Democracy Arsenal

January 29, 2007

Middle East

Social Network Analysis and War with Iran?
Posted by Rosa Brooks

John Robb of Global Guerillas links to an interactive map designed by social networking expert Valdis Krebs. The map gives a visual display of the links and disconnections between the various states and non-state actors acive in the region (extremely useful for those of us who have trouble understanding things we can't picture!). As Robb notes, the social networking map "provides a visual representation of the open loop system" that may be "leading us to war" with Iran:

Here's a systems view of the escalating tensions between the US and Iran and why it will likely result in war. The current situation is open loop -- an open loop system is one where all participants are regularly adding inputs without any consideration of the output/outcome. Feedback loops, like direct diplomatic contact or the use of international bodies/mediators to adjudicate disputes, that could typically serve to mitigate further deterioration have been intentionally turned off by those that want this conflict to occur. As are result, inputs from allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia (both fearful of growing Iranian power), impetus from guerrillas/militias forcing sectarian conflict, fears over ongoing nuclear development, mutual military preparation for conflict, and a need to assign blame for escalating counter-insurgency failures continue to drive it forward. At some point in the not too distant future, unless the feedback loops are reinstated, the system will inevitably produce an outcome that will force a war.

Robb notes that some analysts believe the Karbala incident (in which gunmen posing as US troops captured and then executed several real US troops) bears the hallmark of Iran's al Qods force, and worries that if this turns out to be the case, such incidents will set of the kind of "escalating tit for tat" that triggered Israel's war with Lebanon.

I have previously predicted that Israel and/or the US will end up taking military action against Iran (in fact, I predicted that it would happen by last September! I'm delighted to have been wrong about that, at least, and hope I'm wrong about all of this).  I continue to fear that we are heading into a military confrontation. The Administration's anti-Iran rhetoric has only escalated, despite increasing calls-- from within as well as without the Republican party-- for direct negotiations on both nuclear development and Iraq. We recently sent a second carrier group to the Persian Gulf, jut to remind Iran "that we haven't taken any options off the table," as Cheney put it.

Meanwhile, the Iranians are doing their bit to escalate as well: however intended, yesterday's statements by Iran's ambassador to Iraq seem certain to cause alarm both in Washington and in other parts of the Middle East.

It's beginning to feel a lot like early 2003, in the build up to the Iraq War.

January 19, 2007

Middle East

Muslim Brotherhood to Form New Political Party
Posted by Shadi Hamid

The (Egyptian) Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s most influential opposition movement, announced just a few days ago that it will be forming a political party. The MB has flirted with the idea since the early 1980s. They probably would have gone ahead and formed one long ago, if there was any reason to think the government would legalize it. The Egyptian government, however, refuses to legalize parties it doesn’t like, which can lead to years (decades?) of administrative limbo. Al-Wasat, a moderate religious party that included both Muslims and Copts, has been waiting for approval from the “political parties committee” for more than a decade. Who’s to say they won’t wait another?

This is a good example of how government policies create a political environment entirely unconducive to moderation. Forming a political party would have forced the Brotherhood to modernize their political program and make their internal organization more transparent. All that aside, this announcement is quite important because it, for the first time, makes explicit – and in a sense formalizes – the distinction between the political and religious. The Brotherhood will continue to operate as a religious organization, focusing on social work, service distribution, charity work, and preaching. The political party (which will almost certainly include a significant number of non-Brotherhood members, and perhaps even a number of Christians) will be focused solely on political affairs. This may mark the relative “secularization” of the Brotherhood. This is not to say that the new party will be “liberal” or that it will no longer be explicitly “religious.” Such an outcome (which would likely please American observers) is unlikely nor would it be particularly desirable since that would leave the Brotherhood’s right flank open for electoral poaching and eventually a more radical group might fill the gap.

I also want to quickly point to a recent statement from the Brotherhood’s general guide, Mahdi Akef, who is an interesting character and prone to weird outbursts when you ask him anything having to do with Israel (as I did when I met with him in August). People often complain that the very existence of religious parties presents a threat to democracy. It is worth noting that Akef, in the statement, emphasizes a point which I’ve read and heard from many Brotherhood leaders over the last three years:

If the so called religious method means monopolizing truth and ruling according to a divine right and infallibility of rulers and monopolizing power, and discriminating among citizens according to creed, doctrine or religion, these are things which are rejected by Islam and accordingly rejected by us.

January 18, 2007

Middle East

The Future is Green... and union made in the midwest
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

How cool is this?  A driving tour of Midwestern sites where unionized American workers -- earning middle-class American wages and benefits -- are building state-of-the-art environmentally responsible vehicles.

And -- can I brag -- they're driving my car.  No, literally.  My UAW-employed husband lent our UAW-built hybrid Saturn VUE to the UAW-organized Ecology Center to make the drive.

Check out the trip blog to see whether they're coming near you, find out about what real-life American workers are doing right now to decrease our dependence on oil... and what you could do to encourage auto manufacturers to give them more cutting-edge work, and us more driving choices.  (And if you go out, let me know how our car is doing!)

January 17, 2007

Middle East, Potpourri

Designer Jihad
Posted by Zvika Krieger

In the Palestinian territories, civil wars are fought with guns. In Iraq, civil wars are fought with bombs. In Lebanon, civil wars are fought with...graphic design?

Soon after Hizballah began its recent altercation with the governing March 14 coalition in Lebanon, bright red billboards appeared across the country with the words "I Love Life" (in English, Arabic, and French). On streets. At the airport. In malls. At protests. On bumpers. The slick red signs were everywhere. The "I Love Life" campaign, which is sponsored by March 14 supporters, is attempting to capture the frustration of average Lebanese people that are sick of their country being racked by war -- both externally, as in the war with Israel, and internally, as in  the sectarian fighting that has lasted for decades. They just want to live normal lives -- such as not have their favorite shopping arcade in downtown Beirut shut down by endless Hizballah sit-ins. And perhaps more pointedly, the implication of the campaign is that opponents to March 14 (cough, cough, Hizballah) do not love life (which, to be fair, may be true for groups that glorify martyrdom and drag innocent civilians into unnecessary wars with Israel). 

But remember, this is war, so the opposition can't just let March 14 rub their love of life in Hizballah's face. So this week has brought the appearance of a counter ad campaign, parodying the "I Love Life" billboards by adding the words "In Multicolor," "In Dignity," or "For Everyone" scribbled on the bottom. The implication is that the ruling March 14 coalition, while having led the campaign to kick Syria out in 2005 and restore Lebanese independence, is also a sectarian movement that excludes the Shi'a. I have to say that it's a pretty creative way to counter the simplistic message of the "I Love Life" campaign with a message that really makes you think. Yes, Hizballah has created a state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon. Yes, it is the only militia in Lebanon that remains armed. Yes, it is a proxy for Iranian and Syrian interests in Lebanon. But it also has some pretty legitimate complaints. Beneath all the bombastic labels of "terrorists" and "Islamo-fascists," it's important to remember that Hizballah represents a disenfranchised Shi'a majority in Lebanon that has been historically dominated by a Christian presidency and then a Sunni premiership.  The only durable solution to the current political deadlock in Lebanon will have to address this underlying power imbalance between Lebanon's sects.

So kudos to "the opposition" for such a creative comeback and kudos to both sides for reminding us that not every civil war in the Middle East has to be fought with guns and bombs.

(Photos after the jump)

Continue reading "Designer Jihad" »

January 16, 2007

Middle East

For All The Realists: Your Tax Dollars in Action...
Posted by Shadi Hamid

As Zvika points out in his latest post, there's been some renewed talk about (maybe) putting pressure on the Egyptian government. Unfortunately, such talk is not coming from the "end-tyranny-now" Bush administration, which continues to show that it isn't - and never was - serious about democracy in the Middle East. For those such as Flynt Leverett, who think that "realism has become the truly progressive position on foreign policy," this may be a welcome development. No more messianism, mission, and - for millions of Arabs - not so much to hope for.

I hope someone can tell me how "progressive" this video is. Be forewarned that this is a clip of Egyptian authorities sodomizing a man with some kind of rod. It's one of the most disturbing things I've seen in awhile. Democracy Arsenal readers will, of course, know that the US gives the Egyptian government upwards of $2 billion of aid each year. But will Democrats have anything to say about our "friends" in Egypt using our American dollars to sodomize political opponents? Don't hold your breath. It would also be nice if one of the prospective Democratic nominees for 2008 calls out Bush/Condi on their hypocrisy.

January 15, 2007

Democracy, Middle East

Time for Pharaoh
Posted by Zvika Krieger

It was the summer of 2005, and the air in the Middle East was full of hope. Lebanon had just ousted the Syrians, Iraqis were voting, and democracy was on the march across the region. In Egypt, where I had been living, the Kifaya reform movement was taking to the streets and Mubarak was allowing multi-party elections for the presidency. Even the US was hopeful, dispatching Condi to Cairo to pressure Egypt to follow through on its promises for reform. Well, we all know how this story ends. Lebanon and Iraq fall into chaos, and Egypt remains the same old authoritarian state we’ve grown to love.

It seems like the time has passed for the US to pressure Egypt on reform—both the presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt have come and gone, and politics seem pretty much dead until Mubarak decides to pass on the throne to his son, err, retire. Not so, argues Michelle Dunne is a new paper from the Carnegie Endowment. Dunne, whom I met in Cairo last year while we were both attending the annual convention of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, has a reputation for being quite the insider on the Egyptian political scene. According to her report, the Egyptian government is in the process of introducing a slew of new legislation that would give more power to the parliament, allow political parties more breathing room, and finally abolish the dictatorial Emergency Law. While I wouldn’t get too excited just yet—the Mubarak regime has a long track record of dashing expectations—Dunne makes a convincing case that now may be precisely the right time for the US to return its attention to Egypt.

The larger issue at hand is America’s relationship with the “Axis of Good”—the benevolent dictatorships in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that have gotten a free pass on reforms because of their generally pro-American behavior. Isn’t the central tenet of the Bush democracy doctrine that repression breeds terror, regardless of how Bush-kissing these dictators are? I don’t want to underestimate the value of having these leaders “on our side,” but there is a middle ground between militarized regime change and absolute negligence. Remember that most of these regimes are on our team because it benefits them—whether it’s countering the rise of Iran or preventing the spread of militant Islam to their own countries. Even just a little bit of nudging on reform could go a long way with these countries—and might be a way for us to do something good for democracy in the region.

UPDATE: Looks like Condi did not take my advice: Rice Speaks Softly in Egypt, Avoiding Democracy Push (NYTimes)

January 11, 2007

Middle East, Terrorism

A new Cold War?
Posted by Zvika Krieger

Yale professor Ian Shapiro has published an interesting op-ed that argues for the revival of containment as a post-Iraq strategy for the Middle East. Drawing on parallels from the Cold War, he predicts that the dysfunctional states of the Middle East will implode of their accord, and our interventions are only making things worse (while saddling ourselves with a massive military burden).

While I am hesitant to swallow his full equivalence of communism and radical Islamism, the point in the article that most resonates for me is his analysis of why containment worked: "So long as the USSR did not stage a military attack, containment...would guarantee security." In other words, containment necessitates patience. Americans had patience for it during the Cold War because they realized that there was not an immediate threat to their security. So that forces us to ask the question today: Are we, as Americans, really in that much danger of attack? Or, more precisely, how much safer have we become as a result of our interventions in the Middle East?

I would argue, as are an increasing amount of security analysts, that our interventions have made us less safe. In the most immediate sense, they have put our troops in the line of fire. But in a larger sense, they have provided a common enemy for secularists and fundamentalists -- America -- and are thus preventing the internal clashes (or what some might call "soul searching") that are necessary for actual democracy to emerge in the Middle East.  We have to remind ourselves that the war against radical Islamism -- like the war against communism -- is much more of an internal battle for the countries of the Middle East than it is our battle. While we may have felt some its affects on 9/11, we can't let that distract us from the fact that the war can only be won by the people of the Middle East themselves. 

So there are two lessons from the Cold War: We only hurt ourselves by intervening, and that we will only have the confidence not to intervene when we acknowledge that there is little direct threat to American security. We can't use the abstract threat of "terrorism" to justify hasty and aggressive action in the Middle East anymore. We have to recapture that Cold War confidence that authoritarian states will collapse as a result of their own dysfunction, and that "the best way to spread democracy is to demonstrate its superiority" rather than "ramming [it] down people’s throats."

January 09, 2007

Middle East

The Lebanese Speak
Posted by Zvika Krieger

Returning to Lebanon after spending three weeks in Sri Lanka, I was surprised to see that the anti-government March 8 coalition was still camped out in downtown Beirut. Their 38-day protest has brought the city to a standstill, and even the “escalated” actions they announced yesterday will probably do little to break the stalemate between them and the governing March 14 coalition. One of the primary reasons for the current conflict is that both sides claim to represent a larger segment of the Lebanese people since this summer’s war with Israel. It’s tough to tell who is right.

Zogby International has released one of the first exhaustive studies of Lebanese public opinion since the war, which sheds some light on the current conflict. According to the poll, opinion on the major issues facing the Lebanon seems to universally divide along sectarian lines—with the Shi’ites on one side and the Sunnis, Christians, and Druze on the other. This helps to dispel Hizballah’s claim of broad-based support for their pro-Syrian, anti-government coalition.

In case you were fooled by Christian leader Michel Aoun’s alliance with Hizballah, the poll proves that Lebanese Christians remain among the most pro-Western and pro-American segment of the country’s population. The Druze continue to be the most consistent source of US support in Lebanon -- they are the only group in Lebanon that still supports US efforts to spread democracy in the region and, interestingly enough, they would rather be ruled by Condoleeza Rice than Ahmadinajad, Saddam Hussein, or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Condi ’08, anyone?

Continue reading "The Lebanese Speak" »

December 21, 2006

Middle East

Thomas Turns on the Arabs
Posted by Shadi Hamid

The surest way to lose your street cred with the Arab/Muslim community is to say anything remotely positive about Thomas Friedman. This has always been a mystery to me, since I’ve generally found TF to be pretty fair, balanced, and insightful. More importantly, it seemed like he had a genuine empathy for the Arab people, their hopes, tragedies, and dissapointments (a lot of those).

In any case, some of my friends began to suspect I was a “sell-out” when I started quoting Friedman a couple years ago. They would look at me with worried, wary eyes: “Shadi, what’s going on buddy? You okay?” Partly because I believed it and partly because I was being contrarian, I would passionately hail From Beirut to Jerusalem as the single, best book on the Middle East ever written (well, it isn’t, but it’s damn good). I met Friedman for the first time in September at a reception hosted by the British ambassador. We talked a bit about whether or not Hamas could or would moderate. I was quite impressed by what he had to say.

In any case, I’m starting to get worried about Tom. Maybe my friends had a point after all. His latest column on the "rules" of Arab politics is one of the most cringe-worthy things I’ve read in recent memory. For starters, I share Matt Yglesias’s confusion about what this metaphor could possibly mean:

Any reporter or U.S. Army officer wanting to serve in Iraq should have to take a test, consisting of one question: “Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?” If you answer yes, you can’t go to Iraq. You can serve in Japan, Korea or Germany— not Iraq.

I think he’s saying either that Arabs are irrational or that nothing is as it seems in the Middle East. Let’s hope it’s the latter. But it gets more offensive, with gems like this:

Rule 3: If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all - they won’t believe it…

Gone is the empathy, that’s for sure. Of course, Friedman knows better then to peddle inane generalizations such as these, but he’s angry, frustrated, and, like many of us, feels betrayed by the own sense of hope he had, not long ago, that maybe – just maybe – things were beginning to change in troubled Arab lands. I read somewhere yesterday that “hope is always driven by fear.” I’m not sure this is correct. I hope it isn’t. Sometimes I wish I was a pessimist so I wouldn’t always get disappointed by reality. Maybe this is why we liberals get depressed easier, because we really do believe that people can change, that life can change for the better, that great things are in fact possible. But reality bites and things never quite go as planned. Republicans (and realists) realize this, which is why they seem to have an easier time of reconciling themselves with the disappointments of life, love, and politics.

November 01, 2006

Middle East

The War on Ramadan?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Writing from Egypt, Zvika Krieger has an interesting piece in TNR about the commercialization of Ramadan (Islam’s holiest month), and the “Islamist” attempt to safeguard its “purity.” As long as you're not too conservative, Ramadan in Egypt is good fun: a lot of parties, eating/gorging, hanging out with friends and family, and, more generally, doing as little real work as possible (Egyptian bureaucrats have notoriously short working days that become even shorter during Ramadan. I remember reading an article which claimed that the typical Egyptian bureaucrat averages 7 minutes of actual productivity per day).

Anyway, this is a fun passage:

A 50-inch flat-screen television overhead plays music videos of the Killers and Nine Inch Nails, while waiters weave aimlessly around the booths. As the sun dips below the Nile, a Red Hot Chili Peppers video is unceremoniously interrupted--the guitar solo replaced by a solemn, baritone voice. "In the name of Allah, the most merciful," it begins in Arabic. Selected verses from the Koran are recited over stark images of pilgrims in Mecca. Within minutes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers return.

While it’s nice to think that the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Koran are, in fact, compatible (and I suspect they are), it's also evident that there's a bit of cultural schizophrenia going on here. Contradictions abound. The West is both hated and loved.

This past summer, when I was in Egypt, I went to the beach with my cousins and some of their friends. It was a posh, exclusive resort, reserved for Egypt’s secular elite, a way for them to escape the dirt, dust, and depression of Cairo. It was a parallel universe designed to feel like, well, a parallel universe. My accented Arabic, while steady, belied the fact that I was the lone American in the group. One day, a couple of them were letting off some steam about the Israel-Hezbollah war and praising Nasrallah as some kind of Arab Christ figure. After I cast doubt on the purported wisdom of Nasrallah and his self-serving provocations along the Israeli border, the conversation soon shifted, inevitably, toward a discussion of America, "the Jews,” 9/11, and a variety of nutty conspiracy theories. Few things amaze me, because I’ve heard most of it before, but I always get angry when thoroughly Westernized Egyptians whose whole way of life is shaped by their love of American culture, start saying that they’re happy that 9/11 happened or that “we deserved it.” Then there was one interesting character who cited Syriana and Lord of War as evidence that 9/11 was an inside job, with a straight face no less.

Continue reading "The War on Ramadan?" »

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