Rabin did too little, too late
Monday, October 3, 2005, 01:54
For many Palestinians, Yitzhak Rabin is not remembered as a man of peace, but as the breaker of children's bones, amongst other equally correct terms. (Syrians, of course, also remember the "Rabin deposit," withdrawn soon after it had been "conceded.") As Israel prepares to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of his assassination next month (including giving a Jordanian child named Yitzhak Rabin – go figure – temporary resident status), Gideon Levy asks in Haaretz if Israelis haven't exaggerated his legacy, and, asks, above all: Was Rabin in real life indeed similar to the mythological figure that has been constructed around his memory? I quote from Levy's article at length for the benefit of readers in some Arab countries who are denied access to Israeli sites (following a rationale which I have yet to understand).

"It is not by chance that Israel loves so much to commemorate Rabin. For Israel, the living Rabin embodied the best of its secret longings. He was the man who proved that you could have your cake and eat it too - waging war and making peace; issuing commands to break the bones of Palestinians and sitting with them at the negotiating table; building settlements and condemning the settlers in scathing terms; signing an accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization and refraining from evacuating even a single settlement; deliberating with Yasser Arafat and expressing physical repugnance for him; ready to travel to Gush Etzion with a visa but not doing a thing to advance this issue; shocked by the massacre carried out by Baruch Goldstein and afraid to evacuate the Hebron settlers.

Perhaps truly on that night, when he refrained from evacuating the Hebron settlers, an important characteristic of his was expressed, a characteristic that is not mentioned when speaking about "Rabin's legacy" (a vague term than no one knows how to define): On that night, Rabin was revealed to be a cowardly statesman. If he had evacuated the Hebron settlers then, when an excellent opportunity for doing this arose, he would have prevented the development of the monster that grew in the city and has already succeeded in driving tens of thousands of terrified residents from their homes."

Levy partly puts the blame for the failure of Oslo on Rabin's lack of courage, as he did not dare to put the evacuation of settlements on the agenda: "Even if the Palestinians themselves, for some unclear reason, were wary of being too adamant in demanding the evacuation of settlements, a statesman like Rabin could have been expected to recognize the Israeli interest in such a move. He should have initiated an evacuation in order to strengthen the agreement."

While acknowledging Rabin's courage in recognizing the PLO, Levy blames him for having wasted so many years, and for not having prevented the bloodshed of the first intifada, recalling that "the first intifada did break out, and the violent and brutal way then defense minister Yitzhak Rabin dealt with it cannot be erased from his "legacy" or the way his portrait is depicted. It is impossible to just remember the statesman who signed a peace treaty with King Hussein, an agreement that did not demand a price from Israel and only provided captivating photo opportunities with a king who had European manners and great personal charm."

Rabin did want peace, writes Levy, but "like most Israelis, did not agree to pay the price." He concludes that pupils in Israel should be told "the full truth about the prime minister who became beloved and revered after his death: He was assassinated on the "altar of peace," but what he did for peace was too little and too late."

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The only certainty in Syria is more uncertainty
Friday, September 30, 2005, 15:53
This is the only conclusion with which The Economist could come up this week, as many wait breathlessly for the Mehlis report to emerge on October 25 (assuming there are no surprises or delays). Indeed, after months of speculation, every possible alternative has probably already been debated by most concerned papers and parties, and today The Economist summarizes the plot so far, coming up with three scenarios.

The first (the "dance of the seven veils" scenario) entails the regime reaching a deal with the US, sacrificing a few figureheads while complying fully with American demands and "grudgingly relinquishing positions long declared sacrosanct." In addition to controls on the Iraqi border and restraining Palestinian groups, Hezbollah would be the next "offering" (although I think it may eventually go the whole nine yards, with concessions on the Golan Heights and a peace treaty with Israel). This is the scenario that works best for the regime, according to The Economist (and the one I feel has the most chances of happening - à la Lockerbie - should Syria be declared guilty).

The second (the "cornered cat" scenario) sees the regime lashing out at its tormentors, leading potentially to its demise. The Economist ventures that "It is hard to tell whether various Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was persecuted by Assad senior, are growing in strength. Some close watchers think its potential exaggerated; others reckon it more likely that military types may already be gaining ground inside Syria's institutions and may make a lunge for power."

The third (the "cornered scorpion" scenario) is the one which The Economist believes is the most plausible, whereby a regime surrounded by fire stings itself, falling to an internal coup (not by the military, as in the cornered cat scenario, but by the innermost family and in-law circles). But the possibility of a military coup (as in the cornered cat scenario) is again suggested by the magazine here, specifically by "young Sunni officers," if Assad's closest advisers are to be sacked following a Mehlis indictment.

Notwithstanding incredibly detailed "reports" about all sorts of events from Al Seyassah, we're still none the wiser. But all this waiting and speculation is not satisfying enough for Max Boot, from the Council on Foreign Relations, who worries about Syria's influence on Iraq (and about Pakistan's influence on Afghanistan, even though he is of the opinion that "the U.S. is making considerable progress" in both countries). While Boot wishes the US would cut Musharraf's "allowance" (to fight Islamists and bring back democracy), he wonders why the Bush administration hasn't attacked Syria yet and recommends, amongst others, bombing strikes and commando raids.

Boot is clearly quite fed up with diplomacy (if that's what we can really call what the Bush administration does in general), and wants actions, not words: "How has Syria been held accountable? Has Damascus been bombed? Have U.S. and Iraqi troops crossed the border to destroy terrorist safe houses?" Boot's great frustration only aggravates at the thought of America's toothless economic sanctions on Syria. Worried about US credibility, he concludes: "Either Bush needs to order some of those steps, or he and his aides need to stop threatening Assad in public."

Final remarks on Syria Comment's "defense"
Friday, September 23, 2005, 03:16
I thought I'd heard it all, but was astonished to read in Joshua Landis' latest comments an implication that I support an abrupt removal of the regime (and an American-backed removal to boot)! Being an outspoken opponent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, I wouldn't wish that on anyone, let alone on my own country. Josh's claim that I follow a "faith-based scenario" (or any other scenario, for that matter) that entails a trust of America is therefore very rich. It is possible, believe it or not, to criticize the regime and demand "reform" while opposing US policy; in fact, most civil society activists do just that, and do not fall into one extreme or the other, as Josh has done.

My critique of Josh's article was just that: a brief comment on its preposterous suggestions, the most outrageous one being that "Washington must back greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority." It didn't occur to me that such shameful recommendations needed to be dignified with alternatives, in an age when we are supposed to be fighting tyranny! With his appeal for more oppression, Josh really has no leg to stand on: his "defense" is indefensible. I wonder how many Syrians, regardless of their religious denomination (I myself am not obsessed with sectarian classification) would approve of his proposal. I would add that it would have been equally outrageous to propose more restrictions and pressure on a minority.

Josh's account of my "ethnic wounded pride" actually amused me; I had always been under the impression that being Syrian was a matter of nationality, rather than ethnicity, but I digress. It wasn't a pride wounded, but an intellect affronted by the ludicrous claim that "because there is an authoritarian culture extending into the deepest corners of Syrian life," enemies of the regime want it to stay. I still fail to see the relation between the two, let alone the evidence of authoritarianism being an intrinsic component of "Syrian ethnicity." The "proofs" Josh takes from Syria's current educational system, known to all Syrians, only serve to illustrate the tremendous damage done by 42 years of a Baathist regime – which Josh would like to preserve by all means, preferably with the help of Washington.

Of course, I have never implied (anywhere) that civil strife is impossible in Syria, although Iraq's example would have hopefully dampened many fighting spirits. However, I will continue to dispute allegations that it is the only possible, or the most likely, outcome of sudden change, and that it would necessarily result in Islamist rule - both being options constantly touted by advocates of the status quo. In fact, Josh conveniently quotes Yassin Haj Saleh (for whom I have nothing but respect) as he lays the primary responsibility for any accrued mistrust between different religious or ethnic groups on the regime.

In any case, I'm glad Josh found the time to read the "anodyne blah blah" which I "would have you all consume" (and which he claims is what really "stands in the way of real progress and the development of democratic institutions"); unfortunately, after a long day, I myself didn't have time to read all of his. I had to scan over his long defense, stopping where I saw my name and chose the points which seemed to merit a response. At least he eventually got the spelling of my name right. (Chatham House, by the way, is still the Royal Institute of International Affairs.)

Thursday, September 22, 2005, 15:44
Meet Fulla, the very popular (and apparently physically quite Barbiesque) doll manufactured in Syria and sold in the Middle East. She wears a black abaya or a white head scarf and long coat, but has "fashionable dresses" under it all.

Jeroen Kramer/Getty Images, for The New York Times

The tone of the article surprised me a bit when the writer implies that an advertisement is cautioning little girls to cover up Fulla: "When you take Fulla out of the house, don't forget her new spring abaya!" admonishes one commercial introducing a new line of doll clothes. Isn't the word "admonish" a bit loaded? And how else could you sell the "new spring abaya," come to think of it?

Mattel apparently markets a group of collectors' dolls that includes a doll called Leila, designed to represent a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court! Very topical indeed.

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Guess who's coming to the table
Thursday, September 22, 2005, 15:25
That's the Security Council table, where Israel now wants a rotating seat. Seriously.

Yes, there have been countries with a rather torrid background taking their seat at the Security Council. Yes, there have been countries with appalling records of human rights. With two big bullies having controlled it until the end of the Cold War, and with one remaining super-bully (with its sidekick) now making sure it bows their way (and if it doesn’t they still wage war anyway), the Security Council has never been the haven of diplomacy and law enforcement it was supposed to be.

But surely, a country seeking a seat on the Security Council must at the very least have complied with the resolutions passed against it by that same Security Council (in spite of all the vetoes thrown in its favor by the US), never mind all the others resolutions passed by the General Assembly?

Who really knows what will happen to Syria?
Wednesday, September 21, 2005, 22:23
There are obviously some (Syrians included) who can't help feeling a bit of Schadenfreude at Assad's eleventh hour retreat from New York. At the same time, many Syrians feel insulted that their country's president should be practically the only one missing from the UN summit, where numerous leaders (including liars, thugs, thieves and murderers – and not necessarily from "rogue" states) congregated. Why should Syria be the only country amongst 190 not to address the delegates? Regardless of what rather agitated commentators are saying, Syria has national interests and legitimate concerns, like every other state; it has diplomatic and economic ties with most countries of the world, and it is an intrinsic part of the problems - and of the solution - in the Middle East, no matter who's the head of state.

It has gotten tiring to read "reports" stemming from nothing more than wild imagination and wishful thinking. (Al Seyassah may be entertaining for some, but only in small doses for me.) It was hard to ignore the glee dripping from some commentators, whose venom often blinded them from making a distinction between the regime and the people, and – just as importantly – the regime and the state as they debated the Syrian predicament.

So few really know what is going on, and I'm sure we all wish we had a hidden camera in Monte Rosa this week, where Detlev Mehlis is interviewing a number of Syrian officials; those who are privy to American or French plans, or to the findings Mehlis has already made in his investigation on Hariri's assassination, will not know what is transcending within the innermost circles of the Syrian regime. Likewise, those slightly more familiar with what (surely now?) has become a panic in Damascus will not know just how far the US and France (and consequently the EU and the UN) are willing to go, or how much dirt they've dished out.

Summarizing the mixture of feelings of many Syrians from various backgrounds, denominations or political persuasions would probably give us the following paradox: they are equally worried about two alternatives – both of which still seem equally plausible – namely, that the regime will fall suddenly, and that the regime will not fall. I still don't think that the former could happen as rapidly as has been hinted, if only because the US itself doesn’t seem to know how to proceed in the region (neocon agendas and international legality issues notwithstanding), perhaps fearing the "fundamentalist takeover" or the "civil strife" theories (regardless of how distant a possibility). A fleeting penchant for a Rifaat Assad comeback or for the Washington-based Syrian "opposition" (both equally ridiculous) is are options which have no legs to stand on. In spite of the rumors, the US and France may decide that Bashar, and most of what comes with him, is an inescapable part of the solution. Of course, none of these possibilities take into account the wishes of the Syrian people – whatever these may be.

If the final Mehlis report (whose potential impact the Syrian regime had ignored until now to its own peril) directly accuses high figures of the regime, Bashar Assad will have two choices: surrender the accused (to whom remains to be established, given the doubts expressed by various international officials about the capacity of current Lebanese courts to carry out a proper trial, and given the Syrian regime's obvious reluctance to bow to authorities over which it used to rule), or resist. The former may result in an initial sigh of relief in Syria, even if it won't all end there. The latter would be an open invitation for actions against Syria, à la Libya, or, even worse, à la Iraq – basically, the "or else" scenario: drastic sanctions, possible strikes, and certain suffocation of the Syrian people – then again, those might happen anyway on other "grounds."

If the final Mehlis report does not accuse the highest figures of the regime, it could be because Assad has managed to clinch a deal with the US and France, sacrificing a token figure or two (Rustom Ghazaleh being an obvious first candidate, and perhaps his predecessor as well – anyone not related, that is). The primary elements of such a deal seem clear: on both the Lebanese and the Iraqi files, the Syrian regime will pledge to desist from any malevolent designs and will extend every possible help, even sealing the borders with Iraq (as if Iraq could be pacified by this). So far so good; most Syrians would want peace and cooperation on theses frontiers anyway, and wish the regime hadn't put them and itself in this position in the first place.

But I would be surprised if such a deal, should that be the chosen alternative, would stop there; France and the US didn't come this far to achieve only this, and there is a lot more to milk from the Mehlis report, the sword of Damocles over Assad. Imagining that UNSC Resolution 1595 is purely about a criminal case would be terribly naïve; if there was ever a politicized case, this one is it.

Enter the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian question, and of course the Golan Heights (now that Alexandretta is already spoken for). How far will the US push? How far will the Syrian regime bend? How much of either will the people be able or willing to swallow? It's of course very trendy to trash "Arabism" or "pan-Arabism" (not to be confused with today's Baathism) and to pretend nobody cares about silly things like territory, unity or the Palestinian issue; trendy perhaps, but rather nonsensical on a popular level. There are still millions of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan (not to mention in Palestine) and there are still millions of people who don't think it's OK to accept diktats on certain issues while others are openly rebuffed.

And, just as importantly, enter (or rather exit) the issue of "reform" – a word which has become so generic and self-serving that it can now be used to describe Saudi municipal or Egyptian presidential elections, and decrees legalizing currency exchange in Syria (as was announced yesterday). How much, or how little reform will now be "encouraged" in Syria? When MPs, intellectuals and civil society activists were being "tried" unjustly and thrown into jail, not a peep was heard from the powers who claim they're out to spread democracy in the region – and we've all seen what a fine job they've done in Iraq (in fact, don't call us, we'll call you). I still have fresh memories of the international community's silence when the Damascus Spring was unceremoniously brought to an end, as the US was too busy sending its victims to be tortured in Syria, amongst others, and studying the gift basket of information on "extremists" (read regime opponents). The pliability of the regime is only required for American needs - not Syrian ones.

I don’t know how much more pressure Syrians can take, and what their alternatives are; a Jasmine Revolution sounds great, but I hope it flourishes from Syrian courtyards and gardens, with its namesake's identical intoxicating purity. Hope springs eternal? Perhaps. The internal intelligence networks are slightly too stifling for spontaneous demonstrations, and with most Syrians opposed to orchestrations with foreign "inspiration," who is the director/producer who will recreate the scenes from Martyrs' Square and recast them in Omayad Square?

No answers, just speculation. That said, however, there still is a possibility that in spite of the overwhelming evidence of Syrian domination over Lebanon, there is no clear proof of direct culpability of the regime's higher echelons in Hariri's assassination. Not likely, but possible. Beirut is not Berlin, but Mehlis has been wrong about Syria before; vielleicht ist alles noch nicht klar, Herr Kommissar.

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Banquet of shame
Tuesday, September 20, 2005, 21:35
There's lots to say about Syria, Iraq, and the region, but I keep running into American pieces today. The poet Sharon Olds has declined to attend the National Book Festival in Washington, which, coincidentally or not, takes place September 24, the day of an antiwar mobilization in the capital. She follows Jules Feiffer who boycotted a White House breakfast in protest against the Iraq war. (How I wish Arab intellectuals, writers and artists would dare write such open letters to their leaders in protest about numerous issues; I don't blame them for not trying though, because unlike in Western democracies, they might face jail or torture for such statements.) The Nation, which is encouraging others to follow their example, published Olds' letter to Laura Bush, the host of a special event at the White House. Olds explains why she considered accepting her invitation:

"I thought that I could try to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq, and to declare my belief that the wish to invade another culture and another country--with the resultant loss of life and limb for our brave soldiers, and for the noncombatants in their home terrain--did not come out of our democracy but was instead a decision made "at the top" and forced on the people by distorted language, and by untruths. I hoped to express the fear that we have begun to live in the shadows of tyranny and religious chauvinism--the opposites of the liberty, tolerance and diversity our nation aspires to.

I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness--as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing--against this undeclared and devastating war."

She concludes:

"But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it."

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Liar, Liar
Tuesday, September 20, 2005, 18:19
This is how one writer from Kansas imagined Bush would really speak if he had no choice but to say the truth (like in the Jim Carrey movie). I include a few extracts here from the full piece by Jason Miller, as he concentrates on the aftermath of Katrina. It's satire of course, but much more sad than funny.

"I am still an obscenely wealthy and powerful autocratic leader of a nation of sheeple who falsely believe they are free. While I am surrounded by misery and suffering, I make this presentation of shameless propaganda from a comfortable, beautiful stage set while surrounded by an entourage of thugs who assure my safety."

"As the victims search for loved ones and grieve for the dead, America’s attention is diverted from my nomination of a Supreme Court Justice who will strengthen the tyranny I have created, Karl Rove’s criminal behavior, and my administration’s numerous war crimes related to Iraq. The lies and exaggerations of my media lap-dogs have persuaded many Americans that blacks are undisciplined animals who live off of government hand-outs, feeding my agenda to end social welfare programs and perpetuating the lucrative prison-industrial complex. With their persistent cries for civil rights, blacks have been a thorn in the side of the American aristocracy long enough."

"While I realize that Americans expect a more effective response from the federal government when a disaster of this magnitude happens, they need to realize that under my New American Century, domestic programs like FEMA have been rendered impotent. The military is the essence of our government. The US military budget, including money for its ancillary departments, is over $600 billion per year. This siphons money away from domestic, humanitarian programs like emergency response, education, and health care. But the good news is that the rich who have high stakes in entities like the Carlyle Group get richer as a result. Besides, my delayed and feeble response in New Orleans enabled the Gulf Region to rid itself of many of its criminal, useless inhabitants."

"Congress is preparing an investigation of the situation in New Orleans. However, the results will be similar to the probes into 9/11 and Abu Gharib. My administration will see to it that no evidence of our culpability comes to light, and if perpetrators are punished, they will be lower echelon scapegoats."

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Syria: with friends like this ...
Tuesday, September 20, 2005, 00:59
I already disagree with much of what Joshua Landis says about Syria, and have told him so, amicably, in person; I was nevertheless shocked to read his op-ed in The New York Times on Saturday morning, a piece in which wild generalizations, most of which were misleading and offensive, are made about Syria.

Clearly, I've always thought that the US would have served its own interests better by talking with Syria, rather than talking to it, by encouraging rather than intimidating, and by taking Syria's national interests seriously. But Syria is not the only irrational aspect in US foreign policy, and the Syrian regime should have been wiser: when dealing with a super-bully, reckless provocation is obviously not the most advisable strategy. Josh Landis's rather futile point that US-Syrian relations could have benefitted from Bashar Assad's visit to New York is therefore of minor importance; had there been an American wish to improve the situation, it would have happened a lot earlier, and certainly not after the debacle following the Lebanese president's term extension.

I will limit my comments to the article's most ridiculous and insulting assertions. Josh is under the impression that the regime's "most hard-bitten enemies" do not want to see it collapse. That will be news to them, and it will be news to all Syrians to hear Josh's shocking explanation for this: "because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques." What a ridiculous, insulting, and completely wrong statement on its own, let alone when used to explain why enemies of the regime want it to stay! Do Syrians, enemies of the regime included, have an inherently authoritarian culture (and consequently don't want to see the regime collapse)?

He continues with another fantastic proposition: "Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern." That will be news to them, as it is to me. I don't recall critics of the regime claiming they had no other alternatives; on the contrary, numerous members of the opposition have readily discussed their plans for the new phase that would come when "reform" of some sort happens. But Josh thinks that "like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls." In other words, this regime is keeping the peace amongst a savage population that can't wait to attack people of other ethnicities or religious denominations? What an insult. And what a complete disregard for the thousands of years of tolerance in Syria, where people didn't need to wait for the Baathist regime to live peacefully. But Josh insists on this imaginary point a bit further by claiming that the government has enforced religious tolerance.

Josh chooses to tread the dangerous path of sectarian politics by stating that "the Syrian Sunnis" (on whom Josh thinks Bush wishes Assad would crack down) "are giving comfort and assistance to mostly Arab fighters traveling through Syria." Syrian Sunnis … not militants, not radicals, not extremists … Syrian Sunnis! Another piece of news for this Syrian.

I pass on Josh's laughable claims that the regime has "worked hard to repair sectarian relations in Syria", or that it has "freed most political prisoners" (apparently Josh is not aware of the many Syrians currently languishing in jail, such as the brave Aref Dalila, Riad Seif or Mamoun Homsi just to name a few), or that there are "those in Washington who insist on fighting Mr. Assad because he is not democratic" (as if that was even a remote American concern). More disturbing is Josh's obsession with sectarian rationale: that if the regime collapsed, "chances are the ethnic turmoil that would result would bring to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq." Again, Josh sees only one alternative to the present state of affairs – ethnic turmoil leading to a fundamentalist state – and apparently still believes (much like Flynt Leverett, whose book – which I found quite superficial - I reviewed for Chatham House in July) that women who wear headscarves and men who go to the mosque want fundamentalists to rule them.

It's difficult to decide whether his grand finale is the most shocking, or whether it is as pathetic as the rest of the piece: Josh concludes that for Assad to help the US, "he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority." Is he actually openly calling for American support so that the majority of Syrians can be even more repressed? Who's really calling for religious turmoil here?

When Josh agreed to titling his piece "Don't push Syria away," he was apparently referring to the Syrian regime only, which seems to be his only concern as of late. As this last quote reveals above, he clearly not only wants most Syrians to be "pushed" away, but he's also asking for American help to do that. This is one occasion when I wish that Syria Comment had simply been No Comment.

Back again
Tuesday, September 20, 2005, 00:37
Apologies for the hiatus, caused by vacation, travel and finally a few server problems (which is why the last few posts were lost). Because of this, I have informed my Webmaster that he has been demoted to Webservant. He laughed, but we'll know who to blame when things go wrong again.

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Still on Saudi
Wednesday, August 3, 2005, 00:19
If you're tired of the praise heaped on King Fahd by Arab and non-Arab kings, dictators, princes, and presidents, and of the Arab and non-Arab media which has mostly toed the line, you might want to read a few less flattering, but much more authoritative pieces about Saudi Arabia. My colleague Dr. Mai Yamani writes in The Independent today that "like its moribund king, Saudi Arabia has remained trapped in a state of suspended animation, its body politic sick and infirm. Now it is caught between two choices: progressive reform or continuing paralysis and decay."

She doesn't believe that "an authoritative ruler can reunite the country in the progressive tradition of the late King Faisal," and concludes that "like the geriatric successions that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union, the accession of Abdullah seems to be only another step in Saudi Arabia's inexorable march toward political decay."

Dr. As'ad AbuKhalil despairs of the hypocritical media coverage and speaks on Democracy Now about the "connection between this oppressive family in Saudi Arabia and successive U.S. administrations since the days of F.D.R." It is a relationship, he elaborates, "that covered not only coordination about the pricing and the production of oil, but we should also remember so many covert operations that now we realize were so foolish and so deadly and dangerous to world peace and security."

AbuKhalil puts the blame for the lack of progress and the lack of secularism squarely on Fahd's shoulders, who "since the 1970s who utilized all this vast wealth from his kingdom in order to buy off so much of the media, the publishing houses, the mosques, the research centers, universities, in much of the Middle East and, also, to use them in a more sinister way, by funding various covert operations that would target left-wing or Arab nationalist critics of the kingdom, and this was the case with a famous Saudi dissident, Nasir As-Sa’id who wrote a scathing book about the House of Saud, containing embarrassing pictures of the king in his famous, notorious youthful days."

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Some events, little news
Tuesday, August 2, 2005, 00:53
As usual, whenever there's a "big" story, the phone started ringing as soon as news of King Fahd's death had reached the wires. Immediately, comments were requested (what was there to say, really?), interviews were booked, and the major issues were reiterated throughout the day, going from simple affirmations to more speculative matters. Yes, it had been expected that Crown Prince Adbullah would become king. No, major changes in policy are not foreseen (and oil will flow as normal, rest assured), as he has run the kingdom for the last ten years anyway. Yes, you might expect some jostling for the next succession, when the "younger" princes (some of them are grandfathers already) start getting a taste for even greater prerogatives and try to put King Abdul Aziz's sons on long overdue retirement. Yes, Prince Bandar is more visible than ever and may be in a better position than others now that his father, Prince Sultan, has become the crown prince. Yes, Prince Nayef and Prince Salman are still considerable powers to reckon with. And no, really, I certainly don't think there will be more "reform" (not that I thought there had been any to begin with).

It might be my imagination, but I get the feeling some media people are a bit disappointed that no big changes are occurring, and that the transition seems to be going rather smoothly; clearly, power struggles would make much better television. I'm sure many are hoping that tomorrow's funeral will present news-making opportunities, although I'm afraid they might be disappointed. The only interesting scene, for me, would be if the new king's brother-in-law, Rifat Assad, runs into his nephew, Syrian president Bashar Assad.

Most Arab regimes prefer to be on the Saudi royal family's good side; that's why all their television networks, and not only the numerous ones owned by the Saudis, have dutifully interrupted normal programming, ordered their presenters to don black clothes, announced official mourning periods ranging from 3 to 40 days, and are competing qualitatively and quantitatively in praising the two kings.

John Bolton's appointment as American ambassador to the UN wasn't the big news of the day either. It was as expected as events in Saudi were, and everyone knew Bush would jump on the opportunity of the congressional recess to impose his very undiplomatic choice of ambassador to the world. Here too, it's all been said before.

The resumption of Iran's nuclear program – or its announced intentions to resume – wasn't the big news of the day either, of course, no matter how "concerned" the "international community" seems to be, and no matter how threatening the US tries to be.

The big news of the day, of course, was the death of John Garang in very mysterious circumstances in Sudan. But nobody had time for that today. Only Al Jazeera has chosen to begin every newscast with news of unrest in Sudan, followed by coverage of Saudi affairs. And that in itself could be the most interesting news of the day.

There goes the neighborhood!
Sunday, July 31, 2005, 03:10
Recent developments in Syrian-Lebanese relations have been very upsetting, but I haven't felt much like writing about them. For one, I keep hoping (quite unrealistically, obviously) that the troublemakers will come to their senses. For another, I have an article due on the subject in a few days anyway and keep postponing the inevitable. But in the past few days, things have just gone too far.

First, Syria has blocked the borders for weeks, effectively strangling Lebanon and leaving hundreds of Lebanese trucks stuck at the border, with their goods rotting in the sun. Several Lebanese fishermen were also apprehended by Syrian authorities.

Then the Syrians suddenly remembered the 37 poor workers killed in Lebanon in the aftermath of Rafik Hariri's assassination and just as abruptly demanded that the Lebanese government pay compensation to the victims' families. I found this sudden concern rather questionable; indeed, when these contemptible murders and other violent acts against innocent Syrians were committed, and while a number of Lebanese publications mentioned them, the Syrian government and its media, in contrast, didn't even deign to utter a word of condemnation, pretending all was well in Lebanon. As if Syrians weren't watching Lebanese and other channels via satellite!

Giving these wretched victims recognition is overdue, of course, but doesn't the Syrian regime think that it opens a huge can of worms? How many Lebanese (not to mention Syrians) would be in their full right to demand equal compensation for other offenses committed over the years?

Then, Syrian media - rather ridiculously - demanded from the Lebanese government an official apology for the 'insults" to Syria made by a relatively free press (the latter being a concept that is clearly alien to the Syrian authorities). Before apologies were made, no Lebanese prime minister should think of being welcomed in Damascus.

Finally, as if things weren't tense enough, Syria has upped the ante in a drastic manner. Without warning, the Syrian government has suddenly expelled hundreds of Lebanese employees from Syria, claiming their work permits had suddenly expired and demanding their immediate departure.

All these events have ensured that the few Lebanese who didn't yet resent the Syrian regime will now be livid, and the Lebanese who already managed to insult both the Syrian state and the people have become even more intransigent. On the Syrian side, people are despairing of the situation, sympathizing with the neighbors, but completely impotent, as always, to help anyone, least of all themselves.

Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's new prime minister, is due to visit Damascus on Sunday, having confidently predicted he would be able to solve these issues before returning to Beirut. For my part, I predict that the Syrian government-owned media will announce after his departure that Siniora duly apologized to Syria in the name of the Lebanese people (something the latter will surely not expect from him) and that brotherly relations with the sisterly country (or something like that) will now be restored because of Syria's magnanimity and good spirit (or something like that).

Even if we weren't to consider the interests of Lebanon, even if Syria were justified in feeling that this lèse-majesté may have gone too far, even if Lebanese media (those outside of Hariri's realm of influence, at least) could be controlled and restrained from criticizing the Syrian regime, I fail to see how any of the actions demanded and taken by Damascus can be in Syria's long-term interests. Unfortunately, Damascus seems to be cutting its nose to spite its face.

The Sidewalk Newspaper
Sunday, July 31, 2005, 00:49
"Good news. The government is increasing the ration card. 100 kilos of sadness and pain for every family. 50 kilos of problems for every house. 250 kilos of garbage on every street. 5 random shots (one might shoot you in the head, depending on your luck)."

The country? Iraq. The city? British-controlled Basra, one of the safest areas in Iraq; car bombs are rare, but musicians have been beaten and killed in the streets (courtesy of the Shia militias which are allowed – or rather which nobody is capable of controlling?), and kidnappings and assassinations are common. Apart from this extremely relative security, even Basra doesn't have much going for it, with trash and sewage filling the city, rife corruption, and still no proper infrastructure.

These are the news stories you will read in the strangest newspaper you are likely to encounter, put together by Hussein Abdul Razak al Ayash, the man who decided to take freedom of speech to a new level – the real street level. "The editor in chief is the people of Basra, he said. The political leanings are the opinions of the masses. The purpose: to keep Iraqi voices loud."

These voices are complaining loudly to their editor, who faithfully passes on their messages with a big marker and a few sheets of paper spread out every day on the sidewalk. "I have no electricity." "There is no water." "Our government is corrupt." "Where is the security?"

Indeed. And if this is currently the best area in Iraq, what on earth is it like to live in the rest?

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Shoot-to-kill in Palestine, again
Thursday, July 28, 2005, 22:22
This is Yussef Tzadek. He was photographed yesterday throwing stones at Israeli tanks and jeeps in his hometown of Jenin, in Palestine. For this, he was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers. He died shortly afterwards. His murder will make no headlines. He was Palestinian. He was 18.

(Photo by Associated Press)

Anti-terror fashion tips for Muslims
Wednesday, July 27, 2005, 16:18
There seems to be a sudden abundance of "experts" on Arab and Islamic affairs who feel qualified to discuss issues that your average specialists would usually leave to much more knowledgeable scholars. Amir Taheri has apparently crowned himself as such an expert, with an overconfident authority usually reserved for sheikhs, ayatollahs and ulema; unlike the latter, however, he is of the opinion that Muslim attire encourages terrorism: "Muslims could also help by stopping the use of their bodies as advertising space for al-Qaeda."

By "advertising space for Al Qaeda," he means beards and the hijab, which are apparently a cause of terror. He explains in The Times that "Muslim men should consider doing away with Taleban and al-Qaeda-style beards. Growing a beard has nothing to do with Islam; the Prophet himself never sported anything more than a vandyke." As for Muslim women, he claims they are doing something completely unrelated to Islam and should at the very least stop wearing black or white, which cause offense (if not outright terror):

"Muslim women should cast aside the so-called hijab, which has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with tribal wear on the Arabian peninsula. The hijab was reinvented in the 1970s as a symbol of militancy, and is now a visual prop of terrorism. If some women have been hoodwinked into believing that they cannot be Muslims without covering their hair, they could at least use headgears other than black (the colour of al-Qaeda) or white (the colour of the Taleban). Green headgear would be less offensive, if only because green is the colour of the House of Hashem, the family of the Prophet."

What is really offensive is not the presence of Muslim women's scarves, nor their color, nor any of the "Qaeda clothing" to which Taheri refers. What is offensive – on an intellectual, as well as on a religious level - is the patronizing, uncultured and completely incorrect statements that have emanated recently from a variety of commentators such as this one. Such provocative nonsense does not belong in serious newspapers, not even on their opinion pages.

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Don't run if you look foreign ...
Wednesday, July 27, 2005, 14:52
Even as a joke, this sign conveys the feelings and the fears of many people here.

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Adding insult to injury
Tuesday, July 26, 2005, 20:23
Expressing horror at the acts of terror overtaking the world seems to have become a habitual - and, for the time being, rather impotent – exercise. In Sharm El Sheikh's case, there is one more outrage: "About 18 foreign patients are also being treated at the same hospital, a hospital official said. But they were sequestered in private rooms on an air-conditioned upper floor, some guarded by European consular officials."

In contrast, around 80 Egyptian patients lay in searing summer heat on rows of metal beds at the main Sharm el-Sheikh hospital, and other wounded roamed the halls. Shame on those who decided that distinctions were to be made on national grounds, and that Egyptians were less worthy of proper care.

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Shoot-to-kill: Britain's new anti-terror weapon?
Tuesday, July 26, 2005, 00:30
I often walk around London listening to my iPod, not because I am necessarily in the mood for music, but so that I can block out the ear-piercing decibels of screeching buses, noisy cars, overly loud so-called music in shops, and all the other annoying racket that big cities produce. On occasion, I suddenly realize that I am running late for an appointment and decide to make a dash for a bus or take a short-cut, struggling with my purse and bulging briefcase or bag. If plain-clothed police officers observing my "nervous behavior" from afar should decide that I am a terrorist threat, I would neither hear them, nor see them, and would continue to run. Would that justify my being pursued, held to the ground, and shot dead at short range? (And would visa issues be relevant?)

Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year old Brazilian, may indeed have worried about his expired visa as he ran into Stockwell Tube station on Friday. For this, he was held to the floor and shot dead in front of fellow passengers. Not once, not twice, but with 7 shots to the head, and one to the shoulder, at extremely close range.

This is not just a tragedy, it is a perversion of power and justice that was exacerbated by the police changing its tale as the hours passed after this murder. First, we heard that the victim was potentially one of the terrorists (leading to screaming headlines in The Evening Standard about a suicide bomber shot dead). Then, the shooting was said to be directly linked to the anti-terrorist investigation. Finally, it turned out it was nothing of the sort; the police had run out of excuses, but helpfully explained today that the victim's visa had expired. Tourists, take notice.

I would imagine most people would find this whole episode despicable. One shot from afar may have been a mistake. One shot from close range would have been gross incompetence. 8 shots from close range was a public execution.

And yet, the guilty officer has not even been suspended, and many have been supportive of this shoot-to-kill measure, which police seem to think will make us all safer. Would it have made a difference had the victim been a native of another country/ethnicity? After all, some commentators have openly expressed relief that the innocent victim was Brazilian, and not Muslim (although I'm sure some people who are both), as it absolves them of accusations of Islamophobia. Do these people hear themselves speak?

Shoot-to-kill is not a good idea, and it has been the cause of many a tragedy around the world. Being as "desperately sorry" as Tony Blair was today is not good enough as we get dragged down the road taken by the US into the ramifications of the Patriot Act, leaving authorities free to tamper with our civil liberties, not to mention our lives.

It's going to take a lot more makeup for Blair to camouflage the abuses of power to which his government has helped itself in the last few years. Shoot-to-kill may be a relatively new catastrophe to Londoners and Britons, but it certainly isn't new to people in countries under occupation (like Palestine), or in countries which have been "liberated" by the Anglo-American forces but are now stumbling into the abyss of civil war (like Iraq). There, it's shoot-to-kill, bomb-to-kill, torture-to-kill, drown-to-kill, beat-to-kill. But who's really counting?

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Chatham House "shocks" Downing Street
Friday, July 22, 2005, 20:03
Our media office asked last week if I would respond to media enquiries about the Chatham House report which was to be published on Monday July 18, given that I mostly agreed with the main points; I therefore had it for several days (it was embargoed until Monday), and expected some reactions to arise from one or two of its main conclusions, but nobody could have imagined the uproar it caused, nor the furious response from the British government, especially Jack Straw's rather shrill reaction ("I'm astonished Chatham House is now saying that we should not have stood shoulder to shoulder with our long-standing allies") and John Reid's insistence that terror existed before Iraq (as if anyone disputed that). Both, of course, in no way directly answer the report.

The two experts who wrote the paper are not from Chatham House, although the paper is published by it under a joint effort with the New Security Challenges Programme which was launched by the Economic and Social Research Council. You can find the paper in PDF on the Chatham House website, and read for yourself - the Iraq related piece is only a couple of pages long.

The basic premises (grossly summarized) are the following: by the mid 90s, because of Britain's concentration on Northern Ireland and the IRA, and because of its decision to allow a number of radical Islamist groups to set up shop in London and promote terrorism (as long as they did not target British interests or threaten British security), the global terrorism threat had not been a concern.

When 9/11 happened, Britain swiftly changed course, and joined the US in its "war on terror." The report considers that the invasion of Afghanistan was a success in that war. (I do not quite agree with this particular point; on the contrary, I think that the destruction of Afghanistan, while it did oust the Taleban, in no way reduced the terror threat. Bin Laden and his accomplices still roam freely, and seem to have become even more of an "inspiration" for numerous radicals anxious to follow their agenda.)

The invasion of Iraq, the report continues, helped Al Qaeda and sidetracked the Anglo-American coalition from the war on terror. The experts write: "There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the Al-Qaeda network's propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for Al Qaeda-linked terrorists, and deflected resources and assistance that could have been deployed to assist the Karzai government and to bring bin Laden to justice."

This last point, linking the increase in terror with Iraq, was bad enough for Blair, Straw, Reid and the rest of the government, especially as Britain had dutifully parroted the Bush administration's ridiculous claim that the invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terror … after having been, how could we forget, waged for invisible WMDs, and later for Iraq's "liberation" and "democratization."

I personally think that what most infuriated Blair was the following passage: "… the UK government has been conducting counter-terrorism policy 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US, not in the sense of being an equal decision maker, but rather as pillion passenger compelled to leave the steering to the ally in the driving seat." It concludes with the assessment that "riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign."

Indeed, Blair is extremely sensitive to claims that he is a junior, rather than an equal partner with Bush. Right after 9/11, as he shuttled across the world to explain why Afghanistan was to be invaded, claiming that he didn't leave home without his Koran, the media had mockingly called him America's ambassador at large. Other descriptions were much less respectful, and even the formidable Jeremy Paxman once asked Blair directly, on Newsnight, if he was Bush's poodle.

In any case, this is more or less what all the fuss was about, triggering livid responses from Blair ministers and from supporters of Iraq's invasion. The more they complained, the more talk of the Iraq link got discussed; I am actually quite surprised at the clumsy response of the government, they usually demonstrate a lot more calm. Several of my colleagues and I were left to explain to the media exactly why Downing Street had hit the roof.

Unfortunately for Blair, right after the publication of the Chatham House paper, a report was leaked about the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre's assessment of the situation, mostly concurring with our report. Amongst other things, the report states: "At present there is not a group with both the current intent and the capability to attack the UK." That report was written only 3 weeks before the July 7 bombs! It goes on to deliver the coup de grace: "Events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist related activity in the UK."

Not surprisingly, the government refused to comment about a report from their own intelligence. To add to the mess, a poll conducted by The Guardian and ICM (before the publication of the reports from Chatham House and the JTAC) gave the verdict of Britons: two thirds believe the London bombings are linked to Iraq.

The Guardian's leader on Wednesday sums up the Chatham House report, the leaked JTAC paper, and its own poll.

I ended up giving over 20 interviews on Monday alone, including with all the major British television networks and several international ones. It's a pity the camera couldn't catch the approving nods of a number of journalists whose facial expressions spoke volumes about their agreement with my responses. At the other end of the spectrum, out of about 30 interviews clocked in so far on the subject, a minority pushed with questions whose aim was clearly to catch (or cause) a slip, or an implied justification of the terror. When that never came, some journalists asked point blank: but how can Chatham House justify the terrorist attacks on London, and are you saying that these attacks wouldn't have happened if the war on Iraq hadn't happened? As Dr. Paul Cornish (Head of the Security Programme at Chatham House) said, such suggestions would be insulting had they not been so ridiculous.

Explaining and providing a context so that we can better understand this global phenomenon is not justifying. I'm tempted to say "methinks Tony doth protest too much" – but we all know why he is beginning to worry. Britain didn't really care about the rest of the world and seems to have "bought" its own security by not stopping radical Islamist groups from propagating in London. Blair got nothing in return for its alliance with – or rather blind devotion to – the Bush administration, and clearly has very little clout in Washington. Is Blair's foreign policy really advancing his country's interests?

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More on the blindingly obvious
Friday, July 22, 2005, 18:31
William Dalrymple despairs of the "depressingly unsophisticated" debate about the suicide bombers in this country. As always, he's got excellent points to make, including the fact that whether we like it or not, terrorist groups do have a political agenda:

"Again and again we are told that terrorism is associated with poverty and the basic, Qur'anic education provided by madrasas. We are told that the men who carry out this work are evil madmen with whom no debate is possible and who, according to Frank Field on last week's Question Time, "aim to wipe us out". All links with Iraq and Afghanistan are vehemently denied.

In actual fact, al-Qaida operatives tend to be highly educated and their aims clearly and explicitly political. Bin Laden, in his numerous communiques, has always been completely clear about this. In his first public statement, "A declaration of war against the Americans", issued in 1996, he announced he was fighting US foreign policy in the Middle East and, in particular, American support for the House of Saud and the state of Israel. His aim, he stated, is to unleash a clash of civilisations between Islam and the "Zionist crusaders" of the west, and so provoke an American backlash strong enough to radicalise the Muslim world and topple pro-western governments.

Bush has fulfilled Bin Laden's every hope. Through the invasion of secular Ba'athist Iraq, the abuses in Abu Ghraib, the mass murders in Falluja, America - with Britain's obedient assistance - has turned Iraq into a jihadist playground while alienating all moderate Muslim opinion in the Islamic heartlands and, crucially, in the west. Of course, we must condemn the horrific atrocities these men cause; but condemnation is not enough. Unless we attempt to understand the jihadis, read their statements and honestly analyse what has led these men to blow themselves up, we can never defeat them or even begin to drain the swamp of the grievances in which they continue to flourish."

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34 violent Iraqi deaths a day (that we know of)
Thursday, July 21, 2005, 02:52
In the midst of the fury surrounding the Chatham House report (about which I will write in my next post) and other Iraq-related reports, has anyone noticed the publication of a report on casualty figures in Iraq?

25,000, apparently. Where are the shock, the apologies, the tributes, and the minutes of silence? I know the Americans and the British "don't do body counts" but couldn't they at least respond to those who do?

"It remains a matter of the gravest concern that, nearly two and a half years on, neither the US nor the UK governments have begun to systematically measure the impact of their actions in terms of human lives destroyed," said Professor John Sloboda, one of the report's authors.

Full details are on the Iraq Body Count website. Read 'em and weep.

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Terror in London
Thursday, July 21, 2005, 02:15
Using the Tube, especially in the mornings when I am in a rush to get to Chatham House or to other central locations, is not a pleasant affair and I avoid it most of the time. As The Economist rightly says this week, it is unreliable, crowded and smelly, and Londoners have no choice but to endure it. King's Cross, on the Piccadilly Line, is 5 stops after my station, and it is absolutely packed around 9 AM, when the bombs went off. I wasn't anywhere near the Tube on that day, and I could only imagine the horror.

My husband and I happened to be in Paris on July 7, and came back on the Eurostar a couple of days later to find many police officers scrutinizing passengers as we left the train. We saw a couple of people who were stopped for renewed passport checks, and I couldn't help but think that what was known in the US as "flying while Arab" is now turning into "traveling while Muslim" – based purely on perceptions of what a Muslim is supposed to look like. I fail to see how over a billion people could share physical attributes based solely on their religion and how this can help thwart terrorism, but I digress.

We could only speculate at that point, especially in the first few hours when British authorities were calmly feeding the unfolding story to the media, drop by drop. After all, the British government had been warning repeatedly that a terrorist attack on London was not a matter of if, but a matter of when. When it finally emerged, a few days later, that these were suicide bombers, and British-born ones to boot, the shock was even bigger than the shock of the attack. No border controls could have prevented this.

A lot is generally made about Britain's tolerance, its multi-culturalism, its position as a melting pot. (Another big idea, incidentally, is that the British - army included - are much better at reaching "hearts and minds" than the Americans; they certainly haven't been recently.) Well, that may be the case in some areas of London, but most people in the rest of Britain would probably beg to differ. The integration and tolerance so often praised, while certainly true on a legislative level, is not so evident in real life (especially in other areas, such as northern England), or so say many commentators. The fact that four young Britons would commit such atrocities has opened many cans of worms as condemnations poured in, but I think open discussion on these issues is not a peripheral matter.

The tolerance only goes so far, anyway. Already, a Pakistani man has been beaten to death in Nottingham, and several other crimes against Muslims have been reported (even against Sikhs, who seem to "look Muslim" to a number of ignorants). A number of Muslim associations are bending over backwards to try to explain that these terrorists had nothing to do with Islam – even after Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, rather patronizingly told them that they didn't need to apologize!

But today, Muslims and their leaders (whatever that is supposed to mean: Do all Muslims have "leaders"? What about non-Muslims?) are now told that condemnation is not enough, and that they must do something to stop the spreading of this terror. Interesting. There are certainly many clerics who should be publicly attacked and exposed – and that goes for every religion.

But to put the blame squarely on Muslims' shoulders really takes the biscuit. It was always the big powers (initially Britain, and then the US) which encouraged groups of a fundamentalist religious nature to fight their dirty wars for them. We all know how Osama Bin Laden was CIA-trained and funded as he and his Mujaheddin fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Somehow, Washington then totally understood the legitimacy of resisting a foreign, illegal occupation (a struggle which was even glorified in a James Bond movie), and went out of its way to exploit religiosity to reach its goals. Somehow, Washington has since then forgotten that after the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan, the resistance fighters stopped fighting there. Could it be that it was not necessarily simply an "evil ideology" that drove them to fight?

Had it not been for British maneuvering and covert support, the Muslim Brotherhood probably wouldn't have had early successes in an Arab world that was mostly politically secular and excited about its new independence at various stages of the 20th century. And it was of course Israel that couldn't wait to foster cells which later developed into Hamas, because it really wanted to defeat the secular PLO with its inconvenient political and national agenda.

I think that Britain, the US and Israel understand the motivations of extremist Islamic groups a lot better than they let on. They know all too well that these terrorists are motivated by a lot more than an evil ideology (just like the IRA and ETA, to name but two).

In a sense, the reactions of Jose Maria Aznar's government after the March 11 2004 bombings in Madrid, and those of Tony Blair's government are not dissimilar. Both aimed at escaping links between the terror and their troops' presence in Iraq, the latter having been opposed and condemned by the near totality of the Spanish population, and by a significant portion of the British people. Aznar foolishly blamed ETA (whose modus operandi couldn't be more different) while Blair blamed the Islamic extremists who hate our values, hate our freedom – you know the refrain.

Has Islamic terrorism slowly pushed people to expose the emperor with no clothes? I think it's high time we all discussed the possible ramifications of all these factors, so that we can better fight the scourge of terrorism which affects us all. Seumas Milnes broaches the subject of Britain's less than angelic adventures abroad in an op-ed for The Guardian a week after the attacks, stating that it was "an insult to the dead to deny the link with Iraq." His contribution is a good starting point for the debate.

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Defend the peaceful thinkers in Syria
Monday, July 4, 2005, 00:53
"The Atassi forum calls on all democratic and cultural powers and figures to express their solidarity by denouncing the pressure placed on us." I certainly do.

This is after Syrian security forces ordered the Atassi forum to close its doors, forbidding dozens of citizens from entering the premises, dispersing people and blocking access to roads leading to it.

The Atassi forum is the only political discussion group the Syrian regime has allowed to function until now, after the crackdown on all civil society forums and activists in the infamous Damascus Winter. In May, the members of the Atassi Forum had been dragged out of their homes at dawn, without even being allowed to get dressed, and arrested for several days for having read out a statement from the Muslim Brotherhood. One member is still under arrest, probably waiting to be charged and tried. He will join other brave, patriotic Syrians who have tried to peacefully improve conditions for their fellow Syrians. They include Aref Dalila, Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi.

Everyone is terribly pessimistic these days, and that was even before the closure of this forum. How scared can a regime be of a few intellectuals calmly discussing the future in an orderly way? The real threat is outside, from all sides! When will they realize who their true enemies are?

Soul food update
Monday, July 4, 2005, 00:36
So what do you get when you mix real olive oil from Syria, chick peas from Turkey, and tehina from Palestine? "The best Israeli hummus in New York," that's what. It really takes the biscuit!

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Iraq – 9/11 – Iraq – 9/11 – Iraq – 9/11 - Iraq …
Friday, July 1, 2005, 00:54
You get the drift; this was more or less the abstract of Bush's address to the American nation on Tuesday night (including a mention - finally - of Osama Bin Laden, believe it or not), one year after the so-called sovereignty handover. According to Nielsen Media Research, 82 million Americans (his highest audience) had watched George Bush address the nation from Congress after 9/11. But only 23 million watched Bush on Tuesday as he desperately tried again to link Iraq with 9/11. That was the smallest TV audience of his tenure. Not only he was completely unconvincing (Karl Rove really seems to be slipping), but it seems that American people are on to him and don't even want to hear his feeble excuses.

Even more interesting with this speech is the stubborn silence with which Bush was met, being interrupted only once by applause (and that, apparently, prompted by a White House employee). Bush supporters have tried to imply that soldiers at Fort Bragg were asked to stand to attention as he walked in and not to applaud, in order to dismiss any notion that this was a pep rally.

At least this is what White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan says. But a lot of other commentators have hinted that the soldiers were perhaps bored, unconvinced or simply fed up. As Timothy Garton Ash puts it in The Guardian, describing the sobering of America, "you can fool some of the Americans all of the time, and all of the Americans some of the time, but you can't fool most Americans most of the time - even with the help of Fox News."

The soldiers did applaud at the end, of course, but I think it's just because they were relieved Bush had finally finished his unexciting, repetitive, and totally unpersuasive speech.

Good thing they've got a clear idea of how long this is going to last, at least. Indeed, the Bush administration has narrowed down the extent of the insurgency - and the extent of American troops' presence - in Iraq to "soon" (according to Cheney, who says the insurgency is in its last throes) or to within a decade or so, give or take a couple of years (according to Rumsfeld). Bush says he sees a clear path to victory, but he may be the only one.

Drew Sheneman, Newark Star Ledger

"Unconfirmed Sources," a satirical site, sees one bright point in this whole story: namely, "that in the United States, truly anyone can get to be President, regardless of intellect, a grasp of reality or real vision." This offered hope, the writer contines, for mothers throughout the nation that even their dopey little kids can make it in politics, given a few million dollars and close ties with the ruling House of Saud.

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A bloody mess, or Iraqi sovereignty?
Tuesday, June 28, 2005, 19:09
"What does sovereignty mean to me if I can be shot at by any soldier on the street for any traffic violation without any responsibility on the American soldier?"
Ali Nejam, 37, Baghdad merchant

Iraq is today "celebrating" one year of "sovereignty." George Bush will be addressing the nation (and the world) tonight to tell us all how great things are going and how he sees a path to victory. Yesterday, Ibrahim Jaafari (at a meeting I attended in Chatham House) was very vague about prospects in Iraq.

You be the judge:

Then ...

Paul Bremer signing Iraq's "sovereignty" on June 28, 2004

... and now:

Average daily attacks by insurgents
Pre-war March 2003: 0
Handover June 2004: 45
Now: 70
Analysis: Figures should be viewed with caution because US military often does not record attacks if there are no American casualties.

Total number of coalition troops killed
Pre-war March 2003: 0
Handover June 2004: 982
Now: 1,930
Analysis: Number of US troops killed increased sharply during Fallujah fighting in April and November 2004.

Iraqi civilians killed
Pre-war March 2003: n/a
Handover June 2004: 10,000
Now: 60,800 (includes 23,000 crime-related deaths)
Analysis: Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths have varied widely because the US military does not count them.

Electricity supply (megawatts generated)
Pre-war March 2003: 3,958
Handover June 2004: 4,293
Now: 4,035
Analysis: Coalition is way behind its goal of providing 6,000 megawatts by July 2004. Most Iraqis do not have a reliable electricity supply.

Pre-war March 2003: n/a
Handover June 2004: 40%
Now: 40%
Analysis: More than a third of young people are unemployed, a cause for social unrest. Many security men stay home, except on payday.

Pre-war March 2003: 833,000 (landlines only)
Handover June 2004: 1.2m (includes mobiles)
Now: 3.1m
Analysis: Landlines are extremely unreliable and mobile phone system could be improved.

Primary school access
Pre-war March 2003: 3.6m
Handover June 2004: 4.3m
Now: n/a
Analysis: 83 per cent of boys and 79 per cent of girls in primary schools. But figures mask declining literacy and failure rate.

Oil production (barrels a day)
Pre-war March 2003: 2.5m
Handover June 2004: 2.29m
Now: 2.20m
Analysis: Sustainability of Iraqi oilfields has been jeopardised to boost output. Oil facilities regularly targeted by insurgents.

Palestinians finally allowed to be Lebanon's manual labor
Tuesday, June 28, 2005, 18:02
The Daily Star says that the Lebanese government is ending 20 years of discrimination by finally allowing Palestinians refugees to work in jobs previously unavailable to them (only those born in Lebanon, mind you, although they're now the vast majority).

End of discrimination? I don't think so. The Palestinians have only been upgraded to the level of the Syrian laborers who fled Lebanon following Hariri's assassination, after suffering abuse of all sorts and physical assault – at last count, over 30 had been killed, but since then, nobody has bothered counting.

400,000 Palestinian refugees under the age of 57 will now have the privilege of doing only manual or clerical work. No doctors, engineers, accountants, architects, scientists, teachers, or any other profession. They will still be refused the right to build permanent homes (assuming they could ever get enough money), remaining in 12 refugee camps which are without any doubt the worst in the Arab world. The Daily Star quotes Ghassan Khatib (Palestinian Labor Minister): "I was stunned by the refugee camps in Lebanon. Even in camps in Gaza and Nablus in the Occupied Territories, the situation is better than that of the camps in Lebanon."

Wafa Elyassir, who works with Norwegian People's Aid, responds to the rationale behind Lebanon's refusal to alleviate Palestinians' suffering (which Syria and Jordan have already done): "The fear that Palestinians will now give up their right of return and overwhelm Lebanon are unfounded, given how Palestinians living abroad, with far more opportunities and leisure, are still holding on to their right of return to Palestine."

Palestinian refugees' situation all over the world is disgraceful; in Lebanon, it is catastrophic.

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Who is spying on whom? Everyone, apparently
Tuesday, June 28, 2005, 17:10
Most of us already knew that of course, but very few journalists have dared to point out the absurdity of the situation. Susan Taylor Martin, who recently spent some time in Syria and Lebanon, has written the obvious: that "it's a little disingenuous, if not hypocritical, for the United States to complain so loudly about the presence of Syrian intelligence agents in neighboring Lebanon."

After pointing out to various occasions when spying affairs went awry, such as the arrest of 13 CIA operatives in Italy last week or the Mossad's poisoning of Khaled Meshal in Jordan, she reminds that "it was the CIA itself that contributed to the rise of Islamic extremism and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network in Afghanistan."

She concludes that "the United States and the United Nations were right to demand Syria withdraw its troops this spring and stop trying to deprive the Lebanese of the honest, democratic government they deserve. But does the State Department really think Syria is not going to keep a close eye on a neighbor of such economic and strategic importance - just as the CIA, the Mossad and other intelligence services are right now operating in places they consider important to their national interests?"

That's why complaints of Syria's spying on Lebanon ring hollow. And that's clear, even if we forget to mention the American embassy officials seen lurking by polling stations during Lebanon's elections, or the multitude of FBI operatives getting to the scene of explosions before anyone else.

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The prophecies of Nostradumbus
Saturday, June 25, 2005, 02:14
"Any who say that we've lost this war, or that we're losing this war, are wrong. We are not."

That's what Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday, insisting that despite the perception, the war in Iraq is going well.

John Abizaid didn't quite agree with his boss, but Bush vowed to defeat Iraqi rebels. (He did say bring 'em on, remember?)

Looks like they're still under the spell of Nostradumbus.

(Drew Sheneman, The Newark Star Ledger)

In the meantime, here is the real state of the nation, according to UNDP and the Iraqi planning ministry (meaning they're probably conservative figures).

* 78 per cent of households in the country have an unreliable electricity supply; in Baghdad, the figure rises to 92 per cent.

* 37 per cent of urban households and only 4 per cent of rural ones have a sewage connection.

* 61 per cent of Iraqi households have access to a safe and stable drinking water supply, but 28 per cent of these experience daily problems with that supply.

* 5 per cent of households have been damaged by military activity; the figure rises to 8 per cent in the north of the country.

* Only 52 per cent of urban households are accessible by paved road; the figure drops to one in 10 in rural areas.

* 31 per cent of males over 15 are unemployed.

* Almost a quarter of children between the ages of six months and five years suffer from malnutrition.

* More young people today are illiterate in Iraq than in previous generations.

* Just 83 per cent of boys and 79 per cent of girls of school age are enrolled in primary school.

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