Thursday, April 26, 2012

5 Reasons Obama Will Win In November

The American election is six months away, but here's why the U.S. president already has this one in the bag.
                                     U.S. President Barack Obama
It's almost May. Six months to go until the only presidential poll that counts.
Worries abound in the Obama camp: Large Democratic donors have dried up, the fragile economic recovery is looking weaker, independents are, well, being independent, and the Republicans have finally found their nominee and maybe their voice too.
Worrying about getting reelected is part of a president's job description, but this president really shouldn't be all that concerned. The election is bound to be closer than in 2008, but when it's over, the presidential gods will likely have smiled kindly on Barack Obama. Here are the top five reasons why.
1. Americans are re-electing imperfect and flawed presidents.
I know it's going to come as a shocker, but Obama hasn't been a great president in his first term and is unlikely to be one in his second. His two claims to fame -- saving the economy from another Great Depression and passing his signature health-care legislation -- won't get him there. The first will largely be taken for granted, and the second is still a very uncertain and untested proposition. The president's foreign policy has been very competent, but aside from the killing of Osama bin Laden, it has had no spectacular successes.
But what's so great about being great anyway? Greatness is certainly not a requirement for reelection.
The last two U.S. presidents -- Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- were reelected comfortably, and neither could hardly be considered a candidate for the presidential hall of fame. Both were flawed and imperfect men: Obama's predecessor was below average; Clinton clearly above average. That's about where Obama falls too. Consider this: Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States has had four presidents who served out two terms: Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43. Even with a push from partisans and revisionist historians, none really belongs in the very top tier.
2. Obama has history on his side.
Since 1980, only one U.S. president has failed to gain a second term. That was George H.W. Bush, who defied the odds by succeeding a two-term president of the same party. Since FDR, this has happened only once. It's a tough hill to climb. Americans generally tire of too much single-party dominance. Indeed, that's why Hillary Clinton should take a very hard look at her chances in 2016 -- should Obama be re-elected.
A set of three presidents -- Clinton, Bush 43, and perhaps Obama -- is hardly a valid statistical sample, but it does tell you something about the power of the incumbent. It's hard to defeat a sitting president. Although a bad economy offsets some of the incumbent's advantage, Americans tend to get comfortable with their presidents. Presidents are also able to act presidential right up to Election Day. The presidency has a great many bells and whistles, including the White House, which Aaron Sorkin's West Wing president once described as the world's greatest home-court advantage.
There's also the issue of continuity. These days, U.S. state and congressional politics have gotten pretty combustible and polarized. The media circus at the national level only makes things seem more out of control.
As Americans watch their politics implode, they seem to be seeking a measure of stability in the one institution that they all have responsibility for shaping -- the presidency. In these turbulent times, Americans tend to stay with their guys, flawed as those guys may be. Should Obama be reelected, it will only be the second time in U.S. history that America has had three two-term presidents in a row. The last time? Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. "Throw the bums out" doesn't seem to be as compelling a line these days.
3. The guy's a mensch (kind of).
If location, location, location is the key to success in the real estate business, then being liked -- cubed -- plays a big part in a president's success too. When Americans choose a president, they do so partly on the basis that they're inviting him (or her, someday) to be part of their lives for four and possibly eight years. This means being able to like the person and be comfortable with him.
Forget whether the candidate is brilliant -- the most overrated quality in the presidency. Can he be trusted? Is he trying to do the right thing? Is he arrogant and out of touch, or likable and down to earth? Can one imagine spending an hour with the president and not having to look down at one's shoes for the entire conversation? Think about whom you'd want to spend time with: Bill Clinton or Bob Dole; Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter. If the president has a normal family life, that helps too, particularly if he's got a cool wife, cute kids, and a dog.
Obama can appear detached, even cold, at times. More often, though, he's accessible and sincere. You'll never convince the birthers, racists, and Obama-haters that he's anything other than an alien president. But back on planet Earth, most Americans, according to recent polling, see him as more likable, more in touch with the needs of average people, than Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
He's good on his feet and appears pretty comfortable in his own skin. That's the elusive quality of emotional intelligence. Are you in balance? Can you relate to others, keep your demons and insecurities under control, and stay out of trouble? Obama gets high marks in this important category.
4. The Republicans are weak and divided.
You can't beat something with nothing. That old saw in politics wins out most every time. The Republican Party has never gotten over its love affair with Reagan. Look at the parade of Republican hopefuls who rose and fell during primary season. Had Reagan been around, he'd have been frustrated with the divisions in Republican ranks. And the Gipper might have described the primaries as an audition in which the last guy standing got the part only because the producers were exhausted and needed to get the play into rehearsals before the opening.
I know the main counterpoint: Republicans will come together because they need to defeat Obama. But the gaps between the Republican base and the centrists are huge; the obsession with social issues risks alienating independents; there are real doubts that Romney is conservative enough; and there's not much enthusiasm for his stiff style on the campaign trail. All this is creating real trouble for a party that seems to have lost its way. Add to that Republican difficulties in making inroads with women and Hispanics, and you might conclude that the election is Obama's to lose.
5. The economy: bad, but Obama wins on points.
Clearly, much will depend on how voters perceive their economic reality closer to the election. Obama really isn't running against Romney -- he's running against the economy. By the fall, it's likely that about the best he'll have to show is a weak recovery. Indeed, the New York Times reported last week that when it comes to the economy, the all-important Ohio voters see Romney vs. Obama as an unpalatable choice between liver and Brussels sprouts.
Still, when Americans vote for a president, they ask themselves two questions: To what degree is the guy in the White House responsible for my misery? And if I vote for the other guy, can he really make it better? Barring another economic meltdown, I'm betting that enough Americans will conclude that things are getting better, albeit slowly; that Obama is doing the best job he can under tough circumstances; that the president is much more attuned to those who are suffering; and that the Republicans have neither better answers on the economy nor a compelling-enough candidate worth giving the benefit of the doubt.
So don't worry too much, Mr. President. You may not be getting into the presidential hall of fame, but it looks like you're going to get another shot to try.
-This commentary was published in Foreign policy on 25/04/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Egypt's Presidential Reality Show

By H. A. Hellye

"Who needs to watch sitcoms on TV anymore? We watch Egyptian news instead for entertainment."

That's the view of many Egyptians over the entries into and disqualifications from the presidential race. Now that the dust has cleared, and leading candidates Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, Omar Suleiman and Khairat el-Shater gone, the race has lost some of its drama, but still remains fascinating. In the last 24 hours, yet another candidate might be a thing of the past -- and there is still a month left to go.

The new front-runners are a less colorful lot, but barring another dizzying turn in Egypt's political transition, one of them likely will be Egypt's next president. There are three (perhaps four: see below) leading candidates left in the race: Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, and previously Hosni Mubarak's foreign minister (at a time when he was not quite as unpopular); Mohammed Morsi, the replacement candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood following Shater's disqualification; Abd el-Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a former reformist member of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister. The latter may still be disqualified, as the Egyptian Parliament recently passed a law barring Mubarak allied politicians from running, if they served in the last decade. The military council just ratified it -- which indicates Shafiq is probably also out.

Who will win? Are these elections just an elaborate bit of stage-dressing, rather than a genuine expression of Egyptian democratic will? Recent survey data from Gallup offers some sobering perspective.

The most important finding of Gallup's latest survey is that more than half of Egyptian voters remain undecided in this first, post-Mubarak presidential race. Amr Moussa enjoyed the largest support, but he still only had 17 percent. Less than two percent of voters indicated they would vote for any one of the other three contenders. These polls were conducted prior to March, so that may have changed somewhat by now. Nevertheless, that still means that the swing vote is very significant.

In Egypt's Parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Salafi groups were the main beneficiaries of this swing vote. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the MB saw their support go from 15 percent in July to 50 percent in December -- and Hizb al-Nour of the Salafis went from five percent to 30 percent. One strand of thinking therefore argues that any presidential candidate who receives the backing of the MB or the Salafis stands to win by a landslide.

This is not necessarily the lesson to learn, however. What is clear is that in these first waves of elections after the ouster of Mubarak, the Egyptian voter remains mostly undecided until very shortly before election day. The MB and the Salafis saw their support numbers jump not due to ideological shifts from the electorate, but political decisions based on circumstance. It seems the electorate swung to them due to two main reasons: grassroots mobilization and name recognition. In both of these areas, the FJP and Hizb al-Nour had distinct advantages over their competitors.

But those advantages do not necessarily translate to the presidential election. Firstly, those swing voters are probably not all that impressed with the showing of the FJP or Hizb al-Nour, as parliament's record has been rather unimpressive. One cannot assess by how much, but it is entirely likely that some of those swing voters feel less confident about their choice. The grassroots networks are still active, for that core ideological base of perhaps 15 percent for the MB and five percent for the Salafis. But the MB will have a harder time presenting Morsi as the fresh alternative in the same way as they did in December 2011 for the parliamentary vote.

Secondly, while name recognition was certainly on their side in the parliamentary elections, partly due to a vacuum of other well known political parties in the public sphere, this is not the case in the presidential race: the most well known name is Amr Moussa, by far. Morsi should not automatically count on the swing voters that backed his party in the parliamentary elections to back him for the presidency.

The other Islamist in the race, former senior MB member and revolutionary activist Abou el-Fotouh, is not particularly faring well just yet. His grassroots campaign is increasing in width and breadth, and he arguably has the most pluralistic of teams in this race, as well as a genuinely revolutionary base. However, he does not have the time to mobilize enough of a grassroots network to compete with the MB's existing network, and his name recognition also does not compare with Moussa's. A substantial number of voters who were previously going to vote for Abu Ismail and Shater will likely shift toward him -- but probably not enough. Gallup's polls a few months ago did not register him with even two percent of voters. That's going to be hard to change sufficiently in a short amount of time. But then again, stranger things have happened in Egypt, particularly lately.

Shafiq's grassroots network is also not particularly impressive, and his name is not so famous as to put him in the lead by any means. The Egyptian public has little or no reason to back him. If he is not disqualified as a result of the new law (which is unlikely) he might get a portion of the vote, but its probably going to be less than all of the rest in the top four -- as long as the state remains neutral.

That leaves Amr Moussa. His grassroots mobilization just benefited from the disqualification of Omar Suleiman. A good chunk of Suleiman's supporters will now back anyone who is decisively not Islamist, and Moussa fits the bill. His background in Mubarak's regime, for those voters, is secondary to his non-Islamist background. He announced his intention to run for president very early on in the Egyptian revolution, and has been involved at a prolific level of political life for years. If this race comes down to familiarity with the name of the candidate, it is hard to see how anyone can compete with Amr Moussa. If, indeed.

A small minority amongst revolutionary activists argues that these elections are a farce, that the "SCAF supported candidate" was always going to win, regardless of public opinion. This deserves consideration. It is hard to imagine that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would risk having a president that would be directly opposed to their interests, if they could do anything to avoid it. In post-Mubarak Egypt, the widespread rigging of votes is not as easy an option; but in democracies around the world, it has been shown that there are other ways to ensure that the most powerful institution in the country has its way in the end. If that is the scenario in Egypt, then who is that SCAF candidate? Has he been handed the presidency already; and is a boycott a viable option?

Abou el-Fotouh could not be that candidate: he is the most revolutionary of the four top candidates, and has had no ties to the previous regime. Shafiq might have been considered at one point, but his chances of winning over enough Egyptian voters are slim. The MB may have entered into an alliance of convenience based on mutual interest a number of times in the past year, but it is doubtful that the SCAF want an MB president. They may have initially pardoned Khairat el-Shater just so that he could run, be disqualified, and increase the feeling of instability among Egyptian voters.

The disqualifications themselves hint at something: they served to benefit Moussa. Disqualifying Omar Suleiman (Mubarak's spy-chief and vice president) mobilized a part of the electorate that is looking for a strongman, and another part that wants a non-Islamist candidate. Most of those votes will now go to Moussa, as the most likely non-Islamist to win. (This was almost definitely not Suleiman's idea, and he is probably feeling betrayed by the SCAF at present, who doubtlessly gave at least a signal to him that he could run). The disqualification of Hazem Abu Ismail (the populist Salafi candidate) and Khairat el-Shater (the MB preferred candidate) means that the Islamist leaning vote will likely be split between Morsi and Abou el-Fotouh; again, benefiting Moussa by weakening opposition to him.

Is Moussa the SCAF candidate? No one can know for sure, but he is quite non-confrontational with regard to the SCAF, and has benefited the most from recent political developments. In all likelihood, the SCAF probably views him as a safe pair of hands who will not do too much to upset the status quo in terms of the independence of the military from the rest of the state. Which, for them, was probably the point all along.

Nevertheless, with all that said, approximately nine out of 10 Egyptian voters said they were likely to vote, and expect the elections to be fair and honest, according to latest released Gallup polls. A boycott of the elections would be ineffective. Were the key presidential candidates themselves to boycott the election, it would send the political transition into further disarray with little benefit, unless several of the candidates (preferably Moussa, Morsi, and Abou el-Fotouh) united around political aims. That's not impossible, but hardly likely at present.

In any case, one thing is for sure. Egyptian politics has never been more entertaining.
"Pass the popcorn. The show ain't over yet."

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 24/04/2012
-Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region, with experience at Gallup, the Brookings Institution & Warwick University

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In Egypt Race, Battle Is Joined On Islam’s Role


Mohamed Morsi, center, standing, giving the first speech on Saturday of his campaign for Egypt’s presidency. He is using an “Islam is the solution” platform.
He has argued for barring women and non-Muslims from Egypt’s presidency on the basis of Islamic law, or Shariah. He has called for a council of Muslim scholars to advise Parliament. He has a track record of inflammatory statements about Israel, including repeatedly calling its citizens “killers and vampires.”
Mohamed Morsi is also a leading candidate to become the country’s next president.
Mr. Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s dominant Islamist group, declared last week that his party platform amounted to a distillation of Islam itself.
“This is the old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he said, recalling the group’s traditional slogan in his first television interview as a candidate. “It has been developed and crystallized so that God could bless society with it.” At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and Shariah is our guide!”
One month before Egyptians begin voting for their first president after Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi’s record is escalating a campaign battle here over the place of Islam in the new democracies promised by the Arab Spring revolts.
Mr. Morsi, who claims to be the only true Islamist in the race, faces his fiercest competition from a more liberal Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a pioneering leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled from the group in June for arguing for a more pluralistic approach to both Islam and Egypt. He is campaigning now as the leading champion of liberal values in the race.
Both face a third front-runner, the former foreign minister Amr Moussa, who argued this week that Egypt cannot afford an “experiment” in Islamic democracy.
The winner could set the course for Egypt’s future, overseeing the drafting of a new constitution, settling the status of its current military rulers, and shaping its relations with the West, Israel and its own Christian minority. But as the Islamists step toward power across the region, the most important debate may be the one occurring within their own ranks over the proper agenda and goals.
Mr. Morsi’s conservative record and early campaign statements have sharpened the contrast between competing Islamist visions. The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the “Islam is the solution” slogan, omitted controversial proposals about a religious council or a Muslim president and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel. Its parliamentary leaders distanced themselves from the Salafis, ultraconservative Islamists who won a quarter of the seats in Parliament.
The Brotherhood’s original nominee was its leading strategist, Khairat el-Shater, a businessman known for his pragmatism. He had close personal ties to Salafi leaders, but he did not leave much of a paper trail besides an opinion column in a Western newspaper stressing the Brotherhood’s commitment to tolerance and democracy. Mr. Shater was disqualified last week because of a past conviction at a Mubarak-era political trial. In his short-lived campaign he stressed the Brotherhood’s plans for economic development and rarely, if ever, brought up Islamic law.
By contrast, Mr. Morsi, 60, is campaigning explicitly both as a more conservative Islamist and as a loyal executor of Mr. Shater’s plans. He campaigns with Mr. Shater under a banner with both their faces, fueling critics’ charges that he would be a mere servant of Mr. Shater and the Brotherhood’s executive board.
But Mr. Morsi is also courting the ultraconservative Salafis, whose popular candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, was also disqualified. Mr. Morsi may be tacking to the right to court the Salafis as a swing vote in the contest with Mr. Aboul Fotouh, or he may merely be expressing more conservative, older impulses within the Brotherhood.
“Some want to stop our march to an Islamic future, where the grace of God’s laws will be implemented and provide an honest life to all,” he proclaimed Saturday night at his first rally, in a Nile delta town. “Our Salafi brothers, the Islamic group, we are united in our aims and Islamic vision. The Islamic front must unite so we can fulfill this vision.”
Although he received a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Southern California in 1982, Mr. Morsi spent the past decade as a public spokesman for the Brotherhood’s political wing, where he left a far more extensive and controversial record than Mr. Shater did. Last year, for example, Mr. Morsi led a boycott of a major Egyptian cellphone company because its founder, Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic Christian, had circulated on Twitter a cartoon of Mickey Mouse in a long beard with Minnie in a full-face veil — a joke Mr. Morsi said insulted Islam.
When the Brotherhood first considered trying to start a political party under Mr. Mubarak, in 2007, Mr. Morsi was in charge of drafting a hypothetical platform. One provision called for restricting the presidency to Muslim men. “The state which we seek can never be presided over by a non-Muslim,” he said at the time on the group’s Web site, arguing that the Brotherhood wanted both a tolerant constitutional democracy and an expressly “Islamic state.”
In “a state whose top priorities include spreading and protecting the religion of Allah,” he said, Islam assigned the president some duties and powers that “can’t be carried out by a non-Muslim president.”
Another provision called for a council of scholars to advise Parliament on fidelity to Islamic law. But unlike Iran’s Guardian Council, he said, it would be independent of the state, and its findings would be nonbinding.
Mr. Morsi also brings to the race a reputation as an enforcer of Brotherhood rules of obedience, even in politics. When a group of young online activists known as the Brotherhood bloggers argued that the platform Mr. Morsi oversaw contradicted the group’s stated commitment to pluralism, Mr. Morsi met with a group of them at his office.
“He said, ‘This is the Muslim Brothers’ interpretation of Islam, and this is Islam, and it’s nobody else’s business,’ ” recalled Mohamed Ayyash, a former Brotherhood blogger who helped organize the meeting. “He said: ‘You can’t talk like that. You can’t talk to the media.’ ”
“He said, ‘This is Islam the way the Muslim Brotherhood sees it,’ ” Mr. Ayyash recalled. (The Morsi campaign declined to comment on the meeting.)
Mohamed Habib, a former deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood who years ago appointed Mr. Morsi to oversee its political arm, said, “There is no doubt that Morsi is more conservative than the conservatives” in the Brotherhood, including Mr. Shater.
The presidential race is now shaping up in some ways as a rematch of the internal debate over that hypothetical platform. Mr. Aboul Fotouh, Mr. Morsi’s current opponent in the presidential race, was one of the few Brotherhood leaders who openly opposed the scholars council and presidency restrictions. Two years later, he was removed from the executive board in a conservative purge.
While Mr. Morsi has the Brotherhood’s organization behind him, Mr. Aboul Fotouh is considered more charismatic and carries strong Islamist credentials. While Mr. Morsi was working toward his engineering degree in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Mr. Aboul Fotouh was founding an Islamist student movement that went on to merge with and revitalize the more established Muslim Brotherhood. He stood up to former President Anwar el-Sadat in a face-to-face confrontation at Cairo University.
Mr. Aboul Fotouh, a physician, also led the Brotherhood-dominated doctors’ syndicate, which ran the field hospitals during the protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak last year.
Addressing a crowd of thousands last week in Imbaba, a poor neighborhood of Cairo, Mr. Aboul Fotouh all but brushed off questions about Islamic law.
“Egypt has been proud of its Islamic and Arabic identity for 15 centuries,” he said. “Are we waiting for the Parliament to convert us?” Besides, he said, the correct understanding of Islamic law should not be reduced to penalties or restrictions but should mean “all mercy and justice.”
As at many stops, Mr. Aboul Fotouh was also asked to confront rumors circulated in an online video — by Brotherhood operatives, his supporters charge — that if elected president, he would order the arrest of all the group’s members.
After the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Aboul Fotouh said, the Egyptian public would never allow another president to detain Islamists, leftists or anyone else for political reasons. “If he did this, the Egyptian people would be the ones to detain him!”
As for his former colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Aboul Fotouh said he believed that they should be treated just like any other nonprofit group. “They have to be legal associations and to work with transparency and clarity,” he said repeatedly. “All associations and all parties are equal before the law.”
To the Brotherhood, though, it was also a threat. The enforcement of Western-style financial and disclosure requirements could force the Brotherhood to separate its political party from its charitable and preaching organizations, depriving the party of much of its financing and clout while simultaneously diminishing the Brotherhood board’s control of the party.
As for Mr. Aboul Fotouh, Mr. Morsi suggested that he had brought on his own expulsion by defying the Brotherhood, in part by running for president. When a member breaks away, Mr. Morsi said in the interview, “we don’t blame him; we pity him.”
-This report was published in the New York Times on 24/04/2012
-Mayy El Sheikh and Dina Salah Amer contributed reporting

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Ayatollah Under The Bed(sheets)

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, all politics may not be sexual, but all sex is political.
In the early years of the Iranian Revolution, an obscure cleric named Ayatollah Gilani became a sensation on state television by contemplating bizarre hypotheticals at the intersection of Islamic law and sexuality. One of his most outlandish scenarios -- still mocked by Iranians three decades later -- went like this:
Imagine you are a young man sleeping in your bedroom. In the bedroom directly below, your aunt lies asleep. Now imagine that an earthquake happens that collapses your floor, causing you to fall directly on top of her. For the sake of argument, let's assume that you're both nude, and you're erect, and you land with such perfect precision on top of her that you unintentionally achieve intercourse. Is the child of such an encounter halalzadeh (legitimate) or haramzadeh (a bastard)?
Such tales of random ribaldry may sound anomalous in the seemingly austere, asexual Islamic Republic of Iran. But the "Gili Show," as it came to be known, had quite the following among both the traditional classes, who were titillated by his taboo topics, and the Tehrani elite, who tuned in for comic relief. Gilani helped spawn what is now a virtual cottage industry of clerics and fundamentalists turned amateur sexologists offering incoherent advice on everything from quickies ("The man's goal should be to lighten his load as soon as possible without arousing his woman") to masturbation ("a grave, grave sin which causes scientific and medical harm").
Perhaps it's not entirely surprising that Iran's Shiite fundamentalists -- not unlike their evangelical Christian, Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and Sunni Muslim counterparts -- spend an inordinate amount of time pondering sexuality. They are human, after all. But the sexual manias of Iran's religious fundamentalists are worthy of greater scrutiny, all the more so because they control a state with nuclear ambitions, vast oil wealth, and a young, dynamic, stifled population. Yet for a variety of reasons -- fear of becoming Salman Rushdie, of being labeled an Orientalist, of upsetting religious sensibilities -- the remarkable hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is often studiously avoided.
That's a mistake. Because religion is politics in a theocracy like Iran, uninformed or antiquated notions of sexuality aren't just confined to the bedroom -- they pervade the country's seminaries, military barracks, boardrooms, courtrooms, and classrooms. A common aphorism among Iranians is that before the revolution, people partied outside the home and prayed inside, while today they pray outside and party inside. This reverse dichotomy is true of a lot of social behavior in Iran. For many Iranians, this perverse state of affairs is now so ingrained, such an inherent aspect of daily interactions with Iranian officialdom, that it is no longer noteworthy. For those in the West who seek to better understand what makes Tehran tick, though, the regime's curious fixation on sex cannot be ignored.
To paraphrase the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, in the Islamic Republic of Iran all politics may not be sexual, but all sex is political. Exhibit A is the revolution's father, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Like all Shiite clerics aspiring to become a "source of emulation" (marja'-e taqlid), Khomeini spent the first part of his career meticulously examining and dispensing religious guidance on personal behavior and ritual purity that ranged from the mundane ("It is recommended not to hold back the need to urinate or defecate, especially if it hurts") to the surprisingly lewd.
In his 1961 religious treatise A Clarification of Questions (Towzih al-Masael), Khomeini issued detailed pronouncements on issues ranging from sodomy ("If a man sodomizes the son, brother, or father of his wife after their marriage, the marriage remains valid") to bestiality ("If a person has intercourse with a cow, a sheep, or a camel, their urine and dung become impure and drinking their milk will be unlawful"). As a young boy growing up in the American Midwest, I remember being both horrified and bewildered after coming across these precise passages in a translated volume of Khomeini's sayings I found in our Persian émigré home.
Scholars of Shiism -- including harsh critics of Khomeini -- emphasize that such themes were the norm among clerics of Khomeini's generation and should be understood in their proper context: Islam was a religion that emerged out of a rural desert, and the Prophet Mohammed was himself once a shepherd. Whereas religions like Christianity and Judaism simply declare such behavior to be sinful, Islam addresses them from a juridical point of view.
The underlying problem, says Islamic scholar Mehdi Khalaji, a former seminary student in the Shiite epicenter of Qom, is not that such issues were addressed, but the fact that "Islamic jurisprudence hasn't yet been modernized. It's totally disconnected from the issues that modern, urban people have to deal with."
Indeed, Khomeini's religious prescriptions are often the butt of jokes among Iran's post-revolutionary generations. "I've never even seen a camel in Tehran," prominent Iranian cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar told me, "let alone been tempted to have sex with one."
IF THERE IS A DOUBLE ENTENDRE that aptly captures today's Middle East, it is the "youth bulge." The Arab world's median age is 22, Iran's is 27; Western Europe's, by contrast, is near 40. High levels of Internet and satellite television penetration, with their pervasive pornography, coupled with the region's youthful demographics, have accentuated the Muslim Middle East's fraught relationship with sexuality.
Google Trends, which monitors searches from around the world, shows that of the seven countries that most frequently search the word "sex" on Google, five are Muslim and one (India) has a large Muslim minority. (The word "sexy" is even more popular among Arabs.) Google Insights, another trend spotter, shows that the most rapidly rising search term for Iranians so far in 2012 has been "Golshifteh Farahani," a popular exiled actress who in January posed topless for the French magazine Madame Figaro.
Before the 1979 revolution, religious fundamentalists were revolted by images of scantily clad Iranian women in the country's cinema and television; today, state television and cinema are forbidden from showing unveiled Iranian women. This is despite the fact that most of the country's citizens have access to the much more tawdry fare on satellite TV (the dishes are officially illegal, but thought to be smuggled in by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps itself). In the forthcoming documentary The Iran Job, Kevin Sheppard, an American who played basketball in Iran's professional leagues, is shocked while surfing his newly connected satellite television. "We have 600 channels," he remarks, "400 of them are sex!"
Because of its religious pretensions, however, the Iranian regime is forced to spend untold millions of dollars trying to jam satellite TV broadcasts to prevent them from reaching the country's citizens -- a futile attempt to simultaneously repel the forces of both technology and human nature. In an interview with the New Yorker several years ago, an Iranian security official candidly assessed the challenge at hand:
The majority of the population is young.… Young people by nature are horny. Because they are horny, they like to watch satellite channels where there are films or programs they can jerk off to.… We have to do something about satellite television to keep society free from this horny jerk-off situation.
One might assume a country that suffers from chronic inflation and unemployment -- not to mention harsh international sanctions and a potential war over its nuclear program -- would have better things to do than discourage its youth from masturbating. Yet the regime continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Chinese censorship technology to create a moral Iron Dome against political and cultural subversion, with decidedly mixed results. Piped-in BBC Persian and Voice of America television are sometimes successfully scrambled, but those who want pornography have no shortage of outlets. That said, the censorship software sometimes get a bit overzealous. One Iranian friend told me of repeated unsuccessful attempts to access his British university's email account from Tehran, only to realize that the school's apparently bawdy name -- Essex -- was prohibited by the regime's Internet filters.
DURING THE RULE OF WESTERN-ORIENTED autocrat Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Tehran was a rapidly evolving society that deceptively appeared to be crossing into the modern age. My own family history is perhaps representative of Iran's urban middle-class trajectory during the 20th century: My devout paternal grandmother, born in 1907, wore a chador and wasn't formally educated beyond elementary school; three of her four daughters attended university, and all eschewed the veil. All of their daughters grew up in a Tehran in which miniskirts were the trend, and Googoosh -- Iran's pre-revolutionary J. Lo (but remarkably modest by today's standards) -- was their main "source of emulation."
Khomeini's opposition to the shah was fueled in part by the latter's enfranchisement of women, which the ayatollah deliberately conflated with sexual decadence. In his 1970 book Islamic Governance (Hukumat-e Islami) -- which would later provide the ideological and political template for post-revolutionary Iran -- Khomeini hyperventilated that "sexual vice has now reached such proportions that it is destroying entire generations, corrupting our youth, and causing them to neglect all forms of work! They are all rushing to enjoy the various forms of vice that have become so freely available and so enthusiastically promoted."
Khomeini nonetheless reassured his liberal revolutionary compatriots -- just months before the revolution, while in Paris exile -- that "women [would be] free in the Islamic Republic in the selection of their activities and their future and their clothing." Much to its retrospective dismay, a sizable chunk of Iran's liberal intelligentsia -- both male and female -- lined up behind Khomeini, some even referring to him as an "Iranian Gandhi." Shortly after consolidating power, however, Khomeini and his disciples swiftly moved to crush opposing views and curtail female social and sartorial freedoms. "Islam doesn't allow for people to [wear swimsuits] in the sea," he proclaimed shortly after becoming supreme leader. We "will skin their hide!"
Women who resisted the mandatory veil were met with violence and intimidation, including lyrical taunts of "Ya roosari, ya toosari!" ("Cover your head or be smacked in the head!"). As Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi recently wrote, "Although the 1979 revolution in Iran is often called an Islamic revolution, it can actually be said to be a revolution of men against women.… The drafters of [the Islamic Penal Code] had effectively taken us back 1,400 years."
Like Islamists in today's Egypt -- and some among America's Christian right -- Iran's revolutionaries found fertile ground on which to play the politics of pious populism, rather than concretely address the enormous challenges of building a diversified economy. The country's massive oil wealth made it appear all too easy. Khomeini famously dismissed economics as "for donkeys," and he responded to complaints of inflation by saying, "The revolution wasn't about the price of watermelons." Three decades later, the results are self-evident: In 1979, resource-rich Iran's GDP was almost double that of resource-poor Turkey. Today, it is roughly half.
The brutal reality is that Iranians had entrusted their national destiny to a man, Khomeini, who had spent far more time thinking about the religious penalties for fornicating with animals than how to run a modern economy.
AFTER HIS DEATH IN 1989, Khomeini was succeeded by the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has remained loyal to Khomeini's vision for Iran, including his prudishness regarding matters of the flesh. For Khamenei -- who has said that keeping women in hijab would "prevent our society from being plunged into corruption and turmoil" -- outward displays of feminine beauty are viewed not only with religious disfavor, but as an existential threat to the regime itself.
Khamenei contends that the health of the family unit is integral to the Islamic Republic's well-being and is undermined by female beauty. Although to some this worldview is fundamentally misogynistic, Khamenei sees men, not women, as untrustworthy and incapable of resisting temptation:
In Islam, women have been prohibited from showing off their beauty in order to attract men or cause fitna [upheaval or sedition]. Showing off one's physical attraction to men is a kind of fitna … [for] if this love for beauty and members of the opposite sex is found somewhere other than the framework of the family, the stability of the family will be undermined.
Interestingly, the word Khamenei employs against the potential unveiling of women -- fitna -- is the same word used to describe the opposition Green Movement that took to the streets in the summer of 2009 to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contested reelection. In other words, women's hair is itself seen as seditious and counterrevolutionary. Even so-called liberal politicians in the Islamic Republic have long fixated on this issue. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran's first post-revolutionary president, who has spent the past three decades exiled in France, reportedly once asserted that women's hair has been scientifically proven to emit sexually enticing rays. (An Iranian satirist responded with a cartoon showing a man inadvertently aroused while eating lunch at his friend's home; the culprit turned out to be an errant strand of his friend's wife's hair in the ghormeh sabzi stew, an Iranian national dish.)
OVER THE LAST TWO DECADES, the women of Iran's younger generation have increasingly pushed back and loosened their veils, but any discussion of abolishing the veil altogether is not tolerated by Khamenei. In addition to opposition toward the United States and Israel, the hijab is often considered one of the Islamic Republic's three remaining ideological pillars. "For Islamic Republic officials, the hijab has vast symbolic importance; it is what holds up the dam, keeping all of Iranians' other demands for social freedoms at bay," says Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American author. "Relax on the hijab, they think, and all hell will break loose; next people will want to swill beer on the street and read uncensored novels. They think of it as a gateway freedom."

Despite Khamenei's assertion that the hijab prevents men from straying, governmental policies in fact encourage the opposite. For example, to help accommodate the apparently incorrigibly wandering libido of the Iranian male, the country's parliament -- composed of Khamenei loyalists -- has supported sharia-sanctioned "temporary marriages" (known in Persian as sigheh) allowing men as many sexual partners as they want. The marriage contract can last as little as a few minutes, and it doesn't need to be officially registered. The man can abruptly end the sigheh when he likes, but initiating divorce is far more difficult for women. Indeed, women who stray from the sanctity of their marriages do so at grave risk -- dozens have been stoned to death in Iran for adultery.
The country's economic malaise has also led to a reportedly sharp rise in plain old, non-Islamically sanctioned prostitution. Tehran's high-end taxi drivers, often underemployed university graduates, casually point them out on the street.
"When economies take a downturn, informal economies and illicit networks become more attractive," says Pardis Mahdavi, author of a book on sexuality in Iran. "Technology facilitates this too."
During the shah's time, Tehran's notorious red-light district was known as Shahr-e Noe (New City), a place where countless young Iranian men lost their virginity. Like many things post-revolution, however, the Islamic Republic just imagined that banning the symptom would make the problem go away. But pouring saltpeter from the minarets hasn't worked. "They razed Shahr-e Noe thinking it would end prostitution," a retired Iranian laborer once told me. "Now all of Tehran has become Shahr-e Noe."
UNSURPRISINGLY, THE OUTWARDLY CHASTE nature of Khomeinist political culture has perverted normal sexual behavior, creating peculiar curiosities -- and proclivities -- among Iranian officialdom. Omid Memarian, a journalist who spent several months in the notorious Evin prison for his articles critical of the government, told me that his interrogators seemed far more interested in his sex life than his political peccadilloes. "I tried to answer their questions in very general terms, but they'd interrupt me," he recalled. "They wanted to know details. 'Start from when you were unbuttoning her blouse.…'" In one instance, he told me, he was horrified when an interrogator appeared to be rubbing himself while listening.
Observers of American politics -- the land of Jimmy Swaggart, Mark Sanford, and Newt Gingrich, to name just a few -- won't be surprised to learn that it is often the most outspoken Iranian advocates of traditional values who fall short of achieving them. Memarian spent part of his mandatory military service in Tehran writing speeches for a senior Revolutionary Guard commander who routinely attacked the craven immorality of the "Global Arrogance" (i.e., the United States). "His filmi [the person who brought him bootlegged films on CD] later told me that he always requested 'films with scenes' [film-haye sahne-dar]," a euphemism for porn.
In a well-publicized national scandal in 2008, the Tehran police commander responsible for enforcing Iran's strict anti-vice laws, Reza Zarei, was caught nude in a brothel with six women (one of the women claimed he had asked them to pray naked in front of him). While American politicians might bounce back from such transgressions with their own television show (see: Spitzer, Eliot), the revelation of the incident reportedly led Zarei to attempt suicide while in prison.
The shame of sexual malfeasance has been routinely used by the regime as a form of political coercion and intimidation. When the famously jocular reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former vice president to Mohammad Khatami, was imprisoned after Iran's contested 2009 presidential election, he surprised his supporters by confessing with great gusto to being part of a Western-backed conspiracy to foment a velvet revolution. Although his confession was undoubtedly forced, his close associates claim that what compelled him to confess was not physical or psychological torture but hidden photos of him -- in flagrante delicto -- at a secret Tehran love nest that was long being monitored.
The Islamic Republic isn't always so prudish, however. In fact, it's been willing to use sexual incentives as a form of statecraft. In a WikiLeaked U.S. State Department cable, for example, senior Iraqi tribal chief Abu Cheffat confided in a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad that Tehran effectively wielded influence over Iraqi politicians -- ostensibly visiting Iran for "medical treatment" -- by offering inducements including "temporary marriages" with Iranian women. Not that Cheffat was complaining, mind you: The perks were surely better than when he visited President George W. Bush at the White House in 2008. It was not without reason, he explained, that Iranian soft power was trumping American hard power in Iraq.
More recently, three Iranian intelligence agents who unsuccessfully tried to kill Israeli government officials in Bangkok this past February photographed themselves at a bar in the beach resort of Pattaya with local "escorts." When I asked the scion of a powerful cleric in Tehran how ostensible devotees of Khomeini's religious ideology are able to reconcile frequenting non-Muslim prostitutes and drinking alcohol, he quickly dismissed any religious obstacles. "There are government clerics who can easily grant them religious pretexts [mojavez'e Shar'i]," he explained. "They can make the case that if they didn't frequent prostitutes and drink alcohol they would appear to be [terrorists] and raise suspicions."
In essence, the Iranian regime's approach toward sex, like its philosophy of governance, is marked by maslahat, or expediency, and used alternately as a tool of suppression, inducement, and incitement. In the summer of 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad's reelection, many protesters were brutally beaten by the Basij militia, gangs of young regime thugs on motorbikes who were given a green light to quell the uprising. As Iranian-American academic Shervin Malekzadeh reported from Tehran, the Basij seemed to be driven by a combination of class resentment and pent-up frustration. "They don't screw; they don't drink or smoke joints," one of his sources told him. "What else are they going to do with all of that energy?"
But perhaps the seminal -- and most heartbreaking -- moment of the Green Revolution was the murder of a 26-year-old female protester, Neda Agha-Soltan, whose bloody death was caught on cell-phone camera and rendered one of the most viral videos in history. In an HBO documentary about her life, Neda's mother recalls a message that some sympathetic female Basij members relayed to Neda days before she was killed by a sniper: "Dear, please don't come out looking so beautiful.… Do us a favor and don't come out because the Basiji men target beautiful girls. And they will shoot you."
While the iconic faces of Iran's 1979 revolution were bearded, middle-aged men, Neda has come to symbolize the new face of dissent in 21st-century Iran: a young, modern, educated woman. For her opposition to the regime and to the hijab, she is the embodiment of fitna in Khamenei's eyes.
THREE SPRINGS LATER, the Iranian regime once again is faced with a crisis, this time of an external variety. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatens war in between meals, the Pentagon plays war games and policy planners huddle in the White House: Is the Iranian regime rational or irrational? Can diplomatic negotioations prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb, or is an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities inevitable?
Many Iran watchers assert that to persuade Tehran not to pursue a nuclear weapon, Washington must reassure Khamenei that the United States merely seeks a change in Iranian behavior, not a change of the Iranian regime.
What they fail to consider is Khamenei's deep-seated conviction that U.S. designs to overthrow the Islamic Republic hinge not on military invasion but on cultural and political subversion intended to foment a "velvet" revolution from within. Consider this revealing address on Iranian state TV in 2005:
More than Iran's enemies need artillery, guns, and so forth, they need to spread cultural values that lead to moral corruption.… I recently read in the news that a senior official in an important American political center said: "Instead of bombs, send them miniskirts." He is right. If they arouse sexual desires in any given country, if they spread unrestrained mixing of men and women, and if they lead youth to behavior to which they are naturally inclined by instincts, there will no longer be any need for artillery and guns against that nation.
Khamenei's vast collection of writings and speeches makes clear that the weapons of mass destruction he fears most are cultural -- more Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga than bunker busters and aircraft carriers. In other words, Tehran is threatened not only by what America does, but by what America is: a depraved, postmodern colonial power bent on achieving global cultural hegemony. America's "strategic policy," Khamenei has said, "is seeking female promiscuity."
Khamenei's words capture the paradox and perversion of modern Iran. While dropping bombs on the Iranian regime could likely prolong its shelf-life, a regime that sees women's hair as an existential threat is already well past its sell-by date.
-This article was published in Foreign Policy in its May/June 2012 issue
-Karim Sadjadpour is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Syria's Struggling Civil Society

By Ignacio Alvarez-Ossorio

For a brief moment in 2000 and 2001, it looked as if there might be a "Damascus Spring" with the investiture of Bashar al-Assad and his British-born first lady. But all signs of openness were soon quashed by the repressive measures first perfected by Bashar's father and Syria's long-time ruler, Hafez
Authoritarian regimes have traditionally been disinclined to accept any political or social opposition and have been hostile to the development of an independent civil society that could form a counterweight to state power.
Article 8 of the Syrian constitution established the Baath party, which has prevented any independent parties from emerging since the 1963 military coup that brought it to power as "the leading party in the state and society."[1] Yet despite this systematic repression, there has been a sustained effort by a small group of intellectuals and critics over the past decade to transform the country's political system and make it more open and accountable.
While these activists did not ignite the uprising that has shaken Syria since March 2011, their courageous defiance of Bashar al-Assad's regime has given them high standing among many Syrians. They may yet play a significant role in shaping Syria's future.
Commitment to Freedom
Bashar al-Assad's assumption of the presidency in July 2000 gave rise to a brief period of unprecedented easing of state repression known as the "Damascus Spring" whereby dozens of discussion forums and associations were created, all calling for political liberalization and democratic openness.
This sector of Syrian civil society came to light with the "Declaration of the 99," signed by numerous intellectuals including Burhan Ghalyoun, Sadeq al-Azm, Michel Kilo, Abdul Rahman Munif, Adonis and Haidar Haidar, who demanded: 1) an end to the state of emergency and martial law applied in Syria since 1963; 2) a public pardon to all political detainees and those who are pursued for their political ideas and permission for all deportees and exiled citizens to return; 3) a rule of law that will recognize freedom of assembly, of the press, and of expression; 4) freedom in public life from the laws, constraints, and various forms of surveillance, allowing citizens to express their various interests within a framework of social harmony and peaceful [economic] competition and enable all to participate in the development and prosperity of the country.[2]
On January 1, 2001, a group of Syrian lawyers demanded a complete reform of the constitution, the lifting of emergency laws, and the concession of full civil liberties. Shortly thereafter, a group of activists published the founding charter of their civil society committee—better known as the "Declaration of the 1,000."[3] The following day, the Jamal Atassi Forum for Democratic Dialogue was established with the participation of communists, Nasserites, socialists and Baathist critics of the regime, and on March 7, authorization was given to create independent organizations for the defense of human rights as well as cultural and social associations made up of moderate Muslims. This group included the Islamic Studies Center, headed by Muhammad Habash, a progressive scholar opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, who served as a parliament member. By July 3, 2001, the Human Rights Association of Syria had been established with lawyer Haitham al-Malih as president.
In just a few months, two hundred discussion clubs and forums were created. Reacting to the proliferation of spaces where the future of Syria was being freely debated, the regime pushed back, fearful it might lose its monopoly on power. Invoking a need to maintain national unity in the face of external threats, beginning in September 2001, the regime arrested deputies Riad Saif and Mamoun al-Homsi, economist Arif Dalila, lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, and Atassi Forum spokesman Habib Issa, followed in short order by Kamal al-Labwani and Haitham al-Malih.[4] All were sentenced to between three and twelve years in jail on charges of "weakening national sentiment" and "inciting sectarian strife." Other important figures were forbidden to leave the country including Radwan Ziyyade, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, and Suhair Atassi, director of the Jamal Atassi Forum.
In an open challenge to the regime, prominent figures persisted in the demand for reform. The Damascus declaration stated that the "establishment of a democratic national regime is the basic approach to the plan for change and political reform. It must be peaceful, gradual, founded on accord, and based on dialogue and recognition of the other." This declaration also called on the government to "abolish all forms of exclusion in public life by suspending the emergency law; and abolish martial law and extraordinary courts, and all relevant laws, including Law 49 for the year 1980 [which made membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a capital offense]; release all political prisoners; [allow] the safe and honorable return of all those wanted and those who have been voluntarily or involuntarily exiled with legal guarantees; and end all forms of political persecution by settling grievances and turning a new leaf in the history of the country."[5]
The declaration was the result of efforts made by journalist Michel Kilo to unify the main political forces, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Kilo had met with the group's leader, Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, in Morocco where they agreed on a program based on nonviolence, democracy, opposition unity, and political change. A further public attack on the regime, the Beirut-Damascus declaration, which called on the Syrian regime to recognize Lebanon's independence, establish full diplomatic relations and demarcate the joint border, led to a second wave of arrests during which Kilo and Bunni were imprisoned.[6] With this example, the regime tried to put a stop to its opponents' efforts and to ensure that their demands did not awaken Syrian society from its political lethargy.
The People's Revolt
One of the dissidents' foremost weaknesses was their inability to get their message out due to draconian restrictions on the freedom of gathering and expression. In a 2005 interview, noted activist Kamal al-Labwani provided an accurate, indeed prophetic, prognosis of the current situation when he cautioned that there is no politically mobilized street. When that happens, everything will change. Today, the opposition is purely symbolic, and this sort of opposition is incapable of uniting because it is based on personalities, on the capability of single individuals to confront the authorities… Society is watching, and when the masses begin to move, they will move behind those who represent them… So right now, we are reserving space in that arena so that when the day comes that people move to the street—either because of foreign or their internal pressures—we will be ready.[7]
The fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Husni Mubarak in Egypt, along with the upheavals in Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain, had a contagious effect across the Arab world. Most Syrian dissidents saw the uprisings as the long-awaited opportunity to introduce major changes inside the country. In an article in the Lebanese newspaper as-Safir, the prominent Syrian dissident Michel Kilo argued, "We are entering a new historical stage based on the primacy of citizenship, freedom, justice, equality, secularism, and the rights of men and citizens."[8] After spending five years in prison, Anwar al-Bunni stated that "an event like this only happens once every 200 years, and it is clearly going to bring about a radical change."[9]
On March 10, former parliamentarian Mamoun al-Homsi appealed to the Syrian people: "After fifty years of tyranny and oppression, we are beginning to see the sunlight of freedom approach."[10] He openly accused the regime of resorting to repression, corruption, and sectarian division to remain in power. On March 15, after a first unsuccessful attempt, an anonymous Facebook group, The Syrian Revolution 2011, called for a second day of rage, which led to a mass demonstration against the regime to demand democratic openness.[11]
Despite these appeals, few in Syria expected Assad to follow the path taken by Ben Ali and Mubarak and abdicate power. Rather, it was hoped that the new regional developments would force the regime to abandon its stubborn resistance to change and, in the face of pressure from the street, introduce reforms. As the more politicized elements in Syrian society had been decimated by successive waves of repression, there was little attempt at the outset to mobilize the masses, reasoning that they had little power to affect such change. Thus, the outbreak of popular rage surprised everyone. Suhair al-Atassi, who was in hiding at the time, recently said: We have been subjected to suppression and murder for merely calling for freedom, democracy, general freedoms, the release of all prisoners of conscience, an end to the state of emergency, and the return of all political exiles. At the time, we said that any suppression would cause the volcano to erupt… we knew that we were working slowly but surely toward freedom, but we didn't dream of a revolution like this breaking out. It was the Syrian youth who made this dream a reality.[12]
The revolt began in the southern city of Dar'a and then gradually and progressively spread across almost the entire country. The demonstrations, which at first mobilized a few thousand people at best, began to enjoy great prestige. In Bunni's words:
In the past, only a few of us dared to call for freedom and human rights. We used to feel isolated, as the majority of people avoided us for fear of retribution from the authorities. After my release, I have realized that my demands became the demands of the entire Syrian people.[13]
Initially, important sectors of the population demanded limited reforms, but Assad's brutal repression raised the bar. Appearing before parliament on March 30, 2011, the president made it clear that any reforms would not come about as a result of popular pressure and that the process of political liberalization would not be hurried. Some members of the intelligentsia believed that the regime would not be able to introduce reforms without collapsing:
We all know that the authorities lie and they won't permit anyone to speak out because the regime is corrupt and dictatorial, and corruption and dictatorship fundamentally contradict transparency and freedom of opinion because the first opinion that anyone would express would be opposition to the regime's corruption and tyranny and the crimes it has committed. And then they'll face arrest, interrogation, and a trial. They say, we'll enact a party law; we'll implement reform, but these are all lies because these authorities are incapable of it.[14]
Michel Kilo added, Syria today is experiencing an existential crisis related to the distribution of wealth, social justice, freedom, and political participation, and this is not going to be resolved with repression. The police should be arresting killers, thieves, and smugglers, but not hungry people with nothing to put in their mouths.[15]
As the uprising spread, the Syrian regime blamed the violence on armed radical elements seeking to destabilize the country. Assad told parliament that Syria was facing a conspiracy intended to provoke a sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawites.[16] The regime tried to use this tactic to play for time in the midst of a rebellion that had taken it by surprise as well as to justify the high number of civilians killed by the security services and pro-government armed groups. Repression has intensified in the ensuing months and spread to most of the cities, but the security forces have failed to suppress the popular uprising. Faced with the success of the demonstrations, the Syrian regime was forced to back down in July and adopt a series of cosmetic reforms to try to quell the unrest, including the initiation of a national dialogue.[17] The rebels roundly declared these measures insufficient and designed merely to buy the Assad regime more time.
As the unrest has continued, most activists have come to believe that the protest wave has transformed into a revolution that will bring about the fall of the regime. From her hiding place in July 2011, Suhair al-Atassi gave an apt description of the spirit of the demonstrations:
It's a revolution… triggered by the Syrian people seeking to stand up and say that they are citizens and not subjects, and that Syria belongs to all its citizens and not just the Assad family. This is a revolution of the youth who are demanding freedom and are being confronted with violence and murder… Today Syria is witnessing a battle for freedom by unarmed civilians urging the ouster of a regime that has utilized methods of brutal and inhumane suppression. They have brutally attacked and killed the protesters whilst the demonstrators have nothing but their words to defend them.[18]
An Opposition Divided
As a result of fifty years of repressive measures, it is not surprising that the recent uprising has been an ensemble movement with contributions from different players. The economist and commentator Omar Dahi has identified five clearly differentiated groups taking part in the unrest: traditional opposition parties (socialists, Nasserites, and communists); dissident intellectuals; the youth movement, including the leaders of the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which has driven the revolution and was joined by other sectors of society; a disorganized cohort of conservative Muslims; and armed Salafist groups who represent a minority.[19]
Most of these groups (with the exception of the Salafi elements) agreed about the need to avoid violence, reject sectarianism, and prevent foreign intervention. On August 29, 2011, the LCC stated: While we understand the motivation to take up arms or call for military intervention, we specifically reject this position as we find it unacceptable politically, nationally, and ethically. Militarizing the revolution would minimize popular support and participation in the revolution. Moreover, militarization would undermine the gravity of the humanitarian catastrophe involved in a confrontation with the regime. Militarization would put the revolution in an arena where the regime has a distinct advantage and would erode the moral superiority that has characterized the revolution since its beginning.[20]
Initially, opposition figures urged the creation of a new social pact between the rulers and the ruled, rejecting the use of violence to force Assad from power. Bunni, for example, advocated "a peaceful solution to all the problems" while Kilo urged "a new national contract for a peaceful and negotiated end to the crisis" arguing that "a bloody conflict must be prevented given that exacerbating the sectarian tensions could lead to chaos."[21] At the beginning of August, Kilo warned, "There are some who have chosen to take up arms against the regime, but they only represent a minority of the demonstrators. But if the authorities persist in using violence, then they will become a majority."[22]
At first, national dialogue was also defended, but as the uprising has advanced and the repression intensified, most of the intelligentsia has come to reject this option. In March, the intellectual Burhan Ghalyoun, later named president of the National Transition Council, warned that to get out of the crisis, the whole crisis, the use of weapons must be rejected and political logic must be accepted… The logic of negotiation and political dialogue requires credibility and the recognition of the other.[23]
He cautioned, however, that such an attitude seemed lacking in Assad, who continued "to dream about formal reforms within the existing regime, a regime with only one ruler, one party, and one authority."[24]
Confronted with external and internal pressure, the regime indicated its readiness for a national dialogue, authorizing a historic meeting with opposition members in Damascus on June 27. Some members of the protest movement, notably Kilo, Louai Hussein, and Hassan Abbas, chose to participate, yet most signatories to the 2005 Damascus declaration boycotted the meeting and contested the participants' right to speak on behalf of the demonstrators. While Hussein contended that the main goal of the meeting was "to organize a safe, peaceful transition from tyranny to freedom,"[25] Bunni argued that it would be exploited by the regime and used "to cover up the arrests, murders, and tortures that continue to take place on a daily basis."[26]
Then on July 9 and 10, the regime sponsored yet another national dialogue meeting, which was boycotted by almost all opposition leaders. "While the regime is meeting—and that is what today was—there are funerals in other cities, and people continue to be killed and arrested," commented Razan Zeitouneh, a lawyer and prominent LCC member.[27] Syrian Human Rights Association president Malih, likewise, declined the invitation, saying: Whoever attends such a dialogue with a regime that commits these crimes is a traitor to the people. After 200 martyrs, 1,500 missing persons, and 15,000 refugees, what is there to talk about? How can you have a dialogue with a person who is holding you at gunpoint?[28]
The meeting was attended by two hundred delegates, most of them intellectuals and politicians with close ties to the regime, and was presented as a steppingstone to a transition to democracy. Vice President Farouk al-Shara opened the meeting with the expressed hope that "it will lead to... the transformation of Syria into a pluralistic, democratic state where its citizens are equal."[29] In a surprising development, the final statement exceeded expectations by raising the issue of releasing all political prisoners, including those arrested since the uprising began (with the exception of those involved in crimes). It also argued that "dialogue is the only way to end the crisis in Syria" and strongly rejected any foreign interference under the pretext of defending human rights.[30] Furthermore, it called for deeper reforms and stronger efforts to combat corruption and requested the amendment of the constitution to make it commensurate with the rule of law, a multiparty system, and democracy.
Most Syrian activists agreed that the offer to engage in dialogue came too late and that the regime had lost all credibility. In the words of Suhair Atassi,
It has been contaminated by the blood of our people! How could we accept this [national dialogue]? It came too late! This is not to mention the lack of trust between the people and the regime. The best example of this was the arrests of the artists and intellectuals who decided to take to the streets in solidarity with the legitimate demands for greater freedoms in Syria. The Syrian regime was merely trying to buy time with this national dialogue… The Syrian opposition is united, which can be seen in its joint decision to boycott the so-called dialogue with the authorities that have been killing and suppressing the people.[31]
In their statement, the LCC dismissed the meeting's results on the grounds that
Syrians who have already been killed and tortured by the thousands will not accept any proposals or arrangements that leave Bashar Assad, the intelligence service, and the death squads in control of their lives.[32]
As the uprising intensified and the dissidents' demands grew, the need to form a transition government, given the possible collapse of the regime, was considered. As early as April 2011, Kilo had requested the formation of "a government of national unity," and by mid-July, Malih had gone still further, calling for a shadow government made up of "independent experts" that would unify the opposition movements and prepare for the post-Assad era.[33]
Foreign Intervention?
The Turkish government has followed the unfolding Syrian crisis with deep concern. In the earliest phases of the uprising, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu advised the regime to end the repression and democratize the country. Assad ignored this "friendly advice," generating a profound unease in Ankara, which was heightened by the arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing the besieged Syrian town of Jisr Shughour.[34]
The possibility of a full-fledged civil war troubles Ankara, which believes that the intensification of violence would significantly increase the influx of refugees into its territory. In an interview with the Qatar newspaper ash-Sharq, Erdoğan stressed the importance of the ties between the two countries:
For Turkey, Syria is not just another country, it's a neighbor with which we share a 910-kilometer-long border… and with which we have shared interests that cannot be ignored… We know very well that stability there is part of our national security, and we are afraid that the situation will lead to the outbreak of a civil war between Alawites and Sunnis.[35]
The widening gap between Ankara and Damascus also means the end of Davutoğlu's "zero problems with neighbors" policy.[36] The premise of this policy was that by way of increasing its international clout, Turkey had to maintain the best possible relationships with neighboring countries and diversify its alliances. This required that Ankara turn its attention back to the Middle East, a region that had formed an integral part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, thus filling a long-standing vacuum that no Arab regime had been able to fill.
The Turkish government thus warned Damascus that trade relations between the two countries, which amount to around $2.5 billion annually, could be endangered.[37] It also hosted various opposition group meetings inside Turkey with the goal of creating a road map for a post-Assad era. In mid-July, Istanbul hosted the National Salvation Conference, which elected Malih as its president. During the meeting, Malih rejected any dialogue with the regime: "The Syrian regime has declared war on its people, who will not go back home until the regime has fallen."[38] The final statement from the meeting called for the formation of a shadow government, but not before the fall of the regime, and expressed its will to reach "a unified approach" between the opposition and the young demonstrators.
In a subsequent meeting, held in Istanbul on August 23, 2011, the Syrian opposition agreed to create a National Transition Council (NTC) comprised of opposition members both inside and outside the country and presided over by Burhan Ghalyoun, a Syrian academic residing in France.[39] Despite their differences, the intensity of the repression had brought opposition members together. Basma Qadmani, their spokesperson, told the media that "the NTC represents the major forces: political parties and independent figures who symbolize the Syrian opposition." The names of Syria-based NTC members were kept secret to prevent reprisals.
In September, this group was renamed the Syrian National Council (SNC). It included members of the Damascus declaration, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the Local Coordination Committees, the Syrian Revolution General Commission, Kurdish factions, tribal leaders, and independent figures. One of the first decisions of SNC was to approve a national consensus charter that defined the principles of the Syrian revolution:
1) Affirming that the Syrian revolution is a revolution for freedom and dignity;
2) Maintaining the peaceful nature of the revolution;
3) Affirming national unity and rejecting any call for sectarianism or monopolizing of the revolution;
4) Recognizing Syria is for all Syrians on an equal footing;
5) Rejecting foreign military intervention.[40]
While the opposition members initially rejected any foreign intervention, voices favoring this eventuality began to emerge, albeit still in the minority. During the Istanbul conference, Malih urged the U.N. to put an end to the bloodshed through political and diplomatic pressure but soundly rejected any military intervention.[41] Earlier, Kilo had also declared his desire "to see an exclusively Syrian solution... reached based on a broad, complete national understanding."[42]
Yet given the worsening situation, the opposition has begun to consider different scenarios to bring the dictatorship to an end. Some favor following the Libyan example where the uprising combined with foreign military intervention to bring about the collapse of the regime: Ashraf al-Miqdad, signer to the Damascus declaration living in Australia, told Asharq al-Awsat that the Syrian regime will never stop the repression and murders, meaning that there are only two options: foreign intervention or arming the revolutionaries… International military intervention has become the only possible solution. The other alternative would be to divide the army, which would avoid having to arm the people.[43]
Although these voices still represent a minority, they reflect the growing desperation of the Syrian opposition, which believes that the uprising may lose its muscle if none of the objectives are reached soon. On July 29, 2011, a group of defectors formed the Syrian Free Army (SFA).[44] By mid October, there were an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 defectors especially active in the north and central regions. In the last months of the year, SFA began launching some operations against the Syrian army.[45]
The LCC has tried to nip this debate in the bud, stating in a communiqué, "While we understand the motivation to take up arms or call for military intervention, we specifically reject this position as we find it unacceptable politically, nationally, and ethically."[46] At least for now, then, it seems that a Libya-style intervention is being rejected. The communiqué stressed
The method by which the regime is overthrown is an indication of what Syria will be like in the post-regime era. If we maintain our peaceful demonstrations, which include our cities, towns, and villages, and our men, women, and children, the possibility of democracy in our country is much greater. If an armed confrontation or international military intervention becomes a reality, it will be virtually impossible to establish a legitimate foundation for a proud future Syria.[47]
Malih concurred, "Any foreign intervention would destroy Syria, just like what has happened in Libya… the revolution in Syria will prevail, and the regime will be brought down by peaceful means." He added that "the revolutionaries will not fall into the trap" of militarizing the uprising.[48]
An eventual militarization could have devastating effects and would likely be exploited by the regime to present itself as the guarantor of internal stability and to regain some of the territory lost to the rebels. The possibility of an outbreak of civil war could have unforeseeable effects on Syria's neighbors since it shares borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. As Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi recently said, "Syria is not Libya… Syria plays a central role in the region, and what happens there has a direct impact on Lebanon and Iraq."[49]
Although the influence of opposition intellectuals in Syria remains limited, there is little doubt that the Assad regime considers their demands for the release of political prisoners, suspension of the state of emergency, and an end to the single-party system a declaration of war. This further underscores the regime's tenuous grip on power as none of the members of this small opposition group can count on a broad social base or hail from Syrian families boasting great wealth or long lines of politicians with the notable exception of Suhair Atassi, scion to a prominent political family that has produced three heads of state.
Given the absence of freedom of expression and the regime's absolute control of the media, the intelligentsia has not been able to inculcate its message to the Syrian "street" or to mobilize it, a task that now falls entirely to the Local Coordination Committees. Some are further hampered by their past: A good portion of their members are Nasserites, communists, or socialists, affiliations that are in decline and lack any significant popular backing. Support for secularism also weakens their influence among the more traditional or devout segments of Syrian society.
Internal divisions and lack of coordination have also taken their toll. Some of the leading figures differ over core issues such as whether it is possible to have a dialogue with the regime; what the proper relationship with foreign powers should be; what form a transitional government should take, and how it should rule. These differences have been apparent over the last few months.
These structural deficiencies notwithstanding, the opinions of these intellectuals are followed by an important segment of the demonstrators, who hold the struggle by these thinkers against the regime in great esteem. Indeed, this group of intellectuals and critics is solidly represented in both the Committee for National Salvation and the Syrian National Council spearheading the uprising. Perhaps this uncertain situation is best summed up in Malih's words:
The opposition and the Syrian intellectuals did not create the revolution. The revolution is the work of the youth. Now they need political support, and we want to be by their sides in this revolution.[50]
-This article was published in Middle East Quarterly, in its Spring 2012 Issue, pp. 23-32
-Ignacio Alvarez Ossorio is a lecturer of Arabic and Islamic studies in the University of Alicante, Spain. His recent books include Report on Arabs Revolts (Ediciones del Oriente y el Mediterráneo, 2011) and Contemporary Syria (Sintesis, 2009).
 [1] Syrian constitution, Mar. 13, 1973; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), July 25, 2011.
[2] "Statement by 99 Syrian Intellectuals," al-Hayat, Sept. 27, 2000.
[3] Gary C. Gambill, "Dark Days Ahead for Syria's Liberal Reformers," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Feb. 2001.
[4] Human Rights Watch World Report 2002 - Syria, Human Rights Watch, New York, Jan. 17, 2002.
[5] Damascus declaration, Oct. 16, 2005.
[6] The Syria Monitor (Center for Liberty in the Middle East, Washington, D.C.), May 13, 2007.
[7] Joe Pace, interview with Kamal al-Labwani, posted on Syria Comment blog by Joshua Landis, Sept. 2, 2005.
[8] As-Safir (Beirut), Apr. 16, 2011.
[9] "Veteran Activist's Demands Reflect New Syria," Amnesty International, Washington, D.C., July 26, 2011.
[10] YouTube, Mar. 10, 2011.
[11] "The Syrian Revolution 2011," Facebook, accessed Dec. 27, 2011.
[12] Asharq al-Awsat (London), July 16, 2011.
[13] "Veteran Activist's Demands Reflect New Syria," July 26, 2011.
[14] Pace, interview with Labwani, Sept. 2, 2005.
[15] Al-Akhbar (Cairo), Aug. 9, 2011.
[16] Voice of America, Mar. 30, 2011.
[17] The Guardian (London), June 27, 2011.
[18] Asharq al-Awsat, July 16, 2011.
[19] Omar Dahi, "A Syrian Drama: A Taxonomy of a Revolution," posted on Syria Comment blog by Joshua Landis, Aug. 13, 2011.
[20] "Statement to the Syrian People," Local Coordination Committees in Syria (LLC), Aug. 29, 2011.
[21] As-Safir, Apr. 16, 2011.
[22] Al-Akhbar, Aug. 9, 2011.
[23] Al-Jazeera TV, Mar. 28, 2011.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., June 27, 2011.
[26] Ibid.
[27] The Guardian, July 10, 2011.
[28] Asharq al-Awsat, July 13, 2011.
[29] Al-Watan (Kuwait), July 8, 2011.
[30] Syrian Arab News Agency (Damascus), July 12, 2011.
[31] Asharq al-Awsat, July 16, 2011.
[32] Declaration, Local Coordination Committees in Syria (LCC), Sept. 7, 2011.
[33] As-Safir, Apr. 26, 2011; al-Bayan (Dubai), July 11, 2011.
[34] BBC News, June 8, 2011.
[35] Ash-Sharq (Doha), Sept. 13, 2011.
[36] See Svante E. Cornell, "What Drives Turkish-Foreign-Policy?" Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2012, pp. 13-24.
[37] The National (Abu Dhabi), Aug. 11, 2011.
[38] France 24 TV (Paris), July 19, 2011.
[39] Associated Press, Oct. 3, 2011.
[40] National Consensus Charter, Syrian National Council, Sept. 15, 2011; Steven Heydemann, "Syria's Opposition," United States Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., Sept. 20, 2011.
[41] France 24 TV, July 19, 2011.
[42] Al-Arab al-Yawm (Amman), June 18, 2011.
[43] Asharq al-Awsat, Sept. 6, 2011.
[44] YouTube, July 29, 2011.
[45] The New York Times, Nov. 17, 2011.
[46] "Statement to the Syrian People," Local Coordination Committees in Syria, Aug. 29, 2011.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Asharq al-Awsat, Sept. 11, 2011.
[49] Der Spiegel (Hamburg), Sept. 7, 2011.
[50] Asharq al-Awsat, July 13, 2011.