Fractured lands: How the Arab world came apart

The following New York Times Magazine feature story is more than a long-read — at 42,000 words it’s more like a short book. Scott Anderson writes: Before driving into northern Iraq, Dr. Azar Mirkhan changed from his Western clothes into the traditional dress of a Kurdish pesh merga warrior: a tightfitting short woolen jacket over his shirt, baggy pantaloons and a wide cummerbund. He also thought to bring along certain accessories. These included a combat knife, tucked neatly into the waist of his cummerbund, as well as sniper binoculars and a loaded .45 semiautomatic. Should matters turn particularly ticklish, an M-4 assault rifle lay within easy reach on the back seat, with extra clips in the foot well. The doctor shrugged. “It’s a bad neighborhood.”

Our destination that day in May 2015 was the place of Azar’s greatest sorrow, one that haunted him still. The previous year, ISIS gunmen had cut a murderous swath through northern Iraq, brushing away an Iraqi Army vastly greater in size, and then turning their attention to the Kurds. Azar had divined precisely where the ISIS killers were about to strike, knew that tens of thousands of civilians stood helpless in their path, but had been unable to get anyone to heed his warnings. In desperation, he had loaded up his car with guns and raced to the scene, only to come to a spot in the road where he saw he was just hours too late. “It was obvious,” Azar said, “so obvious. But no one wanted to listen.” On that day, we were returning to the place where the fabled Kurdish warriors of northern Iraq had been outmaneuvered and put to flight, where Dr. Azar Mirkhan had failed to avert a colossal tragedy — and where, for many more months to come, he would continue to battle ISIS.

Azar is a practicing urologist, but even without the firepower and warrior get-up, the 41-year-old would exude the aura of a hunter. He walks with a curious loping gait that produces little sound, and in conversation has a tendency to tuck his chin and stare from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, rather as if he were sighting down a gun. With his prominent nose and jet black pompadour, he bears a passing resemblance to a young Johnny Cash.

The weaponry also complemented the doctor’s personal philosophy, as expressed in a scene from one of his favorite movies, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” when a bathing Eli Wallach is caught off guard by a man seeking to kill him. Rather than immediately shoot Wallach, the would-be assassin goes into a triumphant soliloquy, allowing Wallach to kill him first.

“When you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk,” Azar quoted from the movie. “That is us Kurds now. This is not the time to talk, but to shoot.”

Azar is one of six people whose lives are chronicled in these pages. The six are from different regions, different cities, different tribes, different families, but they share, along with millions of other people in and from the Middle East, an experience of profound unraveling. Their lives have been forever altered by upheavals that began in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, and then accelerated with the series of revolutions and insurrections that have collectively become known in the West as the Arab Spring. They continue today with the depredations of ISIS, with terrorist attacks and with failing states.

For each of these six people, the upheavals were crystallized by a specific, singular event. For Azar Mirkhan, it came on the road to Sinjar, when he saw that his worst fears had come true. For Laila Soueif in Egypt, it came when a young man separated from a sprinting mass of protesters to embrace her, and she thought she knew the revolution would succeed. For Majdi el-Mangoush in Libya, it came as he walked across a deadly no-man’s-land and, overwhelmed by a sudden euphoria, felt free for the first time in his life. For Khulood al-Zaidi in Iraq, it came when, with just a few menacing words from a former friend, she finally understood that everything she had worked for was gone. For Majd Ibrahim in Syria, it came when, watching an interrogator search his cellphone for the identity of his “controller,” he knew his own execution was drawing nearer by the moment. For Wakaz Hassan in Iraq, a young man with no apparent interest in politics or religion, it came on the day ISIS gunmen showed up in his village and offered him a choice.

As disparate as those moments were, for each of these six people they represented a crossing over, passage to a place from which there will never be a return. Such changes, of course — multiplied by millions of lives — are also transforming their homelands, the greater Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the entire world.

History never flows in a predictable way. It is always a result of seemingly random currents and incidents, the significance of which can be determined — or, more often, disputed — only in hindsight. But even accounting for history’s capricious nature, the event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia’s streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the nation’s strongman president for 23 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in size and intensity — and then they jumped Tunisia’s border. By the end of January, anti-government protests had erupted in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Jordan. That was only the beginning. By November, just 10 months after Bouazizi’s death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled governments had undergone shake-ups or had promised reforms, and anti-government demonstrations — some peaceful, others violent — had spread in an arc across the Arab world from Mauritania to Bahrain.

As a writer with long experience in the Middle East, I initially welcomed the convulsions of the Arab Spring — indeed, I believed they were long overdue. In the early 1970s, I traveled through the region as a young boy with my father, a journey that sparked both my fascination with Islam and my love of the desert. The Middle East was also the site of my first foray into journalism when, in the summer of 1983, I hopped on a plane to the embattled city Beirut in hopes of finding work as a stringer. Over the subsequent years, I embedded with a platoon of Israeli commandos conducting raids in the West Bank; dined with Janjaweed raiders in Darfur; interviewed the families of suicide bombers. Ultimately, I took a five-year hiatus from magazine journalism to write a book on the historical origins of the modern Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s Brotherhood, Sisi both put out feelers for reconciliation

Abdelrahman Youssef writes: The word “reconciliation” has been dominating the Egyptian political scene for almost two weeks. Talk has revolved around the future of the relationship between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is facing the worst crackdown since its establishment.

Political discussions in Egypt are not what brought about this prevalent idea; rather, it emerged due to a number of coalesced factors, notably the statement of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Magdy al-Agaty, who said in an interview, “We can reconcile with a member of the Brotherhood as long as his hands are not stained with blood. [Brotherhood members] are Egyptians in the first place. Why don’t we make peace with them and integrate them into the fabric of the Egyptian people if they did not commit any crime?”

However, it was not long before this controversial issue came to the surface again when Mohamed Fayek, head of the National Council for Human Rights, said July 3, “There will be a presidential pardon soon for all the detained young people who were not involved in armed activities.” [Continue reading…]

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Hundreds ‘disappeared’ by security forces in Egypt, says Amnesty

The Guardian reports: Hundreds of Egyptians have been forcibly disappeared and tortured in a “sinister” campaign to wipe out peaceful dissent in the most populous country in the Arab world, Amnesty International says in a new report.

Children as young as 14 as well as students, political activists and protesters have vanished without trace after security forces raided their homes. Many have been held for months at a time and kept blindfolded and handcuffed. At least 34,000 people are behind bars, the government admits.

Most of those who have “disappeared” are supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president who was deposed in July 2013 and eventually replaced by president Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi.

Amnesty’s report also mentions the case of the Italian Giulio Regeni, the Cambridge graduate student who was found dead, with his body bearing signs of torture, in Cairo in February.

“The terrible injuries sustained by Giulio Regeni are similar to those suffered by numerous people interrogated by the Egyptian security forces – his case is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Amnesty’s Felix Jakens. [Continue reading…]

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Is Egypt becoming a republic of fear?

 

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Three years after the coup, lessons still unlearned from Egypt’s tragedy

Abdullah Al-Arian writes: Had it been allowed to continue, last Thursday would have seen Mohamed Morsi’s four-year term as president of a post-authoritarian Egypt draw to a close. Instead, last week marked the third anniversary of Morsi’s forced removal by a military coup that has reimposed a perpetual dictatorship upon 90 million citizens.

The calamity of Egypt continues to unfold daily, with mounting human rights abuses, stifling of dissent, widespread corruption, economic crisis, and the consolidation of power in the hands of a new authoritarian ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

All of Egypt’s independent political forces acknowledge that the country’s dismal state represents a betrayal of the revolutionary movement launched in 2011. But for all of the talk that the embers of Egypt’s revolution continue to burn, however dimly, there can be no revival of that moment without a genuine appraisal of the events of 30 June, 2013 and their consequences. [Continue reading…]

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Egyptian court sentences two Al Jazeera employees to death

The Associated Press reports: An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced six people, including two Al-Jazeera employees, to death for allegedly passing documents related to national security to Qatar and the Doha-based TV network during the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Morsi, the top defendant, and two of his aides were sentenced to 25 years in prison for membership in the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group but were acquitted of espionage, a capital offense. Morsi and his secretary, Amin el-Sirafy, each received an additional 15-year sentence for leaking official documents. El-Sirafy’s daughter, Karima, was also sentenced to 15 years on the same charge.

Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, was ousted by the military in July 2013 and has already been sentenced to death in another case. That death sentence and another two – life and 20 years in prison – are under appeal. The Brotherhood was banned and declared a terrorist organization after his ouster. Khalid Radwan, a producer at a Brotherhood-linked TV channel, received a 15-year prison sentence. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. gives Egypt free armored vehicles while Egyptian military sees U.S. as its enemy

Jackson Diehl writes: This month, the United States delivered the first batch of 762 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Egypt free of charge. That’s on top of the $1.3 billion in military aid the Obama administration has allocated to the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi this year. The White House refuses to condition these gifts on an improvement in Egypt’s horrendous human rights record. So herewith a more modest proposal: Obama should ask Sissi to publicly explain how the MRAPs fit into the “fourth-generation war.”

Most people are unfamiliar with that esoteric term — unless they have been following the rhetoric of Egypt’s military leaders since the coup of 2013. Fourth-generation warfare, Sissi once explained to cadets at Egypt’s military academy, occurs when “modern communication channels, psychology and the media are . . . deployed to create divisions and harm Egypt from within,” according to the website Mada Masr.

Who is the enemy in this war? According to the Egyptian military, that would be the United States — the same country providing the army with those free armored vehicles and billions in aid. In March, the Defense Ministry’s Nasser Military Academy briefed the parliament about fourth-generation warfare. According to the outline, reported by Mada Masr, the subjects included “Egypt’s defense strategy and Western plans to divide the Middle East.” [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s long history of air-disaster denial

Dorian Geiger writes: “I rely on God.”

That’s what Gameel Al-Batouti, the co-pilot of EgyptAir Flight 990, repeated — 11 times in Arabic — before the aircraft he was operating mysteriously plunged into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts on Oct. 31, 1999.

That audio, captured by the recovered flight recorder, was a key piece of evidence for U.S. authorities and the National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB), which concluded that Al-Batouti was suicidal and had purposefully brought the airliner down while the first officer was out of the cockpit. The Egyptian Civil Aviation Agency was adamant, however, that mechanical error was to blame and dismissed the NTSB investigation as “flawed and biased.” Egypt still officially denies that Al-Batouti committed suicide.

Now Egypt is once again under scrutiny to deliver answers in the disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804, which crashed into the Mediterranean with 66 people on board on May 19. This time, in contrast to past air disasters, the Egyptian government initially suggested that it was terrorism, even though the exact cause of the crash remains unclear and no terrorist group has claimed responsibility. As it has done previously, Cairo appears to want to deflect blame onto other countries. A terrorist attack would reflect poorly on France’s airport security, whereas a technical issue with the plane would leave EgyptAir to blame. But Egyptian officials later walked that suggestion back and disputed reports that the small size of the body parts found indicated that a large explosion had brought down the plane.

The equivocation from Cairo was a reminder anyone expecting to get to the bottom of the tragedy should reflect on Egypt’s lack of transparency in previous investigations. “There has been a very checkered past in terms of Egyptian openness,” says says Adam Schiff, a California Congressman and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who has long criticized Egypt’s lack of cooperation in international investigations. “They have not always been open and forthcoming with the investigation results and often have sought to control access to wreckage and the flow of information during the course of the investigation.” [Continue reading…]

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For Washington, stability in Egypt matters more than human rights

The Wall Street Journal reports: After two years of cool relations between the U.S. and Egypt, the October terrorist attack on a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula triggered a flurry of visits here by U.S. officials, who called for increased military aid to shore up President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

The downing of that jet was claimed by an Islamic State affiliate based in the Sinai. The possibility that the mysterious crash of an Egyptian airliner last week was another act of terrorism has only intensified worries that Mr. Sisi is unable to contain the threat, according to a U.S. official, a Western diplomat and other experts.

“An incident like this on the heels of another airline disaster is always going to speed up any cooperation on security even if the cause is not yet clear,” the Western diplomat said.

Regardless of what actually caused the EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo to crash, Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation, said recent traffic from Washington suggests the U.S. will seek to increase support for the Sisi regime despite deep concerns about its human-rights record.

The goal is to avoid having Egypt — long a U.S. ally under longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak — follow the downward spiral of Iraq, Syria and neighboring Libya, where terrorists have exploited security vacuums in recent years.

“Egypt is too big to fail in the eyes of the U.S. and Europe,” Mr. Hanna said. [Continue reading…]

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Kerry helps Egypt’s dictator avoid being asked awkward questions

David Sanger writes: The contrast between Myanmar, once one of the world’s most closed societies, and Egypt made me revisit my recent travels with Mr. Kerry in terms of what restrictions were placed on us journalists.

In November, Mr. Kerry zipped through Central Asia on a tour of some of the world’s most repressive states, including Turkmenistan, whose leadership shares Mr. Sisi’s approach to anyone who utters a thought the government finds distasteful. Still, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov allowed international reporters to record his encounters with Mr. Kerry, though local Turkmen journalists were kept at a far remove.

The King of Bahrain, who knows a thing or two about clearing the streets of critics, invited reporters in for the start of his meeting with Mr. Kerry last month, and, with a deep understanding of how to keep them docile, fed them at the palace before they were packed off.

Even China’s leaders routinely let the news media pool in, though they do their best to ignore them.

Egypt used to do the same — in what now looks, by comparison, like the days of openness when Hosni Mubarak was still president. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab revolution of 2011 is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by dictators and jihadists

The Irish Times reports: In late 1400 and early 1401, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane left “pyramids of skulls, like those constructed by Islamic State today” across Syria, recalls the French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu.

Tamerlane had already destroyed Aleppo. The great Arab historian and statesman Ibn Khaldun talked to him for 35 days, in the hope of saving Damascus. “The whole time, Tamerlane knows he’s going to massacre everyone in the city,” Filiu continues. “He uses the negotiation to divide and rule, to massacre more people, faster.”

Filiu wants Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, to read Ibn Khaldun, for it’s impossible not to see a parallel with the behaviour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Filiu is an Arabist, historian and former diplomat who served as an adviser to a French prime minister, defence minister and interior minister. His “added value”, he says, is history. He will address members of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin on The Jihadi Challenge to Europe next Monday, May 23rd, and debate The Spectre of Global Jihad with the author Shiraz Maher that evening at the International Literature Festival Dublin.

In his most recent book, From Deep State to Islamic State; The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, (published by Hurst in London) Filiu concludes that the Arab revolution of 2011 – a term he prefers to “Arab spring” – is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by the remnants of dictatorships in collusion with jihadists.

Over the past century, Filiu writes, the Arabs’ right to self-determination was “denied by colonial intervention, ‘hi- jacked’ at independence by military regimes, trampled on by the double standards of the war for Kuwait and the ‘global war on terror,’ and perverted in the UN, where peoples are represented by the regimes who oppress them”.

No other people have faced “so many obstacles, enemies and horrors in the quest for basic rights”, Filiu says. [Continue reading…]

In January, Filiu spoke about the price being paid because of President Obama’s failure to uphold ethical principles.

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What happened to billions in U.S. military aid to Egypt?

Julian Pecquet writes: The Egyptian government is hindering Washington’s ability to track billions of dollars worth of anti-aircraft missiles and other US weapons, the US government watchdog said in a blistering report just as Congress gets ready to renew the annual $1.3 billion request.

The United States provided $6.5 billion in military assistance to Cairo between 2011 and 2015 with the understanding that it would be closely monitored and it would serve American interests. Instead, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) asserts that the Obama administration has often failed to meet those requirements due to resistance from their Egyptian counterparts, lack of guidance from Washington and insufficient staffing at the US Embassy in Cairo.

The State Department and the Defense Department (DOD) have established programs “to provide reasonable assurance that military equipment transferred or exported to foreign governments is used for its legitimate intended purposes and does not come into the possession of individuals or groups who pose a threat to the United States or its allies,” the GAO said in its May 12 report. “However, gaps in the implementation of these end-use monitoring programs — in part due to limited cooperation from the Egyptian government — hampers DOD’s and State’s ability to provide such assurances.” [Continue reading…]

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