Monday, December 17, 2012

Bahrain's PR Trap

New York Times journalist Nick Kristof was denied entry into Bahrain today. As he tweeted, “I’m at #Bahrain airport, and the government is denying me entry. Our ally is terrified of human rights reporting.”

His rejection should come as no surprise. He’s been on the government’s bad side ever since reporting from Pearl Roundabout during the February 14th uprising. While I’ve been told (but was unable to confirm) he has been granted two media visas since then, he has previously been denied entry. And he’s in good company of a long list of journalists, academics, and human rights groups that has been turned away these past two years. Just this week, a member of the European Parliament was also denied entry.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Morsi's Power Hunger

Yesterday was yet another depressing day for Egypt. With violence and anger escalating, the Egyptian president took to the podium. And like his predecessor before him, he squandered the opportunity to bridge the divides of his nation. Instead, he further exacerbated the situation with the familiar mix of meaningless concessions and meaningful threats. As Hafsa Halawa tweeted in response, “This is the worst-case scenario…This speech isn’t making me angry. It’s making me sad. So very sad.”

A slew of articles have been written these past few weeks declaring Morsi the new dictator of Egypt – or at least, the next dictator in the making. In an article entitled “Shame on Anyone Who Ever Thought Mohammad Morsi Was a Moderate,” Eric Trager argues the Muslim Brotherhood is inherently inimical to pluralism and democratic dialogue. In another article, Trager focuses specifically on “Morsi’s uncompromising demeanor.” In a similar vein, Khalil al-Anani examines Morsi’s “autocratic disposition” that has led him to take the “strongman route” to governing.

Clearly, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood generally have acted in severely troubling ways since the Egyptian revolution. They have broken promises about how many seats they would contend for in parliament, whether they would run for president, and who they would appoint in their administration. The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood proper, their purportedly independent Freedom and Justice Party, and the presidency remains as murky as ever. They have purged many of their members who have not adhered to the official line. And they seem to have a genuine disregard for the needs of both religious and political minorities. As Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted, “Morsi has made the transition from dissident to despot at an impressive rate of speed.” However, it is not clear that their actions reveal an inherently authoritarian disposition as Trager and al-Anani contend.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What to Remember and What to Forget

Yesterday, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were slain in a terror attack against our consulate in Benghazi, Libya. While the attack appears to have been pre-planned, the terrorists took advantage (or potentially stoked) anti-American protests over a bigoted film denigrating Islam. Meanwhile, protests in Egypt over the film turned ugly as demonstrators scaled the walls of our embassy and tore apart the American flag.

Yesterday was also the day we vowed to never forget the attacks of 11 years ago. And there is much that we should never forget. We should never forget the heroism of firefighters climbing up stairways and diplomats serving under fire. We should never forget the common bond we share as Americans and how that bond is strengthened by our differences. We should never forget our perseverance as a nation and the image of an American flag rustling above the rubble. We should never forget our founding principles as a nation that should guide us in everything we do. We should never forget the sacrifices made by our fellow Americans serving in our military and diplomatic corps. Most of all, we should never forget the fallen and the families they left behind.

Yesterdal also proved to be the day that we should forget some things. To those who seek political advantage in the face of national tragedy, forget you. To those who spew venomous hatred against others, forget you too. And to those who feed the spiral of extremism by responding to bigotry with violence, forget you most of all. We have so many better things to remember than you.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4th on Trial

I want to wish everyone a very happy Fourth of July. I plan to spend my day going to the Nationals game with friends, binging on Freedom Fries, and watching the fireworks over the National Mall. But for this post, I wanted to remember two groups of people who will have an entirely different kind of Fourth of July. Their Fourth of July won’t be about friends, fries, and fireworks. But what they will go through today should remind all of us what the Fourth truly should be about: how lucky we are to live in a free nation.

In Egypt, the political trial against NGOs promoting Egyptian democracy restarts today with high profile testimony from prosecution witnesses. According to Fayza Aboulnaga, the minister who is spearheading the crackdown against the NGOs, the accused organizations were operating without a license and are therefore subject to prosecution. But Freedom House president David Kramer, refutes Aboulnaga’s accusations and argues persuasively that the trial is part of a larger crackdown against civil society by remnants of the Mubarak regime intent on aborting the revolution.  Forty three defendants stand accused, but only a fraction will attend court tomorrow. After months of pressure, the US government convinced the Egyptian authorities to allow the accused Americans to leave the country. The Egyptians remain to face trial, but they won’t do so alone. Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute refused to abandon his Egyptian colleagues. And Sherif Mansour resigned his position at Freedom House to return to Egypt to face trial in person. He was immediately arrested upon his arrival.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Triangle of Conflict in Bahrain

My research partner Reza Akbari and I have finally finished our thesis on "The Triangle of Conflict: How Bahrain's Internal Divisions Inhibit Reconciliation." After months of research, two trips to Bahrain and over 50 interviews conducted, we are excited to share with you our results. You can read the entire thesis here, but let me give you a brief summary of our analysis.

In the thesis, we explore the potential for political reconciliation in Bahrain in which people can learn to live non-violently with each other despite their differences. To achieve that reconciliation, moderates from across the political spectrum must gain enough influence to be able to come to the center as part of a political process. Any political settlement will obviously not solve all of Bahrain's deep-seated problems, but it would set Bahrain on a path towards reconciliation.

In the first part of the paper, we ask who are the actors that must participate in any potential dialogue working towards reconciliation. The US media tends to oversimplify the situation in Bahrain by weaving a narrative about a Shia people demanding their rights from a Sunni government. In fact, there are three main camps in Bahraini politics - the government, the opposition, and the loyalist opposition - that do not fall neatly along sectarian lines.These three camps form what we call the “triangle of conflict” in which political struggles occur both on a systemic level between the three camps and at a group level between the factions that form those camps.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

What Carl Sagan Would Say About Bahrain

For the past two weeks, I was in Bahrain conducting interviews for my thesis. With my research partner Reza Akbari, I hope to be soon writing and publishing several articles on what we've learned. I chose to study Bahrain because I believe it is not very well understood here in Washington, DC. There are three reasons for that.

One, most Americans (myself definitely included) did not pay attention to Bahrain until the uprising last year. As a result, we only hear about what Bahrain is now without understanding what Bahrain was before. That lack of historical context not only makes understanding what's happening in Bahrain now difficult, but it also makes predicting what might happen next impossible.

Two, some Bahraini voices have a much stronger presence in DC than others. Obviously the government, with its embassy and PR firms, can broadcast its perspective effectively. At the same time, Bahraini and international human rights groups have also done an excellent job in pushing their own narrative. And, to a lesser extent, the main opposition party Wefaq has also found a platform to push its views internationally. Yet there are many (exactly how many who knows?) Bahrainis who neither support the government nor the traditional opposition. Some have created new, predominantly Sunni groups as a kind of anti-opposition. Others feel completely unrepresented by any group. These voices go largely unheard outside of Bahrain.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Mourning Pope Shenouda III

This weekend the Coptic Pope Shenouda III passed away after leading his flock for over forty years. My thoughts are with the Coptic Community at this time of mourning. Pope Shenouda once said that “It is not we who live in Egypt, but it is Egypt that lives in us.” I know his memory will live on in Egyptians for years to come.

The outpouring for Pope Shenouda has been massive from all Egyptians, as these excellent photographs by @mosaaberizing show. 

Photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Humanity of Culture

Last night, the Iranian film “A Separation” directed by Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar for best foreign film. This is a fantastic and much-needed victory for the Iranian people. They have had so little to celebrate in recent years, it’s nice that – for at least one night – they have a reason to raise their heads high. Just watch how this one Iranian family reacted to last night's news:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Should We Pay Attention to Jordan?

I spend a lot of time reading about the Middle East. Too much time perhaps. Yet, with so much happening all across the region, I still can barely keep up. So it was a complete surprise when a Jordanian friend told me that the monarchy is in trouble right now in Amman. Here’s what she told me:

First, people are criticizing the monarchy more openly than ever before. For example, check out this interview with a well-known opposition figure, Dr. Ahmed Al-Abadi. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Security Sector Reform

Andrew Exum and Dana Stuster call for a stronger emphasis on security sector reform over at the Sada blog. They argue, “the United States must bolster its relations with nascent democratic institutions like the new parliaments and start with what many of the citizens of these countries are demanding: reform of the internal security services.”

I absolutely agree.

When folks think about supporting political reform, there is a tendency to focus on the institutions that symbolize democracy (parliaments, elections, judiciaries, etc) and the people who demand democracy (activists, journalists, politicians, etc). And of course, that focus is justifiable. But we often lose sight of other less intuitive ways in which we can promote democratic transitions – like engaging with the security services.

Egyptian Central Security Forces take a break. I watched them beat protesters a few minutes later.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Immunity for Saleh

There is currently a debate over whether the US should have given Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh a visa to receive medical treatment. A lot of folks who know Yemen better than me say it was a mistake. But Dana Stuster, who also knows Yemen better than me, just published this piece arguing it was the right move.

Stuster contends that while the GCC deal is bad (it gave him immunity before he actually left power) and while the decision might anger Yemenis protesting in the streets, ultimately giving Saleh a visa makes sense because the US still needs him. Yes, he is on his way out the door, but he still has his foot stuck in the door jam. We need to convince him to kindly move it. And that means staying on his good side by allowing him medical treatment in the States.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lessons of January 28th

Today is the one year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Yes, the protests began on January 25th. But it was on January 28th that a minority of protesters ballooned into a majority of revolutionaries. Exactly one year ago, protesters collided with security forces all across Egypt, but one clash in particular has especially engrained itself in my mind: the battle of Qasr al-Nil Bridge.

At this time last year, waves of protesters crashed and crashed again upon the seemingly immovable security forces on Qasr al-Nil. For hours, the battle lines went back and forth, but it seemed for certain that the protesters would eventually be turned back. But then the improbable happened. The protesters actually won. And those waves that once crashed ineffectively against the security forces began to flood Tahrir Square. They would not leave until Mubarak fell.