Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Five Stages Of Egypt's Revolution

It matters little who wins the presidency this weekend -- a much bloodier uprising is inevitable.


I was put on the spot by a wise old friend of mine in Washington several years ago. He wanted my pitch on Egypt in 30 seconds or less. "This is a town beset with attention deficit disorder," he said, "so what have you got?" I gulped and offered up the "three Ms of Egypt": the military, the mosque, and the masses.

Despite the popular revolt against Hosni Mubarak's regime last year, it remains true that the only political contest that counts in Egypt has pitted its military generals against the mosque's imams and leaders. Both want control over the masses -- 85 million Egyptians. The recent elections highlighted these three Ms: However depressing for many reformers and activists, the culmination of nearly 18 months of mass protest now pits the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammad Morsi against Ahmed Shafiq, a retired military officer and former Mubarak prime minister.

Whether the military or the mosque wins the runoff this weekend, reformers and their supporters around the world need to consider some equally important potential futures scenarios. Their first step should be to dust off a copy of Crane Brinton's An Anatomy of Revolution, a 1938 study that considers major revolutions in history, identifies the factors influencing them, and attempts to extrapolate certain "rules" for how such seismic political transitions play out. In the startling air of uncertainty pervading Egypt's current impasse, it provides at least a framework -- and often strangely accurate reference point -- from which to contemplate events. And it serves as a guide, and a warning, to Egypt's future. This week's court ruling blessing Shafiq's candidacy and dissolving parliament -- reasserting the military's grip on power and infuriating millions of Egyptians in the process -- should only be taken as another sign that the center, hemorrhaging ever more legitimacy, ultimately cannot hold.

Brinton would tell you that in the long run, it actually doesn't really matter who the next president of Egypt is. Morsi and Shafiq are doppelgangers: Both are ghosts of the past, circling each other, embedded in the old system that has defined and sustained them for decades. Of course, the man from the military and the man from the mosque each claim to be the true champion of the revolution. In truth, it's likely that neither is -- and that both will pass from the scene as the revolution's pendulum swings inexorably to the extremes.

You may be asking: How can it not matter? While the mosque (in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the military (in the form of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) stand triumphant, each risks losing its grip on political power. Both will inevitably be the victims of true political transformation and swept away, as Brinton would say, through the course of events.
There are signs now that this could happen and, not surprisingly, both Morsi and Shafiq know it. The Brotherhood's initial reluctance to support last year's revolution has been replaced by its enthusiastic participation in the democratic process, from elections to constitutional reform. The mosque is now seen as fully committed to regime change, and is quietly flirting with the more extreme revolutionaries, both secular and religious, on the margins of Egypt's political environment -- ranging from the revolutionary youth to the ultraconservative wings of his Salafist counterparts. But despite this tentative flirtation, Morsi and his co-leaders would far rather Shafiq and his military allies take the vote than turn the country over to Egypt's true revolutionaries. For example, a deal struck between the SCAF and the Brotherhood's leadership on the eve of last November's parliamentary elections apparently benefited both camps more than the many thousands of protesters who had threatened to derail the election schedule. As the vote went ahead as planned, the Brotherhood won nearly half the seats, while allowing the SCAF to retain ultimate power -- a deal that served the short-term interests of both sides.

 In the near future, however, the three Ms are far less significant than the big E: Egypt's economy. Whoever the next president is, the economic challenges that confront him -- ranging from chronic unemployment to ailing foreign credit -- are urgent. In the last 18 months the country's foreign currency reserves have plummeted by more than half, and foreign direct investment last year totaled only one-third of the 2010 figure. Tourism has cratered. Aside from the military establishment, the state's resources and capacity are worn out and poorly functioning -- when they function at all.

Finally, the relationships between the legislative assembly, the presidency, and the executive have yet to be defined. They limp along today in a dystopian setting, as Egypt's political forces bicker over the makeup of the assembly to draft a new constitution. The parliament has historically been little more than a rubber stamp for regime policies and, even as Egyptians go to the polls to select a new president, it is a mystery what powers that figure will possess. A relatively emasculated presidency with little real capacity to enforce policy changes remains a distinct possibility.

It seems all too possible now that, to effect real political change, Egypt's revolution will need to somehow devour both mosque and military. Genuine redistribution of political power will require a dramatic upheaval of these entrenched systems. As political theorist Gene Sharp warns in his 1993 treatise From Dictatorship to Democracy: "Nowhere ... do I assume that defying dictators will be an easy or cost-free endeavor. All forms of struggle have complications and costs. ... The fall of one regime does not bring in a utopia."

In Egypt, these casualties would not only include the hundreds of young men dead on the streets, but also the destruction of arrangements that favored certain sections of Egyptian society and provided the foundation for its political order. Once again, Brinton offers guidance for how to think of this process by conceiving of revolutions in terms of stages: In his model, Egypt has traversed the first stage -- the collapse of the regime -- and begun stage two, epitomized by an ineffective, moderate interim government that fails to deliver sufficient political change. Depending on how you apply this framework to the Egyptian setting, this second stage may equate to either the interim SCAF or some kind of "inclusive" -- i.e. badly fudged -- government that will be unpopular, and destined to fail. Again, whether this administration is led by Morsi or Shafiq makes little difference in the long run.

The failure of the moderates will bring about stage three: the wholesale disintegration of a measured transition process, leading to widespread political confusion, major clashes, and the beginnings of violence verging on anarchy. Stage four ushers in the radical, purging, period -- terrifying for its uncompromising zeal and tyranny. This "fever," in Brinton's terminology, breaks in the final stage, as the radical leadership burns itself out and is replaced by a more stable and long-term representative government.

It's unclear who the "stage four" zealots will be in the Egyptian context, though some kind of militarized religious force seems probable. Indeed, the Salafists and other more extreme religious groups are conspicuously absent from the current clash of the mainstream factions -- particularly considering their astonishing election performance that gave them 25 percent of parliament.. Their silence, like that of France's Jacobins or Russia's Bolsheviks, is telling. They are, quite obviously, patiently awaiting the weakening of the military and the mosque, which are just now in the process of weakening each other -- as the contending moderate parties in revolutionary France and Russia weakened each other -- paving the way for the extremists.

Of course, this kind of framework is often dismissed as the mindless wanderings of historical structuralists. Egypt is neither Russia nor France. Yet, in the context of Egypt's current political dilemma, Brinton's scenarios need to be taken seriously. What they suggest is what we already know to be true: The outcome of Egypt's revolution will not be decided by a committee, it will not be managed, and it will not be moderated. It will be decided in the streets, as all revolutions are. Egypt's revolution is not nearing an end, it's only just beginning.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 15/06/2012
-Charles Holmes is a Middle East analyst and a director of Marcher International, a political research consultancy based in Washington, Cairo, and London

Friday, June 15, 2012

Preparing For A Post-Assad Middle East: Hezbollah’s Syrian Dilemma

By Jean-Loup Samaan

                    Hezbollah Leader Sheikh Hassan Nessrallah

In the spring of 2011, everything seemed to be going right for Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) in Lebanon. Five years after the war with Israel, its forces in the south of the country were not only reorganized, but also reinforced. In Beirut, the new government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati was distancing itself from the pro-western agenda that had been promoted by the government of Sa’ad Hariri, temporarily relieving the pressure on Hezbollah with respect to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, charged with probing the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Finally, the movement was creating a symbolic parallel between the “Arab Spring” and the Lebanese Shiite narrative of struggle by the oppressed against the powerful, of the impoverished against the dominant minority. Put simply, in the first few weeks of the “Arab Spring” Hezbollah found a beautiful opportunity to recall its own revolutionary origins.

Nevertheless, the current swing in Syria towards a civil war opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, historically a political and financial supporter of Hezbollah, has jostled the political strategy of the Lebanese movement and left it facing a crucial dilemma: In light of the disturbing violence in Syria, the question is how far can Hezbollah support Assad’s regime and preserve an important regional alliance without eroding its image as a social force struggling on behalf of the oppressed?

Hezbollah’s Strategic Debt towards the Syrian Regime

As a result of the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983, Hezbollah emerged from Lebanon’s Shi’a community in the span of just three decades to become one of the most powerful non-state organizations in the world, both politically and militarily. Hezbollah was able to grow thanks to its relations with two regional allies who play key roles in the often turbulent politics of Lebanon - Iran and Syria. The movement modelled itself from the start on the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, who wished to see it spread to Lebanon. However, Hezbollah showed itself to be more pragmatic after the civil war of the 1990s so as not to become alienated from the Lebanese political scene.

Hezbollah’s current leader, Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah, is the political craftsman responsible for the “Lebanonization” of the movement. At 51 years of age, Nasrallah has embodied the Party since taking its reins in 1992 after the assassination of its previous Secretary General, Abbas Moussawi, at the hands of Israeli forces. A charismatic orator, Nasrallah quickly became an icon within the Arab community as the prow of the resistance against Israel. In 2006, his armed forces even succeeded in inflicting a level of damage upon Israel that no Arab army had done beforehand. [1]

During these years, the very political and military basis of Hezbollah was made possible thanks to a marriage of convenience with the Syrian regime, which has played a hand in making and unmaking governments in Beirut since its 1976 military intervention in Lebanon. Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian president, looked with suspicion not only at the Islamic rhetoric which adorned Hezbollah’s propaganda but also at the connections between the movement and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Although Hafez al Assad had allied himself with Khomeini’s Iran, he clearly indicated to Tehran that Lebanon remained within the Syrian sphere of influence. It is for this same reason that Hafez al-Assad maintained a certain distance with Hezbollah, despite having agreed to authorize the passage of Iranian supply convoys across Syrian territory to Lebanon. Indeed, numerous observers affirm that Assad met only twice with Hassan Nasrallah. [2]

The relationship between Hezbollah and Syria changed substantially when Bashar al-Assad became head of the Syrian nation in June 2000. Nasrallah became a regular visitor to Damascus and the new Syrian president did not hesitate to be seen publicly with him. The Syrian regime cast aside the elder Assad’s restraint and developed the idea of an anti-imperialist axis represented by Syria, Hezbollah and Iran. As a sign of this evolution, the streets of Damascus and Homs were littered with flyers during the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah proclaiming the glory of the movement and Nasrallah in particular.

On top of this political support, Syria has lent considerable logistical support to the Party of God’s military structure, particularly by maintaining the supply corridors used by Iran to supply missiles and other arms to Hezbollah. If Hezbollah’s current missile strike force constitutes a real tool of dissuasion to the Jewish state rather than a simple nuisance to northern Israel, it is largely thanks to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.

Hezbollah’s Unwavering Support for Bashar al Assad?

On several occasions during the last decade, Hezbollah has assumed the risk of losing its popular base by supporting Bashar al-Assad. As early as 2005, the assassination of Rafiq Hariri unleashed a wave of protests against Damascus. The demonstrations only subsided with the departure of Syrian troops and the formation of a government based on an anti-Syrian political alliance. Throughout these events, Hassan Nasrallah never hesitated to express his unwavering support for Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah oversaw multiple counter-demonstrations in Beirut, placing itself at risk of being accused of betraying Lebanon’s national interests.  Nasrallah’s acrobatic politics, attempting to find a balance between Hezbollah’s identity of resistance to external influence and political reliance on its regional allies, presented a potentially fatal challenge. Only the following summer’s war against Israel offered Nasrallah an opportunity to overcome Lebanon’s internal divisions by standing up to the Israeli Defense Force.

Now more so than in 2005, Hezbollah’s strategy of “Lebanonization” finds itself at an impasse. During the first months of the Syrian crisis, Nasrallah and his close advisors preserved their traditional posture by offering full support to the Syrian regime. Before March 2012, many of the speeches given by the Hezbollah Secretary General concerning Syria denounced the predatory strategies of external powers (namely the United States and Israel) directed at the Syrian regime and increasingly diverted the attention of his audiences to the seemingly more urgent Palestinian cause. In other words, the movement developed a narrative of the crisis which was identical to that presented by the government of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the movement has consistently denied all implications stemming from certain media coverage, notably emanating from the opposition Free Syrian Army or Israeli sources, which has conjured up charges of Hezbollah’s role as a logistical and military supporter of the Syrian repression (Haaretz, April 6; Jerusalem Post, May 30; al-Akhbar [Beirut], February 8; al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 16; for denials, see Daily Star [Beirut], April 15; NOW Lebanon, April 14).

In contrast to Hezbollah’s expectations, the Syrian crisis has not subsided and, to the contrary, has progressively transformed into a civil war. Since February of 2012, the Syrian offensive on Homs has aroused international approbation. More and more, protesters condemn the support of Hezbollah and videos have circulated on the internet showing Syrians accusing Nasrallah by name or burning the flag of Hezbollah. [3]

A notable shift in Nasrallah’s approach to the Syrian question emerged during a March 15 speech ostensibly concerning Lebanon’s educational system. For roughly ten minutes, Nasrallah turned to Syria and called, for the first time, for the regime and the opposition to take an approach that would peacefully resolve their differences (An-Nahar [Beirut], March 17; As-Safir [Beirut], March 19). In effect, Nasrallah’s call for settlement suggested that there is an alternative party within the opposition that would be capable of negotiating with the Syrian regime. For the first time, the Hezbollah leader had placed the Syrian regime and its opposition on the same plane. Nasrallah went so far as to add that the government in Damascus must bring the truth about the months of confrontation to light, implying that the regime must recognize its accountability in the repression. Although some observers may hasten to see this as Nasrallah’s total desertion of Assad, this speech is clearly an indicator of the Lebanese leader’s support taken to the limits of his conscience.

During a May 12 ceremony in Beirut, Shaykh Nasrallah warned Syrians that their nation was on the brink of plunging into a state of sectarian violence reminiscent of the Iraqi insurgency:  "We leave the answer to the Syrian people… either they go for the model of dialogue, reform, elections, participation or cooperation, or go for the model [of violence] being presented now…” Nasrallah added that his party was “increasingly convinced that there are some who want the downfall of Syria only because they want to get rid of the main supporter of Palestine and the resistance in Lebanon" (Syrian Arab News Agency, May 12; Daily Star [Beirut], May 12; al-Bawaba [Amman], May 12; Guardian, May 18).

Consequently, Hezbollah is today in a critical situation: maintaining its support for Assad, whose end may only be a matter of time, could alienate the party from a majority of the Lebanese population as well as the eventual successors of the regime in Damascus. The position held by Nasrallah seeks to reconcile support for the Syrian regime and recognition of the legitimate protests. This rhetorical change may nevertheless have arrived too late to allow Hezbollah to exit the Syrian crisis fully intact.

Hezbollah without the Assad Regime

If a regime change in Damascus were to have repercussions on the makeup of the Middle East, beginning with Lebanon, we should not fool ourselves with simplistic images, such as a domino effect that would quickly see the collapse of Hezbollah. If the rule of Bashar al-Assad were to come to an end, the Syrian supply routes between Iran and the Party of God would assuredly be affected. In fact, many Syrian opposition figures, such as Burhan Ghalioun, have made it known that the Damascus-Tehran alliance would be re-examined (al-Hayat, February 3). A realignment of post-Assad Syria may thus cut Iran’s strategic access to the Middle East and may equally affect Hezbollah, which would lose a reliable ally, both militarily with regards to Israel and politically with regards to those who oppose the movement in Beirut. Hezbollah could find itself in a position of weakness considering the accusations made against its members by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. One has difficulty imagining that the government of Najib Mikati could survive in the face of such regional game changers.

For all that, a new Syrian regime would be unlikely to deprive Hezbollah of its military capabilities. In reality, the Party of God currently possesses an arsenal in the south of Lebanon that is sufficient to deter Israel or the movement’s Lebanese rivals. According to Israeli military authorities, the movement has also been trained by Syrian advisors in matters of anti-air defense; allowing Hezbollah to defend itself against eventual Israeli strikes (Haaretz, March 18).

Nevertheless, in the absence of new avenues of resupply between Iran and Hezbollah – maritime routes being too vulnerable to Israeli attacks – this balance of power could degrade; tempting internal and external foes of Hezbollah to launch an offensive against the organization. For example, Israeli forces could attempt to conduct a quick full-scale operation to decapitate the movement by targeting its infrastructure in the south and its nerve centers in the suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah could then respond by attempting to scale up the conflict vertically by launching rockets as well as short-range missiles on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and horizontally by calling for a simultaneous front across the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. For the time being, this scenario remains unlikely, as Israel has adopted a prudent political approach since the triggering of events in Syria and is well aware of Hezbollah’s ability to absorb a 2006-style military attack.

Nonetheless, the coming months will be decisive for the survival of Hezbollah. Whether or not Assad remains in power is no longer the central question: whether he remains or not, Hezbollah will have to make do with a decreasingly reliable regional ally. Tomorrow the true issue for the movement will be to preserve what remains of its long process of Lebanonization under Nasrallah’s leadership in the 1990s, a process which has been weakened by the political crises of 2005, 2008, and those occurring today. In other words, Hezbollah’s survival after a collapse of the Assad regime does not depend on its military strength – again sufficient enough to maintain the movement, even in the face of Israel or any Lebanese rival – but on its political support, and more particularly its future ability to defuse the impact of the Syrian crisis on the on-going Lebanese Sunni-Shi’a rivalry to avoid the movement’s complete alienation from Beirut’s political scene. Eventually this might require more than Nasrallah’s recent displays of subtle rhetoric.

-This  article was published by Jamestown Foundation on 14/06/2012
-Jean-Loup Samaan is a researcher in the Middle East Department of the NATO Defense College (Italy).
1. See Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman, The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and The Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy, Washington, Strategic Studies Institute, 2008; Avi Kober, “The Israel Defense Forces in the Second Lebanon War: Why the Poor Performance?” Journal of Strategic Studies 31(1), February 2008, pp.3-40.
2. Among others, see: Nicholas Blanford, Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty Year Struggle against Israel, New York, 2011; Emile El-Hokayem, “Hizballah and Syria: Outgrowing the Proxy Relationship”, Washington Quarterly, Spring 2007, pp.35-52.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

It's Still Mubarak's Egypt

On the eve of a historic presidential election, one man's legacy still haunts the revolution.


                                                                   Hosni Mubarak in court

Hosni Mubarak will not go away. Even as Egyptians go to the polls to elect a new president this weekend, the old one is allegedly flirting with death in a prison hospital, capturing the country's attention with conflicting reports that he has slipped into a coma, or that doctors had to revive him twice after cardiac arrest, or that he is "drinking juice."

Last year's uprising, Mubarak's flight to his home in Sharm el-Sheikh, his trial, fresh elections, and the hope of a new constitution were supposed to set Egypt on a path toward a brighter future. It has not been that easy, however. Mubarak and the institutions he put in place continue to linger like an unwanted houseguest, making a mockery of Egypt's ostensible transition to democracy.

Mubarak made an indelible mark on Egypt during the 29 years, 3 months, 28 days, and 6 hours he ruled Egypt. Even with the man behind bars, his legacy has somehow persevered, and the revolution has failed to conclusively wipe out the old order. Whether Mubarak's demise is imminent or not, he has escaped the grasp of the revolutionaries, only deepening the frustrations that have pervaded Egypt's transition. The June 2 verdict of the three-judge panel -- which acquitted his sons, Gamal and Alaa, on charges of corruption and did not actually find him guilty on charges of ordering the killings of protesters (despite his former vice president's testimony that Mubarak knew of "every bullet fired") -- puts him beyond the reach of Egyptians who were seeking some combination of justice and revenge. Many Egyptians not only wanted to see Mubarak convicted for the crimes committed during the uprising -- they wanted the verdict to reflect his regime's three decades of corruption, abuse of power, and repression.

It should not be about Mubarak any longer, yet Egypt's present drama remains a prisoner of the former president and his legacy. Mubarak is not only still making headlines, but the political, economic, and social pathologies that he spawned are pulling Egyptians back to the bad old days. An anti-Christian pogrom last October, when 28 people lost their lives after the Egyptian Army attacked a predominantly Coptic protest near downtown Cairo, was the manipulations of the previous era coming back to haunt Egyptians. In a replay of a dynamic that prevailed during the Mubarak era, that incident has driven many Copts either out of Egypt or into the arms of presidential contender Ahmed Shafiq, who served as Mubarak's last prime minister. It is the same old story: Egypt's dungeons remain filled with revolutionaries and activists who seek a just and free political system, while the people who have brutalized them sleep comfortably in their own beds.

Even the dismal choice between Egypt's two presidential candidates is evocative of the Mubarak era. Shafiq's candidacy revives the old calculation that Egyptians prefer authoritarianism over theocracy. As every profile of him notes, he was an air force commander like Mubarak. Yet that similarity is superficial, an accidental factoid. Shafiq could have been an artilleryman -- his presidential run would still represent a replay of the army's struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood that was a central theme of the Mubarak era.

How to explain that Shafiq -- a man driven from office in March 2011 by the power of Tahrir protesters -- garnered 24.2 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential vote? The revival of the old ruling National Democratic Party's patronage networks likely played a role, but there is an even bleaker explanation: The revolutionary narrative about the Mubarak era may be weaker than previously believed. The polls show that Egyptians want democracy and will sacrifice much to get it, but the same polls also show that Egyptians want security and stability above all else. Consider Egypt strictly by the numbers, and the Mubarak era may have begun to look better to Egyptians -- and not just to the felool, or remnants of the previous power structure.

The Egypt that Mubarak officially inherited from Anwar Sadat on Oct. 14, 1981, was very different from the country that slipped from his grasp on Feb. 11, 2011. On the eve of the uprising, many of Egypt's critical macroeconomic indicators were pointing in the right direction: GDP growth was healthy, the debt-to-GDP ratio was manageable, foreign reserves were up, and foreign direct investment was flowing. To be sure, not all Egyptians were benefiting from this state of affairs. However, if one surveys the daunting economic, social, and political problems they confront now, it seems that millions of Egyptians are thinking the unthinkable -- that someone who represents the Mubarak period is the appropriate person to lead the country into what would most likely be a not-so-new era.

Regardless of who prevails, Shafiq or the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square has in many respects faded away. Egypt will never be the same, but it will not likely be what the activists imagined during the uprising. Even if Morsi does win -- propelled to the presidency by an "anyone but Shafiq" effort by revolutionaries and liberals -- his invocation of the revolution cannot hide the fact that the Brothers were slow to join the uprising and their democratic credentials are questionable.

In what seems like another time, Wael Ghonim, a celebrated figure in the uprising, laid out the foundational beliefs of the revolution: "We have to restore dignity to all Egyptians. We have to end corruption. No more theft. Egyptians are good people." Those sentiments still exist, but making them a reality is far more complex than Ghonim or anyone else had imagined. Even lying semi-comatose on a gurney in Tora prison hospital, Hosni Mubarak has found a way to haunt Egypt's political future.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 13/06/2012
-Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Everything In Syria Is Going To Plan

It just depends on whose plan you're talking about.


If you don't know where you're going, the old saying goes, any road will get you there.
The conventional wisdom on Syria has it that the external actors to the tragic drama playing out these many months don't know what to do, have no end game, and are thus incapable of acting alone or in concert to end the killing and create an effective transition to the post-Assad era.

But that's wrong. The key actors -- America, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Arabs -- know precisely what they're about (or at least what they want to avoid) and are acting quite willfully to attend to their own interests.

In short, we have a coalition not of the willing but of the disabled, the unwilling, and the opposed. And each has a clear agenda. The tragedy for Syria is that it's just not a common agenda. And here's why.

The United Nations

 We can dispense with the idea that the United Nations is a consequential player quite quickly. The U.N. is only as strong as its member states, and in this case that means the five permanent members of the Security Council. The U.N.'s relevance in any global emergency occurs either at the front end of a crisis -- as a legitimizer of action -- or, if the powers that run the place agree, as an implementing arm once they do.

When there's no consensus, as in the case of Syria, the U.N. is relegated to articulating rather than acting. Enter Kofi Annan, whose six-point initiative was dead before it was born. Not only are the great powers divided, but the gap between the regime and the opposition is a galactic one that renders any diplomatic approach -- either on confidence-builders or on an end game -- pointless. The fact that the former secretary-general is trying to expand his contact group to include the Iranians has only added to the confusion, allowing the Russians (who have adopted the idea) to avoid any serious action.


Vladimir Putin's motives on Syria are a mix of principle, pragmatism, and his own persona.  Like Howard Beale, the frustrated anchor in the movie Network, Putin's mad as hell and he ain't gonna to take it anymore. No more Western interventions. No more American diktats or schemes to crowd out Russian influence. There's nothing more insufferable than the leader of a great power that isn't so great anymore (see: France).

Russia has seen all of its former friends -- Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and now Bashar al-Assad -- undermined and deposed by the Americans. We even want his help to squeeze the Iranians on the nuclear issue, too. And he's pushing back. He knows Assad can't be saved and doesn't want Russia identified with massacres, but he wants to avoid a made-in-America settlement that puts Barack Obama in the driver's seat or leads to a post-Assad era where Russia has no influence or, worse, is holding Washington's coat.

Putin also fears -- genuinely, I think -- a post-Assad Syria dominated by radical Sunnis. He doesn't trust the Saudis, who are looking to counter Iran and the Shia. He worries about his own Muslims in the North Caucasus. (Indeed, Saudi support for Chechnyan rebel Wahhabists is a painful reminder of the Quran's long reach.) Finally, as with Nicolas Sarkozy, all life for Putin begins with the personal. Putin is both entitled and insecure -- a bad combo. He's just not going to let Obama roll him again after what happened in Libya. If there's a deal to oust Assad, Russia will have to be central to it.


On paper, you'd think the Turks would have been willing by now to assume a greater leadership role on Syria. Geography, Sunni affinity, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leadership pretentions in the region would have all argued for much deeper involvement. But leadership requires standing up, and that can make people unhappy, or worse.  The Turks' "we want to be loved by everybody" approach (minus the Israelis) -- represents their preferred soft-power strategy. It's about adding countries to the Turkish fan club, not subtracting them.

Yes, it's hard to sit idle while Assad kills fellow Sunnis. But guess what? Everyone else is doing it. Why should Turkey stand up and press for safe zones or military intervention without an Arab consensus? That might anger Iran, the Kurds, and even the Alevis, a minority sect in Turkey that feels persecuted by the Sunni majority. Better to play it safe and watch carefully. Maybe somebody else will take the lead and fix the problem.

Iran and the Saudis

The new Arab-Iranian cold war has been on for some time now. The Syrian crisis has only made it worse. Led by the Saudis, the Sunnis are determined to do what they can to check what they see as rising Iranian and Shia power. I'm sure the Saudis blame the Americans for the Shia government that now sits in Baghdad and for Bahrain, where Washington pressed for reform of in the early days of the Arab Spring, seemingly inattentive to Saudi concerns.

Iraq may be lost, but the game in Syria is still on and the stakes are high. Turning the Shia-affiliated Alawi regime into a Sunni one that can be influenced would be a tremendous victory for the Gulf Arabs. It would weaken the Iranians and break the exaggerated but still very real threat of Shia encirclement -- Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. And that's why Riyadh is backing the rebels with money and arms and allowing individual Saudi clerics to sermonize about jihad and encourage non-Syrian foreign fighters to carry it out. This, of course has a potential downside. We saw the blowback in Afghanistan, where Saudi-inspired Wahhabi doctrine motivated a cadre of Arabs to fight first against the Russians and then against the West.

Tehran, on the other hand, is pushing back: propping up the Assads with concessionary oil, money, arms, and whatever the regime can contribute from its own large bag of repressive techniques. The Iranians may be out of touch on some issues, but it's hard to believe they don't sense that the bell is tolling for the Assads and for the four-decade-old strategic relationship with Syria. If and when Assad falls, Iran's window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict is going to be much harder to keep open, particularly its key relationship with Hezbollah. But that doesn't mean Tehran is going to cooperate on keeping Syria quiet and stable. Indeed, the fear of Sunni encirclement will intensify, and Iran will want to meddle even more to keep the pot boiling (see: Iraq). Iran might even cling tighter to its nuclear program to enhance its leverage and own sense of security.

The United States

The American agenda on Syria completes the circle. Sure, the president is outraged by Assad's brutality, and yes he'd like to do more. But bad options and electoral politics provide little incentive or leeway for heroics on Syria. The president is more focused on the perpetuation of the House of Obama than on the fall of the House of Assad. And rightly so. Americans are tired of costly military interventions, and the election is going to turn not on foreign policy but on the economy. And the Republicans can't find a way to make political hay from an Obama foreign policy that on balance has been smart and competent.

The only issues Americans care about abroad these days are terrorism and high gas prices. The president may pay for the latter but has been very tough on the former. Foreign policy will not help him in November, but a costly stumble abroad could hurt him. And the Syrian crisis offers plenty of opportunities for that. If the president acts, it will be cautiously and in the company of others.

Next month, there will be another Friends of Syria meeting. And most likely, there will be a lot of talk and some ratcheting up of the pressure on Assad, but little else. The only thing that could alter this passivity is a spike in the killing and violence that goes qualitatively beyond the horrors we've seen so far. A successful intervention would require a grand concert of powers all focused not just on ending the killing but on creating and nurturing a post-Assad Syria. Right now, the external players are too divided, too self-interested, and too committed to their own narrow concerns for that. Syria may be fixable, but certainly not on the cheap. And nobody's yet willing to pay the price.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 13/06/2012
-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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Revolution Will Be Minimized

The men and women who sparked the protests that toppled the Mubarak regime face a painful choice in the upcoming presidential election. But they still can make the best of a bad situation.


                                                                         Mohamed Morsi
On June 16 and 17, revolutionary Egyptians will face an unimaginably painful choice in the run-off to the presidential election, an event that was supposed to be a cause for celebration rather than a somber moment.

On one side stands Mohammed Morsi, the "backup" candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood after its first choice, Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified. The Brotherhood has increasingly earned the distrust of revolutionary and "civil" (the word Egyptians use to describe political liberals) forces by working in the time since the fall of Mubarak to aggressively consolidate its hegemony over Egyptian political life. On the other side is Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's final prime minister, close confidante, rumored preferred choice for heir, and a powerful representative of the very regime Egyptians lost their lives fighting to bring down.

In retrospect, the road to this moment seems regrettably logical. It is the result of missteps by revolutionary forces, a growing disconnect between many of the activists and a significant percentage of Egyptian society, and the maneuverings of an Egyptian "deep state" that proved more powerful than previously calculated.

First, revolutionaries themselves admit that it was wrong to leave Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, 2011, after Mubarak had officially stepped down, without installing a suitable government or a setting a detailed roadmap for the democratic transition. What's more, it is argued that they miscalculated the breadth, depth, and reasons of the support for the revolution among the Egyptian people.

From the very beginning, there was a considerable difference in priorities among the groups that took to the streets and squares. For many of Egypt's upper and middle class revolutionaries, the main call to arms was the political oppression and human rights abuses by the Mubarak regime. But for Egypt's underprivileged, it was the dire living conditions, gross disparities in the concentration of wealth, and extreme economic corruption that served as a rallying cry. The oppressive conduct of Mubarak's security apparatus before the revolution, and the unprecedentedly violent conduct during, also played a key role in shocking the nation into rebellion.

When Mubarak was eventually toppled, this rift broke out into the open. Many Egyptians felt the revolution had largely achieved its goals -- 61 percent according to a May 2011 poll -- and that it was time for stability, security and reconstruction in the country. However, activists believed that Mubarak's fall was only the beginning of the road, and that the situation called for continued protest and action for the advancement of the revolution's goals, particularly against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). With successive rounds of clashes with security forces, the most recent coming in May when protesters and security forces faced off outside the Ministry of Defense, protesters received the brunt of blame for fomenting instability.

But the revolutionaries' challenges went beyond tactics to the very vision of Egypt's future. Activist groups, in part due to the grassroots nature of the movement, were late in generating detailed proposals to achieve their goals. For example, while everyone was united in demands to "purge the judiciary" or "restructure the Interior Ministry," there were few concrete plans to achieve these goals, and fewer still that were effectively marketed to public opinion. As a result, activist groups lost many chances to pressure the current military regime and state institutions at the height of the revolution's popularity.

The revolutionaries' work was made even more difficult by the rise of new political forces and rifts within revolutionary ranks, which made it easier for SCAF to divide and conquer. The political ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood is part of this story, but the meteoric rise of the ultra-traditionalist Salafist movement also dumbfounded everyone's calculations. The Salafists' growing presence on the political scene proved worrisome for Egypt's more moderate and liberal segments of society, furthering for many their tolerance of SCAF's tight grip on power.

The Brotherhood also increasingly abandoned a more centrist path and earlier promises to widely share power, including breaking a pledge that it would not field a presidential candidate. Rather, they embarked on a grasp for power, and increasingly employed conservative rhetoric in an effort to solidify the support of its traditional base as the Salafists rose in prominence. Several disagreements arose between the Brothers and other forces, ranging from the March 2011 constitutional amendments referendum to the Brotherhood's recent efforts to dominate the constitutional assembly. These controversies, in addition to a deep ideological divide, laid the foundation of the revolutionaries' growing distrust of the Brotherhood and its candidate.

Perhaps most crucially, revolutionary and political forces underestimated the size, depth, and power of the remnants of Egypt's former regime. It became clear over the past year that the country's military and security institutions were determined to remain independent powerhouses on the Egyptian political scene and would fight efforts towards greater civilian control. With a climate of rising fear regarding religious conservatism and national instability, a divided revolutionary movement, as well as significant dissatisfaction with parliament's performance, the "deep state" began to regain some of its power, and few were surprised with Shafiq's eventual catapulting into the second round of the elections.

The more mainstream "revolutionary candidates," most prominently neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, were woefully disorganized to fend off this threat. The candidates severely underestimated Shafiq's chances, and ran independently in the elections rather than uniting behind one candidate or a single ballot. Together, Sabbahi and Aboul Fotouh captured 8.8 million votes in last month's first round of voting -- far and away the largest single bloc in the election. However, because neither of these individual candidates were among the top two vote-getters, their voices were eliminated before the run-off election. A historic opportunity for the movement to lead was squandered.

After the slew of setbacks, the centrist heart of the Tahrir movement finds itself at a crossroads. Activists could pursue a "boycott-the-vote" campaign, or even spoil their ballots in an attempt to discredit both candidates and the election itself. Also, they could intensify efforts to prove allegations of electoral fraud, which include voter bribery and the blocking of campaign representatives from observing the vote. Moreover, they could -- and have already taken some steps to -- finally create some formal leadership to address both short-and-long-term goals of the revolutionary and civil movements. Another option would be to mount public pressure against the legality of Shafiq's candidacy in the hopes that an Egyptian court, which is set to rule on June 14, will uphold the constitutionality of a law that excludes top Mubarak-era officials from holding office.

There is another way. In return for their support in defeating Shafiq, the revolutionary and civil forces could demand reassurances from the Brotherhood that they would be ensured one or more powerful vice presidents to represent them, a coalition government headed by a non-Brotherhood prime minister, a constitutional assembly that includes their voices, and reassurances on the future of human rights in Egypt. While some will argue Morsi is capable of winning the elections on his own -- relying solely on the support of the Brotherhood and the Salafists -- broadening his popular support base carries undeniable benefits. It would confer an undeniable national and revolutionary legitimacy as well as a more definite mandate as president, which the Brotherhood immensely needs at this point.

The Brotherhood, on its part, has expressed willingness to consider some of these proposals, but have yet to give the concrete guarantees that could decidedly calm fears, particularly given its continuing political feud with liberal group over the composition of the body that will draft Egypt's new constitution. It would be a dramatic risk to take for Egypt's "civil" revolutionary forces, given their dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood's recent track record, but it could be the only option to save the revolution from a potentially fatal blow. The revolutionaries may not become king in this round, but they might have a chance to become kingmakers.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 11/06/2012
- Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian writer and blogger

Monday, June 11, 2012

Syria’s Assads Turned To West For Glossy P.R.


                 Barbara Walters questioned President Bashar al-Assad in 2011

For some journalists, Syria has been one of the least hospitable countries in the Middle East, a place where reporters — if they can get in — are routinely harassed and threatened as they try to uncover the repression that has propped up the Assad government for decades.

For other journalists, Syria has until recently been a country led by the cultivated, English-speaking President Bashar al-Assad who, along with his beautiful British-born wife, Asma, was helping usher in a new era of openness and prosperity.

That second impression is no accident. With the help of high-priced public relations advisers who had worked in the Clinton, Bush and Thatcher administrations, the president and his family have sought over the past five years to portray themselves in the Western media as accessible, progressive and even glamorous.

Magazines and online outlets have published complimentary features about the family, often focusing on fashion and celebrity. In March 2011, just as Mr. Assad and his security forces initiated a brutal crackdown on political opponents that has led to the death of an estimated 10,000 Syrians, Vogue magazine ran a flattering profile of the first lady, describing her as walking “a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles,” a reference to her Christian Louboutin heels.

Fawning treatment of world leaders — particularly attractive Western-educated ones — is nothing new. But the Assads have been especially determined to burnish their image, and hired experts to do so. The family paid the Washington public relations firm Brown Lloyd James $5,000 a month to act as a liaison between Vogue and the first lady, according to the firm.

This web of politics and public relations ensnared Barbara Walters recently. After she conducted an aggressive interview with Mr. Assad on ABC News in December, she offered to provide recommendations for Sheherazad Jaafari, the president’s press aide and the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, who was applying for a job at CNN and admission to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Ms. Walters issued a statement on Tuesday expressing regret for her actions, which she called “a conflict.”

Ms. Jaafari, 22, who has been accepted by Columbia, had worked as an intern at Brown Lloyd James. Last year, she expressed her feelings about the Assad family in an e-mail to Mike Holtzman, a partner at the firm who, according to his online profile, advised the Clinton administration on trade issues and worked in the State Department during the Bush administration.

“I have always told you — this man is loved by his people,” Ms. Jaafari wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained by the British newspaper The Guardian. Mr. Holtzman replied: “I’m proud of you. Wish I were there to help.” Mr. Holtzman did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

The Assads were in many ways ripe for celebrity treatment by the news media. The president, who was trained as an ophthalmologist, received part of his education in Britain, where he met his wife, a Briton of Syrian descent who grew up in London and worked as an investment banker in New York.

Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert with the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Washington who once worked for a charity sponsored by Mrs. Assad, summed up the appeal the Assads had for some news outlets: “He speaks English, and his wife is hot.”

The campaign to make the ruling family the face of a more Westernized and open Syria began in 2006, when Mrs. Assad approached the public relations firm Bell Pottinger in London.

Tim Bell, a co-founder of the firm and a former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said Mrs. Assad contacted the firm after several first ladies, including Laura Bush, began to hold annual meetings and conferences.

“She wanted to be a part of that club,” he said in a phone interview.

Bell Pottinger did not set up interviews for Mrs. Assad directly, but advised her on how to set up a communications office in Damascus to help shape her image.

A few years later, positive articles began to appear. Paris Match called Mrs. Assad an “element of light in a country full of shadow zones” and the “eastern Diana.” French Elle counted her among the best-dressed women in world politics, and in 2009, The Huffington Post published an article and fashion slide show titled “Asma al-Assad: Syria’s First Lady and All-Natural Beauty.”

“She responded beautifully, because she speaks well and is beautiful,” said the Italian writer Gaia Servadio, who worked for Mrs. Assad in Damascus. She added that Mrs. Assad hoped the coverage would deflect some of the negative attention her country had received.

None of the articles about Mrs. Assad struck a nerve quite like the 3,200-word March 2011 profile in Vogue titled “A Rose in the Desert.” In it, the writer, Joan Juliet Buck, called Mrs. Assad “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”

In a phone interview, Ms. Buck said that shortly after the profile was published, she began “steadily speaking out against the Assad regime,” including in an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN and elsewhere. In April, on National Public Radio, Ms. Buck said she regretted the headline that Vogue put on the article. But she said Mrs. Assad was “extremely thin and very well-dressed, and therefore qualified to be in Vogue.”

This spring, the magazine removed the article from its Web site. On Sunday, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, issued a statement about the article saying, in part: “Like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society. Subsequent to our interview, as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue. The escalating atrocities in Syria are unconscionable and we deplore the actions of the Assad regime in the strongest possible terms.”

Even among the world’s most repressive governments, Syria stands out in its treatment of journalists. The only way for many reporters to cover news emerging from the bloody crackdown on dissidents is to sneak into the country — often putting their lives at risk.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 13 reporters have been killed in Syria since November, including Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent from Long Island. (Anthony Shadid of The New York Times died of an asthma attack during a clandestine reporting trip to Syria.) Syrian officials have denied targeting journalists, but state media outlets have said that foreign reporters killed in Syria “must be spies or have links to terrorist organizations.”

Ms. Walters, who has a lifetime of experience chasing and winning interviews with world leaders, said she spent six years establishing a relationship with the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, including once dining at his home.

The connection eventually paid off. “Assad decided he would do an interview; according to the ambassador, he had requests from all over the world,” Ms. Walters said in a telephone interview last week. “And he chose to do it with me, based on the recommendation of the ambassador, and also because I had been to Syria twice before and knew something of its background and history.”

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said this kind of interview is highly sought after. “In a strange way, political leaders, presidents and prime ministers who are highly repressive and restrictive are good ‘gets’ for these types of interviews, precisely because there’s no fair media coverage in their countries,” he said.

Ms. Walters’ interview, broadcast in December, made worldwide news, with Mr. Assad issuing claims that he was not responsible for the Syrian military and that people were not being killed by his government.

Ms. Walters said, “I went to Syria and conducted what was a very tough and strong interview that President Assad did not like.”

But her offer of help to the ambassador’s daughter has cast a shadow on that interview. Two people close to Ms. Walters said she had reacted to a plea from Ms. Jaafari for help because Ms. Jaafari was being removed from her position as a media adviser to the Syrian president.

Mr. Tabler said that he didn’t “find it surprising what Walters did for her.” The issue, he said, was the timing.

“At that point, how many had been killed — 7,000?” he said. “This is an attractive young woman, and she speaks English. Maybe you help her with an introduction. To get beyond that is a little difficult to swallow.”

-This article was published in The New York Times on 11/06/2012

Obama’s Iran And Syria Muddle

By Jackson Diehl

From one point of view the connection between our troubles with Syria and Iran is pretty straightforward. The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s closest ally, and its link to the Arab Middle East. Syria has provided the land bridge for the transport of Iranian weapons and militants to Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Without Syria, Iran’s pretensions to regional hegemony, and its ability to challenge Israel, would be crippled.

It follows that, as the U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James N. Mattis testified to Congress in March, the downfall of Assad would be “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.” Making it happen is not just a humanitarian imperative after the slaughter of more than 10,000 civilians, but a prime strategic interest of Israel and the United States.

So why are both the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu unethusiastic — to say the least — about even indirect military intervention to topple Assad? In part it’s because of worry about what would follow the dictator. In Obama’s case, the U.S. presidential campaign, and his claim that “the tide of war is receding” in the Middle East, is a big factor.

But the calculus about Syria and Iran is also more complicated than it looks at first. The two are not just linked by their alliance, but also by the fact that the United States and its allies have defined a distinct and urgent goal for each of them. In Syria, it is to remove Assad and replace him with a democracy; in Iran it is to prevent a nuclear weapon. It turns out that the steps that might achieve success in one theater only complicate Western strategy in the other.

Take military action — a prime concern of Israel. Syria interventionists (such as myself) have been arguing that the United States and allies like Turkey should join in setting up safe zones for civilians and anti-Assad forces along Syria’s borders, which would require air cover and maybe some (Turkish) troops. But if the United States gets involved in a military operation in Syria, would it still be feasible to carry out an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? What if Israel were to launch one while a Syria operation was still ongoing?

The obvious answer is that the result could be an unmanageable mess — which is why, when I recently asked a senior Israeli official about a Western intervention in Syria, I got this answer: “We are concentrated on Iran. Anything that can create a distraction from Iran is not for the best.”

Obama, of course, is eager to avoid military action in Iran in any case. But his strategy — striking a diplomatic bargain to stop the nuclear program — also narrows his options in Syria. A deal with Tehran will require the support of Russia, which happens to be hosting the next round of negotiations. Russia, in turn, is opposed to forcing Assad, a longtime client, from power by any means.

If Obama wants the support of Vladi­mir Putin on Iran, he may have to stick to Putin-approved measures on Syria. That leaves the administration at the mercy of Moscow: Obama is reduced to pleading with a stone-faced Putin to support a Syrian democracy, or angrily warning a cynically smirking Putin that Moscow is paving the way for a catastrophic sectarian war.

At the root of this trouble are confused and conflicting U.S. aims in the Middle East. Does Washington want to overthrow the brutal, hostile and closely allied dictatorships of Assad and Iran’s Ali Khamenei — or strike bargains that contain the threats they pose? The answer is neither, and both: The Obama administration says it is seeking regime change in Syria, but in Iran it has defined the goal as rapproachment with the mullahs in exchange for nuclear arms control.

Obama tries to square this circle by pursuing a multilateral diplomatic approach to both countries. But if regime change in Syria is the goal, Security Council resolutions and six-point plans from the likes of Kofi Annan are doomed to failure. Only a combination of economic and military pressure, by Assad’s opposition or outsiders, will cause his regime to fold.

A collapse, in turn, could undermine the same Iranian regime with which Obama is seeking a bargain. So it’s no wonder Tehran sought to add Syria to the topics for discussion at the last session of negotiations — or that Annan wants to include Iran in a new “contact group” to broker a settlement in Syria.

The Obama administration rejected both proposals — because they are at odds with Syrian regime change. This muddle may delight Vladi­mir Putin, but it’s not likely to achieve much else.

-This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 11/06/2012
-Jackson Diehl is the deputy editor of the opinion page in the Washington Post