Juan Cole: Waiting for the Arab Summer

When it comes to pure ineptness, it’s been quite a performance — and I’m sure you’ve already guessed that I’m referring to our secretary of state’s recent jaunt to the Middle East.  You remember the old quip about jokes and timing.  (It’s all in the…)  In this case, John Kerry turned the first stop on his Middle Eastern tour into a farce, thanks to impeccably poor timing.  He landed in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt to put the Obama stamp of approval on the former general’s new government and what he called “a historic election.”  This was a reference to the way Sisi became president, with a mind-boggling 97% of the votes (or so the official story went).  Kerry also promised to release $575 million in military aid frozen by Congress and threw in 10 Apache attack helicopters in what can only be seen as a pathetic attempt to bribe the Egyptian military.  Having delivered the goods, he evidently went into negotiations with Sisi without the leverage they might have offered him.

And then there was the timing.  The day after Kerry’s visit, verdicts were to come down in an already infamous case of media persecution.  Three Al Jazeera reporters were to hear their fate.  Charged with “aiding” the Muslim Brotherhood, they were clearly going to get severe sentences (as indeed they did) in a court system that had already given “hanging judge” a new meaning.  (While Kerry was in Cairo, death sentences were confirmed against 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood.)  He reportedly discussed the case with Sisi — there wasn’t a shred of evidence against the reporters — and was assumedly convinced that he had wielded American power in an effective way.  Hence, when the verdicts were announced the next day and, as the Guardian put it, “delivered a humiliating, public slap in the face to Kerry,” he reportedly “appeared stunned.”  He must have been even more stunned a day later when Sisi assured the world that he would never think of “interfering” with Egyptian justice.

The strangeness of all this is hard to take in, though Kerry has a record of not delivering big time.  At the moment, allies and client states around the region — from Afghanistan (where President Hamid Karzai still refuses to sign a security pact with the U.S.) to Israel (where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government regularly announces new building plans in the occupied territories) — seem to ignore Washington’s will.  This is by now both fascinating and predictable.  If, having provided an embarrassingly full-throated defense of the Bush administration project in Iraq at a Cairo news conference, the secretary of state promptly flew into Baghdad to put an American stamp on the Iraqi government, he failed.  His mission: to get the country’s politicians to form a “unity government,” essentially deposing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  Even with his military in a state of near collapse and his own position desperately weakened, however, Maliki swept Kerry’s proposals aside.  If the secretary of state then flew on to Irbil to “implore” the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, Masoud Barzani, not to move toward an independent Kurdistan… well, do I even have to finish that sentence for you?

Here, then, is a mystery highlighted by the crisis in disintegrating Iraq and Syria: What kind of world are we in when the most powerful nation on the planet is incapable of convincing anyone, even allies significantly dependent on it, of anything?

Into this increasingly grim situation steps a TomDispatch favorite, Juan Cole, the man who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website.  Unlike the secretary of state, who, while in Cairo, definitively turned his back on the Arab Spring and the young protesters who made it happen, Cole embraces it and them.  In doing so, he offers us a ray of sunshine, hope amid the gloom.  Today, he considers the fate of the Arab Spring, suggesting that those, Kerry included, who have already consigned it to the trash heap of history don’t understand history at all.  His piece catches the spirit of a remarkable new book he’s written that is just about to come out: The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East.  It’s a must-read from an expert who has a perspective Washington sadly lacks. Tom Engelhardt

The Arab millennials will be back
Three ways the youth rebellions are still shaping the Middle East
By Juan Cole

Three and a half years ago, the world was riveted by the massive crowds of youths mobilizing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to Egypt’s dreary police state.  We stared in horror as, at one point, the Interior Ministry mobilized camel drivers to attack the demonstrators.  We watched transfixed as the protests spread from one part of Egypt to another and then from country to country across the region.  Before it was over, four presidents-for-life would be toppled and others besieged in their palaces.

Some 42 months later, in most of the Middle East and North Africa, the bright hopes for more personal liberties and an end to political and economic stagnation championed by those young people have been dashed.  Instead, a number of Arab countries have seen counter-revolutions, while others are engulfed in internecine conflicts and civil wars, creating Mad Max-like scenes of post-apocalyptic horror.  But keep one thing in mind: the rebellions of the past three years were led by Arab millennials, twentysomethings who have decades left to come into their own.  Don’t count them out yet.  They have only begun the work of transforming the region.

[Read more...]

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Human Rights Watch: Al Jazeera convictions in Egypt a miscarriage of justice

Human Rights Watch: A Cairo court sentenced three Al Jazeera English staff members to multi-year prison sentences on June 23, 2014, after a trial in which prosecutors failed to present any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing. These convictions are the latest step in Egypt’s unrelenting assault on free expression, dramatically reversing gains made following the January 25, 2011 uprising.

The verdict comes the day after US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry. During the meeting, news media reported, Kerry said he was “absolutely confident” that the US would soon restore suspended aid to Egypt, noting that President al-Sisi “gave me a very strong sense of his commitment” to “a re-evaluation of the judicial process.”

“Sentencing three professional journalists to years in prison on the basis of zero evidence of wrongdoing shows how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President al-Sisi,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt is punishing people for exercising basic rights that are essential to any democratic transition, and US legislation requires progress on those rights before the Obama administration can certify additional military aid.”

The Al Jazeera English bureau chief, Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egypt national, and a correspondent, Peter Greste, an Australian, were each sentenced to seven years in prison, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, was sentenced to 10 years. The charges included editing video footage to falsely “give the appearance Egypt is in a civil war,” operating broadcast equipment without a license, and membership in and support for a “terrorist organization.” Human Rights Watch reviewed the material prosecutors presented in court and spoke with independent observers who monitored the trial and found no evidence indicating any criminal wrongdoing. [Continue reading...]

The Guardian reports: Evidence provided by the prosecution included footage from channels and events with nothing to do with Egyptian politics or al-Jazeera. It included videos of trotting horses from Sky News Arabia, a song by the Australian singer Gotye, and a BBC documentary from Somalia.

Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who has observed every session of the trial for Amnesty, said the verdict sent a chilling message to all opposition figures in Egypt.

“It’s a warning to all journalists that they could one day face a similar trial and conviction simply for carrying out their official duties,” Lotfy said. “This feeds into a wider picture of a politicised judiciary and the use of trials to crack down on all opposition voices.”

The verdict came a day after the US secretary of state, John Kerry, signalled that ties between America and Egypt were inching closer to normality.

After a 90-minute meeting with Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the former general who was elected president last month, Kerry told reporters that a delivery of attack helicopters – delayed by the US last year, in protest against Egyptian human rights abuses – would go ahead.

“The Apaches will come, and they’ll come very, very soon,” Kerry said, after an earlier admission by state department officials that all but $70m (£41m) of a $650m aid package to Egypt had been released. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq must remain a unified cosmopolitan country, as must all its neighbours

Hamid Dabashi writes: 200 years and more into the aftermath of the post/colonial history, countries like Iraq are blessed (yes blessed not cursed) by multifaceted cultures that includes their various constituents but is not reducible to them. From the Code of Hammurabi to the artwork of Rafa Nasiri, Iraqis are – all of them (Sunni, Shia, Kurds, etc.) – the proud inheritors of the very cradle of world civilisation, the very alphabet of our history. That dictators like Saddam Hussein abused that heritage for an empty and vacuous pomposity, or that the imperial buffooneries of Bush and Blair had not an iota of respect for them, does not discredit that heritage as the bedrock of a proud and confident Iraq.

That pride of place and political dignity is not in the direction of any separatist movement form Iraq or any other country. Iraqi borders may have been decided by colonial designs but Iraqi people are not a colonial product. They are the proud descendants of a magnificent civilisation that belongs to all of them. If they are Sunni, Shia or Kurd, this is a source of inspiration, diversity and pluralism for their future.

Iraqi and Lebanese Shia are blessed that they must determine their political future in conversation with other religious and ethnic groupings. They can and they will provide a model of democratic pluralism for the entire region, including and in particular for Iran where the seemingly unified 95 percent plus majority Shia hides a deeply divided and multifaceted society. Iran should not export its pathological “Islamic Republic” to Iraq or Lebanon or Syria. Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians must offer their future democratic pluralism to Iranians. [Continue reading...]

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The Arabs’ 100-Years War

Rami G. Khouri writes: The open warfare and shaken statehood that characterize Syria, Iraq and Libya are the painful commemoration of the Arabs’ own 100 Years War for stable, legitimate statehood. What the French, British and Italians left behind in Syria, Iraq and Libya after World War One led to the last 100 years of erratic patterns of development that have now erupted in open warfare within and among some countries.

Syria, Libya and Iraq are only the most dramatic examples of countries that suffer serious sectarian and other forms of warfare that could easily lead to the fracturing of those states into smaller ethnic units. Similar but less intense tensions define most Arab states. With the exception of Tunisia, the citizens of every Arab country have always been denied any say in defining the structure, values or policies of their state.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Syria, Iraq and Libya should be at once so violent, fractious and brittle. The capture of cities and territory across northwestern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) symbolizes a common aspect of the fragmented nature of many Arab countries — the ruling party or family that runs the government is at war with well armed non-state actors that reflect widespread citizen discontent with the power and policies of the central state. The brittle Arab state is not simply melting away, as happened in Somalia over the last two decades; rather, the state in many cases has become just one armed protagonist in a battle against several other armed protagonists among its own citizens. [Continue reading...]

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The ISIS peril clarifies what Arabs need

Rami G. Khouri writes: The startling developments in northern Iraq, where the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has taken control of Mosul and other cities, highlights several troubling trends that have been evident across much of the Arab World for years.

ISIS moved into Mosul and other cities swiftly and without any real combat because these underlying trends all played their role in this great unfolding drama that speaks to the troubling realities of the Arab world.

This is about much more than any individual issue such as spillover from Syria, lack of Western military assistance to anti-Bashar Assad rebels, growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, or the spread of extremist Islamist militancy. Iraq today has reached a momentous moment of reckoning for the weaknesses of modern Arab statehood and governance. External factors certainly played their roles, such as the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003, decades of Israeli meddling in Arab conditions, and Iran’s growing influence in the region.

These external factors, however, could only impact on conditions in Iraq because of the underlying structural problems whose consequences are now playing out before us every day. These underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.

The news that many locals have not resisted, and even often welcomed, the arrival of ISIS should clarify the intense problems that existed between the government and mostly Sunni local communities in northwest Iraq. Air attacks by the Iraqi government or military moves by foreign powers such as Iran or the United States will momentarily delay the expansion of ISIS-controlled areas. But military power in the long run remains helpless in the face of determined moves by disgruntled citizens to regain what they see as dignity, freedom and rights.

The best proof of this is the steady expansion in the numbers and capabilities of extremist Salafist-takfiri militant groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Nusra Front and dozens of other groups that have been repeatedly targeted by military strikes by local governments and the American armed forces. So, military attacks against ISIS and its local allies in Iraq would momentarily pause the current trajectory of the group’s expansion, but will not stop it in the long run.

The fact that some Iraqis would consider life under the draconian rules of ISIS preferable to the conditions they had endured under previous elected Iraqi governments shows how severe are the grievances of ordinary citizens under the rule of Arab tyrants. [Continue reading...]

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Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah jailed for 15 years for organising peaceful protest

The Guardian reports: The extent of Egypt’s counter-revolution has been laid bare by the jailing of one of the key figureheads of the 2011 uprising – a conviction that means Alaa Abd El Fattah has been jailed or investigated under each of the country’s five heads of state since Hosni Mubarak.

Abd El Fattah, one of the activists most associated with the 2011 uprising that briefly ended 60 years of autocratic rule, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for allegedly organising a protest – an act banned under a law implemented last November, and used to jail several revolutionary leaders.

According to Abd El Fattah’s sister, Mona Seif, also a prominent campaigner, he and another activist were sentenced in absentia after being barred from entering the courtroom then arrested and taken to prison by some of the officials who had earlier blocked his entrance. [Continue reading...]

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Beware the return of ‘strongmen’ world leaders

In an editorial, The Observer says: There was something distasteful, and deeply disturbing, about last week’s photograph of Bashar al-Assad casting his vote in a Damascus polling station, watched by his beautifully coiffured wife, Asma, and adoring supporters. Distasteful because even as the Syrian leader brandished his ballot paper, his military forces were dropping a barrel bomb, the regime’s new terror weapon of choice, on the citizens of Aleppo. Disturbing because such a staged photograph is an established trademark of democracy around the world. It is the sort of picture elected politicians everywhere like to pose for. It sends a reassuring message of order, normality and one-person, one-vote humility. You see: the great man is just like you and me.

Except Assad is not an ordinary guy. No man of the people he, Assad is a dictator whose “presidential election”, held only in those urban areas under government control and boycotted by all credible opposition groups, was a travesty and a sham. He rules because his late father, Hafez, and Syria’s Alawite oligarchy handed him the job in 2000. Early on, he fluffed good opportunities to pursue reform. Since the initially peaceful demonstrations against his regime began more than three years ago, he has proved himself, by turns, foolish, craven and vicious. He exacerbated divisions and escalated the war by resorting to ever more extreme, indiscriminate violence. He is not an elected president. He is a killer and a war criminal with the names of 162,000 dead Syrians on his personal electoral roll.

Historically speaking, Assad is something else, too: a political “strongman” in the dismaying tradition of a region that seems pitifully prone to domination by fiercely driven, unscrupulous and often unsavoury individuals with dictatorial tendencies. In recent times, Saddam Hussein in Iraq was one such; Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was another. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a former general, succeeded Anwar Sadat, himself a political heir to the arch-strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, following Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, Egypt is once again on the receiving end of strongman politics with the rise of another general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. His ascent to the presidency was supposedly legitimised in last month’s national elections. But despite being virtually unopposed, he took only 23m out of 53m potential votes on a turnout well below 50%.

Time will tell whether Sisi is the firm-handed, sure-footed leader Egypt needs, as his backers claim. But one thing is already clear: he is no democrat and most Egyptian voters know it. Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, remains in jail after his ousting last year by Sisi’s armed forces, along with 15,000 of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. An estimated 1,400 people have died. Sisi’s intimidatory shadow hovers over Egypt’s institutions, including the judiciary and media. An official personality cult is in the making. And in an approach that has resonated as far as Bangkok, where Thai military coup leaders seem to have taken a cue from Sisi, Egypt’s new strongman stresses stability over human rights and civic freedoms. How he plans to tackle Egypt’s crushing economic and social problems is less certain. However he does it, he is sure to do it firmly.

Strongman politics is both contagious and increasingly back in fashion across the Middle East, where the democratic promise of the Arab Spring revolts has mostly turned to dust and tears. [Continue reading...]

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Dilip Hiro: Behind the coup in Egypt

Think of Barack Obama’s recent return to West Point at graduation time to offer his approach to an increasingly chaotic world as a bookend on an era.  George W. Bush went to the Academy in June 2002 — less than a year after 9/11, seven months after the U.S. had triumphantly invaded Afghanistan, 10 months before it would (as he already knew) invade Iraq — and laid out his vision of “preemptive war.”  In that commencement address to a class about to graduate into the very wars he was launching, he threw the ancient Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment to the sharks and proclaimed a new, finger-on-a-hair-trigger vision of global policy for a country that wasn’t about to step aside for anyone or anything. “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long,” he said to resounding applause.  He added, “Our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”

Speaking to the class of 2002, Bush conjured up an epic struggle without end (that certain neocons would soon begin calling “the Long War” or “World War IV“).  It would be global, Manichaean, and unquestionably victorious.  “We must uncover terror cells in 60 or more countries, using every tool of finance, intelligence, and law enforcement.  Along with our friends and allies, we must oppose proliferation and confront regimes that sponsor terror, as each case requires.  Some nations need military training to fight terror, and we’ll provide it.  Other nations oppose terror, but tolerate the hatred that leads to terror — and that must change.  We will send diplomats where they are needed, and we will send you, our soldiers, where you’re needed.”

It was Bush’s initial foray into the dream of a subjugated Greater Middle East and a planet destined to fall under the spell of a Pax Americana enforced by a military like no other in history.  It was visionary stuff, a genuine Bush (or Cheney) Doctrine.  And the president and his top officials meant every word of it.

Twelve years later, the results are in.  As President Obama pointed out to the class of 2014, some of those “terror cells in 60 or more countries” have by now become full-scale terror outfits and, helped immeasurably by the actions the Bush Doctrine dictated, are thriving.  In Afghanistan, a long-revived Taliban can’t be defeated, while neighboring Pakistan, with its own Taliban movement, has been significantly destabilized.  Amid the ongoing drone wars of two administrations, Yemen is being al-Qaedicized; the former president’s invasion of Iraq set off a devastating, still expanding Sunni-Shiite civil war across the Middle East, which is also becoming a blowback machine for terrorism, and which has thrown the whole region into chaos; Libya, Obama’s no-casualties version of intervention, is now a basket case; across much of Africa, terror groups are spreading, as is destabilization continent-wide.

Facing this and a host of other crises and problems from Ukraine to Syria to the South China Sea, and “pivoting” fruitlessly in every direction, Obama, in his second trek to West Point, put together a survey of a no-longer American planet that left the cadets sitting on their hands (though their parents cheered the line, “You are the first class since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan”) and critics from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times bored and dismissive.  It was, all agreed, the exhausted speech of an exhausted administration addressed to an American public exhausted by more than a decade of fruitless wars in an exhausting world.

If that commencement address had just been visionless words offered by a rudderless president, it might not have mattered much, except to the nattering class in Washington.  As TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro makes clear, however, in a magisterial look at where the Arab Spring ended up in Egypt, it isn’t only unfriendly states or stateless terror groups that aren’t cooperating in the organization of an American world.  The former “sole superpower” of planet Earth that the president (with “every fiber” of his being) insisted was still both “exceptional” and “indispensable” seemed to be losing its sway over former allies as well.  If there is no Obama Doctrine, it may be because the world of 2014 is in a state of exceptional and indispensable entropy. Tom Engelhardt

Clueless in Cairo
How Egypt’s generals sidelined Uncle Sam
By Dilip Hiro

Since September 11, 2001, Washington’s policies in the Middle East have proven a grim imperial comedy of errors and increasingly a spectacle of how a superpower is sidelined. In this drama, barely noticed by the American media, Uncle Sam’s keystone ally in the Arab world, Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has largely turned its back on the Obama administration. As with so many of America’s former client states across the aptly named “arc of instability,” Egypt has undergone a tumultuous journey — from autocracy to democracy to a regurgitated form of military rule and repression, making its ally of four decades appear clueless.

Egypt remains one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid, with the Pentagon continuing to pamper the Egyptian military with advanced jet fighters, helicopters, missiles, and tanks. Between January 2011 and May 2014, Egypt underwent a democratic revolution, powered by a popular movement, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. It enjoyed a brief tryst with democracy before suffering an anti-democratic counter-revolution by its generals. In all of this, what has been the input of the planet’s last superpower in shaping the history of the most populous country in the strategic Middle East? Zilch. Its “generosity” toward Cairo notwithstanding, Washington has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.

[Read more...]

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Egypt scrambles to raise turnout in presidential vote

The New York Times reports: After Egypt’s revolution three years ago, so many voters eager for democracy turned out for elections that officials had to scramble to accommodate the throngs.

On Tuesday, the military-backed government confronted the opposite problem. Officials extended a scheduled two-day vote for a third day not because of long lines, but because so few people had shown up.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army field marshal who deposed Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s first freely elected president, is still universally expected to win by a landslide. Yet the disappointing turnout has upended his supporters’ hopes that the vote would grant him new legitimacy after the ouster.

When polling places around the nation remained largely empty on the second day of voting, signs of panic swept the government. Officials initially extended voting hours on Tuesday by an hour, to 10 p.m. Then, a holiday was declared for state and private employees, as well as for banks and the stock market. Train and subway fares were suspended. State television said that the police would help the elderly or the sick get to polling stations, and it repeated admonishments from Muslim and Christian leaders about a religious duty to vote.

Officials also said that the government would fine those who did not vote up to $70 — a large sum for most Egyptians — and that unlike in the past, the fines would be enforced.

Analysts said the government’s scramble to increase the turnout undermined the endlessly repeated premise of the new military-backed order: that Mr. Sisi had the passionate support of an overwhelming majority of Egyptians to oust Mr. Morsi and to assume leadership. [Continue reading...]

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Israel wants the Middle East to remain dominated by dictators

Ynet columnist, Smadar Perry, writes: Egyptian polling stations opened Monday morning across the country. Tens of thousands of inspectors-judges, representatives of civil organizations, foreign diplomats and even representatives of the Arab League have arrived to ensure that no one would try to tamper with the ballots.

The truth is that there is no need for that. Barring any dramatic surprises, “Egypt’s strongman,” Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will be the president. All surveys grant the second candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, symbolic success. Sabahi himself is already offering his services, hoping that they’ll just take him, as the prime minister or vice president.

Next week will be the turn of the sweeping victory in Syria. After arranging two anonymous “rivals” for himself and forcibly taking the right to vote from the six million refugees who have run away from him, Bashar Assad will be the “rais” for the third time. He will of course justify himself by saying that “that’s what the nation wants,” and no one will be able to force him to keep promises or create reforms.

The reason is so prosaic: Up until this moment he hasn’t even bothered presenting a political platform or economic programs. He doesn’t have to. Bashar will win for certain, and after the elections, as they say, everything will work out (for him).

In the past few days I have been hearing more and more complaints from people I talk to in the Arab world that Israel – and the criticism focuses constantly on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – only wants dictators in our neighborhood. We democrats don’t care about the Arab Spring, the protests, the terrible economic distress, the refugees and the terror attacks.

My interlocutors present irrefutable proof of their claim, how Israeli messengers are lobbying vigorously, as we speak, for the waiting president al-Sisi among the high echelons of the administration in Washington. Netanyahu, they say instinctively, is insisting on not getting in Bashar’s way. He is the only one he wants in the palace.

Between you and me, they’re right. We’re better off with dictators. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s new strongman, Sisi knows best

The New York Times reports: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army officer soon to be Egypt’s president, promises to remedy Egypt’s crippling fuel shortage by installing energy-efficient bulbs in every home socket, even if he has to send a government employee to screw in each one.

“I’m not leaving a chance for people to act on their own,” Mr. Sisi said in his first and most extensive television interview. “My program will be mandatory.”

Mr. Sisi, 59, disciplined and domineering, is universally expected to become Egypt’s head of state after a pro forma election scheduled to begin Monday. He has already been the nation’s paramount decision maker since he ousted Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, last summer.

Now, more than three years after the Arab Spring uprising raised hopes of a democratic Egypt, his move into the presidential palace will formally return Egypt to the rule of a paternalistic military strongman in the tradition of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. [Continue reading...]

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The hypocrisy of Tony Blair’s Middle East vision

Arun Kundnani writes: Tony Blair’s speech this week at Bloomberg in London reveals a growing support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. A decade ago, Blair was justifying wars in the Middle East on the grounds that they would launch a democratic revolution and sweep away Arab despots. In his latest speech he embraced Arab despots whose regimes, he says, are necessary bulwarks against Islamism. Blair’s change in emphasis reflects a wider shift in neoconservative thinking over the past decade, while the underlying analysis remains as flawed as ever.

At the heart of Blair’s argument is a single formula that he uses to explain the politics not only of the Middle East, but of Muslim populations around the world. Muslims everywhere, he says, are caught in an “essential battle” between two ways of thinking about Islam.

In this “Titanic struggle”, one side is modern, pluralistic, and supportive of religious freedom and open economies. On the other side are the “Islamists”, who reject the separation of religion from politics and, like communists and fascists before them, want to impose their particular interpretation on the rest of society.

It is, of course, a hopelessly simplistic formula. Yes, reactionary interpretations of religion must be opposed. But the revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East are ultimately about freedom from authoritarian political structures and the economic marginalisation generated by neoliberal economics (Blair’s “open economies”). [Continue reading...]

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How Egypt’s Tamarod rebel movement helped pave the way for a Sisi presidency

Buzzfeed reports: On the night of July 3, 2013, Moheb Doss stood looking at his television set in disbelief as a statement was read in his name on national television.

The words coming out of the presenter’s mouth bore no resemblance to the carefully drafted statement that Doss, one of the five co-founders of the Tamarod, or Rebel, movement had helped draft hours earlier. It was a statement to mark the moment of Tamarod’s victory, as the protests the group launched on June 30 led to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government just five days later. It was a statement, Doss said, that the group hoped would have a stabilizing effect on the Egyptian public, as it called for a peaceful transition toward a democratic path.

Instead, the presenter quoted Tamarod as calling for the army to step in and protect the people from “brute aggression” by terrorists during potentially turbulent days. The statement supported the army’s forcible removal and arrest of Brotherhood leader and then-President Mohamed Morsi, and dismissed charges that what was happening was a coup.

“What we drafted was a revolutionary statement. It was about peace, and going forward on a democratic path,” Doss told BuzzFeed. “What was read was a statement that could have been written by the army.”

For five days, millions of Egyptians had taken to the streets and demanded an end to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their numbers surpassed even the wildest expectations of Tamarod, a then-largely unknown group that organized the protests. The five founders became instant celebrities, and on the night of July 3, the moment it appeared their victory was imminent, all of Egypt’s television stations had turned to them for a statement on what would happen next.

“What state TV read was as if it had been written by the army, it threatened the Brotherhood, told them they would use force if necessary,” Doss said. “I was shocked. I understood then that the movement had completely gotten away from us.”

It was, he realized later, the end of a process that began weeks earlier, in which the army and security officials slowly but steadily began exerting an influence over Tamarod, seizing upon the group’s reputation as a grassroots revolutionary movement to carry out their own schemes for Egypt. [Continue reading...]

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Eight hopeful legacies of the Arab Spring

John Cassidy writes: More than three years after the Arab Spring began, the political situation in the Middle East is depressing. In Syria, a brutal civil war continues, with the forces of Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand. In Egypt, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has overseen a drastic crackdown on political opponents, looks likely to be elected as President. A democratic Iraq has descended into sectarianism. In Yemen, the U.S.-backed regime continues to battle militants linked to Al Qaeda. Libya appears to be on the brink of chaos. The Israel-Palestine peace process remains stalled. And the oil-rich Gulf monarchies sail on, stifling internal dissent with a combination of harsh laws and generous welfare policies.

Is it time to give up hope? Not according to Mustapha Nabli, a former governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia, and Bessma Momani, a Jordanian political scientist at the University of Waterloo, who participated in a session that I moderated this past weekend, at a conference in Toronto organized by the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Nabli and Momani both acknowledged that the past three years have been disappointing, with high hopes giving way to counterrevolution, intergroup competition, economic problems, and religious polarization. But they also insisted that the long-term outlook was encouraging. Here are some of the reasons they cited: [Continue reading...]

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Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, no longer in uniform, is poised to become Egypt’s next president

n13-iconThe Washington Post reports: Three years ago, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was a mostly unknown member of a council of Egypt’s top military officers. On Wednesday, the field marshal, whose image is now plastered on billboards and chocolate bars, declared what everyone in this nation was expecting — that he would run for president, a position he is virtually certain to win.

“The state needs to regain its posture and power,’’ he said in an address on national television. “Our mission is to restore Egypt.’’

Officially, Sissi, 59, will seek office as a civilian. But his election would complete the defeat of Egypt’s brief experiment in Islamist rule, and it would make him the sixth military man to lead the country over what has been a nearly unbroken 62-year span of autocracy.

It was under Sissi’s command that the military staged the coup in July that toppled Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, from power. If Sissi wins the backing of voters, he could gain greater legitimacy. But his role continues to pose a challenge to the United States, which is eager to maintain close ties with Egypt, its longtime ally, without appearing to endorse its shift away from democracy. [Continue reading...]

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Is a real revolution possible in the Arab world?

f13-iconLouis Proyect writes: At first blush, the term “Arab Winter” makes sense given the restoration of military rule in Egypt, Syria’s descent into sectarian chaos, and Libya’s coming apart at the seams. Can a case be made for guarded optimism, however? If so, then there is probably nobody more qualified to make it than Gilbert Achcar, the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region whose 2013 study The People Want attempts to get beneath surface impressions, especially those based on changing seasons. If Marxism seems deeply troubled as a political movement and lacks a sizable contingent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it still has a use as an analytical tool. Owing much to its Hegelian roots, the dialectical method at the heart of Marxism is ideally suited to resolving contradictions. And no other region in the world is more riven with contradictions than MENA, arguably the source of its failure as of yet to deliver on the promises of 2011.

In a September 4, 2013 article for Guernica titled “What is a Revolution”, Tariq Ali adopted a rather frosty tone in sizing up the undelivered promises of the region, described mostly as a failure to qualify as a genuine revolution. He wrote that only “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change” could qualify as a revolution. Now, of course, there was a time in which Tariq Ali would have been more generous with movements that were so lacking, including many of the national liberation movements he embraced as a young radical. Using his yardstick, Vietnam had no revolution when it drove out the American imperialists. Just look at the millionaires in Vietnam today, profiting off of sweatshops. But that is no argument for not protesting against B-52 bombing raids and Operation Phoenix. If Ali was referring to the classical socialist revolution that have been far and few between since 1917, rarer in some ways than the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that was supposedly last spotted in Arkansas back in 2005, he certainly had a point even if it did not do justice to the social realities of Egypt, Syria, or Libya.

Perhaps another term might be more useful when trying to understand the process that began in 2011—one that Achcar argues was already in progress for some years due to unresolved social, political and economic contradictions. In his introduction he makes the case for recognizing the struggle as a thawra, the Arab term for revolt, a word that might be more useful since it is both less restrictive than Ali’s parameters as well as leaving open the possibility that what we are seeing is a protracted and long-term revolutionary process. Considering Ho Chi Minh’s long struggle to break colonial control over his nation, this gives you some sense of the historic mission facing revolutionaries in the region.

Departing from the “game of nations” framework that is used by most commentators on MENA as a way of reducing everything to a battle between the US and an “anti-imperialist” bloc led by Vladimir Putin, Achcar’s analysis is grounded in the class relations that exist within nations like Egypt, Libya, Syria et al. Based on the statistics he amasses in chapter one (“Fettered Development”), one can only wonder why it took so long for revolts to break out. [Continue reading...]

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