Monthly Archives: April 2011

War games in Yemen

Speaking of people who know what is up – Jeremy Scahill on the history of US involvement in Yemen:

‘There is no doubt that when President Obama took office, Al Qaeda had resurrected its shop in Yemen. But how big a threat AQAP actually posed to the United States or Saleh is the subject of much debate. What was almost entirely undiscussed was whether US actions—the targeted killings, the Tomahawk and drone strikes—caused blowback and whether some of AQAP’s attacks were motivated by the undeclared war the United States was fighting in Yemen. “We are not generating good will in these operations,” says Nakhleh. “We might target radicals and potential radicals, but unfortunately in a crisis other things and other people are being destroyed or killed. So in the long run it is not necessarily going to help. To me the bigger issue is the whole issue of radicalization. How do we pull the rug from under it?”

It was the Bush administration that declared the world a battlefield where any country would be fair game for targeted killings. But it was President Obama, with Yemen as the laboratory, who put a bipartisan stamp on this paradigm—which will almost certainly endure well beyond his time in office. “The global war on terror has acquired a life of its own,” says Colonel Lang. “It’s a self-licking ice cream cone. And the fact that this counterterrorism/counterinsurgency industry evolved into this kind of thing, involving all these people—the foundations and the journalists and the book writers and the generals and the guys doing the shooting—all of that together has a great, tremendous amount of inertia that tends to keep it going in the same direction.” He adds, “It continues to roll. It will take a conscious decision on the part of civilian policy-makers, somebody like the president, for example, to decide that, ‘OK, boys, the show’s over.’” But Obama, he says, is far from deciding the show’s over. “It seems that this is going to go on for a long time.”’

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Takedown of the takeover

A great paper by Shadi Hamid which expresses in a far more articulate and well-researched way an impression I’ve had for some time now – that Islamist parties, far from chafing with frustration at repressive political systems and just itching to seize power for themselves, actually aren’t all that keen on political power. Hamid takes this even further and argues convincingly that they lose elections on purpose.

I had a lot of conversations with people at the time of and just after the Egyptian revolution who had been suckered by the bete noire of an ‘Islamist takeover’. The revolution was great, but wouldn’t Islamist groups take the opportunity to seize power and turn Alexandria into Riyadh-on-Sea? It didn’t seem to fit with what I had seen of the Brotherhood in the past. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a very diverse group – some want political power, some would rather focus on youth groups and health insurance, some want to proselytise. Some just wanna hang out in casualwear and use social media and then grab a Cilantro with their bros! The overlap and tension between those factions was interesting to watch in Egypt before the revolution, limited as they were by the controlled political space under Mubarak, and is going to be interesting in the months to come as that space widens a little more. And they’re not the only Islamist group in Egypt either – they’re distinct from the Salafis, in themselves a very heterogenous group, and there are also a sizeable number of people who would probably like to see a more ‘Islamic’ society but are set against a religious government.

For years, the Brotherhood campaigned hard in Egypt without ever expecting to win power or even win many seats. That this is within their grasp is shown by the 2005 elections, when Hosny briefly relaxed his vice-like grip and they won 88 seats, to the horror of the Bush administration who realised they may have promoted democracy just a little too hard. This is because they entered the political sphere, not necessarily hoping to seize power, but to add their voice to political discourse in Egypt; for in a system like Egyptian elections under Mubarak, opposition groups campaigned in order to shift the balance that tiniest bit their way, to make sure their voice was heard even if it didn’t mean bums on seats in the Shura Council.

The recent uprisings in the Middle East have thrown the spotlight on Islamist groups – as they’re often the best-organised opposition groups in the Arab world, they might be expected to be at the forefront of protest. Yet, while participation of individuals within those groups might be significant, as organisations they have been fairly cautious. The IAF in Jordan, for example, have been observed chanting ‘the people want the reform of the regime,’ a slightly watered-down version of the ubiquitous ‘the people want the downfall of the regime’ which spread from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. This is characteristic of Islamist groups which for years have toed the line when it comes to authoritarian regimes, fearful of too much change to the status quo (and, of course, fearing crackdowns and repression should they suddenly become too popular).

So those worried about an Islamist takeover in Egypt or anywhere else should think again. Despite the huge role they could play in the development of democracy in the region, it will take a while for Islamist groups to step out of their comfort zone – organising, campaigning, and losing.

P.S. When it comes to the MB in Egypt, this guy knows what is up.

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The importance of Syria

Brian Whitaker points out that Syria has a lot more regional significance than Libya:

‘Paradoxically, Syria’s strategic importance also helps to explain the lack of attention it is getting. Interested parties – the US, Israel, other Arab regimes, etc – would much prefer that the problem went away. Some of them recognise that Syria will have to change eventually but they are fearful of the possible outcome and don’t really want any more uncertainties just at the moment. While they probably won’t do much to prolong Bashar’s stay in power, they won’t try to tip him over the edge either – at least, not at this stage.

In the meantime, the Syrian protesters will have to rely on their own resources – which (as I argued repeatedly in the case of Tunisia) may be no bad thing. It’s also worth highlighting that whatever President Bashar may say about foreign conspiracies supposedly behind the protesters, they are unlikely to delight Israelis or American neocons with their agenda.’

Bashar is probably the best-educated and best-spoken of all the Arab autocrats; shame he chats such noise. His speech was badly calculated – the revolt looks set to grow and any concessions now are going to be a humiliation for him. This also raises the gloomy likelihood that the Syrian uprising is going to end bloodily. Just look at this bunch:

In better news from Syria, they released Mohamed Radwan; let’s hope the other detainees fare as well.

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Zahi’s back

Hawass all up in your grillz. I expect great things from his new ministerial position:

‘Once I found myself inside the museum, I rushed ahead, with journalists and correspondents behind me, checking the halls and display cases to reassure myself that Egypt’s priceless artifacts and treasures were all present.

It was at this moment that Egyptian Museum Director Tarek al-Awadi appeared to inform me that the office of the [then] President [Hosni Mubarak] was on the phone. I answered the phone and was told that I must immediately report to the presidential headquarters in order to take the constitutional oath of office as Egypt’s first ever Minister of Antiquities …

Although I was convinced that it would be a mistake to accept this post during such a difficult time in Egyptian history, I had no other choice but to accept, because this represented a national duty …’

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Saudi Arabia on meddling in Bahrain

Via FLC, the top nizaam I’d like to see isqaat pronounces on irresponsible foreign intervention in Bahrain, of course totally different from its own jaunt across the King Fahd Causeway:

‘An official source of the Saudi government said, “It condemned in strong terms the irresponsible statement issued in the name of the Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy of the Council of Iranian Islamic Shoura which described the Saudi policy in the Gulf region as playing with fire and demanded the Kingdom to withdraw its forces from Bahrain, … The statement (of the Iranian committee) ignores the premeditated interference in the internal matters of the countries in the region violating the sovereignty and independence of those countries. It also attempts to stoke sedition and incite trouble with hostile policies contravening international laws and norms and principles of good neighborliness….  Iran has no right to violate the sovereignty of the kingdom of Bahrain or poke its nose into Bahrain’s or any other country’s affairs, or to attempt to deny Bahrain’s legitimate right to seek the help of the forces of the Peninsula Shield Force….’

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