Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Assad Equation

An alarming precedent in international relations is being established in Syria by rewarding gassing civilians

Bashar al-Assad speaks to Turkish media in an interview later uploaded to YouTube by the Syrian president.


The worst fears of those who doubted the wisdom and effectiveness of the agreement between the international community and the Assad regime to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and capability are rapidly being realized. Today’s “deadline” to ship the most serious material out of the country produced no movement. And a new precedent in international relations with potentially far-reaching and alarming consequences – call it “the Assad equation” – is unmistakably unfolding.

Whatever signals the West intended to send through the agreement, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has clearly taken it as an implicit green light to use all other weapons with increasing intensity in his onslaught against both rebels and Syria’s defenseless civilian population.

The way the regime is “implementing” the agreement demonstrates they see it primarily as a useful distraction for the international community from the vicious war it is conducting against the Syrian people. The regime probably doesn’t care that much about chemical weapons. But, as they are making abundantly clear, when they can avoid compliance, they will.

Reports suggest that today’s “deadline” for shipping most of its chemical weapons stockpile out of the country is being systematically procrastinated. Indeed, according to reports by those involved in the process on the UN and international side, the weapons have not even begun to be moved.

Anyone who finds it convenient can cite logistics, winter weather, and, of course, the ongoing conflict for such “delays.” All of these complications were fully understood and, presumably, factored into the equation when the December 31 deadline was agreed upon. But the process required to ensure that Syria retains no chemical weapons in the timeframe the agreement sets forth was always implausible at best and, at worst, practically impossible to either accomplish or verify.

The plan to transport Syria’s declared 1,200 tons of chemical weapons material requires its transfer from 12 different sites around the country by road to the northwestern port of Latakia. This means, in effect, that the agreement both relies on and therefore implicitly endorses military measures the regime can claim are necessary to secure the areas required for this macabre long-haul convoy.

The agreement not only makes Assad a partner with the international community in the project of getting rid of his own chemical weapons following their use against civilians, but it can also be cited to justify regime offensives in order to ensure their control of all the necessary areas and roads for this transfer.

International authorities say the regime now has “virtually all” of the necessary “logistical and security assets” in order to bring these weapons to Latakia. But to cite this as a positive development can also only mean de facto endorsement of regime control over key areas and transportation corridors of the country.

Assad, therefore, appears to have discovered or pioneered a new principle of international relations: lost legitimacy can be restored, and a consensus in favor of regime change can be profoundly compromised by dumping poison gas on civilians, including hundreds of children.

This, then, is “the Assad equation,” and dictators around the world must surely be taking note of the increasingly obvious and substantial benefits to the regime of having committed a heinous war crime.

Worse still, there is no sign that the international community’s patience is being particularly tested by how the agreement is playing out. The regime is predictably dragging the process on as long as possible, which they will certainly continue to do, citing any number of plausible-seeming technical and security problems.

Worst of all, and although the West and the United States could not have intended this, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Assad dictatorship regards the chemical weapons-focused process as, in practice, providing cover for an intensification of massive attacks, including against unarmed civilians, by even the fiercest “conventional” weapons.

The ongoing barrel bombing onslaught in Aleppo in which at least 500 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in recent days exemplify this dynamic. International eyebrows are hardly raised by such butchery anymore.

Indeed, the main development in the Western policy conversation since the agreement – the increasing use of heavy weapons against Syrian civilians notwithstanding – has been the emergence of establishment constituencies that openly endorse the survival of the regime as “the least bad option” for the West in Syria.

Today’s will hardly be the last missed deadline or breach of the agreement. An endless string of them may be readily anticipated. Meanwhile, Syria will continue to be immolated as the rest of the world shrugs or, in the case of Russia and Iran, applauds.

As things stand, the “Assad equation” is emerging as a chilling but unmistakable new principle of international relations. And there seems little interest in Washington or other Western capitals in correcting this perilous precedent.

The growing existential struggle for the political heart of Egypt

While some parts of the Arab world are dividing along sectarian and sometimes ethnic lines, the smouldering unrest in Egypt is entirely ideological. Partisans on both sides view it as an existential struggle to define Egypt’s identity – and all conflicts of this type tend to be bitter and brutal.

Political life is determined entirely by narratives and most elements of politics are entirely subjective. And even when objective realities – economic, geographical, climatic, and so forth – do sometimes assert themselves, the way they are interpreted depends entirely on the perceptual framework within which different groups of people operate.

A minimum level of narrative coherence is necessary for social stability. When the world views of key constituencies in any given society become fundamentally irreconcilable, this can provide a ready basis for protracted unrest and even civil conflict.

The violence currently racking Egypt has taken alarming turns in both the daily routine and the nature and kind of conflict in the country. And the prospects for a stable, orderly constitutionalism – if not fully developed democracy – in Egypt are profoundly undermined by this rapid deterioration.

The violence itself is merely a symptom – and only one of them – of a deepening divide cutting Egyptian society into at least two, if not more, hostile factions that view themselves as exclusively legitimate and the other as entirely illegitimate.

In contrast to the sectarian and ethnic violence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, Egypt is haunted by the spectre of a very different model of nightmarish Arab state disintegration: the ideologically-driven conflict between Islamists and the government in Algeria in the 1990s.

The Egyptian government’s narrative since the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi has been that the military intervened, after overwhelming public demand, to stop the misrule of an out of control party and president who faced no other political checks. From the outset, they accused Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of having deep ties to Salafist-Jihadist extremists in Sinai.

This account has been significantly strengthened by the evidently furious reaction of the Sinai-based extremists to Mr Morsi’s removal, and their reported offer in the days and weeks immediately following that violence would cease if he were restored to office. With both the government and the Muslim Brotherhood raising the stakes, violence has been spreading throughout Egypt.

From the government’s point of view, there is no real distinction between the actions and policies of the Brotherhood and those of Ansar Beit Al Maqids – which claimed responsibility for the massive bombing of a security headquarters in Mansoura – and other Sinai extremist groups.

Because they are regarded as acting in cahoots, the Brotherhood is assumed to be responsible. And the Brotherhood only encourages this assumption by not simply condemning the attacks but rather blaming them on the government, and even a fictional “Christian militia”.

Many who embrace this narrative, or even most of it, would find last week’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government to be both predictable and, perhaps, justifiable, whether or not they view the decision as wise.

The narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, by contrast, suggests all of this is nothing but excuses for a counter-revolutionary crackdown.

It always anticipated that the military and the rest of the Egyptian establishment would never allow an elected Brotherhood presidency and would find some rationalisation to overthrow it.

Everything that has followed has been interpreted through this framework as a campaign to destroy the Brotherhood jail, persecute and kill its members, and blame it for all kinds of things it has nothing to do with. The Brotherhood worldview predicts such a response to any political success, and its political comfort zone is much more attuned to the underground than the open air.

Indeed, a primary public and rhetorical reaction of the Brotherhood narrative to the removal of Mr Morsi was to predict the virtual inevitability of a violent backlash.

So, in addition to feeling framed and persecuted, this narrative also allows its adherents to feel vindicated in their prediction of mounting chaos. So far, a sizeable majority of socially active Egyptians still seem to be leaning towards the government narrative, even as some elements of the Brotherhood narrative are spreading even into some “liberal” and “revolutionary” constituencies that do not and never will like any Islamists.

Politically engaged Egyptian society appears divided between a larger group that adheres to some version of the government narrative, and a smaller but substantial one – such as the students recently protesting at Al Azhar University – who seem to embrace the Brotherhood’s perspective.

As Egyptians increasingly see each other not as fellow Egyptians but rather as “terrorists” versus “counter-revolutionaries,” the potential increases for a prolonged and widespread social and political crisis that pervades every aspect of society. And the prospects for the minimum shared narratives needed for political functionality, and law and order, fade.

Egypt is neither about to become the next Algeria, nor is it yet entering its own “year of living dangerously”. But the elements for intensified and prolonged civil strife are clearly growing, as its society is experiencing a breakdown in a minimal shared belief about what “Egypt” is, and what it means to be “Egyptian”.

The monster that won’t die: How and why Al-Qaeda is making yet another appalling comeback


Every time it seems as if it’s about to finally outlive its viability, al-Qaeda and its affiliates astonishingly spring back to life. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, the organization was virtually wiped out. But the war in Iraq brought it back from the brink of oblivion, giving it a new battleground, recruiting tool, training field, and rationale. Following the “Awakening” in Sunni areas of Iraq, al-Qaeda again appeared to be a thing of the past, or at least relegated to permanent irrelevancy.


Yet the Syrian conflict and other “Arab uprising” environments have once again reanimated this monstrous corpse. Its malignancy has been the single biggest contributor in saving the Syrian dictatorship from what had appeared to be a looming defeat. And al-Qaeda in Iraq has also made a huge comeback in the context of the Syrian conflict, with the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq” killing an average of almost 1,000 Iraqis per month in the last quarter of 2013.


There was a time when people using the term “al-Qaeda” thought that they had a more-or-less clear sense of what they were talking about: an organization led by Osama bin Laden that grew out of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union and engaging in or inspiring extreme violence in much of the Middle East, other parts of the Islamic world, and, occasionally but dramatically, the West. It was informed by a paranoid and chauvinistic ideology that held that the Muslims of the world, and indeed Islam itself, were under siege by all non-Muslim powers and even by many Muslims. It sought to obliterate all of the Muslim-majority nation states and replace them with a new “caliphate” running from at least Morocco to Indonesia.


But even in the heyday of its most formalized hierarchy, there was always a wild, disparate, and fly-by-night quality to al-Qaeda. And now the term has become little more than a symbolic marker for the political ideology that usually calls itself “salafi-jihadism.”


There have always been differences within al-Qaeda, those who have either successfully seized or been granted permission to use the name as a kind of franchise, and other salafi-jihadi or “takfiri” groups. But while the parent organization based in Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to be increasingly irrelevant, the political ideology and program of mass murder that are now synonymous with al-Qaeda seem at least as robust as ever, if not more so. It is the monster that, for the past decade, simply will not die.


Indeed, while al-Qaeda and similar groups can only function in a condition of anarchy as no government would willingly permit such uncontrollable fanatics to operate within their own territory, not only are they continuing to find space in which to operate: they are proliferating.


In Syria, there are at least two competing versions of al-Qaeda: Jabhat al-Nusra and the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (ISIS). A similar situation exists in North Africa, as such groups have proliferated in the northern Sahel region. In the areas immediately south of Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, there are at least two separate organizations battling over the al-Qaeda brand, and many more that adhere to some version or other of the salafi-jihadi ideology.


The revival of al-Qaeda in Iraq is in some ways the most terrifying. The so-called “Islamic State of Iraq” has been carrying out an average of almost 1,000 murders per month, mainly by suicide bombings. This means that the group is able to dispatch at least one or two suicidal lunatics bent on the mass murder of Shiites every day. The fact that they probably come from all over the Muslim world is beside the point: the salient issue is the seemingly endless supply of suicidal/homicidal maniacs imbued with this ideology who are willing to kill and die for it without any clear or rational strategy.


Given the horrifying breath, diversity, and adaptability of al-Qaeda-style political extremism in the Middle East – and the fact that every time it appears on the brink of oblivion, it reemerges, not only in one form or another, but increasingly in competing manifestations in the same place – several disturbing conclusions are strongly suggested.


First, the various narratives driving this extremism, which are embraced by far larger circles than are sympathetic to al-Qaeda and its offshoots, are the single greatest factor in its persistence. As long as a critical mass of angry young men can be convinced that everything they hold dear is being besieged by “infidels” of one form or another, including other Muslims, they will continue to kill and die in the most ruthless manner possible.


Second, there is a consistent – and, as demonstrated by the Iraq and Syria conflicts, also at times periodically and noticeably surging – funding base for these activities. The original al-Qaeda, it was always suspected and has now become even more evident, has significant ties to factions within Pakistan’s intelligence services. But many different, subsequent, manifestations of this ideology appear to be funded mainly from the Gulf, and by private individuals. The extent to which governments are aware of these activities, and choose to ignore or condone them, is not clear. But at the very least, there sometimes seems to be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude towards money for such efforts, particularly when they are cast as an element, or even a vanguard, of a broader regional strategic and sectarian battle. And as long as someone is paying the bills, the show can go on and on.


Third, this ideology and the terrorism it inspires is having a much greater longevity and broader applicability than most had feared. When I was a teenager in the mid-1970s, such ideas were, at most, a faded twinkle in the eye of long-dead hardline ideologues, most notably Sayyid Qutb. And because this extremism has a clear political lineage based on historically contingent events and decisions that doesn’t date back much further than the late 1970s, it will surely also have a limited lifespan.


But that lifespan keeps getting extended despite the fact that salafi-jihadism hasn’t made any progress whatsoever in achieving any of its stated goals, and certainly hasn’t come close to taking power in any state, overthrowing any governments, or driving the West out of the Middle East. One can only conclude that, however wild-eyed and naïvely vicious its acolytes may be, for its behind-the-scenes funders and promoters, al-Qaeda and its ideology is an end in itself.


It serves a purpose, but not the one its followers, and possibly most of its leaders, believe it does. After its uninterrupted series of failures, no rational person could expect al-Qaeda or similar organizations to actually achieve anything. Instead, they are only useful as a blunt instrument of raw destruction and as convenient and extremely efficient proxies for wreaking havoc when that is desired.


Even its shadow can be potent. In Syria, for example, the specter of al-Qaeda was invoked by the cynical and ruthless President Bashar al-Assad not only before it had any real presence in the country, but even while the opposition was almost entirely engaged in peaceful protests. For the Damascus dictatorship, it was an indispensable strategic goal to steer the uprising towards an armed conflict and ensure that it was as sectarian as possible, with the maximal amount of al-Qaeda influence within the opposition.


The minute the uprising began to become armed, the specter of al-Qaeda also served as a convenient excuse for those in the United States and the rest of the West who wanted nothing to do with any involvement in Syria. And now, it has emerged as a rationalization for some Americans, including within the policy establishment, and others to actually begin to publicly declare that the continuation of the savage dictatorship is the “least-bad outcome” facing Western interests in Syria.


This has been a disaster for the Syrian opposition and all of its regional and international supporters, and also perhaps the single greatest strategic asset in the hands of Assad. The Syrian dictator, moreover, has long-established links to al-Qaeda and similar groups that fought in Iraq, having offered them years of laissez-passer in order to fight against the Americans and their allies. Theoretically, al-Assad and al-Qaeda are the bitterest of sectarian and ideological enemies. But they have a well-established track record of knowing how to make each other useful, first in Iraq, and now again in Syria.


It’s impossible to know to what extent these organizations, their fighters, leaders and, most significantly, regional backers intended to provide, or even understand, the invaluable boon they have been for Assad and his regime. But it’s also very possible that many if not most of them just don’t care. What is clear is that al-Qaeda has found yet another stronghold, training ground, and recruiting tool in Syria, and that this will not be easily reversed as long as large parts of the country remain contested and the fog of war obscures governance, stability, order, and reason.


Syria is only the most dramatic instance of the recent resurgence of al-Qaeda. Iraq, too, for all of its carnage, only begins to hint at the proliferation of such groups. They are spreading and gaining traction in ungoverned, remote or contested areas in much of southern North Africa, in border areas, across the Sahel, in rural Yemen, the Sinai Peninsula, and many places where no government’s writ runs and all other Sunni Muslim ideologies and organizing principles seem pallid by comparison.


Given that many parts of the Arab world appear to be in the throes – and perhaps even still the beginning stages – of a lengthy, messy, and unpredictable transformation, opportunities for the monster that won’t die to continue to thrive seem disturbingly strong.


As long as states in the region continue to experience turmoil, drift towards anarchy, or contain significant ungoverned areas, al-Qaeda and its ilk will find spaces in which to operate. As long as wealthy individuals or others are willing to fund them, they can move beyond organized crime and become serious players in conflagrations such as the war in Syria.


And, perhaps most importantly, as long as the irrational and narcissistic, but powerful and alluring, narrative of an Arab and Muslim world under siege by hostile forces from within and without continues to be embraced by significant constituencies within the Sunni Arab world – even if most who subscribe to some version of this narrative reject al-Qaeda’s ideology, goals, and methods – it will continue to be able to draw upon a fringe of a fringe of a very large population.


A small number of determined individuals can do an extraordinary amount of damage, in every possible sense of the term. The daily suicide bombings in Iraq, the proliferation of competing al-Qaeda factions in Syria and North Africa, the drift towards ever-greater levels of extremism within such fanatical circles, and the likelihood of continued regional instability and persistence of large, ungoverned areas all suggest that the hydra which already should have died many times over is alive and well. Indeed, there is nothing on the immediate horizon that points to its imminent demise.


This is contrary to the interests of all parties that cling to any degree of rationality. The ideal scenario would involve a concerted regional and international effort to push back against these key factors: dry up the funding, restore local, state, and regional stability, and, above all, begin to firmly reject the popular narratives which feed this kind of extremism on the social fringes.


The Syrian experience demonstrates that any effort to “use” such fanatics to serve even the narrowest, most sectarian, and least worthy goals will, perforce, backfire. But the Syrian experience also shows that this lesson has not yet been learned. The more moderate Syrian rebel forces remain relatively neglected. Assad is increasingly presented in the West as, if not vindicated, then at least “not as bad as the alternative.” And, thanks in good measure to al-Qaeda, the tide of the conflict has drifted, at least for now, in favor of the dictatorship.


The monstrosity of al-Qaeda not only keeps springing up from the grave, but the elements are in place for it to remain relevant in numerous parts of the Arab world for the foreseeable future. Eventually it will go away, as all such extremist movements do. But this will require either much more time than most observers, until now, had feared would be needed. Or it would necessitate the kind of concerted international and regional effort that in the meantime remains, disastrously, as much of an implausibility as it is an urgent necessity.

US must be clear about its objectives in the Middle East next year

For American relations with the Arab world, 2014 must be a year of clarification. An unprecedented series of question marks accumulated throughout 2013 about the role of the US in the region. This trend cannot continue. Long-standing strategic relations require renovation, and the onus for this cannot fall exclusively on either Arabs or Americans alone.

Both the regional landscape and American policy have been in tremendous flux. Americans worry that the region is spinning out of control and question their own ability to influence these events. Those in the Middle East who look to the US to play a stabilising role seem flummoxed by America’s apparently cautious and occasionally unpredictable reactions.

In one instance, though, calculated ambiguity has proved helpful. John Kerry’s extraordinary efforts to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have yielded talks amid the utmost secrecy. Rarely has there been such a tight lid both within Washington and among the parties involved, despite dubious leaks from marginal figures.

Mr Kerry has protected the process from domestic politics on both sides, but at the necessary cost of allowing scepticism to grow.

No one should expect 2014 to deliver a final peace agreement. But an understanding to extend the talks has now become far more plausible. A potential formula could include Palestinian acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and Israel’s acceptance of the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps as the basis for a future border. If negotiations are extended for at least an additional year, this could provide a basis for further progress.

Next year will also clarify the trajectory of American negotiations with Iran. The interim agreement is supposed to set the stage for a broader resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.

One interpretation holds that the US and Iran must have seen some possibility of deeper rapprochement, and that this is the ultimate goal both seek. Another view perceives them as buying time. A third perspective takes the negotiations at face value, believing the parties are engaging without any firm assumptions.

If a wide-ranging nuclear deal is to be achieved, it will probably start to take shape over the next year. And, if it involves any broader Iranian-American understanding, there will surely be signs of that too. If, on the other hand, the interim agreement is simply extended without additional progress, that would indicate this year’s “breakthrough” was just a play for time.

Finally, there is a strong possibility of a breakdown of negotiations altogether, and a return to the standoff that logically culminates with American military action.

The future of US-Iranian talks will have profound implications for the security concerns of America’s Gulf allies. Doubts, and even grievances – most dramatically aired in an unusually blunt New York Times op-ed by the Saudi ambassador to the UK – are therefore also likely to either be exacerbated or attenuated in the coming year.

Egyptian-American relations require significant attention as well. Mr Kerry has toned down some American reservations about the removal of Mohammed Morsi from office. But aspects of US-Egyptian relations remain suspended, particularly military cooperation, as Washington is still uncomfortable with some of the Egyptian government’s policies.

Given how the political landscape is developing, strategic relations between the US, the Gulf states and Egypt are likely to move in similar directions. In 2014, these relationships will either improve or deteriorate from the current unusual and unsustainable ambiguity, depending on what both sides do and say.

The most difficult policy challenge facing both Arab governments and the US will be Syria. There has long been a predominance of opinion in Washington that the United States “lacks good options” in Syria and therefore should do little.

The rise of Al Qaeda-linked groups, and fading fortunes of non-Islamist armed opposition, has produced an increasingly vocal constituency in the American establishment for actually endorsing Bashar Al Assad’s continuation in power.

The self-fulfilling notion that the US has “no good options in Syria” seems increasingly vindicated to its proponents. But the hands-off approach that followed has been a major factor in ensuring options are limited. This is a self-defeating, self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating policy mistake. And it could persist for years.

Moreover, as long as the US insists that Mr Al Assad must go, while simultaneously working with him as a partner in destroying his chemical weapons, American policy will continue to seem at cross purposes with both itself and the interests of its Arab allies.

Syria’s horrifying conflict is the most urgent regional issue because of its intense violence, huge casualties, refugee crisis, destabilising “spillover” effect and function as a sectarian proxy battlefield. But it’s also, unfortunately, the conundrum most likely to prove resistant to clarification, let alone resolution.

Nonetheless, 2014 ought to provide clarity on several difficult questions between the US and some of its key Arab allies.

The interests that first drew them together haven’t fundamentally altered.

Therefore neither should the core strategic calculation of cooperation, so 2014 should be the year of repairing the American-Arab strategic partnership where it has been recently fraying.

The Real Man of the Year: José Mujica

By leading Uruguay to become the first nation to fully legalize marijuana, José Mujica has struck a long-overdue and brutal blow against organized crime.

Uruguay legalizes marijuana.


Many decades ago, in its heyday of influence, TIME Magazine inaugurated its annual “Man of the Year” designation. Always a marketing ploy, it’s meant to reflect the person who either made most news or created most change in the preceding 12 months. It’s since become an anachronism, but still gets attention. This year TIME selected Pope Francis.

Given the vast number of Catholics, and how much the freewheeling, maverick new Pope has challenged many ossified orthodoxies in short order, the choice is perfectly defensible. In centuries past, such a provocative leader might have met a grim fate.

One can easily imagine a Renaissance Vatican banquet at which, the general attention somehow diverted, a hollow ring is deftly opened, pestilent powder then artfully sprinkled into the papal goblet before a hearty toast… and, with a little sip, farewell Pope! Call forth the Camerlengo.

But we are, thankfully, long past such things, we trust.

Like many others, with all due respect to the editors of TIME, I have my own preference. A unique political leader, the President of Uruguay, José Mujica, was already a potentially sentimental candidate. But with one unprecedented gesture, he has now become a deeply compelling one.

Mujica’s  visionary breakthrough is that he has had the courage to lead his small, and now happy and stable, country to take the obvious, logical, and rational step that so many others around the world cower from in abject terror: legalizing marijuana. Uruguayans who wish to smoke cannabis must now simply register with the government and limit themselves to 40 grams a month.

Mujica has pointed out the simple and obvious truth: the marijuana trade in his country is at least a $40 million industry that will no longer be controlled by gangsters but instead be legally regulated and taxed by the state. This non-addictive, non-toxic, organic plant that some people find pleasant – personally, I do not like it and never touch the stuff – will no longer fund the underworld in his country. The insane, near universal, prohibition has finally been lifted by a sensible country led by a sensible man. Why this took so long is the only possible question.

One possible answer is the positively hysterical reaction of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which has condemned Uruguay for acting without its exalted permission and called its decision “illegal.” In his patented plainspoken manner, Mujica gave the ghastly INCB chief inquisitor Raymond Yans exactly what he deserved: “Tell that old man to stop lying,” he said. “Because he sits in a comfortable international platform, he believes he can say whatever nonsense.” Amen!

Mujica notes that the sublimely hypocritical Yans never said a word about European countries or American states that decriminalized cannabis, but has gone on a rampage against Uruguay, even accusing it of “piracy.”

Yans is a lowly international lickspittle whose bleating is properly waved aside with the utmost derision. Mujica has dealt with far sterner opponents: he’s a veteran of the Tupamaros armed revolutionary movement, who has since become a center-leftist, creative thinker, and uniting figure in Uruguay. But in his revolutionary days, he served over 15 years in prison, two of them at the bottom of a well amid the rats and spiders.

He and the other Tupamaros were the objects of one of the more elaborate historical experiments in torture. This was, unfortunately, overseen not only by Uruguay’s fascist  government but also the CIA’s torture guru Dan Mitrione, officially head of the” Office of Public Safety” mission.

Mitrione is reputed to have advocated, instructed, and experimented with torture in Uruguay as an art form. “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect,” was reportedly his credo, but always leaving “some hope a distant light” of survival and relief. He also advocated a little additional torture after the required information was extracted as a disincentive to further subversion.

In 1970 Mitrione was kidnapped and assassinated, but tellingly not tortured, by the Tupamaros.

With the restoration of a constitutional democracy in 1985, Mujica was freed. He became a populist politician, living in ostentatious austerity on a farm and driving a dilapidated Volkswagen. He is reputed to be “the poorest president in the world,” purportedly giving 90% of his $19,000 annual salary to charity.

Populism of this style can be its own kind of demagoguery and hype. I have long been intrigued by him, but remained somewhat skeptical.

Now that Mujica has had the vision to lead Uruguay to legalize marijuana (and abortion, for that matter), one can only say “bravo, and may others have the guts to follow suit.” Otherwise, the rest of the world can continue to arrange their laws for the convenience and empowerment of organized crime, at the expense of both the public and rational governance.

Palestinians and Israelis can coexist if occupation ends

The unstable and unhealthy relationship of dominance and subordination, of discipline and control through violence, built into Israel’s occupation was graphically illustrated this week in two separate, tragic and bloody incidents.

Last Saturday, a 15-year-old Palestinian child, Wajih Wajdi Al Ramahi, was shot in the back and killed by Israeli occupation forces. The soldiers were sniping from a watchtower near the Israeli settlement of Bet-El. There are conflicting accounts of what happened, but even the official Israeli military version as it now stands is utterly damning.

The Israeli army says it deployed soldiers to “ambush” and “apprehend” stone-throwing Palestinian youths. In other words, the soldiers were lying in wait for the children. They duly appeared, and seeing the soldiers, according to the Israeli army, began throwing rocks from a distance of 150 metres (therefore posing no actual threat). The Israeli military says then “the squad commander began the procedure for arresting a suspect and shooting was only in the air.”

And yet somehow Wajih ended up lying on his face, dead on the ground, shot in the back by the army of occupation. Nothing in the official Israeli account begins to justify or explain what happened to him. Everything points to what can only be described as a calculated ambush that led to a completely indefensible homicide.

Lest anyone think this incident is a bizarre aberration, not only have 23 Palestinians been killed by Israeli occupation forces this year in the West Bank, the history of the Al Ramahi family is an object lesson in the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

This family originates from the village of Muzayriah, which was destroyed by Israel in 1948. Residents of that town and 36 other destroyed villages, including the Al Ramahi family, now live in the Jalazun refugee camp, near where Wajih was shot and killed.

His father, a Fatah activist, was jailed by Israel from 1972-1992. Occupation forces destroyed two of the family’s homes and boarded up two more. The family says two other close relatives were killed by Israeli troops in the past 15 years: Mohammed Ahmed, 14, and Mohammed Jamal, 21. To cap it all off, Wajih’s older brother and two of his cousins are currently in Israeli custody and awaiting trial.

But the violence is a two-way street. There’s another Palestinian in Israeli custody today, formally indicted this week for murdering an Israeli soldier last November.

Sixteen-year-old Hussein Sharif Rawarda, from Jenin, is accused of stabbing and killing 19-year-old Eden Atias while he was asleep on a bus in northern Israel. Rawarda claimed he was acting on behalf of his jailed uncles. But his father, who condemned the killing, said his son was apolitical and probably motivated by economic distress.

The two grievances are inextricable. The entire system – social, economic and political – that Israel operates in the occupied territories can only be described as separate and unequal. The particular stressor on any occupied individual may manifest as social, political or even economic, but they all arise from the violent system of domination by a foreign occupying power.

Although it was written long ago and about a different time and place, Frantz Fanon’s 1961 essay Concerning Violence – for all its undoubted historical and ideological anachronisms, and naive enthusiasms – remains the best overall guide to the psychological dynamic between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Its descriptive contrast between “the settlers’ towns” and “the native town” is uncannily evocative of the present day occupied Palestinian territories. And his evaluation of the psychology of these relationships applies as precisely to Israelis and Palestinians as any Fanon may have had in mind more than 50 years ago.

Fanon describes precisely the deforming and dehumanising impact on both the occupier and the occupied: “The violence of the colonial regime and the counter-violence of the native balance each other and respond to each other in an extraordinary reciprocal homogeneity.”

And so 15-year-old Wajih lies shot in the back like a stray dog, while 16-year-old Hussein is about to stand trial for murdering 19-year-old Eden in his sleep.

Routine tragedies demonstrate how and why the status quo is simply unmanageable, with millions of disenfranchised Palestinians living for decades under Israeli military rule with no end in sight. The relative calm that has recently prevailed, and that is now fraying, cannot be maintained if the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. For everyone’s sake, conditions for Palestinians must be immediately improved, and in overt preparation for independent statehood.

The relationship of occupied Palestinians and Israeli occupation forces is essentially that of prisoners and prison guards. There is an ordered, legalised hierarchy of power and privilege inherent in the occupation. There is nothing hard-wired in either Israeli or Palestinian culture that makes people on either side relate to each other as they do.

Instead, each individual acts out the position to which they are assigned in a highly structured interaction between rulers and ruled. The same formula could be transplanted between any two other national groups anywhere in the world with similar results. A mere reversal of fortunes would likely see a concomitant reversal of roles.

Violence, incitement and abuses can and should be minimised by all authorities. But there is only one way to actually end this vicious circle of inhumanity. The occupation must end, so Israelis and Palestinians can live, at long last, not as the oppressors and the oppressed, but side-by-side as citizens of equally sovereign, independent states.


Time for Arabs to be active in Washington’s policy circles

There has been a wide range of reactions in the Arab world to the interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community. But a clear common thread is concern about the long-term trajectory of American policy towards the region. The good news is that there are practical, effective measures the Arab states could take to have more input into the American foreign policy conversation.

There is a subtext of anxiety detectable even among Arab societies that have emphasised the prospects for greater regional stability suggested by dialogue with Iran. Most of the Arab world does seem to be wondering where, exactly, American policy is going and, indeed, is worried about it. And that, precisely, should spur interest in impacting the American conversation about the region.

Arab concerns are understandable. Over the past 30 years, Iran has emerged as a would-be hegemonic power that effectively uses proxies that engage in extreme forms of violence, and a potential second regional nuclear power (alongside Israel). The prospect of any version of an American “policy shift” towards Tehran, and therefore perhaps also towards its regional clients, is bound to provoke Arab unease.

Alarm is premature. A change in focus on crucial matters of international relations requires the slow and public building of a consensus before it can genuinely reorient Washington’s fundamental attitudes. The behemoth of American foreign policy almost always moves glacially. It is answerable to a vast and complex political system, with a huge range of inputs and influences that go into shaping the core basis of policy. And Arabs can do much more to influence this conversation.

The idea that the United States is preparing to shift its focus towards an understanding with Iran and its allies at the expense of Arab states is still implausible. Such thinking would imply that secret US-Iranian contacts must have dealt with a far broader range of issues than simply the nuclear file, and made at least some movement in each other’s direction for the nuclear issue to become a viable negotiation.

These anxieties tap into a deep and persistent Arab nightmare: that the great powers will ally with any and all other Middle Eastern entities – Israel, Turkey and even Iran – but always at the expense of the region’s majority, the Arabs. There is a historical basis for these visceral fears, but also a degree of fatalistic passivity. Arabs can do much to impact their own future.

After all, the US remains deeply enmeshed with its Arab partners, even at a time of strained relations with key players such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The commercial, military, intelligence, educational and cultural links are too deeply rooted to be quickly upended.

Moreover, the “breakthrough” with Iran remains limited in scope and, as both sides insist, time-sensitive. The sanctions are only partially lifted, and some of the most damaging – such as the exclusion of Iranian financial institutions from the SWIFT code network which cripples its banking sector – are still in place.

And, while the prospects for the kind of short-term, time-buying agreement reached in Geneva long seemed promising, a broader agreement significantly rolling back Iran’s nuclear programme and dealing with other strategic issues will be far more challenging.

On both sides, it may be up against the clock. Hardliners in Iran have made their opposition perfectly evident to even the limited concessions to which Tehran has thus far agreed. And, within a year or so, the American electoral cycle will resume. The issue of negotiations with Iran will undoubtedly be subject to broad debate and scrutiny, and, in all probability, powerful and focused political attacks.

A somewhat more plausible, but still from an Arab point of view alarming, scenario is that the US is seeking to create a balance of power between what amount to Sunni and Shiite regional alliances. Such an equilibrium, this logic holds, would allow the US to start to draw down its own posture in the region and concentrate on the long-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia”. But, again, there still isn’t any real evidence to support such a conclusion.

Yet if such fears are indeed causing significant anxiety in Arab capitals and policy circles, there remains a powerful and largely untapped means to effectively communicate such concerns in Washington. Most of the US’s Arab allies still have not developed a consistent, on-the-ground presence in Washington policy circles.

Instead, they cultivate highly focused and specific relations with entities like the department of defense. Beyond that, their policy interventions tend to be reactive, limited and even sporadic, rather than proactive and sustained. This will not have a major impact on US decision-making.

Developing such influence necessitates building partnerships with experienced and effective American advocates with a genuine understanding of, and affiliation with, Arab interests. A sustained, professional partnership must be based on integrity and common understandings rather than a simple exercise in public relations. The Arab states need American partners, not clients or customers.

This is not a challenge of marketing. It is a challenge of policy intervention. Arab interests still have a real opportunity and time to do far more to influence the decision-making and policy framing process in Washington.

If Arabs are concerned about where US policy towards the Middle East is headed, the cultivation of genuine American partners for sustained policy intervention is one of the most direct and effective correctives possible.

Time for honesty about dialogue with Israel

There’s a healthy alternative to the hypocrisy of engaging Israel privately while condemning “normalization” publicly

Peres and Abbas


A November 19 Thomas Friedman column that mentioned that Israeli President Shimon Peres had addressed a Gulf security conference in Abu Dhabi via satellite, and that in the audience were numerous Arab and Muslim foreign ministers, at first went relatively unnoticed.

Several days later, Middle Eastern media bubbled with conspiratorial and shocking reports of a “secret speech” given by Peres to leading Arab and Muslim diplomats.

As everyone who doesn’t live inside a warm cocoon of willful ignorance knows, the Arabs and Israel are in constant contact. They talk about everything from security to trade, intelligence to diplomacy.

Even its supposedly most implacable foes, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and, yes, Iran, are always in touch – somehow or another – with Israel.

One can have sympathy for Arab officials who may wish to keep these contacts discreet and even secret. They are understandably concerned about public opinion that is primed to misinterpret these contacts as untoward “normalization” rather than the normative reality in the Middle East.

And, sometimes, such as in delicate negotiations, even full-blown secrecy can be a virtue. So skittishness about acknowledging talking to Israel can be understandable, and sometimes even wise.

What’s not understandable is when those same officials condemn others for doing in public what they do in private: talk with Israelis. The hypocrisy of flinging “accusations” of “normalization,” “collaboration,” or “treason” at those who publicly and unapologetically engage in this unavoidable conversation is breathtaking.

How can the public be expected to make sense of foreign policies with such glaring contradictions hardwired into their public and private personae?

Even more reprehensible are private Arab citizens – particularly those engaged in business – who scarcely leave a European capital without intensive consultations with Israeli counterparts for the sake of maximizing profits, while rushing to condemn any political conversation with Israelis or their Jewish supporters. Such double-dealers pocket private profits and public approbation simultaneously, but only through stigmatizing publicly what they find privately indispensable.

A policy-driven Arab perspective cannot be more oblivious to the irreducible reality of Israel in the region than a profit-driven one. Arabs and Israelis need to deal with each other, and all serious people in both societies know it.

There is, of course, another option: dealing with each other publicly, unapologetically, and indeed proudly, because it is the only way to get things done.

Arab-Americans, especially, are free to do openly what many Arab officials and prominent persons feel constrained to keep private: to pursue their policy goals by engaging and building bridges with Jews and Israelis.

The American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) – where I serve as a senior fellow under the leadership of its President, Ziad Asali – has a strategy of public, open engagement with Jewish-Americans, Israel, and Israelis, in pursuit of its mission to help end the occupation and create a Palestinian state. Hence ATFP simply cannot be intimidated or bullied by “accusations” of “normalization.”

On the contrary, ATFP has been able to demonstrate how constructive, positive dialogue with all potential partners – in the open and without any pretense – can make real headway in developing a broader, stronger constituency for the creation of an independent Palestine.

ATFP is sometimes accused of engaging in “normalization.” Its policies indeed seek to normalize all the peoples of the Middle East, above all the Palestinians, who are in the least “normal” political situation possible, living for decades on end under Israeli occupation. Resolving this abnormality will also require normalizing Israel and its diplomatic relations with the other states in the region.

“Normalization” is, in fact, the hidden norm in Arab-Israeli relations, as Peres’ Abu Dhabi speech again demonstrated. The UAE, and all those in attendance, are to be commended for doing in public what so many others prefer to keep private.

What could be a more reasonable goal, for all the peoples of the Middle East – Arabs, Israelis, Turks, Iranians, Kurds and others – than normalcy? Who would be a champion of abnormality as a permanent condition of regional political life?

Dialogue doesn’t mean accepting occupation. It doesn’t mean accepting any of the specifics of the status quo, backing down or giving up on anything. It’s the only way to achieve anything serious.

But it does mean recognizing others, listening to their perspectives, and looking for points of convergence in order to achieve a policy goal, whether it is Gulf security, Palestinian independence, or whatever. The sooner the Arab conventional wisdom is honest with itself about this, the better for the Arab world.

If Arabs doubt it’s possible to speak with Jews and Israelis with mutual respect and dignity – and with a clear, focused aim, such as ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state – they need to take a closer look at ATFP.

Rites of Spring: A chronicle of Egypt’s uprising comes to grips with political reality

Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “Revolution as Festival,” which the great French political thinker developed in his account of popular uprisings of the twentieth century, continues to inspire today’s global Left and its ideas of “people power.” Cultural theorist Gavin Grindon cannily sees this vernacular spirit of celebration in “the global cycle of social struggles since the 1990s, from Reclaim the Streets to the Seattle World Trade Organization Csarnival Against Capitalism, Euromayday and Climate Camp to Occupy’s Debt Jubilee.” And this same narrative—which at times approached a shared, lived reality—informed many domestic and international perceptions of the early “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, particularly those in Tunisia and Egypt.

Most of Ahdaf Soueif’s new bookCairo, participates wholeheartedly in this celebratory, utopian account of the eighteen-day overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and its aftermath. But as Soueif traces the still-unresolved and unstable arc of Egypt’s unfolding saga, she comes away—as Lefebvre would have anticipated—with a much more subdued evaluation of just how this festival may end.

Looking back on his own youthful idealism, Lefebvre—with an obviously heavy heart—recalled how “a few years after the Russian Revolution,” the French Left “naïvely imagined the revolution as an incessant popular festival.” And in Soueif’s account of Mubarak’s downfall, there are hints of a similar leap of imagination. “Everyone is suddenly, miraculously, completely themselves,” she writes of the uprising. “Everyone understands.”

Stylistically, her book is a mash-up of genres. It includes detours into confessional personal memoir as well as stretches of quasi political reportage. It is primarily structured around entries from a daily diary that lapse all too often into purely mundane personal detail (“I am ill. Layers of jumpers, woolly socks, and a hot-water bottle to hug. Boxes of tissues”). These passages are linked together by bursts of what are frequently halfhearted efforts at focused political analysis—forays into social commentary that only gain full traction in Cairo’s outstanding postscript.

While the book’s individual parts can make for an incomplete and frustrating vantage on the events that have lately shaken Egypt’s political order and civil society to their core, Cairo is nonetheless greater than the sum of its diary entries. It offers an invaluable window into the mind-set of a large proportion of the engaged Egyptian population—as well as an extremely detailed, honest, and unflinching portrait of a very specific class of self-defined “revolutionaries.”

Behind the bipolar realities of euphoria and despair, nostalgia and unconditional optimism, Soueif’s book unfolds a narrative technique that is not only highly personal but also profoundly intimate and conversational. It often feels as if a nice middle-aged, middle-class lady (which she is) has invited you into her Wimbledon living room (where I have been) and is telling you a dramatic story over warm, milky tea and biscuits. (Full disclosure: Soueif was a close associate of my father’s toward the end of his life, and I have met her on numerous occasions, though not for at least a decade.)

In Soueif’s telling, the incredible story of Mubarak’s downfall often verges on a political fairy tale. Her version of these events is filled with what she admits are “big, dramatic clichés,” such as “the Forces of Darkness, the Battle against Evil.” “But,” she insists, “clichés can also be true descriptions.” They can indeed—but typically at the expense of more nuanced realities, which often get elbowed aside here to make room for what can only be described as revolutionary romanticism.

Soueif’s memoir is infused with the notion that Egyptians, as a people, absolutely came together in total unity on the street to throw off the “rigged game” erected and maintained by Mubarak’s ancien régime. She writes so enthusiastically about the “Revolution,” and her own role as a “revolutionary,” that the romantic thrust of her account can at times become cloying. Worse, she doesn’t define either of these terms. Indeed, according to Soueif, Egypt has had no fewer than three “Revolutions” in the past three years: first against Mubarak, second against the military, and third against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Cairo is, in this sense, a curiously neurotic document: Soueif’s obsession with these undefined but quintessentially ideological terms, “Revolution” and “revolutionary,” is a perfect exemplar of what Jacques Lacan described as the implacable sovereign command of the “Big Other.” In Lacan’s account, the analysand’s embrace of these impossible demands presents as an irresistible imperative that seems to come from an all-powerful, external authority—something that’s intensely felt but can be neither critiqued nor interrogated. It simply is, and must be, obeyed. And in this case the demand is for “Revolution.”

I would, however, strongly argue the contrary: There has been no “revolution” as such in Egypt. The first revolt was a genuine popular uprising against a long-serving despot that produced regime decapitation. The second included a series of protests that hardly forced the country’s military leaders to step down; they were more than ready to do so anyway, having found little personal or institutional benefit in the routines of direct governance. The third was a massive popular outpouring of outrage against Muslim Brotherhood misrule—but what it led to was yet another military-led government.

Revolutions, by definition, mean a complete overthrow of the previous system of government and a re-creation of social institutions. This has happened in at least one “Arab Spring” country: Libya, which is continuing to experience grave difficulties in creating a new system to replace Muammar Gadhafi’s dysfunctional regime, which left the country with virtually no extant governing or social institutions.

Egypt, by contrast, continues to be run by the same forces that held day-to-day power under Mubarak—the six to seven million bureaucrats and administrators who make up the country’s public-employee sector. Their institutions, administrative apparatuses, and structural roles have remained essentially unchanged. There has been, therefore, no revolution in any meaningful sense except one: that of the public mind-set.

And this is where Soueif’s book is especially strong. It is a testimony to the dramatic cultural shift that has taken place in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world in public attitudes toward power. It’s true that Soueif herself represents a very small category of Egyptian “revolutionaries”: the largely expat, bourgeois, liberal intellectuals. But her social and physical distance from the large mass of protesting Egyptians doesn’t prevent her from effectively channeling and communicating the mind-set of rebellion for the overwhelming majority of Egyptians—or the new political circumstances that their uprising has created.

Indeed, the lasting value of Cairo stems from the author’s ability to precisely and accessibly articulate the irreversible cultural changes that have suddenly transformed the public’s relationship to authority in Egypt and some other Arab states. Arab citizens at last feel empowered, collectively and individually, to assert their fundamental rights as citizens. This basic movement toward greater self-assertion among ordinary Egyptians has even carried through, as Soueif acknowledges in her postscript, into this past summer’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The purpose of democracy is to ensure that the people most affected by decisions get to make the decisions. The people saw the president steering the country to disaster,” she writes. “But the Constitution that the MB had pushed through did not describe a procedure to get rid of a president. So the people invented one.”

Egypt is now experiencing a phase of hypernationalism, chauvinism, and paranoia. Like many leftists and liberals, Soueif rightly worries that the old repressive forces of the “deep state” are the real powers behind what is largely a “coup by acclamation.” But one thing is certain, and the overall impact of Cairo makes this clear: Even if Egypt’s new military-led government is enjoying an extended honeymoon—an irrational phase of hero worship for its role in getting rid of the intolerable Muslim Brotherhood regime—this popular acquiescence is temporary and conditional. Soueif effectively explains exactly how and why that transformation in popular consciousness erupted:

There is a core, a resolute core, that does not lose sight of the aims of the revolution—bread, freedom, social justice—and what these bring of human dignity; that knows what the people will finally demand is the administration that will put them on the road to achieving these aims. And that the people—even if they digress onto a side street—will return to insist on their original path and their essential aims.

As such reflections show, the events of the past summer have set Soueif on a path toward a more sober set of political analyses. She describes the downfall of Mohamed Morsi with great precision, and views the ensuing situation with an appropriate degree of suspicion, if not alarm. “We’re in danger of the old regime slipping on yet another mask, slipping into power,” she writes. “No one knows how much room for maneuvering the one-month-old cabinet really has. No one knows how far General Sisi’s ambitions extend.”

Soueif voted for Morsi, as so many others did, in the hope that he and his faction would represent the aspirations of most Egyptians. But she has no difficulty now in seeing the Morsi regime for what it was—a totalitarian dictatorship in waiting—and in expressing a guarded appreciation for the popular demand for its ouster. At the same time, she has no illusions about the opportunistic nature of some forces involved in Morsi’s removal, especially those of the “deep state.”

In his final evaluation of the Paris Commune, Lefebvre concluded that

the popular festival apparently changes character. In truth, it continues; it gives way to pain. We know that Tragedy and Drama are bloody festivals, during which defeat, sacrifice and the death of the superhuman hero who has defied destiny are performed. . . . Then comes death and the triumph of destiny and misfortune, defeat and the final holocaust. . . . And so the Festival becomes drama and tragedy, absolute tragedy.

But there is no ironclad requirement for Lefebvre’s “general and delirious ‘all or nothing.’” And there’s certainly no reason to believe that “revolutions” look like “cultural festivals” at first but must always end in holocaust and tragedy. Soueif suggests a fundamental cultural change has occurred in Egypt that makes tragedy and holocaust avoidable, and a better future for Egypt and the Arab world plausible, achievable, and—just perhaps—inevitable.

Good political judgment may not yet be a common currency in most Arab societies. But passive acquiescence is a thing of the past. The new Egyptian government may be flawed in fundamental ways, and it may pay for those flaws sooner rather than later. But ultimately it will be accountable to the public because the public has finally found its voice. Soueif names the three Egyptian uprisings in as many years Revolutions I, II, and III. Call them what you will: They were all unmistakably assertions of the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

Egypt may not yet have undergone a political revolution as such, but it has certainly experienced a profound and irreversible cultural one: the emergence, at long last, of an ultimately irrepressible society of self-empowered citizens who give and withhold the consent of the governed at their own pace and convenience.