Saturday, April 20, 2013

From the Boston bombings to Saudi Arabia: US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Last evening, I returned from a conference, "Iraq + 10 - Looking Forward," which was organized by the Institute for Iraqi Studies, directed by my esteemed colleague, Dr. Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University.

Going out for an early morning run yesterday, I found the streets of Boston deserted and police vehicles everywhere.  A park along the Charles River in which I had run the previous day was deserted.  I had yet to learn of the shootings the previous evening.

Despite a lockdown of area universities, Professor Norton adroitly kept the conference on track by moving it to a restaurant attached to the hotel where most of the participants were staying.  However, the restaurant door was locked and patrons had to be let in by the staff.  Police were everywhere.

As we ate breakfast before beginning our conference panels, I asked myself, what are the political dynamics that have structured the extremist threat Americans face today?  What are the lineages of this horrific bombing of innocent civilians at one of the world's iconic sporting events, the Boston Marathon?

Listening to CNN later in the day, I heard its national security consultant, Fran Townsend, who worked in the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration, refer to the Tsarnaev brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon attacks, as attracted by "extreme Islam."  Despite her admonition not to paint an entire community, namely Muslims, with the same political brush, her comment was highly problematic.

First, what is the ordinary viewer supposed to understand by "extreme Islam"? What would they think if a CNN announcer referred to "extreme Christianity" or "extreme Judaism"?  What occurred in Boston has nothing to do with Islam, extreme or otherwise.  This is an "invented religion" that contradicts the tenets of Islam, just as the Ku Klux Klan's doctrine contradicts the tenets of Christianity.

Second, American television networks should employ consultants who know something about Islam.  Why hasn't CNN hired a prominent Muslim cleric to appear on its shows?  Such a cleric would inform viewers that Islam explicitly prohibits the killing of innocents, such as the young boy and 2 adults who were killed in the Boston Marathon bombings (Qur'an 5:32).  Muslims who engage in such prohibited acts will find themselves going to hell in the afterlife.  

Third, and this is perhaps most important, much political behavior that occurs under the rubric of radical Islamism is promoted by authoritarian rulers throughout the Middle East.  Many US allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, provide funding for radical movements, such as the Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front) in Syria, and Salafi movements in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

In Egypt, former president Husni Mubarak, once the US' most important Arab ally, allowed virulent attacks in the national media on Egypt's Christian and secular communities. Coptic Christians were prevented from building new churches or repairing existing ones.  Secular political parties and democratic Islamist parties, such as the Center Party (hizb al-wasat) were refused government licenses and thus excluded from national elections.  Successive US administrations remained silent.

To its credit, the US State Department recently criticized the government of Egyptian president, Muhammad Mursi, on its website, for attempting to prosecute the highly popular television comedian Bassem Youssef on charges of criticizing the president and Islam (see my earlier post, Who's Afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood,part 2," April 12, 2013).  Still, the US has failed to criticize the constant flow of anti-Christian and anti-secular rhetoric in the conservative press that the Mursi regime tolerates, just like the Mubarak regime before it.  Tout ca change, tout c'est la meme chose.

In Iraq, Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, another US ally, is engaged in a systematic attack on Iraq's Sunni Arab community   Recently, he tried to arrest Iraq's most powerful Sunni politician, Finance Minister Rafi' al-Issawi, on trumped up charges of being associated with terrorism.  Maliki regularly issues verbal blasts against the leadership of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the semi-autonomous region in Iraq's 3 northern Kurdish majority governorates.

Meanwhile, Iraq's Kurdish leadership, which is strongly allied to the US, attacks the Arab government in the south as responsible for all the ills of the KRG.  Propelled by the same motivations of the regime in Baghdad, this particular "blame game" is meant to divert attention from the extensive corruption and nepotism that characterizes the Kurdish leadership of the KRG.

While the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, another US ally and NATO member, has recently attempted to reach accommodation with its large Kurdish minority, the Turkish government exhibits increasing authoritarian tendencies.  Almost 50 journalists languish in jail without trial.  For  the most part, their only crimes are that they are secularists who have criticized the AKP for its failure to implement meaningful democratic reforms and its not so subtle efforts to impose its brand of political Islam on the Turkish people.

In Bahrain, the US has directed virtually no criticism at the Al Khalifa monarchy's violent repression of peaceful demonstrators who are demanding the government implement promised democratic reforms.  The Sunni based monarchy dominates Bahrain's economy while the majority of the Shiite population often lives in squalid conditions and does not even possess the right to own land, much of which is owned by the state.  The jail terms that have been given to protestors are totally incommensurate with the "crimes" they are alleged to have committed.

US policy-makers frequently invoke the lack of "realism" in actively combating sectarianism and promoting its most important antidote, democratization, in the Middle East.  Democracy promotion in this area of the world, they argue, is naive and utopian.  Better to support the devil you know, than the devil you don't.

How did the "realistic" policies the US has followed to date work out with the Shah of Iran, Egypt's Husni Mubarak, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Tunisia's Zin al-Din Ben Ali and Yemen's Ali Abdallah Salih?  How well are they working with our supposed allies, Saudi Arabia (which is the world's largest oil producer) or Qatar (where the US has an important naval base as it does in Bahrain)?

By actively supporting despotic regimes in the Middle East and looking the other way when they pursue policies that promote sectarianism, which only causes further anger and regional instability (look, for example, at the recent riots in Egypt and the massive Sunni protests in Iraq against the Maliki government), the US does neither itself or the Middle East any favors.

The US should not assume the role of forcing democracy on the MENA region.  But it should, as part of an international effort, continue to put pressure on those regimes in the Middle East which continue to thwart the democratic aspirations of their respective citizenry.

At the end of the day, the worst culprit in promoting terrorism is Saudi Arabia (the only country in the world owned by a single family).  Its massive funding over many years of Wahhabism (a political ideology which has nothing to do with religion) throughout the world has poisoned the minds of countless young people, such as the Boston Marathon bombers, with hatred of the West, Christians, Jews, Shiite Muslims  and secularists.

The US should worry less about Saudi oil and the profits to be derived from arms sales by American defense contractors, and more about the extremely pernicious impact  the Saudi regime is having not only on the Middle East but the world at large.  When will America's elected representatives and policy-makers start holding accountable its purported allies - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - for their funding of organizations that propagate the extremist and perverse ideas that are creating so much violence and hatred throughout the Middle East and the world today?

In combating terrorism, the best place to start is with Saudi Arabia - the Mother of All Paymasters of  extremist movements which advocate sectarianism, the hatred of moderate orthodox Islam, Christian and Jews, and secularists, and the suppression of women's rights.  If the Saudis would stop propagating Wahhabi ideology and funding extremist organizations, the world would be a much safer place.

A Boston University police officer, who served in Beirut in 1983, put it so well to me yesterday morning when he said, "We are now part of the world."  Terrorism is indeed in our proverbial backyards.  9/11 was not an isolated incident.  Unless the US takes the lead in mobilizing an international coalition to thwart the spread of radical "Islam," the Boston Marathon bombing, like 9/11, will result in the the creation of more Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaevs.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Who's afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood? (part 2)

During the  denouement of the Mubarak regime in January 2011, I posted, "Who's afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood?  I argued that that a relatively small number of Egyptians supported the Brotherhood's efforts to take power.  At the time, public opinion polls indicated that 15% supported a Brotherhood candidate for the Egyptian presidency.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood succeeded in both winning both Egypt's 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections.  Where does the Brotherhood - and the larger issue of Islamist politics - stand in Egypt?  What does an answer to this question imply about the prospects for a transition to democracy in Egypt?

To sum up, Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt has been a disaster.  Its sectarianism has promoted violence which has only poured political oil on the firestorm that's consuming the Egyptian economy.  As protests against the Brotherhood have increased, its inability to rule has become ever more apparent, along with its increasingly sectarian politics and authoritarian tendencies.

What the experience of the Brotherhood demonstrates to date is that the "inevitable" trajectory of Islamist rule in the Middle East that Western analysts have consistently predicted is vastly overstated.  Unless the Egyptian military intervenes to consolidate the Brotherhood's hold over the country - a highly unlikely scenario - its popularity will continue to decline unless it radically changes the policies it has followed since winning parliamentary and presidential elections.  But before analyzing the current state of Egyptian politics, let's first return to 2012

Two important considerations need be kept in mind about the 2012 elections.  First, the Brotherhood was much better organized than its secular or Salafi opponents.  During its 30 year rule, the Mubarak regime made the Brotherhood the "official opposition."  A tacit agreement existed between the regime and the Brotherhood that allowed the latter to maintain offices throughout the country, publish newspapers and magazines and to participate in national elections.

However, the Brotherhood was never allowed to win more than a limited number of parliamentary seats until the 2005 elections when the Bush administration pressured Mubarak to conduct a more democratic vote.  To the consternation of the regime, the Brotherhood won 88 seats.  However, many of the new delegates refused to follow the dictates of the septuagenarian and octogenarian Brotherhood leadership leading to a spread of more democratic votes among many younger Brothers.

In pursuing this "official opposition" policy, the Mubarak regime used the Brotherhood as a political foil.  Whenever it was pressured to introduce democratic reforms, Mubarak responded with the rhetorical question: did those who advocated for greater democracy really want the Brotherhood to come to power if elections were completely free?

The tacit alliance between the Mubarak regime and the Brotherhood was evident in 1996 when a splinter group sought to form the "Center Party, (hizb al-wasat) whose name derived from the Prohet Muhammad's emphasis on moderation (al-wasatiya) in the Qur'an.  This party, which included a Christian among its founders, called for an end to sectarianism and greater democracy.  The Brotherhood, however, supported the Mubarak's regime's refusal to issue the new party a license (on the Hizb al-Wasat, see Augustus Richard Norton's article, "Thwarted Democracy: the Case of Egypt's Hizb al-Wasat, in Robert Hefner, ed., Remaking Muslim Politics, 133-160).

The key factor is that the secular liberals and secular left were always considered inherently more dangerous by the Mubarak regime because they posed a much more meaningful democratic alternative  than the Islamist movement.  In the back of many Egyptians' minds was fear of the "one election" syndrome, where a Brotherhood win at the polls would be followed by the abolition of electoral politics.

Second, aside from its leadership, and hardcore membership - probably no more than 15-20% of the populace - support for the Brotherhood has never been about "religion" in the abstract.  Instead, popular support has rested on the belief that, if it gained power, the Brotherhood would fight pervasive corruption and nepotism and would seek to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians. 

Many Egyptians remember the October 1992 Cairo earthquake in which thousands of buildings were damaged and large numbers of people killed or wounded, mostly in poorer areas of the city.  While the Mubarak regime was slow to respond to the crisis, the green tents (symbolizing Islam) of the Muslim Brotherhood were everywhere to be seen, with its physicians treating the wounded and the organization providing social services to the homeless.

Moving to 2011, the demonstrations made clear that  Egyptians protesting the Mubarak regime did not want to substitute an Islamist autocracy for a secular autocracy.  The Brotherhood was slow to join the demonstrations but worked with the April 6th Movement (named after a large strike at one of Egypt's largest textile factories in 2008) to oust Mubarak.  Despite assurances to the contrary, the Brotherhood has pursued an authoritarian agenda since taking power and turned the April 6th Movement from an ally into an opponent.

Egypt's precipitous economic decline is most evident in the drop in currency reserves from $36 billion prior to Mubarak's ouster to $13.5 billion at the end of March,   The Egyptian pound has lost 1/10th of its value this year.  Rather than confronting the ever deteriorating economy, the Brotherhood has instead been focusing on consolidating its power by populating all state agencies with its own followers, in the same manner as the ancien regime it replaced.

As currency reserves and the value of the Egyptian pound have declined, they have contributed to a projected annual inflation rate of almost 9%.  Food and energy prices have increased dramatically due to the need to import large amounts of essential commodities such as wheat and fuel oil. There is a shortage of diesel fuel needed by farmers to power agricultural machinery. The poor have been especially hard hit because the government is under pressure by the IMF to reduce state subsidies if Egypt is to receive a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan.

While the Mursi government is about to issue electronic ration (smart) cards, which are intended to rationalize consumption of subsidized commodities (e.g., by preventing wealthier Egyptians from purchasing such products at reduced prices), many Egyptians fear that the new ration cards presage a  move to restricting the amount of subsidized food available to the urban poor.

We need recall that when, under similar pressures in 1977, Anwar al-Sadat attempted to reduce subsidies, which are critical to sustaining many Egyptian families (30% of whom live on less than $1/day), there were massive protests and the proposed reductions were rescinded.  The difference then was that Sadat could turn to the US and other foreign donors for financial assistance.  This  option is much  more problematic for the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government today given the state of the global economy.

Foreign investment is drying up and Egyptian tourism, a mainstay of the economy is virtually non-existent.   In 2010, tourism supplied employment, either directly or indirectly to one of every eight Egyptians.  This past winter - the height of the tourist season in Upper Egypt - historical sites along the Nile such as Luxor and Aswan were virtually empty of foreign tourists.  Scared of the turmoil, cruise ships no longer dock at the Mediterranean Port of Alexandria.  Resort hotels at Sharm al-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula along the Gulf of Aqaba are talking about closing their doors due to very low occupancy rates.

Supporters of Egypt's ultraconservative Salafi movement have called not only for banning foreign tourists from purchasing alcohol in Egypt, but also forcing them to wear "conservative dress."  Such proposals have been attacked by Egypt's tourist industry which realizes that they will further deter Western tourists.

Salafi preachers have called for the demolition of Egypt's iconic pyramids - one of the world's greatest architectural feats - because they are "idolatrous."  Such comments remind many of the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan which employed the same perverted logic (and one that is inconsistent with the overwhelming majority of Islamic thought throughout the Muslim world) to destroy one of the world's great historic monuments.

The real issue here is not the pronouncements of some Salafi preachers but the failure of the Egyptian government under President Muhammad Mursi to condemn these and other sectarian proclamations.  Indeed, the Coptic Orthodox Pope has condemned the Mursi government for ignoring anti-Christian slurs and insults on the website of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

While attempting to suppress secular dissent, the Mursi government has allowed Salafi and sectarian Islamist media to engage in virulent attacks on secularists, leftists and Christians.  This "looking the other way" reflects the same type of media pattern that existed under Mubarak.

Pope Tawadrous II was especially scathing in condemning the lack of intervention of police during the funeral of 4 Christians killed (1 Muslim was also killed)  in a village north of Cairo, El Khusus, at the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo.  Some witnesses indicated that, not only did the police fail to stop Muslim protestors from throwing gas canisters into the cathedral yard during the funeral and firing shots at the building, but some also joined in hurling canisters into the cathedral.

As violence has spread, many Muslim Brotherhood offices throughout the country have been burned.  Soccer fans, known as Ultras, have become especially angry at the Brotherhood after 31 of their members were sentenced to death at trials stemming from soccer violence in a match played Port Said in February 2012 in which 74 people were killed.  However, the police, who failed to intervene to stop the violence and actually locked many fans in the stadium who were subsequently killed because they could not escape, were given minimal sentences or no sentences at all.

In the recent elections for the board of directors of several of Egypt's professional associations, such as the Pharmacists Syndicate, the Muslim Brotherhood suffered a major defeat in not winning any seats.  When Anwar al-Sadt came to power in 1970, one of his first objectives was to smash the left wing of the Arab Socialist Union, his main enemies in the Nasserist movement.  He released Muslim Brothers from jail and enabled them to win elections in almost all Egypt's professional syndicates, ousting their Nasserist leadership in the process.  The Brotherhood's abysmal showing in these elections is an indicator of its loss of popular support.

Recently, the Supreme Judicial Council called for the resignation of Mursi-appointed Public Prosecutor, Talaat Abdallah, who is considered too close to the government and more concerned with defending it from criticism than protecting the rule of law.  After Abdallah had him arrested, the courts dismissed a lawsuit by a prominent Islamist against Egypt's most popular television satirist, Bassem Youssef (Basim Yusif)) for attacking the Egyptian president and  poking fun at radical Islam.  While Mursi himself distanced himself from the lawsuit, many Egyptians feel that it had the implicit support of the government since Youssef was prosecuted by the state after the lawsuit was filed.

What has offended large number of Egyptians is that the public prosecutor is spending times prosecuting cases of defamation while the country 's economy grows worse by the day.  In their view, political pluralism is being increasingly curtailed leading to more discontent and violence while only further undermines the economy.

The Bassem Youssef affair underlines the Mursi government's lack of political saavy and skills.  Youssef 's program al-Barnamij (The Program) is the most popular show in Egypt, and, according to YouTube, the most popular in the Middle East, in addition to his having 1,200,000 followers on Twitter.  Many Egyptians were outraged when he was arrested and forced to post a bail of 15000 Egyptian pounds (see al-Hayat, Mar 31).  Clearly, the arrest and then dismissal of the lawsuit not only made the government look foolish but further undermined its credibility and popularity as well.  

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, but especially Qatar, have been trying to prop up the Mursi regime with loans and other financial assistance.  But such assistance only exacerbates Egypt's problems by giving Mursi a false sense of security that he can continue his destructive policies.  Such financial assistance is not permanent and cannot address the problem of creating an economy that can grow sufficiently to keep pace with Egypt's rapid population growth.

Egypt is keen to conclude an IMF loan of $4.8 billion which has been under discussion since last fall, but was delayed when Mursi refused to implement proposed tax increase in December 2012.  The loan would not only allow Egypt to add to its currency reserves,  but would create opportunities for additional loans from other international sources.

The IMF, US, European Union should make this loan contingent on the Mursi changing his policies to implement the type of  tolerant politics he promised when running for the presidency and in accord with what he subscribes to when speaking with Western journalists. His purported support for freedom of expression and other democratic rights are all belied by his failure to reign in an increasingly virulent sectarianism directed against liberals, the left, Christians and secular Muslims who oppose his policies.  This inaction only encourages groups such as the Salafi Party of Light (hizb al-nur) to intensify its sectarian politics.

Secretary of State John Kerry's recent remarks that the US is increasingly concerned by the "direction Egypt is taking" was an important first step towards bringing pressure to bear on Mursi not to create a new dictatorship.  These words should now lead to action and a tougher stance towards the Muslim Brother dominated government.

The US and its democratic allies need to learn that, in the 21st century, authoritarian rule can only  produce a temporary stability in nation-states in the Middle East and that, inevitably, such rule will be followed by conflict and violence.  Democracy promotion is not, as some assert, an unrealistic policy. It is the only policy that will bring political stability and economic growth to the region.