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.