MERIP Blog

Catastrophe in Cairo

by Amanda Ufheil-Somers | published August 16, 2013 - 2:50pm

The weak US response to the August 14 massacre of protesters in Egypt signals a preference for the Egyptian military's vision of stability over the uncertainty of a genuinely democratic political process, says Middle East Report editor Chris Toensing in a segment on Democracy Now!.

As Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Lina Attalah report, the horrific assaults on protest encampments, reprisal violence against Christians and demonizing of the Muslim Brothers and their supporters in the state-dominated media landscape has polarized Egyptian society in a way that “re-empowers a very regressive authoritarian security state in the country.”

Chris Toensing: “I think what we’re seeing is a counterrevolution that’s occurring, more quickly than many people thought it might. The powers behind the throne in Egypt, who have been the powers behind the throne for some 50 years -- the army, the secret police, their allied civilian politicians, their civilian faces, if you will, the so-called Egyptian deep state -- is afraid of the Egyptian people. They don’t want civilian oversight over their prerogatives. They want to maintain their impunity, their ability to operate above the law. And we’ve seen what lengths they will go to to preserve those privileges.”

Find the full broadcast and transcript here.

Whither Egypt's Democracy?

by Ahmad Shokr | published July 12, 2013 - 6:24pm

On July 3 I walked down the Nasr City autostrade toward the Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya mosque, where the Muslim Brothers of Egypt were holding a sit-in. Two and a half hours would pass before the defense minister, Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, addressed the nation to announce the end of Muhammad Mursi’s one-year presidency. But the army’s seizure of power had begun. Armored personnel carriers rolled onto the street, one after another, to block access to the protest. A cordon of tense soldiers in riot gear poised for confrontation.

Mursi supporters, men and women, arrived by the score, in an atmosphere of shock mixed with indignation. Some were crying. Others shouted at the soldiers. A small group of them surrounded an army vehicle and banged on the chassis with their fists. Still others pulled their friends away, fearful of provoking the troops. Chants of “Down with military rule!” -- a slogan of revolutionaries during the period of direct administration by Egypt’s generals in 2011-2012 -- echoed in the streets. Suddenly, a soldier fired in the air to disperse the crowd. The shooting continued for minutes. Most people ran, but diehards stood their ground. Moments later, the army decided to let protesters join the assembly, searching and videotaping them one by one, but the mood remained charged.

My memory took me back ten months to a casual lunch at the home of a Muslim Brother in an affluent Cairo neighborhood. When I arrived, a senior member of the organization was holding court, surrounded by a dozen or so followers. He boasted that Mursi’s victory in the 2012 presidential election was no mundane event; it had to be understood in otherworldly terms. Every step of the campaign had involved risky decisions that could have gone awry. That they did not showed the outcome was divinely ordained. Nowhere did the leading Brother mention the popular revolution that had toppled a dictator in February 2011 or its political possibilities. His account looked inward. The Brothers’ ascent to power was the fulfillment of destiny, the culmination of an 80-year struggle against oppression in which the protagonists had finally triumphed.

Now, in the midsummer of 2013, it was all about to be lost -- an abrupt ending to a short-lived Cinderella story.

The week after Mursi’s ejection witnessed a mind-numbing battle over nomenclature. Was what happened a coup d’état or a broad-based rebellion? The two are not mutually exclusive. What happened was that the generals (in cooperation with others) grabbed the state from an elected president, but their action was precipitated by millions who revolted against the Muslim Brothers’ government, on a scale unprecedented in the history of Egypt.

Behind the terms “coup” and “revolution” are conflicting claims about where legitimacy lies -- in the ballot box, in the streets, in state institutions? Commentators like Noah Feldman are ill at ease with the idea that elections can be trumped by other forms of collective expression. Orderly process, they insist, is fundamental to constitutional democracy. To think otherwise would unsettle a core liberal assumption that politics are a consensual affair where social contracts are forged in discrete moments of ceremony -- elections, referendums, the ratifying of constitutions -- rather than a realm of perpetual conflict. To many Egyptians, however, democracy has proven not to fit in any predetermined template.

Perhaps the more important questions in Egypt today concern the past and the future, rather than the present. How did Egyptian politics reach this breaking point? Has the process that began in 2011 been irreparably sabotaged?

Mursi and his organization, the Society of Muslim Brothers, are undoubtedly to blame for Egypt’s crisis. It became clear early in the Islamists’ rule that they were more interested in consolidating their grip than in building a democratic order. The Brothers preserved all those institutions of Mubarak’s regime that did not overtly threaten their authority, including, notoriously, the security apparatus. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the police tortured and killed at nearly the same rate under Mursi as under Mubarak. The Brothers’ style of governing was unilateral and exclusionary. Crude majoritarian logic said that victory at the ballot box gave the Society license to rule Egypt however it pleased. The most egregious example was in November 2012 when Mursi claimed absolute powers for himself in a constitutional declaration. The Brother-led constituent assembly then rammed through a draft constitution -- tailored to appease the military and ultraconservative salafis -- that caused consternation among liberals, leftists, Christians, women and others outside the Islamist bloc. The document was approved in a referendum that saw the lowest turnout of any post-Mubarak vote. Over two thirds of the electorate decided not to participate.

Policy was treated as the exclusive domain of Brother-affiliated officials and the few allies they managed to cultivate within the bureaucracy. The government failed to engage with activists, non-governmental organizations or other stakeholders. After June 14, 2012, Egypt had no parliament and no elections on the horizon. Mursi appointed a public prosecutor whose sole function appeared to be pursuing vocal opponents of the president. The Brothers incited their followers to violence, notably during December 2012 clashes with protesters against the constitutional declaration in front of the presidential palace. They relied on divisive religious rhetoric, at times reaching the level of sectarian incitement, when it suited them. The weeks before Mursi’s ouster saw a surge of anti-Shi‘i hate speech that the Brothers allowed and sometimes indulged in to rally hardline Islamists, their only remaining friends, behind the president. They failed to address ordinary Egyptians’ economic grievances -- rising prices, regular petrol shortages and power outages -- and any plans for reform were little more than recycled ideas from the final decade of Mubarak’s rule.

Theirs was not simply a government with disagreeable policies. The Muslim Brothers, and the Guidance Bureau at their helm, became viewed as a secretive, untrustworthy clique that placed the organizational interest above any other. As a result, they earned the contempt of most segments of Egyptian society outside their traditional constituency. Claims that the rebellion-turned-coup has subverted the democratic process overstate the extent to which such a process existed to begin with. The Brothers viewed their opponents as saboteurs to whom no quarter could be given. As one Egyptian analyst, ‘Amr ‘Abd al-Rahman, told me: “Since December 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood has turned politics into a zero-sum game. In the end, a zero-sum game is what they got, but they could not win.”

Mursi became hugely unpopular within state institutions as well. As early as December, reports described him as feeling “isolated in the political arena and even within his own government” and hence falling back on his traditional Islamist base. To many in the bureaucracy, Mursi and the Muslim Brothers were unwanted guests, a menace to institutional fiefdoms. Their closeness to hardline Islamists concerned the security and intelligence agencies that are self-appointed guardians of Egypt’s “national security.” Some generals reportedly saw Mursi’s presence at a June 15 Islamist conference, where clerics denounced Shi‘a and encouraged Egyptians to fight alongside the rebels in Syria, as the last straw. It was no secret that many Interior Ministry personnel were among the crowds on June 30. At one point, a protester next to me joked, “The state is revolting against itself.” He was partly right.

Had Mursi remained president after June 30, his presence would have continued to poison the atmosphere. But where does Egypt go now?

To characterize the unfolding struggle as a battle between illiberal democrats and undemocratic liberals is to oversimplify matters. A vast number of those who participated in the June 30 protests do not fit neatly into either camp. The predominant sentiments were not partisan; rather, millions were spurning what they considered a pariah regime that did not represent Egypt. For some time, there has been a growing loss of faith in elite politics and a deepening conviction that the entire political class is bankrupt. This dynamic was quite discernible on June 30. There were few displays of loyalty to politicians from the anti-Mursi opposition. Hardly any party slogans could be seen or heard among the masses. Instead of articulating a clear alternative, many demonstrators took impetuous recourse to the army as a guarantor of stability and an institution that would restore a sense of national pride. Some even yearned for icons from the distant past. A minority protested the rule of the generals and the Guidance Bureau in the same breath, and reiterated the revolution’s call for bread, freedom and social justice.

The political forces endorsing the new transition are a motley crew. Few of them have anything more than a frail base of support among the population. Those who led the June 30 protests -- a shaky agglomeration of old regime sympathizers (fuloul), revolutionaries, liberal elites and disillusioned Mursi voters -- will soon go their separate ways. There are already signs of fracture within the coalition. Disagreements have emerged over cabinet appointments, with the salafi Nour party -- the only Islamist group that consented to the army’s road map -- emerging with something like veto power. The army-appointed interim president, ‘Adli Mansour, issued a constitutional declaration on July 8 that was roundly criticized by factions that were not privy to the contents beforehand. The mainstay of the new regime is the army, backed by reactionary Arab states that are relieved to see Mursi gone and the Brothers weakened. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates rushed to promise financial packages worth an estimated $12 billion. Meanwhile, the United States hesitates to label the events a “coup” and plans to move ahead with the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt as part of its annual aid package.

The largest and best-organized players will be crucial to how the drama unfolds in the coming months. The country is now gripped by a showdown between two of its most undemocratic institutions -- the army and the Muslim Brothers. The latter’s response to Mursi’s removal has been outright defiance. Their leaders have vowed to fight the generals’ maneuver to the bitter end. “We will not leave the streets until President Mursi is reinstated,” the Brothers’ supreme guide, Muhammad Badi‘, declared to a crowd on July 5 in Nasr City. At stake in this standoff is more than the fate of aggrieved Islamists. The exclusion of the Brothers casts a long shadow over Egyptian politics. Without their participation in the renewed transition, Egypt will inevitably slide toward more heavy-handed repression -- and many players could eventually pay a hefty price. Already, Mursi and most of his presidential advisers are held incommunicado by the army without charge. Senior Brothers and other prominent Islamists are detained. Pro-Mursi television stations are off the air. The ground is being prepared for criminal charges against the heads of the organization should they remain non-compliant. The Brothers’ stubbornness may close whatever window of opportunity there is for reintegration. The army’s killing of more than 50 Mursi supporters on July 8 may have irreversibly hardened the group’s stance.

Egypt is still ruled by the armature of the old regime. Two and a half years of elite factionalism -- the inability to forge a stable alliance -- have set off a game of musical chairs. In this period, the momentum has rotated among Islamists, liberals, state bureaucrats, businessmen, military and security officials, and Mubarak-era dregs. They share a fetish for capturing the state but also the lack of a novel vision for dealing with Egypt’s deep structural problems. Attempts by any combination of these figures to restore full-fledged authoritarianism are likely be tempered by some level of public disobedience. At the same time, there is no revolutionary coalition strong enough to begin overturning the undemocratic and inegalitarian legacies of previous regimes. A balance of weakness has set in whereby no side in Egyptian politics is able to claim outright victory.

More distressing, perhaps, is a societal mood that is becoming more inclined toward intolerance and scapegoating. Egypt’s unsavory climate of chauvinism, intransigence, opportunism and deceit from almost every side has been made worse by Mursi’s ouster and its bloody aftermath. Media outlets are constantly in search of fifth columnists to demonize, whether as “terrorists” or as “infidels.” The Brothers are portrayed as traitors with a penchant for violence who must be forcibly subdued. For their part, the Brothers paint the revolt against their rule as a little more than a conspiracy hatched by the old regime. They insist their resistance to the army is peaceful, but the string of violent acts by Mursi supporters -- the killing of protesters in Cairo and Alexandria, the intimidation and mob attacks directed at Christians in Minya and Marsa Matrouh -- tells a different story. There were even accusations that the interim president is secretly a Jew.

The upsurge of aggressive patriotism on the other side is worrying, too. In Cairo, images of Gamal Abdel Nasser are becoming common, as are intemperate professions of affinity with the army. Foreigners are viewed with suspicion. Conspiracy theories abound. “Obama supports terrorism,” is a standard refrain at protests, referring to the US president’s imagined fidelity to the Muslim Brothers. Under new visa regulations, Syrian refugees are threatened with deportation, while prominent television personalities whip up animosity toward them. Abuses committed by anyone who is not Islamist -- from sexual assaults at public gatherings to police brutality -- are ignored, or worse, justified by most state and private media. Critical sensibilities are numbed amidst a profusion of nationalist euphoria. Two narratives are increasingly dominating Egyptian politics: one of Islamist defiance in the face of victimization and another of a revitalized nation set free from tyranny. The pluralistic landscape -- revolutionary, Islamist, fuloul -- that existed for much of the post-2011 period is pulling apart toward these two poles.

Revolutionary moments can arouse the greatest hopes but also expose the deepest fears. The line between those two feelings is a fine one. June 30 may have been an inspiring triumph of popular will, one unseen since the 18 days that toppled Husni Mubarak. But left unchecked that will can be usurped and fashioned into a new authoritarian consensus from below. Only time will tell. But such a development would be a big setback for the revolution.

The World According to Beblawi

by Joshua Stacher | published July 11, 2013 - 12:19pm

It took a day of back-room negotiations, but the powers behind Egypt’s throne finally settled on Hazem Beblawi, an economist, as interim prime minister. Beblawi, 76, served as finance minister in 2011, when Egypt was under the direct rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He wrote against the Gamal Mubarak succession project when that stance was not fashionable in respectable Egyptian society. Those who have met him say he is bookish and capable.

Egypt’s state-run media is going to great lengths to argue that there is a new sheriff in town. Unlike his three predecessors in the interim slot, they say, Beblawi is neither an old-school apparatchik nor a yes-man beholden to unseen bosses. The new leader himself said that his cabinet will be chosen “based on experience and efficiency.”

Is Beblawi the answer? Intriguingly, one of his main claims to fame before July 9 was his scholarly publications, particularly those about the “rentier state.”

His chief argument is that excessive reliance on “rents” -- unearned state revenues -- makes governments bloated and unaccountable to the citizenry. Such governments are “rentier states.” Rents classically come from hydrocarbon deposits or other natural resources. But foreign aid, tourist dollars and the remittances of migrant workers are also rents. In the case of Egypt, so are tolls upon traffic in the Suez Canal. The key for Beblawi’s theory is that rentier states do not have to extract taxes from the people in order to pay the government’s bills. The rentier state, in fact, is flush enough to prop up living standards with handouts of varying generosity. The result is a dynamic of “no taxation, no representation.” Governments have fewer incentives to perform well; because they do not bankroll the state, citizens have less leverage in pushing for more rights or a greater say in public affairs. To put it another way, in the world according to Beblawi, rentier economies are no good at producing democracy.  

Middle East studies is not often ahead of the curve. On rentier state theory, however, Beblawi and his intellectual descendants were light years beyond conventional understandings. (Subsequent research has pushed rentier state theory well past Beblawi’s formulations. And the question of oil’s relationship to democracy is still very much a question. On its own, oil does not do anything. The people who receive the money that oil sales generate make the decisions.)

Can an academic who studies Arab economies break Egypt’s impasse and deliver the bread, freedom and social justice that so many have clamored for since January 2011? It’s not promising, and rents are a big reason why.

Every instant expert in the firmament, for instance, has an opinion about US aid to Egypt, much of which goes to the army. Should the assistance continue? Should it be conditional? In practice, the debate is already resolved in favor of keeping the aid flowing -- the “national interest” is too pressing, the lucre for the arms industry too great. (Much of the aid to Egypt is Foreign Military Financing, which by US law must be spent on purchases from American weapons manufacturers.) But the White House and State Department are facing embarrassing questions before the television cameras. How can the US go on sending money to a military that has just mounted a coup? Rushing in to save the day with supplemental cash injections are the Gulf kingdoms. Qatar provided nearly $8 billion to Muhammad Mursi’s government during its year in power, but less than one week after the Muslim Brother’s ouster Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait had already topped their gas-rich neighbor, pledging a combined $12 billion to the fledgling “civilian” interim government in Cairo.

So Beblawi comes to the prime minister’s office amidst a windfall of rent. An early proponent of rentier state theory is overseeing a rentier economy with international partners floating on rents of their own and willing to use them to “stabilize” Egypt. A further irony: Beblawi coined the term “rentier mentality” to describe the essential laziness of Gulf Arab monarchies vis-à-vis the task of governing. The enormous oil and gas rents in the Gulf effectively reward the regimes for rule by handout. Now, in effect, Saudis, Emiratis and Kuwaitis are rewarding Egypt’s coupmasters in the same way.

What will Beblawi do with the rent? He won’t give more handouts, apparently. “The canceling of subsidies requires sacrifices from the public and therefore necessitates their acceptance,” he told Daily News Egypt in an interview before Mursi’s removal. “It is crucial that they understand the scope of the danger that the current size of subsidies imposes on Egypt’s economy, and they must also feel that rationing is done in a way that guarantees social justice.” It’s not clear, given his scholarly output, that the new premier even believes that Egypt can be a democracy. But the crowds in the streets of Egypt’s cities may have ideas of their own -- about subsidies and about political theory.

Connecting Dots

by Darryl Li | published June 28, 2013 - 4:37pm

The life history of typographical and other errors is sometimes interesting, especially when it comes to “terrorism studies” and the panic of the national security state.

For example: On June 27, a federal grand jury indicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing case. The charge sheet sketches out a narrative of “radicalization” – the dots that authorities in hindsight supposedly failed to connect – by listing texts Tsarnaev allegedly downloaded to his computer:

16. At a time unknown to the Grand Jury, but before on or about April 15, 2013, DZHOKHAR A. TSARNAEV downloaded to his computer a publication entitled “Defense of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation After Imam,” by Abdullah Azzam, who is also known as “the Father of Global Jihad.” This publication advocates violence designed to terrorize the perceived enemies of Islam, among other things.

Never mind that this pamphlet, which urged Muslims to join the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, is nearly 30 years old. Or that attempts to make ‘Azzam -- who seems only to ever be called “the father of global jihad” by Western “terrorism experts” -- a kind of founding figure in al-Qaeda have largely rested on shoddy research plagiarized by the 9/11 Commission Report.

What’s interesting here is the theory of influence at work: Young Muslim men can “radicalize” themselves through exposure to dangerous material from the Internet. Hence, authorities effectively banned the English translation of Defense of the Muslim Lands in Australia. And in Boston in 2012, a federal judge sentenced Tarek Mehanna to 17 and a half years in prison in a case that largely rested on statements and translations made online (several MERIP editors, including me, have signed onto an amicus brief challenging Mehanna’s conviction). The Mehanna case and the vindictive prosecution of Aaron Swartz put the US Attorney’s office in Boston at the forefront of the crackdown on online dissent.

The frightening expansion of the state’s coercive apparatus is driven in part by this desire to “connect the dots” through engaging in increasingly convoluted counterfactuals about how just the right kind of intrusive surveillance may have done the trick. So before Tsarnaev’s reading list is cited in the next round of missives about radicalization, maybe we can use it to do some dot connecting of our own.

Interestingly, the Tsarnaev indictment renders the English subtitle to Azzam’s pamphlet as “The First Obligation After Imam.” The last word is an error, mixing up the Arabic term imam (a kind of leader) with iman (faith). The mistake has been faithfully reproduced in the media coverage of the indictment.

A cursory Google search shows only one earlier online instance of this error, in this 2006 paper by one Rivka Yadlin for the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank with close ties to Israel’s defense establishment. Yadlin’s paper, “Female Martyrdom: The Ultimate Embodiment of Islamic Existence?” is a bizarre tract linking female suicide bombers to the anthropologist Saba Mahmood’s critiques of liberal feminism. Not surprisingly, it lacks any basis in primary research and relies on translations from Arabic newspapers by MEMRI, a Washington think tank with a record of tendentious output run by a former Israeli military intelligence officer.

So the Tsarnaev indictment and Yadlin’s paper share the error of confusing imam with iman in the title of ‘Azzam’s pamphlet. Mere coincidence? Or a clue that the Justice Department considers Yadlin a spiritual leader or source of guidance? Perhaps the entire prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a plot orchestrated by Israeli intelligence. Or even if Israel is not directing everything, it is possible that the FBI operatives found Yadlin’s paper online themselves and were inspired by her citation error to commit one of their own. While we do not know how this typo transpired, it suggests that the government’s wholesale monitoring of private electronic communications still lacks a crucial capability: automatic citation-checking.

These are, of course, absurd conjectures based on very questionable leaps of logic that presuppose an unverified theory of human action while willfully ignoring important context. But this very same logic is often at work when the state and its cheerleaders attempt to “connect the dots” in search of that ever elusive process called “radicalization.”

In Guantanamo, Offshoring Prisoners and Workers Alike

by Darryl Li | published June 28, 2013 - 2:19pm

When I traveled to the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba in 2009 to visit a client imprisoned there, the daily routine was straightforward: Every morning, legal teams representing detainees would leave the Combined Bachelor Quarters that also housed civilian guests on the base and meet our military handlers. We would take a ferry to the bay’s windward side, where most of the facilities are located, and make a breakfast stop at McDonald’s (the only one in Cuba) before heading to the prison. One day, my supervisor pointed out a familiar face behind the counter: One of the Filipinos taking orders also worked nights at the front desk of our motel. Struggling to make ends meet, he was one of the thousands of foreigners -- mainly Filipinos and Jamaicans -- who comprise most of the base’s work force. Like our detained client, who hailed from Saudi Arabia but had been abducted in Pakistan, the man was neither local nor American, but rather what the military calls a “third-country national” (TCN).

The US-led “global war on terror” cannot be fully grasped without putting TCNs -- be they detainees or workers -- at the center of the story. Extraterritorial prisons such as those at Guantánamo and the CIA “black sites” have long been symbols of that war. They embody the logic of contemporary American empire, which favors keeping its victims offshore in the territory of sovereign client states whenever possible, beyond the reach of US courts. These regimes, in turn, can shrug off responsibility for prisoners held at the behest of the United States if they are foreigners. And the detainees’ own governments have little stake in protecting them either if they are held in other countries. That is why the US continues to distinguish between local prisoners and foreign ones: Even March’s celebrated “handover” of Bagram prison to Washington’s client regime in Kabul pointedly excluded non-Afghan detainees, who will remain indefinitely in US custody.

Less noticed has been the US military’s overwhelming reliance on workers who, like the prisoners at Guantánamo, are largely outside the legal protections of their home governments, the countries where they find themselves, and the American justice system. As Jana Lipman shows in her book Guantánamo: A Working-Class History Between Empire and Revolution, the US began to import Filipinos and Jamaicans as easily deportable replacements for the base’s unionized local workers after the Cuban revolution. In the past decade, the Pentagon’s privatization drives have dramatically increased its global reliance on TCN labor, fed by the same circuits of recruitment and migration that bring workers from the greater Indian Ocean region to the Gulf petro-states. In Iraq and Afghanistan TCNs have comprised between a quarter and a half of the total military contractor work force, which itself has at times exceeded the number of uniformed personnel. TCNs have worked in many crucial aspects of US military operations, from food preparation to perimeter security. Yet they are often trapped in layered contracting and subcontracting agreements that obscure lines of responsibility between the military and its private partners, thereby all but eliminating the possibility of effective labor rights. A major 2011 exposé in The New Yorker documented the merciless exploitation many TCNs have endured: deprivation of wages, inhumane and dangerous conditions, sexual and physical abuse, debt slavery.

Despite their many obvious differences, both extraterritorial prisoners and workers share a predicament: They are caught up in overlapping transnational jurisdictional arrangements, forced to navigate different national bodies of laws (both public and private). What court will hear the appeal of a Sri Lankan working for a Jordanian company on a US base in Iraq? What laws promise justice for a Kuwaiti abducted in Pakistan and held by the CIA in Romania? The overlapping legal regimes are brought together and shaped by a spatial logic of circulation: Suspended outside the US and beyond local jurisdictions, workers and prisoners can be more readily repatriated or perhaps transferred to yet another country for further work or detention. At the same time, they serve to reduce US dependence on and vulnerability to local populations.

Extraterritorial prisoners and TCN workers are not necessarily more mistreated or exploited than the millions of “ordinary” migrants and exiles on the planet. But they do usefully highlight how the US can wage a global war while traveling light (or “lite,” as the warmongering pundit-politician Michael Ignatieff put it), upholding an empire that dares not speak its name. At overseas bases like at Guantánamo, keeping the McDonald’s staffed and the prison filled with people who are neither local nor American has gone a long way toward keeping the empire’s burdens manageable and the voices against it muffled.

Image: US soldier and Ugandan guard employed by a private contractor on duty in Iraq. (Staff Sgt. Chris Bridson)

Of Bodies and Blank Notebooks

by Al Miskin | published June 28, 2013 - 1:59pm

A man walks into a library and asks the librarian for a book on human rights in Saudi Arabia. The librarian hands him a blank notebook.

A woman walks into a bookstore and asks for a tourist guide to Saudi Arabia. The bookseller hands her a blank notebook.

A reporter walks into the Saudi embassy and asks for a visa.

Americans follow events in Saudi Arabia by reading the New York Times and Washington Post.

These are all laugh lines. The first one pops up when you Google “jokes about Saudi Arabia.” The next one sort of suggests itself. The other two are equally funny to those in the know.

These earnest folks are searching in all the wrong places. Instead of libraries, bookstores or conventional news sources, they need look no further than the information released by the kingdom itself. Islam guarantees human rights, so that’s all there is to be said about that. State-run news agencies issue beautiful photos of natural and architectural sites foreigners can’t visit and ever upbeat tidings of economic growth and satisfied people, so there’s nothing much to add.

Now and then, however, an image drifts over the ether that addresses multiple kinds of inquiry. Amateur stills and video clips posted on Twitter and YouTube around May 20-21 say a lot about human rights and something about why there are no tourist visas and why access for journalists is so restricted.

Five corpses dangle from a bar slung between two construction cranes  in Jizan in the southwest corner of the kingdom near the Yemeni border. The severed heads appear to be in plastic bags tied to the bodies. The sun is blazing. It looks like a busy intersection, with both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Boys gather to gawk. Their elders either avert their eyes or snap their cell phone cameras to record the scene. According to Reuters, Al Jazeera, the BBC and Amnesty International, the dead are five Yemeni gang members “beheaded by the sword” for killing a Saudi Arabian national and committing several robberies. The “crucifixion” (as it was called) was evidently imposed as additional punishment, post-execution and pre-burial.

Why did authorities arrange the macabre display? A court in Jizan must have deemed it shari‘a-based justice. But maybe there was a purpose beyond giving these murdering thieves their proper desserts. Maybe stringing their bodies 25 feet off the ground was meant to send a message to others as well. Was it supposed to deter potential criminals who happened to be passing by? The Kingdom is in the process of expelling tens of thousands of Yemeni migrant workers -- were authorities signaling to other Yemenis to go back south over the border where they belong?

Or -- wait -- are the intended audience the eyewitnesses visible in the surreptitious photographs? If so, what would be the message to apparently normal, law-abiding citizens crossing the street or driving down the road? What can they be thinking their government is telling them about the power of the state and the force of law?

It might be another blank notebook, but it is certainly no joke.

Football Matters in Jordan

by Curtis Ryan | published June 24, 2013 - 6:08pm

Celebrations rocked Gaza and the West Bank when Muhammad ‘Assaf, who grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, won the region-wide singing competition known as “Arab Idol.” But spontaneous street parties also broke out in many other parts of the Arab world, including in neighborhoods across Jordan. ‘Assaf, the first Palestinian ever to win the popular televised contest, is now a national icon, far more popular than Mahmoud ‘Abbas of Fatah or Isma‘il Haniyya and Khalid Mash‘al of Hamas, and a beloved celebrity across the Arab world. At one level, “Arab Idol” is just a TV show, just a piece of trivia. But at another level, ‘Assaf’s victory demonstrated the power of pop culture to unify, at least temporarily.

Jordanians, too, celebrated the ‘Assaf moment -- and not just those of Palestinian background. For some Jordanians, it echoed a moment of national pride in the same competition ten years earlier. In 2003, Diana Karazon became the first Jordanian to win “Arab Idol.” More Jordanians voted for her (via cell phone) than in the country’s parliamentary elections that same year.

Unlike many of its neighbors during the “Arab spring,” Jordan has yet to experience revolution, civil war or anything like it. There has been considerable social mobilization, to be sure, including demonstrations almost every Friday for more than two years. While there are clearly divisions between government and opposition, there are also divisions within the opposition itself.

Islamists, leftists, pan-Arab nationalists and youth-led popular movements have tried on many occasions to join forces -- including within organizations such as the National Front for Reform. But they have frequently been thwarted by divisive tactics old and new. These tactics include what is euphemistically referred to as “regional” politics, boiling down to emphasis on Palestinian Jordanians as opposed to “Jordanian” Jordanians, West versus East Bankers. For most Jordanians, from grassroots activists to the king and queen themselves, this line of division is outdated and cynical. Jordan is, after all, made up of both of these communities and more. It includes Christians as well as Muslims, and Circassians as well as Arabs. Still, conservative and ultra-nationalist elements continually invoke West and East as a kind of ethnic trump card that too often works as planned.

Similarly, Jordanians of all backgrounds have been disturbed by accounts of inter-tribal violence, especially on university campuses. As in all societies, the dividing lines in Jordan shift depending on the topic of debate -- between groups that see themselves as “loyalist” and “opposition,” secular and religious, left and right, inter- or intra-tribal, and, importantly, rich and poor.

It is easy, though, to get lost in the weeds and forget the many sources of unity. Jordanians remain proud of being Jordanian. And that pride comes through in many ways, including via pop culture.

In some ways, the most riveting national moments of the summer of 2013 have come on the soccer pitch (hereafter, football, in keeping with global usage). Indeed, these moments were so electrifying that they cut through, at least temporarily, the many conventionally political debates in Parliament and outside.

In early June, the national women’s team, affectionately known as the Nashmiyyat (“the brave”), was in a tough spot in the qualifying rounds for the Asia Football Cup. The Nashmiyyat had beaten Lebanon, but with two games remaining, they would have to defeat both Uzbekistan and Kuwait, and do so by a combined 18 goals (since goal differentials counted as tiebreakers to advance from the group). In a sport where a single goal can determine the World Cup, it seemed a ludicrous task. But the Nashmiyyat responded not only by winning both matches, but also by posting scores of 4-0 over Uzbekistan and a resounding 21-0 over Kuwait, to take a Jordanian squad to the Asia Cup final for the first time ever.

A week later, the national men’s team, the Nashama, having lost a key match to Australia, faced a similar hurdle: They had to defeat Oman in order to remain in contention for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a closely fought battle, the Nashama won 1-0, with the single goal bringing the crowd to a deafening roar in Amman’s King ‘Abdallah Stadium. For the even larger audience watching on television, one announcer shrieked euphorically that the Nashama had just brought life to the Dead Sea.

The men’s and women’s football teams have each experienced a notable resurgence -- and brought a nation along for the ride. In a region boiling with ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions, both teams represent cross-sections of Jordanian society (which, in turn, is far more diverse than is generally known). The players hailed from Palestinian and East Jordanian backgrounds, and they included Muslims and Christians. Prince ‘Ali bin Hussein, president of the Jordan Football Association and FIFA Vice President for all of Asia, seemed to have staked his stewardship of national and Asian football on a single core idea: inclusion. In Jordan, the efforts have paid off. The prince and his staff have made sure that support for youth football is felt from swanky West Amman neighborhoods to the dirt pitch in the Zaatari refugee camp (including skills training, coaching and free balls) -- in addition to helping rejuvenate the men’s and women’s national teams.

And in June -- despite difficult economic conditions, intense debates over reform and the danger of spillover from the Syrian war -- the Nashama and Nashmiyyat, regardless of background, were the unquestioned favorite sons and daughters of all Jordanians.

'Assaf, Palestine and the "Forgotten Palestinians"

by Leena Dallasheh | published June 24, 2013 - 3:20pm

For months Arab television watchers have been engrossed in the phenomenon of Muhammad ‘Assaf, the 23-year old Gazan singer who has now been crowned the winner on “Arab Idol.” Modeled after “American Idol,” the popular show is broadcast on MBC, a satellite channel based in Beirut. As on the original, the victor of the “Arab Idol” competition is decided by the votes of the audience, cast through text messages and phone calls. ‘Assaf received over 67 million votes.

Whether hard-core activist or apolitical, almost everyone I know found something in ‘Assaf that spoke to them and cheered for his victory with eager enthusiasm. ‘Assaf was a ray of hope at a moment when the Palestinian situation seems darker than ever, with the Hamas-Fatah split continuing, Israeli settlements expanding and occupation deepening. The Palestinian Authority is complicit and the world apparently oblivious, but ‘Assaf came to remind Palestinians and their supporters that Palestine continues to be -- to live, to love and to fight.

The tale of the charming young man’s participation in the contest told the Palestinian story: On his way to auditions in Cairo, ‘Assaf was delayed at Rafah, the border between besieged Gaza and Egypt. He arrived late to find the gates to the audition site closed. Prompted by his mother, he scaled a wall, evading security men, to enter the premises, only to discover that he was too late to register. Still not dissuaded, he started singing on the spot. Another contestant, also Palestinian, gave him his audition number, telling ‘Assaf he had a chance. When asked about his late appearance during the audition, ‘Assaf answered that he’d had “a little trouble at the crossing.”

The brief understatement captured not only the daily challenges Palestinians face in moving from place to place but also Gaza’s historical tragedy. Son of refugees from Bayt Daras and Bi’r al-Saba‘, ‘Assaf grew up in the camp of Khan Younis. He survived repeated Israeli attacks and braved Hamas’ increasing restrictions to bring the issue of Palestine back to an Arab world preoccupied with its springs (and falls). (Cynics noted that the outpouring of affection for ‘Assaf was a source of significant profits for MBC and cellular phone companies -- perhaps another way in which his participation tells the Palestinian story.)

‘Assaf’s backers dubbed him “Palestine’s dream.” It is important to stress, however, that he wasn’t only a Palestinian dream. He seems to have inspired hope far beyond. The total population of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Israel and refugee camps in third countries is some 10 million. Though it was possible to cast multiple votes, the sheer size and geographic distribution of ‘Assaf’s tally suggests that he garnered support from many people who are not Palestinian.

A striking part of ‘Assaf’s story came during the final episode. When the winner was announced, MBC cut to a split screen, one half showing the recording studio and the other public viewings of “Arab Idol” in Gaza, Ramallah and Nazareth. For a major Arab satellite channel to broadcast from Nazareth -- a Palestinian town inside the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel -- alongside the two other locales was remarkable. The 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel are commonly ignored in the Arab world, particularly in the cultural realm. Their authors, artists and musicians are largely shunned by Arab publishers and producers; their reach is normally limited to the narrow confines of Israel.

The isolation is not new. A popular myth among Palestinian citizens of Israel tells of an Arab diplomat interviewed in the early aftermath of the 1948 war, when the state of Israel was established and the Palestinians suffered the nakba (catastrophe) of mass displacement. The diplomat said there were no Palestinians left in what became Israel. When corrected that some 160,000 Palestinians remained, he conceded the fact, but denounced them all as traitors. The story is hard to verify, but it shows how Palestinian citizens of Israel perceived the gaze of the Arab world and, to a large extent, how outside Arabs truly viewed them. They are, to borrow the title of Ilan Pappé’s book about them, “the forgotten Palestinians.”

From the earliest days in Israel, the Palestinians, a defeated, leaderless minority brutally severed from their cultural and national depth, struggled to define their place. Following discourses and practices developed under the British Mandate, they defined their identity as Palestinians and claimed their rights as citizens. The struggle was not easy or uniform, and Palestinians used various methods to challenge the exclusionary nature of the Israeli state. Until 1966, the majority lived under a military regime that restricted all aspects of their lives. While some, led by MAKI, the Israeli Communist Party, voiced outspoken opposition to the Israeli structure, others negotiated entirely within it in order to achieve a wider margin of rights for Palestinian citizens.

The naksa, or Arab defeat in the 1967 war, changed things a bit. Palestinian citizens shifted the focus of their political mobilization to solidarity with the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, while still defending their rights in their homes. But their place remained precarious and their loyalties suspect in Arab eyes. The Oslo process of the 1990s undermined their position again, as the PLO left them out of negotiations. Realizing the limitations on their Palestinian-ness in the eyes of others -- Palestinian officialdom, Israel and the wider Arab world -- Palestinian citizens had to refocus their struggle to claim their place in all three arenas.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel have always viewed themselves as Palestinian and Arab, even if the wider Arab world has not. Nazareth’s incorporation in the final episode of “Arab Idol” may, at long last, signal a shift in recognition.

Power Corrupts

by Jamie Stern-Weiner | published June 18, 2013 - 2:40pm

Secretary of State John Kerry has staked his credibility on reviving the Middle East peace process. Supporting this effort on the world stage will be high on Samantha Power’s agenda, should her nomination as US ambassador to the United Nations be confirmed. But though she will urge Israelis, Palestinians, Western journalists and European officials to put aside their cynicism over yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, her own record justifies it tenfold.

A prominent academic advocate of humanitarian intervention and a key Obama adviser, Power has long criticized “peace processors” whose “diplomatic prejudice” toward “avoiding confrontation” leads them to prioritize negotiations even where mutual agreement on a settlement is impossible. Her widely praised account of American failures to prevent genocide, A Problem from Hell, condemned US administrations’ “shocking” tendency to respond to escalating atrocities by “trust[ing] in negotiation” rather than applying material pressure. In Bosnia, she wrote, “the ‘peace process’ became a handy stalling device,” and while the US issued rote condemnations of Milosevic’s support for Bosnian Serbs, these were “not backed by meaningful threats” and so were “ignored.”

A Problem from Hell quotes favorably a US official denouncing reliance on “mere negotiations” in Bosnia:

If the conflict reflected legal and constitutional differences over the breakup of Yugoslavia, creative diplomacy and split-the-difference negotiations would offer promise.... But the conflict is driven by a Serb bid for racial and national supremacy. As such, it can be halted, reversed and defeated only by military force.

In other words, where parties to a conflict agree on the broad outlines but differ on the details of a settlement, a peace process may yield fruit. Where their respective objectives are fundamentally irreconcilable, external pressure mobilized behind an internationally accepted framework is required to bridge the gaps if the conflict is not to continue in perpetuity or be resolved by sheer force of arms.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have dragged over two decades, delivering negative progress toward a peace settlement in the face of deep divides in the parties’ respective demands. While Palestinian and Arab leaders have for decades been prepared to accept peace in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 borders, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and some resolution of the refugee question, no Israeli government has been prepared to withdraw from enough of the occupied Palestinian territories to make a Palestinian state viable or to acknowledge any responsibility for the refugee question, let alone to make amends. That isn’t to say the Oslo process has had no effects. Since it began in the early 1990s, says the World Bank, the “structure of the Palestinian economy has substantially deteriorated.” And Israel’s ceaseless construction of settlements and related infrastructure in Palestinian territory has crystallized into “an entrenched multi-layered system of obstacles and restrictions” that, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported five years ago, is “transforming the geographical reality of the West Bank and Jerusalem towards a more permanent territorial fragmentation.”

It is doubtful that Oslo’s violent collapse in the early 2000s will have surprised Samantha Power, who, as we saw, has been critical of the notion that bilateral negotiations alone can bridge fundamental antagonisms. Indeed in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, Power suggested that since Israeli and Palestinian leaders had proven unable to reach an agreement, a settlement would have to be imposed through “external intervention.” It is “essential,” she declared, that “some set of principles becomes the benchmark” for efforts to achieve an Israel-Palestine peace settlement, rather than mere “deference” to the parties’ respective demands.

We have such a benchmark in the form of the two-state settlement, whose parameters are backed by an overwhelming and enduring international political and legal consensus. Yet throughout Obama’s first term, Power reportedly led the administration’s campaign to thwart Palestinian attempts to seek legal redress and political recognition through international institutions on the basis of this consensus. In 2003 Power mocked John Bolton for his hostility to the UN and international law; yet US and Israeli officials report that Power assisted American efforts to sink a 2009 UN inquiry into Israeli war crimes in Gaza and was “instrumental” in moves to shield Israel from legal accountability following its 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara. (The inquiry was chaired by Judge Richard Goldstone, who in 2000 had contributed a chapter to Power's co-edited volume Realizing Human Rights.)

In 2004 Power managed to agree with Noam Chomsky that the US should be less “selective” in applying its principles abroad, and observed that, “with Israeli settlements unchallenged by Washington’s elites,” it is “well past time to sound the alarm.” Yet in 2011, faced with a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, Power argued in favor of a US veto.

In fact, the US and Israel have consistently rejected international law and opinion as a basis for resolving the conflict, with good reason: As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak explained, “on the matter of borders, the entire world is with the Palestinians and not with us.” When Palestinian negotiators at Camp David insisted that Israel accept the internationally recognized pre-June 1967 border as a baseline for negotiations, President Bill Clinton was furious. “This isn’t the Security Council here,” he raged. “This isn’t the UN General Assembly.... I’m the president of the United States.” “I am a lawyer,” then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Palestinian negotiators in 2007, “but I am against law -- international law in particular.”

On June 13, reporters challenged the State Department to explain why another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will yield more than its predecessors, if Israel faces no material consequences for its rejectionism. “Our focus right now,” came the response, “is not [on] consequences.” That’s not to say renewed peace negotiations will achieve nothing, however. A US official recalls Power, working under Barack Obama at the National Security Council, suggesting “in a gentle manner” to her Israeli counterparts that they do more to advance the peace process, because it “could make our work” easier at the UN.

Wrapped in Surprise, Stuffed with Politics

by Arang Keshavarzian | published June 17, 2013 - 3:33pm

Many Iranians are pinching themselves and smiling uncontrollably after Hassan Rowhani’s victory in the June 14 presidential election. The purple-clad campaigners for Rowhani (or Mohammad Reza Aref, who stepped aside for Rowhani a few days before the balloting) still taste the bitterness of 2009, when their call “Where is my vote?” met with the full force of the regime’s security apparatus. They knew that reform-oriented candidates do better when 65 percent or more of eligible voters participate. But on election day the Rowhani backers were justifiably wary that large segments of the electorate would simply stay home, whether because they were convinced that the result was preordained or because they were just tired of unfulfilled promises of hope and change.

In the end, however, some 72 percent of eligible voters, or almost 37 million people, went to the polls, delivering the win to Rowhani in the first round. Some, probably including Rowhani, wish to savor this unlikely outcome, but others have been quick to sound sober and judicious notes, reminding everyone of the Iranian presidency’s limited powers and the herculean tasks ahead. The economy is hamstrung by international sanctions on the oil and banking sectors, as well as ill-conceived social policies that are neither fully executed nor redistributive to the needy. The state apparatus has been gutted over the last eight years: Any semblance of transparency, accountability or meritocracy in its ranks is gone, replaced by a system of political and personal loyalty, including within the Ministry of Intelligence, which handles domestic security matters. The region is being remade by war, revolutionary demands and counter-revolutionary reactions.

Yet the pivot to the inhospitable future is also a means of papering over the incomplete, if not incoherent, analysis leading up to the Islamic Republic’s eleventh presidential elections. The Beltway chatter focused on latter-day Kremlinology -- attempts to decipher the signals of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the so-called Supreme Leader. What did he want? Who was his candidate? (Most settled on Saeed Jalili, who finished third.) How would he engineer the election to guarantee his desired outcome? Thus, with Rowhani prevailing, the pundits have turned to repeating expressions of surprise.

Why the surprise? It is never quite clear what exactly caught all the analysts off guard. Was it that the conservatives in the Islamic Republic -- the so-called principlists -- did not unite behind a single candidate? It should have been clear that the principlists would have difficulty getting their house in order. They have been splintering along various policy and personality lines ever since the presidential race of 2005. The much discussed “2+1 coalition” that brought together conservative heavyweights Mohammad Qalibaf, Gholam Haddad-Adel and Ali Akbar Velayati taught everyone a lesson in arithmetic as all three threw their hat into the ring. (Haddad-Adel withdrew, but only four days before the polls.)

Or was it simply that Rowhani won? If so, why did so many observers discount a man who had the support of leading regime figures, a coalition assembled of erstwhile reformists and technocratic pragmatists, and energetic campaigners in Tehran and smaller towns? It has long been known that elections in the Islamic Republic are not just a one-off event, but also an occasion for citizens to discover each other, express their concerns about state of the country and share their desires for the future. Iranian elections are never entirely staged; they expose the limits of autocratic power as much as they enact the Leader’s will.

Ultimately, the reasons for the experts’ surprise say more about the experts -- their assumptions about Iran and politics writ large -- than about Iranian society. Most have moved on to the next set of prognostications. What will Rowhani’s win mean for Iran’s stance in negotiations over its nuclear research program? Will he strike a “grand bargain” with Washington? Will he stop Iranian backing for the regime of Bashar al-Asad? Will he be able to change Iran? Instead, the would-be Nate Silvers ought to pause to ask why Iran surprises them over and over again. The answer lies not in better polling or more journalists or keener parsing of the peculiar ways of Persians, but in a better appreciation of the campaigners and voters on the ground. In trying to read Khamenei’s mind (and, now, Rowhani’s), these analysts betrayed their penchant for psychology and their discomfort with the struggles of an Iranian society that, despite and because of the conditions imposed on it, engineered its own election.