Saturday, March 26, 2011

Unrest In Syria And Jordan Poses New Test For U.S. Policy

By Mark Landler
This news analysis was published in The New York Times on 26/03/2011

WASHINGTON — Even as the Obama administration defends the NATO-led air war in Libya, the latest violent clashes in Syria and Jordan are raising new alarm among senior officials who view those countries, in the heartland of the Arab world, as far more vital to American interests.

Deepening chaos in Syria, in particular, could dash any remaining hopes for a Middle East peace agreement, several analysts said. It could also alter the American rivalry with Iran for influence in the region and pose challenges to the United States’ greatest ally in the region, Israel.
In interviews, administration officials said the uprising appeared to be widespread, involving different religious groups in southern and coastal regions of Syria, including Sunni Muslims usually loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The new American ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, has been quietly reaching out to Mr. Assad to urge him to stop firing on his people.
As American officials confront the upheaval in Syria, a country with which the United States has icy relations, they say they are pulled between fears that its problems could destabilize neighbors like Lebanon and Israel, and the hope that it could weaken one of Iran’s key allies.
The Syrian unrest continued on Saturday, with government troops reported to have killed more protesters.
With 61 people confirmed killed by security forces, the country’s status as an island of stability amid the Middle East storm seemed irretrievably lost.
For two years, the United States has tried to coax Damascus into negotiating a peace deal with Israel and to moving away from Iran — a fruitless effort that has left President Obama open to criticism on Capitol Hill that he is bolstering one of the most repressive regimes in the Arab world.
Officials fear the unrest there and in Jordan could leave Israel further isolated. The Israeli government was already rattled by the overthrow of Egypt’s leader, Hosni Mubarak, worrying that a new government might not be as committed to Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
While Israel has largely managed to avoid being drawn into the region’s turmoil, last week’s bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, which killed one person and wounded 30, and a rain of rocket attacks from Gaza, have fanned fears that the militant group Hamas is trying to exploit the uncertainty.
The unrest in Jordan, which has its own peace treaty with Israel, is also extremely worrying, a senior administration official said. The United States does not believe Jordan is close to a tipping point, this official said. But the clashes, which left one person dead and more than a hundred wounded, pose the gravest challenge yet to King Abdullah II, a close American ally.
Syria, however, is the more urgent crisis — one that could pose a thorny dilemma for the administration if Mr. Assad carries out a crackdown like that of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, who ordered a bombardment in 1982 that killed at least 10,000 people in the northern city of Hama. Having intervened in Libya to prevent a wholesale slaughter in Benghazi, some analysts asked, how could the administration not do the same in Syria?
Though no one is yet talking about a no-fly zone over Syria, Obama administration officials acknowledge the parallels to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Some analysts predicted the administration will be cautious in pressing Mr. Assad, not because of any allegiance to him but out of a fear of what could follow him — a Sunni-led government potentially more radical and Islamist than his Alawite minority government.
Still, after the violence, administration officials said Mr. Assad’s future was unclear. “Whatever credibility the government had, they shot it today — literally,” a senior official said about Syria, speaking on the condition that he not be named.
In the process, he said, Mr. Assad had also probably disqualified himself as a peace partner for Israel. Such a prospect had seemed a long shot in any event — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown no inclination to talk to Mr. Assad — but the administration kept working at it, sending its special envoy, George J. Mitchell, on several visits to Damascus.
Mr. Assad has said that he wants to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. But with his population up in arms, analysts said, he might actually have an incentive to pick a fight with its neighbor, if only to deflect attention from the festering problems at home.
“You can’t have a comprehensive peace without Syria,” the administration official said. “It’s definitely in our interest to pursue an agreement, but you can’t do it with a government that has no credibility with its population.”
Indeed, the crackdown calls into question the entire American engagement with Syria. Last June, the State Department organized a delegation from Microsoft, Dell and Cisco Systems to visit Mr. Assad with the message that he could attract more investment if he stopped censoring Facebook and Twitter. While the administration renewed economic sanctions against Syria, it approved export licenses for some civilian aircraft parts.
The Bush administration, by contrast, largely shunned Damascus, recalling its ambassador in February 2005 after the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese accuse Syria of involvement in the assassination, a charge it denies.
When Mr. Obama named Mr. Ford as his envoy last year, Republicans in the Senate held up the appointment for months, arguing that the United States should not reward Syria with closer ties. The administration said it would have more influence by restoring an ambassador.
But officials also concede that Mr. Assad has been an endless source of frustration — deepening ties with Iran and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah; undermining the government of Saad Hariri in Lebanon; pursuing a nuclear program; and failing to deliver on promises of reform.
Some analysts said that the United States was so eager to use Syria to break the deadlock on Middle East peace negotiations that it had failed to push Mr. Assad harder on political reforms.
“He’s given us nothing, even though we’ve engaged him on the peace process,” said Andrew J. Tabler, who lived in Syria for a decade and is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I’m not saying we should give up on peace talks with Israel, but we cannot base our strategy on that.”
The United States does not have the leverage with Syria it had with Egypt. But Mr. Tabler said the administration could stiffen sanctions to press Mr. Assad to make reforms.
Other analysts, however, point to a positive effect of the unrest: it could deprive Iran of a reliable ally in extending its influence over Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
That is not a small thing, they said, given that Iran is likely to benefit from the fall of Mr. Mubarak in Egypt, the upheaval in Bahrain, and the resulting chill between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
“There’s much more upside than downside for the U.S.,” said Martin S. Indyk, the vice president for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “We have an interest in counterbalancing the advantages Iran has gained in the rest of the region. That makes it an unusual confluence of our values and interests.”

Syria, Iran, And American Interests

As in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, we hear voices saying “watch out–the Brotherhood is coming. You’ll regret what you wished for.”  I recall the same debate inside the U.S. Government in the 2003-5 period, when some officials, led by Gen. John Abizaid of CentCom, theorized that what would come after Asad would be worse for the United States.

This was a terribly mistaken view then and remains so now.  Given that at that time Syria was doing all it could to pour jihadis into Iraq to kill Americans, it was in fact an astonishing and costly error in analysis.

This is true not only because the regime is especially bloody and vicious, as generations of mourners and political prisoners can testify.  It is true also because of the regime’s affinity to Iran and Hizballah.

The Syria/Iran/Hizballah axis is a huge benefit to Iran and ending it would weaken Iran’s position greatly.  Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world and its land bridge to Hizballah.  Recent reports of an Iranian naval facility in the Mediterranean reminded us of how valuable an asset Syria is today for Iran.  If a Sunni-led Syria (and the country is 74% Sunni) ended the Asad regime’s romance with the ayatollahs, American interests in the entire Middle East would gain. Hizballah’s power in Lebanon would diminish instantly and the opposition to Hizballah—the March 14 movement, and Lebanon’s Sunni, Christian, and Druze communities—would grow stronger. Iran’s ability to threaten Israel would diminish if it lost what amounts to a land border with Israel through Lebanon’s Hizballah-controlled south.  Moreover, every time a Middle Eastern tyranny falls, and especially so in the case of the tyranny most closely linked to Iran, it makes Iran’s own terrorist regime seem more outdated and anomalous in a Middle East where democracy is spreading.

So the end of the Asad regime is very much in the interest of the United States.  And as I argued in the Washington Post, the United States should be actively seeking to bring it about.

Should the U.S. arm the Libyan rebels?

By Blake Hounshell
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 26/03/2011
Now that the no-fly zone debate seems to have been settled on the ground in Libya -- it clearly halted an impending massacre in Benghazi, and seems to have given embattled residents in Misrata and Zintan a reprieve -- if not in the U.S. Congress, discussion is now turning to whether to arm the rebels and give them more explicit political support.

Former U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz addressed this topic obliquely in Friday's press conference. "I'm not going to get into internal discussions about whether we will provide arms or whether we won't provide arms," he said. "I can just say that we're having the full gamut of potential assistance that we might offer, both on the non-lethal and the lethal side, is a subject of discussion within the U.S. government, but there has been no final decisions made on any aspect of that."

NPR subsequently reported, citing Pentagon sources, that among the options being considered were providing the rebels with RPGs -- presumably to use against Qaddafi's tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. The rebels are eager to get their hands on such weapons.

Many observers are understandably leery of such a step. Not only would it be legally debatable according to the terms of U.N. Security Resolution 1973, which authorized the no-fly/no-drive/no-sail zone in and around Libya, but it would represent a risky escalation in what the Obama administration has been at pains to portray as a TLSLMA -- a "time-limited, scope-limited military action." We may know a few of the familiar faces heading the "transitional council," but do we really know who wields real power and authority among the rebels, to the extent that anyone does? What if they commit a massacre using U.S.-provided weapons? What if they prove to be just as bad as Qaddafi? What if weapons get into the hands of al Qaeda?

And yet there are strong arguments for providing at least small arms. One reason is that weapons are probably going to pour in anyway, perhaps from Egyptian stockpiles or factories and perhaps paid for by Gulf Arab states (indeed, the Wall Street Journal has reported that this is already happening, though Egypt denies it). Another is that the West, or the United States, will have more influence with the rebels if it is arming them than if it doesn't -- and thus may be better placed to shape events going forward. And, of course, the most straightforward reason for giving the rebels weapons is because they may not be able to protect themselves -- let alone defeat Qaddafi's forces -- without them. And given that Obama has said that Qaddafi must go, the United States has staked its prestige on the rebels' victory.

All of that is why opponents of the U.S.-led intervention feared, rightly, that America's involvement in Libya wouldn't stop with a no-fly zone. And yet what was the alternative? To sit back and watch as Qaddafi butchered his own people and re-imposed control over eastern Libya? Then what? And what kind of impact would that have on democratic uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East? Dictators everywhere would learn the lesson that brutality works, and that -- once again -- the words of the international community mean nothing. An early end to the "Arab Spring" could stoke resentment and bitterness for years, with dangerous consequences not only for the region but for Americans and Europeans as well.

None of this is ideal. Congress is unhappy, Obama's own team is divided, the coalition diplomacy is a mess, and opportunistic leaders in China, Russia, and elsewhere are aping Qaddafi propaganda to bash the West. Those looking for consistency in U.S. policy won't find it in Bahrain or Yemen, to take just two examples. Yet thousands of Libyan lives have been saved, millions of Arabs are cheering on Western airstrikes for the first time in history, and one of the world's nastiest tyrants is on his way out. Surely all that is an accomplishment worth celebrating -- and validating by finishing the job.

The Syrians And The Media Complaints

By Tariq Alhomayed
This commentary was published in Aharq al-Awsat on 26/03/2011

Damascus has complained of what it has described as media incitement, namely the impact of the media coverage of the demonstrations taking place in around 7 different Syrian cities, not to mention the [coverage] of the violence and even killings of demonstrators in the city of Deraa in southern Syria.
The truth is that the international media in particular, as well as Arab media in general, have only recently begun to pay attention to what is happening in Deraa, despite the abundance of images and video clips on YouTube. However, the situation naturally changed following the rise in the death toll, as well as the violent crackdown carried out by the Syrian authorities against the people of Deraa and against protestors throughout Syria. This is only natural, and when there are people being killed, the regime – any regime – can no longer complain about the media, or consider what is happening in the country to be an internal affair; similarly the media cannot be silent or overlook what is happening.
Therefore, as I said in my article on Thursday [My advice for Friday: Do not kill], "my golden advice to Damascus is: Do no kill, and do not open fire" and this is because killing only incites the situation and intensifies the crisis. Therefore the most effective way for Syria to deal with what is happening is for it to put a stop to the injustices and respond to the demands of the people in a respectable manner, especially as what is happening in the country is not being incited by external forces, but are rather genuine demands. The latest statements from Damascus acknowledge this, with the government promising greater media freedoms, as well as the licensing of political parties, and studying the possibility of lifting the state of emergency that has prevailed in Syria for more than 4 decades without reason. Therefore how, after all of this, can Syria say that foreign hands are responsible, or that terrorists are behind what is happening in the country? What we have seen today is that all of those killed [in Deraa] are from the ranks of the protestors, not the police.
The media is not the story…and if anybody wants to see what media incitement truly looks like and confirm that the media, particularly the western media, have taken a lenient stance towards the Syrians, then you need only look at the western media's coverage of Bahrain in order to spot the difference. The western media's coverage of Bahrain was characterized by sectarian incitement and manipulation, and attempts to portray the Bahraini governments as being dictatorial, despite the fact that since the first day [of the crisis] it had responded with offers to discuss the protestors demands. However in response to this, the opposition transgressed the limits to the point of calling for a Republic of Bahrain!
Therefore, the best way for Damascus to deal with what is happening in Syria today is for it to put a stop to the violence and killing, rather than blame the media and accuse others of treason. The demonstrations are intensifying, and are no longer confined to Deraa, but rather demonstrations have broken out in 7 Syrian cities. This is dangerous because the demonstrations did not originate in the capital, Damascus, but rather on the edges [of the country], with these demonstrations moving towards the capital and other important Syrian cities. The implications of this are huge, and most importantly of all the fear barrier has been broken by the killings [in Deraa]. Therefore today is different from yesterday, particularly with regards to the media and technology, not to mention the prevailing situation in our region, since Ben Ali's escape, Mubarak's ouster, and the war in Libya. Perhaps more importantly than all of this, is the situation in Yemen where the curtain is on the verge of coming down [on the regime], although it is not clear whether this end will be a violent one, as in Libya, or calm, as in Egypt. All of this means that the situation in Yemen is far more complex and complicated.
In any case, what is most important is for there not to be any use of violence against unarmed protestors, this is my message, and this must be any regime's primary concern and focus, rather than criticizing the media.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why US Refuses To Flex Military Muscle In Libya

Alex Spillius writes: Given Iraq and Afghanistan, the president realises that appearing to lead a third conflict could hurt him domestically and wreck Arab trust in AmericaThis commentary was published in The Gulf News on 26/03/2011
During their long and prickly battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton taunted Barack Obama with a television advertisement in which a telephone ringing at 3am in the White House went unanswered.
The question was: Who did Americans want to pick up the phone? "Someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world?" as the doom-laden voiceover suggested — in other words someone such as the supposedly battle-ready Clinton? Or someone such as Obama, who at that stage had been in the Senate for a mere three years?
When it came to the Libyan crisis, Obama left the figurative phone ringing for a fortnight, and as the British and French clamoured for a muscular response, did not speak to British Prime Minister David Cameron for a week.
Only when Muammar Gaddafi's armoured columns began picking off opposition-held towns, and when the Arab League supported a no-fly zone, did he change his mind, and only then after Clinton — now, of course, overseeing the answering of the phones at the State Department — and Susan Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations, persuaded him that it would not be in his interests to have another Srebrenica on his hands.
Critics called this dithering, and it was. The bulk of Obama's working life was spent teaching law at the University of Chicago — he rarely mentions this because it is not politically savvy. But when faced with a crisis he still reacts like a college professor, gathering as much data and listening to as many different viewpoints as possible before processing all that information through his high-quality brain.
Gut feelings are not a strong point, but that does not mean that on Libya he does not know what he is doing. While European interventionists may be frustrated chiefly with his late arrival to the cause, criticism at home has come from every angle.
Senators from both Left and Right wondered why Congress was not consulted and demanded a joint session where the president would explain the goals of the mission. Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination next year, called Obama a "spectator in chief instead of commander in chief?", who lacked the ability to lead the world.
With Washington's politicos and press corps demanding an explanation, Obama made only a short statement before leaving Washington — and before it dawned on the Beltway crowd that bombs were going to rain on Libya — and then took only one question on the military operation at a press conference in Chile.
In many ways, his critics have missed the point. With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan still active, the last impression this US president wants to give Americans is that they are at war on another front.
"Obama is pursuing a subtle strategy that, contrary to the criticism, has been carefully thought out," says Stefan Halper, a former senior official in four Republican administrations. "It will enable the Europeans to do what they want to do with American help, preserve our credibility and ensure we pull away from the cutting edge of this process."
There are numerous causes for Washington's reticence. The Pentagon is worried about cost and overstretch. The president is concerned about not wrecking what he sees as progress in repairing the Arab world's trust in Washington.
A humanitarian crisis in Libya is, moreover, much further from the US than from Europe. There is also a keen awareness in the Obama administration, Halper says, that the real worries in the Middle East are the kingdoms of Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet resides, and Saudi Arabia, the world's largest supplier of oil.
Wait and watch
"It is very present in people's minds and there is a sense of keeping your powder dry. If we have to have a holding operation in Libya that prevents a slaughter and takes a long time for a rag-tag opposition to move Gaddafi out of office, then so be it."
Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says: "We are already at war in two Muslim nations and a third could not be contemplated. The delays from the White House may have come at a cost on the ground as Gaddafi made some gains, but would quick unilateral action have defeated him for sure?
"This was better than blundering into a conflict looking like a cowboy who only goes after Muslims. We will play a significant role in this but not one which allows Al Jazeera to show people burning US flags."
What should not be missed here is that far from lacking a foreign policy for the US, Obama is changing it. The multilateralism he seeks against Libya is not the fig-leafed coalition of the willing that went to war in Iraq, where, as Ornstein puts it, "every other country apart from a few sent three or four soldiers".
Obama foresees an operation against Libya with an American logistical spine and a British or French, or even Arab face. His plan is consistent with his approach to date of restoring US standing after the Bush era, promoting US economic interests given the nation's shrinking share of the global pie, and avoiding conflict without looking weak — hence his decision to redouble efforts in Afghanistan.
As long as Obama sits in the White House, US allies will have to get used to the fact that while they can turn to America in a crisis, they may not receive the response they expect, especially when they themselves are in hawkish mood on any given issue.
"Obama is intuitively a multilateralist and he doesn't seem to believe that the US has any innate cultural superiority over other countries," says David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The problem is he is also very pragmatic, politically self-interested, and as narcissistic as any political leader, which means he wants all events to redound to his benefit personally."
If Obama is not free of excessive personal regard, neither is he shy of using America's clout when it suits him. He delivered a slap on the wrist to Brazil for irritating him over Iran by refusing to support its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. He hesitated little about using the US veto in the same forum against a resolution condemning Israeli colonies.
"The president knows how powerful the US is," Rothkopf says. "He is just fairly uncomfortable about using US military power." That, for all of us, may take some getting used to. Europeans wanted an anti-Bush figure. This is what they have got.

Syria's Bashar Al-Assad Has Been Struck By Freedom Flu

The fear factor that has kept Syrians in check is failing. Assad will have to move fast to avoid the circling political vultures
By Simon Tisdall
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 25/03/2011

Anti-government protesters Syria
Anti-government protesters gesture on the streets of Deraa, Syria. Photograph: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

Albert Camus, were he alive, would have understood the upheavals sweeping the Arab world. In La Peste (The Plague), the French-Algerian author and philosopher explored through allegory the deep-seated malaise that he believed shaped and determined the human condition. At its core, society – and the body politic – was rotten and absurd. From Libya to Egypt to Yemen, millions have come to recognise this diseased reality, and are trying valiantly to change it.

Syria is the latest Middle Eastern government to succumb to what might be termed "regime-itis", a metaphorical contagion, both liberating and deadly, that spreads faster than the time it takes a secret policeman to pick up his truncheon. In eerie succession, one after another, autocrats and despots across the region are coming down with freedom flu. Like a virus, it spreads, from mouth to mouth and hand to hand, allowing prior immunity to none. There is no cure.

The symptoms presented by Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus fit this diagnosis. What began as a prank by a group of children in the southern city of Deraa, spraying anti-government graffiti on walls, has escalated into large-scale protests, echoing across the country.

The regime is trying repression and on Wednesday, at least 37 people were killed. But this only sparked even bigger demonstrations. Assad is also trying concessions, including the possible relaxation of emergency laws and media controls. But so far, at least, nothing works. More and more people appear to be overcoming the "fear factor" that has kept Syrian society in check during what the Guardian's former Middle East correspondent, David Hirst, has called 51 years of "republican monarchy".

As their numbers increase, the opposition's demands grow proportionately in ambition and scale. This is what happened in Egypt and in Libya, and is happening now in Yemen. Next up, if he runs true to form, Assad will sack his interior minister or perhaps the whole government. Through spokesmen, the president is already denying personal responsibility for the killings. When he gives an interview to Christiane Amanpour, promising reform, it will be a certain sign his time is up.

Except calmer heads say Syria is not there yet, and perhaps never will be, for a host of prosaically unrevolutionary reasons. Syria is approaching "a defining moment for its leadership", the independent International Crisis Group (ICG) warned. "There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince Syrians the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end," it said.

But like other analysts, the ICG suggested Assad, said to be relatively popular with the public, could yet survive the maelstrom: "A window of opportunity still exists to change these dynamics, although it is fast closing … A broad range of citizens – including members of the security apparatus – is desperately waiting for [Assad] to take the lead and propose, before it is too late, an alternative to spiralling confrontation."

This alternative should include a transparent investigation into the Deraa killings, the release of all political prisoners, and a timetable for constitutional reform, it said.

Assad may have to move fast, for political vultures are already circling. Without naming names, the regime is blaming outsiders for fomenting the unrest. While that is unlikely, old foes in Baghdad, Riyadh and Beirut would not shed many tears should Assad stumble. That goes for Washington, too. Speaking in Tel Aviv on Thursday, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, urged an Egyptian-style army mutiny.

Gates said: "I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people. Some are dealing with it better than others. I've just come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate and in fact empowered a revolution. The Syrians might take a lesson from that."

Syria's Kurds and Sunnis who resent the Alawi minority's ascendancy might also welcome a shakeup. And Steven Cook, of the US Council on Foreign Relations, was quick to highlight possible external benefits.

"If a new, decent government emerged in Syria, it would alter the regional balance [and] improve the prospects for regional peace," Cook said – meaning Israel-Palestine. In theory, a democratic Damascus would be bad news for Hezbollah and Iran, and thus good news for the west.

But there are plenty of pragmatic and strategic reasons to fear the unpredictable consequences of revolution in Syria, too – not least instability on the borders of Israel and Iraq and the precedent it might set for Saudi Arabia, the west's oil pump, already struggling with freedom flu. If Syria, far more important in the scale of things than Libya, descended into civil strife or even civil war, wrong-footed western powers might have another powerful reason to regret their distracting rush to war with Muammar Gaddafi.

Corporations And The Arab Net Crackdown

By Timothy Karr and Clothilde Le Coz
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 25/03/2011
Springtime in the Arab world is looking bleaker now that despots in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen and reactionary elements in Egypt have gained an upper hand against the pro-democracy protesters who have inspired the world. And the Internet, hailed sometimes in excess as a potent tool for these movements, has itself come under increasing fire from these and other autocratic states seeking to crush popular dissent.
In Libya, the Gaddafi regime plunged the nation into digital darkness during the first week of March, where it has remained. In Bahrain, the kingdom reacted swiftly to pro-democracy demonstrations by filtering sites that let locals share cell phone videos, blocking YouTube pages containing videos of street protests, and taking down a large Facebook group that called for more demonstrations. And even in Egypt, despite the departure of Mubarak, the interim military authority has taken a harsh stand against pro-democracy activists, while trying to stop the sharing of looted state security files, which reveal the extent to which the government uses the Web to spy on Egyptians. 
These accounts of Internet abuse have not gone unnoticed. Less known, however, is the degree to which U.S. and European companies have enabled the crackdown.
Corporate Enablers
Egypt’s Internet crackdown appears to have been aided by Narus, a Boeing-owned surveillance technology provider that sold Telecom Egypt "real-time traffic intelligence" software that filters online communications and tracks them to their source. 
Israeli security experts founded Narus to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients. It is known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system that is allegedly being used by the National Security Agency and other entities to provide a “full network view” of suspected Internet communications as they happen.
Narus has also provided surveillance technology to Libya, according to James Bamford, author of 2008’s The Shadow Factory. In 2005, the company struck a multimillion-dollar agreement with Giza Systems of Egypt to license Narus’ Web-sleuthing products throughout the Middle East. Giza Systems services the Libyan network.
British-owned Vodafone shut down its Egypt-based cellphone network following a request from the Mubarak regime and then restored it only to send pro-Mubarak propaganda to text-messaging customers across the country. When digital rights groups like protested Vodafone’s actions, the company stated that it could do nothing to stop those texts, because it was forced to abide by the country's emergency laws.
Bahrain reportedly filtered and blocked websites using “SmartFilter” software supplied by the U.S. company McAfee, which Intel acquired  late last year. Despite widespread reports of its use, company executives claim that they have “no control over, or visibility into how an organization implements its own filtering policy."
Cisco Systems, a leading manufacturer of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) systems , a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track, and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, is a major partner in Bahrain. In 2009, the San Jose, California-based company joined with the kingdom to open an Internet Data Center in Bahrain’s capital “as an essential component in the drive to improve government services to the populace.”
The extent to which Cisco’s own DPI products are part of this deal remains to be seen. Executives at Cisco would not return our requests for comment on the nature of its involvement in Bahrain.
Nokia and Siemens also support Libya’s cell phone network.  A joint venture between these two firms was heavily criticized in 2009 for reportedly assisting the Iranian regime’s crackdown against cyber-dissidents. It’s difficult to know whether they assisted the Libyan government, since Nokia Siemens' PR didn’t return our call, either.
Leading by Action
In mid-February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about a new U.S. Internet freedom policy designed to help democracy movements  gain access to open networks and speak out against authoritarian regimes. As part of this initiative, the State Department will provide tens of millions of dollars in new grants to support "technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression."
Secretary Clinton spoke of the Obama administration's belief in our universal "freedom to connect," something the White House sees as a natural extension of our longstanding rights to free speech, assembly, and association.
Yet it's hard to claim the moral high road and lecture other countries on the importance of online freedom when U.S. companies are exporting DPI  systems and other technology to regimes intent on spying on their own people and turning the open Internet into a means of repression.
Asking Clinton’s deputy director James Steinberg  about this inconsistency during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in February, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)brought up Narus’ dealings with the Mubarak regime.  “It is an awful tool of repression,” Smith said, “and Narus, according to these reports, is enabling this invasion of privacy.” Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA) continued the questioning, going so far as to say that "people are losing their lives based on this technology." Keating called on Steinberg to investigate U.S. companies that sell DPI technology overseas. In a subsequent press statement, Keating pledged to introduce legislation "that would provide a national strategy to prevent the use of American technology from being used by human rights abusers."
Earlier this month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, penned a Politico op-ed slamming the U.S. technology industry for “failing to address serious human rights challenges.” He wrote, “If U.S. companies are unwilling to take reasonable steps to protect human rights," Durbin wrote, “Congress must step in.”
Pledges to act are encouraging, but far less so than action itself. As of now, we have seen little of substance to defend our freedom to connect against companies and their despotic clients that seek to take it away.
Clothilde Le Coz is the Washington director of Reporters Sans Frontieres, which just released the 2011 Enemies of the Internet report. Timothy Karr is the campaign director of Free Press, the nation’s largest media reform group where he oversees all campaigns and online outreach efforts. Both are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Did 'The Israel Lobby' Change Anything?

Five years after.
By Stephen M. Walt
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 25/03/2011
Five years ago this week, John Mearsheimer and I published The Israel Lobby in the London Review of Books. Our goal in writing the article (and subsequent book) was to break the taboo on discussions of the lobby's impact on U.S. foreign policy and to transform it into a topic that people could talk about openly and calmly. Because we believed the "special relationship" that the lobby had promoted was harmful to the United States and Israel (not to mention the Palestinians), we hoped that a more open discourse on this topic would move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for almost everyone.
Did we succeed?
There's little question that the article and book opened up discussion, aided by the efforts of a number of other people and by developments in the region (alas, most of them unfortunate). We also owe a debt of gratitude to our more virulent critics, whose efforts to misrepresent our work and portray us as anti-Semites merely confirmed many of our key points. We weren't surprised by these responses, but it was disappointing to see so much of the initial discussion focus on these bogus charges, instead of our actual arguments. (For academic evaluations of the work, see here and here; for our responses, see here and here.)
Yet despite these distractions, discussions of the lobby and its impact have moved from the fringes of U.S. discourse to the mainstream. Today, one can read or watch people from Jon Stewart to Andrew Sullivan to Glenn Greenwald to David Remnick to Nicholas Kristof acknowledging the lobby's role in shaping U.S. Middle East policy. Editorials in mainstream papers like the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times call for the U.S. government to adopt a tougher approach toward the Israeli government. More and more news stories on U.S. Middle East policy refer to the "Israel lobby" as a serious political force, and not always in flattering terms. Even hard-line neoconservatives like David Frum now acknowledge the power of groups in the lobby, as in Frum's recent complaint that Sarah Palin failed to appreciate the political benefits she could gain by choosing to visit Israel under the auspices of the Republican Jewish Coalition, instead of going on her own. Of course, our book and article are surely not the only reason for this shift in discourse, but we probably played a role.
When we wrote the book, we also hoped that our work would provoke some soul-searching among "pro-Israel" individuals and groups in the United States, and especially those found in the American Jewish community. Why? Because interest-group politics are central to American democracy, and the most obvious way to shift U.S. policy on this issue would be to alter the attitudes and behavior of the interest groups that care most about it and exert the greatest influence over U.S. behavior.
Indeed, we explicitly said in the book that what was needed was a "new Israel lobby," one that would advocate policies that were actually in Israel's long-term interest (and would be more aligned with U.S. interests too). The problem, we emphasized repeatedly, was not the existence of a powerful interest group focused on these issue; the problem was that it was dominated by individuals and organizations whose policy preferences were wrongheaded. A powerful "pro-Israel" interest group that favored smart policies would be wholly desirable.
It is therefore gratifying to observe the emergence of J Street, to see groups like Americans for Peace Now and Jewish Voice for Peace become more vocal, and to see writers like Peter Beinart and David Remnick take public stances that are substantially different from ones they might have expressed a few years ago.
Needless to say, these shifts weren't our doing. Events in the region -- especially the 2006 Lebanon war of 2006, the 2008-2009 Gaza war, the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, and the worrisome rightward drift in Israeli domestic politics -- also inspired the effort to create a "pro-Israel" organization that would favor smarter policies and be more representative of American Jewish opinion than hard-line groups like AIPAC, the Israel Project, or the Zionist Organization of America, to say nothing of Christian Zionist organizations like John Hagee's Christians United for Israel.
Our greatest disappointment, however, has been the lack of movement in U.S. Middle East policy. On the one hand, Barack Obama's administration has resisted the lobby's pressure for military action against Iran, and it took office proclaiming its intention to achieve a two-state solution during Obama's first term. But on the other hand, Obama and his Middle East team have been unable or unwilling to act as an evenhanded mediator.
This situation is disappointing but not surprising. U.S. foreign policy rarely turns on a dime, and a central pillar like the "special relationship" doesn't change just because two academics write a controversial article. We didn't expect groups like AIPAC to dry up and blow away just because we had cast a critical spotlight on their activities, and the mechanisms that these and other groups have used to influence Congress and the executive branch remain potent.
The result, unfortunately, is that a two-state solution that would secure Israel's long-term future is farther away than ever, and America's image in the region -- which showed signs of improvement at the time of Obama's 2009 Cairo speech -- remains parlous. And we are now witnessing a series of political upheavals in the Arab world that are likely to create governments that are far more sensitive to public sentiment than their predecessors were, even if they fall short of being perfect democracies. These new governments will pay more attention to the "Arab street," where the Palestinian issue resonates in powerful ways. This situation will raise the costs of the "special relationship" even more, which makes America's failure to achieve a two-state solution over the past 20 years -- a failure for which the lobby bears considerable (though not all) responsibility -- especially tragic.
Finally, I am sometimes asked whether I have any regrets about writing the article or the book. My answer is clear: absolutely not. As I told a Harvard official back in 2006, it was a "life-altering" event in the sense that it almost certainly closed some doors that might otherwise have been open to me. But writing the book and engaging in serious public debate about Israeli policy, the "special relationship," and the lobby also taught me a lot about politics and introduced me to a new community of scholars, policy analysts, and journalists from whom I've learned an enormous amount and who have become valued colleagues. I would do it again without hesitation, and I would not alter any of our central arguments.
Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, is the author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy and, with coauthor J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby. He blogs at

Obama And Libya: The Professor’s War

By Charles Krauthammer
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 24/03/2011

President Obama is proud of how he put together the Libyan operation. A model of international cooperation. All the necessary paperwork. Arab League backing. A Security Council resolution. (Everything but a resolution from the Congress of the United States, a minor inconvenience for a citizen of the world.) It’s war as designed by an Ivy League professor. 

True, it took three weeks to put this together, during which time Moammar Gaddafi went from besieged, delusional (remember those youthful protesters on “hallucinogenic pills”) thug losing support by the hour — to resurgent tyrant who
marshaled his forces, marched them to the gates of Benghazi and had the U.S. director of national intelligence predicting that “the regime will prevail.”
But what is military initiative and opportunity compared with paper?
Well, let’s see how that paper multilateralism is doing. The Arab League is already reversing itself, criticizing the use of force it had just authorized. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, is shocked — shocked! — to find that people are being killed by allied airstrikes. This reaction was dubbed mystifying by one commentator, apparently born yesterday and thus unaware that the Arab League has forever been a collection of cynical, warring, unreliable dictatorships of ever-shifting loyalties. A British soccer mob has more unity and moral purpose. Yet Obama deemed it a great diplomatic success that the league deigned to permit others to fight and die to save fellow Arabs for whom 19 of 21 Arab states have yet to lift a finger.
And what about that brilliant U.N. resolution?
l Russia’s Vladimir Putin is already calling the Libya operation a medieval crusade.
l China is calling for a cease-fire in place — which would completely undermine the allied effort by leaving Gaddafi in power, his people at his mercy and the country partitioned and condemned to ongoing civil war.
l Brazil joined China in that call for a cease-fire. This just hours after Obama ended his fawning two-day Brazil visit. Another triumph of presidential personal diplomacy.
And how about NATO? Let’s see. As of this writing, Britain wanted the operation to be led by NATO. France adamantly disagreed, citing Arab sensibilities. Germany wanted no part of anything, going so far as to pull four of its ships from NATO command in the Mediterranean. Italy hinted it might deny the allies the use of its air bases if NATO can’t get its act together. France and Germany walked out of a NATO meeting on Monday, while Norway had planes in Crete ready to go but refused to let them fly until it had some idea who the hell is running the operation. And Turkey, whose prime minister four months ago proudly accepted the Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, has been particularly resistant to the Libya operation from the beginning.
And as for the United States, who knows what American policy is. Administration officials insist we are not trying to bring down Gaddafi, even as the president insists that he must go. Although on Tuesday Obama did add “unless he changes his approach.” Approach, mind you.
In any case, for Obama, military objectives take a back seat to diplomatic appearances. The president is obsessed with pretending that we are not running the operation — a dismaying expression of Obama’s view that his country is so tainted by its various sins that it lacks the moral legitimacy to . . . what? Save Third World people from massacre?
Obama seems equally obsessed with handing off the lead role. Hand off to whom? NATO? Quarreling amid Turkish resistance (see above), NATO still can’t agree on taking over command of the airstrike campaign, which is what has kept the Libyan rebels alive.
This confusion is purely the result of Obama’s decision to get America into the war and then immediately relinquish American command. Never modest about himself, Obama is supremely modest about his country. America should be merely “one of the partners among many,” he said Monday. No primus inter pares for him. Even the Clinton administration spoke of America as the indispensable nation. And it remains so. Yet at a time when the world is hungry for America to lead — no one has anything near our capabilities, experience and resources — America is led by a man determined that it should not.
A man who dithers over parchment. Who starts a war from which he wants out right away. Good God. If you go to take Vienna, take Vienna. If you’re not prepared to do so, better then to stay home and do nothing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Daraa Protests Are The Spark Syria Needed

The security forces' violent clampdown on protesters in Daraa will inspire repressed Syrians to finally break their silence

By Maher Arar
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 23/03/2011

Protesters gather near the Omari Mosque in the southern old city of Deraa
Protesters gather near the Omari mosque in the city of Daraa, Syria. Photograph: Khaled Al-Hariri/Reuters

Syria seemed relatively stable before massive protests erupted last week in the city of Daraa, a small city south of the capital. Demonstrators chanted for freedom and for the end of corruption.

These protests were met with violence from security forces that claimed the lives of five innocent civilians. In a rare interview accorded to the Wall Street Journal at the end of January, Bashar al-Assad claimed that Syria was immune from such unrest because he had always been close to his people and he, unlike Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, understood his people's needs.

To prove his point, Syria's first lady, Asma, embarked on a public relations campaign by giving a candid interview to American Vogue magazine. This interview, which refers to the first lady as the "rose of the desert", was undoubtedly targeted toward the sensitivities of a western audience, proclaiming that the Assads are an open-minded and tolerant family, and leaving the reader with an unmistakable impression that, in consideration of the presence of the Syrian Christian minority, the Assad clan would be the best choice to continue to rule this conservative Middle-Eastern country.

But, here is what the article did not mention.

At the time of his ascent to power in 2000, still only, the young president promised major reforms were coming.

Popularly elected by 97% of all votes, Syrians of all stripes thought they finally had a glimpse of hope after the 30-year, iron-fist rule of his father.

Assad pledged he would fight corruption, would guarantee his people more freedom of expression, and would adopt a more liberal market policy. He may have partially succeeded on the latter point but it became clear a few years into his rule that he miserably failed on the first two, leading some Syrians to speculate that the new president was simply a puppet in the hands of his father's old camp.

Furthermore, Syria's human rights situation steadily deteriorated under the new ruler, especially after the unofficial alliance with the Unites States to fight al-Qaida, a historically common enemy. For instance, it became clear around 2001 that Syria was a preferred rendition destination for terror suspects. The cases of Hydar Zammar, Ahmed El-Maati, Abdullah El-Malki and my own are only a few examples . Bob Baer, a former CIA official, stated at the time: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria," something to which I can personally attest.

Last year, Human Rights Watch published an extensive report about the human rights situation in Syria in which the organisation concluded that Assad's decade in power was marked by repression.

This may explain why the majority of Syrians have preferred to remain silent, at least for now. One need look no further than the scandalous five-year sentence the blogger Tal al-Mallohi, 19, received recently because she "was found to be spying for a foreign entity". Countless other activists, such as the 80-year-old veteran Haitham al-Maleh, who was released two weeks ago because of his age, have been jailed simply because they voiced their opinions on matters related to good governance and social justice.

Another factor that may contribute to this silence is the ethnic divisions among Syrians. The ruling Alawite minority, to whom Assad belongs and whose members have full control over sensitive military and intelligence posts, is only one of many. There is also the powerless Sunni majority, Christians , Kurds, Ismailis and Duruz. There are also over 1 million old Palestinian immigrants and, more recently, more than 1 million Iraqi refugees have decided to make Syria their home. All these groups have competing and conflicting interests. These ethnic divisions make it extremely challenging to have a unified popular voice, but what is encouraging is the fact that the Syrian youth who are leading this nonviolent reform movement have made it clear that it is purely secular in nature and they will not allow it to be hijacked by any opportunist ethnic group or opposition party.

It is too early to ascribe the "revolution" label to this Syrian youth movement. But what is clear from the Tunisian example is that revolutions need a spark and it seems Assad has already ignited it in Daraa.

Migrant Workers In Libya

By Hannah Gurman
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 23/03/2011

The camera pans out on a dense sea of people pushing and shoving against one another, trying to work their way through the noisy crowd on the border between Libya and Tunisia. One lone voice narrates above the clamor: “The scene at the Libyan border is getting ugly,” he tells us and goes on to explain that these are migrant workers from Egypt who are attempting to flee the violence in Libya. “Expect more scenes like this in the days and weeks to come,” he declares in a somber tone, before the frame shifts to another dense sea of people, lying under blankets as the sand swirls about in the background. The camera zooms in on a few men who look back at the lens with vacant stares. The voice narrating the scene concludes on a tragic, lyrical note: “As the wind picks up, this growing army of stranded foreign workers is left camping in the dirt, victims of the storm that is transforming the Middle East.”
This is the voice of Ivan Watson reporting for CNN on March 1. Thanks to round-the-clock coverage, cable and network news have indeed shown many similar scenes over the last several weeks. The vast majority of these reports have, like this one, trafficked in the clichés of humanitarian crisis journalism. Focusing on the chaos and suffering of the immediate moment, they tell us little about the lives of the people who are supposedly the objects of our sympathy and nothing about the larger systemic issues fueling their plight. 
The more one delves into the back story of the Libyan refugee crisis, the more it becomes clear that the current predicament of refugees in Libya is just the most recent and dramatic episode in a much larger story of injustice and abuse. And although CNN-style reports bring viewers in the United States and Europe in on the side of the refugees, the actions of Western governments tell a different story—a story of apathy toward the very migrant workers who comprise the refugee population. 
Migrant Labor in the New Libya
Before the crisis, as many as 2.5 million migrants worked in Libya, making it one of the biggest importers of labor in the region. The migrants came mostly from Africa and Asia for jobs in the oil and construction industries. The influx of foreign workers began in the 1990s, when, in response to UN trade sanctions, Libya increasingly relied on sub-Saharan labor to fuel its oil economy. More recently, since 2003, when Libya’s rapprochement with the United States and Europe began, the tide of migrants has continued to rise. As part of the privatization of Libya’s economy, hundreds of thousands of workers have come from Bangladesh and the Philippines, as well as from other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Some of them entered the country on legal work permits, but the vast majority came illegally. 
Since the start of the fighting, close to 300,000 migrant workers have crossed from Libya into Tunisia and Egypt. Most are from poor countries that did not provide means for their citizens to return to their home countries. Most of the refugees arrived at the camps with little but the shirt on their backs, having been robbed by Libyan officials on their way out of the country. As the men and women at the Ras Adjir camp in Tunisia explained, this was not the first time they had been robbed or assaulted by Libyan authorities.  
Migrant workers in Libya, as elsewhere, are subject to abuse at the hands of their employers and the larger network of profiteers who make money off of the migrant economy. Many paid large sums to employment brokers who enlisted them in a form of indentured servitude, sometimes garnishing their wages until the debt was paid. Several Bangladeshi workers in Ras Adjir said they still owed their brokers the $5,000 fee but had no way to pay it. Migrants were often promised more money than they were actually paid. One man from Bangladesh explained that he was promised a salary of $600 a month, but wasn’t paid at all on the first job. Forced labor is not uncommon. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Report on Libya, as many as one percent of all illegal migrants in Libya are victims of human trafficking forced into commercial sex work. 
Illegal migrants are subject to abuse outside as well as inside the workplace. They face a greater risk of being beaten and robbed and are beholden to ghetto landlords who charge excessive rent as a form of hush money. Sub-Saharan Africans face racial discrimination as well. In 2000, Libyan youth participated in a wave of anti-immigrant violence targeted at black Africans, resulting in the deaths of between 50 and 500 people, a precursor to the current, though questionable reports that large numbers of Africans are serving as mercenaries for Gaddafi’s forces. 
Although Gaddafi has opened the tap of migrant labor when it has served his political and economic purposes, variously invoking Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism, he has also cracked down hard on illegal migrants when the political winds have shifted. In recent years, the Libyan government has amped up the threat of deportation and randomly rounded up undocumented migrants or contract workers who have not renewed their licenses. Once rounded up, they are taken to one of at least ten known detention centers, where, according to Human Rights Watch, they have limited access to food, water, and sanitation. Detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch report numerous instances of physical and sexual abuse, as well as accounts of detainees being unloaded into the desert or directly to human smugglers. 
European and the U.S. Participation
The European and U.S. governments not only failed to take action in response to these abuses, they also helped to fuel the problem in both direct and indirect ways. Italy, Libya’s biggest foreign investor, is also the most complicit in the Libyan government’s abuse of migrant workers. In 2008, Italy made a bid to increase its economic investment in Libya. The country’s largest energy company, Eni, pledged $28 billion to obtain lucrative contracts for developing new oil fields in Libya in the coming decades. That same year, Berlusconi and Gaddafi signed a Friendship Treaty in which Italy pledged $5 billion to Libya in exchange for favorable treatment in energy, infrastructure, and defense contracts. For its part, Libya promised to slow down the flood of illegal immigrants coming to Italy through Libya, which has long served as the main portal to Europe from Africa. In addition to effectively underwriting the Libyan detention system, Eni and other Italian companies are also the de facto employers of untold numbers of migrant workers in the Libyan oil and construction sectors. Berlusconi reluctantly suspended the Friendship Treaty at the end of February. Libya’s unrest has raised deep concerns for the Italian economy more broadly. 
The enhanced friendship between Italy and Libya was just one aspect, albeit an important one, of a broader shift in the international community’s relationship with Libya since 2003. When Gaddafi threw his lot in with the United States and the EU in the war on terror, he also agreed to begin privatizing Libya’s almost exclusively state-run economy and open it up to direct foreign investment. In 2007, the International Monetary Fund praised Libya for “diversifying its economy.” Increased foreign investment meant an increased need for cheap foreign labor to build the roads and oil refineries that would form the backbone of the new globalized Libya. The same voices that celebrated the opening of Libya’s economy remained silent on the issue of migrant workers rights. 
The passive response of the EU and United States on the rights of migrant workers in Libya is no exception. There has been a similar quietude in response to migrant labor abuses across the Middle East. The Persian Gulf is a particularly stark example. The grand cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates are being built largely on the backs of exploited and abused migrant workers who have little to no recourse to redress their grievances. These city-states continue to enjoy good relations with the Europe and the United States, as well as with private foreign investors looking to capitalize on their growth. Of course, migrant workers are nothing new for Europe and the United States, where they constitute large segments of the work force and are similarly lacking in legal protection and subject to various human rights abuses. 
December 2010 marked the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants. Only 44 states have signed it. Notably, the biggest hosts to migrant workers have not, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, France, Italy, Germany, the United States, and Britain. In the lead-up to the anniversary, the Council of International Unions held a conference in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to address the issues of temporary work contracts. Other international labor groups held similar conferences and rallies to bring the issue of migrant workers' rights to the forefront of the international community’s agenda. Where were the CNN cameras then? 
How Not to Explain the Revolution in the Middle East
CNN’s disinterest in the broader context of migrant labor in Libya and elsewhere is a symptom of the corporate media’s inattention to underlying social and economic forces in contemporary conflicts. One result of this inattention has been a very narrow and distorted picture of the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East. Contrary to Ivan Watson’s “storm” metaphor, the events in the Middle East were not a spontaneous natural weather event. Although the demand for political freedom has been the most visible aspect of the revolts in the region, critics of neoliberalism have argued that economic grievances played a key role in fueling the ongoing conflicts. These grievances constitute another dimension of the increasingly neoliberal economy that enlists migrant workers. Like other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Libya has an extremely high rate of unemployment, although it employs vast numbers of foreign workers. The figures are murky, but experts estimate the unemployment rate to be between 25 and 30 percent. Libya’s oil wealth has so far supported subsidies to its citizens to counteract these economic pressures, but some economists believe that unemployment will rise alongside increased privatization and foreign direct investment. Elsewhere in the region, the lack of subsidies has left educated youth with little economic opportunity. These were the youth that toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships and that are leading the ongoing protests in Bahrain.
The return of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to Egypt and Tunisia in particular puts added pressure on all segments of the economy in these areas.
The future of the migrant workers is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure. By the time they start looking for work in their home countries or a new destination, Ivan Watson and the CNN cameras will be far away—busy reporting on the next humanitarian crisis of the moment.
Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Hannah Gurman is an assistant professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She writes on the politics, economics, and culture of U.S. diplomacy and military conflict. Her forthcoming book, The Dissent Papers: The Voice of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond, will be published by the University of Columbia Press in fall 2011.