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Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

“La Ikhwan, La Salafia.  A Sha’ab Bidu Huriyya.”  

“No Muslim Brotherhood.  No Salafists.  The Youth want Freedom.”

The language above on the sign held up by a Syrian protester this week encapsulates all the promise, and anxiety, of this moment for Western policy makers watching the Arab revolutions unfold.  What kind of freedom?  Who will step into the vacuum?  What will be their world view?

Stepping into this dangerous information void is a familiar narrative for those of us who have been watching the region for some time, finding its voice once again in the global media echo chamber.  In the 80′s and 90′s it was a barely reported whisper in the secure, secular anterooms of power, yet it resonated with the right audience.  Strongmen in immaculate Armani suits in Cairo and Damascus and Sana’a pulled aside envoys from Rome to Paris to Washington for a measured, and entirely calculated pronouncement: We have a problem.  The mullahs have toppled the Shah.  The fundamentalist wave is now sweeping thru our own countries.  Look the other way while we deal with it…

And we did.  The secular, benevolent dictator was much preferable to the bearded fundamentalist.  Benevolent to our own interests, of course, not so much those of their own people.  In Iraq, Saddam invaded Iran and brutally crushed Kurdish and Shi’ite dissent, all with Western weapons and financing.  In Syria, the late Hafez Al-Assad reduced the city of Hama- the center of the Syrian Islamist movement- to rubble.  In Egypt, pitched battles took place between Mubarak’s security forces and Islamic groups.  And perhaps most damning, in hindsight,  a moderate Islamic party won a free and fair election in Algeria, only to be brutally removed by a cabal of generals who tipped the country towards civil war, without so much as a peep from Western leaders.

All of this, years before Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden were even a coherent operational entity.  All of this, and our leaders still scratch their heads and wonder out loud why political Islam has turned dangerously radical.

What has changed today?  In Libya, the Qaddafi family mafia screams of Al Qaeda rebels and Islamist conspiracies.  In Syria, the younger Assad talks of armed gangs with sinister Islamic credentials.  In Egypt, military rulers continue to play the heart-strings of Western Islamophobia, hinting of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in upcoming elections.  Yemen’s President Saleh long ago mastered the art of the American shake down: extracting millions in U.S. aid by playing up the threat of exploding underwear bombers and then using those resources to crush any dissent to his rule.  Let’s not limit ourselves to the Arab world.  The corrupt autocrats of Pakistan and Afghanistan have extracted billions in American treasure while doing little to combat (and much to proliferate) the fundamentalist forces in their own countries.  Why would they when extremist Islam is a source of so much badly needed foreign exchange?  The Islamophobia con game has not been limited even to sitting rulers.  In the runup to the 2003 Iraq invasion, Iraqi exile groups were persistent in their arguments that Saddam was conspiring with Al Qaeda, and their persistence paid off by pushing America to war, despite a shred of real evidence to substantiate their claims.

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“Barack Obama has now fired more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace Prize winners combined.”

It’s good for a laugh.  A cheap laugh.  The blogger who wrote this clearly doesn’t have any appreciation for the reality that confronts American presidents on a daily basis.  No doubt he or she also did not have any family in Benghazi last week, when a desert breeze stood between Qaddafi’s tank columns and the certain massacre of the city’s population.  Can anyone- Arab, European, American- honestly compare our intervention in Libya in 2011 to Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan in 2001?  Really?  Have we become that morally unhinged?  Iraq and Afghanistan were all about an insecure, fearful United States lashing out at nations because it didn’t have the means to locate and punish the trans-national movement responsible for 9/11.  Libya is about a coalition of mainly Western powers reluctantly resorting to force to protect ordinary people from their own self-appointed leader.  Do NATO countries have their own, selfish reasons for bombing Libya?  Of course.  No nation in the history of nations acts out of pure altruism.  France and Italy are concerned about North African refugees overwhelming their shores.  Britain and America worry about Al Qaeda stepping into a vacuum.  Everyone worries about the free flow of oil and upward pressure on its price.  Interestingly, all these risks have the potential to grow exponentially if you go down the path of using force.  So, are we really being selfish and sinister by bombing Libya, protecting only our own interests, or are we, instead, ignoring them for a greater cause?  Hmmm.  It’s infinitely more complex and larger than this question alone.

There is something bigger here.  Say whatever you want about mission creep in Libya, international spinelessness in Bahrain, or heavy-handed government brutality in Syria, the paradigm has forever changed, and unambiguously for the better.  Since the 9/11 attacks, conflict between the “West” and the “Muslim world” had been framed, indeed defined, by two primary actors- one state and one non-state.  On one side, Western governments and their partner regimes (Israel and our Muslim allies) declared their war on terror.  They faced off largely against trans-national groups- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hizbullah, Hamas- entities who by their very nature and ideology challenged the notion of the modern nation-state itself.  Conspicuously absent on either side of the battle lines was the most important actor of all: Muslim civil society, the entity who alone has the power to reinvigorate stagnating communities and provide a viable long-term solution to violent extremism.

No longer.  The Arab Street has emerged.  Unruly, leaderless, fickle- and yet, it has forced both sides to contend with it and can no longer be discounted derisively as “not ready for democracy” or “too chaotic and unknowable to be trusted”.   Both primary actors in the conflict have had to reconfigure their strategies to account for this new and potentially pivotal player, and the upshot so far is encouraging.  Western governments have for the most part aligned their policies more with the aspirations of the Street while trans-national actors seem too dumbfounded even to react.

Indeed, the hidden story in all of this, the elephant in the room that no one has talked about seriously: where is Al Qaeda?  Why the strange silence  during the region’s most volatile hour in decades?  Numerous self-styled experts have claimed that instability and chaos were this organization’s preferred milieu, creating the space for its operatives to challenge the legitimacy of national governments.  What better opportunity than the upheavals in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where secular strongmen tied to American patronage have come under immense pressure.  Is it perhaps because Al Qaeda has nothing to say to the largely young, secular groups and moderate Islamists who have tipped the scales of the system?  What would they offer them?  Brutal caliphates like those that are going swimmingly well in Saudi Arabia and Iran?  Perhaps more important, these popular awakenings have relegated a key plank in the Al Qaeda public relations machine to history’s dustbin: the string of corrupt secular regimes controled by Western puppetmasters and dismissive of their own people.  The edifice of this once potent recruiting tool is now crumbling, and Al Qaeda does not know what to do.

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Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th century North African polymath, was the first to give the Arabs a sense of their own history.  Before there were universities, before there was even a discipline called the social sciences, Ibn Khaldun plied the Mediterranean world, a resident scholar to kings and sultans from Castile to Cairo, writing his treatises on logic, history, philosophy, sociology.  He lived in a time of tremendous upheaval in the Muslim world, with Black Death, Mongol invasions and Christian crusaders wreaking apocalyptic havoc on rulers and ruled alike.  In the work he is most known for, the Muqaddimah, the Tunisian-born scholar illuminated mankind’s generational cycles that throughout time repeatedly led to the rise and fall of dynasties.  It went something like this according to Ibn Khaldun: a nomadic people with a great deal of social cohesion and group solidarity (the closest translation for the Arabic term- ‘asabiyyah- that he made famous), coalesce around a charismatic leader and overthrow a decaying urban elite.  As the new rulers, the nomads must leave their old rustic lifestyle behind and settle in the cities.  Over time they grow soft (or more refined, from their point of view), succumbing to decadence and luxury, losing the cohesion and ruggedness that once made them strong.  Inevitably, they themselves are defeated by a new set of nomads, and the cycle repeats itself.

Seven centuries later, as we watch historic popular revolutions unfold across the Middle East in the age of Al Jazeera and Facebook, Ibn Khaldun’s words are still prescient.  The embattled autocrats of the Arab establishment were once themselves the demi-gods at the center of the Muqaddimah’s narrative.  Humble, austere beginnings overwhelmingly characterized these  Arab men who came of age in the heady days of Arab nationalism in the 60s and 70s.  Nasser, Ghadafi, Sadat, Mubarak, Ben Ali- in their youth, they were not of the city, but rather nomads and peasants in uniforms- and this was indeed their greatest strength.  A toughened exterior, a popular magnetism, a sense of shared hardship with the most deprived of their peoples, these men were the tribal chieftains of their time.  Over time, however, they became transformed by the city, succumbing to its temptations, growing feeble within the system they had established.  Their connection with their own people was lost even as they clung to power and privilege.

Meanwhile, as yesterday’s populist heroes lost their gravitas, a different tribe came into its own in the new millennium.  Yet this tribe had never been seen before in the Middle East, the land of tribes.  Armed with the power of communication technologies, 21st century mobility, and exploding demography, it crossed borders and invaded the sacred space of home and mosque.  How else can one explain a migrating popular revolt that leapfrogs between cities separated by deserts and seas- a movable feast with no organized leadership and no concrete agenda other than change?  While many disparate groups have now joined the fray in multiple countries, there is no doubt that the nucleus across this movement does not share a political platform or an ideology, but rather a group solidarity that unites them and provides the primal energy for the overall effort.  They are integrated- like the “free officers” their parents once adored- by a shared experience.  Urban malaise.  Political disenfranchisement.  Youthful idealism.  A yearning to be as respected and prosperous as their counterparts in other parts of the world.

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In Tamim Ansary’s excellent history, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes- written in plain, digestable English, not scholar-speak- a particular passage recently struck me as a lost morsel of critical perspective as we wage our “global war against extremism”.  In his book, Ansary is talking about the 7th century battle of Uhud, in which the Prophet Muhammad and his followers are defeated by a Meccan army when they momentarily break ranks in their lust for booty and are led into a trap that kills scores and wounds Muhammad himself.  The lesson learned and the cycle of thought established, early on in Muhammad’s struggle, was that:

“Divine support was not an entitlement; Muslims had to earn the favor of Allah by behaving as commanded and submitting to His will.  This explanation for defeat provided a stencil that Muslims invoked repeatedly in later years, after the Mongol holocaust of the thirteenth century, for example, when nomadic invaders from Central Asia overwhelmed most of the Islamic world, and again in response to Western domination, which began in the eighteenth century and continues to this day.”

Are Muslims still overtly stressing today about Mongol hordes and 7th century battles?  Probably not.  It was a long time ago.  But this history on some level is an integral part of the Muslim consciousness in the same way that Bible stories form an important part of the Christian psyche in America.  They shape attitudes and actions.

This is the problem with civilizations that were once great.  When they inevitably decline, their inheritors often draw the wrong conclusions as to what the problem is and how to fix it.  Since the Islamic world was once so dominant in every way- dwarfing Europe in science, medicine, tolerance, wealth, military technology- for much of its early history, it is a difficult exercise  for Muslims today to admit that the tables have turned and address the root causes dispassionately.  Inevitably, emotions and pride kick in and many fall back on the divine favor exemplified by the Uhud parable, with the West playing the role not of enabling partner but of scourge sent to punish the faithful.  This feeds a pattern of denial that doesn’t solve the problem, but only exacerbates it.

In the Western world, and in particular in the United States, there is another kind of denial playing out.  Reams of position papers, daily briefs, books, op-eds, consultations and conferences have been devoted to fine tuning and teasing out our objectives in this “global campaign”.  $2 trillion and counting has been spent invading, demolishing, rebuilding, and reforming Muslim lands.  Careers and indeed fortunes (largely Western) have been made around buzz words like nation building, local accountability, institutional transparency, conflict resolution, female empowerment.  Freedom and liberty for all.  All worthy goals.  They mean nothing if a large swath of Muslims continue to see the “West” as playing the immutable role of outsider/barbarian in the defining pattern of their world view.

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This past weekend I hopped on Interstate 95 and rubbernecked my way along stimulus-inspired construction lanes down to colonial Williamsburg, a time-warp back to the days of British empire in America and its discontents.  A passion-play called “Revolutionary City” was captivating a crowd of tourists along the former colonial capital’s cobblestone avenues, complete with costumed redcoats and town criers on chargers.  American myth-making was unfolding before our eyes: the rights of man, the tyranny of a distant monarch, tea parties and taxation without representation.  Powder-wigged gentlemen made lofty speeches and minutemen- the irregulars of our own insurgency against our motherland some 240 years ago- were called into action.  After visiting a shoemaker, a printer, and the Governor’s Palace, I drove 13 miles down to the battlefield of Yorktown, where 5,000 French troops and the French navy made it possible for Washington to declare victory over Lord Cornwalis.

The French had their own reasons for helping us in our hour of need.  Britain was a long-time rival, and any insurrection in America would clearly benefit French global power.  Ironically, King Louis’ support of American self-determination presaged the revolution that would engulf his own rule, and all of Europe, shortly thereafter.   In hindsight, perhaps no leader in our collective past endured such a swing in judgment- on the right side of history one moment, only to be relegated to its dustbin in short succession.

As the U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq reaches a milestone while the surge peaks in Afghanistan, we might ask ourselves how the American interventions of the early 21st century will be judged decades from now.  After a trillion dollars spent (Stiglitz and Bilmes will tell you it’s more like $3 trillion), will we end up on the right side of history?

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I won’t attempt to decipher the swirling debate surrounding the manufactured controversy of Park 51, the “mosque” (actually, cultural center modeled on the Jewish YMCA at 92nd Street) “at Ground Zero” (actually, several blocks away, like the other mosques already in the area.).  All heat and very little light, it’s clear the only thing this debate has energized is our own xenophobia, mob rule, and perhaps a political base or two.  The defenders of common sense have been spirited, particularly Michael Bloomberg, Jeffrey Goldberg, Fareed Zakaria, Michael Gerson and President Obama.  The political opportunists have been shameful, particularly Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Charles Krauthammer, and Rick  Lazio.

But for most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, the circus in America is a side show of self-important, ignorant Americans.  Many are fighting a bloody battle to redefine their faith in their own communities around the world.  Zoning rights in lower Manhattan seems trivial in comparison.  Despite all the hype and fanfare about the tectonic rift between the West and the Islamic world, the clash of rival faiths and cultures, the most virulent religious war is being fought between and among Muslims themselves.

America is involved in this fight only peripherally, and then not because we are defending ourselves from an Islamic monolith that seeks to infiltrate and conquer free societies.  On the contrary, for the past 60 years, it is America that has been the aggressor, exploiting and protecting its strategic interests in Muslim lands- namely, our addiction to Middle Eastern oil and our support of client-states like Israel and Pakistan that can project our superpower influence.  More often than not, our meddling has been to the detriment of the cause of freedom in the Muslim world as our policy makers continually opt for the stability of dictators and strong men.

How reality becomes twisted, inverted in fact, in home town America, in the name of fear and victimhood.  Does any sane person believe the Twin Towers would have come down if the Western financed oil boom, and intense American patronage, had not enabled the rise of Saudi Arabia, allowing it to export its homicidal brand of Islam across the Muslim world, spawning the Bin Ladens of the global age?   If men like Ayman Zawahiri are not tortured and radicalized in Egyptian prisons under a staunchly American-backed Mubarak regime, who builds Al Qaeda into an organization capable of striking across oceans?  If America does not pump billions of dollars into an Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 80s, who has the capability and air of righteous invincibility to declare war on the sole remaining superpower in the 90s?   If American evangelical and Jewish groups do not fund illegal settlements built a stone’s throw from ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages, is there any sympathy or support among ordinary Muslims for the mass murder of innocents on this scale?

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A pair of instances recently reminded me how both sides- the “West” (more specifically, the United States) and the Muslim World- have engaged in so little self-reflection since the events of 9/11.  It is much easier to project outward than to take a hard look at your own society.  Problems are no longer yours when you can successfully argue that they come from some outside force.  For politicians and pundits, the temptation is too great.

This kind of gamesmanship has approached the truly absurd in the Muslim world.  On Friday a Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan was ripped apart by a triple suicide bombing.  As I have written before, Sufism is the lighter side of Islam- a moderate force whose greater tolerance for things like other faiths and female emancipation has angered Muslim extremists.  It’s long standing traditions and practices across the Muslim world are the most direct, organic challenge to those who would spread the lie- that early Islam’s core strength was its angry, unforgiving unity and purity.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Islam’s original spread in the 7th and 8th centuries was indeed aided by the sword, but more important in its ascendancy was its acceptance of other cultures, faiths and its rational discourse on everything from trade to science.  The Christian world, caught in an orgy of religious violence, greed and superstition, could not compete.

How far has Muslim civilization fallen?  How completely have the two sides exchanged places, like a pair of reflections in the same mirror?  After the Lahore attack, demonstrations blaming the United States for the carnage raged across Pakistan.  Normally sane people reasoned that extremists wouldn’t have attacked the shrine if the Pakistani government wasn’t in bed with America.  In the rush to anger, the sick individuals who actually planned and executed the operation seemed to have been all but forgotten.

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Jackson Diehl likes to talk about the futility of a dead Middle East peace process.  Like most opinion leaders in our American media, he blames this squarely on a divided Palestinian leadership and an Arab world rife with corrupt autocracies unwilling to compromise.   Now is not the time to push major initiatives, he argues.  Besides, he says, the plight of 4 million Palestinian civilians with no civic rights, increasingly herded into ghettos by Israeli authorities is just a sideshow in the long war on extremism.  The real problem is Arab corruption and tyranny.

I beg to differ.  Now is exactly the time for a peace push for these very same reasons Diehl highlights.  He and many thought leaders in our system see only obstacles when they should be outlining solutions.  Why is that?

Diehl talks about the corruption and repression of Arab states as the major, almost solitary source fueling the strength and vitality of extremist groups like Al Qaeda.  It is true that the excesses of regimes such as Mubarak’s in Egypt have driven many Muslims to radicalism.  It is no coincidence that Zawahiri was radicalized in an Egyptian prison.  That is only part of the equation of extremism, however.  Perhaps more damaging is something Diehl conveniently forgets to mention but which more and more former and current public officials, like Bill Clinton and General David Petraeus, are speaking up about: heavy handed Israeli policies against Palestinian civilians who are increasingly boxed in and without hope, opportunity, or the basic services that any citizen needs to live a normal life.  This all takes place on ground that the entire world, including the United States, considers occupied land.  There is no more fertile soil for hate and extremism.  And our enemies (and allies) alike have exploited it to the max to further their own agendas against us, deflecting attention from their very real transgressions against their own people at home.

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You wonder what Afghan president Hamid Karzai was thinking over the past several days as he unleashed a fusillade of vitriol against his primary benefactor, the United States.  His comments, such as “foreigners” were responsible for the presidential election fraud that declared him the outright winner, or that he was prepared to join the Taliban if he was continually pressured to reform, have caused even his fellow Afghans to reel in alarm.  Has the president become unhinged?

No, not really.  He is actually acting within the historical tradition rather than on the fringe.  Karzai’s diatribe is part of the sad litany of foreigner bashing that has been a time-honored tactic of Muslim leaders over the last several centuries, since the Western world eclipsed the Islamic in all things important.  When an embattled ruler needs to shore up his failing legitimacy, there is no subject that garners more domestic currency than pointing to the “infidel foreigners in our midst”.

The problem, in Karzai’s case, is that the foreigners are the source of his legitimacy- without their militaries, treasure, and UN imprimatur, Karzai would be another Najibullah, hanging from the rafters with his testicles in his mouth.   Perhaps just before that moment he will lament, as he has in the past, in the most self-serving of ways: “See.  The international community has abandoned us…”  Playing the blame game until the end.

This is the main difficulty with the local proxies we have cut deals with across the globe to prosecute our War on Terror in its various incarnations.  They invariable act more like mercenaries than accountable civil servants.  The Karzai government has systematically raped and pillaged its own people for the last decade- it is this that is the main source of the various local Afghan insurgencies that we group together and conveniently label the Taliban; they fight against bad governance first, infidels, second.

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$1.05 trillion already appropriated by Congress.  Billions more on the way to support the surge in Afghanistan and the drawdown in Iraq.  Over 5,300 American women and men dead.  Over 30,000 wounded, in Iraq alone.  Hundreds of thousands of others who will rely on government health care for the rest of their lives to cope with the mental issues and post traumatic stress of fighting a guerrilla war with a largely conventional military.  This does not include the millions of Iraqi and Afghan dead and displaced, the billions in damage to infrastructure and communities in both countries, the global shock to oil prices that precipitated and continued through the invasions and wreaked havoc on economies across the globe.

Here we have the costs of the shooting War on Terror over the last 9 years.  Of course, it does not include the billions of secret dollars spent on an array of intelligence agencies and the behemoth bureaucracy of homeland security.  Now, lets look at the other side of the ledger: what have we gained?  Neither Iraq or Afghanistan have emerged as the beacon of liberal democracy that our leaders have promised.  But let’s put that aside for a moment and be a bit more realistic, more calculating.  After all, no rational American can honestly believe that we invaded either of these countries to liberate their people and bestow freedom.  If that were true we would have liberated the Congo or Burma or Sudan long ago.  If that were true we wouldn’t have supported brutal dictators in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and until 1990, Iraq itself.

Let’s have an honest, wholly Machiavellian conversation devoid of patriotic rhetoric for once.  We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan because it was decided by our policy makers to be in our national interest to do so.  That’s what nation-states do- they act in their national interest.  The question is, after all the blood and treasure, has our national interest been furthered?  Nine years later, are Iraq and Afghanistan secure bastions of American influence or, at least, less under the influence of our adversaries?  Or, have our adversaries, particularly one adversary, capitalized more than we have on these changes we have wrought with precious lives and steel?

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