MERIP Blog

"You Can Watch the Circus from Your Couch"

by Sheila Carapico | published May 6, 2014 - 10:36am

Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He writes for al-Ahram Online, al-Monitor, Jadaliyya and other outlets. Sheila Carapico interviewed him by e-mail about the political and media atmosphere as Egypt prepares for the May 26-27 presidential election that is expected to anoint ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, the former field marshal and defense minister, as chief executive. Al-Sisi is opposed only by Hamdin Sabbahi, head of a Nasserist grouping.

Egypt seems awash in preposterous or outlandish stories such as the prosecutorial investigation of the Vodaphone sock puppet Abla Fahita, an army scientist’s purported discovery of a cure for HIV/AIDS and the imprisonment of a farmer in Qina who named his donkey al-Sisi. Is there something in the Egyptian media-political ecology that accounts for the profusion of especially odd stuff now?

Egypt’s deep state has evolved into what I call the kufta regime, a term derived from the army’s promise to turn the AIDS virus into lamb meatballs (kufta) and feed them to the people. All the regime is doing is feeding people lies, and if people are willing to accept the most absurd claims, it becomes the duty of the regime to keep pushing the envelope as far as it will go. Absurdity permeates every aspect of Egyptian life. Very silly men have a lot of power and I think they’re enjoying it, particularly given that these gimmicks are appealing even to the educated classes here.

No one holds the security forces accountable and part of the way they operate is through a propaganda machine that focuses on the absurd.

It sort of reminds me of the experiment by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, where she stood still for six hours promising not to move while the audience interacted with her in whatever way they chose. After a while the audience became aggressive toward her and slowly escalated the aggression. As long as people accept what is being done to them, the regime escalates everything.

The bottom line, I think, is that the security services do this because they can.

The sentencing of 529 individuals to death for a single murder and the 680 additional death sentences handed down last week are no laughing matter, of course. But they also seem to defy credulity. Is there some logic behind what would seem to be a mockery of any concept of justice in the courts?

Egypt is where logic comes to die. There is no sense in sentencing over a thousand people to death. The judge is said to be acting independently, something commended by regime apologists as indicating the existence of an independent judiciary. But even if this judge really is independent, he is not part of a judiciary at all. In Egypt it’s well known that much is left to the judge’s discretion but that there are two popular modes of sentencing, by law or by phone call. Most of the politicized verdicts are handed down when the powers that be give the judge a ring.

Judges are no different than the rest of Egyptian society. Their ranks are just as polarized, and just as manipulated by propaganda. Many felt extremely threatened by the Muslim Brothers during the confrontation led by Mursi. They feel that the alternative to the status quo is horrible and that they’ve escaped doom, and so they are taking out their fears on the Muslim Brothers, and revolutionaries, too. Also they’ve come to realize that the oppressive police force is their ally. There have been many ridiculous verdicts, but absurd as these acts are, we cannot describe them as death-defying, unfortunately.

You can probably cite less widely reported examples of bizarre charges and allegations against individuals or groups.

Most people who are arrested are arrested on bizarre trumped-up charges with no real evidence, as in the case of a friend, Tito, who was charged earlier with burning down the Muslim Brothers’ headquarters and is now charged with being a member of the Brothers. Nabil, another friend’s brother, was arrested randomly outside a courthouse. He was beaten during his interrogation and subjected to electric shocks. They browsed his cell phone directory and asked him about every picture and every Facebook contact in order to classify them. They beat him every time he could not classify a friend as part of one political movement or another. He was needlessly kept in prison for a few weeks. I saw the investigation report, which said that the state security officer identified Nabil as a member of the Muslim Brothers, the April 6 youth and the Revolutionary Socialists, all at the same time. It is quite bizarre, not only because it is contradictory, but also because I know he does not belong to any of these groups. One of the images they found was a diagram of the hierarchy of the Interior Ministry. This discovery caused a huge commotion. The investigators were quite unsettled and accused him of “obtaining a state secret with the goal of dissemination,” a charge that sounds very serious but that his lawyer found rather odd, given that this image is easily copied from the Ministry’s website.

Since the last elections under Mubarak in late 2010, Egyptians have gone to the polls repeatedly. What is it like to swing from blatantly rigged elections to more meaningful contests and then back to pro forma exercises?

There’s always a carrot chained to the stick. The real fight is not over who unchains the carrot for the people to nibble on, but who controls the stick. The end goal was always a better life. Rigged elections did not help, of course, but the meaningful contests afterwards did not bring about the desired results, either, because there was never any will to keep the carrot unchained from the stick. I think people are trying everything in order to have better lives, and it appears that many paths have failed. Now they’re willing to retry all of them, but at the top, it seems the fight was always over who gets the stick. That’s why we’ve gone in different directions, some of them good, some of them bad, but it appears we never had much of a chance of getting that carrot for good.

It’s a myth that elections, in and of themselves, are dispositive of a functioning democracy. And in Egypt it’s a myth that the 2012 elections, which were by far the least fraudulent we’ve ever had, were therefore free and fair. There was little evidence of rigging, but the people were always manipulated by the media and back-channel deals, as well as a biased state that was never going to allow a true transfer of power. The elections were not fair, but now people do not care. In many ways we’ve regressed and at times it feels hopeless. Egypt would have been successful and democratic if far less of its wellbeing depended on a single election.
 
Where (if at all) do you see independent, investigative or critical coverage of these stories in Egypt? For satellite TV, is it basically relegated to satire, as in the United States? Or has even that space closed down (as in the suspension of Bassem Youssef’s program)?
 
Sometimes it feels like we’re in a bad movie. It’s a little sad, actually, because I’ve come to appreciate bad movies for having the capacity to put on screen what we’re living.
 
It is no longer possible to find meaningful coverage in mainstream media. Some outlets are better than others, but reality is so skewed that if only the truth were reported, it would make any reporter a revolutionary, and that’s not a very popular thing to be at the moment.

The only hope is the trusted journalists whose work you know, who will not neglect to report something because of their own opinions and biases. There are plenty of these journalists, actually, but they do not operate freely. Locally, you can find many of them at independent outlets like Daily News Egypt and Mada Masr, and also al-Ahram Online, which has managed to maintain its editorial integrity despite being state-owned. You can also find foreign journalists who are informed and balanced enough to report the news accurately. There are many other examples of foreign journalists whose work is skewed toward a certain narrative, though. The great majority of the local papers are morally corrupt. The same goes for TV presenters, a handful of whom are allowed to operate, but only if they are not overly confrontational.
 
The space for satire is slowly diminishing, but on some revolutionary Facebook pages you can still see jokes in the form of memes and sarcastic commentary. Egyptians like to joke about these things, because sometimes jokes and satire are as critical as investigative reporting and as critical as you can get in the current climate. You just need to find the right jokers online.
 
The American media is rife with bizarre and/or untrue stories, too. Do you think global changes in media are making it easier to spread rumors? Hoodwink the public? Vilify dissidents? Expose ridiculous decisions? In Egypt, is it some combination of the above -- or something else?
 
Media is a very powerful tool and those who wield power understand that very well. That is why a lot of money is invested in it. A consumerist media does not serve its original purpose, which is to expose the truth in the best interest of the people. Media and politics are loyal to money not people.

In Egypt, the concept is the same, but because of how inefficient everything is here, it seems very raw and blatant. Also, with a public that can swallow any lie you give them, the rumors are all the more in your face and allegations against dissidents all the more unreasonable. Right now you don’t need to stop the truth from being said, you only need to drown it in a sea of lies that are more appealing and entertaining than the truth. That’s the media game. That’s the brave new world that allows truth to surface so that it may be drowned. What would people rather do with their time, read the fine print or watch the circus? As always, the emperor organizes the circus, but this time you don’t even need to get off your couch to go and cheer.

Update: Over at The Lede, Robert Mackey documents another case of the Egyptian media gone haywire in service of the counter-revolution. Who knew that the writers of The Simpsons were plotting the overthrow of Bashar al-Asad in 2001, a full four months before he became president, no less? And how sad that the Egyptian media is still shoveling so much fodder into the maw of MEMRI.

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Chez Vous, Gitmo to Guangzhou

by Darryl Li | published May 2, 2014 - 12:47pm

We at MERIP are excited about the issue of Middle East Report on China and the Middle East coming out next week, featuring the work of two of my mentors, Engseng Ho and MER editor Cemil Aydın. The issue will address linkages between China and the region, from trade in oil and manufactured consumer items to ideological exchanges under the signs of Marx, Mao and Islam. We’ve covered some of the geostrategic aspects of these relations before, as in this 2010 piece by Philip McCrum, but this time we’re drilling down, so to speak.

Working on this issue has brought to mind some of the glimpses I’ve caught of the evolving relationship between China and the Middle East over the past decade. As someone traveling in the region with a US passport and a Chinese family origin, I’ve encountered various perceptions of China: as a hoped-for counterweight to US global hegemony; as a source of cheaply produced household goods; as an object of curiosity for its association with non-monotheistic Buddhism; as a scary land of population control; as a fanciful realm full of long-lost Muslims -- and perhaps most important, as the country of Jackie Chan.

More interesting has been encountering those who have made the trip to China themselves. During my dissertation fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2010, I visited a friend living in a village near Bugojno for iftar and met Ahmad, a Syrian businessman living in Jidda who owns a plastic home furnishings company. Ahmad had first come to Bosnia for an investors’ conference a few months earlier, took a liking to the place and was thinking of buying a vacation home in the country. Ahmad’s work had taken him to China many times over the previous 20 years and he maintains an office there -- “I’ve come to know China better than you!” he (rightly) proclaimed.

Ahmad narrated to me his changing impressions of China, which he referred to as ‘indku, or roughly, chez vous. He marveled at the pace and scale of growing prosperity, represented by underground multi-story luxury shopping centers and the growth of the markets in the southern city of Guangzhou (Canton) he knows like the back of his hand. And of course, he tracked change through his palate. “At the beginning, it was very difficult working in China, especially because of the food. There is so much pork. You never know what’s halal. Sometimes I would go for 24 or even 48 hours eating nothing but nuts and fruit. But now it is different.” Indeed, during a brief family visit I made to Guangzhou in 2011, Middle Eastern restaurants were not hard to find.

Ahmad is one of the more successful of the many merchants from the Arab world who have flocked to China in recent decades. The city of Yiwu, located in central Zheijiang province and boasting a large wholesale market for commodities, has become especially well known, with 20,000 Arab traders, mostly Yemenis, Palestinians and Iraqis, having settled there over the past decade. As described in a fascinating paper by Jackie Armijo and Lina Kassem, Yiwu is home to multiple mosques, restaurants and grocery stores catering to the Arab community and their Chinese Muslim interpreters, spouses, friends and business partners. Armijo and Kassem quote a Palestinian restaurateur on life there:

Yiwu is a beautiful city, and I consider it an Arab city and not a Chinese one. It is really very different than any other place in China… I have lived here for seven and a half years. My wife is Chinese, and our sons were born here. I consider this my home, and I plan to live here for the rest of my life.

Our upcoming issue will have more on Yiwu and also explore the ambiguities and problems of the many different entailments linking China to the Middle East. It won’t treat China’s relations with the region as some kind of utopian “south-south” fantasy that ignores the ongoing power of the United States. In this respect, I’m reminded of another encounter I had in Bosnia, with someone we can call Muhammad. Muhammad was one of the six Algerians living in Bosnia who were sent to Guantánamo Bay in 2001, only to be exonerated many years later. During my first series of interviews with him in in early 2010, he told me of his experiences fleeing the Algerian civil war, living in Pakistan, working and marrying in Bosnia, and enduring interrogations in Cuba.

After our first interviews I lost track of Muhammad for a few months. When I managed to catch up with him again, he had just returned from a trip to Beijing using his newly restored Bosnian passport. He was looking at the possibility of doing some small-scale import/export business with Bosnia but returned empty-handed and despondent. China may have represented opportunity: He still felt stymied in his adopted homeland of Bosnia. As a racial outsider in the ex-Yugoslav republic -- to say nothing of the notoriety of his Guantánamo experience -- Muhammad felt that he lacked the local connections necessary to navigate (or circumvent) import regulations and tariffs. He claimed that the Chinese merchants in Bosnia could do their work because they were backed by their own government; as an Algerian in the Balkans, he had no such luck.

While Muhammad went to China as part of his attempt to move past his Guantánamo experience, it’s worth remembering that China has come to Guantánamo as well, in various iterations. Chinese officials participated in the interrogation of Uighur Muslims at the US military detention camp, sparking objections on Capitol Hill and reminding us that even strategic rivals can “cooperate” in the interest of repression.

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Using and Abusing Memory

by Shira Robinson | published April 30, 2014 - 3:48pm

A firestorm broke out unexpectedly on my Facebook feed yesterday morning.

I had awoken to an impassioned op-ed in Haaretz by a features writer and mother of two young Jewish children in Israel explaining why she had not stood for the annual siren that blares on every street in Israel on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which fell this year on April 28. Herself the daughter of a survivor, Naomi Darom decided to opt out of the (Jewish) national ritual this year. Though she was particularly disturbed by the Education Ministry’s recent decision to expand its mandatory Holocaust curriculum to include lessons beginning in kindergarten, a deeper concern had been gnawing at her for some time: the way that the public school system -- and the political establishment more generally -- has “for decades” cynically deployed the genocide of European Jews to nurture a chauvinist climate of  “unbridled militarism” and to “justify denying rights to another people.”

Admittedly, I was somewhat dismayed that Darom arrived at this decision only now. After all, historians like Idith Zertal and Tom Segev have rigorously documented the refusal of pre-state Zionist leaders to allocate resources to save more Jews from the death camps; the state’s stigmatization of survivors who made it to the shores of Palestine/Israel after the war; and the crass manipulation of their suffering to excuse the brutal occupation of and use of indiscriminate violence against Palestinians and Arabs more generally. While the linkage between Jewish victimhood and Jewish domination predates the Holocaust in the annals of Zionist settlement in Palestine, the Nazi-engineered mass murder enjoyed pride of place in Israel’s political culture after the Likud Party came to power in 1977. Prime Minister Menachem Begin was fond of comparing Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler. He also self-righteously flouted international law and approbation (when Israel demolished Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981, for instance, or invaded Lebanon in 1982) on the grounds that, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the morality of the Jewish people was beyond reproach.

Darom’s belated outrage (or at least, her belated decision to act on that outrage) notwithstanding, I posted her article because it was powerfully written and seemed like the kind of thing my circle of friends and colleagues would appreciate. In the case of at least one family friend/Friend, I turned out to be wrong. “The writer is a bitter and emotionally sick woman who doesn’t deserve to be published,” opined said Friend. He proceeded to spar with other Friends, who bravely contested his assertion that Darom had “belittled all those who have chosen to honor their emotions and memories.” The debate got uglier and uncomfortably personal as it deepened, but the complainant seems to have tired of being the lone dissenter, for he gave up. He would have found safety in numbers had he posted his grievances under the original piece on the Haaretz Hebrew-language site, where many of the 568 commenters heaped similar scorn on Darom's audacity in questioning and detaching herself from the nation’s sacred memorial ritual. For some critics, she revealed herself -- “like all leftists in Israel” -- to be nothing less than a traitor.

This Holocaust season has been marred with more consequential accusations. The genocide’s recent characterization by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” was rebuffed by the Israeli prime minister as doublespeak, in light of the agreement that the Fatah leader signed last week with Hamas to work toward Palestinian unity -- an agreement that Netanyahu farcically used as a pretext to suspend negotiations. As The Nation’s Eli Clifton reminds us, Bibi also cynically refused to accept Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recognition of the Holocaust last year, citing Rouhani’s critique of the Israeli occupation in the same statement.

The recognition war has gone both ways. Most recently, in Palestinian East Jerusalem, al-Quds University professor Muhammad Dajani was publicly attacked for taking 27 students to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland while Palestinians were still under occupation. His critics were unimpressed by the fact that the trip was part of a broader project to teach empathy and tolerance, one complemented by a simultaneous visit of Jewish Israeli university students to the Dahaysha refugee camp, outside Bethlehem, to listen to residents tell their own stories.

The effort to foster empathy is, of course, noble and important. But the perpetuation of the conflict in Israel/Palestine stems from the stark inequality of power between the two sides, not the absence of mutual understanding. Indeed Israeli and Palestinian politicians have long understood each other’s concerns. It is, rather, the inequality between them that enables Israel to truculently dismiss the attempts of Abbas and Rouhani to acknowledge the history of Jewish suffering as a pretext to pursue its maximalist policies of territorial annexation in Palestine and its warmongering against Iran in the United States. Palestinians, for their part, are typically held to a different standard with regard to the recognition of their own narrative, including the history of their mass dispossession in 1948. Either they are expected not to expect recognition of that history, to the point that the Israeli government has penalized the commemoration of the nakba, or to accept that recognition, without accompanying action, as sufficient. 

Power dynamics also run through Palestinian efforts to understand and sympathize with past Jewish suffering. One reason Dajani came under fire, for example, is because Palestinian university personnel are supposed to boycott joint educational ventures with Israeli institutions, in part on the grounds that such academic exchanges cannot be equitable when one set of students is occupied by another that has served or will serve in the occupying army.

In Israel-Palestine, as elsewhere, the past does indeed weigh on the present. But perhaps another lesson of the Darom and Dajani episodes is that past suffering is all too often a political weapon in the present -- one that is likely to be wielded until present injustices are redressed.

Editor’s Note: For more on Israel’s politicization of the Holocaust, see Kenneth Brown, “Iron and a King: The Likud and Oriental Jews,” Middle East Report 114 (May-June 1983), Marilyn Neimark, “American Jews and Palestine: The Impact of the Gulf War,” Middle East Report 175 (March-April 1992), Shira Robinson, “The Ghetto vs. the Gun,” Middle East Report 240 (Fall 2006), Meera Shah, “A Different Kind of Memory: An Interview with Zochrot,” Middle East Report 244 (Fall 2007), and Joel Beinin, “The Left, the Jews and Defenders of Israel,” Middle East Report Online (August 2012).

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In Egypt, Nasty Business as Usual

by Steven Brooke | published April 29, 2014 - 9:18am

Egypt certainly has a penchant for tragicomedy. A week after prosecutors in the terrorism case against Al Jazeera employees introduced a video of sheep farming -- among other absurdities -- as evidence, a judge in southern Egypt sentenced 683 alleged supporters of the Society of Muslim Brothers to death. Last month the same judge pronounced the same sentence upon 529 other members of the group. While few events in Egypt retain the capacity to shock, these perfunctory and ruthless verdicts prompted widespread condemnation.
 
The sentences reflect what scholar Abdullah al-Arian calls a campaign of “intense dehumanization” against the Brothers. For months the group has been tarred with the foreign entity brush, most recently by Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, who told a Washington audience yesterday that the Brothers’ “assault on [Egyptians’] national identity” caused the July 2013 “revolution.” Yet while Egypt’s regime would like to paint a picture of a united nation struggling against terrorists, the conflict is comprised of far more than a crackdown on the Muslim Brothers. Instead, the spasm of judiciary retribution directed at the Brothers is part of a wider attempt by the regime to cauterize spreading dissent against Egypt’s revitalized security state.
 
Although, as Neil Ketchley documents in Middle East Report 269, the Brothers’ repeated street protests are probably the most visible expression of anti-regime mobilization, many non-Islamist sectors of Egyptian society are increasingly vocal in their opposition. Cairo’s clamorous liberal and left-leaning community has been increasingly active, despite some liberals’ earlier embrace of the coup. Popular figures have been arrested and some, such as Ahmad Mahir and Muhammad ‘Adil -- founders of the April 6 movement -- remain in jail. Indeed, while the court in Minya was sentencing the 683 Brother supporters to death, a Cairo administrative court was banning the April 6 movement on charges of espionage and damaging Egypt’s image abroad. Egypt’s universities have turned into battlefields, with authorities resorting to increasingly deadly tactics and ever heavier weapons to break up student protests. Outside Cairo, labor unrest continues unabated.
 
Repressing protest and dissent -- whether from Islamists or non-Islamists, students or workers -- has become imperative in clearing the way for ‘Abd al Fattah al-Sisi’s expected triumph in next month’s presidential elections. For the Egyptian regime, successful elections cementing al-Sisi’s rule will be a crucial validation of the events of the last ten months. And for the Obama administration, such an outcome could be held up as tangible evidence that Egypt’s military is “restoring democracy,” as Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in the aftermath of the July 3 coup. 
 
Of course, yesterday’s mass death sentences, along with the Egyptian regime’s general extremism over the last nine months, should put that notion to rest. But whether that will even matter is an open question. Notwithstanding the occasional nods toward democracy promotion, the actual US-Egyptian relationship is grounded firmly in security cooperation. And in anticipation of the return to “normalcy” that both countries evidently expect al-Sisi’s election to provide, the security relationship is again moving to the fore. Over the weekend the Obama administration transferred ten Apache attack helicopters and other hardware to the Egyptian military. The armaments are sent ostensibly to aid the brutal counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai and, according to the Pentagon, “counter extremists who threaten US, Egyptian and Israeli security.” Coincidentally or not, days after the announcement, Egypt sent a delegation to Washington headed by Foreign Minister Fahmi, the highest-ranking Egyptian official to visit since the July 3 coup (and Husni Mubarak’s long-time ambassador to his patron on the Potomac). Muhammad al-Tuhami, the head of Egypt’s military intelligence service and al-Sisi’s mentor, tagged along as well.
 
The visit of al-Tuhami, a man near the apex of Egypt’s repressive apparatus and someone who reportedly speaks “as if the revolution of 2011 had never even happened,” seems fitting. Indeed, even as the Egyptian regime reaches new lows of brutality and nastiness to cope with growing dissent, it seems that the only thing being restored is business as usual between Egypt and the US.

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"Progress" in Afghanistan, Then and Now

by Darryl Li | published April 24, 2014 - 2:06pm

I recently came across a document in the archives, a reminder that the march of “progress” in Afghanistan sometimes seems more reminiscent of a never-ending marching band reliably circling a parade ground. The martial metaphor here isn’t accidental: As elsewhere, security forces have been central to nearly every attempt to make Afghanistan a “modern” nation-state, a pattern echoed in today’s Beltway anxieties over how many local troops are deemed “ready” to take over in the event of a US withdrawal.

What makes modernization talk in Afghanistan (mostly by foreign “experts”) perhaps slightly unusual is how often it ignores earlier efforts, as if starting from scratch in a country deemed even more backward than most others in the global south. And just as resolute as the assumption of Afghan newness to modernity is the cheerful, seemingly beneficent, and perhaps reality-impervious need to declare “progress.” A few thoughts follow from this:
 
1) From a Defense Department memo to the State Department dated August 21, 1957 reporting on the progress of several Afghan officers undergoing training at Fort Benning, Georgia:

 

a. Having benefited considerably from the opportunity to adjust to the school environment in the Associate Infantry Company Officer Course, which they completed 31 May 1957, these officers have demonstrated a slight overall improvement in their academic work....
 
b. These officers continue to apply themselves conscientiously to their classwork. Their attitude is excellent.

Fast forward nearly 50 years to a 2006 report by a Provincial Reconstruction Team in the eastern part of the country released by WikiLeaks:

 

Police Training and Advisory Team conducted Quik [sic] Reaction Force training with 10 Afghan National Police officers today. The subject covered was Close Quarters Combat to include room entries with paper targets and dry fire exercises. We are on week 3 of the 6 week training and the Officers are making good progress. They all have good attitudes towards the training even during Ramadan.

It seems the US knows how it likes its Afghans: diligent, cooperative and not too fussy about Ramadan.

2) There is more of interest here than an easy plus ça change joke. The half-century that elapsed between the two documents was filled with modernizing projects in Afghanistan of all kinds beyond the military, including in urban planning, higher education and cinema production. For much of the Cold War, Afghanistan heavily courted aid from both sides of the Iron Curtain, fostering a “competitive coexistence” between the superpowers, especially in infrastructure. The nerve center of today’s American military presence, the Bagram air base, was originally built by the Soviet Union -- not during the war of the 1980s, but decades earlier, when it was completed in time to welcome Dwight Eisenhower (US engineers, meanwhile, finished building Kandahar’s airport in 1982). These projects were used to showcase competing visions of superpower modernity; in 1956, the US government even erected a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller at a fair in Kabul.

Despite “competitive coexistence,” Afghanistan turned mostly to the Soviets for military training and equipment from the 1960s onward. Perhaps the most famous trainee was air force pilot ‘Abd al-Ahad Momand, who literally rocketed to fame when he served as a cosmonaut aboard the Mir space station in 1988.

The final generation of Soviet-trained officers today populate the senior ranks of the Afghan National Army. “Typically these ‘Soviet-influenced’ officers are easy to identify,” notes a US military magazine (also published at Fort Benning). “They are typically majors or higher in rank. Many wear a ‘Stalin-style’ moustache and can still understand if not speak Russian.” In other words, US military strategy in Afghanistan currently relies on the very men and women (yes, the Soviets were training Afghan women to fight long before Laura Bush adopted their cause) who Washington invested billions of dollars to kill during the 1980s.

3) Military modernization and the importation of foreign “experts” in Afghanistan long precede the Cold War, of course. They are arguably part and parcel of the project of state building. In 1907, an Ottoman colonel called Mahmud Sami took charge of the newly established Royal Military College in Kabul. NYU’s Afghanistan Digital Library features over a dozen manuals that he introduced on subjects as diverse as artillery, horsemanship and cooking. Above is a page from Sami’s military geography handbook.

According to a 1909 travelogue penned by a Young Turk hired as an adviser to the Afghan government, Mahmud Sami was training an army that was to be a model of progress for surrounding Muslim countries, with photographs of smartly dressed cadets to demonstrate the point (not knowing Ottoman, I rely on the summary in this article).

Like its successors, Turkish-led military modernization in Afghanistan promised “progress” but reaped bloodshed as populations were pushed to insurrection. After the British-backed Muhammad Nadir Shah seized power in 1929, Mahmud Sami was imprisoned and shot. While they likely have never heard of him, Sami’s Soviet and American heirs -- whether facing Afghan military defectors to the mujahideen in the 1980s or “insider attacks” nowadays -- can likely relate to his story.

Editor’s Note: For more on US military training as cross-cultural encounter, see Rochelle Davis, “‘Culture as a Weapon,’Middle East Report 255 (Spring 2010) and Steve Niva, “‘Green on Blue’: Message Not Received,” MERIPblog, September 7, 2012.

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Southern Yemeni Activists Prepare for Nationwide Rally

by Susanne Dahlgren | published April 24, 2014 - 12:53pm

For the first time, a Million-Person Rally or milyuniyya will be held in Yemen’s oil-rich eastern province of Hadramawt. It is being called milyuniyyat al-huwiya al-junubiyya or the Million-Strong Rally for Southern Identity.

The mass demonstration aims to unify all of the southern Yemeni protests against the Sanaa regime. For two years now, milyuniyya rallies have been held in Aden, the hub of southern Yemeni revolution, gathering large crowds of men from all over the southern provinces and women from less far-flung areas to give voice to the concerns of southerners before the world. The object of the April 27 rally is to commemorate the 1994 “war against the south” that led to the downfall of the southern army and the solidification of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s rule, understood by many southerners as a northern occupation. The choice of Mukalla, Hadramawt’s main port, as the site for the demonstration is significant; only months earlier tribes gathered to form the Hadramawt Tribes Confederacy, in order to resist what is considered a systematic looting of the fruits of the land by the regime, which is distributing business deals to its cronies while marginalizing locals. The tipping point was the murder of a notable tribal sheikh at an army post, which sparked a full-blown popular uprising.

The uprising has halted oil production in this province where about 80 percent of Yemen’s oil reserves are located. The Council of Peaceful Revolution for Freedom and Independence in Hadramawt has declared Thursdays days of civil disobedience in a manner copied from other southern provinces and attracting an astonishing unanimity of popular participation. Hadramawt’s involvement in the all-southern uprising was further strengthened by the agreement declared in February from Beirut between the former southern leaders ‘Ali Salim al-Bidh and Hasan Ba‘um, two rival leaders of the uprising. The slogans for Mukalla are strongly worded, to say the least: The graphic below reads, “I am a Southerner o nation! No Yemenization after today.”

Still, many people in Aden are hesitant to make the 310-mile trip to Mukalla for fear of an army crackdown after the entry of forces into the area earlier this week. For those who are not willing to make the dangerous trip, another million-strong rally is planned for downtown Aden. Still, for others, like the young activist and poet Huda al-Attas, the question remains: Will such gatherings solve the problem of world indifference to southerners’ rightful demands?

The Yemeni regime in Sanaa could take this opportunity to show that the transition process agreed upon under the patronage of the GCC countries, the US and European states, and the National Dialogue conference it set in motion, are indeed peaceful and inclusive. The entry of tanks into downtown Mukalla, violence against activists in Lahij and Aden and the crackdown on the revolutionary square in al-Mansoura, where two activists remain “disappeared,” all suggest otherwise.

Editor’s Note: For background on the southern struggle, see Susanne Dahlgren, “A Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen,” Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010). For background on the 1994 war, see Sheila Carapico, “From Ballot Box to Battlefield: The War of the Two ‘Alis,” Middle East Report 190 (September-October 1994).

 

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Six Questions for Mouin Rabbani

by The Editors | published April 24, 2014 - 10:37am

Yesterday in Gaza representatives of Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization announced a blueprint for talks about forming a government of national consensus (Arabic text here). Hamas and the PLO’s dominant Fatah faction have been at loggerheads, and occasionally at war, since 2007, when the Islamist movement expelled Fatah security men from their Gaza posts and took over the coastal strip. The political antipathy is far older, of course, and was sharpened greatly by the willingness of President Mahmoud ‘Abbas and his Ramallah wing of the Palestinian Authority to countenance and assist the international blockade of Gaza that was tightened like a vise upon Hamas’ victory in 2006 legislative elections. Since then, there have been parallel PA administrations in the West Bank and Gaza, with Hamas kept outside the periodic attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a comprehensive peace. Another such attempt commenced earlier this year under the auspices of Secretary of State John Kerry, who set an April 29 deadline for an agreement. Israel reacted to yesterday’s news by canceling a working negotiators’ meeting that was slated for the evening. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist,” and hinted that US aid to the Ramallah PA might be in jeopardy. We asked our contributing editor Mouin Rabbani, a veteran observer of the Palestinian political scene, for his thoughts.

Hamas and Fatah have made efforts at reconciliation before, to no avail. Is this time for real?

It will be real if and when, and only if and when, it is implemented. The number of things that can go wrong, and developments that can lead one or both parties to reconsider their commitments, are numerous. It bears mention that many sober analysts and observers, and proponents of reconciliation, were at best conflicted about the meetings that produced this agreement because they were absolutely convinced the negotiations were either not serious or would fail, and would therefore deepen the schism.

That said, there are also reasons to consider this agreement more serious, or at least more conducive to implementation, than its predecessors. These include:

The agreement was signed with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip rather than the external leadership. Previously, and particularly after the Doha agreement signed by Mahmoud ‘Abbas and Khalid Mish‘al, opposition to reconciliation arrangements within Hamas has been led by powerful elements in the Gaza leadership, in part in keeping with their struggle to gain the upper hand within the Islamist movement, and in part because as the actual rulers of the Gaza Strip they have the most to lose in terms of power, governance and interests. This time most of the key players, including Isma‘il Haniya and Mahmoud Zahhar, personally signed the agreement. The Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip increasingly holds the balance of power within the movement and has the capacity to thwart reconciliation. The exile leadership has much less leverage these days on such matters and is in any case more open to such agreements.

Second, each of the rival parties is experiencing a serious crisis. For Hamas, the problem consists primarily of the military overthrow of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the loss of its base in Damascus and consequent reduction of Iranian support, and pressure on the Brothers throughout the region. According to some reports, the pressure might culminate in loss of Qatari sponsorship. Egypt’s unprecedented hostility to Hamas has furthermore led to a virtual shutdown of the border crossing into Gaza Strip -- particularly below ground. The government in Gaza is facing growing difficulty running the economy and, more important, experiencing budgetary problems as well.

For Fatah, the latest round of US-sponsored negotiations with Israel have produced new lows as Kerry has aligned the American position closer to the Israeli than any of his predecessors. Mahmoud ‘Abbas’ commitment to continue discussions with Israel despite every latest outrage left him more unpopular and isolated -- even within his core constituency -- than at any time since taking office. In terms of the regional situation, Hamas’ loss has not necessarily been Fatah’s gain either. The initial euphoria in Ramallah about the coup in Egypt, for example, has dampened considerably because it has also led to the reemergence of Muhammad Dahlan, erstwhile Fatah strongman in Gaza. One important motivation for ‘Abbas with this latest agreement is to forestall the prospect of a rapprochement between Hamas and Dahlan, which would have given the latter a base within the Occupied Territories from which more effectively to challenge ‘Abbas.

I also think the absence of Egyptian mediation should lead us to take this agreement more seriously. Hamas and Fatah reached it bilaterally because each of them had an interest in doing so, as opposed to going through the motions to please a powerful sponsor that itself had vested interests in the form and results of the agreement.

Netanyahu recently said that the Ramallah PA can either have peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. How do you interpret that statement?

Not seriously. Simply stated, there can be no peace or even meaningful negotiations with Israel with Netanyahu at the helm. It would be wrong to say he has failed to make an acceptable offer to the Palestinians or that the maximum he is prepared to concede falls short of the minimum ‘Abbas could accept. The fact of the matter is that his government is so extreme and so confident of American backing that it has not even made a bad offer. Israel has, for example, refused to present a proposal on borders to the Palestinians during the past nine months -- and this refusal in negotiations purportedly about a permanent settlement.

I think Netanyahu’s statement should be interpreted as part of the so-called blame game, of who will be held responsible by the Great White Father in Washington for further obstacles or a potential collapse (which I consider unlikely) of the process. Israel will say things went south because ‘Abbas preferred to consort with “terrorists” rather than negotiate. ‘Abbas will now point to Israel’s decision to call off talks in response to the agreement. In the surreal world of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, such issues are apparently important, particularly in light of Kerry’s April 9 Congressional testimony that explained the chain of events leading to the current impasse and made quite clear it was the result of Israeli rather than Palestinian action.

More broadly the statement is a bit rich coming from Netanyahu, given that his major achievement in the current talks has been Kerry’s adoption of Israel’s position of “negotiations without preconditions.”

Abbas recently said that “preparations” for resumed talks under the Kerry aegis could proceed after the April 29 deadline has passed. Does today’s news portend the official death of those talks (and perhaps the Oslo framework)?

One thing I find suspicious about this agreement is its timing -- it transpires only days before the expiration of the April 29 deadline. Some have interpreted this fact as further evidence that ‘Abbas has already decided to withdraw from the Kerry mission in a few days, and will pursue internationalization and reconciliation instead.

Perhaps. Alternatively, the agreement is a desperate roll of the dice, a shot across the bow if you will, through which Abbas hopes to light some fire under Kerry’s posterior in the hope and expectation that the latter will now cajole or compel the Israelis to give the Palestinians something to enable them to return once more to the negotiating table.

If ‘Abbas has indeed already made his peace with the end of the peace process in its current form that would of course be a wonderful and significant development. I however consider that very unlikely, particularly if it’s seen as a strategic decision lasting more than several weeks.

If this agreement is by contrast simply a scare tactic for the attention of the Americans, that would be tantamount to a guarantee that the schism will deepen considerably, making it that much more difficult to resume talks on reconciliation at a later stage. Hamas will have been hoodwinked and used as a crutch by ‘Abbas to limp into the negotiating chamber with Netanyahu, and will assume his negotiators are acting in bad faith the next time they visit Gaza.

It would be interesting to learn if ‘Abbas is, in fact, taking a page out of Israel’s playbook. Just as Netanyahu and each of his predecessors bar none have used Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy as a political cover to consolidate control over the Occupied Territories through settlement expansion and the like, ‘Abbas may have come to the conclusion that he cannot afford to engineer the collapse of Oslo but will now begin to use it as a cover as well -- to move forward with internationalization and reconciliation. It’s an interesting thought, but a purely speculative one.

What are the main obstacles to the success of this reconciliation effort?

Time, Oslo, Israel, the United States and unresolved issues. These last include security, which the parties have agreed to address only after the elections, and the elections themselves, which one or both parties may decide to obstruct and, if they don’t, can be frustrated by Israel. The current agreement basically leaves the situation on the ground unchanged, or to be addressed by the government that will be formed after the elections.

There is also the matter of the absence of a common political program or national strategic consensus on how to confront Israel and related issues like American-sponsored diplomacy. The agreement calls for the activation of a provisional leadership committee, which is the first step toward the integration of Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO and gives them a role in decision making until that process is completed. But its activation has been agreed upon previously and thus far nothing materialized. It is my understanding that in the latest negotiations Hamas put considerable emphasis on this issue, so they may have received meaningful assurances in this respect.

How has the regional turmoil affected the calculations of the Gaza and Ramallah wings of the PA?

I’ve dealt with this topic in response to your first question. I would add that Fatah appears confident that the agreement can withstand the coming American-Israeli onslaught, particularly financially. Some don’t take these threats seriously, because they understand that in its present form the PA serves an Israeli and Western interest more than Palestinian ones, and that Israeli civil servants will be sent home before Palestinian ones if the survival of the PA is at stake. Others believe that if Congress once again goes more berserk than Israel and tries to bring down the PA, that the Gulf states and, most important, Saudi Arabia will come to their financial rescue, particularly in the current environment of American-Saudi differences on Iran, Syria and other issues.

For Hamas, in addition to the role that regional turmoil has played in their calculations, they may also hope to use this agreement as a bridge to repair relations with these same Gulf states. That is a tall order, however, considering that Saudi Arabia and its closest GCC allies have declared open season on the Muslim Brothers to whom Hamas belongs.

Internationally, the key player to watch if the agreement is consummated is the EU and its leading member states. Will they as in 2006 once again and against their better judgment slavishly fall into line behind the Americans, as Quartet envoy Tony Blair has doubtlessly already begun agitating for, or will they demonstrate a capacity to learn from their mistakes and sprout a spine? It’s a difficult question to answer.

Isn't there a basic contradiction between Israel-PA security “coordination” and effective Fatah-Hamas reconciliation? If this deal is for real, then does that mean coordination is off or that Hamas is taking a further step toward collaboration with Israel?

In theory yes, but in practice no. The present agreement, to the best of my understanding, leaves the security sector unmolested until after the elections. That means that Hamas is not being integrated into the existing infrastructure of coordination that exists in the West Bank.

More important, the Gaza agreement was not signed at a time when Fatah is coordinating with Israel while Hamas is engaged in struggle against it and demanding an end to such cooperation as a condition for implementation. Rather, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has become the guarantor of Israel’s security by maintaining its own ceasefire and enforcing it to the best of its ability on everyone else. Hamas’ coordination with Israel is unlike that of Fatah -- informal and arguably tactical -- but it is there nonetheless.

And, of course, we should ask what this prospective deal might mean for the majority of the Palestinian people, who live outside the areas administered by either wing of the PA. For them, the deal is potentially significant, to the extent that it leads to rejuvenation of the PLO as the national representative of the Palestinian people rather than a secondary department of the PA. In this respect, the agreement also specifies that elections will be held for the Palestinian National Council, as well. That could be an important step toward the revival of the Palestinian national movement as an inclusive and representative body. But the challenges in this respect are huge and unlikely to be resolved by a piece of paper. Furthermore, and not entirely without justification given present realities in the region and the challenges of reconciliation, such issues are at least initially likely to be addressed through a variety of quota arrangements -- assuming they are implemented.

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Seven Questions for Ammar Basha

by Sheila Carapico | published April 16, 2014 - 5:23pm

Ammar Basha is a Yemeni filmmaker. His documentary films include Breaking the Silence, about the discrimination faced by working women of African descent in Yemen, and a series called Days in the Heart of the Revolution, about the 2011 Yemeni uprising. Breaking the Silence took second prize at the Women Voices Now film festival in Los Angeles in 2010. The latter series was screened at the International Yemeni Film and Arts Festival in Berkeley, Washington, London and Sanaa. Basha also makes feature films. His short The Last Hour (for which he was also sound designer) won awards from Zayid University in Abu Dhabi and at the Tehran International Short Film Festival. He also runs the YouTube channel “Thawrat Shabab,” where the Days series can be found.

What is your background?

I am one of the luckiest filmmakers in Yemen, being a graduate of the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, which was founded by King ‘Abdallah of Jordan and Steven Spielberg himself, with professors from the University of Southern California. At this institute in ‘Aqaba, my eyes were opened to a larger world of filmmaking, cinematic arts and industry. With that came big dreams, like starting a film industry here in Yemen.

I admit that I am living two lives. One is in that dream of entering world cinema; the other is the life of the activist, in the midst of important historical events, who is good only with a camera. I believe my films are my contribution as a Yemeni to the revolution. It feels like a duty.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the documentary format in conveying “the truth” about major historical events?

Can showing 10 percent of the truth be “the truth”? I realize that I am hiding and cutting footage, sometimes of shocking stories and facts, more than I am showing or publishing. After growing in understanding the complexity of the changes in the Yemeni regime, I believe I am better able to help the poor, broken citizens who appear in front of my camera. I need to be quiet with the films’ message. Rather than pointing fingers at villains and corrupt persons, which seems to be the style of many television networks, I seek to call on what is left of the goodness in people to help those in need.

For me, it is like recording these moments or events will tell parts of “the truth” to a new generation looking back many years from now. My last film in the series, “Sixth Day,” was completed three months ago. It takes me four to six months to recover from the trauma each film causes me. I am hoping to keep producing these shorts, though. Maybe if each film contains 10 percent of “the truth,” a dozen of them could be the truth. Maybe.

You’ve also worked on animated and live-action feature films. Is such entertainment also a way of “giving voice” or conveying humanitarian “truth”?

Fiction is more challenging than the documentary format. But it also gives you more control over how you set up and tell a story. That means you have power. Only ethics and a small budget can stop the fictionalized format from becoming a destructive tool. And when it comes to “the truth,” again the question of how much truth you are willing to show pops up. There is more to fiction than showing the truth, though, because you can paint the future, share a few better ideas for building a civilized world. Fiction can be a painkiller for people who are running out of imagination or hope.

There must be many challenges to cinematography in Yemen these days. Can you explain some of the challenges involved in making and releasing even short films?

You mean the challenges involved in producing a film? Because running around with a handheld D60 Canon camera shooting with a stupid 18 to 200mm lens -- I wouldn’t call that cinematography, if you know what I mean.

There is a long list of obstacles in front of making films in Yemen, but the real challenge is the eternal fight between institutionalized media organizations and independent filmmakers. Since the start of the revolution in Yemen, almost ten new TV channels have opened shop. Each is owned by a different political party, which uses its channel to outrage public opinion about the actions of another party or key international players. They have the money and power to do whatever they please.

Independent filmmakers, meanwhile, face many difficulties. Unless they are hired for jobs by NGOs, independents are by themselves in a society that does not understand the value of filmmaking and what it can do. It is very important that we have more balance between the contenders. New laws, professional training, public awareness campaigns, planning and serious fundraising are all needed to help make meaningful films. But remaining independent is a challenge in and of itself.

For example, whenever I start to create a Day in the Heart of the Revolution short, in which I try show the concerns of ordinary Yemenis (the thing that the institutionalized media is “ashamed” to broadcast), it is a challenge to raise funds, to convince another filmmaker to help for free, and to find honest, independent local guides (when I visit different cities) who don’t bring partisan agendas to the table and don’t falsify information. It takes a mix of focus and luck. 

You’ve taken your camera from Change Square in Sanaa at the height of the 2011 peaceful youth uprising to several relatively remote, impoverished communities. How do you choose the main characters through which your films tell their story?

Days in the Heart of the Revolution is a special case. I confess that I have broken all the laws of filmmaking in making this series. I decided to film “revolutionary” squares in different cities. In the squares, people frequently approached me wanting to tell their stories -- we hadn’t heard or known about the stories in advance. The time for editing the footage is what filmmakers call “killing a baby,” because we often have to cut scenes that are very dear to us.

But before all that, I decide which part of Yemen needs discovering, then make phone calls to get locals to guide me to the places they think I should see. It is mostly me who does the work and prays to God that it will go well. And with a little help and contributions from family and friends these films come to life. My next goal for the series is “Seventh Day in the Heart of the Revolution: Black Gold,” which will be shot in Hadramawt, an oil-producing region in the far southeast of Yemen. More than a thousand days have passed since the revolution started in 2011. With my basic resources I have only been able to capture six of them.

How do fishermen, farmers and others beyond the main protest venues react to your questions and the camera? Do they relate completely to the issues raised by youth protesters in cities?

Some of them are eager to speak -- even to shout out loud. Others are tired and have given up speaking about their problems in front of the camera. They have stood in front of many cameras, and nothing has changed in their lives. Some people, in fact, live in fear of the camera because unprofessional TV networks exposed them to their enemies or to those in power who can harm them. But once they learn the nature of my films they let go of their fear. After making six films, in fact, I can state with confidence that the revolution should have started long ago, even if all that ordinary people seek is a normal, peaceful life. The youth revolution was the spark that will grow to end the darkness in Yemen.

In 2014 Yemeni politics are in a state of flux. The dramatic “days of revolution” seem like a long time ago. Is there room for activist filmmaking now? How can video convey a sense of unfolding events that lack a central stage like Change Square?

The kids -- the 75 percent of the protesters under the age of 25 -- all knew one thing at the start of the revolution. All were driven by anger and frustration over corruption and the absence of justice. The young generation camped in the squares for over two years, and many souls were killed. They kicked out ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, and then they went home, leaving the same parties in control of Yemen’s future. But I don’t think it is over yet. The new generation is too smart to fall for the tricks of the political parties and the international players. And they learn very quickly. The old people in power will run out of tricks sooner or later. The youth will have grown older, and if nothing has changed or improved, there you go, another revolution in the coming ten years. So yes, there is a place for activist filmmakers to play an important role, to keep making films that will serve as a guide to what went wrong and what was important to focus on. I am betting on that.

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Jordan, Morocco and an Expanded GCC

by Curtis Ryan | published April 15, 2014 - 4:04pm

A recent report suggests that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may be looking to expand…again. The report says that, during a March summit, the group of six Arab petro-princedoms extended invitations to both Jordan and Morocco to join a pan-monarchical military alliance. And there is a chance, at least, that the GCC states would include a nominal republic, Egypt, in a broader regional military and defense pact (although it is not clear if Jordan, Morocco and Egypt would need to join the GCC or the military bloc would be a separate entity).

This report comes at a time when the GCC is attempting to move beyond being a loose economic and political grouping to form its own joint military command. The GCC monarchies may feel that they have survived the first wave of the Arab uprisings, but clearly feelings of regime insecurity remain. Several issues underlie these feelings, but among them are external and internal security threats, or at least the perception thereof. Many GCC states see the rising power of Iran as a direct threat, and they point further to Iranian influence in an axis, of sorts, extending from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The GCC monarchies are also concerned with domestic challenges, including that said to emanate from the Society of Muslim Brothers. Yet these overarching concerns, often represented as pan-GCC threats, seem most deeply rooted in one country, Saudi Arabia.

So will the GCC expand in membership, and also deepen military cooperation, to meet these threats real and perceived? Even without expanding to eight or nine states, the original six have had plenty of trouble maintaining cordial relations among themselves, much less working together in a joint military command structure. Both Oman and Qatar have long pursued foreign policies distinctly independent of the GCC, and especially of Saudi Arabia, including warmer relations with Iran, even as Saudi Arabia seems determined to forge an anti-Iranian (and, in sectarian terms, anti-Shi‘i) coalition.

In March, three GCC states -- Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates -- withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, charging that Qatar was undermining Gulf security through its media (read, Al Jazeera) and support for Islamist movements (read, the Muslim Brothers). Qatar, however, insists that its policies are sovereign, and not to be determined by the collective wisdom of GCC regimes. The same three states -- Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE -- followed the lead of Egypt and outlawed the Muslim Brothers. So far, however, Kuwait has not followed suit. Nor has GCC aspirant Jordan, which has a very large domestic Islamist movement, rooted in large part in the Brothers. (In addition, Jordan has a rising movement of Islamic centrists or Wasatiyya activists, salafis and independent Islamists.)

Yet the GCC remains on course to establish a joint military command, to pursue more collective defense policies, and to start receiving US arms and materiel as a group. This step would be new for the United States, too: providing military aid and selling arms not just to individual states, but also to the GCC as a bloc. So will this bloc not only hold together, but expand?

The GCC has issued similar invitations before. At the outset of the regional turmoil in 2011, the GCC invited Jordan and Morocco to join the organization, and extended further economic aid to help their fellow Arab and Sunni Muslim monarchies through the challenges of the new era. States like Qatar seemed lukewarm to the idea, at best, and indeed it seems that the initial invitation, as is true of so many GCC initiatives, really came from Saudi Arabia. But once the monarchies seemed more stable, and had at least survived the first wave of change, the GCC noticeably cooled on its own offer. Meanwhile, the regime in Morocco seemed marginally interested, at best, whereas the Hashemite regime in Jordan pursued the offer with enthusiasm.

Around the region and beyond, critics see the GCC as a country club of oil sheikhs, and an expanded GCC might seem like little more than a Sunni Arab monarchy mutual aid society. But Jordan, unlike Morocco, borders Saudi Arabia. Jordan is also deeply dependent on external aid to keep the economy afloat. GCC membership offers potentially extensive aid and more: trade, investment and oil, perhaps at concessionary prices like those the kingdom enjoyed from neighboring Iraq during the sanctions years. And what could Jordan offer in return? Jordan’s comparative advantage is security support. It is no military juggernaut, to be sure. But Jordan already has extensive military, police and intelligence ties to the GCC states and others across the region. GCC membership, the Jordanians argue, would simply make official a relationship that is already there. So the relationship is perhaps not as one-sided as it might otherwise appear.

Yet questions remain. If Jordan and Morocco were to join an expanded GCC, even without the addition of Egypt, would this imply pressure on the new states to ban the Muslim Brothers? Neither has done so, and while the opposition in both countries argues that regime-initiated reforms have been superficial only, Islamist movements remain legal and active. In Jordan in particular, the Muslim Brothers are a group as old as the state itself. And while the Brothers are part of the opposition to the regime, they remain part of the legal opposition and hence part of the Jordanian public sphere.

The GCC move seems to echo a still earlier initiative, in 1991, heralded at the time as the “Damascus Declaration” alliance. After the 1990-1991 Gulf war, a “6+2” arrangement was formed at a summit in the Syrian capital, bringing the GCC states together with Egypt and Syria. That declaration, however, despite much fanfare, never amounted to more than a piece of paper. It is clear that the GCC amounts to more than that. It is not at all clear, however, that the GCC can or will make the shift to a genuine military alliance, or that it will expand beyond the original six members, and beyond the Gulf itself.

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Death and Taxes

by Amanda Ufheil-Somers | published April 15, 2014 - 1:25pm

Last year 27 cents of every income tax dollar in the United States went to the military. Even so, that proportion has not generated enough revenue to pay for the military’s operations over the last 13 years, which, in a historic departure, have been funded largely by borrowing.

According to data compiled by the National Priorities Project, US taxpayers spend $10.54 million every hour to pay for the “overseas contingency operations” -- military-speak for undeclared wars -- in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 96 percent of this figure can be attributed to Afghanistan alone. And these mind-boggling amounts do not include the costs of unofficial undeclared wars, such as the drone strike campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The official cost calculations also ignore the ripple effect of 13 years of war on spending by the military, the intelligence services and the Department of Homeland Security. Projections based on federal appropriations before September 2001 suggest that the base budget of the Department of Defense -- the operating costs aside from war -- has ballooned by over $700 billion since the declaration of the war on terror.

Even if the wars were to end tomorrow, the cost of caring for veterans, a segment of discretionary spending separate from other military appropriations, will not peak until at least 30 years from now. In 2010, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the cost of care for veterans of current wars would total $40 billion by 2020, at the low end. The CBO’s cost scenario assumed that the US would reduce the number of troops deployed for war to 30,000 by 2013. More than 39,000 troops are still stationed in southwest Asia and Korea, and it is still unclear whether (or how many) troops will leave Afghanistan before the end of the year. There are already more than 600,000 permanently disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns who receive medical care and disability payments.

Tallying the costs of war for US taxpayers -- even tracing the effects of war and deficit spending on mortgage interest rates, lost investment in infrastructure and future interest payments -- offers only a partial and hazy view of the larger picture. The human cost for veterans and their families; for the millions of Afghans and Iraqis either displaced or trying to rebuild their broken, poisoned countries; for a world subject to an ever-expanding regime of overt and covert surveillance -- these costs resist being fit onto a balance sheet.

Accounting for war is a near impossible task. Much more difficult, it seems, than paying for it.

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