Saturday, February 25, 2012
The conversation in Israel about an operation against Iran's nuclear program is centered on whether or not Jerusalem should strike, not on what might happen if it does. The lack of public debate about the "day after" may leave Israel unprepared both to attack and to defend itself.
By Ehud Eiran
Since its birth in 1948, Israel has launched numerous preemptive military strikes against its foes. In 1981 and 2007, it destroyed the nuclear reactors of Iraq and Syria, operations that did not lead to war. But now, Israelis are discussing the possibility of another preemptive attack -- against Iran -- that might result in a wider conflict.
The public debate in Israel about whether Jerusalem should order a strike on Iran’s nuclear program is surprisingly frank. Politicians and policymakers often discuss the merits of an attack in public; over the past year, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have sparred regularly and openly with former Mossad director Meir Dagan, the most prominent opponent of an Israeli operation. But much of the conversation is focused on whether Israel should strike, not on what might happen if it does -- in other words, the result on the “day after.”
Indeed, the analysis in Israel about the possible effects of a bombing campaign against Iran is limited to a small, professional elite, mostly in government and behind closed doors. This intimate circle that does consider scenarios of the “day after” concentrates almost exclusively on what an Iranian response, direct or through proxies, might look like. This is not surprising, given that Israel must worry first and foremost about the immediate military implications of an Iranian counterattack. But in doing so, Israeli policymakers are ignoring several of the potential longer-term aspects of a strike: the preparedness of Israel’s home front; the contours of an Israeli exit strategy; the impact on U.S.-Israel relations; the global diplomatic fallout; the stability of world energy markets; and the outcome within Iran itself. Should Israel fail to openly debate and account for these factors in advance of an attack, it may end up with a strategic debacle, even if it achieves its narrow military goals.
Israeli officials have thought extensively about how the first moves of a military conflict between Jerusalem and Tehran might play out. Ephraim Kam, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and deputy head of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), reflected the general consensus in the security establishment when he wrote in the Institute’s 2010 strategic assessment that Iran may respond in two possible ways to an Israeli operation: missile strikes on Israel, either directly or through allied organizations such as Hezbollah or Hamas; or terror attacks, likely on Israeli targets abroad by Iranians or those proxy groups.
A direct Iranian response would involve a missile barrage from Iran onto Israeli territory, similar to the volley of rockets launched at Israel by Iraq during the first Gulf War. Only one Israeli citizen died then, and it seems that Israeli officials estimate that the damage of a similar Iranian strike would be greater, but still limited. This past November, Ehud Barak, referring to possible direct and proxy-based Iranian retaliation, said that “There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed -- and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead.” Barak’s calm also reflects Israel’s previous experience in preempting nuclear threats. Iraq did not respond when Israel destroyed its nuclear facility in 1981, disproving the doomsday predictions made by several Israeli experts prior to the strike, and Syria remained silent when Israel bombed its nascent reactor in 2007.
Israeli policymakers also do not seem particularly concerned about the prospect of a proxy response. They recognize that Hezbollah, as it did in 2006, can target Israel with a large number of rockets. Yet in an interview with Ronen Bergman in The New York Times late last month, several Israeli experts argued that, regardless of a potential battle with Iran, the probability of an extended conflict with Hezbollah is already high. According to this logic, an attack on Iran would merely hasten the inevitable and might actually be easier to sustain before, not after, Iran acquires nuclear weapons. In addition, the new constraints now operating against Hezbollah -- the ongoing revolt in Syria chief among them -- might even limit the ability of the organization to harm Israel in a future conflict. Indeed, over the past several months, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has emphasized the group’s independence, saying on February 7 that “the Iranian leadership will not ask Hezbollah to do anything. On [the day of an Israeli attack on Iran], we will sit, think, and decide what we will do.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli security establishment remains confident that Iran and its proxies will have trouble staging large-scale attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets abroad. Iran and Hezbollah have done so successfully in the past, most notably in response to Israel’s assassination, in 1992, of Hezbollah’s first secretary general (they are strongly suspected to have directed suicide bombings against the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, respectively). Israeli experts such as Kam agree that similar attacks could occur again in the wake of a strike on Iran, but argue that Tehran’s ability to respond is limited, likely due to its own handicaps and the restrictions posed by the post-9/11 global effort against terrorism. They gained support for their theory in mid-February, when, according to preliminary evidence, Iranian agents staged clumsy, botched attacks on Israeli targets in Georgia, India, and Thailand, injuring only one person in New Delhi and ending in humiliation in Bangkok, with one operative accidentally blowing off his legs.
Balanced against these threats is the expected benefit of an Israeli bombing campaign. According to Bergman, the Israeli defense community estimates that it can inflict a three-to-five-year delay on the Iranian nuclear project. But in its optimistic estimation about the success of an attack and about Israel’s ability to deter any response, it has failed to address, at least publicly, several crucial factors.
Although Israel has buttressed its home-front preparedness since its 2006 war with Hezbollah, it seems that it must do much more to ready the country for the rocket and missile attacks that it is expected to endure after a strike against Iran’s nuclear program. In a move that Israelis are now sardonically mocking, the former minister for home front defense, Matan Vilnai, left his post in February to become Israel’s ambassador to China. Before departing, Vilnai staged an angry outburst during a Knesset subcommittee meeting on February 7 over the lack of homeland preparedness, creating such a stir that the chairman had to end the meeting. Data presented at the session reveal the source of Vilnai’s frustration: a quarter of all Israelis do not have the most basic physical shelter needed to weather sustained rocket fire. Gas masks, a basic safety measure against a chemical attack, are available to only 60 percent of the population. And Vilnai’s former ministry lacks the bureaucratic muscle to win the resources and funds necessary to improve the situation. When the Netanyahu administration established the ministry early last year, the Israeli journalist Ofer Shelah called it “the big lie” because it “has no authority, no independent budget, and no ability to affect national priorities.”
The lack of readiness within Israel is all the more worrisome in light of the fact that Israeli analysts have spent little time discussing an exit strategy. An Israeli strike might follow a version of the previous attacks against the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs, which did not lead to conflict. Or, following the example of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it might spark a prolonged war. That operation, intended to remove the threat of armed Palestinian groups within two days, instead lasted 18 years, and contributed to the evolution of a new enemy in Hezbollah. Similarly, Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in 2006 had no clear exit strategy and lasted an unexpected 33 days, ending in confusion. Without serious public discussion about the possibility of a long war with Iran, Israel could enter an extended conflict unprepared to provide for and defend its citizens.
Israeli leaders have also failed to address in public the effect of an Israeli strike on U.S.-Israel relations. There is, of course, much conversation about whether the United States and Israel agree on the need for a strike, and, if so, when it should occur. So far, it seems, Jerusalem and Washington remain united in their opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, but are not yet in agreement about the time for military action; indeed, Israel has refused to commit to warning Washington in advance of an attack. Should Israel bomb Iran, it could easily provoke a crisis even if it did first warn the United States, especially if the Obama administration has to intervene. Once again, Israeli strategic thinking on the issue is likely informed by the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor. The attack infuriated the White House, which condemned it and, in punishment, suspended the delivery of some aircraft to Israel. Yet Washington retroactively approved of the strike and restored and even strengthened its relationship with Jerusalem -- a process that Netanyahu may expect to repeat itself. The prime minister might also be calculating that, in an election year, Obama would prefer to avoid openly criticizing Israel after an attack.
In addition, the broader diplomatic impact of an Israeli strike has also received little open attention. The former Mossad director Meir Dagan has raised the possibility that an attack might disrupt the existing international pressure on Iran, which is now beginning to place severe strain on the regime, and make it harder for that coalition to re-form in the event that Iran restarts its program. On the whole, however, Israeli leaders have not confronted that possibility, seeming to place faith in the efficacy of the three-to-five year delay that they hope a strike will achieve.
Also largely missing from Israel’s public analysis is the question of how a bombing campaign would affect worldwide energy markets. As a small country with a limited global perspective, Israel rarely needs to consider the international impact of its actions. The few Israeli analysts who have looked into this question have tended to underplay Iran’s intention, and capability, of acting on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Last month, for example, Amos Yadlin, the former director of Israel's military intelligence, and Yoel Guzansky, the former head of the Iran desk of Israel’s national security council, argued in a paper for the INSS that it is highly doubtful that Iran would block the waterway.
That lack of perspective extends to what might happen inside of Iran after a strike. The public discourse about an attack rarely includes any consideration of whether a bombing campaign would galvanize Iranians to rally around the current leadership, ruining any chance of the regime change that might ultimately be necessary to end the threat of a nuclear program. Israel remains unwilling to estimate whether a strike would hurt or help the cause of the dissidents; its failure to predict the Arab Spring has humbled its proclivity for making such forecasts.
And so there is a gap in Israel's debate about Iran. Although Israeli experts focus heavily on the immediate implications of the “day after,” they neglect, with a few exceptions, the broader repercussions of an attack. Ironically, then, at the core of the elite, scientific calculations regarding an attack on Iran and its aftermath stands a certain kind of fatalism. It is based on the traditional trust that Israelis place in their leaders, and on their sense that open conversation might in fact harm Israeli interests. But the lack of public debate may, in the event of an attack, leave Israel handicapped both in its ability to strike and to defend itself.
In particular, a lack of open discussion leaves the Israel Defense Forces as the primary source of information and analysis on a strike. The IDF, given its narrow focus on the military aspects of an attack, may fail to fully consider its potential political and diplomatic impact. A more public debate might strengthen those in the bureaucracy who are urging the Israeli government to weigh those other factors as carefully as the military planning. The elevation of those voices could then prevent Israeli leaders from operating on the basis of limited information and faulty assumptions. If history is any guide, Israeli policymakers could benefit from such an expansion of the conversation. Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 began with a war plan that the public had not vetted. The operation ended after overwhelming pressure from civil society, a process that took nearly two decades. To avoid a similar strategic blunder in confronting Iran’s nuclear program -- either as a result of an attack, or a failure to do so -- Israel should give the public a stake in the debate about the “day after” much sooner than that.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Affairs on 23/12/2012
Friday, February 24, 2012
It’s high time for a new Arab League -- one that reflects and supports the rising (and struggling) wave of liberals across the Middle East and North Africa.
BY AHMED CHARAI AND JOSEPH BRAUDE
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem diring a press conference after the last meeting of the Arab League
Amid disheartening news from across the Arab world, one of the few pleasant surprises has been the reinvigorated Arab League. Since the outbreak of revolution last year, the league has conferred legitimacy on the NATO-led campaign to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi, helped coax Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, and assisted Europe and the United States in applying pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. At a time when Egypt, mired in domestic strife, no longer plays a leadership role in the neighborhood, the Arab League has demonstrated that a pan-Arab coalition can serve a useful function.
But the region's defining challenge for years to come -- how to build the foundation for democracy over the fault lines of tribe, sect, ethnicity, and ideology -- requires a different form of transnational leadership. The Arab League remains largely an assembly of autocrats who exploit the divisions within their societies to cling to power. Even the fledgling democracies among its member states have begun to use the same old cynical tactics with their populations. Egypt's post-Mubarak junta is prosecuting foreign and local NGO workers on bogus conspiracy charges, and Arab heads of state have been silent. Despite having assisted the international community in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the League has not discussed the future of these states' political development. Nor will it: Arab leaders won't press for democratic reforms in other countries that they are unwilling to take on themselves.
While the league should continue to serve as a policy platform for Arab heads of state, the region also needs a transnational body that speaks for the aspirations of civil society activists and reformists -- and the tens of millions of people who stand to benefit from efforts to fight corruption, stem extremism, provide electoral transparency, and build institutions to serve women and the working class. Call it a "League of Arab Societies." This organization should draw inspiration from the region's most successful transnational institution in recent memory: The Muslim World League (MWL), an umbrella organization headquartered in Saudi Arabia that drew together the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi clerics, and jihadists to fight secular dictatorships.
Founded in 1962 and still active today, the MWL advanced the pan-Islamist ideal of a region organized by a framework of Islamic law. The venture represents an impressive marriage of pragmatism and idealism. The MWL's constituent groups used friendly Saudi terrain to plan and coordinate their activism, endowing mosques with funding and ideological literature and pumping resources into a network of charitable organizations. They fostered an agile political strategy: Where Arab leaders sought an ally in the struggle against communists and socialists, the MWL was there to help. When the United States sought an ally in its struggle against the Soviets, the MWL brought together the infamous team of Islamist groups that fought and flourished in Afghanistan.
It may seem strange to recommend that a liberally oriented "League of Arab Societies" model itself after an organization that nurtured Islamist groups -- including jihadists who violently turned on their backers and the West. But Islamist parties committed to nonviolent activism are now poised to shape the future of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and perhaps Syria and Yemen. These parties, which often share an agenda consonant with the MWL's founding principles, also owe a debt of gratitude to that group. This may not be good news from a liberal point of view -- but it is a validation of the Islamists' transnational model.
We should appropriate this model to serve a new, liberal agenda -- one that would stand in stark contrast to the situation region-wide only a few years ago. In 2003, many of the region's reformists and civil society activists hoped that a post-Saddam Iraq could serve as a home base for Arab liberalism, just like Saudi Arabia had long served the cause of Islamism. They did not look to the Arab League for support in this endeavor -- member states were sharply divided over how to engage postwar Iraq diplomatically and economically, let alone get involved in civil-society promotion. Instead of facilitating regional initiatives by Arab liberals on Iraqi soil, the United States adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward Iraq's domestic politics, enabling Arab liberalism's greatest foes to mold the country.
But Arab liberals then were more timid than they are today: Islamism had become the virtually undisputed language by which Arab masses expressed their frustration, and many liberals had made the crucial mistake of seeking common ground with dictators like Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Islamists, having achieved control of mosques from the Red Sea to Morocco's Atlantic shores, had consecrated a space for themselves to transmit their ideas and connect with followers. But in a dramatically changed Middle East, Islamism may come to represent authority and imposition rather than disaffection and aspiration. If this happens, the region's disaffected majorities will seek a new set of ideas by which to express their aspirations. Witness Tehran, a city of Islamist domination, where young people dream of liberalism and Islamic reform. As the pendulum swings in many Arab capitals, liberals will have the opportunity to inform this new agenda. A transnational umbrella could equip them with needed resources and create a network to protect them -- providing practical and logistical support and, where necessary, security.
The natural constituent groups for a League of Arab Societies are the liberal organizations, parties, and intellectual circles that have been struggling, in isolation, to gain ground in their home countries. Politicians like Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour, together with the "Tomorrow" party he founded, have already been featured in the West. Arab NGOs devoted to women's issues, labor rights, human rights, rule of law promotion, and civics education have long been on the radar screens of American and European foundations. There are also dozens of liberal voices that deserve institutional backing and a regional network. In Tunisia, Ulfa Yusuf, a charismatic female scholar of Islamic studies, has developed a liberal interpretation of Islamic history that radically diverges from the views of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. Lebanese scholar and activist Chibli Mallat has built a following around a new political philosophy, dubbed "White Arabism," that marries liberal democracy to Arab nationalism. And even in Saudi Arabia, "Saudi Liberals" -- a virtual, online consortium of thousands of college students, young professionals, and journalists -- envision a cultural and political alternative to Wahhabism. Most of these figures and groups did not rise to prominence during last year's revolutions because they concern themselves with long-term, and not immediate, transformation.
A League of Arab Societies could nurture these groups in valuable ways -- allying with foreign and local powers as needed to win advantages for them and confronting such powers when necessary to protect their interests. Moreover, Saudi-backed precedent demonstrates that a provisional partnership with the United States need not be the kiss of death for such an organization.
Who would back and host such an organization? Some oil-rich states, such as Qatar, have begun to support liberal causes that diverge politically from ideas about governance that have long held sway in the Gulf. Wealthy financial institutions such as Jordan's Arab Bank and billionaire investors such as Saudi Arabia's Waleed bin Talal have become more active in backing Arab political figures. American and European foundations have poured billions into Arab reform initiatives in cooperation with regimes that no longer exist -- and now seek a more effective strategy, less reliant on Arab governments, to advance their values in the region. In all likelihood, the best financial base for a League of Arab Societies is no one party, power, or petro-endowment, but an investor coalition that includes all of the above. As for a suitable location, a country such as Morocco could offer stability and continuity, as well as a social environment in which civil society groups have been steadily growing in strength.
For all its faults, the Muslim World League taught us that meaningful change is both transnational and multigenerational. The Arab League has taught us that transnational cooperation can provide vital support to Arab populations struggling internally against oppression. But it's time for a new, liberal regional grouping that can embrace and foster the dynamic changes across the Middle East and North Africa. Yes, progress will be gradual, but we must take whatever steps we can to accelerate that progress.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 23/02/2012
-Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and the French edition of Foreign Policy. Joseph Braude is the author of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World.
-Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and the French edition of Foreign Policy. Joseph Braude is the author of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
For seven months, Egypt's minister of planning and cooperation has been pushing an investigation into the practices of American pro-democracy NGOs. But what began as a struggle for local power has turned into a game of international brinkmanship that has the potential to upend the security calculus of the Middle East.
By Stephen McInerney
Many are watching this impasse closely. (peasap / flickr)
This weekend, the fracas over foreigners in Cairo is set to escalate when hearings begin against 43 workers (including 16 U.S. citizens) charged with operating without a license, receiving unauthorized foreign funds, and engaging in political activity. The drama is seven months in the making. Last July, Egypt's Ministry of Justice opened an investigation into the activities and funding of numerous (possibly as many as 400) nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The move came at the behest of Fayza Abul Naga, minister of planning and international cooperation. In the months that followed, her department refused to officially state or confirm any details of the wide-ranging probe. Then, in late December, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of several of the NGOs under investigation. And what began as an effort by one Egyptian minister to assert her control has turned into a game of international brinkmanship that has the potential to upend the security calculus of the Middle East.
After tensions escalated in December, numerous members of Congress made clear that the actions of the Egyptian government could jeopardize the annual $1.55 billion aid package to Egypt -- the United States' second largest, after the $3.1 billion it gives Israel annually. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution calling for an immediate end to the harassment and prosecution of NGO staff. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went much further when he introduced legislation that would suspend all U.S. aid to Egypt until the matter is resolved. On Monday, a group of U.S. senators including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) visited Cairo to meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and other Egyptian leaders, trying to relieve some of the tension. They returned home with optimistic messages, suggesting that the Egyptian brass offered strong assurances of a swift resolution to the impasse.
How much faith Washington can put in those assurances, however, remains to be seen. Fueling the United States' impatience have been Cairo's confusing, and often conflicting, messages. Unlike the Mubarak era, when there were relatively clear lines of command, the past year in Egypt has been marked by the rapid emergence of multiple centers of power competing for political control. Egypt's actual foreign policy has been almost indecipherable. For example, after security forces raided the NGO offices, top Egyptian officials, including Tantawi, Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, and Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr, were quick to assure the United States that the maltreatment of U.S. citizens would cease, that all seized materials would be immediately returned, and that the offices would be able to reopen. Six weeks later, those have proved to be empty promises.
Conversations in Washington reveal that U.S. officials, by and large, do not believe that their counterparts in Cairo are being intentionally deceptive -- they assume that the Egyptians have simply promised more than they can deliver. For years, Abul Naga, who is one of the few top officials remaining from the days of Mubarak, has been opposed to any foreign funding that bypassed her ministry. And now she seems to be targeting U.S. influence specifically. Last week, the Egyptian press quoted Abul Naga as having portrayed the U.S. as trying to hijack Egypt's revolution. "The United States decided to use all its resources and instruments to contain [the January 25 revolution]," the government's official news agency, MENA, quoted her as saying, "and push it in a direction that promotes American and also Israeli interests."
But her charges against the NGOs ring hollow. For instance, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have made more than reasonable efforts to comply with Egyptian law. Both groups applied for registration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2005 and have communicated regularly with the authorities about their activities and programs ever since. Both groups were told repeatedly that their registration would be granted, but it never was and no explanation was given. This experience is characteristic of that of many other organizations that have focused on politically sensitive issues, while groups with more innocuous goals have had their registration granted promptly. It is disingenuous for the Egyptian government to refuse to grant U.S. NGOs registration on political grounds and then claim that the investigation against them is an apolitical matter for the judiciary. Moreover, that many other international organizations operate in Egypt today without official registration underscores the selective, political nature of these attacks.
Members of Egypt's ruling military council have generally avoided the issue in public, perhaps in order to give them plausible deniability with Washington. Privately, they consistently argue to U.S. officials that they cannot intervene in independent judicial processes. But even if the generals are not the driving force behind the crackdown, it is quite unlikely that the investigation could have moved forward without their support. The military has held executive authority and ultimate decision-making power for the past year -- all cabinet ministers were appointed by the generals and report to them.
Assuming that Abul Naga had to get the military on board before pushing forward with the NGO persecution, her case to them was simple and compelling. Egyptian democracy and human rights organizations are vocal critics of the military. As large protests have continued, it makes sense for the ruling cadre to cut off such organizations at the knees while also reinforcing the public narrative that the protests are the work of foreign agents seeking to sow chaos in Egypt.
Yet it appears that some ranking members of the Egyptian military may have severely underestimated the backlash from Washington. In both private conversations and public statements, Pentagon and State Department officials who have recently visited Egypt and discussed the crisis describe the generals as initially incredulous that such a minor issue (in their view) could actually threaten the aid package. U.S. officials attest that they have been successful since in conveying how potentially explosive the issue could be, but it is unclear how much that has changed anyone's thinking in Cairo.
As for a resolution, one possible scenario is that Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs could grant registration to some of the targeted NGOs in the days ahead. This would clear the way for the courts to dismiss the charges against the NGOs or, perhaps more likely, for them to find those charged innocent. Such an approach could ease tensions while allowing Egypt's generals to officially maintain distance from the case. Yet Abul Naga could easily derail such a plan; throughout this debacle she and her allies have repeatedly employed carefully timed public remarks and leaks to reignite tensions.
There is one more important faction in Cairo to consider: the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, which now boasts a plurality of seats in the Egyptian Parliament. The People's Assembly has only been in session since January 23 and has yet to pass any legislation pertaining to the NGO crisis. Eventually, however, it will be up to the parliament to decide whether to pass a more permissive NGO law in line with international standards.
So far, the signals from the Brotherhood have been contradictory. On one hand, it is in the group's interest to support a freer environment for NGOs, considering the large number of Islamist associations aligned with the movement. This was reflected in a recent op-ed by Brotherhood General Guide Mohammad Badie, who wrote, "All political, intellectual, social, cultural and economic trends and forces in the country -- along with civil society -- must be allowed to operate and express their views." On the other hand, some Brotherhood leaders are taking a hard stand against foreign funding, unsurprising given that the movement is funded almost entirely by its Egyptian members and supporters.
As lawmakers, however, Brotherhood members have also made comments about what a change in the U.S.-Cairo aid relationship could mean. On February 12, Essam el Erian, vice chair of the Freedom and Justice Party and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the new parliament, made news when he pronounced that an interruption of U.S. aid would be a violation of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and would open the door for Egypt to change other terms of the treaty. That is no small claim. For more than three decades, that agreement -- including the billions in aid every year from the United States -- has served as a foundation for security arrangements throughout the Middle East.
Many observers have argued that the U.S. must maintain its assistance in order to preserve its leverage with the Egyptian military. But this crisis is exactly the moment to use this leverage. The fate of civil society in Egypt and beyond is very much at stake. If the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid can attack pro-democracy organizations with no real consequences, authoritarian governments worldwide will be emboldened to follow suit. As such, the administration should take a tougher line, making clear that military aid will certainly be interrupted unless the attacks on NGOs are halted and all charges are dropped. The White House deserves credit for having made support for civil society an important pillar of its approach to strengthening democracy worldwide. Now is the time to demonstrate the strength of that commitment.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Affairs on 22/02/2012
A bloody six-year civil war fought against Bashar al-Assad's father presents a cautionary tale for Syria's modern-day rebels.
BY DAVID KENNER
It was a massacre. On June 16, 1979, Capt. Ibrahim Yusuf ordered some 200 cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School to attend an urgent meeting in the mess hall. Once they were assembled, he opened the door to a squad of gunmen who opened fire on the defenseless crowd. At least 32 cadets, most belonging to then President Hafez al-Assad's Alawite sect, were cut down in the hail of gunfire and grenades.
The civil war that raged in Syria from 1976 to 1982 was -- until the past 11 months of unrest -- the most severe threat to the Assads' grip on power. The uprising would be crushed, brutally and infamously, with the Hama massacre in 1982. But even before the bloody assault on Hama, the long guerilla war had claimed the lives of thousands of Syrians, and resulted in the imprisonment of at least 10,000 more. The events leading up to the final confrontation should provide the current generation of protesters with a blueprint for how not to overthrow the Assad regime.
The Aleppo attack was not only the bloodiest strike to date against the government, it raised disturbing questions for the Damascus political elite about the fundamental pillars of their power. Yusuf, a Sunni officer, was himself a member of the ruling Baath Party. Assad's enemies, it seemed, had not only risen through the ranks of the army -- they had penetrated into the political heart of the regime.
As the shadow war between the Alawite-dominated security forces and their Sunni opponents continued, Assad's opponents formed an umbrella organization called the Islamic Front in Syria. In November 1980, the front published a manifesto that noted the Alawite community "cannot [indefinitely] dominate the majority in Syria," and that "the [Alawite] minority has forgotten itself and is ignoring the facts of history." It ended with an appeal for the Alawites to abandon "the imposed scourge Hafez al-Assad and his butcher playboy brother [Rifaat] ... [in order to] participate in preventing the tragedy from reaching its sad end."
The campaign of assassinations against leading Syrian officials and Alawite personalities was also gaining steam -- in August 1979, Assad's personal doctor, Muhammed Shahada Khalil, was killed. Other victims included the head of the military's garrison in Hama, the rector of Damascus University, and the prosecutor of the Supreme State Security Court. "Assassination is the only language with which it is possible to communicate with the state," said one of Assad's opponents during his trial in September 1979, according to Nikolaos van Dam's The Struggle for Power in Syria.
The winter of 1979 might have been the most perilous time for the regime: Its leading lights were slowly being snuffed out, its support within key segments of the army and broader population was in doubt, and even its top officials were beginning to breaking away. On Dec. 27, Syrian ambassador to the United Nations Hammud al-Shufi abruptly resigned, due to what he termed "the anti-democratic and repressive methods and corruption of the Assad regime." (No Syrian ambassadors have yet defected during the present unrest.)
The chill of civil war even fell across cities that were not at the center of the violence. Samuel Pickering Jr. -- an acclaimed English professor who would later go on to serve as the model for Robin Williams's character in Dead Poets Society -- taught as a Fulbright scholar in the city of Latakia from the winter of 1979 until the summer of 1980. "The good are silent, and violence has spiraled as the government's secret police have viciously repressed dissent or potential dissent," he wrote in a memoir of his year in Syria. "At times during the year, Aleppo and Hama seemed foreign countries brought back under Damascus's rule only by tank law. ‘You don't know,' a student told me with tears in her eyes. ‘The people die like rain.'"
History is written by the victors, and the story of Syria's civil war is no exception. The Assad regime painted the revolt as a terror campaign waged by "the Muslim Brotherhood," a catch-all phrase that it would wield against its many opponents during the crisis. The story is more complicated than that -- not all opposition to Assad was expressed through violence, and the insurgents did appear to enjoy substantial latent support among segments of Syrian popular opinion. What does appear clear, however, is that the revolt was driven by a wide array of groups that resented the Alawites' rise to preeminence and believed that the Sunnis, which account for roughly 75 percent of the population, were Syria's natural rulers.
Drawing on interviews from Baathist officials in Aleppo, Patrick Seale's Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East estimates that more than 300 leading supporters of the Syrian regime were killed in the city from 1979 to 1981. The violence soon prompted Assad to take a more radical course: In the Seventh Regional Congress, held in December 1979 and January 1980, Assad's younger brother Rifaat won Baathist support for a war to exterminate the Sunni terrorists once and for all. To end the insurgency, he promised to fight "a hundred wars, demolish a million strongholds, and sacrifice a million martyrs."
Rifaat made good on his promise. In March, 30,000 troops of the Third Army Division, under the command of Gen. Shafiq Fayadh, moved from Damascus and Lebanon to seal off Aleppo. They were soon joined by Rifaat's Defense Brigades, a paramilitary force of Assad loyalists that echoes today's shabbiha. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report "Syria Unmasked," which surveyed human rights abuses under the Assad regime, Fayadh stood on a tank turret in the early days of the operation to proclaim that he was "prepared to kill a thousand people a day to rid the city of the Muslim Brother vermin."
The violence wielded by the Syrian military far exceeded anything that the Sunni insurgents could muster. In the year-long occupation of Aleppo, HRW estimates that Assad's security forces killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people -- "some at random, many in summary executions" -- and arrested 8,000 more.
Resistance to the Assad regime was not expressed solely through military means. In March 1980, the same month the military moved on Aleppo, the opposition convinced the markets in Aleppo to strike for two weeks -- a tactic that soon spread to centers of unrest such as Hama, Homs, and Idlib, threatening to destroy Syria's already battered economy.
Trade unions and professional associations also represented a thorn in Assad's side. In early March, they organized street demonstrations in which thousands of people took part across the country, with the striking exception of Damascus. On March 31, the Syrian Bar Association led a number of other professional groups -- such as the Medical Association, the Association of Engineers, and the merchant class -- in a nationwide strike.
Assad's response was as cunning as it was ruthless. He retaliated by dissolving the associations and arresting their leaders. By mid-April, according to HRW, the regime had imprisoned hundreds of doctors, engineers, and lawyers -- many of whom were tortured, and some of whom were summarily executed. Meanwhile, he found allies in the Damascene merchant class and was able to weather the economic storm. According to Seale, the merchants' support for Assad at this critical juncture cemented the regime's relationship with the Damascus businessmen -- an alliance that has persisted through the present day.
Having cut off all avenues of dissent but violence, the Assad regime then moved to ensure that its enemies had no hope of winning through armed revolt. After a failed assassination attempt against Assad on June 26, 1980, the regime's strongmen determined to make the Muslim Brotherhood pay. Less than 24 hours after the attack, Rifaat's Defense Brigades were helicoptered to the desert city of Palmyra, where they were joined by members of the army. In the early morning hours of July 27, they were let loose in Tadmor Prison, one of the primary detention centers for Islamists at the time. They gunned down an estimated 500 prisoners in cold blood. "The operation lasted about half an hour," an Alawite soldier who took part in the operation told HRW. "During it, there was a terrible tumult, with exploding grenades and cries of ‘Allah Akbar!'"
The Sunni insurgents responded by escalating their campaign of terror in Damascus. In 1981, they bombed the prime minister's office in August, the Air Force headquarters in September, and a military recruitment center in November. In February 1982, the "Islamic Revolution Command in Syria" claimed credit for bombing the Damascus offices of the regime's al-Baath newspaper, killing at least 76 people. "It was a great accomplishment to be added to the series of tremendous explosions carried out by the mujahidin," the statement read. "We draw attention to the fact that all the Syrian information media are nationalized and that the explosion was timed for all the authority's hirelings to be present."
For all the stresses put on the Syrian regime, the sharp and unbridgeable sectarian rifts that the conflict had opened made it virtually impossible for the Alawite ruling class to do anything but fight to the death. "[The Muslim Brotherhood] has succeeded in widening the distance between the government and the majority of the people, but not in destabilizing the regime," wrote the historian Hanna Batatu in December 1982. "Instead of splitting the ‘Alawis and thus weakening their foothold in the army, they have, by their anti-‘Alawi practical line, frightened the ‘Alawi community into rallying behind Asad."
With the military remaining largely loyal, nothing could stop Assad from crushing the opposition's strongholds. By the time the city of Hama rose in open revolt in February 1982, the stage was set for a final confrontation between Assad's opponents and more than 10,000 well-equipped Syrian security forces -- a battle the Sunni insurgents could not hope to win. The Hama massacre, which claimed the lives of anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 Syrians, according to an Amnesty International report from the period, may have permanently stained the reputation of the Assad dynasty in the eyes of the world, but it also crushed the organized Islamist insurgency in Syria and paved the way for three more decades of relatively unchallenged rule by the Assads. In the end, the Sunni insurgency of the late 1970s and early 1980s was too focused on Sunni revivalism, too shadowy -- simultaneously too violent to attract widespread support and not violent enough to pose an existential threat to the regime.
Could the modern-day opponents of Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son, suffer the same fate as the insurgents of years past? Luckily for today's opposition, it is no carbon copy of the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most notably, popular nonviolent protests have been a mainstay of the effort to topple Assad. In major cities such as Hama, Homs, and recently Damascus, Syrians have taken to the streets to call for the end of the regime -- lending the opposition a degree of popular legitimacy it never achieved in the 1980s. Defections from the Syrian military are also higher than they ever were under Hafez al-Assad's watch, and by all accounts are growing more numerous and effective. And the opposition's political representatives, such as the Syrian National Council, may have myriad problems -- but they are still savvier than the underground "Islamic Front" that guided the opposition to Hafez.
But at the same time, Syria's revolutionaries have not been able to make a complete break with the past. After months of largely peaceful protest, the effort to topple Assad is increasingly defined as a struggle between Syria's security forces and an armed insurgency. According to activists' own figures, the past two months have seen a higher proportion of Syrian soldiers killed than at any other point in the revolt -- totaling roughly 25 percent of the total deaths. This surge in violence has also been marked, in the past two weeks, by devastating car bombings in Aleppo and the first assassination of a Syrian general -- tactics that carry an echo of the dark days of civil war.
This new generation of Syrian revolutionaries has brought the Assad regime closer to collapse than it has ever been in its four-decade history. But if they are to push it over the edge, they would do well to learn from the cautionary tale of their elders.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 22/02/2012
-David Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy
-David Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
By Vivienne Walt
A celebrated American-born war reporter and a young French photographer were killed on Wednesday morning when Syrian forces bombed a makeshift media center in the besieged city of Homs. The tragedy shook the disparate community of conflict journalists gathered there, not least in highlighting the degree to which risks are intensifying for those covering Syria's march to civil war.
Marie Colvin, an American who was one of Britain's most honored combat journalists, and Rémi Ochlik, an award-winning photojournalist who was just 29, died when the regime's military hit the building where a growing number of foreign journalists were covering the Homs battle. British photographer Paul Conroy, whose work illustrated Colvin's chilling dispatch from Homs in the London Sunday Times last weekend, was reported severely injured, along with an unnamed American woman journalist. Those details have not yet been confirmed.
Within seconds of the news breaking on the BBC and Syrian Twitter feeds, the closed Facebook group for conflict journalists lit up with frenzied messages, many of them unable to believe that their colleagues were gone. And Colvin's own Facebook site was jammed with messages from friends, one saying, "Please God not Marie! Marie are you OK?"
She was not. Just one day before, Colvin had posted a message to the war-reporters' Facebook group, urging colleagues to break her newspaper's firewall and post her extraordinary report from inside Homs. With her characteristic passion and wry self-deprecating humor, she offered to "face the firing squad" for whoever illicitly reposted her work, while not forgetting to praise Conroy's "amazing photos" which accompanied it. "I don't often do this but it is sickening what is happening here," she wrote.
At 55, Colvin was no novice in witnessing sickening events. She was a victim of violence herself, having lost her left eye after coming under government fire in Sri Lanka in 2001. While many might long since have sought a prosthetic eye, Colvin chose instead to wear a black eye patch, something of a badge of honor for conflict journalism, instantly making her the most distinctive journalist in any combat zone.
She was also surely one of the more dedicated, rarely missing a conflict — and believing to the end that the perils were simply a journalist's duty. "Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history," she said in 2010, in an address at a packed ceremony for fallen war reporters at St. Bride's Church in London. "In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and twitters, we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same — someone has to go there and see what is happening," she told the audience. "You can't get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you."
For Ochlik that horror came as he was just beginning his career. He was with his friend Lucas Dolego, the French photographer, on the streets of Tunis during the revolution there last January when Dolego was hit and killed by a police teargas canister. "We had come to work, so I kept on working," he said in a recent interview, after being honored for his Arab Spring photos. "As a little boy I always wanted to become an archeologist, for the travels, the adventures," he continued. That changed when his grandfather gave him his first camera. He began photographing his friends, and later traveled to Haiti, to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya last year — and last week, to Syria.
Colvin's last dispatch from Homs was a video, which aired on the BBC on Tuesday, describing the appalling conditions and deep terror felt by residents who have been encircled by Syrian forces for weeks. Later, she called Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's Emergency Director, to discuss what she'd seen. "She contacted me not because she wanted to boast about reaching Homs, but because she wanted to reach out to people she thought could make a difference to the people of Homs," Bouckaert said in a Facebook post on Wednesday. "I could just imagine her happily chatting away with me as the shells fell around her building, and being totally in her element. She was one of the most fearless and dedicated reporters I have ever met."
After months of being shut out of the conflict, journalists have increasingly sneaked into Syria through smuggling routes from Lebanon and Turkey, coordinating their life-threatening journeys with local activists. As the coverage of the Homs siege filtered out of Syria, the small corps of journalists in the city has appeared ever more a target of attacks, from a government that has been intent on keeping journalists away from rebel territory. The shock among journalists on Wednesday came while many were still absorbing the loss of Anthony Shadid, the celebrated New York Times correspondent, who died in Syria last Thursday of an apparent asthma attack after sneaking into the country illegally; many colleagues and friends were still gathered in Beirut for Shadid's memorial service, which took place there on Tuesday, when news hit of Colvin and Ochlik's deaths.
Born in Oyster Bay, New York, Colvin graduated from Yale University, and became renowned in Britain largely through her gripping coverage of the 1990s Balkans War, and the war in Chechnya. But Colvin was not all about work. With her crackling wit, and her knack for great story-telling, she was an excellent companion for lengthy dinners after a day's reporting, not least during the past year's revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Over dinner in each of those places, Colvin — despite being in the thick of a compelling revolution — spoke about where she might go next, and how to get there ahead of the press pack, which was increasingly more young and nimble than herself.
In her address at St. Bride's Church in 2010, Colvin touched on the issue of whether war reporters perhaps risked their lives for professional ambitions, rather than a humanitarian drive to expose injustices. The answer, apparently, was not entirely clear to her. "We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story," she said. "What is bravery, and what is bravado?" Shaken by the losses, many journalists will be wrestling with that question in the days and weeks ahead.
-This article was published in Time Magazine’s blog on 22/02/2012
By Marc Lynch
How should the United States, and the international community, respond to the escalating bloodbath in Syria? Over the last two months, the overwhelming weight of editorial and op-ed commentary has been in the direction of calling for military action of some sort --- especially to arm a Free Syrian Army. The calls for military action span the spectrum: from John McCain and Lindsey Graham and the FPRI-FDD group of conservative hawks to liberal interventionists and even... FP bloggers. For people desperate to do something to help the Syrian people, and at the same time for people keen to deal a blow to Iran or bring down a long-hated regime in Damascus, the time seems right for some form of military intervention.
I was a strong supporter of the intervention in Libya. But the diversion of the debate about Syria towards military options has been counterproductive. None of the military options on offer, including arming the Free Syrian Army, are likely to significantly help the Syrian people and most risk making things far worse. But the recent display of a broad-based international consensus, including the 137-12 vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the regime's violence, and the first meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group on Friday in Tunisia make this a crucial time to seriously explore non-military options which have a more realistic chance to be adopted.. and to succeed.
In a new report released today by the Center for a New American Security, I argue that if the goal is to help the Syrian people and not just to hurt an Iranian ally then the international response to the Syrian crisis must focus less on whether to use military options than on ways to improve the prospects for a "soft landing" after the fall of the Assad regime. The report lays out a number of concrete suggestions for mobilizing diplomatic pressure and breaking the intensifying polarization between two Syrian communities in order to push for a political transition. I can't offer any guarantees that this strategy will work quickly or cleanly... but neither can those now recklessly calling for poorly conceived military action.
I am not going to summarize every detail of the report in this post -- please download it here. The first half of the report assesses in some depth each of the major military options which have been put on the table: No Fly Zones, Tactical Air Strikes, Safe Areas, Armed Observers, and Arming the Opposition. For each of the first four, I argue that the military means would not respond effectively to the violence, would be far more complicated than advocates acknowledge, and would likely soon pave the way to further escalation upon failure.
I spend the most time arguing against the currently fashionable idea of arming the Syrian opposition (about whom, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey noted this weekend, little is really known). It is unlikely that arms from the outside would come close to evening the balance of power, and would only invite escalations from Syrian regime forces. While advocates assume that a better-armed opposition would encourage a wave of defections from the Syrian army, it is just as plausible that growing militarization will harden the polarization in Syrian society and the resolve of Syrian troops. Those currently on the fence, disgusted with Assad but afraid of the future, could well be frightened back onto the side of the regime and move even further away from any kind of realistic political solution.
Finally, there is the reality of the deeply divided, fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition, which is more than just an inconvenient point to be noted and then waved away. Most enthusiasts for arming the FSA preface their call by insisting that it is necessary that the Syrian opposition first unify. But it hasn't, and shows no signs of unifying politically any time soon. There is quite simply no prospect that the Syrian opposition will unify politically in the time frame envisioned by those who hope to rush weapons to the front lines to protect civilians in besieged areas like Homs. But this reality doesn't seem to actually blunt their enthusiasm for arming the Syrian opposition anyway. This waving away of supposedly "necessary" conditions reminds me all too clearly of those who insisted that COIN must have a legitimate national partner to work with but then insisted on carrying it out in Afghanistan anyway despite the manifest absence of such a leadership in Kabul.
But the report is not only a brief against military options. It tries to lay out a political and diplomatic strategy to increase the pressure on the Assad regime while building the conditions for a political transition. Those grappling with the Syria crisis too often do not take seriously enough that Syrians remain sharply divided over the crisis. Many Syrians continue to support the regime, some out of genuine fear of the future, some out of true commitment, some out of sectarian solidarity, some because they believe the narrative which the regime has crafted about foreign conspiracies. Ignoring or scoffing at their beliefs, or lobbing propaganda across a hostile divide, isn't going to help. No post-Assad Syria is going to be stable if it can't include and command the loyalty of that sizable portion of its population -- and so a political strategy must be designed to engage them in a plan for transition.
That does not mean engaging Assad or accepting his farcical reform proposals. The report argues that the time for negotiations with the top levels of the Assad regime has passed, and if they refuse to engage immediately then they should be moved towards indictment at the International Criminal Court. A real choice should be given to lower level state officials, who should understand that their window is rapidly closing to defect or be indicted. Targeted sanctions should increase the pressure on the top of the regime. The Friends of Syria group should coordinate international activity, and every possible international forum should be mobilized to isolate and shame the Syrian regime.
But pressure is not enough. Efforts should be stepped up to reach out to the broad base of the regime's remaining political support and to persuade them to take a frightening, risky leap into the unknown of a transition. Particular attention should be paid to breaking through the polarized narratives which have Syrians increasingly living within mutually isolated narrative bubbles. The international community should work to bring credible information about regime atrocities to those Syrians who doubt their reality, and to reassure them about their place in a post-Assad Syria. To the latter end, I lay out some proposals for drafting a political pact with international guarantees to which the Syrian opposition would commit itself as a way of reassuring those key parts of the Syrian fabric. This may still be possible, despite the increasing polarization and hardening divide... but not if military options are chosen or major arms flow in to the various groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
The choice is not between political options which won't work and military options which will work. The hard truth is that the available military options have little chance of quickly or decisively turning the tide against Assad's regime. They are more likely to simply ratchet the violence up to a higher level, while badly harming the chances of any kind of political transition which could create a stable, inclusive Syria. I hope that this political proposal will be given a chance, even if its success if far from assured. Please download the whole report here for more details, and I look forward to discussing the ideas.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 21/02/2012
-Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University
-Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
By Rob Prince
The movie Persepolis generated protests in Tunisia
But for all that has happened since Bouazizi’s act of rebellion, are the changes in Tunisia deep and enduring, or simply cosmetic? And where there has been real change, has it been for the better?
The overthrow of the Ben Ali government was a genuine and inclusive revolutionary upsurge. A year later, the whole country remains proud of what it has achieved and relieved that Ben Ali was overthrown. Tunisians are basking in what continues to be a spirit of openness and political dialogue unknown for the past quarter of a century.
But a little more than a year after the onset of the Arab Spring, some of the jasmine has begun to wilt. In the wake of a bloody civil war in Libya, ongoing carnage in Syria, and an incomplete transition in Egypt, the region is a much more sober place now than it was a year ago.
Tunisia is often portrayed as a bright spot in this increasingly somber regional picture. Indeed, after an orderly election, the country’s leaders successfully put together a three-party coalition transitional government, and now a constituent assembly is working on a new constitution. The country appears to be on track to elect a more permanent government, as promised, during the next year. Despite the problems it faces, Tunisia is more stable and seems to have the potential to come out of this crisis far better than its neighbors — in fact, better than almost any country with a Mediterranean coast. Yet even this comparatively rosy picture is somewhat overstated and misleading.
A New Polarization
No doubt, Tunisians have won the freedom of speech and expression long denied them, and the relatively smooth election process has given Tunisia the kind of political stability that a country like Libya could only dream of. The new ruling coalition led by Ennahda could be a stabilizing force.
But in some ways, the political atmosphere has hardened. There is a new polarization along cultural lines that has relegated the deepening socio-economic crisis to the sidelines.
A week before the October 23 elections in Tunisia, a political storm broke out over the screening in of Persepolis, a film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s novel of the same name. One scene in the award-winning animated film personifies Allah as a kindly elderly man, which offended some of the country’s more fundamentalist elements. A storm of protest followed led by Ennahda, the moderate Islamist political party now supported by the Obama administration.
There is some speculation that Ennahda initiated the campaign to strengthen its position in the elections, encouraging voters to overlook the party’s poorly defined economic vision for the country in favor of cultural issues. A week after the Persepolis controversy broke, Ennahda won 41 percent of the vote in Tunisia’s constituent assembly election and, as a result, a defining role in the country’s transition government.
Of course, Ennahdha probably did not need to go on the stump so actively against the film; it would have won a large plurality of the Tunisian electorate anyway. It has been an active and oppressed social movement for 30 years, functioning under difficult conditions that have left it hardened and politically sophisticated. It has a genuine base throughout the country, no doubt bolstered by the sympathy many Tunisians feel for the persecution the party suffered in years past.
And yet, it’s hard not to be cynical.
Curiously, Persepolis played in Tunisian movie theaters several years ago without much fanfare or criticism from Islamist elements. But this time around, the uproar triggered by the film continues until this day. This protest kicked off nothing less than an ideological offensive by the country’s Salafist constituencies. This has included campaigns to allow more religious women to wear the niqab (full veil) at Tunisian universities, the radicalizing of mosques and religious preschools along Salafist lines, and an unambiguous targeting of the country’s more secular-oriented women and cultural figures.
The Persepolis campaign also changed the political playing field in the country. Before the flap, the main issues covered in the Tunisian media concerned the country’s socio-economic crisis and the dismantling of Ben Ali’s extensive security apparatus. These issues – the need for greater economic security and greater democracy – triggered the Tunisian revolution in the first place.
Now, while the country continues to bleed jobs and its interior remains in a state of near collapse, the socio-economic crisis has been upended by these religious-cultural issues.
Old Hands, New Partners
Among those things that have not changed is the security apparatus. In a country of 10 million people, the Ben Ali regime hired no less than 250,000 to spy on, intimidate, torture, frame, and murder their fellow citizens. Although there have been a few changes at the top, most of the personnel hired by Ben Ali’s Ministry of the Interior remain in place. The extensive spy files collected during the Ben Ali years remain closed to public scrutiny.
There have been several reports of negotiations between the ruling Ennahda Party and the Ministry. Rather than dismantling the Ministry and replacing it with a more democratic structure, deals are being apparently negotiated to preserve it. In exchange for amnesty, will the Ministry work for Ennahda the way it worked for Ben Ali?
The police have followed suit, more or less asking for a similar arrangement. And although Ben Ali’s political party has been dissolved, many former members of his government are, formally or informally, gravitating toward Ennahda.
It is unfortunate but not particularly surprising that the people who made the revolution — the young and the poor — are not the ones elected to power in its wake. Sometime during the election campaign, the energies of the population shifted from solving the economic crisis to cultural questions that favored more traditional and conservative elements.
Ennahda is a mixed bag. The top layers are genuinely “moderate,” but much of the base has a distinctly fundamentalist tilt. To date, the leadership has hardly reined in the base, nor is it clear it wants to. The more secular parties in the ruling coalition, additionally, are hardly parties at all, having been largely scraped together only after Ben Ali departed. Ennahda, by contrast, has a rich history of more than 30 years.
This gives the moderate Islamist party a free hand to rule as it wants. Most of the powers formerly held by the country’s president have been eliminated and shifted to the prime minister, leaving Moncef Marzouki, the country’s center-left president, with little more than ceremonial responsibilities.
The Greatest Challenge
But by far the greatest challenge Tunisia faces is its economy, which badly needs investments in rural infrastructure and a workable vision for its future. Like so many peripheral and semi-peripheral countries in the global economy, Tunisia is plagued by a gaping urban-rural divide. The more prosperous urban areas — most especially Tunis, Souse, Sfax, and Bizerte — are highly developed, and although one can see and feel the overall social crisis there, its effects are far more muted.
But the rural interior remains in a state of near collapse, and the level of anger and frustration there is thick and obvious. The unemployment rate in the rural areas is soaring and could be as high as 50 percent, unreliable official statistics aside, or perhaps even higher.
There has been an explosion of strikes affecting virtually every sector of the economy and every region of the country, especially the interior. Although a year ago the Tunisian military eased the way for Ben Ali’s departure by refusing to fire on demonstrators, it is now used more and more to break strikes and demonstrations.
Very little has been done to date to address this crisis, which threatens the entire reform structure. Most of the solutions offered have been along the same neoliberal lines that triggered the social explosion in the first place. The market alone is clearly incapable of turning the country around, but any discussion of using state intervention to help the economy get back on its feet is muted for fear of driving away foreign investment from the Gulf States and the IMF.
There have been other political mass movements that toppled dictators and secured new political rights but ultimately fizzled — Chile, the Philippines, and Indonesia are among the more striking examples. In the end, the political changes won by these uprisings were more cosmetic than revolutionary. The economic structures, whose malfunctioning were key to triggering social crises in the first place, changed little.
Tunisia is at a crossroads. Which way will it turn?
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 21/02/2012
- Rob Prince teaches at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. He writes the blog Colorado Progressive Jewish News, now in its eighth year
- Rob Prince teaches at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. He writes the blog Colorado Progressive Jewish News, now in its eighth year