Friday, October 19, 2012

A Beirut Horror Story

 By David Kenner

From the outside looking in, Beirut sometimes appears to be an endless horror story. A car bomb here, an assassination there, even a Showtime series that depicts it as a war-wracked city where militias runs amok over the trendiest of neighborhoods. This portrayal has always been an exaggeration -- but today, it became a little closer to the truth.

This afternoon, a car bomb ripped through Beirut's Sassine Square, a main commercial center in Ashrafieh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood. Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the Internal Security Forces' Information Branch, has been reportedly killed in the blast.

In Lebanon, each security branch is a fiefdom of a different political party. Hassan wasn't just a non-partisan official, but widely recognized as the central ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement, the country's most important Sunni party. As FP contributor Elias Muhanna writes, Hassan had "long been the target of...ire" from Lebanon's pro-Assad political alliance. Hassan had been riding high: His branch had just arrested Michel Samaha, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's staunchest allies in Beirut, on charges of plotting attacks against Christian areas on orders of the Syrian regime.

For Hariri and his anti-Assad allies, then, this looks like payback: They struck a blow against one of Assad's men, so the Syrian regime took revenge by killing the man who orchestrated the arrest. The backlash is already brewing: Lebanese press outlets have reported scattered clashes and blocked roads in areas of Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli that are typically flashpoints for violence.

Lebanon has muddled through the Syrian revolt under what Prime Minister Najib Miqati calls "disassociation" -- it would neither offer its support to the Assad regime, or the rebels trying to topple it. "What is happening in Syria is very unfortunate, but at the same time we cannot take the country to something similar," former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a supporter of the policy, told me a few weeks ago in Beirut. "We had our share -- for years. And we know what civil war is about."

That carefully constructed fa├žade has always shown a few cracks: Hezbollah fighters are widely suspected to be fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad, while Hariri ally Okab Saqr is reportedly working from Turkey to funnel weapons to the anti-Assad rebels.

But now, the entire effort to keep Lebanon out of Syria's war could come crashing down. And if that happens, Beirut could turn into something all too similar to what you see on the movie screen.

-This report was published in Foreign Policy on 19/10/2012

Egypt’s Return Of The Judiciary

By Tarek Radwan

Long in the making, the embers of a dormant showdown between President Mohamed Morsi and the Egyptian judiciary have started glowing hotter in the past few weeks. Observers smelled traces of smoke when Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud failed to convict 24 prime suspects in the Battle of the Camel, the February 2011 attack on anti-government protesters in Cairo. More recently, members of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), the court responsible for the Supreme Council of the Armed Force's (SCAF) legal cover to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament, held a press conference rejecting all articles of the draft constitution concerning the powers of the court. Lastly, the administrative court set to rule on the validity of the second constituent assembly, elected by the disbanded parliament, postponed the case yet again before issuing a verdict, which is planned for next week. These events could be taken at face value -- insufficient evidence, an ambiguous constitutional framework, and more time needed to deliberate, respectively -- but the political implications behind each step suggest an institution issuing subtle warnings to restore its clout on the Egyptian stage or suffer the chaotic mess of a renewed constitutional process.

The Battle of the Camel marked a moment during the January revolution when all pretenses were dropped as the Mubarak government pursued any means to quash the popular uprising. Twenty-four defendants, including high profile figures from Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party such as former Shura Council Speaker Safwat al-Sherif, former People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour, and ceramics tycoon Mohamed Abul Enein, faced charges for sending armed men on camel and horseback to raid Tahrir Square, killing nearly a dozen protesters in an effort to clear it. The judges found all of the accused not guilty, claiming that the only credible witness in the case had testified to seeing no casualties in the incident, despite overwhelming anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In a case as sensitive as this, no part of it could escape politicization -- particularly in the context of countless acquittals and a near total lack of accountability in other cases investigating the killing of unarmed protesters. Whether their acquittal stemmed from a statist impulse to protect (former) members of the government bureaucracy or to test the resolve of Morsi's government, the verdict had political consequences of which the judges were no doubt aware. If the intent was even partially aimed at drawing Morsi into conflict with the judiciary, the judges clearly succeeded.

The acquittals coincided with Morsi's decree to pardon all political prisoners detained "for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted-crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of its goals." The decree was supposed to mark a moment of victory for the Egyptian revolution (and President Morsi), fulfilling one of the outstanding demands of protesters. However, the move was overtaken by anger over the news of the acquittals baiting Morsi to forcibly reassign Mahmoud to the post of ambassador to the Vatican. Morsi's reactionary response, however, lacked either the legal or popular authority necessary to do so. (H. A. Hellyer remarks on the lack of revolutionary legitimacy that might have otherwise allowed Morsi to act extraordinarily to remove Mahmoud, among other measures.)

Realizing his mistake too late, the president had two options: either use his legislative authority to grant himself the ability to remove the prosecutor, which would almost certainly spark protest over the misuse of power and interference with judicial independence; or backpedal on his "demand" and "politely ask" the prosecutor to resign, which would only result in temporary embarrassment as well accusations of interference with judicial independence. He chose the lesser of two evils, unwilling to risk further damaging his legitimacy. Nonetheless, personalities such as Judge's Club Ahmed al-Zind (among hundreds of others) defended Mahmoud's refusal to leave the prosecutor's office. Morsi's inability to force his will revealed limitations on his authority: namely legitimacy on one hand, and a resistant judicial bureaucracy on the other.

The judiciary's counter-moves to Morsi appear calculated given its vulnerability a few months ago. During the formation of the first constituent assembly in April, and the debate between Morsi and the SCAF surrounding the reinstatement of the first parliament in June, the courts and their judges revealed themselves as political actors in Egypt's transition. Even if based on legal reasoning, the verdicts put forth served statist -- and secular -- interests in the ambiguity of the transitional period. After Morsi issued his decree ending the SCAF's political role in August, renewed battle in the courts was expected, but this contest of wills never took place. Whether by virtue of an implicit or explicit understanding with the executive that allowed each branch to govern without interference from the other, the judiciary had lost too much political capital without the SCAF's support to challenge the new president.

Since then, the Morsi administration was mostly left to its own business to pursue the president's political appointments, his 100-day plan, and his economic recovery strategy. His justice minister's initial forays into reconciliation, such as allowing judges to assign their own people to the Judicial Review Board, were rebuffed and suggestions at judicial reform (such as eliminating the SCC) were outright rejected. As fears of a majoritarian takeover of government bureaucracies increased and initial leaks of constitutional articles limiting judicial powers filtered through the media, the judiciary must have felt a growing threat to the self-perceived integrity of its institution. This was not the deal they had struck with Morsi, but the judges still have another card to play.

The forty-some cases challenging the validity of the second constituent assembly on the basis of its unbalanced membership have faced one postponement after another, the most recent administrative court hearing delaying a final verdict on the assembly's validity until October 23. The judges could have delayed the case for a month or more as they often have done in the past, but putting it off for only one more week offers Morsi an ultimatum: Either ensure the judiciary's status does not diminish in the new constitution, or suffer the consequences of a dissolved assembly before a final draft is completed. Similar to liberal and secular efforts to disrupt the assembly's progress, this strategy may seem self-defeating given Morsi's self-appointed constitutional power to simply reassign the assembly as he sees fit until one considers the aftermath of that scenario.

As suggested by Morsi's preferred path in dealing with Prosecutor General Mahmoud, he values the tenuous popular legitimacy he retains. A court-ordered dissolution would not only throw the process into renewed chaos with debates over membership, content, and timeline that would undoubtedly resurface, it would also threaten his legitimacy as a president for "all Egyptians." First, the responsibility for its new membership would lie squarely on his shoulders alone in the absence of parliament. Second, if he reassigned an Islamist majority assembly, he would likely lose whatever non-Islamist support he might have and face additional accusations of majoritarian rule with an Islamist bias. But without an Islamist majority, the Muslim Brotherhood's vision for the constitution -- the prize for which it has struggled since the fall of Mubarak -- becomes blurred. The political (not to mention logistical) nightmare the courts could force on Morsi might leave any president awake at night. The leverage might be substantial enough to secure the judiciary's demands guaranteeing independence, but the turf war is far from over.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 18/10/2012
-Tarek Radwan is the Associate Director for Research at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. He previously reported on the Middle East with Human Rights Watch's MENA division and served as a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations/African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur. Mr. Radwan specializes in Egypt, with a focus on civil society, human rights, the constitution, and judicial issues

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Status quo on the Temple Mount?

By Daniel Seidemann, Lara Friedman

Recent developments in Jerusalem pose a threat to the stability of the city and to the region. The world saw a preview over the recent Jewish holidays, when activists challenged the Israeli-imposed ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif. Sensitivities at the site tend to peak during any holiday season; however, these latest challenges cannot be dismissed as routine or benign. The radicalization in the political discourse in Israel and the growing power of an emboldened group of Israeli activists focused on the Temple Mount are today coalescing into concrete initiatives that aspire to alter the status quo at the site for the first time since 1967. With Israeli elections approaching, the temptation of right-wing politicians to pander to Temple Mount activists will grow. In parallel, as the radicalization trend within Israel continues a settler-inspired "price tag" incident at the site becomes increasingly likely.

The site at the center of this brewing crisis is revered in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, site of the ancient first and second Jewish Temples. For Muslims, since 705 AD the same spot has been home to the third holiest site in Islam, al Aqsa Mosque. For some dispensationalist Christians, restoration of Jewish contol over the site is an essential component in bringing about the "end of days."

Israel captured the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif on June 7, 1967, at the height of the 1967 War. Arriving on the scene, legendary Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan spotted Israeli flags flying over the Mount and swiftly ordered them removed, reportedly stating: We don't need a holy war.

Dayan's order reflected his visceral understanding of the implications of Israeli control over this sensitive, contested site, as did his decision to leave a large degree of authority -- including control of all but one of the gates to the Mount -- in the hands of Islamic authorities, known as the Waqf. This same understanding led Israeli courts from the outset to interpret Israel's first post-1967 war piece of legislation, the Law for the Protection of Holy Sites, as making the exercise of religious freedoms subordinate to considerations like public safety and security. All Israeli governments, backed by the court, have subsequently prohibited Jewish prayer on the Mount -- a prohibition that is also consistent with the predominant interpretations of Jewish rabbinic law.

A few Jewish activists challenged the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif status quo from the start. They aspired to turn the esplanade into a site of Jewish worship, often belittling or denying the Muslim attachments to the site, and with some among them speaking openly of their desire to erase the mosques at the site and replace them with the third Jewish temple. They launched perennially unsuccessful appeals to the court demanding the right to pray on the Mount. Over time, they made inroads into mainstream Israeli society by focusing on issues that appear politically innocent -- like protecting Jewish artifacts at the site.

Their cause was aided by the phenomenon in the Arab and Muslims worlds of "Temple Mount denial." Former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat denied any Jewish connection to the Mount. Others portray Jews as usurpers on the Mount, with no genuine attachments. Muslim extremists regularly claim that Israel is seeking to destroy al-Haram al-Sharif. The result is a vicious cycle, with the discourse ceded to extremes on both sides.

And not to be left out, extreme elements among (mainly) American evangelical Christians have increasingly targeted the Muslim presence on the Mount, as part of a dispensationalist agenda, which includes replacing the mosques there with the Third Temple.

The Temple Mount movement has grown today into a cluster of organizations that boast thousands of supporters, Jews and Christians, in Israel and around the world. As the ideological goalposts in Israel have moved to the right, the Israeli government has contributed to the movement's efforts -- evidenced by the ministry of education's August 2012 announcement that 30,000 Israeli pupils had recently visited the Mount as part of its controversial "National Heritage Project," something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The emboldening of the Temple Mount activists was on stark throughout the summer of 2012, with events peaking during the weeklong Jewish Sukkot Festival. Temple Mount activists, including Knesset members, engaged in almost daily provocations, leading to clashes. Accusations were bandied about equating the ban on Jewish prayer on the Mount to the denial of Jewish religious freedoms in the Soviet Union, comparing those denied the right to pray on the Mount to Jewish martyrs of the Middle Ages, and implying that the government has adopted a Nazi policy by making the Mount "Judenrein."

This emboldened activism comes in tandem with the emergence, for the first time, of a clear and serious political agenda: to force a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif. The agenda has two prongs: legislation that would compel the government to permit Jewish prayer at the site, security concerns notwithstanding, and the promotion of a joint (or split) Jewish-Muslim control of the site, modeled on the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Palestinians as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in Hebron.

The legislation in question enjoys support from senior members of Netanyahu's coalition and will likely be a factor in Likud party primaries, the general elections, and in the next Knesset. The campaign for more "equitable" arrangements on the Mount may find broad traction, based on the argument that this is a simple matter of fairness that everyone should support, regardless of religiosity or political views -- as if diminishing Islamic authority over the Mount for the first time since the Crusades is nothing more than a natural course of events, and that doing otherwise is intrinsically anti-Semitic.

There is ample historical evidence to show that the eruption of violence in Jerusalem is sparked by threats, real or imagined, to sacred space. Tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif -- a site that is the focus of Muslim fears and longing around the world -- would clearly fall into this category. Modeling arrangements at the site after those in place at the Tomb of the Patriarchs -- the place where Israeli-Palestinians interactions are most toxic -- is virtually guaranteed to turn relations between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem into the kind of violent, zero-sum interactions that characterize Hebron.

Moreover, developments related to the Temple Mount are occurring against the backdrop of intensive settler-related activities that aspire to establish a neo-Biblical zone of exclusionary Jewish hegemony in and around the Old City. Together, these trends threaten to transform a complicated but solvable national-political conflict into an intractable religious war.

Finally, what transpires at the Temple Mount/al-Haram al Sharif will spill over into the region and beyond -- because what happens in Jerusalem doesn't stay in Jerusalem. It could drive emerging forces in the Arab world to positions ever more hostile to Israel and the West, and embolden the extremes. Already, issues surrounding the site have emerged as a fault line within the Arab world. In post-Mubarak Egypt, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cairo under the banner: "The liberation of Cairo requires the liberation of Jerusalem." In the run-up to Egyptian elections, some Egyptian nationalists accused the Muslim Brotherhood of promoting Al Quds as their capital. A debate is raging within the Arab world over whether Muslims should visit al-Haram al-Sharif while it is under occupation. Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah, have suggested, offering compelling reasons, that Israeli actions related to the site are sowing regional instability.

The potential destabilizing impact of tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif, wisely laid down by Moshe Dayan in 1967, cannot be overstated. Accordingly, it is wise to recall the Talmudic aphorism: "Jerusalem was destroyed because it was ruled by [an overly rigorous application of] the rule of Torah."

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 17/10/2012
-Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem. Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Syria’s Tribes Will Rise Again: An Exiled Chief Remains Unbowed

The leader of the 1.2 million strong Baggara believes in an eventual resurgence despite the Assad regime’s systematic destruction of the underpinnings of tribal society


image: A Free Syrian Army fighter stands on a poster of President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Syria on Oct. 2, 2012.
A Free Syrian Army fighter stands on a poster of President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Syria on Oct. 2, 2012

Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, leader of the Baggara tribe from Deir Ez Zor, and a former member of parliament representing the province, was one of the first prominent tribal leaders to publicly defect from the regime in January.

Despite having tribal ties to Iraq, Sheikh Nawaf fled to Turkey, on the advice of Al Baggara’s tribal chieftain in Iraq. “He told me Iraq wasn’t safe. His son had been detained, and he wasn’t in a position to help me. The Iraqi regime is close to the Syrian regime,” the sheikh told TIME in a meeting in Istanbul where he is now based. “There is great pressure on our tribal brothers in Iraq, how can we ask them for help when they face real threats?”

Al Baggara has about 1.2 million members, and extends from Syria into Iraq. It is one of the largest tribes in Syria, and like many of the other confederations, its bloodlines transcend national boundaries and extend into the millions of members. Al Egaidat is believed to include some 1.5 million people and has kinship links to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. A small tribe would number anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000. These tribal confederations are massive potential sources of power, mini-states if you like, whose transnational tribal bonds can be tapped into to forge channels of communication and access to foreign powers in the region, especially in theGulf. But it isn’t quite that easy.

Sheikh Nawaf had opposed the Assads for years, and was slapped with a travel ban shortly after the end of his 1988-90 stint in parliament. He’d been interrogated 76 times in the span of two and a half years. His 77th interrogation was to prove the worst, and his last. He was detained in late July/early August 2011, held for 72 days (a month a half of which was spent in solitary confinement, in a space 2 meters by 1.5, in total darkness, then transferred to a slightly bigger cell where the lights were kept on 24hours a day).  He was eventually released, he says, on the condition that he appear on Syrian state television to praise the president and urge his tribesmen to give Assad’s reforms a chance. “I was forced at gunpoint to say these things,” he says.

In Turkey, he formed a body known as the Free Tribes, which in April morphed into the Tribal Council.

Sheikh Nawaf says that the Ba’ath “dismantled the power of the tribes from the inside” by sidelining people like him. “The regime spent decades sidelining the tribal sheikhs and put obstacles between the sheikhs and their people,” he explains. “The sheikhs’ role and position within his own clan changed. His authority and influence was diminished, and that role was taken over by [state] security, by those within the clan that had ties to the intelligence services, and to those who could solve the problems of their clansmen. They took on a bigger role.” In effect, the Ba’ath created new forms of class structure.

Still, Sheikh Nawaf is confident that the old wayswill prevail. “These obstacles the Ba’ath placed between us and our tribesmen are artificial,” he said. “The sons of the tribes, many of them are playing the regime’s game at the moment, but when the time comes, they will be ready todefend their people against this corrupt regime. It is in their blood.”

-This article was first published TIME on 10/10/2012