprisings will mean for political life here. While many are excited about the potential for transformation, Lebanon’s pluralist, democratic political system, fragmented state and weak military mean that Lebanese have not suffered in the same way as the rest of the Arab world, where repressive authoritarian states have been the norm. Some Lebanese suggest that they launched the region’s first people’s uprising in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The mass demonstrations that followed at Beirut’s Martyr’s Square and beyond led to the rapid evacuation of Syrian forces, who had been in Lebanon since 1976. In the wake of the protests, Hariri’s son Saad became the leader of what has often been referred to as the “Western-backed” March 14 coalition (named for the date of the largest anti-Syrian rally). But in recent years the power of the March 14 coalition has waned.
The week before the Egyptian revolution, Saad Hairi lost his position as prime minister in a “unity government” when 11 ministers, most tied to the Hezbollah-backed March 8 coalition, walked out of the government. Their resignations were largely due to opposition to the U.N.-sponsored Special Tribunal for Lebanon that is investigating the assassination of Hariri and the 22 others who died with him.
In response to the fall of the government, Hariri’s supporters launched their own “day of rage.” It included blocking roads with burning tires and attacks on Al Jazeera journalists. Even in unaffected neighborhoods, businesses shuttered as people retreated to their homes. My daughter’s day care center, located next to the A.U.B. campus, called to say they were closing “on account of the events.” These protests had little political impact and may have led to a further erosion of the coalition’s popular support. After a number of defections from the March 14 coalition, Hezbollah and its allies in parliament were quickly able to elect a friendly figure to replace Hariri.
While Hariri’s movement might have come to power on the back of a people’s revolt, his close ties to Saudi Arabia and strong U.S. backing have limited the enthusiasm he and his supporters can muster for the Egyptian revolution. At the same time, Hezbollah praises the bravery of the Egyptians while their allies in Iran suppress opposition protests inspired in part by developments in the Arab world.
So despite the promise of change sweeping our region, the view from of many Lebanese is dampened by pessimism. I have observed this diminished hope among students on campus here. In 2007, for instance, the country was sharply divided by “pro-Syrian” and “anti-Syrian” coalitions and politics was deadlocked. A number of car bomb assassinations, mostly targeting anti-Syrian politicians heightened the tensions. One explosion occurred next to a seaside café I was visiting with friends and nearly knocked me to the ground. Nevertheless, many of our graduate students were active in civil society groups and efforts to mobilize citizens to define political alternatives. Today, after three more years of divided government and armed clashes in 2008 that saw Hezbollah’s weapons turned on fellow Lebanese, it seems the fount of enthusiasm and hope for domestic political change that burst forth in the spring of 2005 has nearly dried up.
Today, many of my students seem disenchanted with the country’s political elite who maintain political movements largely defined by sectarian loyalties. It seems that even when the ossified political systems across the region finally succumb to pressures for change, Lebanon will maintain a non-authoritarian, but nevertheless dysfunctional, corruption-ridden state paralyzed by a divided government, run by a political class largely isolated from popular accountability.
My own feelings about the future are not limited by the potential for change in the Lebanese system. I see my role as a member of the cosmopolitan faculty at this hybrid American-Lebanese institution in terms of the broader challenges and possibilities of the region.
In recent days, I have often recalled the numerous times that Arabs of my father’s generation, who came of age in the 1950s, told me that they felt they had “failed” the Arab causes they grew up supporting. My father, a Palestinian who later became a naturalized U.S. citizen, came to A.U.B. to study civil engineering, perhaps with the idea of helping to build a modern Arab world at a time of much optimism. He and his friends took part in campus politics driven by concerns that spanned the Arabic-speaking world.
My hope is that the current generation of students — not only Lebanese but those also from other Arab countries, Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere — might again feel a larger commitment; that they may be moved by something beyond the desire to find a job and raise a family, and revive the project of my father’s generation: reshaping the political and intellectual life of the Arab world so that it can again play an important role in the future of the global political order.
Waleed Hazbun teaches international relations at the American University of Beirut. He is the author of “Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World.”

Behind Iraq`s Protests, A Call For Better Democracy

By Daniel Serwer
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 03/03/2011

The mood in Iraq has shifted with the uprisings across the Arab world. Frustration over jobs, corruption and services inspired Iraqis to take to the streets last Friday and over the weekend, precipitating the resignations of at least three provincial governors and prompting calls for long-promised local elections. While turnout was not overwhelming, Iraqis across the country demonstrated. The government tried to stifle the demonstrations by claiming they would be infiltrated by al-Qaeda. Security forces reacted violently, killing at least 17. 

The forecast, however, is not all bad. When I was in Baghdad in January, just as Tunisia's revolution was unfolding, Iraqi politicians were pleased with the "national partnership" government that was taking power. The government includes most everyone who is anyone, except former prime minister Ayad Allawi (whose slate placed first in the parliamentary elections last March but who hesitated too long in joining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, only to see others in his mostly Sunni coalition jump on board once Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr signed up).

Overall violence was down, though suicide bombings and targeted assassinations of key people in the security forces continued. Sadr has made it clear that he intends to play politics, while holding his militia forces in reserve. The Sunni militia equivalents had burned their bridges with al-Qaeda and likewise taken up politics. 

Arabs and Kurds, who dispute control over a wide arc of northern Iraq, agreed to restart oil exports from Kurdistan in February. Kuwaitis and Iraqis, who have been at odds over various issues since the Persian Gulf War, are also talking with each other. 

Iraqis have been thinking about what they need to do to achieve national reconciliation: Redefine the relationship between citizens and the state, reform education at all levels, suppress incitement, limit foreign interference in domestic politics. Members of parliament I spoke with wondered what it would take to produce a "culture of forgiveness." There was a healthy debate. 

Although the protests could grow, it is significant that Iraqis are demanding not regime change but better democratic government. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, has endorsed the calls for better services. Demonstrators have criticized the ethnic and sectarian quotas used to form the new government, which encourage corruption and hamper efficient delivery of services. But few are calling for less democracy. 

Maliki has given his ministers 100 days to deliver. Oil prices have risen well above the level used to calculate Iraq's budget, which is good news for Baghdad. Production is still increasing, and international companies have signed contracts to boost it further. The windfall allows Baghdad to imagine that it can begin to deliver electricity, water, sanitation and other services at levels not seen since 2003. The government is planning to host the Arab League summit this month. Downtown hotels are replacing their war-scarred facades, and uniformed street sweepers are cleaning the Green Zone, where the prime minister's new guest house is lit at night. 

Yet the tussle between Islamists and secularists continues, with Allawi hoping that the national council for strategic policies that he is slated to chair will provide the vehicle he needs to turn Iraq in a more secular direction. The Shiite-Sunni divide is quiet but could rumble again. Arabs and Kurds have not yet agreed on the boundaries of Kurdistan, including important oil fields and the city of Kirkuk. As Americans withdraw, the United Nations needs to ensure that tensions between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish pesh merga do not get out of control. 

From an American perspective, the most important problems awaiting resolution pertain to Iraq's military and oil. 

Sadrists oppose the presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi territory past the agreed deadline of Dec. 31. But the Iraqi air force and navy will not be ready for prime time by then. We risk leaving Iraq exposed to aerial and maritime military pressure from neighbors, particularly Iran, unless a major American military training mission - numbering at least 1,000 - is attached to the U.S. Embassy. 

Oil is a separate issue. Iraq can produce great volumes at low cost from giant reserves - possibly on the order of those in Saudi Arabia - but it does not have the infrastructure to get the oil to world markets. Iraq traditionally has exported most of its oil through the Persian Gulf, a route that is exposed to Iranian pressure. A safer option would be to use pipelines north and west to Turkey and Syria, which would send crude into European markets at lower cost than shipping through the Gulf while also reducing Iranian leverage. 

The United States must live with the mistake of having gone to war in Iraq, but it can still get some return on its enormous investment if Iraq becomes a reliable, high-volume supplier of oil to world markets and a country that can defend itself with only a modicum of U.S. support. If at the same time Iraq remains a state in which leaders are chosen in relatively free and fair elections that put in power people who reflect the wide diversity of the population and feel real pressure to delivery services efficiently, something approaching a modest postwar success is possible. As U.S. troops draw down, American diplomats and aid workers have a tough, but potentially rewarding, challenge. 

Daniel Serwer is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a professorial lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He blogs at