Monthly Archives: April 2010

ElBaradei #2

A quick summary of the rest of ElBaradei’s talk at Harvard the other night, which focussed on issues of nuclear capability and proliferation.

He repeated several times that the IAEA is a flawed organisation, lacking sufficient funding or political support to do its job properly. It does not have enough ‘credibility’, he said, to have a real influence. This lack of resources particularly limits its ability to deal with unprotected nuclear material and non-state actors; as ElBaradei said earlier in the talk, his real concern is not the declared nuclear activity but the undeclared. ‘We know what to do and how to do it,’ he said, but underfunding was severely affecting their capabilities. An audience member asked if Iran’s nuclear programme had acted as a regional deterrent, actually preventing wars, and ElBaradei pointed out that Iran does not actually have nuclear weapons yet; its advance towards nuclear capability has not, therefore, acted as a deterrent but has raised concerns about regional stability and the nuclear ‘double standard’. There is no military solution (he emphasised this a lot), the only solution being building trust. Despite Iran’s lack of actual weapons, however, ElBaradei pointed out that Tehran’s real influence lies in its ‘soft power’, which is incredibly important in the region (and another reason why engagement is so important). Concern about the weapons programme is overstated and ignores the real issue, which is Iran’s ascendance as a regional power – nuclear weapons are a means to this end rather than an end in themselves.

Someone else asked how it would be possible to bring China and Russia on board, presumably in relation to sanctions. ElBaradei replied that the Iran issue is primarily a US-Iran issue and that the participation of China and Russia is less important as the ‘heavy lifting’ (he seemed fond of this phrase) will have to come from America. The US can provide the technology and trade agreements and will benefit first and most from the stabilising effect of an agreement with Iran. There was then a very interesting question from a guy who cracked his gum when he talked and looked less than impressed with the whole affair. He asked how we would find stability in a world without nuclear weapons – what the new security paradigm would be when the nuclear deterrent was removed. ElBaradei danced around this one for a bit, essentially saying what a difficult question it was, then answered that security is ‘creating an environment where you create a good disincentive to go to war’. He gave the example of the EU, where there is so much interaction and co-operation (and paralysis) that it would be ‘unthinkable’ for any of them to attack each other.

There were a couple of questions I’ve missed because they weren’t particularly interesting. I thought his points about soft power and the need for engagement were good, as well as his attempted solution to the problem of a new security paradigm. I disagree that Iran is mainly a US issue, though.

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Hizbollah, super-cool teenage Palestinian inventors, and bad journalism

Another bag o’ links as I’m up to my ears in al-mudhaakirah:

Hizbollah convictions in Egypt, Nasrallah’s reaction

The consequences of proportional representation in Israel

Tunisia is not ‘moderate’

Mr. ElBaradei goes to Harvard

Sudan’s opposition don’t want to win elections…

15,000 protest in Egyptian city of Akhmim

Mashaakil fi Dimashq

Bafflingly, US engagement with Syria is somehow inadequate. Wonder why…

Banning 1001 nights and the abuse of the hisbah principle

Tunnel deaths in Egypt lead to accusations from Hamas

Go go gadget girls

Testimony from Iraq’s secret torture prison

‘No-one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes…that the lack of progress in the peace process is costing American lives’

Critique of Aaron Miller’s ‘end of the peace process’ article

Cairo city pavements and the labour movement

Problems with Arabic-English translation

CUSU’s Israel-Palestine week cancelled

HuffPo tackles Egypt again, with mixed results

Video bonus for that Tala’at Harb feeling from the guy who sings possibly my favourite ever Arabic lyrics (’tilbis sporting laazim y’uul good morning!’):

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ElBaradei live

Mohamed ElBaradei is speaking tonight at Harvard on ‘A new global security system towards a world free from nuclear weapons’. The talk will be broadcast live at 11pm GMT here. Take a look.


Here’s a brief summary of last night’s ‘conversation with Mohamed ElBaradei’. (Apologies if I got anything wrong or missed anything, I was trying to learn the dual in MSA at the same time for a class today and I think brain cells were killing themselves in protest…)

They began talking about ElBaradei’s past decisions as IAEA chief, especially Iraq and the evidence for WMDs – ElBaradei reiterated that there was ‘not an iota of evidence’ for Iraq’s nuclear capability and added that he did not make and never made such statements lightly, knowing their potential impact. Where in international law is regime change, he asked, saying that ‘pulverising’ a country due to a dictator is wrong and that someone should be ‘accountable’ for the loss of life in a war launched on the ‘wrong assumptions’. He went on to discuss the so-called axis of evil, calling them ‘three missed opportunities’ – once you start calling them in biblical terms, he said, you are not serious about a rational response.

The focus switched to the nuclear crisis de nos jours, Iran, where again ElBaradei highlighted missed opportunities. The Iranians, when beginning their nuclear program,were ready to talk to the Bush administration, but the US refused, viewing negotiations as a reward for good behaviour rather than a tool to achieve good behaviour. (ElBaradei called this his ‘fundamental disagreement with diplomacy’.) (It’s obviously parallel to the myopic criticism of Obama’s engagement with Syria, which many are characterising as some kind of ‘reward’ for Assad’s government. Negotiation is a means, not an end…) He talked through the utter failure of the West to deal with an ascendant nuclear Iran – the Europeans talked to the Iranians but were ‘looking over their shoulder’ at America, able only to make empty promises as they knew any agreement would have to involve the US. Iran began to realise the best strategy as far as their nuclear program was concerned was a fait accompli, so moved ahead, but were still ready to engage. ElBaradei pointed out, however, that enrichment became a matter of ‘national pride’; like any other country with nuclear weapons, Iran was developing them in order to strengthen its regional position, and domestic opposition meant that the government was and is unwilling to make any moves seen as un-Iranian. The West overplayed its hand, demanding too much too soon, which made Iran go into ‘confrontation mode’. Engagement is still vital and a deal still possible, he says – sanctions do not work, hurting the poor and vulnerable and enriching the rich. Importantly, furthermore, a deal that is ‘not equitable is not sustainable’.

The camel in the room, of course, had nothing to do with nuclear power. With what can only really be described as a cheeky smile, the chairman asked him: ‘What about Egypt?’. There was a pause, ElBaradei made a crack about looking for something do now he was out of office, and everyone laughed. Any system that does not empower people is not working, he said; people are ‘products of their environment’ and a system that represses and humiliates is a ‘recipe for radicalism’. He described the Arab world as ‘disintegrating’, with its peoples repressed by their governments and unfairly treated by the outside world. Egypt needs to make a move from authoritarianism to democracy and empowering people is the only way forward. To this end, he has been calling for peaceful change in Egypt, and trying to show the ‘linkage’ between democracy and economic and social justice. He described his vilification by the Bush administration as ‘child’s play’ compared to that he faces in Egypt.

I have to go to the aforementioned MSA class now but will be back later – the next part of the talk moved on to questions and there was more interesting stuff there.

OK, I’m back. I’m just going to focus on the Egypt-related questions for now, but the nuclear ones were interesting apart from the slightly nervous woman who asked ‘what the plan was’ after a nuclear holocaust, at which ElBaradei looked a little confused and replied ‘Well, if we’re still alive…’ The first questioner asked how likely ElBaradei thought he was to become the next president of Egypt (on a scale of 1-10, ha!) and what his priorities would be as ar-rayyis. ElBaradei made another funny, this one about his wife wishing his chances were 0, then said that he did not know if he would be president but that was not his main concern; his main concern was ‘changing the system’ so the people have a real choice. His priority is democracy, from which everything else would proceed. Another guy asked him why Egyptians didn’t take him at his word when he said the presidency was not his personal concern, and he replied that he is gaining more credibility from focussing on change rather than the personal. (Kind of a half answer…) This is proved, he said, by his 300,000 followers on Facebook, which made me snort Riesling out my nose. A third questioner said that democracy in Egypt is still very much an idea of the educated elite and will not be understood by the fellaheen; ElBaradei basically replied that this was balls and that you should not ‘underestimate the rank and file’, with whom he apparently regularly discusses the work of Miles Davis.

Aside from the fact that I’m now seriously considering adopting ElBaradei’s choice of eyewear, nothing much new came up; the questions on Egypt were broad and unanalytical unlike the nuclear questions which actually challenged him. He’s still emphasising that he’s not some kind of saviour who’s going to ride in and snatch the presidency from under Mubarak’s nose. Fairly reticent on the Egypt questions, he was much more engaged with the nuclear stuff, often speaking at length in response (more on those later). I find him incredibly difficult to read.


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Democracy, GWB-style

I wrote recently about Obama’s funding cuts to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. Shadi Hamid in a recent op-ed writes that the overall movement of the Obama administration away from spreading democracy and towards more pragmatic Middle East policy has led to a kind of ‘nostalgia’ for the Bush years among Arabs: ‘for all its singularly destructive actions,’ Hamid writes, ‘the Bush administration might very well be the only administration to have ever challenged the fundamental premises of US policy in the Middle East.’ He argues that the very ideas that liberals find so unpalatable, Bush’s ideological emphasis on democracy and freedom as the key to peace in the region, were actually a fresh approach to the Middle East that opened up an opportunity for reform now closed by Obama as he reverts to pragmatism and ‘a cynical bargain with Arab autocrats’. The closing of this window has thus led to a sense of nostalgia amongst Arab reformers for the Bush years and the support offered to them from the West back when the spread of democracy was an administration priority.

It is true that Obama’s departure from Bush’s attempt to fund democracy has had an effect on opposition movements in places such as Egypt, but there are several problems with Hamid’s conclusion. Firstly, it is hard to believe in a widespread feeling of nostalgia for Bush, whose foreign policy failures in the region hardly need enumerating, and whose support for democracy was always offset by his dubious alliances with the Gulf states and his funding to institutions such as the Egyptian army, often higher than the support allocated to reforming movements. The struggle for democracy in the Middle East is, speaking reductively, one between populations and autocracies, and so any nostalgia must be viewed in this context; if there is any, it is for a policy of support for the population against the autocracy represented by funding for pro-democracy groups, and not for Bush and his ideological crusade.

Bush’s support for democracy only went so far – it was limited, firstly by his support for autocracy as mentioned above, but also by his fear of the results of Middle Eastern democracy. When Islamist parties began winning elections, Bush and the neocons became afraid of the door they may be opening by advocating democracy. His was a Western paradigm of democracy in which joyful Arabs, free from their autocratic shackles, would straightaway go out and elect nice secular pro-Western governments. This is certainly a possibility, but it’s only one possibility, and democracy isn’t worth having if you refuse to admit that it could lead to results that you aren’t entirely happy about. The Bush years were not some golden age of support for Arab populations in their fight for free and fair elections. Obama’s departure from a select few of his policies is disappointing, but hardly cause for Bush nostalgia.

The Moor Next Door, once again, has an excellent roundup of responses to Hamid’s article, and extends this with a good critique of Obama’s uber-realism in the Middle East: ‘The most problematic result of the Bush policy for American liberals may be that it has warped their self-perception and posture towards the region. There is a sense that democracy or reform cannot “work” in the Middle East (and perhaps should not be allowed to), that it is better to sit with the Big Man than to offer any real assistance to anyone else, and so on. Americans perceive their own limits in the region and the world with this in the back of their minds; and that translates into the hyper-cautious route the administration (and its pundit friends) has taken on reform in the Arab countries and Iran.’ The rest of the article is well worth reading.

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First Arab MP?

Tanjara has a nice overview of Arabs in the British political system (translated from al-Hayat), including Bassam Mahfouz who if he wins his seat in Ealing Central and Acton will become the first ever British Arab MP. Political affiliation varies, naturally, with Mahfouz standing as a Labour candidate but several Arabs working for the Conservatives and Lib Dems. Fatima Mourad, of Moroccan descent and standing for the Tories in Westminster, says she is proud to be a Conservative: ‘life for many of the poorest in Westminster North has got worse over the last 13 years of Labour Government’. Abdiwali Mohamud, a Somali standing for the Lib Dems in Kentish Town, says: ‘I am Somali, I am Arab, I am a Muslim – so I cannot be Labour, as I am against the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia’. The al-Hayat article is very much slanted towards Arab issues, with a focus on, for instance, Bassam Mahfouz’s stances on Palestine the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006. However it also recognises that the main concerns reflected by Britain’s Arab politicians are the same as for any others. As Mahfouz puts it: ‘When I speak to [Arab voters] about politics, it is often about the key issues at stake in the forthcoming election: securing the economic recovery, and supporting a good education and world-class national health system (NHS) for all, as well as tackling crime with more police on the streets.’

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Islamism and secularism are no dichotomy

The Moor Next Door, responding to a piece by Shadi Hamid on Islamist weakness, has a good piece on the reasons for the defeat of Islamist parties in North Africa, focussing on Mauritania and Algeria in particular.

Hamid writes: ‘it would be a mistake to assume that when Islamist parties lose, that this reflects a broader shift away from religious politics or from religion, and towards “secularism”’. He gives the reasons that Islamist parties in the Middle East often experience a degree of governmental repression that makes it difficult for them to establish an electoral presence, and that furthermore their electoral successes and failures should not necessarily be entirely attributed to their ‘Islamic’ character – there are all sorts of reasons why people vote and do not vote for a party and Islamism is only one of those reasons. He cites Christians voting for Hizbollah and secularists voting for Hamas as examples of this.

TMND extends this to the Maghreb. Algerian Islamist parties have been discredited by their failure to meet voters’ expectations and their relationship with the current regime, rather than their specifically Islamist nature. ‘Islamism is not unpopular in Algeria as such — it is unpopular in the form of specific parties and personalities’. In Mauritania, the main problem faced by Islamist parties is their lack of support from the black African demographic, and the secular, left-wing tendencies of much of Mauritanian politics. The conclusion reached is that Islamist electoral defeats are not just due to ideology or a sweeping wave of secularism but take place within a more complex political environment than is taken into account by much Western analysis. The writer warns, too, of applying Western paradigms of secularism and Islamism; ‘Islamism’ in the abstract is reductive when applied to Islamist politics, where religiosity is tied in with a host of other factors that stem from, well, politics. A narrative of ‘rise of secularism leads to decline of support for Islamism’ is thus over-simplistic and unhelpful.

This is true elsewhere in the Arab world – the Muslim Brotherhood, who enjoy widespread support in Egypt, are by no means the only opposition movement and their popularity should not necessarily be taken as evidence for support for an abstract ‘Islamism’. While the religious aspect is important, there is also the fact that the Brotherhood represents a viable alternative to the Mubarak regime, and one that often has direct influence in people’s lives, setting up medical clinics and youth training programmes. It is reductive, furthermore, to characterise the Brotherhood purely as an Islamist political party, given that it is a diverse movement with diverging and overlapping factions and aims, some political, some religious. Thus support for the Brotherhood, just like lack of support in Algeria and Mauritania for the MSP and Tawassoul respectively, is not necessarily a referendum on the abstract idea of an Islamist government.

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Baghdad falls

This is very beautiful as a personal look at the relationship between Iraq and Egypt on the eve of the 2003 invasion.

“Walking across Tahrir Square the day after the arrival of the American and British forces in Iraq, I could think of nothing but the unmediated sense of identity so many Egyptians felt. Anti-American sentiment was inflated, but it was justified and real, far more real than resentment of the Saddam regime. No one cheered when the dictator’s statue toppled over; and subsequent images of looting and plunder could only inspire shame and a sense of having been betrayed. Everyone sympathised with Iraq, but what did Iraq mean to people? It was at this point that I thought of making a mental list of all those things Iraq, a country I had never seen, meant to me. I thought of a man who sold donner kebab near Hull University campus, an exile whose perpetual homesickness had metamorphosed into a painful quietude. The solitude, the desolation on his face drove me to inquire about his personal history, but he would have nothing to do with me. One night, following an intense evening at the Union Bar, I happened to drop the name of Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab. Slowly, pensively, in a voice more like its author’s, this little educated man recited Al-Sayyab’s most famous poem, Unshoudat Al-Mattar (Rainsong). By the end he was on the verge of tears; he never shed any.”

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