Friday, March 2, 2012

The Fall Of Homs

The rebels may have retreated, but the revolution goes on.
The siege of Homs is over. After a confused and ominous 24-hour news cycle, the Syrian rebels have made a "tactical withdrawal" from the restive neighborhood of Baba Amr, which withstood a month of rocket fire, drone-guided artillery shelling, and possibly even helicopter gunship attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's security forces.
But the rebels' withdrawal was not a total defeat. As of March 1, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could still boast that it had kept some 7,000 soldiers from Maher al-Assad's elite 4th Division at bay on Baba Amr's outskirts, a claim that appeared corroborated by eyewitness accounts. One Homsi in an adjoining district told me last night, Feb. 29, via Skype that tanks were moving in and out of his street in a violent attempt to enter Baba Amr. They'd failed.
Although Baba Amr's fall was inevitable, the snow and freezing cold cast an image of a Levantine Stalingrad in the making. Electricity and water have been shut off in large parts of Homs -- a city of 1 million people -- for the past three days. Food is scarce, prompting the United Nations to fret about mass starvation.
What happens to the civilians in Baba Amr now, particularly with communication lines cut and no YouTube clips being uploaded, is up to the Assad regime's totalitarian imagination. The regime has apparently given the International Committee of the Red Cross the green light to send in humanitarian aid and evacuate the wounded on March 2. Clearly, this step is designed to lend the impression that the armed rebels were responsible for Baba Amr's misfortunes all along. Sources inside the neighborhood, however, say that a "bloodbath" is currently taking place. Seventeen civilians have been beheaded or partially beheaded by security forces, the activist organization Avaaz said March 1.
With the destruction of the opposition's stronghold in Homs, Syria's revolutionaries aren't going to melt into thin air. U.S. and European policymakers might like to believe that Homsis wake up each morning and consult the writings of Gene Sharp, but the bulk of the opposition now recognizes that the revolution must be accomplished through arms and that returning to the passive resistance of eight months ago would amount to a suicide pact.
After all, it's Assad -- not the revolutionaries -- who transformed this into an armed conflict in the first place. The original peaceful protest movement, which originally called for "reforms," was met with wanton acts of brutality. Nor have most Syrians forgotten that 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, an early rallying symbol for the revolution, wasn't carrying a Kalashnikov when Assad's security forces kidnapped him and then delivered his mutilated corpse back to his parents.
Would these security forces and their shabiha mercenaries promise not to arrest, torture, or shoot at more men, women, and children if the opposition disarmed? If so, who'd believe them? Tens of thousands of civilian fighters and military defectors are fanned out all over Syria at present -- will they be granted "amnesty" to trade their guns in for slogans calling for the toppling of the regime?
Changes are also afoot in the makeup of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the political body designed to represent the opposition, to adapt to the new reality on the ground. On March 1, the SNC established a "military bureau," consisting of civilians and soldiers, to unify the armed opposition and coordinate weapons delivery. The council's media spokesman, Ausama Monajed, responded to an email inquiry asking who would sit on the new military bureau by stating that FSA leader Riad al-Asaad, retired Brig. Gen. Akil Hashem, and Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, and others "have [all] been contacted and [are] on board."
Reports, however, already suggest that Asaad wasn't even consulted about the new bureau, and Hashem has declined to head the organization due to an acrimonious argument with SNC President Burhan Ghalioun. And more bad news: Turkey has refused to host the new bureau.
Whatever the case, the military apparatus of the opposition has never trusted the aspiring political leaders of the Syrian opposition. Asaad called the SNC "traitors" a few weeks ago for not supporting the FSA and for "conspiring" with the Arab League. Meanwhile, Sheikh recently tried to set up a rival "Higher Revolutionary Council" to steal Asaad's thunder.
No matter who heads the SNC's military bureau, it's unclear whether it can actually unify Syria's largely autonomous and atomized militias, which are increasingly manned by civilians. Ghalioun was characteristically oblique in his Paris news conference about the SNC's military strategy, saying that the new bureau's job would be "to protect those peaceful protesters and civilians."
This implies exclusively defensive operations rather than offensive ones, which many rebels unaffiliated with the FSA -- indeed, openly hostile to it -- have already carried out in Damascus's suburbs and the northern province of Idlib.
Like many decisions devised through the SNC's manic-depressive policymaking process, the military bureau announcement was in response to the changing attitude of the Syrian "street." And it's not the only change that followed the international "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia last Friday, Feb. 24. For starters, the conference led to semi-recognition of the Syrian opposition by the United States and the European Union, which dubbed the SNC "a legitimate representative" of the Syrian people -- but not the sole representative.
The conference also led to Ghalioun's explicit offer to Syria's Kurds of a "decentralized" government in a post-Assad state. This is crucial. Kurds constitute as much as 15 percent of the Syrian population, and they want the sort of autonomy their brethren enjoy in Iraq. Ghalioun's overture was designed to forge a rapprochement with the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a separate umbrella group made up of 11 Syrian Kurdish parties, which had suspended its membership in the SNC and largely takes direction from Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani. Two KNC members told me at a conference in Copenhagen last week that "we can put a million Kurds on the street" the minute their demands are satisfied. This likely isn't an idle boast.
The Friends of Syria conference also led to the formation of an angry breakaway movement within the SNC, called the Syrian Patriotic Group, which is headed by longtime dissidents Haitham al-Maleh and Fawaz Tello. Tello told me the other day that this faction wants to better coordinate with the activists on the ground to bring their prescriptions for winning the revolution in line with the SNC's foreign advocacy work. This faction wants the SNC's 310-member General Assembly expanded to "500 or 600" seats to make room for more grassroots activists inside Syria.
"What we are pushing for is to make the base of the opposition broader and to make the SNC more democratic," Tello said, adding that the SNC's main decision-making bodies, the Secretariat General and Presidential Council, should be subject to elections rather than appointments and reappointments made by Muslim Brotherhood fiat.
All this is progress, of a sort, though how it manifests within Syria remains to be seen. Senior U.S. officials pontificating on Capitol Hill would do well to remember that activists and rebels have never waited for a by-your-leave from the U.S. State Department -- much less from external opposition groups -- to decide how to defend themselves and their families.
As Homs submits to what some are calling an "occupation" by regime forces, the next flashpoint could be Idlib, whole swaths of which are rebel-controlled and which benefits from easy resupply from Turkey. Well, what happens when the 4th Division tries to storm this province? Unlike one neighborhood in Homs, the vast province isn't so easily surrounded. Nevertheless, the last time a major assault was waged in Idlib, 10,000 Syrians fled to Turkey, where they now remain, living in tents. The Turks likely won't sit back and accept tens of thousands of more -- they may be forced to make good on their much-promised "buffer zone" out of necessity if not desire.
As ever, the one setting the schedule for this revolution is none other than Bashar al-Assad. The siege of Homs may be over, but the war for Syria has just begun.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 01/03/2012
-Michael Weiss is communications director for the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign-policy think tank based in London. He blogs regularly about Syria and the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Five Years In Damascus

How my Syrian adventure became a nightmare.
A bloated dead donkey greeted me as I entered Syria in January 2007. "Welcome to Assad's Syria" read a huge billboard hanging over the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey.
The first person I spoke to upon arriving in Damascus was a machine gun-toting soldier guarding a government building. "Where is the Harameih hostel?" I asked. He had no idea what I was saying, never mind what I wanted.
Mosquito and bedbug bites, sunstroke and diarrhea. Agonizing Arabic-language classes and cold showers thrice daily. Weight loss. Dust. I had no idea how I had found myself in this country. But I would stay five years, before the horrors of the country's incipient civil war drove me away this month.
There were also delights: Christian celebrations in churches so small the mellow voices in a mini-choir of two filled the entire chapel. Visiting mysterious Druze communities in remote mountain hamlets, where men drive tiny tractors filled with the green of freshly picked apples. The green, brown, and yellow mountains. Delectable meshawe -- roasted chicken soaked in olive oil and crushed garlic -- barbeques. How Damascus smells on summer nights.
Working as an editor at the state-run Syria Times newspaper in 2007 and 2008 would see me immersed in Arab literature, politics, debate, and news -- or so I thought.
I was naive. Most workers -- they cannot be called journalists -- holding senior positions at the Syria Times were Alawite. Few even spoke English. We shared offices with the Arabic title Tishreen, and most news came down from the state news agency, SANA.
Even then, dissent simmered just below the surface. Translators fresh out of university mocked the regime and the "newspaper." The tea room employed four boys where one sufficed -- brothers, sons, cousins of someone up the chain -- but loyal. Syria Times closed in June 2008, but today employees are still being paid $150 per month.
Despite its problems, Syria seemed to be prospering back then. The World Bank recorded that Syria's GDP grew at a healthy 6 percent annual clip from 2004 to 2009. An explosion of Kia and Hyundai cars clogged the streets, and new private banks provided easy credit to anyone with a little cash or a stable job.
In Damascus, at least, laptops flourished in Western-style cafes. The $4 coffee arrived in 2010, and then iPhones and Cinnabon bakeries. Syria's rapid modernization spurred massive migration to urban centers, while in the countryside to the northeast, hundreds of thousands of farmers fled starvation from a devastating drought. They drove taxis at night and lived in Harasta, Qaboun, and Madamia, satellite towns of Damascus where rent was cheap -- and that are now centers of protest.
Then the uprising began, and everything changed. In Damascus, disbelief was followed by fear and then dejection as the protests spread throughout the country. January brought a sense of siege. Hundreds of concrete barriers appeared around security and military facilities, deepening the sense of fear and foreboding. Men queued overnight for heating fuel, already inflated in price, and returned home empty-handed the following morning to cold wives and children.
In Syria's halls of power, officials made gestures toward the carrot -- "There is corruption, and we need to root it out," numerous government officials remarked in public during the early days of the revolt last spring.
At the same time, however, regime heavyweights reached enthusiastically for the stick. The calculus seemed to be that if the regime let a single town square go free anywhere in the country, it would crumble.
Since the beginning of 2012, the state of affairs across Syria has deteriorated further. In Qatana, a largely Sunni town 20 miles southwest of Damascus, tanks have returned to the streets. Locals must now do without electricity for 12 hours each day.
In Jdeidet Artouz, a religiously mixed town of Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites southwest of Damascus where I lived for 18 months, recent weeks have seen dozens of protesters become hundreds. They block street traffic using huge free-Syria flags. Yet the security forces drive by the demonstrations in cars adorned with symbols of the regime -- and do nothing.
I asked my local shopkeeper why the authorities are not breaking up the protests.
"Do you watch Tom and Jerry?" he replied. "Here it is the same; they are playing a game."
The waiting game is also being played in the capital. Damascenes watch footage from Homs, but do not act. A few -- those who have family and friends killed or tortured by the regime -- are taking to the streets in increasing numbers, but the majority remain silent.
"We are not used to this," Damascenes constantly told me. They see Homs and think that nothing is worth the same devastation visiting their own streets and homes.
Almost every week, friends and acquaintances disappear. Close friendships are consigned to the past because, when you're on the run from the security forces, you don't have money for phone credit.
Conversation dies after 11 months of unrest. "What can we talk about?" a state employee asked me. "The news? We'd rather talk about anything else." Many are not afraid to criticize the regime, but most are too frightened to take to the streets.
Syria's minorities are frozen in fear. Christians spend hours watching the television station run by Adnan al-Arour, a Salafi Syrian cleric based in Riyadh who broadcasts videos of rebels shouting Islamic slogans and issues threats to pro-Assad minorities while calling for the establishment of an Islamic government. "Who will protect us?" one Christian woman asked me recently. "Will they make us wear Islamic dress?"
Ultimately it was the scenes at Saqba in eastern Damascus that prompted me to leave. An English journalist in Syria on a temporary visa asked whether I was interested in visiting to search out an underground, activist-run hospital. Frustrated at hearing of other journalists making it to Homs, I could not turn down the opportunity.
I saw six bloated bodies hidden under pine trees inside a schoolyard, some missing eyes, lips, noses. Another dead man blackened by fire. They were hidden by locals so that their families could bury them in dignity at a later time, when the regime's forces left.
I feared that if the Syrian security forces found out what I had seen, they would not hesitate to silence me -- perhaps blaming the "armed gangs" for doing so.
As the sound of shells thudding into the Damascus suburbs kept me awake, I got a taste of many Syrians' fears of the regime's pervasive security forces. Every morning I held my breath when turning the ignition of my car. Footsteps on the stairs outside my door made me sit upright on the sofa.
The regime remains strong, say many.
State employees are still being paid on time each month. Police can still be seen at their traffic-light posts every morning. Families continue to turn out in droves to eat sandwiches at the few city malls where electric generators help maintain a semblance of normalcy.
Damascenes have lived with this regime for decades and know it only really understands the way of the gun. It is a regime that scoffs at political ideals, a family fiefdom forged long ago in an absurd tribal pride that values a misplaced honor and personal ego over all. It can smuggle and steal, and it is not afraid to shoot and kill --but it will not negotiate or compromise.
For many Syrians, the political opposition offers little. Flying the free-Syria flag off a bridge in the capital for five minutes will not hasten the end of the regime. Blocking roads by pouring diesel in front of cars, as happened recently in the capital's center, will not draw Damascus's silent majority -- those who bought Kias and Hyundais in 2009 -- to the side of the opposition.
Nor does the opposition's ever-escalating violence hold any prospect of bringing President Bashar al-Assad's regime to its knees. This month, members of the Free Syrian Army surrounded an army checkpoint outside Homs and tried to convince the troops to "defect and join" them. They failed -- and a strategy of trying to intimidate the Syrian army through superior firepower is bound to fail on a grander scale.
The soldiers and security officers bombarding Homs's restive neighborhoods and shooting up Daraa and Idlib won't lay down their weapons and run en masse to join the defectors anytime soon. They think that the regime is right and that they are locked in a struggle to the death with the gunmen. And they are fighting armed men, now.
The regime will spend hours of broadcasting time telling Syrians how the journalists who have been reporting from Homs -- and are now trapped there -- entered Syria illegally and are probably assisting the "terrorist gangs." And they will convince thousands.
Although perhaps inevitable, the militarization of the opposition has been the greatest disaster of the uprising. The regime has exploited this fact by granting visas for dozens of foreign journalists to make the case that the regime is, in fact, fighting armed gangs.
And support for those armed men is far from universal. "When the army sees men with guns, they will try kill them; they will shoot them down," a youth in Saqba told me this month. "I hate the Free Syrian Army. They are gone, and we are here with our smashed homes."
Bearing witness to a country falling apart is a sobering experience. Cars don't stop at traffic lights or for traffic police. Security officers manning checkpoints slip their hands into cars' glove compartments without asking. But when I speak to Syrians, the most troubling aspect -- though few appear to realize it -- are the growing divisions between them.
Christians complain how beggars take all their money back to the mosque. Most Damascenes, who as one observer eloquently noted "are waiting for a winner and then they will support them," don't give a damn about their fellow Syrians in Homs and Daraa.
But one thing is certain: The Assad regime will fall. Its policy of maintaining thousands of security minions at dozens of locations across the country is unsustainable. The cash it has hoarded and stolen will run out, and it will no longer be able to pay its gangsters and public-sector employees, leading to millions more hungry Syrians on the streets calling for change. At some point, probably within 18 months, army defections will reach a tipping point, and massive numbers of Sunni soldiers will run home or rush to defend besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro. Meanwhile, Christians and other minorities will refuse to pick up guns and shoot their fellow Syrians for Assad.
Syria's uprising, however, may not end with Assad's demise. Even after the dictatorship crumbles, there will be 22 million people who will have a hell of a lot of issues with one other -- and Assad will no longer be around to be blamed for the poor state of their lives. Responsibility for Syria will not come from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, or the local policeman -- it will have to come from each individual. Syrians will have to decide for themselves where they want their country to go.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 29/02/2012
-Stephen Starr is an Irish freelance journalist and the author of Revolt: Eye-Witness to the Syrian Uprising, out in June

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Saudi Arabia Is Arming The Syrian Opposition

What could possibly go wrong?


Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah scolded Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week for failing to coordinate with Arab states before vetoing a United Nations resolution demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. Emboldened by the lack of international action, Assad's forces are now slaughtering civilians in the streets at an even greater rate. Referring to the bloodshed, the king ominously warned Medvedev that Saudi Arabia "will never abandon its religious and moral obligations towards what's happening."

The last time the Saudis decided they had a moral obligation to scuttle Russian policies, they gave birth to a generation of jihadi fighters in Afghanistan who are still wreaking havoc three decades later.

According to news reports confirmed by a member of the Syrian opposition, Riyadh currently sends weapons on an ad hoc basis to the Syrian opposition by way of Sunni tribal allies in Iraq and Lebanon. But in light of recent developments, more weapons are almost certainly on their way. After his delegation withdrew in frustration from last week's Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said that humanitarian aid to Syria was "not enough" and that arming the Syrian rebels was an "excellent idea." Soon afterward, an unnamed official commented in the state-controlled Saudi press that Riyadh sought to provide the Syrian opposition with the "means to achieve stability and peace and to allow it the right to choose its own representatives." Meanwhile, Saudi clerics are now openly calling for jihad in Syria and scorning those who wait for Western intervention. One prominent unsanctioned cleric, Aidh al-Qarni, openly calls for Assad's death.

Other Sunni Gulf states, principally Qatar, may be contributing weapons. On Monday, Feb. 27, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said, "We should do whatever necessary to help [the Syrian opposition], including giving them weapons to defend themselves." The positions of other regional actors are less clear. But whether or not they supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army -- the armed opposition composed of defectors and local militia -- all these Sunni states now want the Assad regime to crumble because it is an ally and proxy of their sworn Shiite enemy, Iran, which destabilizes the region with terrorism and nuclear threats.

For the Saudis, depriving the Russians of a Middle Eastern toehold is an added bonus. The two countries share a long-standing animus. In the 1970s, the Saudis used their enormous oil wealth to inflict pain on the Soviets wherever they could. The Saudis fought communist governments and political movements with more than $7.5 billion in foreign and military aid to countries like Egypt, North Yemen, Pakistan, and Sudan. Saudi funding was particularly instrumental in supporting anti-Soviet (and anti-Libyan) operations and alliances in Angola, Chad, Eritrea, and Somalia.

But the Saudis didn't simply counter communism. They fueled a generation of zealous Islamist fighters who later caused bigger problems elsewhere. These Islamists were instrumental to the Saudis after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Inspired by the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and armed with Saudi funds and weapons, Arab mujahideen poured into Afghanistan. (An estimated 175,000 to 250,000 fought there at any given time during the war, according to terrorism analyst Peter Bergen.) After a decade of guerrilla war during which the Soviets sustained heavy losses, the Red Army withdrew, and their puppet government in Kabul fell soon thereafter.

A lot, of course, has changed. The Saudis no longer need to fight communism. The new Russians have no ideology and are driven purely by political interests. Additionally, the Kremlin is now allergic to putting boots on the ground in the Middle East or South Asia. Russia's new strategy in the region is to make money and gain influence by selling arms, military hardware, and technology to Iran and Syria.

Although arming rogue regimes may seem reckless, it's Russia's last opportunity to exert leverage in a region where, since the Cold War's end, almost every other country has turned to Washington for arms.

Tartus, the second-largest port in Syria, has been the cornerstone of Russian-Syrian naval cooperation since the 1970s. In the past decade, the Russians have doubled down with improvements and investments in what is their primary Mediterranean toehold. In recent months, Russian and Iranian warships have docked in Tartus to show support for the Assad regime. Through it, they have reportedly provided untold amounts of weaponry with which Assad's army continues to attack anti-regime protesters.

The Saudis know that if Syria falls, Tartus falls with it. That's one more reasons to send arms to the opposition.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration continues to express deep misgivings about sending weapons, claiming that the Syrian opposition is too much of a black box. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently expressed concerns that the weapons could flow to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or Hamas. But the Saudis have run out of patience. They now unabashedly advocate for arming the Free Syrian Army.

This is not an empty threat. The Saudis know how to procure and move weapons, and they have no shortage of cash. If Riyadh wants to arm the opposition, armed it shall be. And those who receive the weapons will likely be at least amenable to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that has spawned dangerous Islamist movements worldwide.

Of course, a Saudi-led insurgency would not be in the cards if the Obama administration were not so opposed to empowering the opposition. But the longer Obama waits and the deeper the humanitarian crisis worsens, the more likely it becomes that other actors will tip the balance in Syria. Using history as a guide, none would be more dangerous than Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians and Russians may yet pay a price for propping up Assad in Syria. But if the Saudis have their way, the world may pay a price too.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 27/02/2012
-Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Monday, February 27, 2012

Egypt’s Cobra And Mongoose

By Robert Springborg
The deadly struggle for power between Egypt's rulers and Muslim Brothers dates back to the rule of King Faruq, with each episode following virtually the identical script. Each time, for a brief period ruler and Brothers "cohabit," but the marriage of convenience soon breaks down amidst mutual recrimination. The ruler, recently arrived on the monarchial or presidential throne, reaches out to the Brothers to benefit from or at least neutralize the political support they command. For their part the Brothers seek purchase within the state to ward off threats, obtain resources, and gain footholds from which they may commence their final ascent to power. But this cooperation will not last, to judge by history -- a history well known to all players in today's unfolding story.
In the case of King Faruq, the Brothers overreached with a campaign of assassination, which provoked a counter-campaign that included the killing of the movement's founder-leader Hassan al-Banna, and a general crackdown on the movement. In the case of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the new regime went so far as to provide the Brothers a cabinet seat before using an alleged assassination attempt on Nasser almost two years on to launch the campaign of terror against them that lasted virtually until the end of his life. For his part, Anwar Sadat reached out to the Brothers to fill the political vacuum resulting from his purge of leftist Nasserists only months after becoming president. For several years they enjoyed his patronage and protection, before falling victim to his fear and megalomania.
Hosni Mubarak followed a similar script when he replaced the assassinated Sadat, re-opening political space for the Brothers in the first years of his long rule, before settling on a formula in the 1990s that sharply constrained but did not eliminate their political presence. For years, Mubarak tolerated, and indeed benefited from, this limited presence. But like his predecessors, Mubarak ultimately tightened the screws on the Brotherhood further, seeking vainly in the final years of his presidency to destroy their economic and political base through an escalated campaign of arrests and repression.
The history of relations between modern Egyptian rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood has played out again and again in the same manner of the epic clash between the mongoose and cobra, with the former always winning. Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and his fellow generals on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are of course well aware of this history. Their behavior suggests that they too want to benefit from the Brotherhood's political support during a transitional period. But almost as farce, history seems destined to repeat itself. The rivalry inherent in the relationship renders political cohabitation difficult to the point of being impossible, so the military mongoose can be expected to strike at the Brotherhood cobra yet again. But this time the outcome may be quite different.
The comparative evidence of relations in other authoritarian regimes between a ruling military and religiously based opposition parties is not as one-sided as the mongoose-cobra analogy implies. While General Franco and his military came to dominate all of Spain, including the Catholic church and its right wing political arm, Opus Dei, fascism elsewhere in Europe, including in Germany and Italy, saw the party, at least partially supported by the church, ascendant over the military. In Latin America the military generally had the upper hand until democratic transitions subordinated it to institutional control. In Iran, however, the mullahs appear still to have the upper hand against both the regular military and the Revolutionary Guard Corps they created as a counterbalance to it. These battles do not inevitably result in the army subordinating the party.
Nor do the specifics of the current SCAF-Brotherhood political cohabitation suggest that history will necessarily repeat itself. The SCAF is playing a clumsy political game that may backfire. As a scheduled transition to civilian rule looms, the military is busily trying to draw redlines behind which its interests will remain inviolable. But that effort has undermined its political support and brought into question the very exercise. Over the long haul the military will be hard pressed to defend the lines it has drawn in the face of a contentious political arena and energized the Egyptian public. Demands will intensify for scrutiny of its budget, its internal management, and for it to at least share responsibility for making national security policies.
One possibility is that a cabal of officers, perhaps of a pan-Arabist neo-Nasserist persuasion, could decide that the SCAF, the Brothers, the "revolutionaries," and indeed everyone else had made such a political mess of things since February 11, 2011, that they needed to intervene to save the nation. But in today's Egypt, they would be hard put to assert themselves over the newly empowered Brothers and fellow traveling Islamists. In none of the historic episodes did the Brothers seek to mobilize their supporters in the street against the state. But this time, after the events of the last year, no one could be guaranteed of such reticence now that they have finally arrived almost at the seat of power.
The underlying political economy of the military-Brotherhood cohabitation similarly seems to favor the latter. The current division of the political system gives the military and Brothers control over the "hard" and "soft" states, respectively. The former now encompasses all of the armed forces, including the security and intelligence services as well as the police, plus provincial governorships and heads of provincial, district, and local executive councils. The potentially threatening position of chair of the parliamentary national security and defense committee was awarded by the Brothers to a former general, signaling their acquiescence to the military in this potentially key domain. The "hard" cabinet portfolios of defense, military production, interior, foreign policy, finance, and international cooperation are presently all in the hands of SCAF loyalists, where they are likely to remain in the first independent government to be formed later this year. On paper the military looks to be in an unassailable position.
But the Brotherhood's hold on the soft state and its political influence more broadly is far from trivial. The parliament which it dominates will have greater power than at any time since the first following nominal independence in 1923. While the Brotherhood is unlikely to institutionalize that power in an elected body which it cannot be certain to control in the future, its leaders will be able to threaten to deploy parliament's latent powers to enhance their leverage. Assuming that they perform as well in local government elections as they have in parliamentary ones, the same will hold true in the governorates, districts, and municipalities. Councils at these levels will be able to contest for power with their executive branch equivalents. The Brothers' domination of professional syndicates and strong influence within the judiciary, as evidenced by their present role in the Judge's Club and Supreme Council of the Judiciary, provide additional bases upon which they can build political power. While the constitution is yet to be written, it is widely assumed that it will establish a system in which considerable executive power is transferred to the legislative branch. The betting now is that the president will be a compromise candidate between the SCAF and the Brotherhood, thereby ensuring that this key figure cannot be a complete tool of either.
The Brothers are likely to attempt to begin to move against the armed forces simultaneously from the bottom and the top. The police on the beat, already deeply unpopular and demoralized, are going to find it very hard to push back against the Brothers, who have real power on the streets. Many police are likely to begin to find common cause with them. The same will be true, although in lesser degree, of military and security service conscripts, especially in the Central Security Force of the Ministry of Interior. From the top down the Brothers undoubtedly already have supporters within the various corps of officers, which they will seek to bolster. The potential for a bandwagon effect is certainly there, as careerists in the armed forces and those just serving their terms of conscription perceive that it is better for them to get with the coming strength rather than to be swept away in the ebb tide associated with the ousted regime and its officer legacy. So while the Brothers only dominate the soft state at present, it already provides a weighty counterbalance to the hard state, the control of which by the military will be challenged in the coming years.
The economic system is similarly, although not yet as sharply divided into hard and soft components, but likely soon to be more so. The military economy includes consumer goods and services, but its principal concentration is in heavier industry. That tendency will probably be reinforced as the generals lay claim to assets seized from Gamal Mubarak's cronies, most notably those in iron and steel and other areas of energy intensive production. The Brothers' economic activities, such as those run by Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al Shater or businessman Safwan Sabit, are almost entirely in consumer goods and services, including retail shops, restaurants, food processing, household furniture, and the like. They also have interests in formal and informal financial institutions.
As is the case with regard to politics, while at first glance controlling the hard economy seems to be an advantage for the military, over the longer haul controlling its soft components may give the Brothers the upper hand. Given the size and rate of growth of the population, consumer demand is bound to expand, thereby advantaging providers of consumer goods and services. And as important as economic advantage will be the direct contact between Brotherhood controlled companies and the public and the possibilities that provides for general reputational enhancement, resource accumulation, and recruitment. In addition, the Brotherhood will move to expand its existing social safety net and will draw upon state resources to do so, lest the appeal of the Salafis among the poor, as demonstrated in the parliamentary elections, become a serious political threat. This too will serve to reinforce its political standing and extend its reach.
Another economic consideration is the Brothers' ability to tap resources from the Gulf. While the Mubarak regime was kept on drip feed from Gulf sources and the SCAF has yet to obtain really major contributions from those sources, the Brothers' prospects are considerably brighter. Various of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have already demonstrated an interest in investing in the Brotherhood's political futures and as they brighten, more investors are likely to follow, whether through direct subventions, investments in businesses, or public assistance to the state. Finally, the expansion of the Islamic economy, as suggested already by the promised floating of a $2 billion sukuk (Islamic bond) issue, not only will provide another bridge to the Gulf, it will bolster the standing of the Brothers as competent and moral economic managers and as gatekeepers and stimulators of this flow of funds. By comparison, the military's hold over capital intensive factories producing military and intermediate goods will provide them few directly political advantages, either at home or in the region.
The comparative advantage of the Brotherhood over the military has already been displayed in the area of foreign policy. In a move of near desperation as it saw its support ebbing away, the SCAF launched an attack on the United States, using the issue of U.S. funding to Egyptian NGOs to do so. This not only bit the hand that feeds the military, it stimulated anti-Americanism and anti-westernism more generally, a tendency that is a threat to the military's interest and a boon to the Brothers'. Now that this whole subject has been opened, it can be manipulated almost at will by those who will benefit from chauvinism, which over the longer haul will assuredly be the Brothers, not the military.
The present cohabitation of the military and the Brotherhood, based as it is on the transient supremacy of the former, is therefore inherently unstable. A preemptive strike by the generals, or even by a colonel, as was done in the past, would be unlikely to succeed this time around. And failing such a strike, time is on the side of the Brothers. This time, they will be the victorious mongoose and the military the defeated cobra. Egypt is thus at a historic turning point as profound as when the republican era replaced the colonial one. Will they try to directly control the cobra they have defeated, or will they seek instead to subject that military to institutional control within an at least quasi-democratic polity? In other words, will they opt for an Iranian style system of control of the armed forces, thereby converting them into a base for their own power, or will they chose instead to depoliticize the military, thus making democracy possible?  Here, finally, neither history, nor the mongoose metaphor, offers us lessons.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 27/02/2012
-Robert Springborg is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Iran: Trouble brewing

Some experts believe conditions could worsen and force a political change when the latest European embargo goes into effect in July
By Jumana Al Tamimi
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the most powerful personality in Iran since he was made the supreme leader 20 years ago.
Any military confrontation over Iran's controversial nuclear programme could be preceded by something else that has been slowly seething in the internal caldron of Iran: a popular anger from the rapidly deteriorating harsh economic situation.
There is spiralling inflation; unemployment is rising and the international economic sanctions, which were intensified in the past few months on Iran to force Tehran to back down from its nuclear plans, have already started to impact the daily life of ordinary Iranians.
Some political experts are even wondering how soon the socio-economic explosion will happen.
They expect conditions to worsen at the beginning of July, when the latest European embargo will go into effect, forcing Tehran to find alternative markets in Asia under growing international efforts to isolate Iran. While the international community fears the Iranian nuclear programme has a military aim, Tehran insists it is for civilian purposes.
The economic sanctions also aim to weaken Iran to a point where there would be a change in the political system, Mahjoub Zweiri an expert in Iranian affairs and a political science professor at Qatar University said in an interview with Gulf News.
"It became clear for the Americans and the Europeans that this strategy is less costly. In other wards, you punch your enemy with the knockout [blow] with the least possible cost," Zweiri added.
Citing the imposition of sanctions on Libya and Syria, Zweiri said, "it proved that strict economic sanctions will lead to public annoyance. That, coupled with feelings of displeasure because of the political oppression, will [make people] push for change."
Support for leaders
Leaders of Iran, which has been under international sanctions for nearly 33 years after the Islamic revolution, has used the economic sanctions as a reason to gain support for their cause in the face of external pressures, analysts say.
Focusing on the western "conspiracies" against Iran amid deteriorating economic conditions is more of a strategy adopted by Iran's leaders, said Alireza Nader, a senior analyst at RAND, a Washington-based think tank.
The strategy of diverting the attention of the public from the internal issues by highlighting the confrontation between Iran and the West "may help unify the political class, to some extent," Nader told Gulf News.
"Now, it is not clear if the strategy is really working, that the population is really distracted because Iran faces so many internal problems and the Iranian government's attempt to distract the population is [not] necessarily going to work given the magnitude of the issues Iran faces," he added.
Inflation in the oil-rich country is around 21 per cent, according to official figures. Unofficially it is in the thirties. Unemployment in the country of 74 million is around 15 per cent. Unofficially, it is double that figure. Yet, most Iranians are against foreign intervention.
Accordingly, any military strike against Iran, will make "a lot of the Iranians, not all of them, basically back the Iranian government, even if they don't like the regime," said Nader.
Such anticipated attitude is providing "some space" for the conservative government of Ahmadinejad to crack down on its opponents, analysts said.
Iran's government had crushed the "green movement" of 2009 that protested the results of presidential elections and the re-election of Ahmadinejad against two prominent reformist candidates Mir Hussain Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi.
While the reformist camp accused the authorities of fraud in the elections, the government denied the charge and accused the reformists of implementing a western plan to destabilise the religious institution.
"The security grip has increased 500 per cent since 2009" in Iran, said Zweiri.
"Practically, the reformists don't exist on the political arena. Their leaderships were either politically isolated, or [now] under house arrest," Zweiri added. Many reformists were sent to prison.
The authorities have allowed some reformists to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections on March 2, but they are closer to the conservative camp rather than the liberal reformists' camp, according to political experts.
A low turn out in the upcoming elections will surely "show that the legitimacy of the regime has shaken. And this will be the first time in 33 years," said Zweiri.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini "didn't hesitate last week during a public meeting to say that the government should do everything it can to guarantee the highest possible turnout. This comes as an order to the government," Zweiri said.
Low turn out will keep all "possibilities on the table", including a pre-emptive military action by Iran to "mix the cards," noted one analyst. While the economic issues are getting worse, "the main challenge facing the Iranian regime is not necessarily the US or Israel," he added.
"The main challenge is the Iranian people."
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
The most provocative figure, he has openly called for the elimination of Israel and boasted about Iran's disputed nuclear programme. He's close to the powerful, shadowy political factions and security organisations behind Iran's Supreme Leader. In 2009, international criticism intensified when his re-election caused his country's worst political unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Khamenei is the most powerful personality since he was made the supreme leader 20 years ago. He sought to bolster his authority by supporting radical Islamic causes. His support of the disputed presidential election result in 2009 both reflects his apprehension over the reformist movement's democracy demands and exposes him as a growing target for Iranians seeking change.
Mir Hussain Mousavi
Former Prime Minister Mousavi mounted a remarkable challenge to Ahmadinejad's re-election. Mousavi is the figurehead of the opposition Green Movement, which was trying to show support for the "Arab Spring" protests. Since his detention, his whereabouts are unknown.
Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi
Two-term President Rafsanjani played an important role as an intermediary between the dissident Green Movement that protested against the 2009 election results and the political establishment. But last year he lost his position as head of the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a body which chooses Iran's Supreme Leader. His family has been hit by legal action. His daughter was jailed and his website hacked.
Mahdi Karroubi
Karroubi who ran third in the official results of the presidential election, is a veteran cleric-politician and former parliament speaker. He was placed under house arrest last year as authorities cracked down on protests staged in solidarity with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. His whereabouts are unknown
Ali Larijani
Currently the speaker of parliament, Larijani is a long-time regime strategist and national security adviser to the Supreme Leader. He handled nuclear negotiations with the West for a period before being forced put from the role by President Ahmadinejad. Larijani is considered a pragmatic conservative.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati
Viewed as the most radical of Iran's senior clerics, he heads the 12-member Guardian Council that oversees elections. Jannati has repeatedly used his authority in the Guardian Council to disqualify Iranian reformists seeking the presidency or a seat in parliament. Ahmad Jannati wields considerable influence because he simultaneously holds seats in the Guardian Council, Expediency Discernment Council and Assembly of Experts.
Mohammad Khatami
A former President Khatami is a mid-rank cleric and veteran of the 1979 revolution. A religious intellectual who heads an institute promoting cultural dialogue, he remains a respected voice for reform, although one clinging to the fear that precipitous change could invite a violent backlash by religious hardliners.
This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 26/02/2012