Wrapped in Surprise, Stuffed with Politics

by Arang Keshavarzian | published June 17, 2013 - 2:33pm

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.

North African Commonalities (part two)

by David McMurray | published April 2, 2013 - 10:35am

Bill Lawrence is director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Morocco), Fulbright scholar (Tunisia), development consultant (Egypt), State Department official, Arabic translator and filmmaker (Marrakech Inshallah, Moroccans in Boston). He has also participated in the production of 14 albums of North African music, including co-production of the first internationally released Arabic rap song. He has lived in North Africa for 12 years, six of them in Morocco. I spoke with him in Rabat on March 15. (Part one of the interview is here.)

Could you talk about the impact of Algeria on other Arab spring countries?

First of all, Algeria had the first Arab spring, in the 1988-1992 period, the most important democratic moment in the Arab world from independence until late 2010. The successes and failures of the Algerian experience still serve as a model for the region. In that leaked tape where Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, is talking to the salafis, he made several references to Algeria. It is a frame through which the whole region looks at the potentiality of democratic transition and draws a long list of both correct and incorrect lessons.

The most important impact is that the discourses of contestation of power in this part of the world evolved in an Algerian incubator. One of the major venues -- not the only one -- is rap. It’s in literature, it’s in popular music, and it’s all over social media. Algeria had one of the most highly networked youth populations in the region. As youth came out of doors in the 2000s, after the awful conflict of the 1990s, they spent a lot of time in person and online thinking about ways to challenge state power. The DNA of the Algerian youth protests is in the discursive backbone of the Arab spring.

When I talk about Tunisia, I often bifurcate the experience there for explanatory purposes. The first Arab spring there was rural, male, older, unemployed, angry, swimming in the sea of Algerian political-cultural influences. It didn’t succeed, and the participants voted for anti-establishment parties in the elections. Then there was a second Arab spring, which was more urban, cross-gender, socially networked, easier on the eye for Western viewers, more secular, middle- and upper-class. Its main goal was to get rid of the Ben Ali regime and it succeeded. In many ways, you can interpret the ongoing struggles in Tunisia as the Arab spring inachevé against the Arab spring accompli.

Where do Tunisian unions fit in?

They were very much involved in both Arab springs. The unions also had a generation gap: In the UGTT the senior leadership wanted to play a mediation role in defense of stability and its negotiating leverage with the regime. It was the young, radical leftist rank and file from the provinces that joined the revolt and then made it impossible for the UGTT to take a neutral position.

Anyway, this rural Tunisian spring was very much influenced by the percolating social confrontation in Algeria, which never ended. You had spikes of protests in 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001 and 2003. What’s less well known is that since 2005, you have had almost continuous hyper-local protests, which led to some 10,000 deployments of riot police in 2008 and a little shy of 10,000 in 2010, a figure the Algerians don’t hide.

You might ask, “Why didn’t they have an Arab spring in Algeria?” Good question. I think the primary reason is the war weariness of the population. But the modalities are not as well understood. There is a kind of brinksmanship between the security forces and rebellious forces where both sides step back when they get to the edge. The conditions for revolution are never only on the protesting side -- what states do has a huge impact. The Algerian regime has become very sophisticated at not pushing the population to the levels of anger and humiliation that we saw in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases.

What about fear of the army as a lesson of the Algerian experience?

There is no question that, to quote a Moroccan who was fixing the plumbing in my house, one of the reasons that the February 20 movement has declined in Morocco is that “we are tired of the stick.” The stick is effective up to a point, and its judicious use in combination with other actions can succeed in quelling crowds. An excessive use of the stick will usually push crowds to take much more unified and decisive action, as we see in revolutionary situations. So the actions of the state matter; the actions of the population matter.

Are you suggesting that Moroccan youth pay attention to what Algerian youth have done or just that Algerians experimented with networking and social media first?

Both. Moroccans definitely watch. The closest connection was between Algerian and Moroccan Berber movements. Morocco has many more Amazigh speakers than Algeria does, and yet the Algerian Amazigh movement was always better organized and more politically effective than the Moroccan one. But the Moroccans learned a lot from the Algerians and when there were spikes of protest in 2001 and 2003, a lot of Maghribi youth in France and elsewhere in Europe, as well as in Morocco, who were socially networked were trying to help the Algerian youth with their protests. So there are direct connections, and the Arab spring has been a further elaboration of that connectivity.

Were Libyan youth paying attention to what was happening in Algeria?

Oh yeah. Everyone has their own version of what happened in Algeria -- some accurate and useful and others less so. If you look at the Ghannouchi tape, his great fear is that there is going to be a secular backlash in Tunisia as there was in Algeria. The Algerian population, according to him, is much more Islamized than the Tunisian population, making the threat of backlash in Tunisia even greater. I’m not sure that I agree with his line of analysis, but everyone has an elaboration of how what’s going on in Algeria gives us fodder for thinking about political evolutions in all these countries.

Marnia Lazreg, the Algerian sociologist, has said that the FIS lost the military battle but won the cultural battle. Would you agree?

Yes. But I would rephrase it. I would rather go with Francois Burgat’s analysis that says there are three waves of independence -- political, economic and cultural -- in the post-colonial period. We are in the third wave now, the cultural independence one. The degree to which the cultural independence is Islamist or not depends on all these things I’m talking about. On the other hand, to view the trend as linear in one direction or the other is a problem. Nawal El Saadawi used to say that for every woman in Egypt putting on the hijab, there was another one putting on lipstick. And now I can add that there are many donning both. The cultural divides go down to the very foundations, not only of society, but also of each family. We have as many non-Islamist trends hitting this region as we have Islamist trends. It’s like Elizabeth Fernea’s Behind the Veil: The woman puts on the hijab in order to get out of the house and take a job. So suggestions of linear evolution are partial at best.

The best lens is the lens of hybridity. Within each young person, and to a lesser degree within each older person, there are competing identities and politics. One does not always win over the other in predictable ways. Just like during the Cold War, when it was hard for the West to accept the idea of a “fallen communist,” today, I don’t think we have fully realized the number of “fallen Islamists” who are living in this part of the world, nor the number of “Islamisms.” Washington, which tends to be obsessed with a ridiculous notion of Wahhabi vs. Sufi Islam, would do well to look at the complicated mess of Islamism.

Let me give you one of many examples: In the famous Bin Laden video with the sheikh from Bahrain, where he talks about the attack on the Twin Towers, Bin Laden makes all kinds of references to dreams that sound like any conversation I could have with Sufis down the street. The way in which Islamists mobilize Sufi imagery to be popular, and the way in which Sufis combine with Islamists, both defy Washington’s conceptions of what is Islamist.

Experts on Morocco list accomplishments by the state in the 2000s that had the effect of making Morocco less susceptible to revolt -- the Equity and Reconciliation Commission of 2004, official recognition of the Amazigh movement, the new family law. Do you agree that these progressive developments revealed to Moroccans that the regime was hearing their pleas for change?

Yes and no. Yes, these are major accomplishments for Morocco. The mudawana or family law was a significant step forward for Moroccan women and a model for the region. The Equity and Reconciliation Commission paid reparations to many thousands of families -- something like 17,000, a quarter of whom were Sahrawi. That was unheard of. The concessions to the Berber movement were another very important step forward. There’s no question that these moves helped the regime to stay in power, particularly vis-à-vis the political elites who were active in debates going on around the new constitution. But the degree to which the king and government are popular has much less to do with Berber or women’s issues or reparations for the “years of lead” than with the questions, “Can I find a job? Is the government supporting me economically? Or is it making my life financially unbearable by lifting the subsidies on fuel and bread?” The bread-and-butter issues are much more important to most Moroccans.

And no, because the structural problems Morocco is facing are bigger than what the current solutions can address. There is the youth bulge; there are global and regional economic pressures; there are cycles of drought -- all these stresses could push Morocco toward instability quite easily. Ultimately, the regime will stand or fall based on how it addresses socio-economic issues. The regime is flexible and subtle, but it hasn’t managed to create enough employment or to implement constitutional reforms such as regionalization in any significant way. Moroccans are growing skeptical that the reforms will amount to much, especially in terms of bread-and-butter issues. Morocco has a long road to travel and I’m not sure that the measures taken so far are sufficient.

North African Commonalities (part one)

by David McMurray | published April 2, 2013 - 10:02am

Bill Lawrence is director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Morocco), Fulbright scholar (Tunisia), development consultant (Egypt), State Department official, Arabic translator and filmmaker (Marrakech Inshallah, Moroccans in Boston). He has also participated in the production of 14 albums of North African music, including co-production of the first internationally released Arabic rap song. He has lived in North Africa for 12 years, six of them in Morocco. I spoke with him in Rabat on March 15.

Can you talk about the problems in Libya caused by the proliferation of militias and arms?

Many Libyans frustrated with the security situation think that you can simply remove the arms and shut down the militias. That won’t solve anything. Although it’s true that the security forces and army are a shambles, the more important problem is that people won’t give up their arms until they are comfortable with the political evolution of the Libyan state. Right now there are few indications that the Libyan government is evolving in ways that inspire the confidence of local communities. You can’t put the cart before the horse on this.

Everyone forgets that about 95 percent of the militias work for or in concert with the state. Even Ansar al-Shari‘a, members of which were involved (without the backing of the leadership) in the US consulate attack that led to Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death, are back on the job in Benghazi, not because anyone wants them there, but because there is nobody else who has guns and is willing to stand guard at government institutions. The faster Libya evolves politically, the faster the conditions in which you need militias will disappear.

Libya has another problem: Surveys have revealed that only 10-15 percent of the 200,000 or so Libyans under arms want to be in the police or army. Most of them want to start businesses or to be doctors or lawyers or to go overseas. So most of the models we have for demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) don’t work for Libya. You almost have to say, “How do we move all these kids with guns into other professions and move new people -- maybe not even Libyans -- into the security forces?” Maybe a lot of private security work could go to other nationalities.

Libya has one of the most highly educated populations in the Arab world. In the Human Development Index report, Libya is 30 places above Algeria and Tunisia and 70 places above Morocco. It’s much better to think of Libyan militiamen as engineering or medical students with guns than as tribal leaders with guns, though, obviously, there are some of both.

The way to fix the security issue is to fix the politics of Libya, and the way to do that is to get the justice sector to address this awful law that wants to ban all the people who worked for Qaddafi. There aren’t enough people in Libya to exclude all of those who worked for Qaddafi. The only people strongly in favor of this law are the Islamists. In a country of only 5 million, they’ve got to get back to a reconciled Libyan political space. And there are federalism issues to work on.

All of this is a huge project and there are no easy answers. Certainly, putting foreign troops on the ground or gathering weapons or shutting down militias will not deal with the fact that Libya became what it became because a population had to arm itself because the international community didn’t want to put troops on the ground. Now we are looking at the consequences of that justified but strong reticence of the international community. We’re left with an armed population that wants to keep its weapons. Being a militia member is also a relatively dependable way to earn a living in Libya right now. Job opportunities are limited.

Should there have been a NATO ground assault to accompany the airborne intervention?

No. I just think we should have been smarter about the effects of not putting troops on the ground and not having any peacekeepers.

Has the Libyan experience of the recent upheavals been different from those of other North African countries? If so, why?

There are a lot of misunderstandings about Libya -- inside and outside the country. One of the more important ones is that Libya didn’t have an Arab spring. There is a big misconception that since Libya descended into civil war rather quickly, it is a different animal -- for tribal reasons, for Qaddafi-legacy reasons, for rentier state reasons. But the fact of the matter is that Libya did have an Arab spring.

The east of the country fell in a way very similar to Tunisia and Egypt: 8,000 army defections, peaceful protest using the same kind of slogans, taking over public buildings. The five biggest cities in Libya rose up in unison. The difference was that, though protesters in Benghazi, Bayda and Misrata all took over their towns, in Misrata they faced Qaddafi, who threw everything he had at them. That battle went on for months and became the symbol of how things in Libya were different.

Missed by the press and in most analyses, protesters in Tripoli and Zawiya rose up, too, but were overwhelmed by Qaddafi’s forces. Many hundreds of people, perhaps close to 2,000, were slaughtered in those cities. The next best evidence that the Arab spring happened in Libya was that when the call to prayer went out on August 20, 2011, the entire civilian population of Tripoli, barring three neighborhoods, rose up. They had 80 percent of the town under civilian control within 24 hours. And the militias hadn’t arrived. There were some NATO-friendly guys who landed on a beach, but most of the Libyan militias hadn’t gotten to Tripoli yet. Libyan militias from east and west were instrumental in taking over the last 20 percent of the city after almost entirely unarmed civilians had taken over the rest through direct action.

Libyans want their Arab spring back. Their issues are very similar to Tunisians’ and Egyptians’, whether religious or identity issues, constitutional issues or election issues.

I have a friend, a major Algerian scholar who has been studying the region for decades and just came to Morocco. He said, “I came to Morocco expecting to find the same culture but different politics, but what I found was a different culture but the same politics.” And I think you can generalize that to the whole of North Africa. The countries have very different historical trajectories, very different political and cultural backgrounds, and very interesting national, regional, municipal and tribal individualities, but the political debates of the day are remarkably similar from country to country. It’s one of the reasons why the Arab spring had such a tremendous impact in this part of the world -- even more than in the Mashriq.

Certainly one of the similarities is what I call the new order-old order dynamics. That refers to the way in which identity and political contestation operate quite similarly in the young generation across countries. And they talk to each other. To miss that is to misunderstand Libya and to misunderstand Morocco vis-à-vis, say, Tunisia. We have to be much more careful in parsing what’s cross-regional and what isn’t, because we often get it wrong.

What are some elements that are not cross-regional?

Often what’s different is where they’re coming from, but what’s similar is what they’re pointing to in the future. So, for example, women’s status in Tunisia is vastly different than in neighboring countries, but the debates about women’s status are very similar to the parallel debates in Libya or Algeria or Morocco. It’s very important to figure out what's driving this. Part of it is social networking; part of it is Arab satellite television. There are a number of ways in which the younger generations across the region are talking to each other. One of the most fascinating aspects is the way in which the new generation rejects the ideological debates of the older generation. In politics, a certain level of purity has traditionally been required to be an Islamist or a socialist or a feminist or an Amazighist or a nationalist establishment guy. The new generation is challenging all of these ideologies and mixing them in very unorthodox and anti-establishment ways.

One of the rallying cries of the Arab spring has been a message of inclusivity. Particularly in 2011, there were a lot of attempts by secular people to make sure that their Islamist brothers were included in conversations and vice versa. The old ideological divides are now trying to reimpose themselves, but only with partial success. In the long haul, the Arab spring animus will win. In the short term, the ideologies of the previous generation of leaders, whether Islamist or whatever, are winning the day because these forces are the best organized. But ultimately they won’t succeed because there isn’t enough room in the more orthodox, exclusivist ideologies for broader, more national-inclusive conversations. This generational aspect is in many ways the most important aspect of the Arab spring.

Let me give you a concrete example: After the referendum in Morocco, the Islamist group Justice and Charity was looking for the right moment to leave the February 20 movement. They hesitated in July and in the early fall -- before and after the elections -- because they felt that their departure would be misconstrued. Their take was not that the February 20 movement was too radical, but that it was too tepid. They did not want to kill the movement by leaving it. They finally left in December 2011 and, of course, their departure was misinterpreted for all the reasons they had feared. But there was a significant split between the old guard and the young guard in the group. The young guard was devastated that they weren’t fully consulted or informed. They went, some of them in tears, to the February 20 movement leaders to apologize for the breakup. They continued to attend rallies, not as participants but as observers, and they continued to toe the Justice and Charity line, but with a kind of regret.

Young people are proud when they can be part of something bigger about the future of the country and not just lining up according to the debates that both the powers that be and the Western powers seem to be comfortable with. They don’t want to have a conversation about women’s issues, for example, but a bigger conversation about democracy and inclusivity. Famously, the rap anthem “Rais Lebled” by the Tunisian El Général became an anthem in all of the other countries. He has a reference in the song to the exploitation of women in hijab, the manhandling of those women by the Ben Ali regime. And the rapper himself has gotten more religious since the revolution, turning not to a salafi ideology of exclusion, but to an effort to be part of a bigger community that is more democratic and less corrupt. And that is kind of anathema to the way we would like to see Tunisia in the West. We’d like Tunisia to line up as secular forces vs. Islamist forces. My estimate is that the violence of 2012 in Tunisia was over 75 percent -- actually, probably over 95 percent -- socially and economically driven, but if you read the Western press you would think it was 90 percent Islamist forces vs. secular forces.

All of the 64 self-immolators in first 60 days of the Arab spring were engaged in informal trade or some kind of extra-legal business -- 39 of them died, while 25 survived and have been interviewed by economist Hernando de Soto’s team. There have been hundreds more self-immolations, with two more just last week in Tunisia. Of all the affected countries affected, Morocco was the only one where a significant number of self-immolators were unemployed university graduates. But in most of the countries, as research has shown, they were driven to despair by being excluded from both the informal and the formal economy. There is a discouraging parallel between the lack of political reforms and the lack of economic reforms that could address the root issues that are causing people to self-immolate, to rebel, to not buy into the schemes on offer. In fact, many of these schemes are cookie-cutter schemes that we have seen for a long time in this part of the world. In each of these countries, from Mauritania to Egypt, between 40 and 60 percent of the work force is working in the informal economy. The game is not to integrate all of these people into formal-sector jobs that do not exist. I roll my eyes when I see Tunisia announcing another 25,000 government jobs when the work isn’t there. There just isn’t the capacity. 

It won’t be until you find mechanisms for employing informal-sector workers, for moving them into a taxable, regulable sector that creates jobs, that you will be addressing the underlying problems. I heard a former World Bank official say that the real problem with Tunisian commerce is that stores can’t sell things because there are all these guys with carts selling the same stuff out in front. What we really need, he said, is to get rid of the guys with carts. Did this gentleman observe the same Arab spring that I did? Chasing away the guys with carts did not solve the problem before and it won’t now.

Solutions have to be driven by an assessment of how to move the maximum number of people into productive endeavors, defined broadly. There must be new opportunities for youth -- people under 35 -- whether in entrepreneurship or things like the Peace Corps in Africa or other types of assistance. You have a huge surplus of highly educated, underemployed people, on a much greater scale than anything we see in Europe or the United States. It’s astounding that the median age is about 30 in Tunisia, about 27 in Algeria and Morocco, about 24 in Egypt and Libya, and about 18 in Mauritania and Western Sahara. There is a big youth bulge. Some years ago I saw reliable data from an international organization saying that unemployment among Moroccans with no education was less than 2 percent; among those with some primary education about 9 percent; among those with secondary education around 22 percent; and among those with higher education about 29 percent. In other words, the higher your level of education, the greater your risk of unemployment.

Read part two of the interview here.

The Syrian Cataclysm

by Omar S. Dahi | published March 4, 2013 - 3:48pm

For obvious reasons, coverage of the uprising and internal war in Syria has been dominated by the terrible human toll. An estimated 60,000 Syrians (or more) have been killed, with tens of thousands more scarred bodily and emotionally by the violence. As of the end of February, over 3 million Syrians are either internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.

In retrospect, it appears that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, along with many other observers, did not understand the extent of the crisis, saying in March 2012 that only 96,500 refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq would need humanitarian assistance through the end of that year. The donor pledges of $1.5 billion in late January are therefore also likely to fall short of the funds that will be necessary. The World Food Program has admitted that it is unable to feed over 1 million hungry people inside Syria. The levels of destruction are not just staggering -- they are a moving target. Estimates are obsolete soon after they are compiled.

And there is cause for alarm beyond the immediate humanitarian emergency, namely, the severe damage to the Syrian economy in the short and the long term. Many of the refugees and internally displaced doubtless fear for their lives, but another reason for their mass flight is the loss of livelihood resulting from the destruction of entire villages and cities and the devastation of physical infrastructure and agricultural lands.

As the International Crisis Group points out, the economy has deteriorated further and further with each escalation of the crackdown on the uprising, as the government moved from mass arrest, torture and targeted shooting of demonstrators to the “security solution” or collective punishment of cities, and, finally, to the “military solution,” the bombing and shelling of areas hosting armed rebels. The systematic and wholesale destruction of entire towns and cities has led to accusations of crimes against humanity by the Syrian regime. As the turn to militarization continued, however, the UN also documented war crimes and human rights abuses by several rebel groups.

It is clear, in any case, that Syria will be paying the socio-economic costs of its internal war long after the guns fall silent.

There have been steep declines in production, investment and trade. Agricultural output is also way down, including of wheat, barley, and fruits and vegetables. Here the fighting has compounded the ill effects of the serious drought that has afflicted Syria since 2003. (The social cost of the drought and its role in the grievances leading to the uprising has yet to be fully studied. A first attempt is here. A more scholarly assessment of how water shortage is manufactured by government policies is here.) Wheat yields, long a major source of food security, have shrunken over the last several years by 30-50 percent and in 2012 were estimated to disappoint the already low expectations by 40 percent. The livestock and poultry sectors have suffered badly, according to a June 2012 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, fueling a rise in the prices of meat, milk, chicken and eggs by as much as 300 percent in some areas. The FAO concluded then that the “household-level food security of about 30 percent of the rural population,” not to mention the families of internally displaced now living in and around the cities, was perilously compromised. All told, the UN agency said, about 3 million people required urgent assistance to put enough food on the table.

The Syrian government response at the outbreak of the uprising -- raising public-sector salaries -- was neither sustainable nor adequate. Economic liberalization since the mid-2000s had increased poverty, inequality and marginalization, and eroded traditional social bases of support, particularly in the countryside. The corruption resulting from the alliance between the holders of wealth and power had resulted in the enrichment of a narrow group of powerful businessmen and their partners in the army and security forces. Rather than undertaking large-scale investment that would benefit Syrians across the board, the regime sought to target its presumed bases of loyalty among civil servants, workers in state-owned enterprises and the government bureaucracy at large. That half-measure, coupled with the regime’s unwillingness or inability to discipline the main objects of popular loathing, such as the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, indicated that the regime had gone immediately into survival mode rather than seriously addressing the underlying grievances of the uprising.

A report released in late January by a group of economists working inside Syria with the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) examines both the economic roots of the uprising and its consequences. (Full disclosure: I assisted in editing a portion of the report.) The economists claim that economic losses through 2012 are some $48.4 billion, half of which are due to losses in GDP and half of which are due to declines in capital stock and military spending. The report estimates a decline in the Syrian Human Development Index (a compendium of social indicators including measures of income, education and health) to its 1993 level, or a 20-year loss of human development.

As the regime proceeded with its brutal crackdown, there were frantic calls for economic sanctions. These came not only from the usual suspects, like the US and European governments, but also from the Arab League and activists inside Syria who were horrified by the violence inflicted upon the protest movement. Though the precise impact of sanctions is hard to disentangle from the overall economic disruption, it is clear that they have not achieved their goal of isolating and punishing the regime. On the contrary, they have exacerbated the economic crisis and increased the toll on Syrian society.

Economic sanctions on Syria did not start with the 2011 uprising. The United States maintains three types of sanctions against Syria. The Syria Accountability Act of 2003 prohibits export to Syria of most goods that contain more than 10 percent US-made components. In 2006, the Bush administration blocked US banks and subsidiaries from doing business with Commercial Bank of Syria, which was labeled as a “financial institution of primary money laundering concern” pursuant to provisions in the PATRIOT Act. Finally, through a series of eight executive orders, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have imposed progressively tighter sanctions on Syrian companies and nationals, for reasons ranging from support for Saddam Hussein’s regime (Executive Order 13315) to “benefiting from public corruption.” Executive Order 13572, signed by Obama on April 29, 2011, bars dealings with individuals and entities accused of complicity in human rights abuses during the uprising.

The real blow to the Syrian economy, however, has been struck by the European Union’s sanctions. According to the EU Commission, Brussels has levied 17 sets of “restrictive measures” against Syrian nationals, government entities or private companies, including the suspension of Syrian government participation in the Euro-Med regional cooperation initiatives and the European Investment Bank’s loans to Damascus. The most onerous measures -- by amount of lost revenue -- are the import bans on crude oil and petroleum products. The EU has also halted investment in the oil industry and construction of electrical power plants in Syria, and stopped supplying the Syrian Central Bank with banknotes and coins, which had previously been minted in Austria.

One impact of the sanctions, according to Jihad Yazigi, editor of The Syria Report, is that they seem to have accelerated the depletion of Syria’s foreign exchange reserves. The government has drawn heavily upon these stores of cash as the oil revenue dried up. According to the SCPR report mentioned above, the sanctions caused 28 percent (or roughly $6.8 billion) of the losses to GDP in 2011 and 2012. The economists conclude that sanctions have had the worst impact on the lower social classes, given the rise in prices of food staples such as bread and the higher cost of heating oil. Over the past year, a war economy has developed, replete with smuggling, some of which is carried out by the security forces themselves.

Unlike in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the sanctions are not UN-mandated and the great powers have not imposed a no-fly zone. Syria has maintained strong economic relations with other countries. Taken together with an extensive degree of self-sufficiency in food production, a strategy launched under Asad the father, the trade means that Syria has been able to escape the worst repercussions that sanctions can have.

There is, however, another dimension to sanctions that their proponents forget or dismiss. Sanctions are political tools, intended to alter the target government’s policies or to induce its popular overthrow. Once sanctions are in place, their justification may be modified. The CIA believes that Syria has the world’s fourth-largest store of chemical weapons. In August 2012, President Obama issued stern warnings to the Syrian regime not to deploy this alleged arsenal against the rebels. In the event of the regime’s fall, sanctions could find a new lease on life as a way to compel the successor Syrian government to secure or destroy the suspected stockpiles.

It is not clear when the fighting will end or when post-conflict recovery will begin. But the recovery will need to address both immediate humanitarian concerns and the plight of refugees and internally displaced. Yazigi argues that the resilience of the Syrian economy is due to its diversity -- its reliance on manufacturing, agriculture and the service sector, including tourism -- something reconstruction must also take into account. It will be a tall order, given a destroyed economy, dwindling oil resources and foreign exchange reserves that may be near exhaustion. The process of reconstruction is fraught with other dangers, as the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon demonstrate. It is worth noting that the damage is highly uneven -- there are cities like Tartous that are almost unaffected, while others are completely destroyed. Moreover, large industrial establishments, power plants and major ports appear to be relatively unscathed, so far.

There are pockets of hope, mostly at the grassroots level. Not least of these is the wide variety of local and regional networks that have taken up the task of economic and political organization, as well as anti-sectarian initiatives, in the midst of chaos. There are experiments in direct democracy facilitated by the local coordination councils that are worth examining and supporting. Several activists and doctors from international relief organizations have separately recounted to me tales of the advanced expertise among the Syrian doctors who have set up field hospitals under the most extreme conditions. Organizing for a future Syria must not wait until the deadly stalemate ends.

CAFMENA Letter re: Syria

published February 24, 2013 - 4:07pm

The Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America has published an open letter regarding armed attacks on university campuses in Syria. We reproduce the letter below:

Open Letter to the Office of the Syrian President and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces

February 19, 2013

To Whom It May Concern,

I write on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America and its Committee on Academic Freedom regarding the deeply disturbing reports of armed attacks on university campuses in Syria. The latest such incident occurred at the University of Aleppo on January 15, 2013. As many as 80 people, including university faculty and students, are said to have lost their lives, and more than 150 people were injured. MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom joins the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, the Scholars at Risk Network and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund in condemning this atrocious act. We call on all parties to the conflict in Syria to desist immediately from operations targeting educational facilities and to take all necessary steps to protect these places and the Syrians who teach and study there.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3,000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

On January 15, two major explosions rocked the University of Aleppo, killing more than 80 people, wounding over 150 more, and causing significant structural damage to campus buildings. The first blast occurred outside the Faculty of Architecture, where students had gathered in anticipation of their final exams; the second targeted a dormitory that had recently been converted into housing for internally displaced Syrians from the city of Aleppo and environs.

Within a couple of days of these horrific attacks, the Syrian minister of education, Muhammad Yahya Mu‘alla, affirmed that classes, exams, scholarly research and other university-related activities would continue as scheduled, although exams were postponed until the following Sunday. Students and faculty at universities around the country held a day of mourning for the victims of the attacks. Classes for the new term have reportedly resumed as of January 29.

Even as the circumstances of this particular attack remain unclear, it is known that the Syrian regime has attacked other educational institutions during the uprising, claiming to be fighting “terrorist elements” that have sought shelter there. At the first glimmer of demonstrations at Damascus University in June 2011, regime forces, including paramilitary elements, stormed university dormitories in search of student activists. When anti-regime protests occurred at the University of Aleppo on May 3, 2012, Syrian security personnel were dispatched onto campus to break up the crowds, killing at least six students and shutting down campus activities until final exams were scheduled about a week later.

It may be difficult, in the context of a conflict as fierce as Syria’s, to establish incontrovertible facts about these incidents of violence. It is clear, however, that a pattern exists: University campuses in Syria are not the safe spaces that they should be. The failure of the Syrian regime to provide basic security for universities is another index of the terrifying instability that attends this protracted conflict.

We abhor all the attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure that have occurred in the course of the Syrian conflict. In the ambient chaos, it is vital that Syrians have spaces where they may work together to articulate pluralistic, humanistic visions for their country’s future and forge the bonds that can bring those visions to fruition. University campuses are one such place, and they should be utterly inviolate. We note with admiration that classes at the University of Aleppo were held up to the moment of the January 15 attack, despite the months of battles in the city, and that they have now resumed after the lethal bombings. Syrians at this and other institutions of higher learning are plainly determined to exercise one of the most basic of all human rights -- the right to pursue knowledge in peace. We salute their courage.

We repeat our appeal to all combatant parties in Syria to refrain from any and all armed operations at schools and universities. It is our fervent hope that the Syrian conflict will end soon and that Syrian universities will not only resume their vibrant intellectual life but also become a home for efforts at social and political reconciliation and lasting peace.

We recognize, however, that no quick end to the Syrian fighting is in view and that our Syrian colleagues remain in physical peril. So we also call upon our colleagues at North American and other international institutions of higher education to explore ways of hosting Syrian students and faculty who are in exile or seeking refuge. We likewise urge our colleagues to look into how they may collaborate with such groups as the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, the Scholars at Risk Network and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund to create opportunities for Syrian students, researchers and professors in danger.


Peter Sluglett
MESA President
Visiting Research Professor, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore

Chronicle of Higher Education
Council for Assisting Refugee Academics
Scholars at Risk Network
Institute of International Education-Scholar Rescue Fund

Inquiring Into International Commissions of Inquiry

by Lori Allen | published February 24, 2013 - 1:01pm

A Palestinian political prisoner, Arafat Jaradat, died in Israeli custody on February 22.

The Shinbet, Israel’s internal intelligence service, claims that Jaradat, 30, died of natural causes. Palestinian authorities suspect foul play, and the Palestinian prime minister in the West Bank, Salam Fayyad, expressed “shock” at the news. Somewhat more proactively, ‘Isa Qaraqa‘, the Ramallah PA minister in charge of prisoner affairs, demanded an “international commission of inquiry to probe the circumstances of [Jaradat’s] death.”

It’s too early to make a reasonable judgment about where the culpability for Jaradat’s death lies. But these first reactions of blame and innocence from both sides are not unexpected. What’s interesting, though, is the impulse to call for an international commission of inquiry. Why call for such a thing?

Commissions of inquiry seem to be a reflexive reaction when it comes to problems in Palestine. Even before the state of Israel was created, there were such commissions -- British (royal and parliamentary), American, Anglo-American, League of Nations. There have subsequently been dozens more investigations, citizen initiatives and international commissions organized by the United Nations, including one that that was scuppered because Israel would not cooperate, and several that have proceeded despite Israel’s non-cooperation. Numerous UN special rapporteurs have been tasked with inquiring into specific aspects of the Palestine problem. Other UN committees are focused on global topics, such as torture or extrajudicial killings, but regularly include Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in their reports.

It may seem reasonable, this call for an investigation, given that Palestinians do not trust Israel’s investigations into its own occupation apparatus. And they are right not to. Since April 2011, Israel has launched inquiries into the deaths of 12 Palestinians killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces. One was closed, with no legal action taken against the soldiers involved, and the others remain inconclusive. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 645 complaints of abuse under interrogation made to the Israeli Ministry of Justice. Not one led to a criminal investigation. And that’s just accounting for the small percentage of Palestinians who summon the courage and energy to make a complaint to a justice system stacked against them. Tens of Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations are documenting persistent Israeli abuses of Palestinian political prisoners, whose ranks include children. These organizations have long urged Israel to halt violations of detainees’ rights and demanded accountability for the abuses that have already occurred. But despite the piles of detailed files, Palestinians are still regularly tortured in Israeli prisons.

So what would Palestinians gain from yet another toothless international commission? Probably the Palestinian minister’s hope is that an investigative commission would be headed by a character of sufficient gravitas and global repute to draw significant attention to the impunity that the Israeli occupation enjoys. And perhaps it might. But then what? What actions would be taken as a result of a report documenting what has already been documented? It’s not hard to imagine what would happen in response to yet another commission righteously condemning what is condemnable, already condemned and yet continuing.

Most likely such a commission’s findings would be posted on the websites of the very human rights organizations that gave the testimony in the report. They would be circulated by sympathetic news outlets, and might even be mentioned in a mainstream newspaper or two. If the report somehow became controversial, like the Goldstone report on the 23-day Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, it might stay in the news a little longer. Longer still, if the commission’s head recanted some of the report’s assertions, as Goldstone did.

But Arafat Jaradat would still be dead, his family still devastated and the Israeli authorities unfazed.

Maybe this gloomy expectation of inefficacy is unwarranted. Perhaps this latest commission would be the one that finally tipped the balance in favor of that vague force called world public opinion. After all, its report would be coming in the midst of growing popular mobilization in support of the 4,743 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails (178 of whom are administrative detainees, including seven Palestinian Legislative Council members, who are imprisoned indefinitely without charge or trial). A wave of hunger strikes among political prisoners is fueling demonstrations in the West Bank, with a corresponding bump in media coverage of prison conditions in Israel. It’s possible that a report into Jaradat’s death that proves the pattern of ill treatment and unaccountability in Israeli prisons, a report that demonstrates the institutionally sanctioned disregard for human rights and illustrates the flagrant brutality of Israeli occupation practices, would all of a sudden make the people who matter take note.

But none of that would happen without a concerted, coordinated, well-organized plan to put the commission’s findings to work. Some of the most devastating critiques produced by investigative commissions into, first, Zionist claims to Palestine and, later, Israeli occupation practices, have had no political effect. They have been suppressed, intentionally or by circumstance, and generally ignored. Due to their monotonous repetitiveness -- similar abuses revealed and censured in the same language year after year -- they have become background noise. And the people who might actually be able to do something about these abuses -- Israeli citizens, American voters -- are not forced to listen. The International Fact-Finding Mission on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which issued its report in January, has already faded from media view. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is promoting the construction of thousands of houses in the E-1 zone, joining together illegal settlements and further fragmenting the West Bank.

The call by ‘Isa Qaraqa‘ for an investigative commission reflects the desperation of an exhausted people under military occupation and siege and a Palestinian rights movement that has run out of imagination. Absent is the ability to analyze history, to perceive present global configurations of power and adapt accordingly. Anyone who cares about justice, Palestinian or world citizen, must begin to recognize these patterns of fake action and turn them into something meaningful. If yet another group of goodhearted legal experts and human rights advocates do as the minister requests -- probe, find facts and call for redress -- it will not be enough. The report must be shoved in the faces of US legislators who justify their blind support for Israel by calling it “a fellow democracy.” The next investigative commission, and surely there will be one, whether into Jaradat’s death or some other rights violation, must be used to ask US citizens who foot the $3 billion annual bill of Israel’s military aid to take responsibility for what their tax dollars are funding.

The Bouazizi Effect in Morocco

by David McMurray | published February 21, 2013 - 9:13am

On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian itinerant seller named Mohamed Bouazizi had a minor run-in with the cops. It was just another of many, but at this last indignity, the now world-famous produce vendor snapped. Later that day, in protest against his interminable humiliation at the hands of the police, he set himself on fire in front of the local police station. The rest is history.

But Bouazizi himself is not history. He’s very much alive and memorialized in neighboring Morocco in the form of the “Bouazizi effect.” The effect consists of three aspects. The first and most significant is the quasi-official hands-off policy toward itinerant vendors around the country. Rabat residents complain that the ambulant sellers have taken over certain streets and spaces in the capital city since the Tunisian uprising. Out in the provincial town of Nador, where I am living and which once had the biggest contraband suq in the country, the legions of street vendors were cleared out a long time ago, block by block, in an operation that took a decade to complete. At the time of Bouazizi’s self-immolation, only the immediate vicinity of the main mosque was still host to the vendors in any numbers. Now they are given free rein to set up shop almost everywhere. Locals explain that the government is afraid they will create a Moroccan Bouazizi if they hassle the vendors too severely. If one of them were to snap, who knows how much damage he could do to the normal order of things? Look what Bouazizi accomplished!

The second aspect of the “Bouazizi effect” is that Morocco has prohibited the sale of small amounts of gas or diesel. You can’t pull up to a pump and fill a gas can anywhere in the country. You can’t show up with a small container and buy gas to put in it. You can only put gas in vehicles or big containers. The government has implemented this policy in order to prevent poor people from setting themselves on fire. Again, they are afraid of the destabilization that might follow if Bouazizi’s example were to catch on.

The third aspect of the “Bouazizi effect” is to make it unofficial policy that nothing good gets reported from Tunisia, Libya or Egypt. Locals say that the Moroccan media miss no chance to dwell on negative or sensational events in those three countries. Whenever possible, a little editorializing laments the poor conditions in which Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians find themselves, while adding, for the umpteenth time, that the people of Morocco are lucky to have been spared the fallout of such calamities.

The response of the Moroccan people to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt crystalized in 2011 into what became known as the February 20 movement, named after the biggest day of demonstrations in Morocco as revolt was spreading across the Arab world. The cops in Nador initially tried to head off the demonstration on February 20, 2011. It soon grew too big to stop, so they opted to manage its route. Last year on the first anniversary, demonstrations were held in Casablanca and Rabat, but nothing in Nador. The second anniversary, February 20, 2013, has just come and gone. Some 800 demonstrators met in front of the Parliament building in Rabat, and another 300 waved banners in Casablanca, but that was about it. Nador residents let the event pass without commemoration. Two locals predicted that nothing would happen. They claimed that Nadoris are too concerned with contraband commerce to bother demonstrating. They will only pay attention the day their business interests are threatened.

That day may not be too far away, at least not for the latter-day Bouazizis. A February 18 article in L’Economiste, a business daily published in Casablanca, describes the growing frustration of Rabati merchants at the spread of itinerant vendors and their “anarchic fairs,” which I take to be a reference to sellers of like products gathering without authorization to hawk their wares. Local merchants claim that they can’t compete with itinerant competitors who don’t pay taxes or rent and, on top of that, sell contraband products. An emergency meeting of the Rabat Chamber of Commerce is scheduled for the end of the week. They will try to increase pressure on the powers that be to curtail the informal economic activity made temporarily safe by Bouazizi’s martydom two years ago. (I couldn’t help but notice that the Chamber meeting will be held at the end of the week, that is, two days after February 20, not before.)

In 1984, austerity measures were imposed across Morocco that led to a national revolt against rising commodity prices. Part of those measures involved closing the Spanish-Moroccan border between Nador and Melilla to any further contraband smuggling. The city erupted in violence, which was brutally suppressed by the army. The government has since learned to move more carefully. The slow but sure, block-by-block cleansing of the itinerant vendors practiced in Nador in more recent decades will probably be the model for how things go in the near future, once Rabat decides to recommence its crackdown on itinerant sellers. But the state will have to move with caution. The specter of Bouazizi haunts government decision making in Morocco when it comes to how to manage the poor.

The Laryngitic Dog

by Sheila Carapico | published February 14, 2013 - 6:04pm

Senate hearings to confirm John Brennan as the Obama administration’s appointment to be director of the CIA brought to light a heretofore clandestine American military facility in Saudi Arabia near the kingdom’s border with Yemen. While journalistic and public attention rightly focused on extrajudicial executions of Yemenis and even American citizens, the new revelations suggest a larger covert Saudi-American war in Yemen. There’s almost certainly more to this story than what Saudi Arabia fails to confirm.

Information about the base was long withheld from the public by both the government and the media. NBC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post reported on February 5 and 6 that the US built a secret airfield in Saudi Arabia over two years ago, primarily as a staging ground for strikes in Yemen. Both flagship newspapers acknowledged keeping this fact under wraps in deference to the Obama administration’s request for secrecy on national security grounds. Reportedly, the first operation conducted from the base was the one that killed the Yemen-American preacher Anwar Nasir al-Awlaqi.

Bing aerial photographs from 2012 appear to show a facility in southeast Saudi Arabia, north of the Yemeni border and west of the Omani frontier, in the remote expanse of sand dunes called the Empty Quarter.
There also seem to be launching pads for unmanned Predator drones and/or Hellfire missiles at al-Anad Airbase near Aden. Al-Anad is an established installation on Yemen’s southern coast near the Bab al-Mandab, a crucial waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Now evidence has surfaced of yet another US base in the Hadramawt, in eastern Yemen, not far from the base in Saudi Arabia.

As more sleuths inspect more maps, we could learn of more military construction in the Peninsula, and of more Saudi engagement than has been acknowledged.

A reporter for the Guardian quoted journalism professor Jack Lule of Lehigh University, who called the media’s complicity in secrecy about the drone program “shameful.” Lule added, “I think the real reason was that the administration did not want to embarrass the Saudis -- and for the US news media to be complicit in that is craven.”

Gee, why would the Saudis be embarrassed? US-Saudi security cooperation has a history dating to the 1950s. Saudi Arabia offered facilities for the American-led Desert Storm campaign to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion. Yet the massive positioning of foreign forces in the land of the Islamic holy places, Mecca and Medina, later stirred controversy. When Osama bin Laden and his jihadi followers decried the presence of “infidel” armies on sacred territory, and used these boots on the ground as a pretext for the September 11 attacks on the United States, the Saudi defense minister ruled that bases inside the kingdom could not be used for attacks on Afghanistan’s Taliban or other Muslim targets. Accordingly, American installations, including the King Sultan airbase in Khobar province, were relocated to other Gulf spots such as Qatar.

There’s more, perhaps lots more. There have been many “targeted” attacks purportedly conducted by the US military or the CIA against suspected militants in Yemen in the past two or three years. There have also been “signature strikes.” These are not aimed at persons who intelligence agencies have identified as enemies of the US. Instead, “signature strikes” are robotic attacks triggered by evidence of “suspicious activities” or “patterns of movement” observed, by drones, from the air, such as loading rifles onto pickup trucks. Although lethal targeted attacks, especially against al-Awlaqi, his teenaged son, and at least two other American citizens have attracted the most attention of late, the signature attacks are even scarier. Yemenis are extraordinarily well armed, ranking alongside the US in number of firearms per capita. And gun-toting Yemenis almost certainly pack more firepower than their American counterparts: Markets in the northern part of the country sell bazookas and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Further, Toyota pickups are ubiquitous in Yemen; four-wheel drive vehicles are a logical choice for navigating the country’s unpaved mountain roads. Grenade launchers in Yemen pose no credible threat to the American homeland. But they might, conceivably, be a menace to Saudi Arabia.

Exactly whose forces launched which attacks remains an unsolved mystery. Washington neglects to release accurate data on its forays into Yemen, while the Yemeni regime wishes to convey the impression of Sanaa’s own prowess in counter-terror operations, and so keeps quiet about its foreign co-combatants.

There’s a third possibility. The Guardian recently suggested that some deadly bombings in Yemen were carried out not by American drones, or Yemeni counterparts, as often presumed, but rather “outsourced” to the Saudi air force. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa‘ud Al Faisal flatly denied these reports. But there were other reports that the first US drone strike in Yemen in 2013 was assisted by Saudi fighter jets.

Saudi weapons purchases are the lifeblood of Western arms manufacturers. In 2010, the Pentagon notified Congress of $60 billion in arms sales to the kingdom over the next five to ten years. If all goes well for the American weapons makers, this transfer will be the largest single package for any foreign country in US history. In the short term, however, according to the German magazine Der Speigel, European nations are topping their Yankee competitors: France comes in first with 2,168.6 million euros in sales, followed by Italy with 435.3 million euros and Great Britain with 328.8 million, contributing to total European sales of 3.3 billion euros or $4.4 billion. It makes sense that these armaments would be used, not merely stockpiled. True, documentation is thin. In 2010, Amnesty International said it was “extremely likely” -- though difficult to verify -- that Tornado fighter-bombers supplied by Britain to Saudi Arabia were used in indiscriminate attacks against al-Houthi rebels in northern Yemen that killed Yemeni civilians as well as militants.

The fact that America’s most prominent news organizations have not yet implicated Riyadh in the Obama administration’s war in Yemen is hardly evidence that Saudi interests and forces are not involved. The Times and the Post bury news of the kingdom’s military affairs beneath titillating tales about women drivers, athletes and lingerie sales. Scoops about clandestine bases, collateral murder and counter-revolutionary meddling are left to intrepid investigators, bloggers and British reporters. If Saudis aren’t worried about the reports of secret bases, the story goes, then why should anyone else care?

The dog is barking, but it’s got laryngitis.

Iran and the IAEA at Parchin

by Aslı Bâli | published February 7, 2013 - 3:40pm

Few foreign policy issues garner as much interest in the American press as the Iranian nuclear program. As illustrated by last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for President Obama’s nominee as secretary of defense, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, the US government is equally focused on Iran. The committee was more concerned with Hagel’s positions on Iran than his views on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia combined -- despite that fact that these countries are all places where the US military is engaged in combat, something not true of Iran.

Yet despite all of this attention, some stories concerning Iran’s nuclear program manage to slip through the cracks. Tellingly, the stories that fall flattest are those that contain evidence challenging the received wisdom that the Iranian nuclear program has “military dimensions” (or as the International Atomic Energy Agency prefers to put it, “possible military dimensions”).

One such story that has been bubbling in the blogosphere but is curiously underplayed by the mainstream media is the assessment offered by Robert Kelley of the dispute between the UN nuclear watchdog and Iran over access to the military production complex located at Parchin, near Tehran.

Kelley is a nuclear engineer who served in the nuclear division of the US Department of Energy for over 35 years. In this capacity, Kelley worked at Los Alamos and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and was seconded to the IAEA for the Agency’s nuclear inspections in Iraq in the 1990s. In short, he is a distinguished scientist who is eminently qualified to examine the public record that is the basis for allegations that Iran may have conducted uranium experiments with military applications at the Parchin facility. Those allegations are based on satellite images of Parchin and a drawing of an explosive testing chamber allegedly located in a small compound of four buildings that make up one small area of the large Parchin complex. (Much of this information comes to the IAEA from an unidentified intelligence agency but has been leaked to the press.)

Analyzing the computer-aided design of the chamber in the drawing and the satellite images -- all of which are available through leaks and imaging provided by organizations like the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) -- Kelley reached the conclusion some eight months ago that the crisis over the Parchin facility had produced a mountain out of a mole hill.

More recently, he published a detailed report for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, where he now works as a senior research fellow, arguing that the stated concerns about activities at the Parchin facility don’t add up. Beyond the SIPRI report, Kelley has tried to generate awareness by publishing in additional venues, including a report in Nuclear Intelligence Weekly summarizing his findings and then reposting that summary for wider circulation at the Arms Control Law blog.

Despite the multiple venues in which Kelley has advanced his analysis -- which suggests that concerns about “possible military dimensions” are overblown and even that the IAEA is needlessly fomenting a crisis -- the flagship newspapers that have reported heavily on Parchin have not yet relayed Kelley’s findings. This is all the more puzzling given that reports from comparable sources, like ISIS, have been prominently featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post, but in ways that underscore the official IAEA (and US) line about Parchin.

To summarize Kelley’s arguments, there are four core problems with the claim that Iran is seeking to sanitize evidence of high explosives testing with uranium at Parchin and that the IAEA must gain access to the site.

First, the drawing of the alleged explosive testing chamber that has been leaked does not conform to the technical specifications necessary for explosives testing involving uranium.

Second, the technical basis for the inspections that the IAEA has requested at Parchin is unsound because the prior notice of specific locations to be visited clouds the credibility of findings.

Third, speculation based on leaked information suggesting that construction work around the Parchin site is an Iranian effort to “sanitize” the area is unfounded as trace materials would still be identifiable if uranium were used in explosives testing at the site.

And finally, fourth, by exceeding its legal authority in demanding a “transparency visit” of a non-nuclear site on flimsy evidence, the IAEA is needlessly straining relations with Iran and delaying the resumption of talks between Iran and the P5+1. (As of now, these talks are slated to restart on February 26.)

In other words, Kelley’s assessment is that the diagram and satellite images do not form a credible basis for the claim that Iran conducted high explosives testing involving uranium at Parchin. The alleged explosives chamber in the diagram does not meet the specifications that would be required for such testing and claims that construction at the site is a cover-up depend on a misunderstanding of how inspections are conducted and what “sanitizing” of uranium particles would require.

Further, Kelley notes that on two previous occasions the IAEA was indeed granted access to the Parchin complex -- at a time when Iran was allowing the Agency broader inspections authority, before the Iranian file was referred to the UN Security Council -- and had the option of visiting any quadrant they chose upon arrival at the site. Given that the suspected tests occurred prior to 2004, its earlier Parchin visits conducted without advance warning would have enabled the Agency to collect the information it is seeking today. Yet there was no Iranian objection to the inspections team’s access at the time. As it happens, the IAEA did not visit the four buildings currently at issue, but that was simply because they chose to focus on a different quadrant -- not because the Iranians expressed any preference. This modality for inspections -- identifying a broad location for inspection without revealing the specific zone to be visited until inspectors are on the site -- would yield sounder findings than the Agency’s present approach. Specifically, Kelley notes that by declaring in advance the buildings at Parchin that the IAEA seeks to visit, the Agency has introduced a logical flaw into the inspections regime forcing the Iranians to prove a negative. That is, if inspections yield no evidence of military applications the Iranians will now be asked to disprove lingering suspicions that advance notice enabled them to hide the ball. This catch-22, by which weapons inspections produce more doubt than certainty, arose in the decade-long search for WMD in Iraq.

The tensions in the relationship between the IAEA and Iran are uncomfortably reminiscent of the UNSCOM experience. Kelley’s assessment raises serious questions about the degree to which the IAEA is compromising its credibility as a competent technical secretariat by pursuing questionable inspections on weak authority in Iran. Worse, the Agency may be fueling an unnecessary crisis that lends momentum to confrontation rather than cooperation in the ongoing international standoff with Iran.

The doubts Kelley casts on the basis for inspections at Parchin have gotten some press coverage, but they deserve an airing in the prestigious papers that most directly shape elite and public opinion. The repeated references to concerns about Parchin in the media, think tank reports and official US statements are based on a small handful of sources creating a feedback loop that magnifies partial leaked information, misinterprets satellite images and reinforces a sense of crisis. That Kelley’s alternative analysis cannot get a hearing in that echo chamber is deeply troubling.

Doubts concerning Iraqi weapons stockpiles fell on deaf ears in 2003. Avoiding another senseless war of choice in the Middle East requires, at a minimum, that disconfirming evidence be debated in public.

Drones, US Propaganda and Imperial Hubris

by Sarah Waheed | published January 25, 2013 - 10:38am

Pakistanis should be more supportive of having their national sovereignty violated by Americans, according to US-based political scientists who favor drone strikes in Pakistan. I am trying hard not make this sound like an Onion article, even though it does.

In a January 23 article for The Atlantic, professors Christine Fair, Karl Kaltenthaler and William J. Miller argue that Pakistani opposition to drone strikes is not as widespread as previously claimed, and that the US government should take steps to convert Pakistanis to the official US view on drone strikes:

[The US] must draw to its side the large swath of the population that doesn’t even know about the program. This may mean using radio, non-cable TV (including local Pakistani networks) or even hyper-local media such as SMS -- and it means doing so in Urdu and perhaps other vernacular languages.

This is some of the most propagandistic writing in support of President Barack Obama’s targeted kill lists to date. It takes a serious level of arrogance to suggest inserting a US policy stance into the output of another country’s media. It apparently also requires misrepresenting data related to the numbers of Pakistanis who support drone strikes and using faulty methodology.

The truth is that the majority of Pakistanis do not support having the sovereignty of Pakistan violated. Even the Pakistani government objects. Maybe that is because, to borrow Obama’s words, “There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” Without even once trying to explain why the use of drones in Pakistan is necessary, the Atlantic article basically claims that Pakistanis want drone attacks, but that not enough Pakistanis want them badly enough.

According to Fair et al, this is because not enough Pakistanis know that having their children, their houses and their funeral processions blown up by US drone strikes is actually a good thing for them. The reason they don’t know is because they don’t know English:

In a developing country like Pakistan, the greater the level of education, the more likely they would be able to read English and have the wealth and knowledge to access the Internet and other sources of electronic media…. The average Pakistani…only has access to Urdu-language media.... There is a pervasive anti-drone discourse in Pakistan’s boisterous Urdu-language media, which tends to be more jingoistic. More educated Pakistanis have access to more nuanced reporting about the drones and the terrorism issue in Pakistan. While the reporting on drones may still be relatively negative, there is some positive commentary in the English-language press in Pakistan. The more educated are also more likely to read stories in sources that address the terrorism problem arising from the tribal areas. Drones in those sources are presented not just as a reason many Pakistanis are killed, but also as one possible tool to fight a very serious security threat.

Note the slippage between “more educated,” “English-language press,” “access to the Internet” and “more nuanced reporting.” This passage implies that Pakistanis who rely on the Urdu-language press are dumb and getting dumber, but that people who read English are inherently more critical thinkers. Why? Because the English media in Pakistan at times includes positive commentary about drone strikes! Congratulations: You just won the critical thinker award in Pakistan, for being uncritical of US drone strike policy. 

Now, if only more Pakistanis could think like this. Maybe more of them will think this way, if Pakistanis get daily text messages to their phone, informing them that terrorism is a problem in their country. Oh, but make sure to do it in Urdu. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo. With a strange combination of naivete and hubris, Fair et al propose that the US must try to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis. It is hard to see how this is possible, as Pakistan has been exempted from the new drone manual that sets the rules governing targeted killings. In any case, winning hearts and minds, for Fair et al, does not mean stop killing Pakistanis. It means convincing the Pakistanis to get on board with the killing, by getting the Urdu (and other regional) language media to propagate the official US view on drone strikes.

As it happens, having an English-language imperial power wanting to screw around with one’s language and (political) education is not really a new thing for South Asians. Fair et al are not all that creative in that way.

Just for fun, let’s go back 180 years to see what an influential Englishman had to say:

All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them. We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language, it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands preeminent even among the languages of the West.

That was T. B. Macaulay -- who knew no “Oriental” languages to speak of -- addressing British officials in a Minute on Indian Education (1833) about how Indians ought to be educated under their rule. In 1837, Persian was replaced by English as the language of governance in India. To secure a high-paying job, Indians had to know English. And to study English, an Indian had to be from those “classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies.” In the nineteenth century, Indians began to debate among themselves whether they wanted such an education for themselves or for their children, but that is another story.

Being the “culturally sensitive” rulers that they were, the British decided that they should be able speak to their Indian subordinates in their own language. So they came up with grammar books and dictionaries to teach themselves how to say “Get me my shoes” and “Hurry up!” to their Indian servants. These books made it possible for the British to standardize and index terminology for official use. Persian was also replaced at the lower levels of judicial and revenue administration, but here, it was replaced by Indian vernacular languages like Urdu.

Back then, Urdu was also called “Hindustani” (and a bunch of other things), but there, too, the British brought their own assumptions to bear on vernacular education policies for Indians. The Indians just did not know what was good for them, the British kept insisting.

Since the British saw Indians as groups of “Hindus” and “Muslims,” they also began to describe religion as a marker of linguistic difference, which is part of the reason why a shared north Indian language ended up getting divided into Hindi (for Hindus) and Urdu (for Muslims). Sometimes, when the British were in a bit of a Victorian mood, they tried to get Urdu poets to stop composing “obscene” poems about wine and women and write about sledding at Christmas instead. But I digress.

A class divide quickly emerged between vernacular-educated Indians and the English-speaking elites. An English-speaking Indian elite was desirable for officials like Macaulay, who needed “a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste and manners” as a buffer between themselves and the masses. A hundred years or so later, this stratagem backfired when new generations of this class of Indians began clamoring for their rights, and talking back to the English, in English. South Asians eventually won their independence from British rule -- but only after paying a hefty price in the partition of India along religious lines for the first time in history, a division that cost millions of lives and would scar the region forever. Pakistan inherited the messy frontiers of the old imperial order.

What Fair et al are proposing is to educate Pakistanis about what the US thinks is good for them. For these political scientists, the right kind of Pakistani possesses the right kind of knowledge: Drone strikes are for his or her own good. It is with US intervention, through drones and propaganda, that Pakistanis can be saved from their backwardness, their tribalism, their Islamism, their nationalism -- in short, themselves. But this kind of imperial experiment has been tried out before in South Asia. How about trying something new for a change?