Autocracies breed terror in Middle East, says Qatari foreign minister

The Guardian reports: Qatar’s foreign minister has claimed the root cause of Middle East terrorism lay in authoritarian rulers, and lack of human rights, presenting Qatar as a more reliable western ally in the fight against terror than “impulsive, crisis-making” Saudi Arabia.

Speaking in front of British ministers at a Qatar-sponsored anti-terror conference in London, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani stressed his country’s commitment to use political and economic policies, as well as security measures to attack extremism’s “breeding ground of injustice and authoritarianism”.

Qatar is run by a royal family and critics claim the Doha-based broadcaster al-Jazeera is more free to criticise other Gulf states than its hosts, but the emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, announced this month that Qatar would hold elections for a 45-strong consultative shura council in 2019.

Such elections have been delayed three times, but pressure from the publicity of holding the World Cup in 2022, and the country’s ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia, is thought to make a fourth postponement less likely. Qatar is also revising its much-criticised labour laws and plans to grant citizenship rights to some expatriates. [Continue reading…]

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The ‘sectarianization’ of the Middle East

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Is the Middle East destined to fragment?

Robin Wright writes: Pity the Kurds. Theirs is a history of epic betrayals. A century ago, the world reneged on a vow to give them their own state, carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The rugged mountain people were instead dispersed into the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, with another block left in Iran. Since then, all three countries have repressed their Kurds. Saddam Hussein was so intent on Arabizing Iraq’s Kurdistan that he paid Arab families to unearth long-dead relatives and rebury them in Kurdish territory—creating evidence to claim Arab rights to the land. He also razed four thousand Kurdish villages and executed a hundred thousand of the region’s inhabitants, some with chemical weapons. Syria stripped its Kurds of citizenship, making them foreigners in their own lands and depriving them of rights to state education, property ownership, jobs, and even marriage. Turkey repeatedly—sometimes militarily—crushed Kurdish political movements; for decades, the Kurdish language was banned, as was the very word “Kurd” to describe Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. They were instead known as “mountain Turks.”

Iraq’s Kurds got a bit of revenge this week. In a historic but controversial referendum, more than ninety per cent of voters endorsed a proposal to secede and declare their own country. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” the President of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, vowed on the eve of the poll. Jubilation erupted. Waving their distinctive flag—three stripes of red, white, and green, with a blazing golden sun in the center—Kurds across northern Iraq took to the streets.

The Kurdish vote reflects an existential quandary across the entire Middle East: Are some of the region’s most important countries really viable anymore? The world has resisted addressing the issue since the popular protests in 2011, known as the Arab Uprising, or Arab Spring, spawned four wars and a dozen crises. Entire countries have been torn asunder, with little to no prospect of political or physical reconstruction anytime soon. Meanwhile, the outside world has invested vast resources, with several countries forking out billions of dollars in military equipment, billions more in aid, and thousands of hours of diplomacy—on the assumption that places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya can still work as currently configured. The list of outside powers that have tried to shape the region’s future is long—from the United States and its European allies to the Russian-Iran axis and many of the Middle East’s oil-rich powers. All have, so far, failed at forging hopeful direction.

They’ve also failed to confront the obvious: Do the people in these countries want to stay together? Do people who identify proudly as Syrians, for example, all define “Syria” the same way? And are they willing to surrender their political, tribal, racial, ethnic, or sectarian identities in order to forge a common good and a stable nation?

The long-term impact of these destructive centrifugal forces is far from clear. But, given the blood spilled over the past six years, primordial forces seem to be prevailing at the moment, and not only among the Kurds. “The only people who want to hold Iraq together,” Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, opined to me recently, “are those who don’t live in Iraq.” That sentiment is echoed, if not as concisely, elsewhere.

The challenge is addressing the flip side: If these countries, most of them modern creations, are dysfunctional or in danger of failing, what then will work to restore some semblance of normalcy to an ever more volatile region? No major player, in the region or the wider world, seems to be exploring solutions. [Continue reading…]

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Trump signals he will choose approach on Iran that preserves nuclear deal

The New York Times reports: President Trump kept the Iran nuclear deal alive on Thursday as a critical deadline lapsed, a sign that he is stepping back from his threat to abandon an agreement he repeatedly disparaged. He is moving instead to push back on Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East in other ways.

Thursday’s congressionally imposed deadline, to renew an exemption to sanctions on Iran suspended under the 2015 deal, was significant because had the president reimposed economic punishments on Iran, he would have effectively violated the accord, allowing Tehran to walk away and ending the agreement. But Mr. Trump was convinced by top Cabinet members and aides that he would also blow up alliances and free Iran to produce nuclear weapons material.

The move was more consequential than the decision the president faces in October about whether to recertify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the deal, which has no effect on the nuclear agreement itself.

Though Mr. Trump insisted that he has not settled on an overall Iran strategy and that he would announce one next month, administration officials said they were already trying to refocus on using military and economic leverage to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.

The approach, which aides said Mr. Trump came to reluctantly in a series of National Security Council meetings, is part of a pattern that has emerged in the president’s attempts to keep his campaign promises. Falling short in some cases, including on his hard line on immigration, Mr. Trump has portrayed the outcome as consistent with his stated objectives. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab autocracy trap

Shlomo Ben-Ami writes: It has been more than six years since the start of the Arab Spring, and life for most Arabs is worse than it was in 2011. Unemployment is rife in the Middle East and North Africa, where two thirds of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29. And throughout the region, regimes have closed off channels for political expression, and responded to popular protests with increasing brutality.

The governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, Morocco, epitomize Arab regimes’ seeming inability to escape the autocracy trap – even as current circumstances suggest that another popular awakening is imminent.

Egypt offers a classic example of how revolution often ends in betrayal. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship is even more violent than that of Hosni Mubarak, the strongman whose 30-year rule was ended by the 2011 uprising. With the help of a police force that he himself describes as a “million-man mafia,” Sisi has made repression the paramount organizing principle of his regime.

It would be a Herculean feat for anyone to reform Egypt’s economy so that it benefits the country’s 95 million people (plus the two million added every year). And it is a task that Egypt’s leaders cannot avoid, because the social contract of the Mubarak years, whereby Egyptians traded freedom for an expansive welfare state and generous subsidies, is no longer sustainable. [Continue reading…]

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The crisis of regional order in the Gulf

Ahmet Davutoglu, the former prime minister of Turkey, writes: At a time when the Middle East is in dire need of a positive agenda and a plan to overcome division, ominous new developments are dominating the scene and the forces of disintegration appear to have been unleashed.

The current “Gulf” crisis is just the latest manifestation of this trend. Before considering the way out of this crisis, it is important to accurately depict it, its root causes, and its regional implications.

There have been many depictions of the Qatari crisis, and several different names have been used to describe the nature of the issue.

“The Qatari crisis”, “the Gulf crisis”, “the contest to define a new regional order”, and “the latest chapter of the Arab Spring showdown” have all been employed on various occasions to describe the crisis.

These are all valid descriptions contingent upon observers’ own operational logic. In fact, the politics of naming a crisis is no frivolous endeavour. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s gift to Putin in the Mideast

Vali Nasr writes: Over the past two months, even as American-trained forces were driving Islamic State insurgents out of the major Iraqi city of Mosul, the war next door in Syria was taking a dangerous but little-remarked turn — one far more favorable for Russia’s ambitions to regain a position of broad influence in the Middle East.

First, a major gaffe by President Trump helped Saudi Arabia split a Sunni Muslim alliance that was supposed to fight against the Islamic State — so much so that Qatar and Turkey moved closer together and became open to cooperation with Iran and Russia. Later, when Mr. Trump sat down with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Germany, the American president virtually handed the keys to the region to his adversary by agreeing to a cease-fire in Syria that assumed a lasting presence of Russian influence in that conflict — which only consolidated the likelihood of wider regional influence.

With Mr. Trump’s inner circle often at odds with one another and the president going his own unpredictable way, Mr. Putin seems never to miss an opportunity to expand Russia’s presence in the region. That has helped to blur even the longstanding lines of sectarian division between Sunni and Shiite states and to complicate America’s strategic position.

To be sure, Mr. Trump sent his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to the region to sort out the mess. But among the monarchs of the Middle East, an underling’s voice stood no chance of undoing the damage already done by his master’s tweets. [Continue reading…]

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As ISIS’s ‘caliphate’ crumbles, its ideology remains

Farah Najjar writes: Three years ago on Wednesday, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood at the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand Al Nuri mosque, which was destroyed last week amid fighting between the armed group’s fighters and US-backed Iraqi forces, and announced the creation of a Sunni caliphate.

While ISIL proceeded to balloon in size – at its peak it covered territory across Iraq and Syria roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom – it has lost nearly 47 percent of its territory since January, according to Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit, a security and defence observer.

Experts say that despite being seemingly on the brink of military defeat, the group’s widespread ideology will be much harder to erase and may re-emerge in other manifestations.

“The structure of ISIS is destroyed, but the underlying forces are not – they are being worsened,” Rami Khouri, senior fellow and professor at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera, using a different acronym for ISIL.

“The rise of ISIS is a sign of deeper problems,” he said.

Though it is unclear how ISIL may re-establish itself, some believe that poor economic conditions and volatile war-torn areas are the basis for the emergence of such groups.

Khouri said that unless underlying regional issues such as unemployment, human rights abuses and political repression are addressed, the group’s ideology will continue to attract the disenfranchised and politically excluded. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab world has never recovered from the loss of 1967

Hisham Melhem writes: On Dec. 11, 2016, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Syria’s most consequential public intellectual in the last half-century, died in Berlin. He was 82 years old. In his last conscious days, Azm, like numerous other Syrian exiles, watched from afar the slow, methodical massacre of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. For a man who struggled for half a century against Arab tyranny, intellectual vacuity, socio-economic injustice, and sectarian and ethnic bigotry, it must have been particularly cruel to see the victory of these forces in the physical destruction of Aleppo, the jewel of Syria’s ancient and famed cities. From the heady days of intellectual debates over the perennial question of “what went wrong” in the Arab world to his last deathbed moments of solitude and sober reflection, Azm was a critical witness to the Arabs’ long descent into the heart of darkness.

Fifty years after Azm and other Arab intellectuals started to mercilessly deconstruct their ossified political orders, reactionary and primitive religious structures, and stagnant societies, the Arab world has descended further into darkness. Physical, intellectual, and political desolation has claimed many of the once lively metropolises of the Arab region — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Mosul, Cairo, and Alexandria — with only Beirut still resisting, albeit teetering on the edge. For centuries, these cities constituted a rich human and linguistic mosaic of ancient communities including Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and Circassians. In modern times, they were joined by Greek, Armenian, and Italian communities. A vibrant cosmopolitanism found home in the port cities of Alexandria and Beirut and the cities of the hinterland, such as Aleppo, Damascus, and Baghdad.

As a teenager roaming the streets of Beirut, I would hear a babel of languages: Arabic, French, English, Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish. Admittedly, that thriving cosmopolitanism had its drawbacks amid a brittle world of uncertainties and inequalities. The rural hinterland was populated by resentful peasants, who could see and envy from afar the shimmering lights of the forbidden cities and their hidden rewards.

As a young man, I witnessed the surprising outburst of enthusiasm that arose in the wake of the collective Arab disbelief and humiliation following the swift, crushing defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan at the hands of Israel in six days. The war allowed Israel to seize Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the West Bank and Gaza and eventually marked the death knell for the idea of Arab nationalism embodied by Egypt’s then-president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Initially, most Arabs sought refuge in denial, refusing to admit that their military rout was emblematic of deeper rotten cultural maladies and social defects and instead calling the disastrous defeat a temporary “setback.” Many wanted badly to believe that Israel’s victory was achieved only because of Western machinations and deception, since it was almost an article of faith among many Arab nationalists, leftists, and Islamists that Israel was an “artificial entity” — an extension of imperialism in the Arab East.

The belief among Arabs that their armies would prevail in the war was almost universal. I was 17 years old then, and I still vividly remember the searing pain I felt, mixed with unadulterated rage directed mostly against the self-appointed guardians of Arab patrimony.

Fifty years after the defeat, the brittle world the Arabs built is unraveling in civil wars fought with abandon by cruel men supported by equally cruel foreign and regional marauders. Ancient cities that survived many an invader now lay in ruins in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Schools and hospitals, places of worship, bakeries and pharmacies — all were repeatedly violated by governments and rebels. Millions of bereft souls wandered over large swaths of scorched earth before fleeing their countries, by choice or by force, forming rivers of refugees and spilling over into neighboring lands and then scattering across Europe. A tragic modern version of the “Middle Passage” has taken place in the Mediterranean, whose deceptively calm waves became the watery graves of many a refugee braving the sea on rickety, overflowing boats operated by greedy seamen, the slave traders of yesteryear. In the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, Arabs — who barely constitute 5 percent of the world’s population — burdened the world with more than 50 percent of its refugees.

Today, Arabs find themselves living in the shadow of more powerful non-Arab neighbors: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. In both Syria and Iraq, the concept of a unitary national identity has collapsed along sectarian and ethnic fault lines, thus deepening political, social, and cultural polarizations and making the reunification of both countries all but impossible. Egypt, once a regional power, has been thoroughly marginalized politically in the last few decades, remaining afloat economically only because of handouts from the Arab Gulf states. The vaunted Egyptian military is even incapable of imposing its total sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula. It finds itself reliant on the might of the Israeli Air Force — the same air force that decimated Egyptian air power on June 5, 1967 — in the fight against the so-called Islamic State and other extremists.

Cairo has ceased to be the cultural mecca of the Arabs, with none of its universities, research centers, laboratories, publications, studios, or galleries producing meaningful science, knowledge, or art. Beirut, the imperfect liberal oasis of my youth, is meanwhile being suffocated by an ossified, corrupt, and feudal political system and by a predatory, cunning, and ruthless paramilitary force: Hezbollah. The group is among the most lethal nonstate actors in the world, serving effectively as Iran’s foreign legion — a Shiite version of the famed Ottoman Janissaries. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is fomenting even more conflict in the Middle East

The Washington Post reports: In a speech intended to galvanize Arab and Muslim leaders against threats from extremists and Iran, President Trump demanded unity from his audience in Saudi Arabia, and focus.

“One goal transcends every other consideration,” he said to the assembled leaders in the Saudi capital, in an address that shifted between stark realism and startling optimism. “We pray this special gathering may someday be remembered as the beginning of peace in the Middle East,” he said.

But instead of peace, the Middle East was battered by a wave of conflict in the days that followed, awash with recriminations and repression that suggested that, far from uniting the region, Trump’s words had only aggravated its divides.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia launched a bizarre and unexpected war of words that highlighted their longtime competition for regional influence and their often sharply contrasting visions.

As that dispute raged last week, the leaders of Bahrain and Egypt embarked on unusually vicious crackdowns on political opponents at home, killing five people and arresting hundreds.

And leaders in Iran, Saudi Arabia’s principal rival, where voters earlier this month reelected a reformist president, went on the offensive, condemning Trump’s announcement of billions of dollars in weapons sales to the Saudis while revealing the existence of an underground ballistic missile facility.

Analysts said the tensions were almost surely a consequence of Trump’s visit to Riyadh: a forceful American endorsement of Saudi leadership in the Arab world, punctuated by the weapons sales, which had stirred panic and anxiety among the kingdom’s competitors and enemies while emboldening its loyal and authoritarian allies. [Continue reading…]

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Trump thinks he ‘just got back from the Middle East’ — actually, he’s still there

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The obstacles to gender equality in the Arab world

The Economist reports: Ahmed, who lives in Cairo, allows his wife to work. “At first, I insisted she stay at home, but she was able to raise the kids and care for the house and still have time to go to work,” he says. Still, he doesn’t seem too impressed. “Of course, as a man, I’m the main provider for the family. I believe women just cannot do that.”

Ahmed’s outlook is widely shared throughout the region, where men dominate households, parliaments and offices. Chauvinist attitudes are reflected in laws that treat women as second-class citizens. A new survey by the UN and Promundo, an advocacy group, examines Arab men’s views on male-female relations. (One of the authors, Shereen El Feki, used to write for The Economist.) It finds that around 90% of men in Egypt believe that they should have the final say on household decisions, and that women should do most of the chores.

So far, so predictable. But the survey sheds new light on the struggles of Arab men in the four countries studied (Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine) and how they hinder progress towards equality. At least two-thirds of these men report high levels of fear for the safety and well-being of their families. In Egypt and Palestine most men say they are stressed or depressed because of a lack of work or income. Women feel even worse, but for Arab men the result is a “crisis of masculinity”, the study finds.

Far from relaxing their patriarchal attitudes, Arab men are clinging to them. In every country except Lebanon, younger men’s views on gender roles do not differ substantially from those of older men. There may be several reasons for this, but the study suggests that the struggle of young Arab men to find work, afford marriage and achieve the status of financial provider may be producing a backlash against assertive women. In other words, male chauvinism may be fuelled by a sense of weakness, not strength. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Maher makes us dumber: How ignorance, fear and stupid clichés shape Americans’ view of the Middle East

Steven A Cook and Michael Brooks write: Last Sunday was the 14th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. Given the outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the milestone passed almost completely without comment among the many who led the charge to Baghdad in 2003. There are soldiers of all ranks who went into battle carrying copies of Ibn Khaldun’s “The Muqaddimah,” Hans Wehr’s Arabic-English Dictionary and other works that might help explain the land and region to which they were ostensibly bringing liberty. Many of these honorable men and women are wiser and more in touch today with the history, politics and culture of the Middle East than when the invasion order came. The same cannot be said for America’s political leaders or Americans more generally.

Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and certainly before the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Americans lived mostly in ignorance of the Middle East. All these years later they remain ignorant but in a different way. Previously, Americans had simply been uninformed about the region. What little they knew tended to be shaped by the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the fading memory of the Iranian hostage crisis and the brief Persian Gulf War of 1991 to reverse Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait.

Today Americans remain ignorant about the Middle East not because they are unaware of the region, but because they are poorly educated about it. It was not long after the Twin Towers fell and the smoldering fire at the Pentagon was extinguished that terms like jihad, Salafi, Wahhabi, madrassa and al-Qaida became part of the American political lexicon. It seemed that anyone who had attained the rank of colonel, or could claim (legitimately or otherwise) onetime employment at the CIA, or was a columnist who had visited an Arab country once or twice was booked on television to shed light on “why they hate us.” To be fair, this reflected a surge of genuine interest in the Middle East. Suddenly, university Arabic classes were oversubscribed, and books about the region that once reached tiny audiences did very well.

As 9/11 became a distant memory and the Iraqi venture became a disaster, the laudable desire to learn more about the Middle East seemed to fall off even as the casualties returning home continued at a steady pace. Yet in ways the region continued to be an obsession — not just for policymakers and foreign policy analysts, but also for a network of groups and individuals that fostered mistrust and fear of Middle Easterners in general and Muslims in particular.

People like Frank Gaffney, Brigitte Gabriel, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer had long been fringe figures in American public discourse. But their dogged efforts to brand Islam a hostile political ideology and characterize Muslims as a fifth column in the United States paid off in a variety of ways that reinforced one another. The controversy over the “ground zero mosque” in lower Manhattan is instructive in this regard. Such people were able to inject their Islamophobic worldview into the reporting on the debate over the “mosque” — actually a community center with a prayer room — which then wended its way into political spheres where these ideas became increasingly more mainstream. While figures on the far right and the emerging alt-right may have been responsible for propagating Islamophobia, liberal punditry and pop culture also gave it wider currency. [Continue reading…]

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Trump talk of terror listing for Muslim Brotherhood alarms some Arab allies

The New York Times reports: In Morocco, it would tip a delicate political balance. In Jordan, it could prevent American diplomats from meeting with opposition leaders. In Tunisia, it could make criminals of a political party seen as a model of democracy after the Arab Spring.

Of all the initiatives of the Trump administration that have set the Arab world on edge, none has as much potential to disrupt the internal politics of American partners in the region as the proposal to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist movement with millions of followers.

“The impact would be great,” said Issandr El Amrani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Morocco, where a Brotherhood-linked party won the last election in October. “It could destabilize countries where anti-Islamist forces would be encouraged to double down. It would increase polarization.”

At issue is a proposal floated by Trump aides that the 89-year-old Brotherhood be designated as a foreign terrorist entity. The scope of any designation remains unclear, but its potential reach is vast: Founded in Egypt, the Brotherhood has evolved into a loose network that spans about two dozen countries. It has officially forsworn violence. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s Middle East fans get caught up in global blowback

Julian Pecquet writes: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the first foreign leaders to get stung for too closely identifying with the new White House occupant. In a tweet published Saturday evening ahead of his Feb. 15 meeting with Trump, Netanyahu voiced support for the US president’s proposed wall with Mexico.

“President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea,” said Netanyahu.


The tweet immediately caused a furor in Mexico, which is home to about 50,000 Jews and has good relations with Israel. Dozens of Mexican Jews canceled donations to the United Israel Appeal campaign, while Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray asked for an apology. [Continue reading…]

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America, you look like an Arab country right now

Karl Sharro writes: Dear America,

We have been watching the drama of your presidential elections with much interest and curiosity for some time now. It’s hard not to notice the many similarities between our own countries and yours. From fiery inauguration protests and bitter disputes about crowd size, to the intelligence service’s forays into politics and the rise of right-wing extremists, it appears that you are traveling very much in our direction — and at the same time, like us, becoming a curiosity for foreign correspondents trying to explain what’s happening in your region to the world. You might be distraught about where you are headed, but we aren’t! Perhaps this will be an opportunity to put our differences aside and recognize how similar we are.

Let’s start at the beginning. During the campaign we were surprised to learn of the influence that the head of the American mukhabarat (state security, i.e. your FBI) can wield over the election process, simply by choosing to pursue a certain line of investigation. As you may know, this has been a constant feature of our politics since independence. Our surprise turned to astonishment when we started to witness the blossoming feud between the then-president-elect and the American mukhabarat, another important feature of Arab politics.

On top of that, we started to hear reports of foreign meddling in your elections, which some say may have influenced the result. Of course, we are quite familiar with that situation, too, not least because of the efforts of your own administrations over the decades. Yet it came as a surprise to hear talk of “foreign hands” and “secret agendas” in a country like America. We sympathize.

On the bright side, this was also the moment that the conspiracy theories started to spread. You know us; we’re quite fond of conspiracy theories — particularly when they involve plots by external powers — and consider ourselves connoisseurs of the genre. Your plots are a bit rough around the edges, we have to admit, but top marks for creativity. Was the election of Trump a Russian conspiracy? Was talk of the Russian conspiracy a liberal conspiracy to undermine Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to help Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to hurt Trump? Was media coverage of Trump’s mukhabarat conspiracy theories part of a liberal conspiracy theory to bring him down? They’re all so deliciously complex and open-ended, much like our own. [Continue reading…]

Karl Sharro tweets as @karlremarks.

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The Arab Spring is far from over

Koert Debeuf writes: What were once high hopes for a new, free and democratic Arab World have turned into civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Instead of democracies, countries like Egypt, Bahrain and even Morocco have become even more repressive dictatorships.

In Egypt alone, no less than 40,000 people have been detained since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July 2013. All independent television stations have been closed and critical journalists arrested. Most NGOs have been shut down or can simply no longer function. And then there is the Islamic State, the most barbaric outcome of the chaos that followed the 2011 uprisings.

These may seem like more than enough reasons to call the Arab Spring an utter failure. But, in truth, it depends on how carefully you look at what is happening. On the surface, the political upheavals look like failed revolts against dictatorships. But dig a bit deeper into the societies of these Arab countries and there are reasons to believe what we see is not a simple revolt, but an epochal revolution.

If that is true, today’s depressing situation is not the end; it’s just one of the stages the region is going through on its way to a better future. That, at least, is one of the lessons we could learn from history.

Take the French Revolution. The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, didn’t come out of nowhere. In the 18th century, the population of France had grown by 50 percent. The large young generation couldn’t find jobs because the economic system was stuck. The people were getting poorer, while the grandees who populated the court in Versailles were excessively rich. There was no freedom of religion, and the Church was amassing power and wealth. The French Revolution didn’t stop when Napoleon took power in 1799. It took 80 years and 12 constitutions before France became a stable democracy in 1870. [Continue reading…]

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Obama hoped to transform the world. It transformed him

Adam Shatz writes: At his final news conference as president, Mr. Obama expressed anguish over the fall of Aleppo, but insisted that his Syria policy had been guided by his sense of “what’s the right thing to do for America.”

It may well have been; American lives were spared. But noninterference created a vacuum that autocrats like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were happy to fill. What’s more, Mr. Obama’s understanding of American interests in Syria was more restrictively drawn than one might have expected from a man so worldly, someone who had always stressed the interdependence of the global community and the moral burdens of “what it means to share this world in the 21st century.” Who governs Syria may not be a core American interest, but the country’s apocalyptic splintering is another matter. The effect of Mr. Obama’s caution, as much as Moscow’s belligerent resolve, was to help prolong the war.

The consequences of Syria’s disintegration have spread far beyond its borders. Not only has the crisis placed dangerous strains on neighboring states, but it has emboldened the far right in Europe, which has played on fears about Islam and terrorism in its campaign against immigration and the European Union. Nor has the United States been unscathed by what Mr. Obama recently called the “tug of tribalism”: Donald J. Trump owes his election to it. Mr. Trump is an open admirer of tribal politicians like Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, not least because they remind him of himself with their love of the mob, contempt for liberal elites and penchant for conspiracy theory.

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Mr. Obama imagined Muslim and Western democrats working together in partnership, overcoming borders imposed by war, prejudice and mistrust for the sake of a common future. Instead, the very prospect of a common future, of global interdependence, has been jeopardized by the emergence of an illiberal world of tribes without flags. Despite the best of intentions, and for all his fine words, Mr. Obama became one of the midwives of this dangerous and angry new world, where his enlightened cosmopolitanism increasingly looks like an anachronism. [Continue reading…]

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