Monday, November 21, 2011

Dear CSI, Tear Gas Manufacturer

The following is a letter I just sent to the manufacturer of the tear gas used by the Egyptian and other Arab governments. You can contact them yourself here. Feel free to borrow any or all of the letter below, if you like.

To the management of Combined Systems, Inc.,

I am writing to ask you to end your relationship with the Egyptian government and other authoritarian governments who have misused your products to kill their own citizens.

To be clear, I do not believe you have acted criminally. To the best of my knowledge, your company has followed every single regulation regarding the sale of military hardware to foreign agents. As of yet, the US government has not applied the Leahy Law to the Egyptian security forces for the violence it has committed against its civilians. Therefore, you have every legal right to sell your products to the Egyptian government.

Nor do I believe you have acted repugnantly. When used properly, your products have the potential to save lives by allowing security forces to respond non-lethally to security disturbances. You are not pigs for selling your products to American allies – though some have called you just that. After all, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Egyptian government to use your products humanely.

Monday, November 14, 2011

More on Egyptian-Americans

As many of you know, I just published an article at Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel on Egyptian-Americans and their right to vote in Egypt's elections. The fall of Mubarak has mobilized the community in unprecedented fashion. They have organized, protested, lobbied, fundraised, and broadcasted. In three weeks, it has been finally confirmed they will get to vote. They have done all of this to be part of the revolution which they claim belongs to them as much as every other Egyptian.

Because the article focuses on the debate over expatriate voting, its effects, and its importance, I'd like to use this blog to broaden the scope a bit to give a general sense about the Egyptian-American community post-Mubarak.

The days after the fall of Mubarak were filled with boundless optimism. Like their fellow Egyptians in Tahrir Square, Egyptian-Americans had risen up and caused the regime to crumble. Now they sought to harness the energy of the revolution to strengthen their community and thereby strengthen Egypt. But as we have seen in Egypt itself, reality has begun to encroach upon the magic of the revolution. The days of euphoria seem to have passed - the victory over voting not withstanding.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

UNESCO After Palestinian Membership

I just posted a guest blog over at Al Ajnabee on the recent controversy over UNESCO admitting Palestine as a member. In short, Obama is getting a lot of heat for voting no and cutting funds to UNESCO. Such criticism is unfair because domestic law required him to do what he did. I go on to suggest a few options about how to minimize the damage to US interests and UNESCO's important mission.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

America's Kefaya Moment

I just published this op ed in Bikya Masr about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I argue that the analogy to the Egyptian revolution - one that has been cultivated by the protesters and supported by Egyptians - doesn't make much sense. Rather, the real analogy is to the Kefaya movement's rise in Egypt in 2004. The movement failed to achieve its immediate goals but served as a warning to the regime to reform or face real upheaval in the future. Similarly, these Occupy protests should serve as a warning to American leaders - reform now or there could be major upheaval within the decade.

This morning I decided to take a trip to the Occupy DC sit-in. After flying halfway across the world to visit protests in Tahrir Square, I thought I could manage a 10-minute bus ride downtown. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn't only six guys standing around looking bored.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Violence At the Libyan Embassy in Cairo

For the second time this week, Libyans and Egyptians descended upon the Libyan embassy in Cairo to hoist the free Libya flag. And for the second time this week, the Egyptian army and police responded with violence. The outcome yesterday was hardly a surprise. Rather, it was completely expected.

On Monday night, Libyans learned a lesson their Egyptian compatriots have known for a long time: the security forces in Egypt are willing to use force, even when no force is necessary. About fifty protesters gathered in front of the embassy, chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans and singing songs about Egyptian-Libyan unity. Without warning, the police and army fired into the air. The demonstrators ran from swinging truncheons and zapping tasers of the security forces, pouring into a busy thoroughfare of the normally peaceful neighborhood of Zamalek.

Protesters claimed security forces had fired live rounds into the air before I arrived.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Romance of the Online Barricades

This past month, the group Anonymous announced their next two targets for their (in)famous hacktivism: the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Facebook. For those not familiar with Anonymous, they are a major player in the online freedom of information movement. Previous targets have ranged from everything from the church of Scientology to the Syrian Defense Ministry. Anyone who threatens free speech anywhere risks the ire of Anonymous.

As with Wikileaks, Anonymous pursues a righteous cause to an unrighteous extreme. And in the process, they can do as much harm as they do good. Take for example their threat against the Egyptian SCAF.

Addressing the SCAF directly, Anonymous declares “war on you as you have declared war on to us and the April 6th Movement.” For context, the April 6th movement has been one of the most prominent revolutionary groups in Egypt, their activities dating back to labor strikes in April 2008. The movement has been unfairly painted as a foreign traitor by both the SCAF and other counterrevolutionaries in Egypt. Such propaganda has done tremendous damage, as the (vulgar) graffiti shows below.

I have no doubt Anonymous released the video with good intentions. They clearly want to see a democratic Egypt. But sometimes even well-intentioned foreign intervention can hurt the cause more than it helps (as I write here). With the majority of Egyptians already skeptical of April 6th’s authenticity and tired of the revolutionary upheaval more generally, Anonymous could taint April 6th even further. As Egyptian blogger Zeinobia worries, “Anonymous does not understand how popular the Egyptian army [is] among the people […] Thank you dear Anonymous but this can harm the movement in the public eyes more than it is already harmed.”

There is a certain arrogance in Anonymous’ threats against the SCAF. For them, there are no shades of gray, no complexities or contingencies to consider. Just simply: the SCAF has threatened April 6th and they are therefore an enemy of Anonymous and Freedom itself. So they barge into Egypt’s revolution condescendingly certain of both their goals and their methods.

It is that exact dangerous mixture of arrogance and condescension that underpins their threat on Facebook. There is no question Facebook suffers from a number of deficiencies in protecting the identity and information of its users. Jillian York has done a particularly good job of holding Facebook accountable on her blog, particularly when it comes to the safety of online activists. With those flaws in their crosshairs, Anonymous has deemed “your medium of communication you all so dearly adore [i.e.Facebook] will be destroyed.”

Just as with their Egyptian announcement, Anonymous finds the righteousness of their cause self-evident. The video boasts, “one day you will look back on this and realize what we have done here is right.” In the description of the video but not in the video itself, they continue, “you will thank the rulers of the internet, we are not harming you but saving you.” Just as the Egyptians need saving from the SCAF, so do Facebook’s nearly 750 million users need saving from themselves.

I joined Facebook when it was still, and only students from a handful of schools could join. Seven years later, I use the site to keep in touch with my friends and family literally across the globe. I know the risks involved, and I accept them. It’s my choice. And Anonymous has no right to make that choice for me.

In one of their many affiliated sites, Anonymous asserts, “The open sharing and expression of ideas and opinions, however controversial or divergent, is the cornerstone of all free societies. This ability empowers individuals to determine their own destinies.” In other words, freedom of information is instrumentally, not intrinsically, valuable. Information is valuable only to the extent it allows individuals and societies to make informed choices, to “determine their own destinies.”

In these latest videos, Anonymous seems to have mistaken their means for their ends. Instead of protecting our right to determine our destinies, they have deemed themselves responsible to determine our destinies for us. What use is free information if Anonymous is making our decisions for us? Information itself, not freedom of choice, has become their religion.

Tom Gara recently likened Anonymous to the rioters in the UK because both share an “incoherent narrative of an ambiguous ‘uprising.’” I think the analogy is rather apt. Beyond the arrogance, condescension and self-righteousness, it seems Anonymous has become enraptured with the romance of the online barricades. As a result, Anonymous seems so occupied by epic soundtracks, overblown rhetoric and Guy Fawkes masks to fully consider the consequences of their actions. So caught up in the fight against (what they deem) online tyranny, they are either unaware or indifferent to the damage left behind in their wake.

UPDATE: It appears some members of Anonymous have renounced the proposed attacks on Facebook. The group is not so much a group but a movement of like-minded individuals. It is therefore very hard to determine what the 'group' believes and plans to do.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Islamists in Tahrir Square

This Friday Tahrir Square was turned upside down. In what were likely the largest protests since the fall of Mubarak, hundreds of thousands of Islamists descended upon the square and completely overwhelmed the secular sit-in that has camped there since July 8th.

The Tahrir I had gotten to know changed overnight. As I write about here, Tahrir had become an exciting and even fun affair. Parents enjoying roasted nuts as their children get their faces painted. Animated political discussions sprouting up and dispersing. Revolutionary concerts and films to entertain and educate the crowds in the evenings. A small school for the children. A barber for those who have stayed since the beginning or for those who just wanted to talk shop. And underlying it all: a shared passion to complete the revolution that transcended political, religious, age and gender lines – even as they passionately debated what exactly such a revolution should bring.

That Tahrir was gone when I went to the protests on Friday. Bearded men and the occasional niqabi woman flooded the square. The average age of the protesters seemed to increase by at least a decade. Unity was dismantled one sectarian chant and one provocative sign at a time. The day before, all revolutionary groups whether secular or Islamist had agreed to a shared list of demands. The Islamists, and especially Salafists, did not uphold the end of their deal. In what was a surely coordinated effort from their leadership given the number and professionalism of their signs and banners and the fiery preaching of their stages, they completely ignored the deal they had just agreed to only 24 hours prior. The outnumbered secular protesters had no choice but to withdraw from the square entirely.

Much of the reporting has focused on the extremism of the Islamists and especially Salafists, but some of it has been sensationalized. For example, some outlets mentioned vendors selling pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. This is true, but they were also selling pictures of Sadat, Gaddafi, Che, Nasser, and pretty much every other political leader. These vendors weren’t trying to make a political statement; they were trying to make a living. Moreover, as this picture I took on July 11th shows, they’ve been there for a while. But to be clear, many of the Islamist demands were anything but reasonable. Dozens of signs demanded the release of “political prisoners” like convicted terrorist Omar Abd al-Rahman and organizers were collecting signatures on a petition to achieve that release. My friend was yelled at a few times for not covering her hair.

There is no doubt Tahrir became a more sectarian, conservative, and volatile place Friday. Popular chants from the revolution like “Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian” became “Raise your head high, you’re Muslim.” The people no longer demanded the fall of the regime, but the “implementation of God’s Sharia.” There was an odd moment as I listened to anti-Western, anti-American, anti-liberal, anti-secular, and anti-Jewish chants and realized I was all five of those things. Yet despite the anger and prejudice of the chants, I was always greeted by the protesters warmly – hearty assalaamu aleikum greetings with kisses on the cheek were the norm.

Legitimate concerns that Tahrir would devolve into chaos and violence did not bear out – perhaps simply because there were so few seculars for the Islamists to confront. As the sun began to set and the evening call to prayer began to rise, the Islamists started to file out of the square. Buses were waiting to take them home, unknown numbers destined for locations far outside Cairo. Seculars began to regain their strength. Chants for Islamic rule were increasingly met with counter-chants for a civil state. By nightfall, the concert stage and cinema were once again up and running, as if the Islamists had never come at all. As one Egyptian told me: “Don’t be discouraged by the loud voices today in Tahrir. The vast majority want a civil state.”

After some reflection about the day’s events, I’ve come away with the following take-away points:

1. Islamism deserves a voice – Any political or religious trend that can mobilize tens and hundreds of thousands of people to descend upon Tahrir Square deserves a voice in molding the future of Egypt. In fact, any political or religious trend that can mobilize only tens or hundreds of people deserve that same right. Whether we like it or not, Islamism represents a significant portion of the population. A truly democratic Egypt will have to find a way to accommodate them, so long as they agree to play by the rules of the game. In the long-term, I have an admittedly hard to prove hunch that the most unsavory Islamists will fail to thrive in a prosperous and free Egypt.

2. Islamists need honesty to build trust – Islamists currently suffer from a deficit of trust in greater Egyptian society and especially the political elite. After all, some of the groups on the square were unabashed terrorists only a few years ago. Moreover, the goals of the Islamist project and their potential ramifications on Egyptian society raise legitimate concerns about Islamist intentions. Of course, the secular protesters face their own deficit of trust for different reasons. To quell such anxiety, Islamists will not only have to carefully calibrate their public messaging, but they must also change the way they interact with the rest of Egyptian society. By reneging on the unity deal, the Salafists have only confirmed widespread fears that they cannot be trusted. And if they cannot be trusted for something as simple as sticking to a list of agreed-upon chants, how can they ever be trusted with the reins of government? Political effectiveness is part grandstanding for sure, but it’s also about deal-making and keeping one’s word. Only the Islamist political parties who can balance the desires of their constituency while also projecting a trustworthy voice to the rest of Egyptian society will succeed during and after Egypt’s transition to democracy.

3. The Muslim Brotherhood is under pressure -As much as yesterday was about Islamists projecting their strength to others, it was also about an internal struggle over who best represents the voice Islamists deserve. The Muslim Brotherhood proved the most trustworthy yesterday, and therefore they proved the most effective representative of the Islamist voice. For example, a leader of their political party criticized his Islamist brothers for breaking their pledge to stick to a unity script. Yet at the same time, many of their chant leaders also broke the agreed upon script, and their image outside the Islamist camp may be tarnished along with the Salafists as a result. Yesterday was not the first or last time competing political forces will pull the Brotherhood in competing directions. Their ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state naturally aligns them with the other Islamists that took over Tahrir Square yesterday. Yet their wealth of political experience and flexible pragmatism pulls them towards cooperation with secular partners. As Egypt democratizes, the Brotherhood will continue to be pulled in divergent directions, and such stress on the organization will exacerbate pre-existing fractures within the group that have already begun to widen. With their most skilled political operators and youth leaders already striking out on their own, the Brotherhood may be forced to rely increasingly on their Islamist allies, further alienating some of their own members and creating an opportunity for other groups to fulfill the role of, for lack of a better term, “Moderate Islamist.”

4. Nothing has changed – Not surprisingly, many secular Egyptians and especially those encamped in the square have expressed their dismay and even fear of yesterday’s events. But nothing about yesterday should come as a surprise. The protests proved that the Islamists are well-organized, loud, and sometimes a little scary. We knew all of this before yesterday. We’re just not used to seeing the truth so up close and personal. The biggest mistake the secular Egyptians (and international actors for that matter) could make is to overreact to yesterday’s events. The Islamists came, made their voice heard, and left. Business has now returned to usual and it’s time to refocus on the tasks at hand.

5. Tahrir is overrated – Regardless of what happened yesterday, the real battle between and within the secular and Islamist camps are outside Tahrir Square. Protests are about symbols. Elections are about results. The secular camp should take yesterday’s events as a wake-up call. As they discuss politics in Tahrir, Islamists are actually doing politics outside Tahrir. That is why Islamists can fill the square when they want to and that is why they will do well in the November elections. They have done the painstaking but essential work at the grassroots level. Secular groups – and especially the liberals – have so far failed to do the same.

You can see my pictures from the protest here. Below, I've embedded some video I took during the day.

UPDATE: Today has been a weird day. The protesters have announced the sit-in will end, but not everyone agrees so it's not clear how many will remain if any. Meanwhile, the military used sticks to disperse a protest outside the parliament. And finally, a group of merchants and vendors threatened to open traffic in the square by force before being talked off the ledge. Check out this post by Amr Bassiouny about why the protesters need to change strategy and this post by The Big Pharaoh about why the Muslim Brotherhood played Friday's protests perfectly.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

July 23rd Clashes

My friend and I were doing Arabic homework in a café in Zamalek – an upper class haven in Cairo - when the news came in. Violent clashes had broken out between Tahrir protesters and supporters of the ruling military council (SCAF). Protesters had marched from Tahrir to the SCAF headquarters to demonstrate peacefully , and they were met with violent resistance from stone-wielding civilians. We watched on TV as rocks and Molotov cocktails began to fly through the air, intermingled with the army’s live ammunition cracking over the heads of the demonstrators.

At the time of writing, reports are coming in that over 100 people have been injured, including the female presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel. I’m very worried the violence will escalate through the night. The last time there were clashes like this, over 1000 people were injured before the violence subsided. Some even are worrying that Tahrir Square itself may be in danger.

So how did we get here? Several developments in the past few weeks have made violence increasingly likely, if not inevitable.

First, the decreasing numbers of protesters present in Tahrir Square have made an attack more probable. When the sit-in began on July 8th, at least one hundred thousand people flooded into Tahrir. With the exception of the Salafists, every single political group and movement participated. But the unity and enthusiasm of July 8th have faded since then.

From the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood refused to stay for the sit-in, though some of its youth members, nonetheless participated unofficially. More recently, the opposition party al-Wafd withdrew from the sit-in as well, its leader oddly claiming the Tahrir protesters played no role in the revolution. As the sit-in dragged on ever longer, the excitement of the square faded and only a vanguard of revolutionaries remained. Protests of over 100,000 had diminished to a sit-in of 1000, if that.

With such a small showing, it would no longer be hard for the military council to portray the protesters as fringe radicals bent on chaos and clamp down on the protests without angering the general public.

Second, protesters in Tahrir have grown increasingly frustrated and angry. As I wrote before, the festival atmosphere on July 8th belied the day’s foundation of anger towards the regime and, for many, the SCAF. While the sit-in has achieved some of its objectives, it has not realized its most important demands. Nor does the SCAF seem prepared to bend much further anytime soon. Rather, the SCAF has escalated its rhetoric against the protests in recent days, with finger-pointing generals attacking key revolutionary groups. Such provocation raised the political temperature even higher. Running out of time as the fasting month of Ramadan approached, many protesters felt the time had come raise the stakes. In such an environment, even a minor provocation from the SCAF could lead to a quick, unwanted, and avoidable escalation. On both sides, there was plenty of tinder ready to ignite.

Finally, many Egyptians have become increasingly ambivalent to, and even hostile towards, the Tahrir sit-in. Some Egyptians have admittedly been mislead about the Tahrir sit-in, especially as Salafists painted the square as a den of sex and drugs – a description that regime remnants surely were happy to proliferate. But even those who support the revolution and its cause have started to feel greater ambivalence. As I wrote last week, many Egyptians who participated in the revolution now worry about the economy, security, and the fragmentation of society. Meanwhile, overzealous protesters made unnecessary enemies with some of the vendors in Tahrir Square in a misguided and short-lived attempt to remove them from the square. Without the clear support of the people, the Tahrir sit-in grew increasingly isolated and thereby vulnerable.

In the end, the SCAF’s military psychology took over tonight. They looked at the Tahrir protesters and saw a weakened and aggravated adversary. With their numbers diminished, their tempers flaring, and their support ebbing, the time was ripe for an attack. By marching on the SCAF headquarters, the protesters stumbled into a trap. The SCAF only had to rile up the locals with rumors of incoming marauders and watch the mayhem unfold. So they did.

The key question now is whether the violence will spur the silent majority back into action. During the first revolution, small bands of demonstrators suddenly ballooned into million-strong protests largely out of disgust at the violence unleashed by Mubarak’s security forces and thugs. Perhaps the SCAF has just made the same mistake.

But that seems unlikely. The waiters at my Zamalek café watched al-Arabiya intently for a minute as news of the battle trickled in. Then with a shrug one of them changed the channel to watch music videos. Collecting my things, I made my way back to my apartment to turn on the news and follow the clashes on Twitter. Passing my doorman, I asked him about the violence. He replied, “What clashes? There can’t be any clashes. The people and the army are one hand.”

UPDATE: If you want to read more about what happened last night, you should check out the Egyptian blogger Zeinobia's blog.

Friday, July 15, 2011

July 15th Protests in Tahrir

Parachute pundits like talking to taxi drivers. They’re a one-stop shop to get the view from the street. The problem is taxi drivers – no matter how emphatically they claim to speak for their society – only speak for themselves. Extrapolate at your own risk.

This morning I jumped into a cab and told the driver to take me to Tahrir Square. Today massive protests were planned throughout Egypt, and I wanted to see whether the revolutionaries could build on the momentum from last week. My driver beamed with excitement when he heard our destination. He exclaimed, “As soon as I earn enough today to feed my kids, I’m going straight to Tahrir!”

I could’ve very easily written a taxi driver journalism piece on that quote alone: “Concerns that the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square have lost touch with the Egyptian street are overblown. Yes, the sit-in has caused some daily inconveniences for the average Egyptian, but as this taxi driver explained, the people still support the protests.”

But then I got into another cab and the story changed. Leaving the protests this afternoon, I asked the driver what he thought of the protests. He sighed before explaining, “Once, the protests were a beautiful thing, but today…no longer.” He went on to explain that the protests are fragmenting Egyptian society, damaging the economy, causing congestion, and could lead to chaos.

So which taxi driver is right? Do Egyptians generally support the Tahrir sit-in and protests? Or are they growing fatigued? For me, it’s an academic question. For the revolutionaries, it’s an essential one. The future of Egypt will be determined not by the 1% who chant in Tahrir, but by the 99% who hear those chants on TV. If the revolutionaries lose that 99%, then they will lose the revolution as well.

From my outsider perspective, I am increasingly worried that the revolutionaries are in danger of doing just that. Tahrir is a magical and exciting place, addicting even. It is also a bubble. So determined to achieve the demands of the revolution, the protesters in Tahrir may not fully perceive the shifting mood beyond the square.

Today’s protests were significantly smaller than last week. Some of this decrease is certainly because the Muslim Brotherhood refused to participate again (though some of its members unofficially joined). The hot weather also probably deterred some Egyptians from attending. But the question remains to what extent has support for the protests dissipated.

Earlier this week, Ramy Raoof wrote a blog post in Arabic on why he participates in the sit-in in which he lists a set of clearly demarcated and justified demands from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Yet Ramy’s post fails to answer the primary question he sets out to answer: why is a sit-in the best method of achieving those demands?

The revolutionaries should be asking that question among others. Besides protests, how else can they achieve their goals? Are some demands more essential than others? Can some goals be put off for later? Are their fellow Egyptians growing tired of protests? If so, how can they reinvigorate the spirit of the revolution? Do most Egyptians agree with the outlined goals, and if not, how can they be brought around?

When I recently voiced these concerns to my friend, he shrugged them off. He explained that at every stage, people have urged the revolutionaries to cash in on what they have earned and go home content. And at every stage, the revolutionaries have been right to keep pushing the envelope further. He suggested there’s no reason to think the revolutionaries have gone astray now.

Moreover, I know the people in Tahrir are debating these issues – in tents, on blogs, at tweet-ups, and on the streets. They are motivated, skilled, organized, and dedicated. And unlike me, they don’t need to rely on one-off taxi rides to gauge the public mood.

At the protest, I talked with a young teenager. When I asked him why he chose to go to Tahrir today, he boasted that he hasn’t left the square for a week. Echoing a popular protest chant, he vowed to stay until victory.

*You can see all my pictures from today's protest here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

In Tahrir At Last

Since I arrived in Cairo on Wednesday, I’ve struggled over how much I should stick my nose in Egypt’s business. I am here to learn about the revolution, to fill in the context that mainstream media ignores and the complexity social media obscures. But at the same time, post-Mubarak Cairo can be a dangerous place where sensitivities abound – sensitivities that a foreigner like me can all too easily tread upon.

Today I had to make my first decision: should I go to the largest protests since the fall of Mubarak? Not a single Egyptian friend urged me to go to Tahrir. Most were just nervous for my safety out of an abundance of hospitality. Some flat out told me to stay at home. But as I sat in my apartment watching the protests on TV – as I have done from DC since January – I grew increasingly antsy. What’s the point of traveling all the way to Egypt to just watch TV? Before I knew it, I was in a cab on my way to Midan al-Tahrir.

Passing through the citizen checkpoint on Qasr al-Nil Bridge – the site of pitched battles between protesters and police during the revolution – I felt a chill run down my spine. Almost 1000 Egyptians died fighting for their freedom. Thousands more have been injured, imprisoned and tortured. All Egyptians have sacrificed for this revolution, which has accomplished so much and yet has so much more to do.

It is for their sake Egyptians have decided to descend upon Tahrir Square once more today. Mubarak may be gone, but his regime remains. Entering the square, I could hear the simple demands of the protesters. Al-shaab yureed tetheer al-nizam. The people want the cleansing of the regime. They chanted for justice, for accountability, and for the resignations of Mubarak’s lackeys.

Much of the protests were as I had seen on TV and social media. Tahrir definitely exudes a festival-like atmosphere, and I can see why protesting can not only be fun, but addictive. Families milled about as children got their faces painted. Vendors hawked revolutionary paraphernalia and delicious street food. Protesters rotated between chanting, singing, and forming discussion groups. Those with the funniest or most artistic signs beamed proudly as bystanders took pictures. One teenager scaled a massive lamp post to wave the Egyptian flag for a cheering crowd. When dignitaries from Al-Azhar arrived, the crowd parted to make way for the sheikhs to mount the stage.

But there are so many details that press coverage would miss or ignore. A seven year old kid collected trash while puffing on a cigarette nonchalantly. A group of calm protesters would roar suddenly when Al Jazeera cameras appeared and go quiet just as quickly when the cameras turned off. Would-be speakers on various stages quibbled over who would speak next. Off-message speakers were forced to give up their mics as the crowd shouted at them to Enzl or step down.

Although Egyptians have united today around a core set of demands, schisms were also obvious in the square. Various groups erected their own makeshift stages, each with their own sound systems that competed with their neighbors. At one point, the Muslim Brotherhood – which enjoyed both the largest stage and audience – began to sing Allahu Akbar, Bismillah (God is Greatest, in the name of God) over and over again. The adjacent Christians broke in with chants of “Muslims, Christians, we are one hand. Long live Egypt.” Each group then tried to drown out the other, the tension tangible.

The underlying sectarian tension belied the festival atmosphere. So too did the real anger felt towards the regime. The stage next to the Hardees featured a series of speeches by the mothers of martyrs killed during the revolution. Some thanked God for the honor of becoming a martyr family, some yelled angrily about the crimes of the regime, others just simply cried. At one point, thousands chanted in unison for the execution of those responsible for killing martyrs. One chant leader, sitting on his friend’s shoulders, riled up the crowd, his eyes and neck veins bulging in rage. At another stage, a small Mubarak effigy was hung by a noose, the puppet body clad in a prominent Star of David.

It is that underlying anger – when confronted with regime antics - that makes Tahrir such a volatile place. Incidents can quickly escalate. The past few weeks have seen a series of acts of random violence by regime thugs and explicit intimidation of press and foreigners. Today, I did not hear of any such problems – likely because the protests were so large that the government was helpless to do anything but let today run its course.

Tonight, however, may turn out to be an entirely different story. Many core revolutionaries hope resort to the tactics of the revolution and turn today’s protests into a full-scale sit-in. But the Muslim Brotherhood has announced it will not participate in such a sit-in, and the average protester may not be willing to take the risk of staying the night. If the numbers thin out, the government would have a free hand to unleash the thugs.

I left Tahrir with two questions. First, as I wrote about yesterday, will anything be achieved beyond a bunch of shouting-induced sore throats? Second, how will the 95% of Egyptians who did not participate interpret today’s events? Both answers will hinge on how tonight unfolds.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sore Throats in Cairo

As many of you know, I just returned to Egypt after a two-year hiatus. Stepping off the plane into post-Mubarak Egypt, I didn’t really know what to expect. What is actually new about the New Egypt? And what remains the same?

Some things have not changed at all. The hospitality, the traffic, the noise, the heat, and the pollution all remain. Already, the all too-familiar smog-induced sore throat has returned.

But some things have changed entirely. I have immediately noticed the public sphere has become more vibrant and inclusive. Before the revolution, Egypt had a relatively free press compared to its neighbors. Red lines did exist and the regime did ensure it stood on the tallest soapboxes, but political dissent could be expressed and heard. The problem was that dissent was expressed and heard by a minority of Egyptians.

That seems to have changed in post-Mubarak Egypt. Some observers have pointed to the increased use of social media as evidence of a strengthening public sphere. For example, the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” – which supported and helped organize the revolution – boasts almost 1.5 million members. Yet with only 8% of Egyptians relying upon Facebook and Twitter to gets news about the revolution, it’s easy to overestimate the influence of social media.

Meanwhile, the traditional media have opened up since January 25th. Independent newspapers like Al-Masry Al-Youm and television channels like On TV are increasingly popular and trusted. Even the government mouthpiece, Al-Ahram, has caught (an admittedly very mild) revolutionary fever. Yet the change in traditional media is more evolutionary, than revolutionary. Censorship and propaganda, though more subtle, is still present. Although the envelope has been pushed back, red lines still persist – as Hossam el-Hamalawy recently learned.

The biggest change, then, has come in the way Egyptians interact on the streets. Whether on the plane, in a café, or in a taxi – every Egyptian I meet is eager to talk politics with me, a largely taboo topic last time I lived here. They listen attentively to my garbled Arabic before jumping in passionately.

Of course, the more important conversations are happening between the Egyptians themselves. As I walked through Tahrir this morning, I eavesdropped on one of several conversation circles (some more closely resembled shouting and shoving matches) that fill the square. This particular discussion focused on police brutality.

That issue will play a central role in tomorrow’s likely-massive protests. Every single major political force – with the exception of the Salafists - has announced their participation. Unlike the May 27th protests, major disagreements have been put aside to instead focus on the issues all sides can agree upon. In the words of Alaa Aswaany, “We will ask for purging the current government of the remnants of the old regime. We will demand fair and speedy trials for the killers of our martyrs. We will demand that civilians not have to face military tribunals under any circumstances. We will go to the square on Friday ready to pay the price of freedom. We will be like we were during the revolution, ready to die at any moment.”

The problem for Egypt is that despite all the tweeting, broadcasting, publishing and talking, the remnants of Mubarak’s regime remain in power. Key ministries are still run by Mubarak lackeys. Police who killed protesters go unpunished while 10,000 Egyptians have been prosecuted in military courts since the revolution. Families still do not know the fate of their loved ones missing since January. The New Egypt looks too much like the old Egypt – and that is why Egyptians will descend upon Tahrir tomorrow.

It is not clear whether the protests will clear out tomorrow night or if another sit-in will begin. Nor is it clear how the improved public sphere – of which tomorrow’s protest will play a part – can gain the political traction necessary to enact real change.

Leaving Tahrir, I passed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A lone man, bullhorn in hand, stood outside shouting at the top of his lungs in an act of defiance impossible before the revolution. A few meters away, plain-clothed officers stood at their post absolutely indifferent to the ruckus nearby. At least for today, the man would achieve little more than yet another sore throat in Cairo.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fishy Figures about USAID

Nothing worries me more about the future of Egypt than its economy. The White House seems to agree. The budgetary atmosphere in DC rules out a new Marshall Plan. Still, we have forgiven $1 billion of Egyptian debt, spearheaded further efforts at the G8, established an enterprise fund, created a regional trade and investment initiative, conducted entrepreneurship exchange programs, and cultivated private sector ties between our two countries.

But many of our efforts are viewed with suspicion by Egyptian revolutionaries - especially those with leftist leanings. They worry that the US has ulterior motives, that we seek to subvert the revolution to our economic interests. They look at previous interventions of the IMF and World Bank and - not entirely unjustifiably - worry about social unrest from economic upheaval.

One of the main goals of our public diplomacy in post-revolutionary Egypt must be to convince the public that many of their fears are unfounded. A majority of Arabs conflate democracy with economic outcomes. If Egypt's economy tanks, so will the aspirations of Tahrir Square. The US must do what it can to help ensure that does not happen. That first requires convincing Egyptians to let us help.

That is why this article in Al Masry Al Youm is so damaging. The English version claims that over the past 30 years, 90% of the $6 billion dollars given to Egypt by USAID has been "misused." The Arabic version gives a more detailed and slightly different account. It clarifies the $6 billion refers to aid for democracy and human rights assistance, not all assistance, but maintains the claim 90% of those funds were wasted. Among other figures, it also claims USAID gave $344 million for economic development in 2009 - implying such assistance has not helped dent Egypt's high rates of poverty, hunger and disease because of waste.

These numbers originate from a report by the "Center for Economic Studies" (I have yet to find the original report). Although the article cites an anonymous government official who denies these figures, the article clearly will confirm the widespread skepticism over American assistance.

The problem is these numbers don't add up with American statistics. According to the USAID mission in Egypt, the agency has given $28.6 billion between 1975-2009, not $6 billion. So the English version of the article is clearly wrong. According to the same source, democracy and governance assistance for that period has accounted for 4% of USAID funds ($1.144 billion), so the Arabic version's clarification of the $6 billion figure is also wrong. Moreover, according to this report by the Congressional Research Service, the entire US government (not just USAID) gave $250 million in economic assistance in 2009, not $344 million as the article claims.

If such basic facts are wrong, how we can trust the claim that 90% of USAID funds were wasted? Now I'm sure we waste a lot of money over there, but that number just seems fishy to me.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't sound so fishy to many Egyptians. And that's our problem. I hope we push back against this article and set the record straight.

*Thanks to @bungdan, @nervana_1 and @stevenacook for their help on this post.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fathers Worth Emulating

Usually when you discuss fathers and their children in the Middle East, you think of the rulers. Hassan and Mohammed, Hussein and Abdullah, Hafez and Bashar, and the list goes on. Power seemingly passes from father to son naturally in the Middle East – at least, it did until the Arab Spring turned the region upside down. Thankfully, we will never know whether Gamal would have ruled like Hosni. And hopefully we will never know if Seif would have ruled like Muammar. For as the scenes coming out of Syria show, a son can be just as ruthless as his father.

It would seem odd, then, to dedicate this Father’s Day post to the power-hungry father-son duos that for too long have dominated the Middle East. Instead, I want to highlight a revolutionary family who have banded together to demand their freedom in a unified voice. Theirs is an example worth blogging.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How to Actually Help Syrian Bloggers

A lot of people have expressed their anger/dismay/disappointment over the Amina Arraf hoax. I'll instead focus on the one silver lining. The incident has shown that there's a significant constituency of Americans and Europeans who support freedom of the press - and democracy more generally - in Syria.

Since her faked kidnapping, almost 14,000 people have joined the Free Amina Abdalla Facebook page. Untold others organized and fought for her release in other ways. Even Amina's creator, Tom MacMaster, alleges he had Syria's interests at heart - even if his actions were misguided and reckless. In an interview with The Guardian, he claims he invented Amina to help bring attention to human rights abuses in Syria.

But as a real Syrian LGBT activist, Daniel Nassar explains, "You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog; you managed to bring the LGBT movement in the Middle East years back. You single-handedly managed to bring unwanted attention from authorities to our cause and you will be responsible for any LGBT activist who might be yet another fallen angel during these critical time."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why We Believe in Amina Arraf

This past weekend, Syrian regime thugs purportedly kidnapped Amina Arraf who blogs at A Gay Girl in Damascus. I had been reading her blog for a few months and was quite upset at the news. Escaping a close call before, Amina refused to be silenced. And now she was in incredible danger.

Or, as it turns out, the truth may have been the one in danger. Since her alleged disappearance, serious questions have been raised about the blog's veracity. Amina may be a hoax.

I was tweeting about the whole situation when a producer for the BBC World Service's World Have Your Say asked me to come on the show. You can hear what I said here. I speak at 8:50 and at 19:00. My comments focus on why we want to hope for, and believe in, Amina.

I, like so many other of Amina's followers, want to believe in Amina. We hope that such a powerful voice for freedom is real. But in that hope, we also are effectively wishing that Amina is in incredible peril. I have been struggling to decide whether it's better to hope that a profound voice for liberty is in danger of being extinguished or that such a voice never existed at all.

There are many reasons why I might have been fooled by Amina, assuming she is in fact a hoax.My friend The Camel's Nose points to our limited ability to evaluate and process all the sources we encounter from Syria. As such, "our human brains took cognitive shortcuts to triage the fire hose of information coming at us." In addition, I have previously blogged about why social media seem particularly prone to misinformation.

But in this case, I think the problem is primarily neither one of cognition or transmission. Rather, it's one of emotion. We believed Amina's words because we wanted to believe them. We have witnessed such brutality in Syria, such ugliness, that we were bound to latch on to anything that offered beauty and hope. That is exactly what Amina did. We want to believe in Amina because she is something worth believing in.

But now we have reached a time for reckoning. We need to know the truth. Whether Amina is real or not, her story is certainly real. Over 1200 Syrians have died for the cause of freedom. Unknown more have been imprisoned and tortured. Each and every one deserve the attention Amina has garnered.

And that is why it would be so tragic if Amina turns out to be fake. So much time, energy, effort and emotion would have been wasted upon her as others languish and suffer. People outside Syria can only do so much to help, and currently that help is being directed primarily towards Amina.

If she is in fact a work of fiction, the time has come for her creator to fess up. His or her personal discomfort and embarrassment will be far outweighed by the good it will do for every Syrian currently locked in a struggle that is anything but a work of fiction.

But until such confirmation comes or definitive proof is discovered, we must assume Amina is real. As Andy Carvin worries, "this discussion about her identity could distract people from the possibility that should [sic] might be being brutalized in detention, and in dire need of support from friends and strangers alike."

UPDATE: Amina is in fact fake. I'm glad we now know the truth.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The May 27th Gamble

May 27th could prove the most important day for the Egyptian revolution since Mubarak's resignation. This Friday, a coalition of revolutionaries have called for a million-man protest. They hope to spark, in their own words, a second Egyptian revolution.

This confrontational strategy is fraught with risks. Of course, the protests will anger the military council ruling Egypt, which cares about stability above all else. But perhaps more worrisome, the protests could further fracture Egyptian society.

We all marveled at the stunning unity of the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square during the revolution. Young and old, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor, urban and rural all chanted together, "The people want the fall of the regime." But as many analysts warned, once those chants became reality, the unity would begin to disintegrate. So it has.

Since Mubarak's resignation, several fractures have become visible. The call for massive protests on May 27th could exacerbate all of them.

First, sectarian tensions between Christian and Muslims have bubbled over on several occasions. As Michael Hanna points out, these tensions "have deep roots in recent Egyptian history [and] may be the most urgent test of how much Egypt has actually changed since the fall of Hosni Mubarak." Violence has prompted some Christians to voice nostalgia for the security of the Mubarak era, and in a few extreme cases, they have even called for foreign intervention. For the first time, we've seen Christians protest separately from those demonstrating in Tahrir Square.

These tensions are even visible in the Egyptian-American community. A recent conference I attended devolved into a shouting match between Christians and Muslims before one well-respected community leader defused the situation with a timely joke.

While the May 27th protest leaders have called on all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, to descend upon Tahrir Square, they oddly have not included anything concerning religious freedom and tolerance in their list of demands (in Arabic here). For many Christians (and Egypt's other religious minorities), silence on the issue implies acquiescence to the unacceptable status quo.

Second, the debate over the role of Islam in politics has also caused divisions within Egyptian society. Most visibly, Salafists have been behind much of the sectarian troubles in recent months. The Muslim Brotherhood, though it has condemned the violence, has not quelled fears about its ultimate intentions. Mixed messages abound. For example, even though the Brotherhood's new political party includes Christian leadership, it also plans to work closely with Salafi political parties in the upcoming elections.

The May 27th protests will have to recruit their million men and women without the help of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has refused to participate. As one of the best organized organizations in Egypt, the Brotherhood sees an interest in holding elections as soon as possible and therefore does not want any major disturbances to delay the electoral schedule.

Yet the Brotherhood also initially refused to officially participate in the January 25th revolution. If the protests gather momentum, they may change their mind about May 27th as well. Moreover, it's not clear they will be able to maintain their own unity. Just as they did in the January 25th revolutions, youth members of the movement may join the protests without official permission, further contributing to a generational divide within the organization. Finally, the May 27th protests may further split the interests of the estranged Brotherhood member who has declared his candidacy for president against the wishes of the leadership.

Third, different revolutionary priorities have also led to disagreement. On May 15th, a largely secular crowd protested in front of the Israeli embassy in commemoration of what they call the Nakba, or the "catastrophe" of the founding of Israel and the coerced migration of Palestinians. For many Egyptians, the protests and resulting crackdown was an unnecessary distraction from Egypt's tremendous internal problems. As the blogger Zeinobia put it, May 15th "was truly Nakba for all Egypt, no one won as everybody lost." That is not to say Palestine isn't important to Egyptians or to the Egyptian revolution, as this post by Hossam el-Hamalawy clearly shows. But rather, many simply feel now is not the right time to stir up yet another hornet's nest.

Instead, people like Wael Ghonim have urged the revolutionaries to focus on the economic conditions of the country. Underlying this argument is a valid concern that the revolution has lost touch with the needs and aspirations of the average Egyptian who cares more about bread than abstract political rights.

Tellingly, the May 27th organizers have placed the economy at the top of their agenda. However, their demands take a clear ideological turn to the left. They call for the establishment of a minimum and maximum wage, "the distribution of wealth to rescue the country from economic crisis," price controls, progressive tax schedules, and the prosecution of corrupt businessmen to recover ill-gained earnings.

Putting aside the question of what would objectively best serve Egypt's economy, the socialist slant of these demands may alienate certain segments of the Egyptian society who would otherwise participate on May 27th. For example, there is no mention of the need to promote economic growth through investment, trade and tourism or how protests would serve those ends. In addition, the question of foreign assistance will prove an obstacle to unity. As business magnate and newly-minted politician Naguib Sawiris in favor of such assistance tweeted recently, "busy writing the economic program of our party, not sure left wingers will like it!" But the thought of foreign assistance disgusts many Egyptians, such as Gigi Ibrahim who likened it to "shackles."

All of these issues - sectarianism, Islamism and revolutionary priorities - combine to form significant obstacles for the May 27th protests by draining possible sources of support. Unfortunate in-fighting between the revolutionaries, sparked by a mixture of jealousy and policy disagreement, has also hampered unity. But the greatest hurdle may simply be public fatigue. For months, Egyptians have lived on the edge. They were willing to balance on that edge to overthrow Mubarak. But with so many fault lines running through Egyptian society, it is unclear they are willing to continue to do so on May 27th. Nor is it clear that the demands of the May 27th protests can best be achieved on the street.

I am sure the May 27th organizers have carefully considered these questions, weighed the pros and cons, and decided to take a massive risk. They may succeed in sparking a second revolution that will bring true change to Egypt. Or they may drastically fail and even irrevocably tarnish the cadre of revolutionaries who led the way on January 25th. We will know Friday whether their gamble will pay off.

UPDATE: A blogger I cite above, Zeinobia, has translated the list of demands for May 27th and added her own commentary here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Think Before you Tweet

For class, I'm reading Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion, which examines how the irrational construction of social perception undermines democratic governance. The entire book is very thought provoking, but I'd like to focus on one line in particular for this post: 
For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond [...] Let him cast a stone who never passed on as the real inside truth what he had heard someone say who knew no more than he did.
I would say Lippmann wrote this with Twitter in mind but, considering Public Opinion was published in 1922, that would've required a time machine or a favor from Nostradamus. If Lippmann expressed such pessimism for traditional media, I can't imagine the levels of despondency he'd reach contemplating social media.

Take just two recent online myths that would've had Lippmann popping Prozac. After the Bin Laden raid, countless Internet users posted the Martin Luther King Junior quote: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." Then, a blogger's assertion that the quote is fake began to proliferate just as rapidly. Except, as it turns out, the quote is not entirely made up. We went from posting, retracting, to amending a viral meme in a matter of 48 hours.

But not all internet myths are so harmless the misattribution of quotes to national heroes. A few weeks ago, the picture below began to make the rounds. It purportedly shows an Israeli Subaru ad in which a car runs over some Palestinian kids with the caption "We'll see who can stand against you." As Iran's Press TV explains with thinly-veiled satisfication, the ad "has drawn considerable outrage for its implied promotion of running over Palestinian kids."

Except the ad's fake. A company spokesperson said, "we strongly condemn these elements that are trying to harm the good name of the company.”  And the Palestinian Authority, which condemned the ad, admitted "it is not clear whether this is a genuine advertisement or whether someone is making use of the Subaru logo." The picture, however, is not fake. It shows a well-known incident last year in which an Israeli ran over Arab children in East Jerusalem.

Both of these online myths exemplify, in Lippmann's words, "our normal human habit of trying to squeeze into our stereotypes all that can be squeezed, and of casting into outer darkness that which does not fit." We believed the MLK quote because our mythologized MLK would have said something just like that. Anti-Zionists believed the Subaru ad because their demonized Israeli would have boasted about running over children just like the ad.

To overcome the shortfalls of public opinion, Lippmann urged a greater role for experts in informing the press and policy in democratic systems. The problem of social media is that every tweet or post is an implicit contention that people can rely on our expertise or ability to identify expertise. We users therefore need to take the responsibility to act as if we were experts. We must check our sources before we share them. More importantly, when we do make mistakes, it's not enough to just delete them. We have to share our mea culpas in the same way we share everything else. And most importantly, we must think before we tweet.

Taking such personal responsibility will go a long way in resisting the internet's inherent susceptibility to myth and echo chambers. It'll also let poor Lippmann rest a little easier.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Nose-Bleeds in Tahrir Square

Jeffrey Goldberg has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on the Arab Spring. It is rich for the on-the-ground reporting and high-level interviews he brings to the table. I especially like Goldberg's argument that the U.S. foreign policy must show "analytical humility, doctrinal plasticity, and tolerance for contradiction" in the wake of the Arab Spring. But the analysis likely exaggerates the tension between democracy and Islamism, between American values and American interests.

He uses the issue of the veil to explain the tensions underlying the Arab revolutions. For example, he recounts how he felt the "thrilling" exhilaration to personally join a protest in Tunisia, only to be disappointed and confused when he noticed "that a number of the young men in the crowd were bearded, and that many, though certainly not all, of the women kept their hair covered." A portion of the crowd then began to harass a famous secular academic.

Goldberg goes on to describe Secretary Clinton's insistence that wearing the veil must be a choice and not a practice of compulsion. He then cites the New Beginning Cairo speech, in which President Obama affirmed the right to wear the veil as part of the "freedom to practice one's religion." According to Goldberg, this line "was not met with joy by some Middle Eastern women's-rights activists."

Certainly, the line was controversial for some of the activists Goldberg spoke with - and even more so for women's rights groups here at home. But the reaction of the audience listening to the President live at Cairo University tells a different story.

The auditorium was split between the big-wigs sitting on the ground floor and the youth up in the nose-bleeds. The big-wigs were regime members, business leaders, religious figures, and celebrities. They were almost all entirely men. The nose-bleeds (myself included) were all young students, split equally amongst the sexes. Whereas the big-wigs gave polite golf claps when the President greeted the crowd with Assalamu Aleykum, the nose-bleeds roared enthusiastically and even shouted "We love you Obama."

Not surprisingly, it was the nose-bleeds that cheered loudly for the President's line on religious freedom, women's rights and the veil. They did not share any of the concerns of the activists Goldberg cites. Nor is it surprising that veiled women - and Islam more generally - have played a central role in the January 25th revolution. After all, it was those very nose-bleeds who descended upon Tahrir Square to remove from power the men who sat below them golf-clapping in June 2009.

There is no question that Islam - and Islamism - will play a more important role in post-revolutionary Egypt. It is therefore important to probe, as Goldberg does, how far this new trend will reach. But the article falls short for not asking some other equally important questions about Islamism.

To what extent can strong democratic institutions channel and harness religious activity for the greater national good? Does political and economic opportunity limit the appeal to an Islamist agenda in the long-term? Are all Islamists equally distressing to American values and interests? Will Islamists be satisfied by focusing on an internal agenda or will they seek to upset the balance of international relations? Do non-Islamist actors who have also been recently empowered seek an international agenda any less disruptive? Is the disruption of the international status quo actually such a bad thing? Can the U.S. influence and even change the trajectory of Arab revolutions?

All of the answers to these questions are not only contested but they actually contest the often assumed dichotomy between democracy and Islamism, American values and American interests. Until we have clarified these questions, it's difficult to definitively accept or reject the premise of the article's title: "Danger: Falling Tyrants." But let there be no doubt: the youths sitting in the nose-bleeds have made their answer clear.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Pro-Lebanese Strategy

Today, I went to an event at USIP on Lebanon and the Arab Spring featuring Representative Charles Boustany (R-LA). I was generally impressed with Rep. Boustany, not because I agreed with everything he said, but because he approached the issues from a critical and sober perspective. Unfortunately that's all too rare when it comes to the Hill and the Middle East.

During the Q&A, I asked the Congressman: "It seems we do not have a policy on Lebanon, but rather a set of policies on Lebanese actors and institutions. We have a policy on March 14 and March 8, on the STL and on the LAF. But what is our policy on Lebanon? Does it matter we don't have one?"

Rep. Boustany responded first by clarifying that the US doesn't have policies for countries, but rather strategies. He then admitted that the US has not sufficiently developed a clear, unified strategy for Lebanon. While his speech emphasized the need to continue military assistance, broaden educational exchanges, and support parliamentary processes, among other measures, he did not explicitly delineate the strategy that these policies serve. So I'll instead say what I think.

As Rep. Boustany asserted, our primary interest in Lebanon is stability. As a weak state overwhelmed by foreign influences, Lebanon is both susceptible to externally-driven conflict as well as a catalyst to regional instability. We therefore simply cannot afford a flare up of either internal sectarian tensions or an external conflict with Israel - especially at this time of fragile democratic revolutions and a stalled peace process in the region.

It's at this point that many point the finger at Hezbollah and its alliance with Iran and Syria. To be sure, they have all had - some more consistently than others - a negative and disruptive effect on Lebanese and regional politics. But it is a mistake to therefore conclude a pro-stability strategy is an anti-Hezbollah strategy.

That's exactly what we have done in recent years. We've viewed Lebanese politics as a zero-sum game in which we must counteract Hezbollah's influence at every turn. We support its political rivals. We arm the Lebanese military. We push for the Special Tribunal on Lebanon. None of these policies is troubling in of itself. But our intentions to use these policies primarily as an anti-Hezbollah cudgel only escalates the political tensions within Lebanon and the region as a whole. We are sometimes acting - an external actor as we are - in ways that are just as intrusive as Syria and Iran.

In that sense, we are acting at cross purposes. We push against Hezbollah because they are a destabilizing force. But then we contribute to the very dynamic of foreign intervention that makes Lebanon unstable.

Instead, we must reformulate our approach to Lebanon from an anti-Hezbollah to a pro-Lebanese strategy. Many of our policies would remain exactly the same. We would still train the Lebanese military, promote civil society, support governmental institutions like the parliament, and provide economic and development assistance. But we would do so with the ultimate purpose of reinforcing the sovereignty, legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lebanese government.

A pro-Lebanese strategy would also recognize that Hezbollah represents a legitimate segment of the Lebanese population. They may have external patrons, but they are not an external actor. We can help shape the political, economic and social environment that determines Hezbollah's popularity, but no one can ever fully excise Hezbollah from Lebanon's future. Accepting this fact and acting accordingly will require political courage not only here in DC, but also in Tel Aviv and Beirut.

What will help make that pill easier to swallow is the realization that a pro-Lebanese strategy will cause considerable consternation in Damascus and Tehran. In recent years, Hezbollah has had greater difficulty balancing its dual identities as a regional resistance militia and a national socio-political movement. A pro-Lebanese strategy would exacerbate this tension within Hezbollah and help shift the balance towards the national. It may even help lead to a situation where Hezbollah's leadership will be given a stark choice by the Lebanese people: abandon your regional patrons or we will abandon you.

Moreover, unlike Iran and Syria, we can take comfort that our fundamental ideology as a nation does not ring hollow. Iran and Syria have little to offer Lebanon besides repression and economic stagnation. That's why they have no choice but to derive the majority of their influence by pitting one Lebanese faction against the others. But we can offer Lebanon a far more appealing example - one in which democracy and prosperity unite the country and ensure its stability. By adopting a pro-Lebanese strategy, we double down on our belief that our fundamental values are indeed universal - a bet I'm willing to take.

UPDATE: I recently wrote a paper on what a pro-Lebanese framework would look like for resolving the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. It also lays out the argument in much greater detail and, more importantly, addresses the counterarguments. I'll be looking for a way to upload and link the paper shortly.

UPDATE 2: You can read the paper here (PDF).

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Muslim Brotherhood and Bin Laden

There has been some controversy over the Muslim Brotherhood reaction to the death of Osama Bin Laden. So I thought it'd be useful to translate their Arabic press release and explain what's going on.

Statement from the Muslim Brotherhood on the Assassination of Sheikh Osama Bin Laden (May 2, 2011)

The entire world and especially Muslims have experienced and been concerned by a malicious media campaign that conflates Islam with terrorism and describes Muslims as violent since connecting the events of September 11th to Al Qaeda.

Today, the American President announced that special forces from the American Marines successfully assassinated Osama Bin Laden, a woman, and children along with a number of companions. We now find ourselves facing a new situation.

The Muslim Brotherhood announces that they are against the use of violence in general and against the method of assassination. They instead favor fair trials of those accused of any crime.

The Muslim Brotherhood calls for the entire world and the Western world - both the people and especially its governments - to stop tying Islam with terrorism and to correct the false image of Islam that has been deliberately promoted for years.

The Muslim Brotherhood affirms the legitimacy of resistance against the foreign occupation of any country guaranteed by divine law and international conventions. To confuse legitimate resistance and violence against innocents has been the intention of the Zionist enemy in particular.

So long as occupation remains, so will legitimate resistance remain. America, NATO and the EU must quickly announce the end of the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

The Muslim Brotherhood calls for the US to refrain from intelligence operations against its detractors and to refrain from entering the internal affairs of any Arab or Muslim country.
Eric Trager read this statement and oddly concludes "Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Sticks with Bin Laden." He goes on argue that this statement casts doubt whether the MB will "moderate" in post-revolution Egypt. As Marc Lynch tweeted, "this is a bizarre reading." But that hasn't stopped others to agree with Trager.

Let's address the statement point by point. First, there is no doubt many conflate Islam with terrorism. Now I don't think it's as pervasive as the MB implies, but no one can deny it exists.

Second, condemning assassination does not mean the MB has decided to "stick with Bin Laden" and refused to "moderate." Quite the opposite in fact. For years the MB has struggled to definitively prove it has internalized democratic principles and rejects terrorism. Their condemnation of assassination must be understood in that light. If it supports the killing of Bin Laden, why wouldn't it support the assassination of rival politicians in Egypt? Moreover, this sentiment reflects a broader Arab and Muslim feeling that while they are happy he is gone, they are uneasy in how he was dispatched. As a movement competing in elections in Egypt, we can't expect the MB or any other Egyptian party to stray from public opinion.

Third, what is extreme about asking for fair trials for criminals, even bloodthirsty terrorists? We hear the same arguments here in the U.S. all the time.

Fourth, the MB has always sought to separate "legitimate resistance" against "occupation" from Al-Qaeda style terrorism. Of course, for Israelis facing indiscriminate rocketfire or American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, this distinction is entirely meaningless. But for the future of Egypt, it's hugely important. The Brotherhood views Al-Qaeda and like-minded individuals as a threat to its mantle as the primary Islamist movement in Egypt. It considers the AQ philosophy as an existential threat and treats the group accordingly.

Fifth, the demand for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and the recognition of the rights of Palestinians is not a unique MB demand. It's a near universal demand of Arabs and Muslims alike. The demand for the respect of sovereignty also reflects a broad societal concern over the history of colonialism and leadership pliant to foreign interests. The important question is not one of ends, but means. It's hard to criticize the MB for demanding such core planks of their political platform in a press release. The more important question is whether the MB will gain enough influence to fundamentally alter Egyptian foreign policy, and even more uncertain, whether it would choose to do so even if it did gain that capacity.

Understanding the Muslim Brotherhood is difficult enough. In fact, it's not even clear that the Muslim Brotherhood understands itself. Yet there's no doubt that hysteria over mundane press releases only makes the job harder.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Why I Won't Write about Bin Laden

I'm a member of the 9/11 generation. Like all Americans, we can remember exactly where we watched the Towers fall. For me, it was Mr. Flynn's world history class. But unlike all Americans, my generation was uniquely shaped by the horrors that day.We were old enough to comprehend the gravity of the attacks, but young enough that 9/11 would serve as the foundational moment of our lives.

Unlike our parents and grandparents, we could not compare what we saw and experienced that day to the other seminal moments of American and world history. Sure, we could draw facile connections to obvious analogies. But but we had no personal experience to draw upon. We were on our own to wrangle with and contextualize the raw emotions we felt.

Like many of my generation, we channeled those emotions into a desire to enter a life of public service. Some like myself focused specifically on the Middle East. We began to study Arabic, read about Islam and travel abroad in the Arab world. We did so for instrumental reasons. We wanted to learn what caused people like Osama bin Laden to murder so many innocent lives. More importantly, we wanted to help bring him to justice.

That's why, as an undergraduate, I hoped to one day become a counterterrorism intelligence analyst. I wanted to use my knowledge of the Middle East to protect the homeland. And as such, I viewed the Arab world largely as a security problem to be solved. But something unexpected happened: my interest in terrorism and Bin Laden faded.

I instead became fascinated for the Middle East for what it is: an immensely complex and diverse conglomeration of peoples, histories, religions and cultures. Terrorism may have brought me to the Middle East, but I have remained for wholly different reasons. I stayed partially because I thought I could help create a new beginning between the United States and the Arabic-speaking world. But in reality I stayed because I fell in love with the region - with the food, with the history, with the culture, and most of all with the people.

While the region is confronted by a host of profound problems, I have learned the region itself is not a problem to be solved. Rather, it is a wealth of potential to be activated. That's the main lesson we've learned from the Arab revolutions over the past few months.

That's also why I haven't written much about Al Qaeda previously on this blog and why I don't plan to start anytime soon. Others have dedicated their careers to solving the problem of Al Qaeda - and they deserve to be praised for their efforts to protect our immediate security. I, however, have turned my attention to how the U.S. can help the Middle East realize its full potential. It also just so happens that I believe that only then will the long-term threat of religious extremism  be no more.

Two years ago, I remember walking through a Muslim slum in Cairo when I spotted a faded picture of Bin Laden sticking out from a heap of garbage. Arabs have long ago thrown Al Qaeda into the refuse pile of history. They have shunned his murderous ideology for an entirely different narrative of hope, of pride, and of freedom. As we have seen these past few months, they are fighting bravely to actualize the vast potential of the region. In the words of Rachid Ghannouchi, a leading Islamist in Tunisia, on Al Jazeera today: "Bin Laden died in Tunisia before dying in Pakistan."

It is that struggle that will be the focus of this blog. Hopefully, it will also play a central role in my career. I cannot think of a better way to honor those lost on September 11th than by helping Arabs realize their inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Such an achievement will ensure that Bin Laden's photograph will forever remain rotting in that Cairo trash heap where it belongs.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rethinking Democracy Assistance

Yesterday I went to an event at GW on "Democracy Promotion in the Middle East." The three speakers,  Steven Heydemann, Eva Bellin and Ellen Lust, have all been writing about the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East for years. And unfortunately, they focused mainly on that question as opposed to pivoting to the supposed topic of the day: how the US can help more effectively support democratic reform in the region.

Nonetheless, their talks reflect the importance of understanding what's happening in the region as a prerequisite for formulating effective policy. While they did not explicitly address democracy promotion, their analyses imply certain policies, some of which would be quite unorthodox.

For example, Heydemann emphasized that it's not just the opposition that learns how to better agitate for their rights, but regimes also learn how to better repress their citizens. He calls this "upgrading authoritarianism," in which regimes can become "stronger, more flexible, and more resilient" over time. Specifically in the past few months, the leaders of countries like Yemen and Syria have seen the way Ben Ali and Mubarak have been treated and learned that: 1) more violence is needed 2) if I step down, I might end up in jail or worse.

Based on Heydemann's anlaysis, democracy promotion policy should look closely at the strategic calculus of these leaders to learn how to best coax them to implement actual reforms, or when necessary, step down. This means ICC investigations of Qaddafi are counterproductive. Promises of immunity are untrustworthy. And safety in exile becomes paramount. Enhancing programs like the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which grants former African leaders a nice stipend for transferring power peacefully, would make sense. As unsavory as it sounds, offering President Saleh a mansion in the Hamptons might be more effective use of democracy promotion money than funding civil society programs.

Eva Bellin focused her analysis on the decision of the security apparatus to repress its citizens. For Bellin, so long as the military is capable and willing of shooting civilians, authoritarian regimes will survive. She provided three variables to determine willingness to shoot: the size of the protests, the nature of the protests (peaceful or violent), and finally the professionalism of the military.

This analysis suggests that US assistance to foreign militaries could actually have a democratizing effect. While such assistance undoubtedly increases the capacity to repress, if it is executed in a manner that professionalizes the military (instills institutional pride, builds national identity, weakens patrimonial ties, etc), then the military will be less willing to sacrifice its self interests by shooting civilians in revolutionary moments. Coincidentally, we are working hard to professionalize militaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon. This policy prescription is quite counterintuitive, as military assistance is usually considered an example of propping up authoritarian regimes.

Finally, among other topics, Lust identified the importance of considering the variable of time. Combined with Heydemann and Bellin's emphasis on the robustness of authoritarianism, we should consider the difference between promoting democratic evolution versus democratic revolution. Currently, we hope that minor changes over time will accrue and eventually lead to democratic systems. But if authoritarian regimes are in fact so adaptive and coercive, then maybe only revolutions can bring democracy in the Middle East. In that case, why waste resources on policies designed for evolutionary change?

Now I'm not saying these policy prescriptions are what Heydemann, Bellin and Lust would prescribe. Nor am I saying I think they are correct. In fact, I think some are flat wrong, and they are wrong because they are based on flawed understandings of why the Middle East is undemocratic. But that just proves the more general point: we need to understand the region before we understand how to democratize that region. So even though this event largely ignored policy prescriptions, it still was quite useful in learning how we might formulate policy in the future.