Monthly Archives: August 2013

Arab-Americans must find a way to engage in politics

August 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, a rally that led directly to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act that changed, forever, the American political landscape. That August moment contains, if they will but see it, important lessons for Arab-Americans.

The march is best remembered for Martin Luther King’s speech, one of the greatest in American history. But it built on years of agitation by leaders such as labour organiser A Philip Randolph, the pioneering nonviolent activist Bayard Rustin, and the patient “legal strategy” of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led by attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston.

A series of seemingly modest but crucial judgements won by Marshall and Houston beginning in the 1930s made the political claims for equality being articulated at the rally legally and rationally unchallengeable. All that was left to support segregation were the ancient political monsters of fear and hatred, twin demons that feed each other with bile.

In American history the march has become symbolic of the civil rights movement as a whole. This movement was the progenitor of a whole series of campaigns for equality from marginalised communities including Latinos, women, homosexuals, and a vast array of other American identity groups.

The normative American self-image turned from the “melting pot” model of the great migration era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – which insisted on total assimilation into a pre-existing Anglo-American culture – to a “salad bowl” model that emphasises the virtues of diversity within unity.

Yet the march, and the entire civil rights movement, contains many important lessons for Arab-Americans, who face both significant external discrimination and self-imposed limitations.

There were angry voices in the black community at the time that denounced the entire campaign for equality as quixotic. Malcolm X dismissed the whole idea as a capitulatory and pathetic plea by “Uncle Toms” and “House Negros”. Instead, his Nation of Islam was agitating for an independent black-only state in a territory ceded by the United States. They wanted no part of a “melting pot” and could not imagine a “salad bowl”. The idea that African Americans could become full, first-class citizens of the United States was dismissed out of hand as ludicrous.

Several prominent African-American intellectuals and activists found themselves caught in the middle of this debate. James Baldwin proudly participated in the march, and dismissed Malcolm X’s ideas as authentic but fundamentally misguided since he insisted they were simply an inversion of racism itself. On the other hand, he doubted the potential for first-class citizenship and remained an unrepentant pessimist on the subject until his death in 1987.

No one can doubt that racism against African-Americans in the United States persists. But it is slowly, and obviously, dying.

Probably the most profound, lasting effect of the Obama presidency will be an entire generation of young American children of all races watching his two daughters growing up in the White House. When that generation comes of age, it will inevitably have internalised a new American cultural norm regarding racial equality and national unity.

What the civil rights movement and its analogues prove is that bigotry and prejudice, whether in law or culture, can be challenged in court, through nonviolent protests, and political work, and be defeated. Not only is there nothing in the American political or legal system barring Arab-Americans from fully participating both collectively and individually, their right to do so is absolutely protected and enshrined in law.

Yet there is a pathological, self-defeating attitude in much of the Arab-American community: a notion that the system is somehow uniquely closed to them, or that the political structure in the United States is irredeemably tainted and involvement in it is inherently corrupting. Too many of them don’t want to be part, at least politically, of the salad that is presently in the bowl.

Some Arab-Americans have succeeded in joining the political system, but entirely through their own efforts. For this, they are frequently castigated and reviled by community “activists”.

To insult them, some have even tried to usurp Malcolm X’s notorious accusations that civil rights leaders were “house Negroes”, – which, while unfair, was based on the real history of African-American slavery – and refer to those who engage the American system as “house Arabs”. This absurdity not only trivialises the horrors of slavery, it ignores the fact that Arabs, in so far as they were involved in the slave trade, were not exactly rotting in the abominable bowels of the infernal slave ships.

The United States was founded on the principle of “no taxation without representation”. Yet many Arab-Americans are so hostile to the American political system that, in shunning direct engagement with the political system, they are insisting on having no representation within the decision-making establishment, while still paying taxes.

Arab-Americans have been reminded of a simple choice: they can continue to ignore the lessons of the March on Washington, or they can roll up their sleeves and work together within the system to claim their undeniable rights as first-class American citizens.

Is Syria Being ‘Lebanized’ or is Lebanon Being ‘Syrianized’?

When Hezbollah made its fateful decision to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war, it was only a matter of time before the war would follow them back home and ignite a fire in Lebanon. This month three car bombs went off in Lebanon, killing scores and injuring hundreds.

The first bomb, which exploded in Dahiyeh, Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut, killed 27 and injured many more. No-one claimed responsibility for the blast, but few Lebanese doubted that it was a message from supporters of the Al-Qaeda-like wing of the anti-Assad Syrian rebels. A few days later, two car bombs exploded outside of mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, a Salafi stronghold. The twin blasts killed 47 people and injured hundreds. Many Lebanese Salafis in the north are Sunni supporters of the Syrian rebels.

OZ_Beirut_Dahiyeh bombings_Aug2013
A Lebanese TV reporter puts on make-up as she stands amid vehicles that were damaged in a bombing outside Al-Taqwa mosque on August 24, 2013 in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. STR /AFP / Getty Images

Hezbollah went to war in Syria only to encounter, among other foes, Al Qaeda. Salafist-Jihadists apparently brought the war home to them as well. This series of tit-for-tat bombings has created the most violent and volatile dynamic in Lebanon since the end of the civil war. The Syrian war, predictably enough, followed Hezbollah right back to its home territory.There was, by the way, a muted but palpable sense of Schadenfreude in Israel at seeing Hezbollah and Al Qaeda go to war in Lebanon.

When the Syrian conflict first broke out, it quickly spread to the northern parts of Lebanon around Tripoli, which contain atypically conservative Lebanese Salafi Sunni communities, alongside Alawite ones. With their comrades and coreligionists at each other’s throat just across the border, these forces could not resist combating each other in northern Lebanon.

But the major political forces in Lebanon decided to try to quarantine the spill-over effect to that northern area. Lebanese politics for more than a decade have been characterized by an equilibrium of unstable elements. No one wants to start a generalized war in Lebanon because no one can have any confidence of prevailing, and everyone stands an excellent chance of losing more than they gain.

Additionally, modern Lebanese history has made one thing inescapably clear: any single group —internal or external—which attempts to assert hegemonic control over the entire country quickly faces the united opposition of virtually all other forces,  and are eventually pushed back into their home redoubts. This happened more than once to right-wing Maronite forces, a left-wing/Palestinian alliance, Israel, and, eventually, even Syria. So all the parties that are fundamental beneficiaries of the status quo in their own areas have very strong disincentives from trying to ignite a conflict that is unlikely to improve their position.

But Hezbollah, knowing full well the risks of its intervention in Syria, nonetheless believes that the survival of the Bashar Assad regime is simply an existential necessity. Syria is the direct lifeline between Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran. Without that contiguous link, and the support of the most powerful external influence in Lebanon—i.e., Syria —the existence of Hezbollah’s quasi-sub-state in its current form, with its independent foreign and military policy, would be placed in serious jeopardy.

Hezbollah is not going to go away. Like all Lebanese political parties it has, essentially, a Janus-faced dual-existence. On the one hand, they represent their local constituencies. In the case of Hezbollah, it is the biggest Lebanese sectarian community—the Shiites, among whom they are the unrivaled leaders. (There is no majority community in Lebanon.) But, like all other Lebanese parties, it also represents a foreign patron, in this case Iran.

In its loyalty to its external patron, Hezbollah is essentially the creature of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. And while it was possible to speculate over the past decade about whether it had actually developed an independent political character, the Syrian war has put this question to rest altogether. Hezbollah remains entirely joined at the hip with its Iranian patrons and both are committed, existentially, to the survival of the Assad dictatorship at all costs.

So, Hezbollah took the drastic, reckless and unspeakably irresponsible—but also probably, from its own point of view, indispensable—step of dispatching many of its elite units to fight alongside Syrian forces in defense of some of the most strategically significant areas being contested.

For some time, inevitably, there has been some spillover effect from the Syrian war into Lebanon. It contributed to a condition of paralysis in Lebanese politics over the past five months since the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, ostensibly over a disagreement about scheduling new elections. The reality was the split within the government reflected political disagreements over the war in Syria, Hezbollah’s intervention, and competition between Saudi and Iranian clients in Lebanese politics. But still the violent spillover was mainly quarantined in the north, since one of the few things most Lebanese can agree on is that another civil war is not in their interests.

Al Qaeda and similar Salafi-Jihadi organizations, while present in the north in small numbers, are decidedly unpopular among Lebanese Sunnis. Indeed, the very name Al Qaeda is so anathema in the Levant in general that it always has to rebrand itself there: “Jabhat an-Nusra” in Syria and other similar marketing ploys in Lebanon and among the Palestinians. “Al Qaeda,” presented as such, would be rejected out of hand as a gang of maniacal barbarians. Unfortunately, the selfsame ideas and behavior nonetheless find a constituency even when the traditional brand is tarnished beyond repair.

The effort to quarantine the spillover from the Syrian civil war in the north of Lebanon is breaking down in a bloody and dramatic manner. Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria will continue to haunt them deep into Lebanon, surely in an ever increasing and intensified manner. They have placed everything at risk, and they know it. And, yet again, they have acted recklessly at the expense of the rest of Lebanon, and at the behest of their Iranian patrons. Containment so far has had some relative success: Lebanon is not in anything like the condition Syria faces. But, for how long?

The damage thus far is significant. First, the post-1998 commitment of regional parties not to use Lebanon as a proxy battlefield, as they have traditionally done in the past, is breaking down. Second, because Hezbollah has committed itself so firmly to the outcome in Syria—and because Syria is the most important external power in Lebanon—the outcome of the Syrian war will have a profound impact on the Lebanese political equation. Most Lebanese parties are genuinely trying to avoid an epidemic of sectarianism. But under the circumstances, they seem unable to stop its inexorable metastasis.

There can be little doubt that the Lebanese state is fracturing more than ever, both in terms of its institutions and political structures, and in the delicate equilibrium between its political factions. Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is the primary catalyst, but hardly the only cause. Just as the effort to quarantine spillover violence from the Syrian war in the Lebanese north is failing, so, too, are prospects of ever-greater sectarian violence throughout the country growing, as is the dim but plausible prospect of yet another round of civil conflict.

The irony is this: Syria is fracturing in a manner eerily reminiscent of Lebanon’s sectarian civil war of 1975-89. Since then, Lebanon has been a country largely at peace, but fundamentally disintegrated: It is a collection of sectarian and ethnic enclaves (with greater or lesser degrees of autonomy) loosely held together by a very weak and increasingly dysfunctional Beirut-based government which, in many crucial ways, does not even make the pretense of performing basic state functions.

It’s not exactly a failed state, but Lebanon is a fractured, dysfunctional and disintegrated republic. Since 1989, this arrangement has provided a workable degree of stability, but one based on an equilibrium of unstable elements. The long-term viability of this arrangement has always been questionable at best, and is currently undergoing its greatest test since the 1989 Taif Agreement brought an end to the civil war.

The long-term outcome in Syria is impossible to predict: there are far too many variables and imponderables. But it seems extremely unlikely that the modern, centralized, Damascus-ruled, integrated nation-state Syria has been since independence in the 1940s will survive the current war.

A not-particularly pessimistic view might hold that a best (or least-worst) case scenario for Syria in the medium-term is a Lebanon-style future: a country that is theoretically integral but in fact is profoundly fragmented, and ruled locally by various sectarian and ethnic power brokers, with greater or lesser autonomy of action, and all held together by a very weak central government in Damascus whose writ does not run in most of the nominal nation.

The irony of ironies begins with the fact that while this “least-worst” scenario for Syria might mirror what has actually been in place in Lebanon for the past two decades. And the irony is even further compounded since this very arrangement in Lebanon is now placed in mortal peril by forces that are pushing its northern neighbor in a very similar direction. So the question is, can Lebanon survive the “Lebanonization” of Syria without another abominable round of bloodletting? Can Syria become a “Lebanon” without wrecking that fragile model in Lebanon itself?

It is essential to emphasize that these questions are entirely based on avoiding more dystopian scenarios in both Lebanon and Syria, which scarcely bear dwelling upon. Thankfully, they are less likely then the grim but tolerable Lebanese—and perhaps emerging Syrian—stalemate and equilibrium of unstable forces in fundamentally fragmented but not failed states. Believe it or not, there is nothing particularly pessimistic about that evaluation. Try talking to a real pessimist.

Go Strategic in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday left no doubt that the United States is preparing to act, in a significant military way, in Syria. “President Obama,” he said, “believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”

For many of us, it has been a long time coming. But we have steadfastly insisted that intervention in Syria was required and inevitable. The question now is, will it be tactical or strategic?

For too long it has been tempting to think that the Obama administration has essentially viewed Syria as a secondary issue – a subset of either the U.S.-Russia or U.S.-Iran files. While caution is always justified, neither perspective was defensible.

Kerry laid out a clear moral and political vision that leaves the United States with no choice but to act decisively to stop the use of the “world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

When, early in the second Obama term, the United States finally decided to provide nonlethal aid to rebel groups in Syria I called for some “good, old-fashioned American mission creep.” That aid wasn’t ever going to be enough. And now, American military action in Syria of some kind is a virtual fait accompli.

But it is far from clear what – apart from stopping the use of chemical weapons – the broader strategy is. This could simply prove a tactical, limited intervention designed to prevent the use of internationally banned weapons and punish the Syrian government, again in some limited ways, for having used them.

This would, of course, have a significant impact on the war. The Syrian military will be hit and, presumably, deprived of its ability to use some of its most appalling lethal weapons. But if it is limited to that, it will hardly be decisive. Indeed, despite the blow to the Syrian government and military, it’s far from clear that this would have a major strategic impact on the balance of power on the ground between the rebels and the government – or among rebels themselves, for that matter.

But the United States would be well advised to avoid limiting its intervention to a tactical, chemical weapons based, approach. Instead, whatever is done under this rubric should be part of a broader effort to shift the strategic balance on the ground away from both the odious family-led Mafia regime in Damascus and the despicable, bloodthirsty Salafist-Jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and in favor of the groups like the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army led by General Salim Idriss.

This process, though underreported, is already well underway on the ground in the south, where, unsurprisingly, the recent chemical attacks occurred, It has been amply described by Michael WeissElizabeth O’Bagy, and Thomas Pierret, among others. Such strategic intervention would require coordination with allies such as France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey along multiple fronts. It would mean providing not only much more sophisticated weapons and intelligence, but also training, and command and control capability for the FSA.

This would probably from the outset, or by additional “mission creep,” lead to the creation of safe areas and no-fly zones, certainly in the south, and possibly the north as well.

Most importantly, the intervention should focus on weakening the regime’s most potent strategic advantage: its airpower. Above all, the systematic destruction of airbases and major landing fields under the control of the regime would dramatically shift the ability of Iran and Russia to supply men and materiel to the Damascus dictatorship.

As things stand, it’s possible that the Obama administration is acting mainly out of moral and legal outrage, as eloquently expressed by Kerry. If so, I would both urge, and cautiously predict, additional “mission creep” of the kind that took us from belatedly providing lethal aid to being on the brink of unavoidable direct military intervention.

Tactical intervention against chemical weapons-related resources is a good start. But it’s not enough. A strategic intervention designed to shift the balance of power on the ground – away from both the regime and the more extreme rebel groups – and toward more nationalist, rational, and acceptable rebel forces is required.

Everything is in place. It may not happen, or be obvious, right away. But if the United States is to finally abandon, however reluctantly, what has heretofore been a fundamentally risk-averse, reactive policy that has allowed other, entirely malevolent, forces to shape realities on the ground in Syria, a genuine, coordinated strategic intervention is required.

The time to act decisively is now. Both the Damascus regime and the extremist rebels simultaneously must be outmaneuvered, thwarted and defeated. This will require real, courageous American leadership.

Ghannouchi faces Morsi’s dilemma: compromise or go

The ripple effects of the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi are shaking the already unstable Ennahda-led government in Tunisia.

Ennahda is reaching a crucial juncture, similar to the one Morsi faced: compromise with an increasingly dissatisfied majority, or risk losing power.

Unlike in Egypt, in Tunisia there is no real possibility of a military intervention. However, also unlike in Egypt, the non- and increasingly anti-Islamist political opposition is organized enough to bring the government down without violence. And they appear to be very close to succeeding.

The struggle began last year when Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi was, unbeknownst to him, videotaped asking Tunisian Salafists to give him time to consolidate control over the police and the military, lest secular forces return to power. That candid statement confirmed many of the worst fears of the opposition that Ennahda’s eventual agenda was the complete domination of the state (the same concern that drove an overwhelming movement to overthrow Morsi in Egypt).

Everything that has happened since has worsened Ennahda’s position. The government it leads is widely perceived as having failed on two key fronts: security and the economy.

Salafist-Jihadists are waging an open rebellion near the Algerian border in the West and parts of the South. Salafist extremists, especially Ansar Al-Sharia, have become increasingly brazen in their own violent tendencies. Parts of the country are already in a state of civil conflict, and others threaten to fall into one.

The security collapse was brought home to the Tunisian opposition and majority in the most direct and brutal manner twice in the past six months. Leading anti-Islamist, liberal politicians – in February Chokri Belaïd and in July Mohamed Brahmi – were gunned down in broad daylight. The government claims they were assassinated by jihadists, and even with the same gun.

The government is widely blamed for having “coddled” Islamist extremists, thereby creating the sense of impunity that allowed parts of the country to drift into civil conflict and respected politicians to be murdered in the streets. The minimal charge is guilt by omission, if not by commission itself.

Even worse for Ennahda is the country’s ongoing economic meltdown. It is widely seen as being on the brink of bankruptcy. Last week it received a terrible economic evaluation across the board from Standard and Poor’s.

Both of these issues, especially the economic crisis, have brought Ennahda into a potentially fatal confrontation with the redoubtable Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). With over 1 million members, it is more powerful than any Tunisian political party and has no labor movement parallel in any other Arab country.

Traditionally, the UGTT has valued its role as a “mediator” in politics. But it has now formally renounced that position and identified itself as having a political role in opposition to the government. This could prove an impending catastrophe for Ennahda, since the UGTT is the one group in the country with the potential power to unseat the government.

Ghannouchi and company are clearly disturbed by the uninterrupted series of setbacks they have suffered in recent months, as well as the overthrow of Morsi. But the opposition – including many members of the suspended National Constituent Assembly – have been staging sit-ins and other protests with a simple but deadly demand: form a national unity government of technocrats to deal with the crisis.

Ghannouchi has been quickly backpedaling from his more recalcitrant initial positions. But, this is essentially asking him to relinquish power as Islamists are not well-represented among the technocratic class. A government of experts is bound to look very different from a government of religious fanatics and include few, if any, Islamists.

However, Ghannouchi is now frightened enough to have recently met with his most dangerous opponent, UGTT leader Hussein Abassi, and, secretly, with the head of the increasingly popular Nida Tounes party, Beji Caid el Sebsi. Recent polls, though questionable, suggest Nida Tounes may now outstrip Ennahda as the most popular party in Tunisia.

Ghannouchi reportedly offered both an “all party” government of national unity, but not the dreaded technocratic government. They turned him down, but more talks are planned.

Ghannouchi knows he’s fighting, not just for political power now, but for the long-term survival of Ennahda as a credible and potential governing force in Tunisia: a less dramatic version of exactly what’s happening to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. So do the secularists.

So, just as Egypt recently did, Tunisia now faces a crucial juncture in which Islamists will either compromise or confront a vast coalition that will overwhelm them. Their government is perceived as having failed, and Tunisians are demanding change.

Ghannouchi seems to understand the need to be perceived as conciliatory. But if he does not give sufficient ground, he may end up losing everything he has accumulated in the past two years, and more.

Cutting off US aid to Egypt would be a serious mistake

As the streets of Cairo smoulder and the Egyptian people brace for further violence, throughout Washington the cry is: “Cut aid to Egypt.” Such an appeal may be emotionally satisfying, but it would be a terrible policy miscalculation.

To its credit, the Obama administration appears to understand this. Its strong condemnations of the killing of demonstrators and limited punitive measures have struck the appropriate balance between expressing American values and protecting American interests.

First, it would be totally ineffective. The Egyptian military receives the overwhelming bulk of American aid. But it doesn’t need it. Gulf states have pledged up to $15 billion to the new Egyptian government.

Second, it would undermine the American strategic relationship with Egypt. Salivating at the opportunity to make an inroad, Vladimir Putin wasted no time in announcing joint military exercises with the Egyptian army.

Essentially, any ending of aid would mean the United States turning its back on the only group in Egypt that is a well-established partner.

The US has more leverage in Egypt than it may think. But if it cuts off aid, it will be left with very little indeed. This would greatly complicate American strategic relations in the broader Arab world by reinforcing the notion that the US does not stand by its friends.

This complaint was wrongly levelled against American policy when it supported the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. But now the socio-political dynamic is reversed: the US, slightly belatedly, supported the Egyptian people’s demand to be rid of Mr Mubarak, but it would now be opposing their evident determination to be rid of Mr Morsi.

A sizeable number of the Egyptian people have made it clear that they are out of patience with the Muslim Brotherhood, both in office and in their subsequent campaign of unrest.

Having lost domestic legitimacy, the Brotherhood is banking on a nationwide destabilisation campaign to win itself new international backing and to recoup some of its political losses at home.

Perceived US support for this effort would reinforce a widespread misapprehension that Washington backed the Brotherhood all along, and tried to get it into power and to keep it there. While this is false, policies that unwittingly reinforce this conspiracy theory are profoundly unwise.

Third, such a cut-off would be a breach of understandings underpinning the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. A key inducement to Egypt was the American long-term military aid commitment. Breaking that would probably not prompt Egypt to abrogate its peace treaty, and increasingly close security ties, with Israel. Those are strongly in Egypt’s own national interests and likely to prevail.

But it would make the US the first of the three parties to the original Arab-Israeli peace treaty to break a fundamental pillar of its commitments. Is that really the precedent to set as it embarks on an intensive effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, or for talks with other Middle Eastern countries on various issues, including Iran?

The “unreliability” factor in this case would be radically different from support for the popular uprising against Mr Mubarak. It would place the US not on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of the strategic calculus of its regional partners and interlocutors. No one can seriously advocate that the US should demonstrate it respects Arab public opinion and supports its friends while simultaneously backing a cut-off of aid to Egypt.

But US military aid programmes are not necessarily what they seem. Most such aid, including to Egypt, is dedicated to the purchase of American military goods. They are a workaround skirting American and World Trade Organisation regulations that otherwise bar such subsidies.

An even more serious strategic and economic factor – one often overlooked by many commentators and analysts – is the preferential treatment for American vessels passing through the Suez Canal. An obvious means of retaliation that the Egyptians could, but probably wouldn’t, use, is to revoke that preferential treatment, which is a courtesy.

But if they did, this might force US aircraft carrier groups and other vital naval deployments to use the distant Cape of Good Hope, costing precious time and money, and diminishing the rapidity of deployment. Much US commercial shipping also enjoys preferential treatment in the canal, and the loss of this could cost billions of dollars to US financial interests.

Finally, there is the question of consistency. Under the rule of Mr Mubarak, the armed forces, and Mr Morsi alike, there were numerous abuses, massacres, arbitrary actions and extra-constitutional moves. At no point did anyone raise the issue of a cut-off of aid, precisely for the reasons outlined above. So, why now? Charges of hypocrisy will be difficult to refute or deflect.

If the US wants to wash its hands of Egypt and let it drift into other orbits, or simply declare defeat and go home, so be it.

But no serious American administration, including President Obama’s, is going to take such a drastic and reckless step, no matter how many people without direct responsibility for the consequences of US foreign policy advocate such a blunder.

Thy Hand, Great Anarch!

The heart bleeds. The mind reels. Egypt has sunk into a state of profound chaos. The prevailing fear across the country is that—if not tonight or tomorrow then soon enough—the worst may be yet to come. Right now, at least, the atmosphere recalls that grim passage from Alexander Pope: “Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall; And universal Darkness buries All.”

After several weeks of standoff and multiple warnings, Egyptian security forces swept in to break up two Muslim Brotherhood protest encampments. Death toll estimates begin with at least 150 protesters, including women and children. There seems little doubt the protesters themselves were also armed and the security forces, too, sustained casualties. The details are unclear, but the images, on both sides, are gruesome and highly disturbing. Street battles between rival gangs of toughs are now reportedly raging in cities around the country.

A man looks at bodies laid out in a make shift morgue after Egyptian security forces stormed two huge protest camps at the Rabaa al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares where supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were camped, in Cairo, on August 14, 2013. (Mosa'ab El Shamy / AFP / Getty Images)
A man looks at bodies laid out in a make shift morgue after Egyptian security forces stormed two huge protest camps at the Rabaa al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares where supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were camped, in Cairo, on August 14, 2013. (Mosa’ab El Shamy / AFP / Getty Images)

Meanwhile, reports are circulating of numerous churches being attacked throughout the country. Supporters of ousted former president Mohammad Morsi, particularly among the Muslim Brotherhood, have a narrative about the usurpation of “legitimacy” by an unlawful “military coup.” But more insidious is the notion that the whole thing was orchestrated by a cabal led by Coptic Christians, particularly the noted businessman Naguib Sawiris. There has been a decidedly nasty sectarian streak from the outset in Brotherhood rhetoric about the “conspiracy.” And it’s taken a decidedly ugly and violent turn in “revenge.”

And, of course, both sides blame the United States. As I have argued elsewhere, finding the U.S. at fault for anything bad that happens in the Middle East is now the default position in almost all contemporary Arab political discourse.

Until now, the battle of narratives was largely being won by the authorities, at least by default. But given the carnage and anarchy of today’s developments, that may shift considerably and quickly. There is always the possibility that a considerable majority of Egyptians may continue to see the Brotherhood as primarily at fault. The pro-government narrative, which has so far prevailed, is that the Brotherhood is only really comfortable in opposition and sought to provoke and sustain violence, both by and against itself, in order to sow chaos and undermine the new government.

If most Egyptians continue to give credence to this account, it will be possible for the government to avoid a political disaster. But it seems more plausible that, at the very least, a huge amount of damage has already been done. The killing of a Sky TV cameraman, and possibly other journalists as well, during the crackdown will further harm the government’s image. Perhaps even more damaging was the death of the 17-year-old daughter of a leading Brotherhood figure, Mohamed el-Beltagi.

Politically, the honeymoon for the new government of President Adli Mansour, such as it ever was, is over. The massive coalition that stood behind General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi when he announced the ouster of Morsi had already begun to crack weeks ago. The Salafist Al-Noor party, which mainly joined the pro-ouster movement in order to try to poach from the Muslim Brotherhood constituency, has already largely broken with its very tenuous and erstwhile coalition partners.

Today the new vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei, de facto leader of the large National Salvation Front non-Islamist coalition, resigned in protest of the violence. Unconfirmed rumors suggest that deputy prime ministers Ziad Bahaa El-Din and Hossam Eissa also either have or may be preparing to resign. Another original supporter of the military-led ouster of Morsi, Al-Azhar’s grand imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb, implicitly criticized the government and insisted that the mainstream Islamic institution would refuse to be dragged into political arguments. The broad coalition behind the overthrow of the Morsi government lies in tatters.

Worst of all for the new government, it has been forced to declare a state of emergency, under terms first enacted in 1958! This is the hallmark of traditional Arab dictatorships of every variety. For optics in the post-dictatorship Arab world, especially Egypt, states of emergency are not only hated and feared by the public: for the authorities they are a measure of desperation and, to some extent, political defeat. It’s something they have to be pushed to do, and that can only hurt them.

The violence has spread throughout the country, with Morsi supporters instigating a good deal of it, which gives the government a plausible context for explaining the emergency declaration. But it is much harder now for Egyptians to avoid feeling that the government has gone too far, no matter the excesses of the Muslim Brotherhood or the cynicism of its policies. In the past few weeks, the Brotherhood gained a little bit of sympathy but almost nothing in terms of credibility. That may still be the case. The government lost a good deal of sympathy, but little in terms of authority. Egyptians were still looking to it to restore order, and to decisively end the Brotherhood protest movement.

But there’s no question this kind of brutality was not what they had in mind. It’s virtually inevitable that the new government has lost some degree of both credibility and authority with the public, though how much remains to be seen. The road back to what passes for normalcy in Egypt will be much longer and harder after today’s debacle than it already seemed. It would appear that, as many feared, there were those in the anti-Morsi camp that were seriously considering an all-out effort to crush or severely damage the Brotherhood once and for all.

This will not work. The Brotherhood exists and it is not going away. And, today, by playing into its hands and making it appear to not only it supporters, but many others, as “martyrs” and “victims,” the authorities have handed it an undeserved political victory.

Eventually the Brotherhood will have to be reincorporated into the political process, and legalized and normalized. But it is much harder to imagine how and when that can happen given the current circumstances. Brotherhood leaders and cadres continue to talk, as they always have, and including towards the end of the Morsi presidency and in his last two speeches, mainly in terms “blood,” “death,” and “martyrdom,” as well as a new theme that has emerged since his ouster: “civil war.” Needless to say all of that rhetoric has increased greatly today.

The government is going to have to act quickly to try to bring those forces that have strayed from its founding coalition back into the fold. It must show that it can restore law and order and prevent a period of open-ended anarchy, but not through the excessive force of today. The initial ouster of Morsi made many Islamists around the Arab world think twice about his conduct in office. Today’s events will probably simply reinforce a paranoid discourse that militates away from political engagement and towards violent confrontation.

So it is essential that the government not repeat any further measures that cast the Brotherhood as the “martyrs” that their own ideology extols so highly. One positive development was the reported “safe passage” offered to remaining protesters to leave the encampments unimpeded. But clearly this step in the right direction was nonetheless too little, too late.

The government needs to recall that the Brotherhood spent more than 80 years in opposition, often under extreme duress. It does not know how to govern, as Morsi’s presidency amply demonstrated. But it does know how to cast itself as the long-suffering, oppressed and righteous warriors for Islam and how to milk every ounce of sympathy from such abuses. So, having already gone too far, the government has to be extremely careful about its next moves.

Gulf states have pledged considerable aid to the new Egyptian regime. The public is going to have to feel not only a rapid return to law and order and normalcy if the authority of the state is to be maintained. It is also going have to feel a palpable improvement in daily life if the legitimacy of the government is to be continued. It has ways forward, and means, but it cannot continue to make these mistakes and prosper.

As for the Brotherhood, the temptation to become even more violent in both rhetoric and action will be severe. There are clear signs that as far as some significant factions within the Brotherhood are concerned, the violent confrontation isn’t over by a long shot. They may wish to find some means to extend conflict in order to further shake the government, push the contradictions and strengthen their own hand, or at least try to generate more sympathy in the general public.

If they do that, it will be an even bigger mistake than the government’s crackdown. For it will give the government an excuse, and perhaps one some of its members are looking for, to attempt to cast the Brotherhood into oblivion once again. Of course such efforts won’t work in the long run. But if it’s a matter of hunkering down for a long haul of attrition, the Brotherhood can and will survive in some form, but the state will be able to do so much more successfully.

Meanwhile many ordinary Egyptians will find themselves back at square one, caught between Scylla and Charybdis. On one side a military-led government relying on emergency laws and crackdowns. On the other side an enraged, radicalized and increasingly sectarian and bloody-minded Islamist opposition. It’s almost as if, not only the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, but even the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser himself, never really happened.

America the Omnipotent

[NOTE: a shorter version of this commentary was published in The National on August 11, 2013]

Anti-Americanism isn’t just a ubiquitous feature of contemporary Arab political culture. It arises from a deeper, more insidious and ingrained concept: the myth of American omnipotence. Thus the will of the United States becomes the default explanation for everything that happens in the Middle East, particularly when people don’t like it.

Anti-Americanism follows the same logical distortions, but applied in reverse, of the other great omnipotent power: God. Among the devout, God gets all the credit for everything good that happens, but none of the blame. If large numbers of children are fortuitously saved from disaster, God saved them. If they tragically die, no one ever applies the inescapable logical inverse: God killed them. God is omnipotent and omniscient, but is utterly exempted from blame for anything the faithful find bad, and only gets credit for the good.

America the omnipotent occupies the opposite position in the moral economy of contemporary Arab political thought: it’s always blamed for whatever people don’t like, but never gets the credit for anything perceived as good.

Recent events in Egypt are only the most striking and current demonstrations of this very long-standing pattern.

Supporters of former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi are convinced the United States was directly responsible for his ouster. His opponents, perhaps even more ferociously, believe the Americans put him in power and wanted to keep him there. The most bizarre theories, from both sides, about various supposed conspiracies hatched by US Ambassador Anne Patterson abound in the Egyptian media. The only thing Egyptians now agree on is whatever it is they don’t like, it must be the fault of the United States.

The same applies in Syria.

Last year I was on an Arabic TV debate with three Syrians. The first, a Salafist, said the Americans wanted to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power at the behest of Israel, because they feared the “Islamic Awakening.” The second, a nationalist, insisted that the US indeed wanted Assad to stay in power, because he had cooperative relations with Israel. The third, a regime stooge, insisted on an American plot to overthrow Assad because he was the leader of “resistance” against Israel.

But how did the United States become this “great Satan,” for which all bad things can be, and are, blamed by all Arab sides, all the time?

The problem is clearly overdetermined. Like western Islamophobia, it feeds on centuries of ancient rivalry between Dar al Islam and Christendom. Arabs feel, and for good reason, mistreated by the colonial West. Decades of nationalistic, religious, xenophobic and chauvinistic propaganda entrenched anti-American narratives in 20th-century Arab political culture. And since the 1950s the United States has been the primary regional power in the Middle East and acted like it, with all the local resentment that naturally entails.

But the underlying, latent theme actually seems to be a profound sense of unrequited love. Why is America so inexplicably biased towards Israel? Why are their policies always so unfair? Since American is omnipotent, and bad things keep happening, why does the US do them?

Yet while Arabs rail against the United States, they love its culture and products. They fight for visas, and to send their children to American universities. Even Islamists like Morsi studied and taught in California.

Arab sensibilities about international relations are defined by a profound sense of disempowerment, especially as contrasted with an illusion of American omnipotence. These fantasies feed each other in a neurotic vicious circle.

Even as American influence around the world is palpably waning, absurdities — such as the idea that the recent abdication of the Emir of Qatar was, for some reason, “ordered” by Washington — are a commonplace.

How radically different things look from DC, where a new and uncharacteristic sense of helplessness has taken root in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco, the Afghan failure and the fiscal calamity.

Washington looks at Syria and most incorrectly conclude there are no effective or useful policy options. The United States thinks that it has virtually no influence in Egypt, even less than it really might. Even in its most familiar territory, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, American policymakers are not coy about saying they feel at the mercy of the domestic politics and policy caprices of Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

The new American feeling of impotence, or at least risk-aversion, is as exaggerated as Arab delusions about American omnipotence. There is much the United States can do to help its friends in the Arab world, if only it would. But there is a persistent, crippling reticence to support those who share American goals or values, particularly if they are not fully trusted by Israel.

Arab anti-Americanism rests on two pillars: disillusionment and perceived betrayal by an ideal, combined with a wild overestimation of American power. Arabs therefore oscillate between yearning for American leadership and resenting its clout.

Contrast the ubiquitous, and normatively negative, Arab sentiments towards the United States with an almost total disinterest in the role of Russia. Yet if there is an external power up to no good in the Middle East, it is Russia. Its wholehearted support for the Syrian dictatorship helped kill at least 100,000 people in the past two years.

But there is no unrequited love affair with Russia. No sense of betrayal. No feeling of an abandoned ideal or love-hate neurosis. That Russia does what’s in its interests is simply accepted with a shrug. The dearth of conspiracy theories about the Kremlin’s machinations — especially compared to the plethora of bizarre fantasies attributed to the White House — reveals Arab anti-Americanism to be a collective neurotic symptom, fundamentally disconnected from reality.

Of course anti-Americanism is consciously and cynically abused in much Arab political rhetoric. It’s too easy a tool of manipulation for unscrupulous demagogues to pass up. And it works, all too often and all too well. Indeed, it’s so pervasive and visceral that it most closely resembles the rage of a jilted lover.

Both sides “all in” in Egypt, but looking for an out

Egypt finds itself again in the grip of a high-stakes political poker standoff, this time between the new government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The authorities hold the “big stack.” They are in power, with the backing of Egypt’s administrative bureaucracy, most political parties, the media, and military and security forces. They also have much of the Brotherhood’s leadership in detention, and have frozen their assets.

But politically both sides have been losing ground.

A large public majority seems to mostly still feel the Brotherhood made this showdown inevitable. Millions of Egyptians clearly remember why they took to the streets demanding former President Mohamad Morsi fold. And many blame the Brotherhood, more than the authorities, for the ensuing violence and instability that has rocked Egypt’s cities and Sinai Peninsula since his downfall.

Nonetheless, the crackdown on the Brotherhood, both legally and physically, has alienated some initial supporters of the military’s intervention. While the Brotherhood’s narrative about “massacres” of “peaceful protesters” seems to have considerably more adherents in the West than in Egypt, the new authorities are also increasingly seen by Egyptians as having behaved in a heavy-handed manner and, worse, failing to restore order. Buyer’s remorse is already emerging, and this is likely to only increase.

More than 80 years in opposition has prepared the Brotherhood to be at its most effective in the role of “the victim.” Their “dominated hand” is expertise at milking sympathy – even outside of their own highly disciplined ranks – for the travails they suffer at the hands of any government crackdown. Morsi’s own two last speeches in office were characterized by repeated vows to cash out by “shedding his own blood,” and “sacrificing his own life.”

Of course it’s never the leadership of any extreme, vanguardist revolutionary movement that actually volunteers for martyrdom. It’s always the rank-and-file that is food for powder. An estimated 150 pro-Morsi protesters have been killed in violent clashes with the police and security forces, who themselves lost an estimated 20 or so fatalities.

But there is a growing sense that the new government may be overplaying its hand by cracking down too harshly for the taste of many Egyptians, and through the threat the Brotherhood can “bleed its chips” by persisting in promoting an anarchical and violent atmosphere.

By playing, and in some senses even being, the victim, the Brotherhood is gaining sympathy, but not renewed legitimacy. Even those who are critical of, or in some cases repulsed by, the crackdown aren’t more impressed by the Brotherhood so much as they are dismayed by the government’s conduct.

And the government may be losing some degree of legitimacy, but not authority. Egyptians are still looking to the state and the military to restore order and normalcy to the country.

If we have entered into an exchange of mutual losses for both the authorities and the Brotherhood, there’s no doubt that the government and military are much better able to sustain such damage. They have a degree of support and respect in the public that the Brotherhood simply doesn’t. And this time, the army has wisely decided to stay behind the scenes and allow others, including politicians and judges, at least ostensibly, to take the leading role.

The new government’s position is clear: they will not brook unrest, violence, or rioting from supporters of the former president, whether in Egypt’s cities or in Sinai. But they seem and should be willing to try to find a formula to reincorporate the Brotherhood and its political party into the new system.

The Brotherhood has been issuing a “crying call” suit for peace, first privately, and now publicly. At the same time, they have been pursuing a parallel strategy of destabilizing Egyptian society through protests and, at least proxy, violence. The Brotherhood knows that its fundamental position that there must be a return to the status quo ante, Morsi’s presidency, is completely out of the question. The problem is, how to broker an arrangement between two sides so diametrically opposed in a country so deeply divided.

International mediation is ongoing, but still fruitless. The Arab states, including Qatar, and the whole world, have formally recognized the legitimacy of the new government. The problem is how to get the Brotherhood to do the same, and agree to terms for going forward. A compromise might involve ministerial positions for Brotherhood members, or buy-in to a transitional plan involving new elections in the near future.

The Brotherhood has to face the fact that in the foreseeable future it won’t be returning to power. Other Egyptians have to face the fact the Brotherhood isn’t going away.

The prospects for Islamists around the Middle East will be powerfully influenced by how both sides play their hands, and whether Egyptians can find a compromise, or will persist with their present double-down.

Support for rebels will help push Syrians away from extremists

Extremists are increasingly dominating the Syrian rebellion, especially since the beginning of this year. This has significantly strengthened the position of the dictator, Bashar Al Assad, by validating his narrative about “Islamic terrorism” – that began as a fiction during the period of peaceful, unarmed protests but is now a reality that he is instrumental in shaping and driving.

Extremist prominence has also badly divided the opposition and the Syrian public, allowing for a string of significant government military gains in strategic locations. What is to be done about these radicals?

There are at least two clear, plausible approaches. Both can address this conundrum and improve prospects for a “least bad” outcome. And both involve concerted efforts to strengthen the Free Syrian Army (FSA) combined with other measures to de-radicalise or combat extreme Islamists.

Those who argue against arming any of the rebels because of the strength of radical movements are citing the self-fulfilling prophecy, and grim logical consequences, of their own consistent “hands-off” policy recommendations: reluctance to support the FSA for fear of the emergence of extreme Islamists has inexorably and inevitably led to precisely that development.

Extremists became disproportionately important because they received far more financial and material support from their backers. Meanwhile, nationalist groups associated with the FSA suffered neglect from western and Arab powers that should have recognised their strong interest in a strong FSA.

The most extreme rebels are Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS). But these Jihadist groups and their Al Qaeda allies have become embroiled in a damaging internal power struggle. The big winners from that quarrel are factions associated with the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), a coalition of Salafist groups.

Al Nusra and the ISIS are not only a boon to Mr Al Assad, they are at least as much a threat to the future of Syria as he is. One potential counter to them is the development of a Syrian version of Iraq’s “sahwa”, or awakening, that pitted former Sunni insurgent groups against their erstwhile Al Qaeda allies. This kind of population-based asymmetrical warfare will be harder for external powers to conduct with the limited and clandestine “boots on the ground”. But since these effects are largely driven by financial and material support, there is no reason it cannot produce significant results.

Such an effort could be intimately tied to a programme to fund, arm, train and provide intelligence, logistics and command and control support to the FSA. Or it could be a parallel, independent track.

A more intriguing possibility, and one too lightly dismissed, is that some groups or fighters who have drifted into the SIF orbit could be “winnable” to a more tolerant, inclusive and less dogmatic orientation. Unlike Al Nusra and others that imported an Al Qaeda ideology, most SIF groups emerged spontaneously in Syria. They grew because of intensive foreign backing combined with their nationalistic, but religious, stance. Large numbers of embittered young men have drifted into their orbit, in many cases probably for want of a better alternative.

No doubt many SIF leaders and some fighters already were, or have now become, committed Salafists and may be unlikely to shift from their unacceptable, and untenable “goal” of establishing a Sunni Islamist, Sharia-based, Syrian state. But how strongly committed are all of these groups and fighters to that decision?

The SIF’s standard rhetoric is indefensible, sectarian and intolerant. Unfortunately, it is also an effective rallying cry to arms against an Alawite-dominated regime and plays well with wealthy extremist patrons in the Gulf. However, it also runs counter to most traditional culture and lived realities of modern Syria, which is a heterogeneous and typically tolerant society. Salafism doesn’t come naturally to, or fit well with, most normative Syrian socio-cultural attitudes.

Counterterrorism observers often assume that online statements and videos tell the whole story. But the way these groups have rapidly developed and how they have used videos to raise money from extremist foreign backers, as well as the likelihood that many of their cadres were drawn to them for want of a more attractive alternative, suggest that a concerted programme to reorient or undermine them could produce results.

Syria’s socio-political reality is fluid, not neatly indexed into immutable, fixed categories. It is possible that many fighters and even entire groups, given sufficient incentives, could be drawn away from hard-core Salafism, just as they were drawn to it. Westerners who have met SIF types typically report a very different reality from that depicted in strident videos and statements.

In the present Syrian context, it’s defeatist, unimaginative and dogmatic to assume that “Salafist by name” definitively or irreversibly means “Salafist by nature”, or once a Salafist, always a Salafist. How many of these young men were armed two years ago, or even politicised? How committed are rank-and-file SIF cadres, or even some leaders, to a rhetoric that incongruously and unworkably conflates Salafism with nationalism?

The clashes between Kurdish fighters and Jihadists in recent weeks demonstrate how fluid and dynamic Syrian realities are. Western and Arab neglect facilitated the rise of extremist groups in Syria. There is every reason to believe that a more robust engagement could intensify the degradation of the Jihadist groups and provide viable alternatives for those currently in the Salafist orbit. In both cases, the big loser would be Mr Al Assad.