Friday, March 18, 2011

For Lebanon, An Irish Lesson To Ponder

By Patrick Granfield 
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/03/2011

Whether they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin or Dubai, few Irish are likely to let bad times prevent them from indulging in a few songs. One that has become an anthem for Ireland’s diaspora is “Danny Boy,” in which a father calls out to his son – and to the thousands of others like him who have left Ireland – to return home. The renditions this past March 17 were more melancholic than usual, and they had reason to be.

Danny Boy won’t be coming back to Ireland any time soon. Ireland’s economy has collapsed under billions of euros of debt and the property bubble has gone horribly bust. To remain solvent, the Irish government was forced to go hat in hand to the European Union, and to its former colonial master, the United Kingdom, for the equivalent of nearly $140 billion in loans. In the next two years, more Irish are expected to leave their country in search of work than at any time in Irish history.

But the Irish aren’t the only ones who know the pain of a diaspora or who have written songs about the subject. There also happens to be Lebanon. Just listen to the national diva Fairuz sing “Take Me Back to My Land,” as she yearns for the country’s “far away breezes.” The voice is distinctly Lebanese but the longing to be back on “the banks of childhood gone by” is one that millions of Lebanese and Irish have shared.

That is not all that the Lebanese and Irish have in common. Though the wounds of Lebanon’s Civil War are more recent and its sectarian divides may be deeper, Ireland has endured some of the same. And just as Ireland has served as a gateway on the North Atlantic between Europe and America, Lebanon has served a similar role in the Mediterranean, linking Europe and the Middle East for centuries. The painful histories and particular geographies of both places have helped to make the populations of Lebanese and Irish some of the world’s most diffuse.

Globalization has made geography less important and technology has shortened distances. However, this has not diminished the value of having strong links with a large diaspora. Ireland is realizing the advantages of these links once again during its current crisis.

For its part, Lebanon’s economy remained remarkably buoyant during the global downturn. However, even the most optimistic must understand that this won’t last forever. Just as it did in Ireland, gravity will eventually catch up with property prices in Lebanon. The economic pain isn’t likely to be as severe, but the Lebanese will be better prepared for it if they take to heart a lesson from Ireland’s recent past.

That lesson is that Ireland never allowed its ties to the diaspora to weaken, even as the country became far less dependent upon its expatriates for its own economic well-being. That has proven prescient. In 1999, as the so-called Celtic Tiger began to roar, Ireland amended its constitution to mention a “special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” It was Mary Robinson, while serving as Irish president in 1995, who explained it best: “[T]his great narrative of dispossession and belonging, which so often had its origins in sorrow and leave-taking, has become – with a certain amount of historic irony – one of the treasures of our society.”


Those treasures are not just metaphorical now that Ireland is confronting its worst economic collapse in decades. A difficult decade lies ahead, but Ireland’s links with its diaspora will make it easier for the country to export its way to growth, and for its young people to find jobs and gain experience before a new Irish recovery takes root.

While Lebanon’s own history provides it with some of the oldest and most extensive of global ties, that does not mean that the country cannot benefit from further nurturing links with its own diaspora, or thinking about the Lebanese overseas in new ways. Ireland’s larger focus on that effort is instructive, though many of its particular policies won’t be suitable for Lebanon. There are a host of reasons, for instance, why adopting Ireland’s liberal citizenship policies, where a person born and living abroad requires only one Irish grandparent to earn an Irish passport, is neither feasible nor politically viable in Lebanon.

Providing Lebanese citizens who live abroad with the right to vote, as long as they return to Lebanon to do so, is one way that Lebanon has kept expatriates connected to their roots. But those who return to vote are likely to have close connections with the country already. It is in tapping members of the diaspora whose ties with Lebanon have grown thin that Lebanon has the most to gain. That is why the government would do well to follow through on a promise to allow expatriates to vote in their country of residence in the next parliamentary elections.

Here, the 7-8 million people of Lebanese heritage who live in Brazil present a particular opportunity. They descend from one of Lebanon’s older emigrant communities, and many may be less eager to retain their ties with the old country than those in other communities abroad. However, efforts to bring them back into the fold should be augmented.

As emerging markets comprise an ever larger share of global growth, the economic benefits of some of Lebanon’s more historic partnerships will begin to wane. The large diaspora in Brazil provides Lebanon an entry point into the developing world and a chance to be an interlocutor between one of the world’s rising economic powers and the Middle East.

Lebanon has seen how globalization has done little to weaken attachments to older forms of identity, whether they are rooted in religion or nationality. While this has often represented a burden for the country, it can also be a blessing by harnessing the staying power of Lebanese identity in the communities abroad.

Neither Lebanon nor Ireland can insulate itself from the increasing pace of change in the international economy. And though the diasporas of the two nations provide evidence of the challenging histories that both have confronted, they can also serve an essential role as the Lebanese and Irish attempt to profit from the global challenges to come.

Patrick Granfield is opinion editor of The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Israel Plunging Deeper Into Fascism

As'ad Abdul Rahman writes: A psychosis of inferiority and fear rooted in history prompts far-right to commit atrocities against Palestinians
By As'ad Abdul Rahman
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 19/03/2011
The foundation of Israel's strategy to serve the designated goals of Zionism has been built on certain pillars buried deep and invisible. Some of these pillars are: (1) The theory of absolute Israeli security. (2) Safe and secure boundaries. (3) Maintaining an overwhelming strike force that should always be superior to all the combined military forces of the enemy (Arab states) — Iran has been added to Israel's list of enemies with the possibility of Turkey and Egypt being added soon. (4) Maintaining the maximum flow of military hardware and financial aid coming in from abroad.
Israel has become hostage to the so-called ‘Masada complex'. It sees only deadly enemies ‘bent on annihilating the Jews'. Such a fear-stricken psyche can only produce suicidal policies exactly like the people of the Jewish town (Masada) committing suicide in early history as Roman legions prepared to storm their stronghold.
This state of mind currently dominating the Israeli psyche has erased self-confidence leading to the adoption of an apartheid policy with its inhumane brutal force being waged against non-Jews — the Palestinians — ‘to protect the survival of the Jewish state'.
Fascism is an offshoot of a panic-stricken mentality that requires arsonists to fan its raging flames. Fascist political parties of the extreme right are now dominating the political scene in Israel, especially in the wake of the Labour Party's demise. Such a growing fascist tendency is raising major concerns among Israeli human rights organisations and among many groups of conscience around the world including a vast number of Jews.
Israeli human rights organisations monitoring the situation in Israel feel abhorrence to see the increased level of racial discrimination against Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories.
Egoistic character
Keen observers see the same policies and practices adopted by the fascist regimes that once ruled in Germany and Italy being manifested in Israel today.
Dr Laurence Britt identified these fascist traits in his world-famous research as the "the dominance of extreme nationalistic tendency" which is extremely egotistic in nature.
Such a characteristic applies to Israel's political mentality based on a feeling of inferiority with regard to the Christians. The establishment of the state of Israel was supposed to free the Jews from such fears, but it never erased the memories of massacres and the repeated dispossession of Jews by Christians.
The Nazis spewed their anger against the German Jews instead of the western allies who defeated and humiliated Germany in the First World War. The bills of many pogroms gathering dust in Israeli memories and the bills of the Holocaust are being paid in full by the Palestinians.
The second trait of fascism is derived from distorted verses in religious books or a misunderstanding resulting from misinterpretation of these texts as the case was in issues relating to ‘Christians versus Jews'.
Jewish and Christian scholars in major American and western universities, as well as in the official Encyclopedia Judaica warn students studying the Torah to be aware of the distortion within the book which created ‘profane verses' that used the kosher and halal terms as a pretext to commit atrocities against non-combatant civilians, including innocent children and women in order ‘to protect and preserve Israel'.
These scholars explain the reasons for such verses as being the result of the memorisation of the Torah for 700 years before its verses were written down. Furthermore, the scribes who were transcribing the texts during the ‘Jewish exile in Babylon' added fables which were copied from texts found in the library of Babylon!
Such ‘profane verses' in the Torah command ‘Beni Israel' to commit massacres under "the command of the Lord of Israel". The so-called ‘Divine Command' is said to have been transferred to the Israelites by the prophets of Israel, headed by Moses himself as quoted in the Torah, which is totally false.
The same verses made it absolutely necessary to keep the Hebrew language an exclusivity of the Jewish priesthood in order to guard them as secrets away from the eyes of the public. The Hebrew language became a spoken language only after the birth of Israel in 1948.
These ‘profane verses' are never quoted during religious services in the Christian and Jewish houses of worship, but they allowed the fascist Rabbi Ovadia Yousef to call for the "annihilation" of the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, along with all the Palestinian people.
One can only predict that the wave of madness gripping the Israeli extreme right (religious or nationalist) will continue, yet it is alienating rights groups in a world that has become a small village where the human race is increasingly aware of every event taking place on earth.
Finally, one comforting fact reminds us that fascism, whether it targets race, gender, colour or religious dogma, is bound to annihilate itself by its own degenerate negative tendencies.
History will again prove this right.
Professor As'ad Abdul Rahman is the Chairman of the Palestinian Encyclopaedia.

Loyalty Should Not Be Divided

By Ahmed Al-Jarallah - Editor-in-Chief, the Arab Times
This commentary was published in The Arab Times on 19/03/2011
NATIONAL allegiance cannot be divided into two. Loyalty to the nation entails disregarding other factors like sectarianism, tribalism, religious sentiments and factions. Bahrainis must decide whether to pledge allegiance to their country or to those with foreign agendas, because they cannot be loyal to both.
This fact is enshrined in the Bahraini Constitution, which everybody has accepted, including the Shiites, Sunnis, tribes and factions. Whoever accepts an article in the Constitution must recognize the whole social contract. It is inconceivable for a citizen in Bahrain or other GCC countries not to pledge allegiance to his country and the GCC institutions.
Neglecting the safety of a nation is tantamount to abandoning it. Therefore, no stones should be left unturned in protecting our countries, regardless of the challenges we might face. We must not also allow the political minority to practice dictatorship to control the decision-making process or determine the fate of the nation by raising slogans of injustice and calling for reforms. The minority group should not impose its will on the entire nation by holding street protests. In case this happens, the group will not only destroy the country but it will also implement the ‘law of the jungle’ to achieve personal goals, similar to the current situation in Lebanon.
If we take a closer look at Lebanon, we will realize that a political group has been hiding under the cover of resistance to amass weapons and become stronger than any other political group or movement. The group controls everything including the decisions of various sectors in the country.
The suffering of Bahrain now is a clear example of what befalls a nation that allows some political blocs to enmesh themselves in foreign games and agendas, while raising sectarian and political slogans. The same applies to Iraq, which is drowning in the blood of its own people due to the sectarian crisis.
The inability of some blocs in Bahrain to feel shame may have led them to think that they are capable of using the country as a tool in their experiment to actualize the expansionism goal of Iran in GCC countries and instigate chaos in the region. These blocs seem oblivious to the fact that they have committed a grave mistake when they put themselves in the hands of outsiders to be used as tools for implementing foreign agendas, so they became mercenaries in their own country. They also went as far as pretending to call for justice and reform just to convince the people. They have forgotten that they can deceive some people for some time but they cannot deceive everybody all the time.
The foul play must be exposed, as well as its foreign connections. There will be no mercy for people who sell their country in exchange for fake silver. The fortitude of the Bahraini leader is not only a national necessity. It is also important for the Arab and Gulf nations, because we cannot allow chaos to reign in the region. We don’t want the entire region to be subject to the whims of Tehran.

Relief Will Fade As We See The Real Impact Of Intervention In Libya

Welcome though it seems on humanitarian grounds, there are six serious problems with this UN resolution
Abdel al-Bari Atwan
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 18/03/2011
The first reaction was relief. The UN security council resolution 1973 authorising foreign intervention in Libya was held up as an attempt to protect the Libyan rebels and alleviate their suffering, and who would not welcome that? Who would not want to stop a bully intent on "wiping out" those who oppose him? But any relief should be tempered by serious misgivings.
First, what motives lie behind this intervention? While the UN was voting to impose a no-fly zone in Libya, at least 40 civilians were killed in a US drone attack in Waziristan in Pakistan. And as I write, al-Jazeera is broadcasting scenes of carnage from Sanaa, Yemen, where at least 40 protesters have been shot dead. But there will be no UN no-fly zone to protect Pakistani civilians from US attacks, or to protect Yemenis. One cannot help but question the selective involvement of the west in the so-called "Arab spring" series of uprisings.

It is true that the US was reluctant to act and did so only after weeks of indecision. Unwilling to become embroiled in another conflict in the region where it would be perceived as interfering in the affairs of a sovereign state, Obama wisely insisted on a high level of Arab and Muslim involvement. At first the signs were good: the Arab League endorsed the move last week, and five member states seemed likely to participate. But that has been whittled down to just Qatar and the UAE, with Jordan a possible third. This intervention lacks sufficient Arab support to give it legitimacy in the region.

The US was worried about the cost of military action, too, given its ailing economy. Abdel Rahman Halqem, the Libyan ambassador to the UN, has told me that Qatar and the UAE have agreed to foot most of the bill for the operation. And what is the motive of these autocratic states: to protect the Libyan people, a grudge against Gaddafi, or to bind the US further into the region?

So this is the second problem: the main players in this intervention are western powers led by Britain and France with US involvement likely. If Libya's neighbours, Egypt and Tunisia, were playing the leading role that would be something to celebrate. Democratic countries helping their neighbours would have been in the spirit of the Arab uprisings, and would have strengthened the sense that Arabs can take control of their future. It could have happened too: Egypt gets $1.3bn of US military aid a year. Diplomatic pressure by Hillary Clinton could have brought that mighty war horse into the arena, or at least encouraged Egypt to arm the rebels. Instead, an Egyptian foreign ministry spokesperson stated categorically on Wednesday: "No intervention, period."

The third problem is that, although he is often dismissed as mad, Gaddafi is a master strategist and this intervention plays into his hands. He quickly announced a ceasefire in response, which was claimed by some as an early victory for the UN resolution; in fact, it both deflates the UN initiative and allows Gaddafi to appear reasonable. Meanwhile, a ceasefire at this point suits Gaddafi: under its cover, the secret police can get to work. Similarly, Gaddafi accepted the earlier arms embargo: again, this apparent concession suited him. His regime has sophisticated weaponry, whereas the rebels have few arms.

Gaddafi knows how to play the Arab street, too. At the moment he has little, if any, public support; his influence is limited to his family and tribe. But he may use this intervention to present himself as the victim of post-colonialist interference in pursuit of oil. He is likely to pose the question that is echoing around the Arab world – why wasn't there a no-fly zone over Gaza when the Israelis were bombarding it in 2008/9?

Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising in Libya quickly deteriorated into armed conflict. Gaddafi could question whether those the UN is seeking to protect are still "civilians" when engaged in battle, and suggest instead that the west is taking sides in a civil war (where the political agenda of the rebels is unknown).

And what of the long-term impact of this intervention on Libya, and the world? Here lies yet another concern. Libya may end up divided into the rebel-held east and a regime stronghold in the rest of the country which would include the oil fields and the oil terminal town al-Brega. There is a strong risk, too, that it will become the region's fourth failed state, joining Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. And that ushers in another peril. Al-Qaida thrives in such chaos; it played a key role in the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies and is based in Yemen – and it may enter Libya, too. Several of Bin Laden's closest associates are Libyan, and Gaddafi is no stranger to terror groups – the Abu Nidal Organisation found a safe haven in Libya from 1987 to 1999. Gaddafi has also threatened to attack passenger aircraft and shipping in the Mediterranean.

Fifth, there is no guarantee that military intervention will result in Gaddafi's demise. In 1992, the UN imposed two no-fly zones in Iraq – to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shi'a in the south. Saddam remained in power for another 11 years and was only toppled after an invasion. To date, over a million civilians have died in Iraq. The international community has a duty to ensure that this sorry history is not repeated in Libya.

Finally, there is the worry that the Arab spring will be derailed by events in Libya. If uprising plus violent suppression equals western intervention, the long-suffering Arab subjects of the region's remaining autocrats might be coerced into sticking with the status quo.

The Libyan people face a long period of violent upheaval whatever happens. But it is only through their own steadfastness and struggle that they will finally win the peaceful and democratic state they long for.

Beware The Costs Of Libyan Intervention

By Ray Takeyh
This commentary was published by The Council On Foreign Relations on 18/03/2011

President John F. Kennedy once mused that limited military interventions are like taking a drink--once you take one and the effect wears off, you have to take another. Kennedy was employing the metaphor to rebuff calls from his hawkish advisers about how a circumscribed military deployment in Vietnam would prove decisive. Libya is neither Vietnam nor Iraq, and the case for intervention in Libya has to be discussed on its own terms and on its own merits. However, proponents of a more muscular policy do disservice to their own humanitarian cause by not asking the probing questions that architects of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in 2003 so irresponsibly avoided.

Too often, the advocates of military involvement in Libya present their cause as completely antiseptic, improbably simple, and in no way leading to further entanglement. All this is not to suggest that we should not intervene but merely that given our recent experiences in the Middle East we should have an honest dialogue about costs and contingencies that we may confront.

Under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council Resolution, the United States and its allies are going to extend a no-fly zone to protect the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi. Such action is likely to prove critical, as it is unlikely that Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's forces are going to assault a city protected by an international force. The question then becomes how to handle the urban centers that are under Qaddafi's brutal occupation.

Are the Libyans of Surt, Misurata, Zawiyah, Juda, and others cities less worthy of humanitarian protection then the justifiably jubilant residents of Benghazi? Can Benghazi remain the sole sanctuary in the midst of a burning Libya? To relieve the siege of other Libyan cities, does the United States need to move beyond airpower and actually deploy Special Forces, arm the rebels, and recognize the nascent opposition government? Can the moral concerns of the United States and international community delicately circumscribe themselves to the boundaries of Benghazi?

It is important to note that the UN Security Council resolution passed at the behest of Washington is not just about a no-fly zone. In the aftermath of the resolution, the United States is morally and practically obligated to the survival and viability of the anti-Qaddafi insurgency. To stand aloof and indifferent as the Qaddafi clan leaves alone the oasis of Benghazi while molesting other cities and citizens betrays the cause that the UN Security Council seemingly embraced. Otherwise, we just took a drink. Should the effect wear off, are we prepared to take another one?  

The Revolution Reaches Damascus

Recent protests in Syria show that the Assad regime is just as vulnerable to popular rage as the region's other autocracies.
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 18/03/2011
DAMASCUS, Syria — Until this week, it appeared that Syria might be immune from the turmoil that has gripped the Middle East. But trouble may now be starting to brew.
On March 18, popular demonstrations escalated into the most serious anti-government action during Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's decade-long rule. Security forces opened fire on a demonstration in the southern city of Deraa, killing at least two protesters. The unrest also does not appear to be contained to any one geographical region: Protests were also reported in the northwestern city of Banias, the western city of Homs, the eastern city of Deir al-Zur, and the capital of Damascus.
The demonstrations began on March 15, when a small group of people gathered in Souq al-Hamidiyeh, Damascus's historic covered market, to turn the ruling Baath Party's slogans against it. "God, Syria, freedom -- that's enough," they chanted. The phrase is a play on words on the Baathist mantra: "God, Syria, Bashar -- that's enough." The next day, around 100 activists and relatives of political prisoners gathered in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus's Marjeh Square to demand the release of Syria's jailed dissidents.
The protests may be small fry by regional standards, but in Syria -- repressively ruled under a state of emergency since the Baath Party came to power in 1963 -- they are unprecedented. An atmosphere of fear and secrecy makes the extent of discontent hard to ascertain. Sources outside the country said demonstrations took place in six of Syria's 14 provinces on Tuesday. Those claims were hard to verify, but the government is clearly rattled: It has beefed up the presence of its security forces, a ragtag-looking bunch in leather jackets, across the country and especially in the northeast, home to a large and often restless Kurdish population, and Aleppo.
The next day's protests were met with a brutal response by Syrian security agents, who far outnumbered protesters. Plainclothes officers wielding wooden batons beat the silent demonstrators -- old and young, male and female.
"They were goons, thugs who reacted disproportionately," one witness said. Thirty-eight people were detained, including the 10-year-old son of a political prisoner. Also arrested were a number of activists -- including Mazen Darwish, the former head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, which was officially shut down by authorities in 2009, and Suhair Atassi, an outspoken figure who has become a thorn in the government's side.
The protests this week are not the first faint rumblings of discontent in Syria. Two failed "days of rage" on Feb. 4 and 5 fizzled -- a fact that some blamed on the weather, but was more likely because they were organized on Facebook mainly by Syrians outside the country -- but other indirect displays of anger have taken place. On Feb. 16, a group of businessmen in Damascus's al-Hariqa district, a market area in the old city, took to the streets to protest a police beating. On Feb. 22 and 23, groups held vigils outside the Libyan Embassy in solidarity with anti-Qaddafi rebels. They were dispersed violently.
The identities of those organizing this wave of demonstrations remain a mystery. Syria's community of dissidents is a small, disparate, and disconnected bunch. But protest seem to be coming from varied sources -- Tuesday's protest was not organized by the usual suspects of activists and former political prisoners. This is a sign of disorganization, perhaps, but also that discontent is not confined to one group and that there may be a growing unhappiness at the grassroots level.
"People are angry that they are not respected, that there are no jobs, education and health care are poor, that corruption is draining their money, that they do not have real freedom, that the media does not reflect our problems and that there is no system because everything happens by opaque presidential decrees," said Abdel Ayman Nour, a Syrian dissident who runs the website All4Syria from abroad. "Syrians simply want to be respected as citizens and are angry they are treated as sheep."
The Syrian regime, usually a savvy player, seems confused about how to respond to these signs of unrest. It has veered between offers of reform to denial, arrests, intimidation, and beatings. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Jan. 31, Assad claimed that "Syria is stable," crediting his anti-U.S. and anti-Israel foreign policy for being in line with his people's beliefs. The president also promised political reforms would take place this year -- but simultaneously, media run by or with close ties to the state have accused infiltrators and Israel of being behind protests.
March 16's beatings, which were more severe than those used to break up the vigil on Feb. 23, may signal a new zero-tolerance approach by the government. And that would mark a dangerous course for the regime.
"Such a reaction only makes us more angry," said one civil society activist who asked not to be named. "It is further humiliation of an already humiliated population. How can you talk of reforms and at the same time beat us and treat us as stupid?"
Reforms may be the wiser path to pursue, but the Assad regime faces a daunting task in assuaging its citizens' economic grievances -- let alone their political gripes. The country suffers from double-digit unemployment and GDP growth that appears too sluggish to improve the lot of its rapidly growing population. To make matters worse, a years-long drought in the north has been disastrous for the country's beleaguered farmers.
Nobody in Syria is sure what will happen next. And there are still sound reasons to believe the protests are one-off events. The core reasons Syrians have stayed quiescent remain: tight control by the security forces, worries of sectarian fallout in the absence of a strongman, and, in many quarters, a fondness for Assad, whom many see as a reformer.
The bloody events in Libya have also scared the population. Remembering what happened to the city of Hama in 1982, when Bashar's father brutally suppressed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrians fear the response to any unrest here will be similar to that of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi: a violent and sustained bid to cling to power.
"There is no doubt the regime will resort to anything to stay in power," said Nour. "When Hafez al-Assad died there were tanks on the street, and there are rumors this is happening again. Any uprising will not be dealt with gently."
But on the ground, there is a feeling that the fear barrier is being broken. Activists who dared not speak their name have piped up. Others meet more openly with diplomats than they dared before. While many Syrians are nervous, others in Damascus's smart cafes and streets discuss what the future holds more boldly. On Tuesday evening, one cafe turned on Orient TV, an independent Dubai-based channel, to watch coverage of the protests, before quickly switching back to Rotana TV music videos.
Further demonstrations -- and bigger, more diverse ones -- will be a key sign of the protests' staying power. Thus far, Syria's minorities have been hesitant: Christians have traditionally feared upheaval, while the Kurds have largely focused on their own dreams of independence. But on the Kurdish new year of Nowruz, which arrives on March 21, a number of Syria's Kurdish parties have pledged to raise the national flag rather than the Kurdish standard.
A "you first" mentality has taken hold in Damascus. If nobody moves, Syria may remain quiet. But if a few brave souls are willing to risk the inevitable government crackdown, it will become clear just how deep the desire for change runs in Syria.
The writer is a journalist in Damascus, Syria. Foreign Policy has withheld the author's name due to security concerns.

Obama Weighs Talking To The Taliban, Hezbollah

By David Ignatius
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 17/03/2011

In a rapidly changing Islamic world, the Obama administration is weighing how best to talk with adversaries such as the Taliban and, perhaps, Hezbollah.

One model for the administration, as it thinks about engagement of enemies, is the British process of dialogue during the 1990s with Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the terrorist Irish Republican Army. That outreach led to breakthrough peace talks and settlement of a conflict that had been raging for more than a century.
In the case of the Taliban, the administration has repeatedly stated that it is seeking a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan rather than a military one. That formula sometimes seems hollow when more than 100,000 U.S. troops are in combat. But it got more definition last month from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who opened the doors wider for dialogue.
Clinton, in a Feb. 18 speech to the Asia Society, subtly altered the terms for Taliban participation in peace talks. She repeated the administration’s “red lines for reconciliation” — that Taliban representatives must renounce violence, reject al-Qaeda and abide by the Afghan constitution. But rather than making these preconditions for talks, as before, she said they were “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.”
To draw the Afghan insurgents toward reconciliation, the administration is supporting a plan by President Hamid Karzai that would allow the Taliban to open an office in Kabul or perhaps outside Afghanistan, where contacts might be easier. Saudi Arabia was discussed as one possible site, but a more likely venue would be Turkey. The Turkish government is pondering the issue.
Back-channel U.S. contacts with some Taliban figures have already begun, according to a report in the New Yorker last month by Steve Coll. This leak was regarded as so sensitive that one official suspected of sharing information is said to have been reprimanded.
The guiding premise for the administration is that political and diplomatic strategy must drive policy in Afghanistan this year, rather than being an afterthought to military operations. Here’s how the White House put it in its December policy review: “In 2011, we will intensify our regional diplomacy to enable a political process to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan.”
This regional approach already has led to two U.S.-backed meetings on Afghanistan that included Iranian representatives — one in Rome last year and one in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on March 3, that was sponsored by the Islamic Conference.
The Hezbollah issue is still being framed, in terms of policy debate. But the White House has focused on it in recent weeks because of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Hezbollah that is nearing completion.
Officials who have read draft versions of the estimate say it assesses Hezbollah in a broad context, as a political and social force in Lebanon in addition to the militia officially designated by the United States as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Like most NIEs, this one is said to contain a broad array of views, with some analysts stressing Hezbollah’s terrorist capabilities and others noting the organization’s growing political role, including its representation in the Lebanese cabinet.
The political time bomb ticking away in the NIE is the question of whether the United States should seek some kind of direct or indirect engagement with Hezbollah — at least with its political wing. Officials who support this course argue that the organization is like the IRA or the PLO — with nonmilitary components that can be drawn into a dialogue.
Contrarian thinking about Hezbollah was voiced publicly by John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser. In May 2010, he described it as “a very interesting organization” and said the United States should try to “build up the more moderate elements.” And at a conference in August 2009, he offered this summary: “Hezbollah started out as purely a terrorist organization back in the early ’80s and has evolved significantly over time” to have members in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet.
The high-level discussion of Hezbollah illustrates the ferment in U.S. thinking about a Middle East that is being transformed by democratic uprisings. Officials caution that for now, the Hezbollah question is a matter for intelligence analysts, not policymakers. The White House recognizes that it has enough to deal with already without opening a new question that would produce shock waves in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries.
The bottom line is that after a decade of American wars in the Middle East, the Obama administration is increasingly looking for ways to talk with adversaries and draw them into a process of dialogue. The world is changing, and perhaps so should U.S. policy.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lebanon: For Beshara Ra'i, The Headaches Begin

By Michael Young 
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 17/03/2011

Bishop Beshara Rai, who was elected Maronite patriarch on Tuesday to succeed Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, has declared that his tenure would rest on a foundation of “partnership and love.” Yet Rai will face four major challenges within the Maronite community after he begins his duties, and each one will test that promise to its limits.

Rai’s first priority will be to rejuvenate the Maronite Church. From an ecclesiastical perspective, Rai, who is no spring chicken himself, will play a pivotal role in promoting a younger clergy that can take in hand the institution during the coming decade and beyond. He will also be called upon to replace those bishops who have passed the retirement age. More fundamentally, Rai will have to ensure that the new bishops inspire more confidence than many of those on their way out. The church has exacerbated a deep crisis in Maronite confidence, not least because many of its senior clergymen are perceived as corrupt, worldly, divided and under the thumb of politicians. 

Politics has had the most divisive influence on the Maronite Church. The church is valuable to the political class and other Lebanese social forces because of its myriad, powerful networks. Beyond its spiritual capabilities, the church’s ability to shape attitudes at all levels, through its parishes, educational facilities, and social services, is second to none. That is why Rai will not find it easy to transcend politics – indeed he has played the political game as intensely as others. He will have to discover the right balance between accepting the church’s innate pluralism and unifying it through a cohesive spiritual agenda while limiting the politicians’ sway over the institution.  

Rai’s second principal challenge will be to work on reuniting a Maronite community that has been at perennial odds with itself. The task will be comparable to herding cats. Which is why the new patriarch may renounce the quasi-unachievable ambition of making the community speak more or less with one voice, and instead devise a strategy to rally his coreligionists around specific themes. One of these must be the greater isolation of the clergy from politics. Another, to bring an ossified institution in tune with its environment, especially its Muslim environment, and introduce mechanisms to remove older clergymen. Rai may want to consider setting an age limit for patriarchs, and lower the retirement age for bishops. 

This challenge will be an arduous one, given the third challenge the new patriarch will face: Michel Aoun. From his perch as the head of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc, Aoun has sought, since the parliamentary elections of 2009, to demolish all alternative centers of Maronite power. The attacks and humiliations that he visited on Rai’s predecessor, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, and his continuing endeavor to marginalize President Michel Sleiman, are flagrant illustrations. Another is Aoun’s demand for the lion’s share of Christian ministerial portfolios, as well as a blocking third, in a new Mikati government.

Aoun cannot be happy with Rai’s election. The new patriarch is believed to lean toward Sleiman, who hails from Jbeil, which Rai represented as bishop. Rai is also someone determined and striving, who has no intention of being hastened to the sidelines by Michel Aoun. For now, the patriarch enjoys the authority that accompanies his new office, leaving Aoun little room to criticize him without risking discrediting himself. This will likely lead to a waiting game as each man sizes up the other. However, if Rai initiates a process to narrow Maronite differences, he may open himself up to Aoun’s broadsides. That is why the patriarch will have to tread carefully.

The fourth, and most sensitive challenge Rai will face is to reconcile the Maronites with Lebanon itself. For many in the community, communal demographics are a chronicle of Maronite irrelevance foretold. The most optimistic estimates suggest that Christians in general make up a third of the Lebanese population. Where Aoun has exploited Christian fears to rally his followers against the Sunni community and its leadership, Samir Geagea has pursued an alliance with Saad Hariri and the Sunnis against Hezbollah. However, the Maronites have gained little by having a leg in both camps. Their inability to stake out an independent position to preserve their common interests has only hardened their minority status in a Lebanon shaped by the dynamics of the Sunni-Shiite relationship.

Like Sfeir, Rai will have to work within the confines of the Taif agreement and the post-Taif Constitution. Taif calls for the abolition of political confessionalism, and for now Christians regard this as a near-existential threat, since one of its consequences would be to eliminate the 50-50 ratio of Christian-Muslim seats in Parliament. But the idea won’t go away. Rai, if he doesn’t want to see his community debilitated by an inflexible defense of its prerogatives, will have to conceive ways of making this eventuality more palatable to Maronites. In fact, he will have to encourage the community to instigate the Taif reforms on its own terms, in that way ensuring that political change is not one day imposed against Christian wishes.

This will create a paradox: even as Rai tries to isolate the church from politics, the church will remain the major potential conduit for transmitting, and legitimizing, Maronite concessions in the context of a consensual political reform project. But this difficulty will be just one of the very many the patriarch will confront. Rai’s vow to rely on love will more likely soon elicit tough love, while partnership is an elusive goal the patriarch will have to convince others to embrace. 

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).

'The Best Antidote To Extremism'

By Michael Jansen
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 17/03/2011
On the 8thanniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, it is bitterly ironic that while Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans have been rising up against authoritarian regimes backed by the US and its allies, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has been deepening his control over the Shiite-Kurdish authoritarian regime Washington installed in Iraq.

Following the examples of former Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Maliki cracked down on Iraqis protesting the lack of electricity, water and jobs, as well as mismanagement and corruption. He has blamed Al Qaeda, Sunni extremists and “Saddamists” - former Baathists - for the protests.Everyone but himself and the governments he has headed for the past five years.

After all the ballyhoo over last year’s parliamentary election, Iraqis expected the quick formation of a representative government and improvements in basic living conditions. But little has changed. The regime continues to be dominated by sectarian Shiites and separatist Kurds.It took nine months for Maliki, leader of the Dawa Shiite fundamentalist party, to form a Cabinet, touted as a “national unity government”, because his main rival for premiership, Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya bloc won most seats in parliament, agreed to join at the end of last year. Allawi did so under pressure. Members of his party were defecting because they wanted lucrative jobs in the government and he was promised chairmanship of a national security council which would have powers to curb the prime minister.

However, last week Allawi rejected the post of head of this council because, he argued, it had been stripped of all authority. He dismissed the notion that there is a power-sharing deal between himself and Maliki. Allawi also stated: “It’s a joke to say that we have democracy.”

His absence means that this government has only weak representation of secularists and Sunnis. Allawi not only stood aside, but has supported the protesters whom Maliki seeks to crush. Allawi is also courting radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr who is also displeased with Maliki’s performance and policies.Sadr is not a comfortable Maliki ally, but was induced to back his bid for the premiership by Tehran. The volatile Sadr could very well bolt the coalition, thereby depriving Maliki of his majority in parliament.

After becoming premier in 2006, Maliki created military forces loyal to himself. Units attached to Maliki’s office - the Baghdad Brigade, the Counter-Terrorism Bureau - not only operate under his orders but also run secret prisons, one of which was at the old military airport in the capital. Torture was rife at these prisons. Furthermore, his office is in charge of Camp Honour, a prison with 170 inmates located in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which hosts US and other embassies. Like the secret prisons run by his office, Camp Honour is notorious for abuse and mistreatment.
Due to pressure from international humanitarian agencies and the Iraqi parliament, the closure of the facility was announced on Monday. Its inmates will be distributed amongst prisons said to be supervised by the justice ministry.

When naming ministers to his new government, Maliki held onto the interior and defence portfolios, on a temporary basis, until he could find suitable candidates to fill the posts.He has retained these key ministries for three months now and shows no sign of giving them up. Without proper oversight by competent ministers, the army and police are becoming as harsh and abusive as they were during the latter years of the reign of Saddam Hussein.

In January, Iraq’s supreme court - which is not at all independent - allowed Maliki to take control of the central bank, the election commission, and the anti-corruption commission. Last year, the court ruled that only the premier and his ministers could initiate legislation. He has, effectively, negated the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Meanwhile in the north, the Kurdish autonomous regional authorities have cracked down hard on demonstrators protesting cronyism and corruption, while 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga militia have taken up strategic positions outside the Kurdish region around the city of Kirkuk, in the oil-rich province of Tamim.

Perhaps trying to deflect attention from the Kurdish protests, which have taken place in Suleimaniyah, his stronghold, Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani has staked the Kurdish claim to Kirkuk, claiming that it is the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”.This has infuriated both Sunni and Shiite Arab Iraqis, 87 per cent of the population, who not only refute the Kurdish claim but also insist that peshmerga be withdrawn back across the border into Suleimaniyah and Erbil, and that Maliki act to prevent the Kurds from making a grab for territory outside their recognised region.

Last week, Iraqi legislators summoned Talabani to testify before the national assembly about his statement. On Monday, hundreds of Iraqis gathered in Baghdad to demand Talabani’s resignation.More than 20,000 have signed a petition calling for his dismissal if he does not apologise.His removal would, however, collapse the Shiite-Kurdish partnership which has ruled Iraq since the US occupation and kept Maliki in power. Consequently, he is certain to ignore the petition and even take strong measures against those circulating it. Without the Kurds, Maliki would be nothing.

It may be significant that when Iraqis were staging protests in Tahrir Square in Baghdad and in the streets and squares of other Iraqi cities, including in the Kurdish region, there was a reduction in Al Qaeda and other attacks on regime targets. Since Maliki ordered the security forces to suppress protests, insurgent operations have resumed.

It must be noted that Al Qaeda and Salafist elements have not asserted themselves in Arab countries where secular, populist democracy risings took place. The lesson to be learnt is that democracy is the best antidote to extremism.

Netanyahu's Schemes Won't Work

George S. Hishmeh writes: As Palestinian groups inch towards reconciliation, Israelis might consider replacing hawkish leadership
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 17/03/2011

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took the right step in condemning in strong terms the massacre of a five-member Israeli family, including two children and an infant, living in an illegal Israeli colony in the West Bank. No one in his right mind would not abhor this callous event, whose perpetrators are still unknown.

"A human being is not capable of something like that," Abbas told Israel Radio. "Scenes like these — the murder of infants and children and a woman slaughtered — cause any person endowed with humanity to hurt and to cry."

But what has been appalling was the official Israeli reaction. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his government would in retaliation build 500 new houses in three other West Bank colonies, without first finding out whether the assailants were Palestinians.

This step was denounced by Palestinians who recalled that since the existence of Israel in 1948, many Palestinians have been massacred by Israelis — the most notorious were at Deir Yassin, a small town close to occupied Jerusalem, in 1948 and at the Lebanese refugee camp in Sabra and Shatila in 1982.

No Israeli official had ever expressed regret over these bloody incidents. But, complying to Netanyahu's urging, Abbas repeated his earlier condemnation to Israeli audiences.

Moreover, Awarta, the closest Palestinian village to the Israeli colony, Itamar, has been placed under curfew by the Israeli military — for four days at the time of writing, and was also declared a closed military zone.

The situation in the village has been described as "deteriorating" and some Palestinian villagers have complained that some of their household possessions have been damaged during the aggressive Israeli searches.

Itamar's Thai workers have been rounded up while some European members of the International Solidarity Movement who lived with Palestinian villagers were not permitted to leave.

The Israeli prime minister and his right-wing supporters were reported doing all they can to capitalise on this horrific incident. Nehemia Shtraster, writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily, said that Netanyahu "hastened to move the attack to the political arena," promising ‘We shall build our land', thus disclosing his true thoughts."

According to Shtraster, "Netanyahu, after all, never believed in the two-state solution, despite his Bar-Ilan [University] speech. To him, the entire land belongs to us, and the two-state shibboleth is meant only to buy a little sympathy from US President Obama."

Sinister strategy

Netanyahu's real plan, he continued, is "‘to annex as much of the open [Palestinian] territory as possible,' as he said some years ago — somewhere around the 50 per cent mark, while holding on to the Jordan Valley as a safety belt to the east. In the small, non-contiguous area that remains he would be prepared to give the Palestinians autonomy that would be called a ‘state'."

The Palestinian National Authority said the Israeli action was "unacceptable" and the US State Department added more to the punch by declaring that "continued Israeli colonies are illegitimate and run counter to efforts to resume direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Whether Netanyahu can get away with his plans seems doubtful at this time, even though he is planning a major American address in the next few weeks, thanks to his Congressional supporters on Capitol Hill. Already Defence Minister Ehud Barak has warned that Israel could face a "diplomatic tsunami" should it pursue this discredited course, and meantime Israeli President Shimon Peres appeared eager to pull the rug from underneath his feet in his bid to meet Obama shortly to kickstart the peace talks.

What escapes the Israeli triumvirate — Peres, Netanyahu and Barak — is the mushrooming political scene in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, which has a new Foreign Minister Nabeel Al Arabi. He is a significant addition to the Cairo government since his views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are much appreciated by Palestinians and other Arabs.

Likewise, the Palestinian movements are seemingly inching towards reconciliation as evidenced in their approval of the marches in Ramallah and Gaza where tens of thousands of Palestinians appealed for reconciliation.

If all this comes to fruition, as expected, the Israelis may feel compelled to reshuffle their leadership and bring a new reasonable team that can come to terms with their Arab neighbours.
A step in this direction will be well received worldwide.

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at

Time Is Running Out For Intervention In Libya

By Islam Qasem
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 17/03/2011

While Muammar Gaddafi is crushing the opposition, Western powers are wasting precious time debating the wisdom of military intervention. Gaddafi will not relinquish power. He is determined to either kill for power or to be killed. As long as Gaddafi has the means to provide guns and money, foreign mercenaries and allies of his tribe will continue to fight for him. Given that the rebels are outnumbered and outgunned, Gaddafi will gain the upper hand, unless the international community stops talking and starts acting.

Even though Western leaders have chosen sides already by condemning human rights violations and calling on Gaddafi to step down, they remain mired in a lopsided cost-benefit analysis. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has expressed his fear of drawing the United States into another costly war in the Middle East. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton has cited concerns over the lack of a legal basis for military intervention and the possibility of civilian casualties. Such reluctance is both misguided and dangerous.
For all their rhetoric about supporting human rights, Western countries lose credibility as human rights defenders and champions of freedom through their hesitation to act. In addition, the cost of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya today would be far lower than the price Libyans and the international community would have to pay down the road. As policymakers contemplate whether to intervene or not, it is worth remembering the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein in response to the uprising of March 1991. Saddam unleashed a wave of terror to consolidate his power and regain control over the cities. No home, school, or hospital was safe from the reach of Saddam’s killing machine. Gaddafi will not hesitate to institutionalize a similar state of terror against the people of Benghazi and other rebel cities. The moral indignation and political cost of allowing genocide to take place would be a backbreaking burden for the west.
If Gaddafi remained in power, the Western dilemma would not end. The West would be left with a hostile regime that has a demonstrated proclivity for terrorism and stirring up troubles in Africa. Antagonistic relations with Libya would mean that southern European countries could no longer rely on Libyan oil and gas. Moreover, Gaddafi would likely stop cooperation on illegal migration to Europe. 
Defeating Gaddafi must be done by Libyans, not the West. The Libyan opposition has demonstrated great courage and ability to win. However, the opposition is fighting an asymmetric war. The significant advantage of Gaddafi’s forces over the opposition is the air force. By launching aerial strikes Gaddafi’s forces were able to retake control of the towns Ras Lanuf and Brega. After pushing the rebels out of Ajdabiya, Gaddafi’s forces are moving to overrun the seat of the opposition in
Benghazi. With the opposition dead, Libya is sure to turn into something like Saddam’s Iraq. The cost of a western intervention in a post-war Libya will be much higher, requiring not just a no-fly zone but also troops on the ground.
If Western powers want to minimize their intervention, they must intervene now, before the heart of the opposition stops beating. A no-fly zone backed by sanctions on Libyan oil and gas will undercut Gaddafi’s military capabilities and his financial means to keep mercenaries on the payroll and maintain the allegiance of his tribe. This is the least the Western powers can do to boost their human rights credentials and for Libyans to have the opportunity to fight for their freedom.
Islam Qasem is a strategic analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Gaza After The Revolution

By Sara Roy
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 16/03/2011
For the U.S. government and media, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been treated as a stepchild of sorts to the revolutionary events sweeping the Middle East. This was clarified to me recently by a prominent American journalist who confided he was unable to report on Israel/Palestine because "they're just too far from the news right now." 
Gaza certainly continues to be ignored. Yet on the evening of March 14--one day earlier than planned--2,000 Palestinian youth and numerous civil society organizations gathered in a square in the middle of Gaza City calling on Hamas and Fatah to end their divisions and restore democracy in Palestine. Yesterday, March 15, thousands of people protested on the streets of Gaza, including young Hamas supporters, small groups loyal to Fatah and other small Palestinian factions, as well as Facebook activists. In Ramallah, some 8,000 demonstrators, the majority of whom were university students and young people, marched through Al Manara Square demanding national unity. Gazans are seeing their protests move to cities in the West Bank, creating a coordinated and strengthened movement.
More importantly, given the changing political landscape in neighboring Egypt, Gaza's strategic importance may become even more vital for regional security. There are emerging indications in policy circles that the Egypt-Gaza relationship and how it may evolve are far more worrisome to the U.S. and Israel than is publicly acknowledged.
Gaza's importance was already strikingly demonstrated in a December 2007 Wikileaks cable written and classified by then US Ambassador to Egypt, Francis J. Ricciardone. Entitled "Repairing Egyptian-Israeli Communications," it reveals: "[T]he Egyptians continue to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to ‘squeeze' Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel's ‘siege' of Gaza. Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Soliman told us Egypt wants Gaza to go ‘hungry' but not ‘starve.'"
Indeed, most Gazans have been impoverished and too many have known hunger, a reality (in the form of a strangulating economic siege) deliberately and principally imposed for years by Israel, the U.S., EU and Egypt on a defenseless and overwhelmingly young civilian population. Perhaps most alarming, recent indicators strongly suggest that the ability of people to feed themselves and their children has diminished even further.
In a recent report on food and water insecurity in the Gaza Strip, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) revealed some striking statistics regarding the damage incurred. For example, levels of food insecurity--defined by the World Food Programme as a "lack of access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food, which meets dietary needs...for an active and healthy life"--rose from 40 percent in 2003 to 61 percent towards the end of 2010. This means that over 900,000 people out of a total population of 1.5 million "do not have the self-sufficient means to grow or purchase the bare minimum amount of food for themselves and their families" (while another 200,000-plus remain vulnerable to food insecurity).
Currently, at least 75 percent of Gazan families are dependent for their basic needs on some form of humanitarian assistance -- dubbed the "humanitarian minimum"-- provided by international donors, all of whom (including several Arab states) are complicit in Gaza's devastation. PHRI further argues that according to an Israeli army document, 'Food Consumption in the Gaza Strip-Red Lines', "Israel's obligation to Palestinians in Gaza only extends to ensuring bare necessities required for survival. According to this principle, personal and economic development above this [humanitarian] minimum should be actively prevented." And it has. The diminished level of personal wellbeing is revealed by the fact that without high levels of international humanitarian aid Gaza would undoubtedly suffer a widespread nutritional crisis.
Economic development was precluded long ago but Gaza's current reality is crushingly adverse, characterized by the virtual collapse of an economy that was once considered lower middle income (together with the West Bank) and an unemployment rate that reached 45 percent in 2011, among the highest in the world.
According to the UN, in August 2000 10,614 truckloads of food and materials entered Gaza. By January 2011 this plummeted to 4,123 truckloads (as desperately needed construction materials remain banned) and exports fell from 2,460 to 107 truckloads.
Although Arabs waging revolutions may not now be protesting Palestinian conditions, their subjugation shall remain at the center of the discourse despite the preferences of U.S. policymakers and journalists. Israel's occupation may seem exceptional to current events but this will not last because the struggle for democracy in the Arab world will not stop at Gaza's (or Israel's) border. 
There is no doubt that the same Arab people who are fighting for freedom in their own countries will challenge the immoral situation in Palestine, especially in Gaza, and ask: How can a predominantly young population, desperately willing and able to work, be made dependent on handouts? And there is equally no doubt that Palestinians will no longer accept their continued impoverishment and decline.
Although popular demands for reconciliation, democracy and ultimately an end to occupation will depend for their success on support from the Hamas and Fayyad governments, the role of the international community is absolutely crucial: it must facilitate an end to the crippling siege of Gaza -- citizens from all around the world will again attempt this May to break the blockade with the next Gaza freedom flotilla -- and meaningfully work toward the creation of a Palestinian unity government.
The power balance in the region is slowly but inexorably shifting in a manner that does not favor US-Israel dominance (with its acceptance and legitimizing of Israeli occupation and Palestinian dispossession). It is the Arab people -- not their regimes -- who have always supported Palestinian rights, and they may soon be in a position to insist on them. So, too, will Palestinians.
Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Her latest book, Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Fate Of The Arabs Will Be Settled In Egypt, Not Libya

If Egyptians can build a genuinely popular democratic system, all the dominoes in the region will eventually fall

protest crushed in pearl square Manama
Under fire in Pearl Square, Manama ... two were killed dozens wounded as the protest was crushed. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
Barely two months since the triumphant overthrow of the Tunisian dictator that detonated the Arab revolution, a western view is taking hold that it's already gone horribly wrong. In January and February, TV screens across the world were filled with exhilarating images of hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, women and men, braving Hosni Mubarak's goons in Cairo's Tahrir square while Muslims and Christians stood guard over each other as they prayed.

A few weeks on and reports from the region are dominated by the relentless advance of Colonel Gaddafi's forces across Libya, as one rebel stronghold after another is crushed. Meanwhile Arab dictators are falling over each other to beat and shoot protesters, while Saudi troops have occupied Bahrain to break the popular pressure for an elected government. In Egypt itself, 11 people were killed in sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims last week and women protesters were assaulted by misogynist thugs in Tahrir Square.

Increasingly, US and European politicians and media hawks are insisting it's all because the west has shamefully failed to intervene militarily in support of the Libyan opposition. The Times on Wednesday blamed Barack Obama for snuffing out a "dawn of hope" by havering over whether to impose a no-fly zone in Libya.

But Saudi Arabia's dangerous quasi-invasion of Bahrain is a reminder that Libya is very far from being the only place where hopes are being stifled. The west's closest Arab ally, which has declared protest un-Islamic, bans political parties and holds an estimated 8,000 political prisoners, has sent troops to bolster the Bahraini autocracy's bloody resistance to democratic reform.

Underlying the Saudi provocation is a combustible cocktail of sectarian and strategic calculations. Bahrain's secular opposition to the Sunni ruling family is mainly supported by the island's Shia majority. The Saudi regime fears both the influence of Iran in a Shia-dominated Bahrain and the infection of its own repressed Shia minority – concentrated in the eastern region, centre of the largest oil reserves in the world.

Considering that both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, home to the United States fifth fleet, depend on American support, the crushing of the Bahraini democracy movement or the underground Saudi opposition should be a good deal easier for the west to fix than the Libyan maelstrom.

But neither the US nor its intervention-hungry allies show the slightest sign of using their leverage to help the people of either country decide their own future. Instead, as Bahrain's security forces tear-gassed and terrorised protesters, the White House merely repeated the mealy-mouthed call it made in the first weeks of the Egyptian revolution for "restraint on all sides".

It's more than understandable that the Libyan opposition now being ground down by superior firepower should be desperate for outside help. Sympathy for their plight runs deep in the Arab world and beyond. But western military intervention – whether in the form of arms supplies or Britain and France's favoured no-fly zone – would, as the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues, be "totally counter-productive" and "deepen the problem".

Experience in Iraq and elsewhere suggests it would prolong the war, increase the death toll, lead to demands for escalation and risk dividing the country. It would also be a knife at the heart of the Arab revolution, depriving Libyans and the people of the region of ownership of their own political renaissance.

Arab League support for a no-fly zone has little credibility, dominated as it still is by despots anxious to draw the US yet more deeply into the region; while the three Arab countries lined up to join the military effort – Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE – are themselves among the main barriers to the process of democratisation that intervention would be supposed to strengthen.

Genuinely independent regional backing from, say, Egypt would be another matter, as would Erdogan's proposal of some sort of negotiated solution: whatever the outcome of the conflict there will be no return of the status quo ante for the Gaddafi regime.

In any case, the upheaval now sweeping the Arab world is far bigger than the struggle in Libya – and that process has only just begun. Any idea that all the despots would throw in the towel as quickly as Zin al-Abidine Ben Ali and Mubarak was always a pipedream. They may well be strengthened in their determination to use force by events in Libya. And the divisions of ethnicity, sect and tribe in each society will be ruthlessly exploited by the regimes and their foreign sponsors to try to hold back the tide of change.

But across the region people insist they have lost their fear. There is a widespread expectation that the Yemeni dictator, Ali Abdallah Saleh, will be the next to fall – where violently suppressed street protests have been led by a woman, the charismatic human rights campaigner Tawakul Karman, in what is a deeply conservative society.

And where regimes make cosmetic concessions, such as in Jordan, they find they are only fuelling further demands. As the Jordanian Islamist opposition leader, Rohile Gharaibeh, puts it: "Either we achieve democracy under a constitutional monarchy or there will be no monarchy at all".

The key to the future of the region, however, remains Egypt. It is scarcely surprising if elements of the old regime try to provoke social division, or attempts are made to co-opt and infiltrate the youth movements that played the central role in the uprising, or that the army leadership wants to put a lid on street protests and strikes.

But the process of change continues. In the past fortnight demonstrators have occupied and closed secret police headquarters, and the Mubarak-appointed prime minister has been dumped – and Egyptians are now preparing to vote on constitutional amendments that would replace army rule with an elected parliament and president within six months.

There is a fear among some activists that the revolution may only put a democratic face on the old system. But the political momentum remains powerful. A popular democratic regime in Cairo would have a profound impact on the entire region. Nothing is guaranteed, but all the signs are that sooner or later, the dominoes will fall.