Who's next after Michel Kilo?
Monday, May 15, 2006, 22:29I'm sure no self-respecting blogger would allow a month or more to pass between posts, very legitimate excuses notwithstanding. Mea culpa. In spite of a very busy schedule on both the professional and the personal fronts, and while I've wanted to comment on dozens of events in the last few weeks (and it's been busy in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Egypt you name it), I couldn't let this one pass.
Yesterday, Michel Kilo was arrested by the Syrian regime, apparently for having dared to sign the Damascus-Beirut/Beirut Damascus Declaration, published in Assafir a few days ago (I've unfortunately lost the link but will try to find it). Many of the signatories on the Syrian side are people I know and respect, and Michel is one of them. I would have certainly signed it too as I agree with the declaration (although I may have suggested a different ranking of the points).
This is not the first time Michel Kilo (who, like many Syrian activists, has done his share of time in jail get this, for being associated with the Muslim Brothers, of all the pathetic charges!) has been included in the regime's latest harassment campaign, but he had usually been set free after a few hours. It looks different this time, as they seemed to be waiting for an excuse.
Our civil society activists are being increasingly persecuted, but few people seem to be paying attention. It may be little consolation, but I was glad to see that MESA last month at least still remembered to petition Bashar Assad for the release of Professor Aref Dalila, who is thought to be in a very poor physical condition.
For the time being, it's clear the regime is obsessively susceptible to any mention of Lebanon, especially when it comes to calling for relations based on respect of mutual sovereignty and for establishing diplomatic relations. A few days ago, the Syrian Prime Minister criticized Fouad Siniora for not being a "statesman" ... look who's talking, really. Last week, we had the Lebanese Prime Minister at Chatham House, and I must say I was favorably impressed by Siniora's position. He was firm in conveying his country's position vis-ΰ-vis Syria, without being confrontational, and he also managed to cover other issues (such as Palestine) quite convincingly. I'd love to hear Otri in similar circumstances, or any of the other ministers; they're really in no position to criticize others when all they can do is bully people in their own population. Not quite the behavior of real men, let alone statesmen!
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Levantine family feuds and designer prκt-ΰ-porter
Saturday, April 8, 2006, 15:16I went to Lebanon a couple of weeks ago, using the normal route from Damascus the Jdeideh post. We finished the formalities in minutes because so few people were there, and proceeded to drive through one ghost town after another; Lebanon seemed eerily empty so close to the Syrian border, and things had sure changed since Anjar's most notorious resident had departed. We stopped at a couple of places, and everyone complained about this big freeze, missing the heavy traffic and the ensuing healthy business that accompanied the Syrian presence. Indeed, the livelihood of people on the Damascus-Beirut road (on the Lebanese side) has been badly hit by the Syrian withdrawal, and by subsequent Syrian actions to complicate transit.
On the Syrian side, there is absolutely no doubt about the regime's message to Syrians: don't go to Lebanon until we tell you it's OK. The unjustifiable increase of the exit fee (from 200 to 800 Syrian pounds per person) was apparently not considered harsh enough, even though it has made visits not viable anymore for many people who have family on both sides; the regime has decided to make sure trips to Lebanon are as difficult and as useless as possible.
For instance, in the good old days of brotherly relations (not so long ago), you could fill your car with items bought in the Duty Free shop at the border (a Ramak enterprise, of course) and nobody would even cast a second glance at your purchases, waving you through automatically. That alone was well worth the expense and the time of a quick hop to Lebanon for many people. Now, they search cars returning to Syria, practically with a magnifying glass; God forbid you should think of benefitting from your trip to Lebanon, even when it also benefits Ramak. We went into the Duty Free on the way back (which stocks every type of product and brand you can imagine), just to see, and the ratio of salespeople to clients was about 10 to 1.
What's the logic? Isn't poor Ramak suffering? They don't care; Ramak's business is not exactly limited to the Jdeideh border, there are other Ramaks all around the Syrian borders, and you are free to shop there til you drop. As long as you don't go to Lebanon and inadvertently benefit the Lebanese as well.
Believe it or not, passenger cars can now cross the border with a maximum of 20 liters only. I saw with my own eyes how the few cars in front of ours (followed by ours) were being treated, with border officials opening the gas tank and dipping a measuring stick inside to determine the contents. It's not that they remove the extra gasoline but you are fined in the hundreds of dollars should you have the misfortune of filling up one day and deciding to go to Lebanon the next. With only about 20 liters, you are obliged to fill up in Lebanon where gasoline is more expensive another deterrent.
Some shops in Beirut which catered mostly to an exclusive Damascene clientele, are still feeling the cold. Aishti, amongst others, is trying to woo back customers by offering to send selections of designer clothes to the clients' own houses (managing to get them through somehow), where they can choose at leisure. But wouldn't you just know it, the regime (which can get very very obsessed by petty details when it puts its mind to it) suddenly decided to allow the import of foreign labels, lo and behold.
Enter Villa Moda, the converted old khan in the middle of Medhat Basha (or the Street Called Straight) which has been transformed into a dream for wealthy shopaholics. In a street where old tiny shops adjacent to the souks have been trading for years, and just a stone's throw from the famous Beirakdar (where you can buy delicious pistachio nuts and other salty treats), a surreal addition has opened. Open until late, this is where you will find your Prada, Dior, Gucci and countless other designer labels, where jeans cost hundreds of dollars and handbags thousands. Now you can spend obscene amounts on clothes without leaving the city, how convenient. One less reason to go to Beirut, for some people.
I had an argument with a good Syrian friend (a highly educated, cosmopolitan, well-travelled lady), who has been living in Beirut for the past few years. As she poured her heart out about how she felt frustrated and insulted by the general anti-Syrian attitude that has overtaken many Lebanese people, she ended up, apparently unconsciously, defending the Syrian regime and its recent actions. I confronted her, arguing that while I had no doubt she has been subjected to a Lebanese form of racism, this didn't justify becoming a regime apologist. Alas, she was too hurt to retreat to a neutral position, and I encountered this exact attitude amongst many Syrians who have simply become fed up with what they perceive is their neighbors' sense of superiority and self-righteousness. The huge wave of sympathy that had initially blown westward has now been replaced by exasperation and indifference.
Truly, the attitude of many Lebanese has served the Syrian regime's interests very well!
Evidently, the Syrian regime is not ready to restore relations with Lebanon or even bring things to a more convivial level, especially as things in Lebanon seem to be going pretty much the Syrian way lately. While Fouad Siniora is eager to come to Damascus (with a heavy heart I'm sure), the Syrian leadership has made no secret of its gleeful reluctance to welcome him - for the moment. Nothing surprising when you know how this regime functions. But you've got to laugh when it is the new foreign minister who declares that some things are more important than diplomatic relations! According to Walid Muallem, "What Syria and Lebanon have is far more important than embassies." Brotherly relations and all that, you know it's all in the family of course.
On that note, one of the latest jokes in Damascus has it that Syria finally agrees to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, and the Lebanese excitedly prepare themselves with all the red carpet formalities to receive the brand new Syrian ambassador only to find out the ambassador is Rustom Ghazaleh.
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Kasak ya Muhammad Al Maghout
Thursday, April 6, 2006, 22:55Even Syrians and Arabs who didn't know his name or didn't grow up when his plays were being produced will remember scenes from Ghurbeh, Day'et Tishreen, or Kasak Ya Watan, still shown regularly on a number of television channels. Until today, people repeat lines from these plays, including the one Doureid Laham's character spat out under torture, laughing that electricity had reached his backside before it had reached his village.
Muhammad Al Maghout, one of Syria's most respected playwrights and poets, passed away on Monday, and as we remember the pained laughs we shared at his depictions of life under tyrannical regimes, I can't help but think of how I hate the fact that the Syrian regime (who was obviously the first "inspiration" for much of his work) should feel entitled to eulogize him as if it had ever done anything for him, or for artists of his stature, insignificant medal of 2005 aside. (Even "funnier" is the Bush administration's discovery of Maghout, a discovery which apparently doesn't include an understanding of his stance; "anti-regime" must mean "pro-American," they must have thought.) As with their last-minute, rushed and fake embrace of our great Nizar Kabbani as he lay on his deathbed, Syrian officials have hastily sung Maghout's praises now that he is no longer a nuisance to their self-perceived importance (as they try to hide their inferiority complexes).
I join those who left comments on previous threads in expressing my sadness that yet another of our great, irreplaceable Syrian artists is gone. A mere two days later, our prominent writer Abdul Salam Ojeili also left us.
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Et tu, Abdallah?
Wednesday, April 5, 2006, 16:25We may be accustomed to the phenomenon that turns seemingly neutral people into regime apologists when they accept a governmental position, but I admit I was unpleasantly surprised by the following quote, not having expected such an exaggerated degree of compliance from a so-called reformist:
"I may not be keen on early morning arrests, but this regime was being threatened."
Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Abdallah Dardari
I've given enough interviews to know that words can sometimes be taken out of context and that only live television or radio interviews (or signed articles) can truly reflect a position, but in this case there is more to substantiate the initial statement, and he can't have been misquoted in every sentence. Indeed, Dardari continued by saying: "The survival of this regime and the stability of this country was threatened out loud and openly. There were invitations for foreign armies to come and invade Syria. So you could expect sometimes an overreaction, or a reaction, to something that is really happening."
No, Abdallah, none of the people arrested in Syria were inviting foreign armies to come and invade Syria, and you know it.
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Real fears or crocodile tears?
Monday, March 27, 2006, 22:20This is the question I ask (and answer) in my last article considering the Syrian regime's attitude towards the potential fragmentation of Iraq.
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Musings from Syria
Monday, March 27, 2006, 22:15When I travel in the Middle East, especially in Syria, I get inspired to write dozens of pieces about seemingly banal events, but I always get too busy and decide to save it for "later" and the same goes for blogging, unfortunately. So in lieu of real news, here's a short update from Damascus.
People here are fed up; prices are high, business is slow, and all other things are remaining equal or getting worse. Yes, you can find almost anything in the shops, but disposable income has become more limited than ever for most Syrian families. This has been the real subject of conversation: the price of things, particularly basic commodities like oil. Even people of comfortable means can't help but notice the burden on others of lesser means, and can't help but notice that for all the talk of improving conditions, things are sluggish.
The public sphere is as frustrating as ever. Omayad Square is even more messed up than I had described it here last year. It really should be officially renamed Regime Square (or possibly Baath Square), because nothing of the Omayads' competence and magnificence is represented in this central Damascene spot. I must remember to take a photo of its current, indescribable status; not a single traffic light coming into the square works, and it's a huge mess.
Interestingly, other traffic lights around the city work fine, and many have sprung rather useless attachments: a seconds counter, so that Damascene drivers (always in an incredible hurry) may be persuaded to hold off the honking, in the illusion that the government is concerned about the general public well-being.
Still, were supposed to get all excited because of the opening of a new hotel - a hotel, for crying out loud, which took nearly 5 years to complete! Quite an ugly, bulky structure which has become the most expensive place in the city and the talk of official media. In what other country in the world is the inauguration of a hotel, even a 5-star one, such an event? Where else would such an unexciting affair be taken as a barometer of development in a given economy? The Syrian regime would have us believe that this is a sign that investments are flowing into the country and the people are swimming in bullish expectation, but nothing is further from the truth. Clearly, the regime is chuffed that a Saudi investor of that magnitude, who has made SANA even more excited - and thus even more mediocre - than usual should be inviting others to take advantage of opportunities, whatever these are.
The regime would also like us to believe we're awfully cool because we now have a female vice president in Syria. Like that's really going to change things for women, or for anyone else. I have yet to hear one person here describe this as a positive development or even a development, come to think of it. Are we supposed to feel happy because she's not a Baath party member (at least not officially)? The regime will have to do a bit better than that to even remotely convince anyone that something is changing and you should hear the sarcastic comments people are making about this.
Like all the other moves the regime pretends to make, Attar's appointment is nothing to write home about. All Syrians are familiar with her "credentials" as regime crony for years on end, during which time culture (technically her portfolio) all but disappeared from the national agenda, and films and books were banned for no comprehensible reason. Remember that culture ("thaqafa") has become a dirty word for the regime, which often calls activists "muthaqafin" (literally, people with culture).
Nor are the repeated arrests of human rights activists like Ali Abdullah or Samir Nashar news or a development either, as it is something that has unfortunately become quite common here. I can confirm that the harassment of every civil society activist, newly-released Damascus Springers included, has gone even beyond our expectations. The regime continues to intimidate family (even relatively elderly parents and younger children of the activists), neighbors and friends, in the hope that any surviving spirit will be broken and that people will simply give up, sooner or later. A couple of the people I know have sadly succumbed to harassment fatigue, but most aren't giving up.
Practically every Syrian I have met is tired of the regime, weary of new alliances (namely that of Khaddam with the Muslim Brothers) and conscious that the "acceptable" opposition has practically no chance of doing anything worthwhile. But when the latter are accused of not having an agenda or plans (should they ever come to power), most people readily reply that this actually applies to the regime. Indeed.
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In Baath ... who trusts?
Wednesday, March 8, 2006, 01:16I don't know how people manage to travel, work and blog at the same time, when there's so much of the same going on - especially when following Syrian affairs, which mostly make you fall asleep lately.
Apparently, the Syrian people do not need human rights (even though this was an approved EU initiative). They do not need freedom of expression either (but such treatment and intimidation of journalists is old news). Apparently, what Syrians really, desperately need (and the entire Arab world with them) is Arabism. More Arabism. True Arabism. New and improved Arabism. That will solve all their problems. Jealous of the Islamists who have a ready answer to everything ("it's all in the Holy Quran"), the Baathists (not even pretending anymore that "reform" is on the way) are now saying the answers are all in Arabism. Get it?
Those pearls of wisdom were offered on the occasion of the conference of Arab Political Parties held in Damascus, which shows you that the Syrian regime has really got some nerve. The one-party-rule government hosting meetings on political parties? Imagine all the possible metaphors!
The glorious March 8 revolution, celebrated especially by numerous pedantic men sporting March 8 mustaches (and other men trying but failing to grow them), celebrates its 43rd anniversary today. In other words, commiserations are in order for the Syrian people, and for the sad state of the Syrian state. Instead of making way for the new political parties everyone's so excited about, the Baath is digging its heels and waving Article 8 of the constitution in our faces.
Even before the last Baath party congress took place, I had written as a reminder of the Syrian regime's intransigence that "Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which maintains that the Baath must be the states leading party, was in no way affected by Decree 408 of July 2003, supposed to end the Baaths entrenchment on all levers of control, and limit it to supervising governmental affairs."
Indeed, in a real "read 'em and weep" piece, Sami Moubayed confirms that the regime's promises were not quite what they seemed. No surprises there for me whatsoever, except for my amazement at just how ridiculous the parameters are for these new parties.
For instance, if you are aged 34, you can now become president of Syria (since June 10, 2000) but you cannot apply for a party license (let alone if you have a "criminal" record which applies to all activists).
Should a political party be miraculously created in spite of all the hurdles it faces (a minimum of 500 members before the founding conference can take place), be aware that belonging to one will disqualify you from working for the government Baath excepted, again. In fact, you are much more likely to get a job in the public sector if you are a Baathist.
Parties will be prohibited from even marketing their views to Syrians living abroad. How hypocritical. Syrians expats, after all, are eagerly courted when "election" time comes every 7 years, and when Syrian embassies across the world (which will be celebrating the revolution on March 8, so don't bother going for any business) turn into chaotic voting points where your passport is not even needed as long as you've come to pay allegiance. (Or so I'm told by countless people I trust in several countries, as I've obviously never done it myself, and never will under these circumstances.)
Sami concludes by stressing the fact that founding members of political parties (all ten of them) must not have "written, preached or acted in the opposition since 1963," as they won't have preserved the objectives of the revolution of March 8. This also takes care of any parties existing before 1963. And of any activist, person, or entity which has ever uttered a word of criticism towards the Syrian regime and its glorious Baath.
There's more depressing stuff, and more to come out soon I'm sure. There you have it, political reform ΰ la Syrian regime. I hope its supporters enjoy it as much as they enjoy its fake Arabism. The rest of us can always dream.
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Monday, February 27, 2006, 23:22As was expected. the Syrian opposition has officially declined to apply for America's financial subsidies. Written by the signatories of the Damascus Declaration, a statement released today refuses foreign funding, including the $5 million from the US State Department. That certainly doesn't mean, however, that the group has given up on change fuelled from within; it has only given up on "reform."
Indeed, Syrian activists are not quite rallying behind the regime, and it is important to keep this statement in the context of the Damascus Declaration, and of the repeated statements by numerous activists, including the recently released (and recently harassed) Damascus Springers Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi. They are still on the regime's case: as Seif reminds us, corruption has become the cancer of the regime. And since "with any non-democratic regime there is no accountability," no real parliament, no real court of law, and no free media, amongst others, only real change is acceptable.
Seif voices many Syrians' impatience with sorry excuses about delays, and he also puts a stop to the current anti-Syria conspiracy theory and the flogging of that dead horse regarding Rafik Hariri's assassination: in his opinion, Syria would not be in danger even if some individuals were found guilty of Hariri's murder, and the perpetrators punished. I would add that Syria might even become safer, in fact!
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A good day for visionaries
Friday, February 24, 2006, 12:34It is unusual for me to talk about personal matters in this blog, but today an exception is in order. I recently found out that my husband and Steve Jobs share more than I originally thought, albeit from afar. They have both, in different contexts and scales, contributed heavily to incredibly visionary and creative technology. Jobs obviously needs no introduction (even from this Apple fan), being a household name. As for my husband, he is one of the top software systems architects in this country, having developed engines that millions of people use to play certain games, or bespoke software for big oil companies to maximize the efficiency of oil and gas exploration, amongst others.
It turns out that not only they both have Syrian fathers, but they were both born on February 24. So Happy Birthday to our cool Syrian-born techies (and please keep on making the technology that makes us go Wow!).
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The price of opposition
Tuesday, February 21, 2006, 20:09After hearing that the US has earmarked $5 million to promote democratic governance and reform in Syria, the Syrian regime should really feel secure now, in spite of the obligatory noise it made. "It is interference in our internal affairs. We reject it totally, said the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has perhaps not heard of the adage about stones and glass houses. Then again, he also said that Syria's stances are credible, so who are we to argue and wonder about his own government's interference in other people's internal affairs?
Be that as it may, it seems perfectly clear now that America is not bothered with regime change in Syria, for the moment at least (which has been my hunch); had it been even remotely interested, it would have disbursed more than those peanuts. This amount merely allows the Syrian regime to complain about it without worrying, and to demonstrate that American designs are less than honorable. European designs, however, seem perfectly acceptable to the regime, apparently. Or is it simply because some human rights for Syrians could eventually, one day, be tolerable as long as Syrians don't dream of democracy and reform?
When the US really wants to push for something, it does not that it helped in any significant way. After all, Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress alone received at least $340,000 every month for years (some claim it actually received $8 million a year since 1998), as part of the $97 million reserved for Iraqi opposition groups (including the INC and SCIRI) by the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. The INC was said to have received up to $100 million in covert funding from the CIA during the 90s, before the Iraq Liberation Act came into effect. In the end, the US invaded and was surprised to see a different reality from the one painted by the INC. I can save the US a lot of money by telling them they will certainly not be welcomed with flowers and open arms in Syria.
So far, the Syria Liberation Act is being held up at Congress and the American government feels the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (whose danger the Syrian regime totally ignored until it became law) largely suffices. But if it does pass, it will have a lot more provisions, and Syrians will have to worry.
In any case, even with the measly $5 million, few Syrians will be walking willingly into this trap; after all, the last time a Syrian activist Kamal Labwani - merely met with American officials in Washington, he was welcomed at Damascus airport by the secret service and has been under arrest since then. (By the way, why do we still call them the "secret" service? There's nothing secret about them, especially in Syria. Same goes for "intelligence." But I digress again.) Obviously, the only Syrians allowed to take money from foreign sources (cutbacks, "development" aid, etc.) or allowed to hold talks with foreign parties (overtly or covertly, and there are a few of those) belong to the Syrian regime.
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Dow Jones on the road to Damascus
Saturday, February 18, 2006, 02:20Syrians will undoubtedly remember Mohamed Al Imadi, the man who was Minister of Economy for years on end. I distinctly remember watching Syrian television one evening in Damascus to follow an interview with Imadi and the Minister of Finance, whose name escapes me right now. I was astonished to hear Imadi explain to viewers that ownership of a house or a car was a luxury! In other words, they were nothing we average Syrians really needed; we could all simply enjoy watching regime and government officials parade their luxuries in front of us and imagine the feeling.
Well, this paragon of economic vision has now been put at the head of a "board" (we all know it's really a "commission" - damn the Baathists and their numerous useless commissions) to establish and oversee the formation of a Syrian stock exchange.
What's the rush? Surely a liberal economy is a mere luxury. By the time we get to the Executive Instructions (imposed by the Syrian regime to render the already pathetically incomprehensible laws even more confusing), maybe the commission will realize that it takes a lot more than getting premises and ringing a bell, and that they may need to rethink the position of the horse vis-ΰ-vis the cart.
Still, in anticipation of this giant leap, I herewith declare open and active the "Commission to Make Suggestions for the Name of the Damascus Stock Exchange Indicator" (hoping they will at least consider submissions that start with letters other than A).
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Sanctimonious positions and oppositions
Friday, February 17, 2006, 18:13I recently mentioned the Church of England's vote to divest from companies (like Caterpillar) profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land. The ensuing uproar was to be expected, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had to issue an immediate apology for the timing of this decision, saying it had come at a time of rising anti-Semitism and when Israel faced "challenges." That was not enough for Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who today publicly admonished the Church of England, claiming "this is not the right time" (without mentioning when the right time would be) and adding that Israel had risked civil war to make unilateral territorial concessions in Gaza and needed support. Right.
The Dalai Lama, visiting Israel this week, seems to agree. He said it was too early to tell whether Israel should talk to Hamas, and called on Hamas to turn away from violence and approach the situation more realistically. Since he didn't even say that Israel should do the same, there was no uproar. Wondering if he had ever said anything on the subject, without much time to search, I only found only this rather lame statement from a couple of years ago, in which he says that he does not have an answer about how to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Thankfully, these answers are all to be found in international law.
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Syrian media entertainment
Wednesday, February 15, 2006, 22:39Syrian media is really a source of continual entertainment. After all, who would have imagined a year ago that the Syrian regime would need to quote Michel Aoun, of all people, to decry the speeches given on the first anniversary of Rafik Hariri's assassination? Of course, given the heated rhetoric heard in Beirut, it is no wonder that Aoun's prose is suddenly music to Syria's ears when compared to other Lebanese politicians.
You also learn from gems like Tishreen that "Syria is targetted for specific purposes," which is good to know for those who thought it was just a random thing.
Keep on reading and you'll discover that the Syrian authorities are also besides themselves with joy because an American "thinker " has supposedly described the president as a national leader. I have a great deal to say about David Lesch (notice that the Syrian media can't even spell the name of its greatest admirers) and his unbelievable book, which I have been literally struggling to read. More on that soon, but let's just say that there seems to be a sudden profusion of American academics who have the hots for the Syrian regime. The feeling is certainly mutual, but then again the regime will apparently welcome any praise with open arms, even when it came from the likes of David Duke a couple of months ago.
But unfortunately, most of the real news from Syria aren't that funny, which is why you don't usually find them in Syrian media. Two of the recently released leaders of the Damascus Spring, Mamoun Homsi and Riad Seif, were crudely detained yesterday. The regime seems determined to keep on using rough tactics and regular harassment to remind its citizens of its absolute power. This comes a week after a journalist, Adel Mahfouz, was arrested for daring to advocate peaceful dialogue following the Danish cartoons reaction folly a call the Syrian regime interpreted as "insulting public religious sentiment." Now that would have been funny, had the regime's own insults not been so blatant - and not necessarily in the field of religion.
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Pictures from a liberated Iraq
Tuesday, February 14, 2006, 01:07This video showing British soldiers abusing Iraqi kids has been released on Monday by News of the World, a British tabloid where you normally wouldn't expect to see such coverage. There is also a detailed explanation of events, including some that aren't in the video. That behavior comes from a professional army which claims it is so much better than Americans at "reaching hearts and minds."
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"Breaking" news in Syria
Saturday, February 11, 2006, 17:34Breaking, that is, in that they may very well be breaking the spirit and the hope of many Syrians who keep waiting in vain for real change to happen. I'm afraid my own hope was already dashed years ago, and I have no expectations from the present crowd (except perhaps for the anticipation that things will get worse).
Farouk Al Sharaa has finally become Vice President, a post he was coveting for years, thus leaving the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs to his deputy Walid Muallem. Worryingly, Sharaa will apparently still be responsible for executing foreign and media policy under the directions of the president, according to SANA. As for Muallem, he will without any doubt continue in the footsteps of his predecessor and I doubt he will have any significant power himself. (Not that he would have made a difference in improving Syria's foreign policy, mind you.)
Ghazi Kanan's portfolio, the Ministry of Interior, goes to General Bassam Abdel Majeed, ensuring that the military continues to 'defend" the state against its own citizens.
The capable (according to many independent reports) Ibrahim Haddad has been replaced, perhaps being blamed for the dwindling Syrian oil production? The new Minister of Oil is Sufian Alaw.
Riad Nassan Agha, previously Syrian ambassador to the UAE, is the perfect proof that the more you appear on television pedantically praising the leader and the Baath to high heaven, the better your chances for advancement. He becomes Minister of Culture!
The only glimmer of hope that some slight improvement has been made, for those eternal optimists, is the departure of Mehdi Dakhlallah as Minister of (dis)Information. In his place come Muhsen Bilal, who was Syrian ambassador to Madrid and who was the only Syrian official man enough to speak out against the Israeli raid on Syria in October 2003. Many of you will recall that the Syrian government had subsequently declared that Bilal was speaking in his personal capacity and did not represent the official position (which was to run crying to the Security Council, making sure nothing could be interpreted as a threat of self-defense, God forbid).
For those who can bear to visit SANA more than once, the full list of the new cabinet is on the same link.
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As Cartoongate simmers ...
Friday, February 10, 2006, 15:38Meanwhile, back at the ranch, here are some bits of news about the real world which many (Muslims included) apparently haven't had a chance to observe lately.
Israel has yet again publicly announced its intention to officially annex more Palestinian territory (namely the Jordan Valley) and to "encircle the Palestinian state," which would leave the future Palestinian state entirely surrounded by Israel. So much for Israel's (and Kadima's) peace process, for those who were asking. The Quartet doesn't seem to be reading the papers. The Security Council is too busy with the nuclear potential of one country.
Only the Church of England seems to be paying attention to the Israeli occupation lately, as it voted to disinvest from companies whose products are used by the Israeli government in the occupied territories. At the same time, a group including some of Britain's most prominent architects is considering calling for an economic boycott of Israel's construction industry in protest at the building of Israeli settlements and the separation wall in the Occupied Territories. Slightly more effective than boycotting danish, wouldn't you say?
In Jerusalem, freedom to rest in peace is being openly flouted by Israeli authorities. Indeed, it is reported that Israel plans to build a "museum of tolerance" on Muslim graves. Now what's wrong with this sentence?
In Gaza, after having endured repeated Israeli raids and suffered a dozen victims in a week, some Palestinian militants can think of nothing better than to kidnap an Egyptian diplomat. Like that's going to help their cause.
In Iraq, amidst the usual car bombs, coming up to three years after the invasion, nearly two months after the election and still without a government, weeks after journalist Jill Carroll was abducted and ages after the US used chemical weapons in Fallujah without anyone batting an eyelid, virtually every measure of the performance of Iraq's oil, electricity, water and sewerage sectors has fallen below pre-invasion values.
Sami Ramadani, who noticed, takes the time to point out that "the deception that launched the invasion of Iraq now increasingly shapes media coverage" of Iraq, and that "the occupation and divide-and-rule tactics have spawned death squads, torture, kidnappings, chemical attacks, polluted water, depleted uranium, bombardment of civilians, probably more than 100,000 people dead and a relentless deterioration in Iraqis' daily lives." But hey, as Bush and Blair keep telling us, Iraq is free. Lucky Iraqis.
The rest of the world, Muslims included, is too engrossed with Cartoongate to take this in. Outrage? Indignation? Protests? Anyone?
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Cartoongate ... ad nauseam
Thursday, February 9, 2006, 16:49Having spent some time today looking at dozens of cartoons about the first dozen cartoons, I think I'm developping a serious case of cartoonophobia! Of course, the artistic backlash to the destructive backlash was to be expected, but it's still depressing; here is a typical example of how Muslims (in Arab garb of course) are being portrayed.
The Bush administration, helpful as ever, first "investigated" whether extremist groups may have been inciting protesters (duh) but then decided the culprits were (drum roll please) Syria and Iran. Speaking in the (assumingly approving) presence of the Israeli Foreign Minister, Condoleezza Rice said she had no doubt that "Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes. And the world ought to call them on it." Yes siree. Now seriously, and ignoring the urge to call the US on a number of other issues, did you ever imagine that these two countries were that powerful? And did you know that the first countries which recalled their ambassadors from Denmark were actually Saudi Arabia and Libya (the latter being the most recent Bush pet)? Now maybe that's really what someone should tell Secretary Rice.
A lot has been made of the three extra cartoons which the Danish Muslim activist, Ahmed Akkari, apparently pretended were part of the original culprits. Not true, he claims, saying that these images were actually clearly presented as items of hate mail sent to his colleagues by right-wing extremists who disapproved of their activism. Akkari also recounts how after having tried in vain to communicate with various Danish officials, and having been rejected several times (even though he was armed with 17,000 signatures on a petition), his group decided that "to be heard, it must come from influential people in the Muslim world."
Moral of the story: activism can produce amazing results. If only it could be used for other issues as well, and if only it could produce more responsible and useful reactions.
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Absolute freedom to cause offense?
Tuesday, February 7, 2006, 13:48
Most of the 12 Danish cartoons are certainly offensive in that they insult the Prophet Muhammad, and in that they imply that Islam is by nature a violent religion. Some are also typically orientalist and incredibly crude (the prophet wears an Indian-style turban with a bomb in it). It would be difficult to believe that the editor responsible for their publication did not imagine they would cause an outcry, to say the least, especially when he had apparently refused to publish cartoons depicting Jesus (another prophet revered by Muslims) a few years ago.
It is also probable that the subsequent publishers of the offending cartoons (in Norway, France, Germany) knew perfectly well they would cause even more outrage. This was downgrading freedom of speech to simple provocation; while it is certainly legally defendable, it is ethically questionable. On both sides of the divide (assuming there are only two sides), there have been hidden agendas which intransigent people have tried to pursue; one side has tried to prove Muslims are insulted and mistreated in the West, while the other tried to prove Muslims are dangerous and inherently aggressive. Sadly, both sides managed to be proved somewhat right. Islam has not been well defended by recent events - nor has, for that matter, the notion of freedom of speech.
Is the Danish government supposed to apologize for the offense caused by the cartoons? It refused to do that in September when the cartoons were originally published, and it was right to do so: the Danish government is not responsible for the country's media. Unfortunately, the notion of an independent media is still one that seems incomprehensible in the Arab world, through no fault of the people. The problem is that many Western governments (including the Danish one) do not bring up freedom of speech and freedom of expression when they condemn positions that are deemed to be anti-Semitic (that doesn't include Arabs, of course, because they are not considered to be Semites for some odd reason). The resulting perception for many is that while anti-Semitism is off-limits and sometimes punishable by law, Islamophobia is not, which might explain why more and more Muslims are paranoid.
The Danish government should have foreseen the potential for trouble and should have been more flexible and understanding with the initial complaint logged by Danish Muslims. At the very least, the Danish prime minister should have agreed to meet with the ambassadors from Muslim countries last October, but he unwisely and undiplomatically denied their request.
Still, if I had a bone to pick with the Danish government, it would be for actions for which it was truly responsible, such as its decision (for instance) to have participated in the invasion of Iraq and to have kept over 500 troops since then. I would have a bone to pick with the Danish parliament's decision to extend the troops' presence in Iraq and with the reprehensible actions of some Danish troops with Iraqis.
Does the offense caused by the cartoons justify the violent reactions seen so far? Certainly not! In fact, the latter have outraged me a thousand times more than the original cartoons could ever have! Even the most religious Muslims or the most scholarly Islamists will be hard pressed to find a validation for this violence in the texts of Islamic law or in the Quran. This is not self-defense. If anything, the reaction of some Muslims around the world has "proved" that Muslims are violent and that Islam is intolerant seemingly making this a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find nothing Islamic in these uncivilized displays of aggression and ignorance.
I was particularly incensed by the theatrics of some Palestinian militants (interestingly, not from Hamas or religious parties) in front of the EU embassy in Gaza, threatening violence if the Danish government did not apologize; while Muslims in Palestine have as much affinity with their religion as anyone else and have the right to feel offended, surely they have a lot more pressing issues than the cartoons. The same goes for the rioters in a number of Muslim countries. As for the signs seen during the London demonstrations, they are totally unacceptable and can only be interpreted as incitement to violence. No Muslim I know would identify with the notion that someone who insults Islam deserves to be punished, let alone beheaded! Nonsense. The Islam I know washes its hands of such thugs.
All these scenes have given the media plenty of opportunities in the past few days to portray the fanaticism of the demonstrators (and consequently Muslims), choosing the most shocking and scary images to drive home a point: as example, see this Rasputin-like photo in The Daily Telegraph on Monday. I really don't think this young man was physically representative of the Lebanese rioters, but a picture is worth a thousand words.
It is important to remember, however, that while some protests have indeed been fanatical and violent, they were relatively limited in scope and still only represent a tiny minority of Muslims. Most would not dream of taking things to this extreme and totally dissociate themselves from these actions.
Does the offense call for a boycott of Danish products? Not in my opinion; not only is that uncalled for, but it is as ridiculous as Americans pouring bottles of French wine down the drain when France refused to sanction the invasion of Iraq. I don't think that switching from Lurpak butter to other brands will have much of an effect on the portrayal of Islam abroad. Furthermore, the Danish people are not to blame for the actions of one editor. The case here is very different from the boycott of South African products until the end of apartheid, or from the boycott of Israeli products: in these two cases, it is believed that a good portion of the people of these countries had (and still have) a clear responsibility and an impact on the actions of their governments, and it was thought economic pressure could help redress iniquities. A boycott of Danish products therefore seems futile especially when we come back to the original issue of freedom of speech (and not freedom to oppress or dispossess).
If the Danish government is believed to be responsible for the actions of some of its citizens, what does this mean for the governments of Syria and of Lebanon, and of the countries where damage was caused to a number of European embassies? There are so many parts to this question. In my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that the Syrian regime is responsible for the damage done to the embassies in Damascus (especially that of Chile, which has the misfortune of sharing a building with the Danes and the Swedes). You don't need to be a Syria expert to know that nothing of that magnitude can take place in Syria without the permission AND the encouragement of the regime. And you don't need to be a Syria expert to realize the absurdity of recalling a non-resident ambassador to Denmark when Syria needs all the EU contacts it can get!
I am sure that the demonstrators were genuinely angry, but they were also worked up into a frenzy by rumours; indeed, many had received text messages claiming that Danes would meet that weekend in a Copenhagen square to burn Qurans! While I have no evidence to point fingers, I wonder who started these rumours and who stands to gain from the consequences. I do not dispute the fact that most Syrians are religious, but I do not recognize such mindless fundamentalism. (Unlike in Beirut, thankfully, no church was even touched.) Just as Syrians "happened" to storm the American embassy a few years ago, "overwhelming" the security forces, they were clearly permitted to show those Danes a lesson and were treated with unrealistic kid gloves by the police! If the Syrian regime expects us to believe the people were out of control, its stupidity is truly astounding.
As for the problems in Beirut, I know that some of my Lebanese friends will disagree with my view that while this certainly started as an organized demonstration with dubious goals, underlying sectarian feelings did come out at one point (worryingly turning the event into a Muslim vs. Christian clash), and it could not be blamed solely on Syria. This is not a good omen for the future and brings back too many bad memories.
Are Arab regimes taking advantage of the situation? Of course they are. How convenient for them to fuel the people's anger and to "allow" them to express their frustration. How convenient to have "proof" of the people's fundamentalism as a reminder of the regimes' "moderation." It's either us or the Muslim Brotherhood, they want to tell us all, which is why hordes shouting "Allahu akbar" really serves their agendas. These are the same regimes which did not hesitate to violently crush demonstrations in support of the Intifada, when millions of Arabs (and Muslims) truly and spontaneously took to the streets to vent their anger at Israeli actions.
How convenient for some of these regimes to demand respect for religion: does Saudi Arabia have a leg to stand on when it forbids the manifestation of any religion other than Islam? Is it respectful when no church, bible or crucifix can be found there? How does that fit with Islam's tenet that "there shall be no compulsion in religion?" And, by the way, would the Saudis have recalled their ambassador had the offending publication been American? How convenient, of course, that the boycott is being targetted towards relatively inoffensive countries like Denmark.
Have I been as annoying as Rumsfeld by posing and answering my own questions? You bet, so here is a final thought. Following Gebran Tueni's murder in December, I simply wrote in this blog one of my favorite Voltaire quotes, which I think represents my stance today: "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it."
There are so many other, better ways to explain the tenets of Islam to those who hold a particularly skewed view of it, based on the actions of a minority. Dialogue is certainly wiser than diatribe. And while some people choose to take offense in varying degrees at insignificant (albeit insensitive) cartoons, I will continue to direct my outrage at other issues in the Middle East and around the world which directly affect human lives.
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Monday, February 6, 2006, 20:56I've been in Qatar for the last week attending Al Jazeera's forum, about which I'll write later, and flew back to a storm of outrage and protests. Like many people (or so I hope), I am outraged by the real disgrace of the past few days and furious that human tragedy should have been practically ignored while mere images became the focus of an increasingly organized fury. Anyone concerned with the condition of Muslims should have been taken by the tragedy of the Egyptian ferry which sank in the Red Sea. I will mention the other issues in a later post.
It is unthinkable that some 1,000 people could die so anonymously as an amorphous mass, after having spent years toiling abroad (probably like slaves) because their own country could not provide a chance for dignified employment. It is outrageous that thousands of anxious relatives should be treated like potential trouble-makers and made to face riot police in full gear, instead of being cared for and treated with kindness. It is shocking that instead of gathering heartbroken people in small groups and attempting to ease their pain and their trauma, Egyptian authorities made them endure a slide show (a slide show!) parading the numerous corpses so that identification could be made.
This poor Egyptian woman, waiting for a ferry that will never come, should have been given all the compassion and respect due to a distressed human being. Like her partners in grief, however, she suffers alone.
The miraculous rescue of Mohamed Hassanein, a 5-year old boy who spent some 36 hours in the water after having lost his whole family, is the only heart-warming picture we can take away from this tragedy.
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Aya, Munadel ... and Hamas
Saturday, January 28, 2006, 03:14Before we turn to Hamas and to the demand that it renounces violence, let us pause on some news few in the media bothered to cover.
On Thursday, Israeli soldiers shot dead Aya Al Astal, a 9-year old Palestinian girl in Gaza. The army explained: "the person" (she) was carrying a large bag and didn't stop when asked. For that, she was shot in the neck.
This comes soon after Munadel Abu Alya, a 13-year old Palestinian boy, was shot dead on Monday by the Israeli army near Ramallah.
So have we all gotten over the shock of the Palestinian election earthquake yet? I'm not sure I believe people who say they weren't surprised at all; yes, we all expected big changes in the makeup of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and we all expected Fatah to take a bruising, but certainly not this bad. We understand why it happened, however, and I think most have mixed feelings about it: on the one hand, the ruling guys finally got what they deserved; on the other hand, well, the replacement turned out to be Hamas!
"Obviously, people were not happy with the status quo," said Middle East expert extraordinaire George Bush. You can say that again. In fact, the ruling party Fatah only received 43 seats, an embarrassingly low results relative to Hamas's 76 seats.
Condoleezza Rice acknowledged the elections had been conducted fairly by all accounts fairly, that is, if you disregard the fact that out of 100,000 eligible Jerusalem voters, only 6,300 Palestinians were allowed to vote there.
(You would also have to forget the minor detail of Palestinians still being under occupation. And that of Palestinian refugees the world over being forbidden to vote.) That's kind of her, considering that the US and Israel consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization, and that both refuse to even talk to it before it reneges on its refusal to accept the state of Israel. In fact, the US is even threatening to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority, and the EU has also wondered what to do now.
All this brings up interesting questions, given the multitude of groups and individuals in the region who were previously designated as terrorists and who ended up being statesmen and even men of peace, apparently. I don't just mean the PLO of course, but also the numerous Jewish terrorist groups acting even before the creation of Israel. When does a past "terrorist" become a "freedom fighter" or something even vaguer? How much time must elapse?
Just as interestingly, since advocating the destruction of another state (which Hamas calls for until now) is obviously not acceptable, why has it never been an issue with the Likud? Granted, the Likud platform does not call for the destruction of Palestine, obviously, since there isn't a Palestinian state left to destroy in the first place. It does, however, state that there will never be a Palestinian state west of the river Jordan (but ever so kindly allows the Palestinians "self-rule" as long as it's not an independent or sovereign state). Given that a multitude of UN Security Council resolutions and peace plans devised by the Quartet call upon a two-state solution (and that is the official position of the United States), and given that Likud categorically refuses that option, why did the US not threaten to cut all aid to Israel when Likud came to power (more than once) still hanging on to its "Nile to the Euphrates" fantasy?
Be that as it may, the reality is that the spotlight is on Hamas now. More precisely, the spotlight is on Hamas in its various capacities: is it Hamas the "militant" group, Hamas the "opposite of Fatah" group, or Hamas the "Islamist" group which won the Palestinian elections? Which of them will form a government and which of them will take a break? (Or will there still be a Hamas/IRA and a Hamas/Sinn Fein at work simultaneously?)
A combination of the above is probably true. The Palestinian vote, from what we've been observing in the past few days, has been anti-Fatah, anti-corruption and anti-Israel more so, I dare say, than being mostly an Islamist vote. Both the PA and Israel should have seen this coming; the more they oppressed the Palestinian people, the less they saw a reason to wait for crumbs thrown in their direction. Israeli society should start thinking very carefully about its own elections in March, and how effective its past and present leaders have been in securing Israel's long-term security. The sooner Israeli society starts taking responsibility for the plight of Palestinians, the sooner it will feel more secure (and really democratic, and humane).
Hamas's Islamist dimension is one that will have other countries in the region watching in a mixture of awe and fear. How much of its Islamism will Hamas try to impose on Palestinian society? Its behaviour in that respect may be an indicator of how other Islamist groups are viewed in the region. Certainly a phenomenon to watch.
I'm sure the region has been amused by the fact that democratic elections (as democratic as they could have been under occupation) have shown an overwhelming rejection of American candidates (such as Allawi in Iraq and Dahlan in Palestine). Here's an idea: maybe the US should start supporting all the Islamist candidates everywhere that's a way to make sure the liberals win.
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A few thoughts on national rights and duties
Sunday, January 22, 2006, 00:46I don't want to say anything on the speech. Nothing new of course. But the marketing material alone deserves a response.
Apparently, grammatical errors or horrors notwithstanding, "defending Syria is national right and duty." Fair enough. Or is it? Maybe omitting the article was a Freudian slip; maybe the creator of this slogan really wanted to keep the notion vague. Is it a right? Our right? Your right?
Has the Syrian regime given Syrian citizens that right in the first place, before it imposes it as a duty? Or any other rights for that matter?
If I were to be made responsible for the survival of a project at work, I could not be totally segregated from the decision making process. The project manager and his/her pet assistants cannot be allowed to make a mess of things and expect the team (which had been warning of impending disaster) to repair the damage when they screw up. It is doubtful that the team could even be capable of suddenly picking up the pieces. Troubleshooters aren't always effective, especially when they weren't called in time. That is a basic Management 101 lesson. Elementary.
Likewise, if defending Syria were both my right and my duty, I would have needed some degree of power to initiate action or instigate change. At the very least, I would have needed to have the illusion of power to make me feel I mattered. Right now, the only people with such powers are those that have pushed Syria into this corner in the first place; shouldn't we rather be talking about their accountability? Their duty?
Be that as it may, to be held accountable for the country's defense, citizens need many things. They need to be living in dignity, to be well fed, well educated, well employed, well taken care of when they are ill, robbed, abused or cheated.
Citizens need some power - the power to vote in the people they believe are most capable. Citizens need to have a choice, and not have to depend on the "choice" of the Baath party (or of any other single party). Citizens need to know there is a limit (say two?) to the number of terms in which an official can hold office.
Citizens need to have the power to take action against corrupt, unjust or plain incompetent officials. Citizens need to have the power to use the media to crucify, if necessary, those who abuse their positions. Citizens need to have the power to make officials leave their posts when they digress.
Citizens need to have the power to propose changes to the laws of the country, to demand that parliamentarians reflect the wishes (nay, orders) of their respective constituencies' majority, to expect that the MPs will vote accordingly in parliament sessions, and to imagine that parliament discussions have a real effect on government.
Citizens need to know that there is a real balance between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches of government. Citizens need to know that the government represents them.
If citizens are to be held accountable for the defense of the country, then the ruling class will first have to be held accountable for its (mis)management. Especially when citizens didn't have a choice in the matter. So let's first talk about the regime's duties before we even get to its rights.
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Friday, January 20, 2006, 19:18I don't think it's the Baath per se that's responsible, but isn't Emad Ajjaj's imagery so very suggestive of Syria's sorry reality?
Emad Ajjaj, Al Ghad
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Compensation - not just release - for prisoners of conscience!
Wednesday, January 18, 2006, 22:35I got somewhat emotional today watching Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi being greeted on their release from jail. They looked so much older, but also so much bigger than the small, small brutes who were so scared of their words that they threw them in jail. I am so glad they are finally with their families now, as are the other three prisoners of conscience released today: Fawaz Tello, Walid Bunni, and Habib Issa.
I got even more emotional thinking that Aref Dalila, amongst many other prisoners of conscience, remains in jail in very bad conditions. The Syrian regime fears the word, especially the patriotic, eloquent word, and Dr. Dalila is the most patriotic and eloquent one of us all; this is partly why he got double the sentence.
This blog has never really been the place to mention personal issues, but I must say I have always felt a special link with each of these three brave men: Mamoun Homsi, who happens to be a relative of mine, Riad Seif, with whom I remember discussing, in his office (both of us well aware of the Mukhabarat's ears listening to our every word) how things should proceed for activists a week before Hafez Assad died, and Aref Dalila, who I proudly consider a friend and who taught me so much about internal Syrian affairs in the couple of years preceding his imprisonment.
Naturally, I await no, I demand - the release of Aref Dalila. But even that will not be enough. Should we be grateful for the release of Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi and our Damascus Spring detainees? They should have never been jailed in the first place. Furthermore, with their full jail term nearly over, it is common knowledge that they would have been released several months ago (with a jail year counting for about 9 months) had they been "normal" prisoners. So let's think before we jump with joy, or, God forbid, gratitude. We owe nothing to the Syrian regime; rather, they owe us everything.
Our prisoners of conscience must first of all receive a public, official apology for having been wrongfully and illegally detained (and illegally stripped of their parliamentarian immunity, something Seif and Homsi actually took seriously). The Syrian regime must apologize. Then, the Syrian regime must reinstate them in their positions. Finally, the Syrian regime must pay compensation for physical and psychological harm done throughout these years.
Of course, knowing present circumstances in Syria, that's asking for a lot, and yet it's asking for a minimum. I haven't even mentioned martial law and all the other injustices imposed on Syria since 1963. Demanding their removal is our duty; accepting the status quo is no longer an option.
Finally, I must say that I am outraged at what Joshua Landis has dared to write in his royalist blog, namely that Dr. Dalila was jailed because he called on Alawites not to follow the Assads. What a load of rubbish. Unlike Landis, Dr. Dalila does not (and never did) fall into petty sectarian "analysis," dedicating his time and sacrificing his freedom and health to speak tirelessly against the abuses of the regime, the economic and social disparities, and the injustice and brutality which rule in Syria. He has never spoken of sects.
Also, repeating that Aref Dalila's or Riad Seif's release would "enhance the image of the US in Syria" is ridiculous. If Josh does not know anything about our brave prisoners of conscience, then he should ask people who know, rather than guess how "optimists" or "pessimists" will interpret it. And he should certainly not simply repeat nonsense posted as "comments" and try to pass them off as expertise. If there's one thing worse than total, inexplicable bias, it is bias coupled with ignorance.
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Bremer's gripes about Syria and holy war
Wednesday, January 11, 2006, 17:10Paul Bremer's memoirs are out in the US this week, and from the reports I've seen so far, he claims that everyone else but him is to blame for what went wrong in Iraq. There are many details coming out about who did what (according to him), and an interesting one about Syria and not about supporting the (mostly Sunni) insurgency.
As reported in The Daily Telegraph today, Bremer accuses Bashar Assad of having tried to convince Ayatollah Sistani to wage a holy war against the Americans, in a manner similar to the Shia uprising against the British in 1920.
Bremer said "the news was passed to him by Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a senior Shia politician involved in negotiations with the ayatollah. The Syrian leader had apparently recalled the Shia-led uprising against the British in 1920 and urged the Shia to repeat history."
The article continues: The news "stunned" the US administration in Iraq. "This was an act of extraordinary irresponsibility from Syria's president," Mr Bremer writes. "We had good intelligence showing that many insurgents and terrorists were coming into Iraq through Syria."
But the allegation was far more serious, he says. "This message from Assad essentially incited Shia rebellion. If he were to succeed, the coalition would face an extremely bloody two-front uprising, costing thousands of lives."
I think what's next is predictable: the Syrian regime will claim that a) it's not true, but b) it was done by Abdel Halim Khaddam, which is why he was sidelined and why he subsequently defected, bitter and lonely, having made a mess of Iraq on top of having stopped democracy and forbidden a free economy - all by himself.
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Strange summits by the sea
Sunday, January 8, 2006, 22:50You'll forgive me for breaking the vigil over Sharon's health status and for diverting from thinking about the frantic media's panicked questions namely, what could possibly happen to the "peace process" after Saint Ariel's departure from politics. Oddly enough, Syrian politics keep catching my attention.
Am I the only one who found today's events very strange? I haven't yet heard any comments on the unannounced travels today. First the unexpected visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal to Damascus; that in itself wasn't so strange, even if it was sudden, but what followed certainly was. It is certainly not usual diplomacy for a foreign minister to go to another country just to announce a sudden summit and to bring back the president of his host country to his own. Farouk Sharaa's fake smile was even more fake today, and there was a certain je ne sais quoi in the air, perhaps a sense of reality hitting him like a ton of bricks.
Why did Saud go all the way to Damascus just to announce the summit? (Notice how every little meeting is now a "summit.") Why didn't Bashar just go to Jeddah? Was Saudi Arabia putting him in a fait accompli situation because he had claimed he was too "busy" to go? Had he not answered the summons in a satisfactory way? In any case, he wasn't too busy to stop off in Sharm El Sheikh on his way back to meet Hosni Mubarak unescorted this time.
I still think the Saudis are not keen on going all the way, if only because they are not quite convinced of the feasibility of a Khaddam & Co scenario (or of any other). I'm sure that could change when a workable alternative has been found, one which suits the interested powers of course, not necessarily the Syrian people. In the meantime, they seem to prefer the idea of a weakened Syrian regime but one which starts to do as it is told, once and for all. It is only a matter of time, and we will see whether the very vague Saudi (and Egyptian, but they are less important now) wish that Lebanese and Syrian media should stop escalating matters will be carried out. More importantly, is Sharaa really going to be interviewed by the UN commission? I just don't see it happening with Assad and will be the first surprised if it happens. The time when this could have been presented as a courtesy call has come and gone; meeting the UN means Bashar has capitulated.
As for Khaddam, he seems to still have a lot of things up his sleeve. My initial feeling about his coup de force last week has been strengthened; this is a lot bigger than just Hariri, although it is of course Hariri's assassination that triggered the sequence of events (or, as I've repeatedly maintained, it is the extension of Lahoud's term and the complete mismanagement of foreign affairs that started it all). I don't see a coup d'ιtat (nor do I hope for one, as it would change nothing), nor a popular uprising in fact, even the opposition in Syria couldn't wait to distance itself from Khaddam, obviously. But I do feel that something has shaken the regime and weakened it considerably, for the first time. It remains to be seen what will be the coup de grace.
Without wasting time on it, I should mention that the usual non-Syrian "Syria experts" have continued to say the most ludicrous things over the past week. To respond to but one thing, Syrians will actually still be talking about Khaddam for years (they still talk about Ali Douba and Hikmat Chehabi, amongst others, for crying out loud!). This is a story that concerns everyone, and it is an unprecedented turn of affairs. True, there were defections in Syria's political past, but none after a ruthless regime had been in power for over 35 years. Not even after Rifaat Assad's exile did people dare to talk about cracks in the regime perhaps because there weren't really any.
And to mention another thing, while we're at it, Khaddam certainly did not try to impose Baathists in the last major reshuffle, only to be surprised by Bashar's "liberals"; on the contrary, and I know this for a fact without being able to talk openly about the people involved, Khaddam thought his choice for Minister of Economy an independent liberal who worked for years in the US and Europe was a done deal. Jamal Khaddam called the man in question ten minutes before the new government was going to be announced, asked him where he was (he was driving home), and told him to turn on the radio to hear his name. Ten minutes later, the government was announced and he wasn't in it.
That doesn't mean Khaddam was the democratizing force he claims he was. As long as it served his purpose, he was more than happy to participate in the crackdown on the Damascus Spring, and on any attempt to spread civil society's word. But where Khaddam differs from the rest of the thugs abusing the country is that he did understand the international scene better, and he did benefit Syria more during his time. Small consolation.
The best comment on this whole Khaddam-Assad duel of sorts has come from Angry Arab, who wrote a few days ago that in this affair, he feels like Henry Kissinger observing the Iraq-Iran war he wants neither to win! Touchι As'ad!
By the way, the English text of Khaddam's interview with Asharq Al Awsat on Friday is here (as I've noticed a lot of less than faithful translations). The Newsweek interview, where Christopher Dickey couldn't help but start with the subject of Sharon (and of "Hezbollah's relentless campaign of terror and attrition" against the occupier in their own country, but I digress) is here.
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Defection and high treason in Damascus
Saturday, December 31, 2005, 23:52So here we were, minding our own business, thinking the excitement had gone out of the whole Syria-Lebanon affair and that the year had seen every possible development there was. Thanks to Abdel Halim Khaddam who decided to make a few waves and keep us entertained, we had the farcical session of parliament in Damascus today to send off 2005 with a big bang.
I noticed that most Lebanese observers (bloggers included) only focused on Khaddam's statements regarding Hariri, considering the interview a sound indictment of the Syrian president, and a clever move by the Hariri clan. I think they're missing a lot, given that this is an unprecedented turn of events in internal Syrian affairs, and Lebanon is only a part of it. That said, I think its a pity that Khaddam should have chosen Al Arabiya to make these revelations; undoubtedly, the Saudi connection (and of course consequently the Hariri connection) takes away from the independence of the endeavour. Also, it's a pity the interview was not done by a more capable (and less robotic) journalist, who could have probed when needed and directed and organized the conversation.
Khaddam should have also thought twice about sitting in the very obvious luxury of his Avenue Foch residence as he bemoaned the poverty of Syrian people forced to look for food in garbage cans, or as he wondered about the origin of the riches in the billions of dollars of other Syrian officials.
This interview was very long, and the full version has just been broadcast. I think most people have already reacted to the shorter, hour and a half version shown yesterday. I also need to go back to listen to the details, there were many interesting revelations (most of which seem credible). Several Syrians with whom I spoke today highly enjoyed Khaddam's criticism of Farouk Sharaa, agreeing with his assessment of Syrian foreign policy (or lack thereof). For me, the most important parts (and the reason why the Syrian leadership must have gone crazy) were those dealing with the inner workings of the regime, and the influences on (and the temper of) the president. It is not simply because Khaddam spoke of threats made against Hariri that the regime staged the incredible (even by Syrian standards) session of parliament today.
If you thought Syrian presidential "elections" are incredibly close to unanimity, with landslide victories in the high 90 percents, then you will find them practically democratic when compared with today's parliamentary session where 100% of the parliamentarians, by some strange coincidence, instinctively knew what to say in total agreement with one another.
One after the other, these sycophants (they aren't really worthy of the name "parliamentarians") used their most poetic tones to condemn Khaddam and demand that he be tried for high treason. High treason? If Khaddam's crimes indeed qualify him for high treason, then doesn't that put the whole regime and many many of their accomplices in the same accusation chair? Does the regime really believe this is something the people can swallow?
Suddenly, these MPs have all noticed how many properties Khaddam accumulated in Syria, how much money his children made, and even how nuclear waste was buried on Syrian soil by the Khaddams. Now they notice. That's a lot of information, a lot of corruption, and a lot of treason in one go. So much, in fact, that some MPs took some very questionable liberties with verses from the Quran, changing them to fit their descriptions of Khaddam. This was a very unremarkable day in the history of unremarkable days in Syrian internal affairs.
Strangely, the same MPs hadn't noticed all these seemingly evident crimes during Khaddam's tenure in various official positions. As far as I can remember, certainly since I've been a child, people would give anything to get near Abu Jamal and Um Jamal, or their children for that matter, as they do with most high "responsibles" in Syria. But without any doubt, apart from the immediate presidential family, the Khaddams were in a special category.
Just as strangely, or even more strangely now that their eyesight has been suddenly restored, none of these MPs happened to notice any other Syrian official having big houses or taking money from the Syrian people. Nope. It was just Khaddam. And it was just Khaddam who stood in the way of reform, apparently which is the only good news to come out of this parliamentary session, since it now means real reform can immediately start at galloping speed now that the impediment has been removed.
I was sorry to see Lebanese politicians and commentators today give effusive thanks for Khaddam's position and declarations, neglecting to take all the above considerations into account. If they only care about their own affairs, they make a mockery of their calls for democracy and freedom, of which the Syrian people are just as worthy as they are. In the long run, it does not serve Lebanon to hail any person simply because he or she publicly dissents from the official Syrian line.
There will be a lot of time in 2006 to talk about the repercussions of Khaddam's defection. May it be a good year for everyone.
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Tis the season to be jolly worried?
Sunday, December 25, 2005, 15:12A Lebanese friend sent me this cartoon of Santa visiting Lebanon, so that we could all be jolly on top of being worried. That's the spirit!
Santa Claus visits Lebanon
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In defense of the word
Wednesday, December 14, 2005, 23:59"Je ne suis pas d'accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire."
(I do not agree with what you say, but I will fight for your right to say it.)
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15 - Love
Friday, November 4, 2005, 15:40It's not clear why anyone in Syria should be relieved that UNSC Resolution 1636 was "watered-down" with the help of a number of countries. Firstly, it doesn't need to be any tougher or threaten to eventually impose sanctions: since it already falls under Chapter VII, the "or else" implication is there by default. Secondly, removing the explicit threat of sanctions merely ensured that the vote would be unanimous. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, of course, as an adopted resolution is legally binding no matter how high the majority (such as, for instance, UNSC Resolution 242), whether or not it falls under Chapter VII. Thirdly, it makes it easier to dictate sanctions in the following resolution, sanctions stronger than the threatened ones which might have been included in 1636.
I'm sure I'm not the only Syrian despairing at the performance of the Foreign Minister at the Security Council. Perhaps he and his bosses still have not figured out that it may have been better to start addressing world opinion and to avoid wasting time with ridiculous analogies whose only impact was to demonstrate they had nothing else to say. The British Foreign Secretary was equally pathetic, but clearly in a better position to try and fail - to sound interesting and intelligent; if anything was medieval, it was their pointless spat.
Was Sharaa going for sincerity, credibility or mercy when he reminded Straw that he telephoned him after the July bombings in London? Why did he suggest a closed meeting with the members of the Council so that evidence of Syrian cooperation with the Mehlis team could be presented? If there is such evidence, it should be made public (rather than the bizarre story on members of the commission's eventual return to Syria as tourists and the discussion on who would pay for the hotels). There is so much to say about this pathetic performance, and much to say about what Syria should be doing right now. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that this is unacceptable behaviour which doesn't even fall under the category of diplomacy.
Syrians used to be angry because of the regime's brutality and injustice; now, they are also angry because of its incompetence. It has, rather literally, added even more insult to injury.
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Thursday, November 3, 2005, 23:48Are we supposed to be grateful for the sudden "rectification" of issues that shouldn't have happened in the first place? I'm sure the 190 Syrian prisoners of conscience whose release was announced on Wednesday are relieved to be out of jail, but it's hard to accept the explanation for their release, just as it was to accept the explanation (if any) for their incarceration. Apparently, it has absolutely nothing to do with internal and external pressures, no Siree. The timing is purely coincidental.
SANA, with its usual clarity, explained that this amnesty was "in line with the comprehensive reform policy that aims at strengthening national cohesion which constitutes the basis of our society texture and serves our national interests." This is reform? And this is what SANA says comes "within a series of similar steps that Syria has taken so far in recent years with aim of strengthening the internal front and consolidating the national dialogue"? What steps? Wouldn't national dialogue be more consolidated if people speaking their minds weren't thrown into jail?
In a journalistic scoop which SANA shares with us, there are apparently "more steps and measures to come in that connection on the basis that the homeland embraces all." At the risk of raining on their parade, this sounds an awful lot like the promise that a big step would be taken at the Baath Party Congress.
The three Syrians whose illegal arrest and imprisonment continues to symbolize the regime's response to the Damascus Spring Riad Seif, Mamoun Homsi and Aref Dalila remain in jail, along with many others.
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