Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fears For The Middle East's Christians In The Wake Of The Arab Spring

The revolutions in the Arab world may further weaken Christianity's presence in the region

By Gerald Butt
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 16/04/2011 

The Arab world is turning over a new page at last. Not since Britain and France created nation states in the Middle East at the end of the first world war has the region experienced such an upheaval. It is still early to say what will be drawn on that blank page in terms of the shape and character of political systems. But as numerous groups jostle to form parties to contest elections, there are signs that the Middle East's tiny and dwindling Christian community will not be among the beneficiaries. Egypt is a key country to watch as it sweeps away the legacy 0f the Hosni Mubarak era, characterised by suppression of any group that challenged the dominance of the ruling party. With the president gone, the shackles are off. Among those exploiting this freedom are Egypt's fundamentalist Islamic groups – the Muslim Brotherhood, Gama'a al-Islamiya and others. All stress, as they form political parties, that they support the idea of a civil, rather than an Islamic, state. 

In the past, Gama'a al-Islamiya carried out acts of terrorism – including killing 58 foreign tourists at Luxor in 1997 – as part of its campaign to establish Islamic rule in Egypt. So how come the change of heart? "We want a civil state ruling with justice," said one of its leaders, Naji Ibrahim. "We are not afraid of this freedom because we are holding the strong message of Islam, which has an inherent strength that is stronger than any other idea." 

So, a civil state to begin with, but ultimately the implication is that Islam would be triumphant. With the Muslim Brotherhood, too, the most organised group, the professed desire to see secular rule continue in Egypt runs counter to its charter. This envisages an Islamic state throughout the Middle East, while at home the Brotherhood aims to "convey the mission of Islam to the people as a whole". There is no mention of Islam's duty to protect ahl al-Kitab (people of the book, Christians and Jews). 

So, not surprisingly, Coptic Christians are suspicious. Naguib Gobraiel, a lawyer for the Coptic Church, believes the Muslim Brothers are seeking "to delude people and make them think that their paradigm is not fundamentalist but conforms with the values of citizenship". 

But by forming their own – faith-based – parties, the Islamic groups are only conforming to the pattern elsewhere in the Arab world where democracy already exists. In Iraq and Lebanon politics is ensnared by sectarian divisions. As Iraqi Sunnis and Shias vie for power, the country remains in a state of collapse. Those at the bottom of the heap – including the Christian minority – are unrepresented and vulnerable. The Christian exodus continues. In Lebanon the growing power of the Shia Hezbollah organisation is challenging the Sunni establishment and the increasingly nervous Christians. Again, the Christian community is in decline. 

The irony is that Arab Muslims and Christians took to the streets together en masse to demand change – without heed of political or religious leaders. What is needed on the new blank page of Arab politics is a movement that can incorporate the diversity of these protesters, cutting across sectarian lines. 

In the absence of such a movement, Arab Christians risk being driven still further to the margins of society, while Sunni and Shia Muslims compete for influence. The most tempting option for Christians, under these circumstances, would be an air ticket out, weakening still more Christianity's presence in the region where it was born. So, the "Christian" west should, perhaps, be careful in applauding too soon the historic changes in the Middle East.

Syrian Leader Says He Will Lift Emergency Law

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad spoke to his newly formed cabinet as his address was shown live to the nation on Saturday, in Damascus.

In a speech at the swearing-in of a new cabinet, Mr. Assad announced a raft of new legal proposals, including a pledge to end the country’s 48-year-old emergency law within days, and he expressed sorrow for deaths that have taken place since antigovernment unrest began — perhaps more than 200, according to human rights groups.

“The blood that was shed in Syria pains us all,” he said, swearing in a cabinet named last week. “We are sad for every loss. We consider each of them martyrs.”

The speech was seen as an attempt at conciliation by a government that has faced down protests with a mixture of chilling violence and dry pledges to study policy proposals.

The emergency law, which gives the president and security forces expansive power to detain Syrians for any cause, has been a major target of protesters’ criticism since the unrest began in March, incited by the detention and torture of a group of university students caught spraying antigovernment graffiti. The repeal will come “before the end of next week,” Mr. Assad said.

But few analysts believe that much will change even if the law does. The emergency law has been the foundation of the Assad family’s entire reign, and the security forces’ enshrinement as the all-powerful right hand of the Assads is a fact of everyday life and death in Syria.

Indeed, in his speech, Mr. Assad signaled that he still felt the need for order trumped all else, saying that no further protests would be necessary — and implying that none would be tolerated — once the emergency law was repealed.

“The Syrian people are civilized and orderly: they love order and they do not like chaos,” Mr. Assad said, adding that the need remained to “strengthen the internal front” against “sabotage.”

But critics said the speech would not be enough to head off new protests, which activists said reached their biggest numbers just the day before when a column of tens of thousands marched from the Damascus suburbs in a bold effort to occupy one of the capital’s central squares. They were beaten back by security forces on Friday night, witnesses said.

“He is repeating an old speech, this is nothing new,” said Razan Zeitouneh, an activist with the Syrian Human Rights Information Link. “He mentioned dignity several times, but he didn’t mention who it is violating the people’s dignity.”

“The main issue, which is the security forces, was not mentioned,” she added, nor were demands to end of the practice of life-long presidency established by Mr. Assad’s father that many fear he intends to fulfill himself.

In addition to committing to the end of emergency rule, Mr. Assad promised to fight unemployment and to study the legalization of political parties, which are now banned, as well a law guaranteeing the right to peacefully assemble.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington, said that the proposed lifting of the emergency law would do little to ease the power of the security forces because Syrian law contains a number of fail-safes intended to maintain their exceptional power.

Those measures include the Law Governing the General Intelligence in Syria, which has an article giving the security forces immunity from prosecution for any crime committed in the line of duty. “Many authoritarian regimes have something similar, but none of them actually use the word ‘crime,’ ” Mr. Ziadeh said. “The Syrian law uses the word ‘crime’ without any definition of what it means, so it could mean killing or torture. It is crazy.”

Meanwhile, protests continued in Syria on Saturday. In the coastal town of Baniyas, Osama El Sheikh, 40, who was shot in the stomach by pro-government forces while protecting a local mosque, died of his wounds, Ms. Zeitouneh said. Later, a large crowd of women protested in the street chanting, “God, Freedom and Syria,” shown in videos posted on YouTube.

Picking Up the Pieces

How the international community can help cement the dramatic progress of the Arab Spring
By Lael Brainard
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 15/04/2011
Across the Middle East and North Africa, unprecedented upheavals are creating historic opportunities to expand the circle of democratic societies. But the success of emerging democracies like Egypt and Tunisia will hinge on building strong and inclusive economies that improve people's lives. Alongside our partners in the Middle East and Europe, the United States stands ready to support these democratic transitions through renewed multilateralism. As economic leaders convene in Washington this week for the G7 and G20 finance ministers meetings, we hope to advance this partnership.
Over the last two decades, under their previous authoritarian governments, Egypt and Tunisia moved toward market economies and privatization, but corruption and weak institutions created an uneven playing field, with the benefits of growth not widely shared. Where reforms occurred, implementation was often inconsistent. Whether it was a new firm seeking a license, a new university graduate applying for a job, or a newly married couple securing a loan, the rules of business, employment, and finance were unclear. The status quo too often protected incumbents and excluded new talent.
Today, the change under way in the Middle East calls for rethinking and reorienting the international community's engagement. These transitions are ultimately about allowing people to unleash their opportunities and expand their freedoms -- both political and economic. We can unlock sustained and shared growth by tapping the potential of a young generation, expanding the private sector, and creating accountable institutions. To be effective, our multilateral efforts must be guided by three main principles.
First, our support must directly expand opportunities for those who were left out or left behind. This means investing in young men and women. Youth are the largest and potentially most dynamic segment of the population, but they face unemployment rates near 30 percent and are often trapped in low-wage work. In Egypt alone, nearly 650,000 new job-seekers are entering the labor market every year in search of better opportunities. As transition economies respond to these pressures, they must resist a return to the models of the past: The public sector can no longer provide jobs for an expanding workforce in the face of scarce resources. Instead, a growing private sector, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises, must emerge as the source of sustainable jobs.
Second, resources must be linked to homegrown reforms. Recent events have demonstrated that citizens are demanding greater accountability and equity. Our investments must strive to improve economic governance and support a level playing field by promoting transparency and key reforms. In a more open environment, citizens would have access to fundamental information on budgets, laws, and public-sector finances. In an environment defined by predictable rule of law, their rights and contracts would be honored. And our programs must partner with and invest in civil society to promote accountable institutions.
Finally, our engagement will need to be long term and multilateral. Economic transitions will take many years, and formidable challenges lie ahead. While short-term assistance on the recovery is important, to be truly effective in underwriting a new, more inclusive growth model, we must be prepared to work through the setbacks and scale up successes. In Indonesia, for example, the Kecamatan Program, which started in 22 villages to provide financing to local villages for community-driven poverty reduction, has today been scaled up to more than 30,000 villages.
In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Central and Eastern European countries left communism behind, the world turned to the multilateral development banks to assist with these transitions through development investments, technical assistance, and support for reforms. In 1998, as Indonesia moved away from an authoritarian state, we relied on these banks once again. The world confronts a similar opportunity and challenge in the Middle East. The United States has recently led efforts to recapitalize the multilateral banks, enabling them again to provide critical support in a time of transition.
The World Bank, International Finance Corporation, and the African Development Bank have more than $4 billion potentially available for Egypt and Tunisia over the next year alone. This assistance will be an important pillar of broader U.S. engagement in addition to our bilateral efforts. The international community is also exploring how the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development can reorient its mission to support transitions in the Middle East and North Africa.
The young democracies in the Middle East and North Africa must deliver on their promise to their people. This journey has begun in Egypt and Tunisia, where a new growth path must be built on the strength of small businesses, thriving classrooms, and active communities. Through an enduring commitment to inclusion and reform, these countries can become cornerstones of a prosperous and dynamic region.
Lael Brainard is U.S. Treasury undersecretary for international affairs.

Goldstone,The Person And The Process

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 16/04/2011
Controversy is good, if it helps to promote truth and justice, and this is what we have now in relation to the 2010 “Goldstone Report” about the conduct of Israel and Hamas during the 2008-09 Gaza war.
It continues to generate fresh controversy in light of recent statements by the four members of the original fact-finding commission established by the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Now as then, the important issue is not the personality of any single commissioner or the political winds that blow through the council. Rather, the core issue that has always given the Goldstone process such importance is the quest for justice and truth by holding accountable those states or political movements that use military force against civilians in a manner that contravenes international humanitarian law.
The question of accountability is even more important these days because many other situations in the Middle East raise the question of whether those who abuse their power will also be held accountable for their actions. The winds of accountability blow throughout the region in different forms. Many Arab governments are being challenged or changed by their own people. NATO and Arab military forces are working to remove Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from power. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons are now in police detention and being investigated for corruption and abuse of power, and legal moves are under way to seek the extradition from Saudi Arabia of former Tunisian President Zein al-Abedine Ben Ali so that he can be put on trial on similar charges. Many also call for holding the U.S. and U.K. governments accountable for the ravages they unleashed with their 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Goldstone process has always been a historically important one because of two crucial elements that both remain valid today, in this and other cases where accountability is needed: It sought to bring the force of international law to bear on the conduct of warring parties whose actions brought mass suffering to civilians who were not directly involved in combat; and, it laid out a series of consecutive steps through the U.N. system that the international community should pursue to ensure that justice is done, ending up in the International Criminal Court if need be. Rarely in our generation have universal moral values, the rule of law, and legitimate implementation mechanisms for accountability come together in such a powerful way.
So it was a shock to many when the head of the commission, Judge Richard Goldstone, recently wrote in the Washington Post that he has new knowledge about Israeli behavior that would cause him to write the report differently today. His three fellow commissioners – Hina Jilani, Christine Chinkin and Desmond Travers – issued a statement this week saying they stand by the original report. They noted: “We concur in our view that there is no justification for any demand or expectation for reconsideration of the report as nothing of substance has appeared that would in any way change the context, findings or conclusions of that report with respect to any of the parties to the Gaza conflict. Indeed, there is no U.N. procedure or precedent to that effect. The report of the fact-finding mission contains the conclusions made after diligent, independent and objective consideration of the information related to the events within our mandate, and careful assessment of its reliability and credibility. We firmly stand by these conclusions.”
Goldstone gave limited factual evidence for his change of heart on part of the original issues the report raised, and did not comment on the bulk of the issues or the implementation mechanisms that the commission recommended and the UNHRC adopted. I spoke out forcefully in support of both the Goldstone person and process when the initial report was issued. This is because the Goldstone person and process both personified the impartiality, universality and fact-based precision of the rule of law and political accountability as the best available antidotes to crimes of war or crimes against humanity. This where our focus should remain, as the original Goldstone Commission and Report spelled out so eloquently.
If Judge Goldstone has a change of heart on aspects of the original report, he is entitled to that. As a sitting judge in a credible court of law, he would probably say the same thing about an opinion column related to a case in front of his court. But newspaper op-ed articles and the rule of law are very different worlds. His personal integrity and professional standing require that he explain in more detail where and why he would change his original views, and where the bulk of the issues outlined in the report remain valid and require serious investigation – as they clearly do.

Insanity Of A Pro-Zionist US Group

As'ad Abdul Rahman writes: Their belief in the ‘second coming' boosts their opposition to peace and Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 16/04/2011 
Israel's rightist government appears in unison with the American Christians United for Israel (Cufi) in drawing support from scriptural arguments Tel Aviv has been using to defend its occupation policies in the Palestinian land, especially in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Cufi's statement of purpose has explicitly declared that the organisation was seeking ‘to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, para-church organisation, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues'.

To enforce this aim, in February 2006, over 400 Christian leaders from across the US flew to San Antonio, Texas to join Pastor John Hagee ‘in determining how the Christian world should respond to the ongoing threats to Israel'. Indeed, Cufi has grown to become the largest pro-Israel organisation in the US. This organisation's support for the Zionist state, regardless of its heinous and apartheid colonial policies, is based upon fundamental interpretation of the Bible which is being marketed by John Hagee, the founder, who has been talking about cosmic catastrophes striking Earth in preparation for ‘the second coming' of Christ. They are known as ‘the end of time' happenings in which all human beings will be annihilated, except the followers of John Hagee and his colleagues who hold the same fanatic belief. ‘Supporting Israel in matters related to Biblical issues' is the foundation of such an insane belief where all believers, except those who follow pastors like John Hagee, would be annihilated during ‘the Armageddon' battle predicted to be taking place in Israel.

In this regard, one may ask: where does Israel come in relation to these ‘biblical issues' which makes it an absolute necessity for every Christian fundamentalist to lend his or her absolute support to the Zionist state?

The extremely outrageous theory of ‘the end of time' asserts that ‘the second coming' will never take place before major catastrophes befall the earth, namely Middle East territories including Israel. In other words, a devastating war in which weapons of mass destruction would be used has to take place in the Middle East in which ‘Israel would be totally annihilated', according to Hagee and his followers. These ‘religious hallucinations' represent the main ‘biblical issues' that unite all the so-called Christian fundamentalists who support the Zionist state. They see in ‘the birth of Israel' the first sign of ‘the second coming'. The subsequent ‘death of the state' of Israel would instantly usher in the actuality of ‘the second coming'.

The colonial apartheid policies of the Likud Party which is now governing Israel makes this war of annihilation in the Middle East possible. But according to Hagee, it could happen as a result of ‘the nuclear threat' of Iran and ‘the statements of the President of Iran (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) who threatened to wipe Israel off the map'.

Voice for peace

This set of horrifying ideas advocated by Hagee and his supporters (who represent part of the hardcore base of the Republican Party in the US) does not really support the survival of the Zionist state, but it calls for its utter destruction which, they think, would bring about ‘the second coming of Christ'.

Such beliefs stand behind their opposition to any peace process that would lead to the Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

This fact is well known to conscientious Jews who abhor the strong alliance of Likud with the insanity of Hagee and his followers' beliefs, since Cufi is financially supported by Likud to influence US foreign policy in the Middle East by keeping it on the side of Israel.

However, many of those conscientious Jews in the US and North America have been forming organisations to advocate ‘the voice for peace' with some of their campaigns held under the notion "Israelis and Palestinians, two peoples, one future". A salient example in this regard is the Jewish Voice for Peace New Rabbinical Council which represents groups of Jews who have dedicated themselves ‘to speaking out on behalf of justice for all peoples in the Middle East'.

Indeed, the Rabbinical Council is trying hard to stop two insanities, one of Hagee and the other of an extreme Jewish group allied to him who is ‘genetically engineering the birth of a cow' which they hope will bear the exact marks mentioned in the Torah. The birth of this cow would send ‘the command' to this Jewish group to go and destroy Al Haram Al Sharif (the Temple Mount in Zionist vocabulary) in order ‘to build the Temple of Judaism in its place in Jerusalem'! Whether the American people (and the international community) would ignore such insane groups is a question that could only be answered by the peace-loving forces in our world.

Professor As'ad Abdul Rahman is the Chairman of the Palestinian Encyclopaedia.

Why Does Israel Have Veto Over Peace Process?

By Alan Hart
This commentary was published in The Arab News on 16/04/2011

As I explained on a lecture tour of South Africa (Goldstone Land) from which I have just returned, the answer is in what happened behind closed doors at the Security Council in New York in the weeks and months following the 1967 War.

But complete understanding requires knowledge of the fact that it was a war of Israeli aggression and not, as Zionism's spin-doctors continue to assert, self-defense.

More than four decades on, most people everywhere still believe that Israel went to war either because the Arabs attacked (that was Israel's first claim), or because the Arabs were intending to attack (thus requiring Israel to launch a pre-emptive strike). The truth about that war only begins with the statement that the Arabs did not attack and were not intending to attack. The complete truth, documented in detail in Volume Three of the American edition of my book Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews (, includes the following facts.

Israel's prime minister of the time, the much-maligned Levi Eshkol who was also defense minister, did not want to take his country to war. And nor did his chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin. They wanted only very limited military action, an operation far short of war, to put pressure on the international community to cause Egypt’s President Nasser to reopen the Straits of Tiran.

Israel went to war because its military and political hawks wanted war and insisted that the Arabs were about to attack. They, Israel's hawks, knew that was nonsense, but they promoted it to undermine Eshkol by portraying him to the country as weak. The climax to the campaign to rubbish Eshkol was a demand by the hawks that he surrender the defense portfolio and give it to Moshe Dayan, Zionism's one-eyed warlord and master of deception. Four days after Dayan got the portfolio he wanted, and the hawks had secured the green light from the Johnson administration to smash Egypt’s air and ground forces, Israel went to war.

What actually happened in Israel in the final countdown to that war was something very close to a military coup, executed quietly behind closed doors without a shot being fired. For Israel's hawks the war of 1967 was the unfinished business of 1948/49 — to create a Greater Israel with all of Jerusalem as its capital. (In reality Israel's hawks set a trap for Nasser by threatening Syria and, for reasons of face, he was daft enough to walk, eyes open, into the trap). On the second day of the war, Gen. Chaim Herzog, one of the founding fathers of Israel's Directorate of Military Intelligence, said to me in private: "If Nasser had not been stupid enough to give us a pretext for war, we would have created one in a year to 18 months."

As I say in my book, if the statement that the Arabs were not intending to attack and that Israel's existence was not in any danger was only that of a goy, me, it could be dismissed by Zionists and other supporters of Israel right or wrong as anti-Semitic conjecture. In fact, the truth has been admitted, confessed, by a number of Israeli leaders. Here are just three of many examples.

In an interview published in Le Monde on Feb. 28,1968, Israeli Chief of Staff Rabin said: "I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai on 14 May would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it."

On April 14, 1971, a report in the Israeli newspaper Al-Hamishmar contained the following statement by Mordecai Bentov, a member of the wartime national government. "The entire story of the danger of extermination was invented in every detail and exaggerated a posteriori to justify the annexation of new Arab territory."

In an unguarded public moment in 1982, Prime Minister Begin said this: "In June 1967 we had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." The single most catastrophic happening of 1967 was not however the war itself and the creation of a Greater Israel. At America's insistence, and with the eventual complicity of the Soviet Union, it (the single most catastrophic happening) was the refusal of the Security Council of the United Nations to condemn Israel as the aggressor. If it had done so, the history of the region and the world might well have taken a very different course. (There might well have been a negotiated end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and a comprehensive peace within a year or two.)

Question: Why, really, was it so important from Zionism's point of view that Israel not be branded the aggressor when actually it was? The short answer of it comes down to this.

Aggressors are not allowed to keep the territory they take in war, they have to withdraw from it unconditionally. This is the requirement of international law and, also, a fundamental principle which the UN is committed to uphold, as it did, for example, when President Eisenhower read the riot act to Israel after it invaded Egypt in collusion with Britain and France in 1956. That is on the one hand.

On the other is the generally accepted view that when a state is attacked, is the victim of aggression, and then goes to war in genuine self-defense and ends up occupying some (or even all) of the aggressor's territory, the occupier has the right, in negotiations, to attach conditions to its withdrawal.

In summary it can be said that although Security Council Resolution 242 of 23 November 1967 did pay lip service to "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war", it effectively put Zionism in the diplomatic driving seat. By giving Israel the scope to attach conditions to its withdrawal, Resolution 242 effectively gave its leaders and the Zionist lobby in America a veto over any peace process.

In 1957 President Eisenhower said that if a nation which attacked and occupied foreign territory were allowed to impose conditions on its withdrawal, "this would be tantamount to turning back the clock of international order." That's what happened in 1967. Johnson, preoccupied with the war in Vietnam, and mainly on the advice of those in his inner circle who were hardcore Zionists, turned back the clock of international order. And that effectively created two sets of rules for the behavior of nations — one set for all the nations of the world excluding only Israel, which were expected to behave in accordance with international law and their obligations of members of the United Nations; and one set for Israel, which was not expected to behave, and would not be required to behave, as a normal nation.

At the Johnson administration's Zionist-driven insistence, the refusal of the Security Council to brand Israel as the aggressor was the birth of the double-standard in the interpretation and enforcement of the rules for judging and if necessary punishing the behavior of nations. This double standard is the reason why from 1967 to the present a real peace process has not been possible.

In my view there is not a snowball's chance in hell of a real peace process unless the double standard is abandoned. Unless, in other words, the governments of the major powers, led by America, say something like the following to Israel: "Enough is enough. It is now in all of our interests that you end your defiance of international law. If you don't, we will be obliged to brand you as a rogue state and subject you to boycott, divestment and sanctions."

Alan Hart is a former ITN and BBC Panorama foreign correspondent who has covered wars and conflicts wherever they were taking place in the world and specialized in the Middle East. His Latest book “Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews”, is a three-volume epic in its American edition.

America’s Partnership With The Arab People

By Raghida Dergham from Washington D.C.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 15/04/2011
The Barack Obama Administration has drafted the features of its new strategic policy resulting from the “Arab Spring” with an effaceable pencil, as it is still at the stage of reacting and responding to events. There is not yet what would be called a “blueprint” for a strategic framework for broad American policy towards the Middle East, since ‘using permanent ink’ would tie down the hands of President Barack Obama at a time when he needs flexibility for electoral reasons.

He has not made the decision to take the initiative in places where there is danger or a thorny road ahead. What he wants to do now is welcome what has been already achieved, embrace it and build upon it, as much as possible, while keeping away from developments that are still in the process of taking shape, here too inasmuch as the events allow. This is why the US Administration seems to some like the Mahatma Gandhi of championing reformed relations with Muslim peoples all over the world; while to others it seems like the Che Guevara in terms of advocating change in the Arab region. It is clear that this Administration has decided to follow a populist line, and to break away with traditional US foreign policy, which relied on developing relations with states and governments.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made this clear before the US-Islamic World Forum in Washington this week, considering the radical change at the heart of foreign policy under Barack Obama to reside in “partnerships with people, not just governments”. She said that the United States standing with the people of Egypt and Tunisia, as they build their democracies, and supporting “the aspirations of people across the region”, are both an easy meeting point for the United States, as “on this our values and interests converge”. Such words are not always coupled with deeds, and not are not applicable everywhere, and this is why the Obama Administration hesitates, and thus sometimes seems lost, as in its policy towards Yemen and Bahrain, and at other times afraid to get “implicated”, as in Libya and Syria. This is all while it repeatedly acts with extreme caution when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to peace-making between the Palestinians and the Israelis in particular. There is thus a dire need to develop Arab influence on American and international policy-making towards the Middle East, as well as to polish a more profound sense of analysis of Arab uprisings within American policy-making circles.

Egypt, for example, seems like the easiest link, and the most complicated one at the same time. Most observers of the Egyptian uprising against a regime that continues to rule the country sum up the most difficult and most dangerous challenge for Egypt’s future in one word: “bread”. Freedom is wonderful, but bread is an essential need in this overpopulated country, but not rich in natural resources.

Perhaps the transitional phase in Egypt is the most dangerous in the entire region for numerous reasons, given the size of the economic and social explosions that would occur in case the transitional phase fails to achieve the passage to safety.

The US Administration seeks to encourage the private sector to help Egypt, and to provide large sums of money. Yet the immediate American government aid announced by Clinton has remained below 150 million dollars (such aid is not only “civilian” but also “political”).

The World Bank too is reinventing itself, as its President Robert Zoellick spoke this week of broadening the traditional scope of dealing exclusively with governments, to include the bank’s ability to deal with organizations and NGOs. This includes perhaps emerging political parties under the umbrella of democracy-building, with Islamist parties included. This is new and unprecedented by any consideration.

In theory, and perhaps also in practice, there is a certain logic behind the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) adopting a long-term strategy towards Egypt, one aimed first at saving it from regression and perhaps deterioration during the transitional period; and second at enabling it to turn into a free market economy in a democratic environment. This is so it can be a model for the aspirations of peoples and for achieving returns on investment in change. Perhaps the Obama Administration in this context will exert some effort with the countries of the GCC in order to achieve such a goal. Indeed, Washington has not been donating US funds generously, in view of its economic situation and as a matter of principle. This is because the U.S. believes that the Arab countries able to donate (major countries in the GCC) are the ones that should shoulder the burden in the case of Egypt.

There are numerous obstacles to achieving this, most prominently the following two: First, the fact that there are countries that wish for the vacuum in Egypt’s regional leadership to persist because they want to fill such a vacuum and in effect seek after such a goal, Qatar being in the forefront. Second, the fact that there are those from amongst the ranks of the GCC who are upset at the stance taken by the caretaker government in Egypt in particular towards Iran, at a time when tension grows more acute between the GCC countries and Tehran.

Realistically and constitutionally, a caretaker government does not have the right to formulate a new strategic policy that reverses the policy of the previous government. It is merely a caretaker government and does not have such a right, regardless of how much it promotes it as meeting in line with the feelings of the masses as well. Political wisdom requires not adopting a policy that embraces Iran at such timing, because it in effect means to stand by its side in the midst of its battle against the GCC countries. The reasons for this are practical as well as political, as Egypt remains an Arab country first and foremost, and since Iran is not the party that will rush to help Egypt during its transitional phase.

Thus, Egypt has abstained from playing its role towards its neighbor Libya, under the pretext of fear over its million and a half workers present in Libya turning into “hostages”. But such an excuse is lacking, because Egypt could help if it wished to emerge from the vicious circle of vacuum in leadership. Qatar has led the military initiative towards Libya and is now at the forefront of efforts for marketing the Transitional Council’s oil. Of course, the role played by Qatar in encouraging the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime was clear and patent, just as it is active in the issue of Yemen and aims to support the opposition in removing Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. Qatar finds a special role for itself to play at this stage in the region’s history: first, by filling the current vacuum in regional leadership; second, by correcting and reforming the bilateral relationship with the United States; and third, because Qatar views itself as holding the instruments of change thanks to its abundant funds, its passion for playing roles and its colossal ambitions in proportion to the size of the country and the size of its population. Thus it takes risks and daring steps, but does so within limits and within careful calculations.

But just like the U.S., Qatar also walks a tightrope when it comes to Iran and Syria. Their enthusiasm against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and alongside the revolutionaries, the people and the opposition in Libya has no parallel when it comes to the uprising of the Syrian people or the reformist revolution in Iran.

President Obama issued a statement in which he condemned the violence perpetrated by the Syrian government against protesters demanding their rights and their freedom. Hillary Clinton pointed to that statement in her speech before the US-Islamic World Forum, which was hosted by Washington and organized by the Brookings Center for Strategic Studies, in collaboration with the Qatari Foreign Ministry and with the participation of the Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. She pointed, but stopped at pointing, while news of escalating violence and the fall of civilian casualties kept coming in during the days that followed Obama’s statement.

The pretext raised by some Americans is that neither the League of Arab States nor the Gulf Cooperation Council have taken the initiative of turning the spotlight on the events in Syria, and neither has the Organization of the Islamic Conference. It is therefore not necessary for the Obama Administration to take the initiative, from this point of view.

Opinions are divided in Washington over Syria. There are those who say that the regime has begun to waver. And there are others who say that the weakness of the regime in Damascus today represents a window of opportunity that must be seized upon in order to pull Syria out of the hold of the Iranian regime. This also means severing relations between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, which might allow for peace between Syria and Israel.

Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has drawn attention with his comments before the forum. He spoke of Libya with overwhelming confidence that Muammar Gaddafi and his regime will be toppled through an embargo of weapons and oil, so that oil may be sold on the part of the Transitional Council and that its revenues may be received by this council. Kerry defended abandoning Hosni Mubarak quickly because America had the duty to heed the call of the Egyptian people and to respond favorably to it. Yet when it came to Syria, Kerry spoke of his well-known admiration for Bashar Al-Assad, nearly describing him as a model of reform, whose progress was being impeded by the difficulties faced by the peace process between Syria and Israel.

The talk surrounding Kerry’s stances is that he wants to be the sponsor of peace between Syria and Israel at any cost, which reveals revolting double standards towards the Syrian people. In addition to this, there are no bases for a Syrian-Israeli peace deal at this point. Further, there is talk of a high-ranking Israeli envoy who headed to Washington to encourage the Administration and Congress not to pressure the regime in Damascus, because Israel does not want change on that border and does not welcome an alternative on the basis of the devil you know.

And then there are those who resort to raising fears of any change in Damascus, because, according to those who hold this opinion, it will lead to a civil war in Lebanon as a result of Hezbollah losing its ally. This twisted logic frightens the Lebanese instead of respecting the decision of the Syrians and allowing them the right to self-determination.

Most likely, the events in Syria will be an opportunity for the regime to focus on its internal affairs instead of on regaining its hegemony over Lebanon. Indeed, the reform required must necessarily involve domestic reforms and ceasing to interfere in the affairs of other countries in the region.

There remains the fact that there is in the air a hint of something new on the level of peace-making between the Palestinians and the Israelis, one that would come in the form of an initiative by the US President in the coming few weeks.

The most important thing the Obama Administration should pay heed to is not to fall into the trap of playing the blame game, in which past administration have fallen – in other words, the game of anticipation for the sake of containment, after which everyone returns to the same vicious circle.
In truth, the Palestinian Authority intends to move forward to implement Obama’s “hope”, which he expressed as he wished that he would head to the United Nations next September with the state of Palestine having been already established. The Palestinians are serious about building Palestinian state institutions and about establishing their state. They must be taken seriously and their views must be respected. After all, these views fit within the climate of the “Arab Spring”. There must not be another Oslo episode to delay and evade what must be done. The features of the two-state solution must be clarified using the US president’s permanent ink, not with an effaceable pencil. And this is in the interest of the United States, the Arabs and Israel alike.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Twisting Assad's Arm

By Andrew J. Tabler
This Commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 15/04/2011
A little over two years ago, I had to leave my eight-year career as a journalist in Damascus because of a report I had written on the Syrian opposition that the regime didn't like. Since arriving in Washington, I've had the pleasure to share views on the Syrian regime with well-meaning U.S. officials charged with engaging my former home base. But it's become something of a mantra in Washington -- as the regime has perpetrated a brutal crackdown on opposition activists -- that the United States simply has no leverage in Syria.
But after sitting through countless discussions about President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite-dominated government -- especially since the protests erupted in recent weeks -- it is now clear to me that the problem isn't a lack of leverage, but the strategy being used.
Assad rules through ambiguity and duplicity, and his speech on March 30, in which he blamed unrest sweeping his country on foreign "conspiracies" and refused to announce any specific reforms, indicates that he is not about to change his ways -- at least not without a push from the outside. Assad has spent the last 11 years promising political "reform," but has never got around to delivering it. This is a well-established pattern. He talks about peace with Israel while at the same time delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah. He promises to keep his hands off Lebanon, but recently worked with Hezbollah to bring down the government in Beirut. He says, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that he wants a nuclear-free Middle East, but stonewalls International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors investigating the rubble of his North Korean-designed nuclear program.
Applying pressure on Assad has worked in the past. U.S.-led multilateral pressure -- in the face of mass protests similar to those now sweeping Syria -- proved decisive in forcing him in April 2005 to end Syria's 29-year occupation of Lebanon. And U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime have also had an unexpected impact on its worsening finances and the ability of its members to invest internationally. While the Assad regime may have few or no investments in the United States, the "knock-on" effect of U.S. sanctions has deterred most foreign banks and companies from doing business with Damascus -- making lifting sanctions a key Syrian demand in talks with the United States. After all, what major international company would risk its U.S. business to make deals with an economy roughly the size of Pittsburgh? Why couldn't similar efforts work in the current crisis?
Up until now, Barack Obama's administration has engaged Assad with the primary goal of restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel while trying to mitigate the regional damage from Syria's worsening policies. Washington has attempted to test Assad's intention and ability to reorient his country away from Iran and toward the West in Syria-Israel peace talks by putting him on the horns of a dilemma: Either you get back the Golan Heights, or you keep supporting Hezbollah -- but not both. So far those well-intentioned efforts have not broken the gridlock: Israel watches Assad's transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, doubts his peaceful intentions, and refuses to make the risky political decision to rejoin talks. With Washington unable to deliver Israel to the negotiating table, Assad has not yet been compelled to show his hand.
The Obama administration is right to use dilemmas as a negotiating strategy -- it causes people to make clear choices. They are also key instruments to revealing a person's character and intentions, as their choices speak for themselves. But the dilemma has to fit the context. Assad, who in his recent speech repeatedly attributed the unrest in his country to Israeli and American meddling -- and has already lost significant public support by using live fire on protesters -- is not likely to risk further alienating his supporters by signing on the dotted line with Israel anytime soon.
Dilemmas also only work if they are set up properly. So far, the Obama administration has tried to administer its test by talking behind closed doors with Assad about peace with Israel and his destructive policies -- while keeping U.S. sanctions in place. But it has not introduced new negative incentives in response to Assad's regional meddling and hardhanded tactics that diametrically oppose U.S. interests or values. And thus Assad has little fear that Washington will, especially when U.S. officials make his case for him by repeatedly emphasizing their lack of leverage in Damascus. Pressure alone, much like engagement alone, will not be enough to change Assad's policies. Both stand a far better chance of being effective if used in concert. That requires focus and creativity: two things Washington's Syria policy has historically lacked.
The current unrest sweeping Syria and the rest of the Middle East provides Washington with an opportunity to launch a hybrid Syria policy that would allow the administering of more tests in better ways. This will involve expanding the focus of U.S.-Syria policy beyond the Israel question.
First, Washington should shine a light on the Assad regime's human rights violations by bringing it before the U.N. Human Rights Council. On the multilateral front, the administration should be working closely with France and other allies to establish an effective sanctions regime -- including diplomatic isolation -- against Assad to push him to stop his bloody crackdown on protesters and follow through on his reform promises. Second, the Obama administration, in the spirit of its declarations in Libya, should issue a new executive order on human rights abuses in Syria, allowing the Treasury Department to freeze accounts of individuals responsible for the crackdown. Third, it should use this remit to designate more Syrian officials and figures under Executive Order 13460, which targets rampant regime corruption -- the mortar that holds Assad's regime together and a key issue that has brought protesters out into the streets.
With these additional measures in place, Washington could rally allies around a common cause, send a strong message to Assad that his crackdown will cost him, and establish clear boundaries in terms of the scope of U.S. engagement with Syria. Washington can also use these instruments on Assad's worsening domestic position to extract concessions on his relationship with Iran, be it his relationship with Hezbollah or -- eventually, when the time is right -- peace talks with Israel. It will also teach Assad that Washington will judge him on his actions, not just his words to U.S. officials behind closed doors.
High-level U.S. officials or senior senators talking with Assad and wagging their fingers at him when he's bad will not change his ways. A good Syrian friend once told me that the key to dealing with the Assad regime is to always keep your options open and be prepared to walk away with no obligations. Only by making clear when it will do so, and what will be the consequences, will Washington ever have a hope of getting a straight answer out of Bashar al-Assad.
Andrew J. Tabler is Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the forthcoming book In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.

'The Arab Awakening Began Not In Tunisia This Year, But In Lebanon In 2005'

Revolutions don't start with a single dramatic event, such as the destruction of a church or a man's self-immolation.
By Robert Fisk
This commentary was published in The Independent on 15/04/2011
First, to reports from the revolutionary front lines in Syria, in the same imperfect, but brave, English in which they were written less than 24 hours ago...
"Yesterday morning I went to the square to demonstrate, I arranged it with guys on Facebook, I don't know them, but we share the same ambition of freedom, that night I was awake until 6am watching the news, it was horrible what's happening in Syria, the security forces slaughter people as if aniamals !!!...
"I wore my clothes and went to (the) sq. there was about 150 security service in civilian cloths in street calling for Assad's life [ie praising Assad] and one taxi car the driver was driving against the cars to stop them moving in street, I am not sure if he was revolutionizing or just empty the street for security service!, it was crazy, I was angry that they are calling for the dictator's life and want keep him running Syria like he doing.
"They were looking around at every man in street if he doesn't call for president's life they beat him and arrest him, of course I didn't call for his life and I took my phone and started taking video to show the world who's calling for this dictator, his gang! 2 guys were running infront of the demonstration – they are revoluter but they had to run with this gang until freedom seekers arrive from ommayad mosque, those 2 guys told me not to take video and hide my phone.
"I hid it in my pocket but suddenly about 40 men from secutiry came to me, they started shoulting 'he is taking video, he is taking video!!' 5 guys hold me (like when they arrest someone) and started beating me...another 7 attacked me, they took my phone, my ID and my money and other 7 guys attack me, they said why are you taking video bastard??
"'We will kill you all enemies of assad, Syria belongs to assad not to you bastard people!!' Immediately I said: 'I am with you guys!! We all follow president assad even to death!' they said then why are you taking video?'
"I said 'because I am happy there is demonstration calling for the greatest leader assad...'"
"There was one man (looks like officer) caught me and slapped me and he was the last one in this fake demonstration which calls for assad life..."
The second report:
"Assad is lying I assure you! There is more than 6000 political prisoner in Syria so what does let 260 free mean?!!...they said the emergency law to be lifted BUT they will create new law against terrorism, which will be worse than emergency law we are sure!
"They said they will fight the corruption, do you think that Assad will arrest his cousin Rami Makhlouf, his brother Maher Assad, his uncle zo al himma shaleesh, will Assad arrest all his family, take their money and give it back to us??...the gang in Lattakia are Alawiyeen gang belong to Assad family we all know them in Syria they are called shapeeha, the people in Lattakia were demonstrating against the government and afterwards the secret service, police and army brought these shapeeha to scare people and kill them.
"In Syria we are not demonstrating for food or money, we want to change the whole system and hang all Assad family..."
This is raw stuff, the voice of popular – and young – fury that will not be quenched by torture rooms and the cosh. Both Syrian men escaped arrest – though one has now had to flee his country – but their accounts tell a grindingly familiar story from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya... The fake pro-government demonstration, the promiscuous use of secret police violence, the popular knowledge of corruption and the production of plain-clothes regime thugs – "baltagi" in Cairo, where Mubarak used them, which literally means "thugs" – and the sectarianisation of suppression (the "Alawiyeen" in Lattakia are Alawi (Shia) gangs from the sect to which the Assad family belongs.
And now the regime in Damascus is claiming that Lebanon is one of the outside powers sewing discord in the "Um al-Arabia Wahida", the mother of the Arab nation, specifically the Lebanese March 14 Alliance of the outgoing Lebanese Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri, whose principal opponents are the Lebanese Shia Muslim Hezbollah party and their allies.
See how easy it is to create a "sectarian" war in Syria and then infect your neighbour with the virus?
These are not idle words. Revolutions don't start with dramatic incidents – the self-immolation of an unemployed Tunisian, the destruction of a Coptic church – however dramatic these tragedies may be.
In reality, the "Arab awakening" began not in Tunisia this year, but in Lebanon in 2005 when, appalled by the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri (Saad's father), hundreds of thousands of Lebanese of all faiths gathered in central Beirut to demand the withdrawal of Syria's 20,000 soldiers in the country.
Bachar made a pitiful speech in Damascus, abusing the demonstrators, suggesting that live television cameras were using "zooms" to exaggerate the number of the crowds.
But the UN passed a resolution – a no-soldier zone, rather than a no-fly zone, I suppose – which forced the Syrian military to leave.
This was the first "ousting" of a dictator, albeit from someone else's country, by the popular Arab "masses" which had hitherto been an institution in the hands of the dictators.
Yet I recall at the time that none of us – including myself, who had lived in Lebanon for decades – realised how deeply the Syrian claws had dug into the red soil of Lebanon over the previous 29 years. Syria's Lebanese stooges remained in place. Their "mukhabarat" security police simply re-emerged in transmogrified form.
Their political murders continued at whirlwind speed. I spent days chasing from the scene of one car bomb or hit-job to another. This is what terrifies the demonstrators of all the nations struggling to throw off their brutal – and often American-supported – masters. Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the Egyptian army, for example, is now running Egypt. Yet he is not only a close friend of America but a childhood and lifelong friend of Mubarak, who was allowed to whinge the usual ex-dictator's self-congratulatory excuses on al-Arabia television ("my reputation, my integrity and my military and political record") prior to his own questioning – and inevitable emergency entry into hospital. When the latest Tahrir Square crowds also called for Tantawi's resignation, the field marshal's mask slipped. He sent in his troops to "cleanse" the square.
When the Iranians, in their millions, demonstrated against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's dodgy presidential election results in June of 2009, many members of the "green" movement in Tehran asked me about the 2005 Lebanese revolution against Syria – dubbed the "Cedar Revolution" by the US State Department, a cliché that never really caught on among the Lebanese themselves – and while there was no direct political connection, there was undoubtedly an inspirational junction; two sets of tracks of the same gauge which reinforced the idea that the youth of Tehran and Beirut belonged to the same transport system of humanity and freedom.
Of course, there were many in the Middle East Muslim world who hoped the security forces could be won over to their side. In Cairo, individual soldiers did join the revolution – on a large scale, in Yemen – but wolves do not turn into pussycats. And – despite one obvious historical example in the region – it is unrealistic to expect anyone to save the world by walking towards their own crucifixion. Police chiefs, however personally devout, will do as they are told – even when their orders involve mass murder.
Take, for example, the Saudis. The Independent is in possession of an extraordinary – and outrageous – order from Prince Nayef Biu Abdul al-Saud, the Saudi minister of interior, issued on 11 March, prior to the much-feared "Hunayn Revolution" organised by Shia and Sunni intellectuals last month.
Hunayn was the name of a battle which the Prophet Mohamed won by a virtual miracle against far more powerful armies.
"To all the honourable heads of police in the areas of Riyadh, Mecca and Medina, al-Bahr, Qassim, the northern borders, Tabouq, Sharqiya, Qaseer, Najwan, Jezaan and the head of the emergency Special Forces," Nayef begins – note how responsibility is neatly spread across the entire network of the "mukhabarat" – "previous to our conversations regarding the so-called 'Hunayn Revolution' – if indeed it exists – with its single goal of threatening our national security: this group of stray individuals spreads evil throughout the land. Do not show them mercy. Strike them with iron fists. It is permitted for all officers and personnel to use live rounds. This is your land and this is your religion. If they want to change that or replace it, you must respond. We give thanks to you – and good luck!"
This outrageous order – which, mercifully, did not have to be obeyed – was well-known to the Americans, who have so bitterly condemned the Assad regime's brutality in Syria but who, in this case of course, uttered not a bleat.
Shia, it seems, are targetable in these revolutions – whether they be of the Saudi, the Bahraini, the Syrian or, indeed, the Lebanese variety.
Prince Nayef's instruction is worthy of investigation by the International Criminal Court at the Hague – he orders his police chiefs to shoot down unarmed demonstrators – but even if his men had performed their bloody duties (and they have, in the past), he is safe. Saudi Arabia is one kingdom where we in the West will no more tolerate Arab "awakenings" than will the local autocrats. No wonder every Saudi carries an identity card which refers to him not as a citizen but as "al-tabieya" which means, in effect, "serf".
The odd thing about all these revolutions, of course, is that the dictators – be they the Ben Alis, the Mubaraks, the Salehs, the Assads, even the al-Sauds – spend more time spying on foreigners and amassing documentation of their people's transgressions than in trying to understand what their own indigenous populations actually want. Eric Rouleau, a Le Monde correspondent in Iran, who subsequently became French ambassador to Tunisia, has recounted how "General" Ben Ali, Tunisian minister of interior between 1985 and 1986, wished to acquire the very latest French communications equipment from Paris. The "pitiless 'superflic'", as Rouleau cruelly called him, trained by American intelligence in the US, had files on "everyone".
At one meeting with Rouleau, Ben Ali outlined the greatest threats to the Tunisian regime: social "unrest", tensions with a certain Colonel Gaddafi of Libya (here, one must admit a certain sympathy for Ben Ali) and – most serious of all – "the Islamist threat", whatever that may be. Rouleau remembered how "in a theatrical gesture, he (Ben Ali) pushed the button of a machine, which in an instant unrolled an unending list of names whom he said were under permanent surveillance. An information engineer, obsessed with technology, Mr Ben Ali did not cease to use this science of information gathering". Rouleau, who was sending back to Paris less than flattering accounts of the regime and its interior minister, was puzzled that his relations with Ben Ali declined steadily – until the day he ended his mission. "On the day of my final departure from Tunisia, when I went to pay my courtesy visit to him," Rouleau was to recall, "he asked me, in a state of white-hot anger, why I regarded him as a CIA agent possessed of unstoppable ambition. And he started quoting from his files, almost word for word, my own confidential telegrams to the Quai d'Orsay... The ambassador had not escaped from the intricate workings of his spy centre."
Ben Ali could penetrate the French embassy, but as president he simply failed to learn about his own people. There is an unforgettable photograph of the soon-to-be-deposed president as he rather tardily visits the young suicider-by-fire, Mohamed Bouazizi, as he lies dying in his hospital bed.
Ben Ali is doing his best to look concerned. The boy clearly unable to communicate. But the doctors and paramedics are watching the president rather than their patient and doing so with a tired impatience, which the president obviously does not comprehend. From small kindlings do great fires grow.
Take the first uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Deraa – home to the old steam train station, by the way, in which TE Lawrence was supposedly assaulted by an Ottoman officer in the First World War – where no amount of sophisticated intelligence could have forewarned the regime of what was to come. A place of historical rebellion, some youths had painted anti-Assad graffiti on a wall. The Syrian security police followed their normal practice of dragging the young men to the cop shop, beating and torturing them. But then their mothers arrived to demand their release. They were verbally abused by the police.
Then – much more seriously – a group of tribal elders went to see the Deraa governor to demand an explanation for the behaviour of the police.
Each placed his turban on the governor's desk, a traditional gesture of negotiation; they would only replace their turbans when the matter had been resolved. But the governor, a crusty old Baathist and regime-loyalist, took the turban of the most prestigious sheikh, threw it on the floor of his office and stamped on it.
The people of Deraa came out in their thousands to protest; the shooting started; Bashar hastily dismissed his governor and replaced him. Too late. The fire had been lit. In Tunisia, an unemployed young man who set himself alight. In Syria, a turban.
These episodes, of course, are not without their foundation of history. Just as the Hauran district, in which Deraa is situated, has always been a place of rebellion, Egypt was always the land of Gamel Abdul Nasser.
And oddly – although Nasser was the originator of the military dictatorships which were to cripple Egypt – his name was spoken of with respect by thousands of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square who successfully demanded Mubarak's overthrow.
This was not because they forgot his legacy but because, after decades of monarchy and British colonial rule, they regarded Nasser as the first leader who gave Egypt self-respect.
Nasser's daughter Hoda was undoubtedly right in February, when she said that "the parallel with the people's power, the spontaneous uprising that brought my father to power, especially heartens me... People thought that the youth of today are apolitical, but they proved their detractors wrong.
"My father would have been ecstatic. He would have been proud of the people who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, chanting slogans urging radical political reform and social change. Nasser remains at the core of revolutionary mythology in Egypt and the Arab world at large. That is why you saw the portraits of Nasser hoisted high in Tahrir Square." Against all this, the Libyan "revolution" is beginning to stale; its blood congealing along with the words once used about it.
The tribes we once acknowledged as a democratic opposition – namely the Senussis of the old Idriss family – are now called "rebels" by our press and television colleagues, the uprising is now a "civil war", an unpleasant way of reminding ourselves why we must not put "boots on the ground".
Our Tory masters – especially our odious defence minister of the time – invented the Bosnian "civil war" to delay our intervention in the Balkan ethnic cleansing.
Most Arab nations would be happy to see the end of Gaddafi, but he sits uneasily amid the pantheon of "revolution". Wasn't he supposed to be the original revolutionary against the corruption of King Idriss and later scourge of the West and Zionism?
Oddly, there are parallels with Syria which we – and Assad – may not like. For it is Syria's refusal to bend to the United States' "peace process", its unwavering support for the Hezbollah "resistance" in Lebanon which broke the Israeli army in 2006, which allows the Assad family – caliphs, I suppose, by definition – to claim that their independence and their refusal to bow down to US-Israeli demands constitute a long-running revolution in Syria of infinitely more importance than the street fighting gangs of Deraa, Lattakia, Banias and Douma.
Hamas maintains its head political office in Damascus. Syria remains the lung through which Iran can breathe in the Middle East; through which Iran's own president can enter Lebanon and proclaim – to the horror of the Lebanese whom Bachar Assad now blames for his own country's violence – that southern Lebanon is now Iran's front line against Israel.
And now let's go a little further. On 31 March, the Israelis – who have steadfastly opposed the overthrow of the Middle East's dictators – published a series of photo-reconnaissance pictures of southern Lebanon, supposedly marking the exact locations of 550 Hezbollah bunkers, 300 "monitoring sites" and 100 weapons storage facilities run by Syria's Lebanese Shia militia allies in the country. They had been built, the Israelis claimed, next to hospitals, schools and public utilities. The documentation was fake. Visits to locations marked on the map uncovered no such bunkers. Indeed, the real Hezbollah bunkers known to the Lebanese are not marked on the map. The Hezbollah quickly understood the meaning.
"They are setting us up for the next war," a veteran Hezbollah ruffian from the village of Jibchit told me. If Israel had really discovered our positions, the last thing they would have done is inform us they knew the locations – because we'd immediately move them!"
But last week, the Turkish air force forced down an Iranian transport aircraft supposedly flying over Diyarbakir en route to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo with "auto spare parts". On board the Ilyushin-76, the Turks found 60 Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, 14 BKC machine guns, 8,000 rounds of ammunition, 560 60-mm mortar shells and 1,288 120-mm mortar shells.
Forget Facebook. These were not part of any Arab "reawakening" or "uprising", but further supplies for the Hezbollah to use in their next conflict with Israel. All of which raises a question. Is there a better way of taking your people's minds off revolution than a new war against an enemy which has resolutely opposed the democratisation of the Arab world?

Syrians Renew Protests Despite Concessions

By Liam Stack and Katherine Zoepf
This article was published in The New York Times on 15/04/2011
Protesters turned out again in large numbers in cities across Syria on Friday to demand reforms, defying a nationwide crackdown in which dozens of demonstrators have been killed by security forces. The marches on Friday were met with tear gas, beatings and reports of gunfire.
Seeking to tamp down the unrest, the government of President Bashar al-Assad had announced several measures on Thursday that were meant to mollify demonstrators.
Tens of thousands of protesters marched into Damascus from its restive suburbs on Friday afternoon, said Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights activist. It was the first time that a protest that large had been seen in the capital, which the government had managed to hold in a tense calm for weeks. The protesters chanted “Freedom! Freedom!” and “The people want to overthrow the regime!” as they moved along. Ms. Zeitouneh estimated that the march began with 20,000 people in Douma, the site of large protests each of the last two weekends, and passed through a string of suburbs including Harasta and Arbeen.
Security forces responded with live ammunition and tear gas, she said, but it was unclear how effective those measures were. At midday, the march was continuing to push toward Abasseyeen Square in the heart of Damascus. By the time it reached the city limits, it had snowballed into a potentially serious challenge for the government of Mr. Assad, whose 11-year rule has been badly shaken by weeks of unrest. The security forces’ seeming inability to keep groups of protesters in different suburbs from joining into a large demonstration was ominous for the government, activists said.
Beyond the capital, there were reports of sizable protests in Homs and other cities and in the besieged southern town of Dara’a, which has been isolated behind a tight security cordon since the early days of unrest in mid-March.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the Syrian authorities to “stop repressing their citizens and start responding to their aspirations.”
“We call upon the Syrian authorities, once again, to refrain from any further violence against their own people,” she said, speaking in Berlin after wrapping up a meeting with NATO officials on Libya.
“The arbitrary arrests, the detentions, the reports of torture of prisoners, must end now. The free flow of information must be permitted once again,” she said. “We have to allow journalists and human rights monitors the opportunity to enter Syria, to be free to report, to independently verify what’s happening on the ground. To this point, the Syrian government has not addressed the legitimate demands of the Syrian people. It’s time for the Syrian government to stop repressing their citizens and start responding to their aspirations.”
In the wave of popular uprisings that began to sweep the Arab world three months ago, Friday has become the focal day for demonstrations, with protesters pouring out of mosques after noon prayers, often to confront security forces.
The latest signs of dissent in Syria, run by one of the most repressive Arab governments, came a day after the government announced an amnesty for some prisoners and other steps to try to placate the growing numbers of demonstrators who have taken to the streets in recent weeks.
The government also withdrew its feared security forces from the coastal city of Baniyas on Thursday, replacing them with regular army troops, who are thought to be better liked by the public.
Mr. Assad also formed a new cabinet on Thursday and met with officials from Dara’a, which has been the epicenter of protests since the detention of a group of students for spray-painting antigovernment graffiti last month.
Even as the conciliatory measures were announced on Thursday, though, human rights activists said that organizers of the protests in Dara’a were being detained. Some activists complained that the new national cabinet — which included some former ministers — was unlikely to push for more democratic policies, and expressed doubts that protesters who want sweeping change in Syria would be appeased.
Friday began with a wave of early-morning detentions in the Druse village of Sweida and in a string of villages around Dara’a. At least 43 people were detained in Sweida, said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group; by Insan’s count, at least 172 people have been arrested from 11 villages around Dara’a in the last 24 hours.
Demonstrations were reported in towns that had not previously been affected by the unrest, activists said. One of the largest was in Deir al-Zour on the Euphrates River, where security forces used tear gas in the afternoon to try to disperse the crowd. About 2,000 people reportedly demonstrated in the Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus, a rare eruption of unrest within the capital. There, too, security forces used tear gas, Mr. Tarif said and were “brutally beating” protesters who were trying to leave the area. Four protesters in Barzeh were detained, he said.
There were also reports of violence in Latakia, a coastal town where that security forces were said to have fired live ammunition into the air. Injuries were reported, but none from gunshots, Mr. Tarif said. And protests were reported in the towns of Qamishli, Amudah and Darbasiyah in northern Hasaka Province and the coastal town of Jablah.
Security forces also massed in the main square of Homs to preclude demonstrations there, he said. In response, protesters gathered in scattered neighborhood rallies in an attempt to “make the security forces spread out,” Mr. Tarif said. Television images from Homs showed security forces there opening fire on protesters. Shots can be heard booming across a palm-lined square in the images, broadcast on Al Jazeera, as groups of men run shouting towards the source of the sound.
A rights activist in Homs said, “What is happening today is bigger than the last few days.”
In Dara’a, thousands of protesters flooded the streets on Friday, chanting “Freedom! Freedom!” and “With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you, O our country!” Images on Al Jazeera showed people leaning over balcony railings to cheer and wave as throngs of protesters wound their way through the streets.
Protests continued in the predominantly Kurdish area of north Syria as well, but eyewitnesses said the security forces there were out in smaller numbers and responding less harshly. Fouad Aleiku, a leading member of the Kurdish Yekiti Party, estimated that about 3,000 people, both Kurds and Arabs, demonstrated in Mounir Habib Square in Qamishli, a town with a large Kurdish population.
“The security is very light, they are not doing anything to anyone,” Mr. Aleiku said. The protesters chanted for “reform” of the government rather than its overthrow, which may signal that the government is making progress in taming down protests through dialogue with local leaders. Mr. Aleiku, who took part in a meeting with the provincial governor last week, said, “If the president engages in true reforms, I think that is most important.”
A businessman from Dara’a who said that a relative of his was among the delegation that met with President Assad on Thursday described the group as consisting of tribal chiefs, social activists and Muslim scholars. He said that the meeting lasted for about three hours and that the group “discussed most issues in an open and free way.”
“During the meeting, the president was very friendly and listened to them with open ears,” said the businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears for his safety. “The president even said to them: ‘I saw how people from Dara’a destroyed my father’s statues and my posters, but don’t worry. I will forgive that as a father forgives his sons.’ ”
Still, Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights advocate based in Damascus, said that despite the reportedly conciliatory tone of the meeting, witnesses told her organization, the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, that at least 10 organizers of the protest movement in Dara’a had been detained while the city leaders were meeting with the president.
A video sequence broadcast on Al Jazeera on Friday afternoon showed prisoners in the coastal town of Al Beida bound and lying face down in a public square, as black-clad members of the security forces stood over them with automatic weapons and wooden clubs. The security agents were seen beating the prisoners across the shoulders and backs with the clubs and rifle butts, and one man was kicked in the face.
Liam Stack reported from Cairo, Katherine Zoepf from New York. and Steven Lee Myers from Berlin. A reporter contributed from Syria.