Category Archives: Democratic Uprisings in the Arab World

Starting on December 17, 2010 with the desperate public self-immolation of an unemployed 26-year-old Tunisian man, almost all Arab states have confronted some degree of anti-regime demonstration. These protests have primarily been non-violent, though they have often resulted in violence, particularly from aggressive state police forces. Within weeks they brought regime change to Tunisia and Egypt, governments recently thought stable. But mixed in with optimism and excitement is an understanding that these countries face radically different circumstances, and that a period of profound domestic and foreign policy upheaval lies ahead for Middle Eastern politics.

In any event, this is already likely the most-significant geopolitical event since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The General Assembly Vote on Palestinian Observer Status

I think the hardest tack for one to take over the Israel-Palestine Conflict is to be simultaneously substantive and humane.  It is certainly more-intuitive to simply take a side.  Take the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, which touched not only the Gaza Strip but also Israel’s largest cities: Israel supporters typically focus on Hamas rocket attacks launched in peacetime while at least declining to broadcast any opinions about the total blockade of a population the size of Manhattan or Israel’s continued construction of settlements in West Bank lands they have never made legal claim to; many Palestine sympathizers focus on the hundreds of Palestinians killed every time the IDF undertakes a major operation in the Territories, thereby claiming disproportionality in the use of violence–which implies, whether they will verbally admit to this or not, that months of prior attacks by Hamas with the express purpose of killing Israeli civilians (or Hamas’ strategic decision to hide in dense civilian neighborhoods) are morally and politically irrelevant in Israel’s decision to resort to violence.  There are the positive neutrals (“I hope that both parties are able to bring this conflict to a quick and peaceful solution”) whom are of course well-represented in the diplomatic corps, and the negative neutrals (“I wish these asses would just blow each other up already”) of whom you probably know a few personally.  I for one am frustrated by the State of Israel’s disingenuous foot-dragging over giving Palestinians more control over their land and their government, and making reasonable restitution for Palestinian land, property and life lost after taking the strategic upper hand in multiple wars.  I am also frustrated by what appears to be a total lack of discussion among Palestinian sympathizers of the harm done to the Palestinian cause by militants.  (Apparently the non-violence that worked for India, Black Americans in the South and Black Africans in South Africa would just never work for Palestinians in the Territories or abroad…But then the Territories have been under occupation for 45 years and armed struggle has actually spoiled proposed improvements in their status.)  Like the positive neutrals I am pleased to see the violence stop, but I  have a greater trepidation that these episodes are nothing but a perverse political negotiation in which some of the parties are both foreign and non-public.  (A certain Islamic Republic comes to mind, and if I am right it definitely isn’t helping.)  I share nothing of the negative neutrals’ animus in this case, aside from a mistrust of many of the powers that be–especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and Hamas.

Yesterday the United Nations General Assembly granted Observer status to the Palestinian Authority.  Acceptance of the Palestinian Authority’s bid for recognition from the General Assembly was widely anticipated.  While this vote does not make the Palestinian Authority a full member in the UN and certainly does nothing substantive to make Palestine a functional state–full membership would have to be granted by the Security Council where the United States wields veto, and Palestinian functional statehood is unattainable without consent from the State of Israel–this vote represents the consensus of the General Assembly and would allow the Palestinian Authority access to a number of United Nations institutions–including, potentially, the International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Court was organized to deal with charges of war crimes against individual persons.  The danger of the Court (which is the reason the United States is not a party to it) is that charges of war crimes can be issued on an inconsistent or politically-motivated basis.  Now that the Palestinian Authority gains Observer status at the UN, if it is granted access to the ICC it could bring charges of war crimes against IDF or Israeli government officials.  The United Kingdom, which ultimately abstained from the vote, had indicated that possible participation in the ICC was one of its greatest reservations against granting observer status to the Palestinian Authority.

I for one applauded the Palestinian Authority’s decision to pursue this acknowledgment from the United Nations, and I congratulate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on its success.  While my country and Israel both insist that nationhood can only be granted through negotiations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, negotiations have effectively been frozen since the fall of the moderate Olmert government.  (Intransigence from the far-right Likud government is a major culprit, of course, but after former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial withdrawal from multiple settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel has not committed to any further concessions.)

The simple fact is that Israel is taking advantage of the current situation.  As I have said before: This is Netanyahu’s fault for dragging his feet, period. He has never had any intention of granting Palestinians further rights or self-determination. This is why you negotiate in politics–yes, even with your “enemies.”

Again, to head-off the skeptics and the shruggers with all their damned reasonable arguments: This certainly isn’t full recognition, let-alone functional statehood or a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but fair play to the Palestinian Authority for peacefully asserting Palestinians’ rights.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s (and Likud’s) position remains that the Palestinian Authority must be unitary, accept Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence before the State of Israel will enter any new negotiations.  (These conditions sound entirely reasonable until one reflects on how many wars could never end if they were offered as preconditions for just talking.)  Fatah in the West Bank has met these conditions while Hamas has not. When Hamas narrowly won a majority in the Palestinian Parliament in the 2006 elections, Israel cut off all the tax revenues it was collecting on the behalf of the Palestinian Authority.  This led to a brief but decisive civil war between Fatah and Hamas, resulting in 2 separate semi-state entities in the West Bank and Gaza.  The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon may have felt it had no choice but to deny revenues to Hamas, but now the Netanyahu government refuses any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority because it “will not renounce violence.”  This is a fraud; Likud is just using the Palestinians’ internal divisions as a convenient excuse to leave them in legal limbo.

The Territories have been under military occupation for 45 years.  This would be a tragedy if there weren’t a short list of Israeli, Palestinian and Iranian government officials we can hold morally responsible for it.  The idea that “the Palestinians” must assume all moral responsibility for this state of affairs, while Netanyahu’s coalition government (which includes public figures who in the American political system would be called unabashed fascists) builds and maintains new settlements in the West Bank at will, is offered in such bad faith that I suspect its aim is to maintain this situation of military occupation always, in the vague and fantastic hope that over 4,260,000 Palestinian nationals will simply…go away.

No, I am not implying what you’re probably thinking.  I recognize no obtuse and offensive likeness between Israel and the Nazis.  I will be the first to admit that the State of Israel could do far worse than it has to the Palestinians at any time.  But there are limits to the pertinence of such a point.  It in no way changes the fact that the conditions the Palestinians must abide are awful.  If there is a consensus in Israeli politics that Hamas is illegitimate, that doesn’t explain why the State of Israel cannot negotiate further agreements (whether final or interim) with the Palestinian Authority through the agency of Fatah, at least to increase their control over and freedom within the West Bank.  But no further agreements have been inked with the faction of Mahmoud Abbas, which has probably wanted meaningful negotiations all along.  The real reason Abbas unilaterally pushed for acknowledgment through the UN General Assembly is because his receptivity to Israel has brought him nothing–not even evidence that any kind of political deal was possible.  He was pushed to this point.  Our government’s position was that Abbas’ action is “not helpful;” I say, he obtained something for Palestinians and did not have to use violence–indeed, used a legitimate international mediating institution–to do it.  What is there to gripe about, unless one wants the Palestinians to have nothing?

40% of the West Bank is either under IDF jurisdiction, is reserved for the settlements, has been unilaterally annexed by Israel or has been designated a nature preserve by Israel on the Palestinians’ behalf.  Palestinians cannot pass from 1 side of the West Bank to the other.  Palestinians cannot leave the West Bank at all except through Israeli-occupied territory.  Israel continues to build new settlements wherever it finds a water table.  Note that I haven’t said that the 1967 boundaries are sacred, or that everyone who claims descent from a Palestinian refugee should have a “right of return.”  I have only mentioned East Jerusalem implicitly.  I have made no argument that the State of Israel is illegitimate in itself, and I am not going to.  But should we expect the Palestinians to be entirely politically-passive?  Should we accept premises and offer arguments that assume they will be politically-passive?  We are supposed to believe that Bibi Netanyahu really just wants peace, but has tragically been frustrated for want of an honest negotiating partner among the Palestinians?  That is absurd.

I recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself.  In everything else it has done, I have long suspected the Netanyahu government of acting in bad faith.  Do not forget: Of President Obama–whose Ambassador to the UN vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning unilateral settlement expansion, and who just voted against granting Palestine Observer status in the General Assembly–Prime Minister Netanyahu sees such an obstacle to the sort of partnership he wants in the United States that he met with the new Republican House Majority Leader to get assurances of more help, and tried to stir-up pre-election controversy to help Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney–who had promised him unqualified support.

Observer status for the Palestinian Authority is far from an ideal status (and certainly isn’t profoundly-portentous)–but it is something.  I will not just shrug-off a nonviolent call for legitimate recognition by the Palestinian Authority.  If it causes Israel institutional headaches, that marginally increases the political prospect of some kind of concessions, whether negotiated or unilateral.  Even incremental progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been almost unheard-of since Prime Minister Sharon went into a coma.  This minimal level of recognition from the UN General Assembly creates institutional ties that reinforce the concept of and capacity for Palestinian statehood; as I am convinced that Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing Palestinian statehood, this is the 1st development that improves the prospect of a 2-state solution since Sharon undertook the unilateral withdrawal of West Bank and Gaza settlements.

I don’t think the distinctions I have made here are brilliant, profound, or novel.  I do think they are unusual, and require some measure of courage on one’s part to say all at once.  This is because the many unqualified supporters of either side have dumbed-down this debate, preferring to speak to the like-minded and invoke their respective cases of victimhood rather than seek help with their own moral blind spots.

I have not pretended to be an “objective” or “unbiased” observer of these events, whatever that means.  But I am trying to support the policies and the attendant sentiments which I consider most-humane.  I have often seen no choice on the part of the State of Israel but to use military force against Palestinian militants.  This has earned me consternation from friends who support the Palestinians.  On a day to day basis, or in an event such as this when the Palestinian Authority peacefully seeks further concessions or brings claims against the State of Israel which the latter finds embarrassing or damaging, I find myself referring to the same litany of abuse or neglect which advocates of the Palestinians claim.  This seems to puzzle or frustrate friends who support the State of Israel.  I only claim a preference for those policies and goals which I think most-humane.  The thing I like least is manifest violence; the thing I like next-least is oppression.  I also find invocation of historical grievances useless, especially after generations have passed and the principal victims and perpetrators are dead.  We should find it outrageous that there isn’t a serious discussion about the terrorism Hamas regularly perpetrates or attempts against Israel; we should find it outrageous that the Palestinians have had to live under military occupation for 45 years.

We should also find it outrageous that so little passion is contributed to holding both sides to account simultaneously.  I should have more to say about this, but I feel burdened with general points on which there should be agreement but which are usually just a signal of one’s politics.

The Arab Spring’s Unappreciated Progress

POLITICAL PROGRESS IN LIBYA: Mohammed el-Megarif, the President of the Libyan National Assembly, eulogizes United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on September 20th. The Arabic on the picture reads “Thank you, Chris.” Some of the more-ignorant and reactionary among us will tell you that violent protests in the Middle East means that the Arab Spring is a front for the march of radical Islamism; those who are actually paying attention see elected leaders decrying violence and promising the United States–and their own people–that they will enforce the law. Associated Press photo by Abdel Magid al-Fergany.

I’ve heard my fill of all the very solemn prognostications about the Arab Spring.  We have to take the long view, Conservative skeptics solemnly say; implicitly the long view is that the revolutions we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and still in process in Yemen and Syria are just way stations towards Iranian-style Islamic Republics.  Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), in an opening volley for an embarrassingly-short presidential campaign bid last year, warned us in early 2011 that failing to support Egyptian President-for-life Hosni Mubarak would deliver that country over to the extremist enemy.  In an odd bit of McCarthyism, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) told us there were Islamist radicals in the State Department; Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) featured prominently among the few in Congress sufficiently quagmatic in their ignorance to double-down on these suspicions.  Gohmert, for his part, saw fit to warn us following mid-September riots and the Benghazi militant attack that these events marked the emergence of “a new Ottoman Empire” in the Middle East, a hysterical narrative that won fittingly-epic derision from The Colbert Report last week.

At the very least, we need not listen to admonitions about taking the political long view from people who can neither observe nor imagine much difference between a dozen countries with millions of people apiece and a single very-different country 33 years ago, namely Iran in the twilight of the Shah.  These are Muslim countries in the midst of revolution, after all; to small minds the threat they pose is exactly the same–the absence of explicit anti-Americanism or an extremist religious figure remotely approaching the importance of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran notwithstanding.

After mid-September’s violent protests against an anti-Muslim video produced by a private citizen in the United States–and the militant plot in Benghazi, Libya that occurred under their cover–some have argued (rather obtusely) that the Arab Spring has devolved into Islamist mayhem.  These people exhibit a lack of historical perspective about such events.  The “Cartoon Riots” which followed the publication of mocking images of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper exceeded the scope of these protests; early this year in Egypt soccer riots in the city of Alexandria claimed 74 lives–followed by large protests in Cairo against the lack of security provided by the Ministry of the Interior.  But no, there were some protests against a video 2 in mid-September, so now those who always looked askance at the capacity of Muslims to form a government for themselves for reasons of ideology or prejudice conclude that Egypt is about to be submerged in a new Caliphate.

Then there’s Libya.  Initial reports of a riot killing US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, another member of his diplomatic staff and 2 Americans in diplomatic security at the US consulate in Benghazi–the power base of the 2011 Libyan Revolution–brought to mind that the revolution there was in fact some kind of a brilliant cover for al-Qaeda to seize power.  Now it appears the attack on the Consulate was the premeditated work of Ansar al-Sharia, a local terrorist organization, with the assistance of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate.  The elected Libyan government tipped us off to this finding itself.

The elected Libyan government: Less than a year after the Rebels killed the brutal Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi, Libyans elected a National Assembly in July that has appointed a new President, Mohammed el-Megarif.  In spite of the still-tenuous security situation, Libyans are forging a legitimate government for themselves.  Now that elected government is voluntarily taking on the militias that haven’t agreed to incorporate into a national paramilitary force.  Mohammed el-Megarif, the President of the Libyan National Assembly, spoke at a memorial service for Ambassador Stevens on September 22nd, and Libyans themselves took to the streets in open opposition to the country’s teeming militias, regarding them as a foreign body in the new Libyan body politic.  Again, Libya remaining unlawful militias, grumbling Loyalists and large chemical weapons stockpiles all remain serious concerns, but the people seem to have their hearts in the right place, and both the interests and the sentiments of their elected politicians tend towards accountability and diplomacy.  Last but not least, the government is gradually establishing a monopoly over military force, finally initiating a you’re-with-us-or-against-us policy towards the country’s many militias.

Egypt seems to be in a scarier state of disorder, but the signs from its elected parliament and from Mohammad Morsi, its elected President, are similarly if not equally encouraging.  It’s certainly worth mentioning that Morsi was elected President on the Muslim Brotherhood’s party line; among his noteworthy political maneuvers were calling the Egyptian Parliament back into session after a questionable attempt by the country’s highest court to invalidate the recent parliamentary elections, the appointment of a generally-boring cabinet, a successful demand of some high-profile resignations from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the reversal of an earlier decision to loosen controls on the border with Gaza and the launching of a campaign against Islamist and separatist militants in the Sinai Peninsula region.  Far from the fanatical vanguard of some emerging pan-Islamic what-have-you, these measures suggest that President Morsi is a low-key nationalist and a democrat.  Islamic Conservative though he may be, the evidence suggests that he is trying to consolidate, not hijack, Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

While the Presidents of Egypt and Yemen called for restrictions on the freedom of expression that some publics find offensive, they nonetheless renounced violence in the name of their religion and implied that they were taking as liberal of a political stand on the issue as they could at the time. Governing nations trying to break free from quagmatic despotism, their renunciation of violence and expressions of even qualified sympathy for free expression on behalf of their people already give the lie to the most-pessimistic accounts of the political sentiments of their countries. Left, New York Times photo by Chang W. Lee; right, Associated Press photo by John Minchillo.

It’s true that Morsi and Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the new President of Yemen, just called for curbs on free speech at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.  This call is not likely to have much of an impact on the domestic policies of other nations, nor should it.  Salman Rushdie’s understandable concerns about a chilling effect aside, the recent and heavily-broadcast outrage of citizens of historically-unfree countries over the provocative private acts of citizens in free countries has not reduced the pace of such provocations; it seems to have increased it.  Modern technology has made the adjudication of what counts as impermissably-offensive speech and whom is answerable for it under which jurisdiction a problem of almost irreducible complexity.  But leaders like Morsi and Hadi are doing in this case is communicating the position of a broadly-held sentiment within their societies.  I am not saying this out of some cultural relativism but to excuse the leaders of those new governments–whatever their motives may be–the moment’s political caution.  Defense of free speech at home and abroad, oddly, may be both the more-principled stand to take and the only politically-practical position in the long run…but for now the only political tack towards this event that will build legitimacy for the new governments of Egypt and Yemen is to plead “cultural sensitivity” towards their own publics.

Even the reason why this is so indicates why democratic government should be strongly-preferable for their societies today.  With the anti-Muslim video recently produced by an Egyptian-American, as with offensive drawings of the Prophet Mohammed published by a private Danish newspaper, protesters in Muslim countries have interpreted images that offend their sensibilities as the policy of governments.  Their demand that the offending expression be outlawed reflects their experience with an oppression even deeper than outlawed forms of speech: Many of those in the Middle East who protested the offending art actually think that these provocations were the product of the governments in question themselves–or at least that they received government pre-approval.  This naive assumption is a vestige of the dictatorship which is the only form of government most of these societies have ever known.  While he railed against what he called “hateful speech,” President Morsi–the political leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s 1st truly elected President–denounced the violence committed in the name of his religion, and offered a qualified defense of “freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”  While this position is too compromised in principle for those of full Liberal sentiment, it represents as great of an acknowledgment of our fuller freedom of expression as Morsi had the political space to give.  In context, it is unprecedented.

In Tunisia the elected moderate-Islamist government, through Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem, apologized for damage done to the US Embassy and the American Cooperative School in the capital Tunis.  He also apologized for threats made to the US Ambassador.  He said his government would pay for any damage incurred to US Government property in the country during the riots, and reaffirmed that it was the responsibility of the host country to protect the diplomatic assets of foreign governments.

Just 2 days ago, hundreds of people went on strike out in a province in central Tunisia–not to protest the anti-Muslim video but rather a lack of economic development in the region since last year’s democratic revolution.  The protesters spoke-out against the country’s Islamist government–over bread-and-butter issues.  While the ongoing protests and lack of economic progress may be frustrating or disconcerting, the very fact that protests continue under the new government is a compelling repudiation of the suspicion that these countries’ democratic transitions have somehow been coopted by Islamist dictatorship.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly 4 days ago, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s President who himself hails from a moderate-Islamist party, warned that a small group of Salafists–he estimated a few thousand in a country of 10 million–wanted to enforce their mores through violence and were bad for business.  Salafist violence is bad for business: If this sort of Islamist becomes president of an Arab country through democratic means, we should not view this with suspicion but with relief–and encouragement.

It’s equally encouraging that, during his address at the United Nations General Assembly, President Marzouki said that “dictatorship is a disease.”

Who Is Responsible for Retaliatory Violence?

As protests roiled Benghazi, an eastern Libyan city that had served as the power base of the uprising that deposed Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar al-Gaddafi last year, gunmen launched an acute assault on the United States consulate there Tuesday night.  Successfully exploiting the protests as cover, they attacked the consulate with guns, hand-thrown bombs and rockets.  The United States Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed, along with 2 American security contractors who were formerly Navy SEALs and 1 other member of the Foreign Service.  The BBC reported that Ambassador Stevens apparently was only on the grounds of the consulate at the time because he was assisting with the evacuation.  The Libyan doctor who tried to revive the Ambassador after the attack said he died of smoke inhalation.

The 4 Americans who were killed in the line of duty were brought back stateside yesterday, and buried in a ceremony led by President Obama.

The principle reason I’m writing this is to wade into a controversy that developed almost immediately.  It is a political controversy, but because it involves a serious question of the priority with which government regards our rights I will try to deal with it in as minimally-political (but not apolitical) a fashion as possible.

The controversy started when Governor Romney predictably criticized President Obama’s response to the attacks.  I want to be very clear about this: I will spend most of this entry on the title question, not on the “apology” for the American value of freedom of speech which Romney accused the President of giving (and which anyone paying attention to the actual course of events knows he did not give).  Since I’ve cleared that up, Governor Romney’s charge was directed towards a tweet issued by a member of the Foreign Service at the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, without knowledge or authorization of the President:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

This statement was tweeted by a Foreign Service member before the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi or the US Embassy in Cairo even occurred.  Governor Romney seized on it because they fit with his campaign’s foreign policy narrative of “no apology” for American values and the empowered role of the United States in the World.  He immediately caught a round of flak, including from some prominent Republicans, for seeking to politicize an unfolding crisis; the President responded with unusual harshness, saying Governor Romney has a “shoot first, aim later” approach to foreign policy problems.  But I want to look past Governor Romney’s objection to this comment from its political context, with the attendant charge against the President.  I even want to look past the focus of the statement itself, which “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”  So: When you remove the question of the appropriateness of Governor Romney’s comments, of President Obama’s moral tone in responding to the crisis, and of the notorious tweet’s call for respect for religion, what’s left of the controversy?  Well, none other than the most-fundamental political question of all is left.

Who is responsible when offensive provocation leads to retaliatory violence?  The perpetrators of violence are responsible.  The perpetrators of violence are always responsible, and they are entirely responsible.

This is not to say that the creation of an artwork (however badly-made and contrived in its meaning) that one can reasonably expect to engender a violent response isn’t a morally-fraught question.  Moral considerations that don’t at least countenance the likely response of others to the act are really moral abdications.  But the difference between the provocateur and he who rises to the bait with a violent response is the difference between a person who may (or in some cases, does not) have bad motives but performs a nonviolent act versus a person who chooses to initiate violent force because of their subjective feelings.  The makers of the bad movie insulting Islam’s chief religious and historical figure may warrant our contempt for issuing an insult that was designed expressly to provoke a response…but that is the most sanction they deserve.  Their act of provocation does not warrant physical retaliation against anyone whatsoever–in any way.

When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin horrified many with its account of man’s inhumanity to man under American slavery, he is said to have greeted her with immortal irony: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”  Hyperbole, of course, but is it plausible through some stylized narrative to hold Stowe accountable for the bloodiest war in American history?  No, no, a thousand times no.  Neither Stowe’s obvious innocence in the course of the war nor the rightness of the Abolitionist cause have anything to do with it; the simple fact is a match of this sort is happenstance compared with the tinder it lights.

And the tinder itself is much smaller than people think for how brightly it burns.  CNN yesterday was in particularly-shameful form, playing a few minutes of violent Friday protests over and over and over again.  The Cairo area has about 20 million people; a few thousand participated in Friday’s protests.  Worldwide, most of the protests were not riotous.  The narrow subset of people who perpetrated acts of violence deserves more attention; the attack on the US consulate in Libya appears to have been planned by a Libyan radical Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, which blocked Libyan security forces from moving in to protect the consulate while it was being overrun.  While this comes up in an online CNN article explaining the riots, the news channel’s coverage yesterday nonetheless was full of headlines like “RAGE IN THE MUSLIM WORLD.”

But again, the small number (and telling geographic confinement) of Muslims actually involved in violent riots is not the issue in assigning blame between provocateur and rioter.  The principle at stake here is as basic as they come.  Our refusal to take punitive action against the makers of a message–however-offensive–isn’t simply about our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression in this case.  It is even more-basic than that.  When we rebuff the demands of those who answer an insult with violence, we repudiate the uncivilized notion that the one whom is willing to use violence can dictate the actions of others.  Anyone has the right to take offense; expressed indignation can be quite virtuous and even have beneficial effects on individuals or on a culture.  Anyone has the right to put these provocateurs on the couch, so to speak, or to seek to ridicule or disqualify them in the public sphere.  But as the use of violence expands the public sphere contracts; it is never in its essence anything more than it is between 2 individuals–namely, an attempt by one to subordinate the other mechanically to his will.  Violence is simply about unadorned power.  The most-basic principle justifying government is that it may monopolize violence to prevent its subjective use by individuals against one another.  Thomas Hobbes goes so far as to say that there can be no talk of morality without what we call law and order; suffice to say that casting blame on a provocateur in a way that implies that violent men can blame others for their violent actions is nonsense.

While Neoconservatives and the emphatically religion-averse “New Atheists” have preached confrontation, in the face of this latest rash of violent riots much as they did with the 2006 “Cartoon Riots” following the publication of offensive drawings of Muhammad in a European newspaper, they have done so on freedom of speech grounds.  Offensive images, including those that bring the sacred down to the level of the profane, can always be sufficiently defended on the grounds of freedom of speech.  But I’ve noticed that those who congregate to defend these gestures on these grounds have an odd tendency in practice to share the sentiments expressed.  There is a right even more-basic than our freedom of speech that violent rioters calling for punishment for those who made the offending video are violating.  That right is the expectation that our government will protect us from violence.

On account of our First Amendment, Americans have the right to express themselves as they wish–provided that such expression will not create an immanent danger.  On this grounds one does not have a “right” to yell “Fire!” in a theater because it could cause a stampede; however, one does have a right to offensive gestures; others have the opportunity to consider and decide how to respond.  Those who have rioted, burned several American chain restaurant franchises in the Middle East, launched attacks on our and German embassies and even killed 4 staff members at our consulate in Benghazi, Libya were not automatons responding reflexively to a present stimulus; they were human beings who decided to riot, destroy property, threaten people and in some cases kill because of an idea.  This idea, in case this characterization invites confusion, had nothing to do with changing their own lives or other people’s lives for the better; given that, one might have said the same about the Arab Spring of late 2010 to the present, which has brought striking political change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and may do the same in Syria once the Assad Regime finally succumbs to the rebellion it cannot contain.  The only idea the present rioters are fighting for is their capacity to use violence to dictate terms to others.  They say it is to defend the integrity of their religion, or the dignity of their religion’s founder; a Liberal Ironist maintains as always that these ideas and their need for defense are human in origin, as are both the standards by which the rioters judge them “defended” and the crude and hamfisted tactics they would use to achieve that aim.  This is and only ever has been about them, about the violent radicals themselves, and about their efforts to use force to control other people’s behavior.  To say that expressive provocateurs are responsible for the violence their work incites–even if they might have thought that their actions could provoke a reaction–is in its very nature to follow the script written by the violent extremists.  (It hardly seems to make sense to speak of them “writing” something, but there it is.)  The Liberal Ironist sees religion as a series of theoretically-inviolate symbols people use either to congregate and communicate difficult truths (at best) or simply to dominate each other (at worst); these symbols are always anthropomorphic, and never transcend human experience.  1 idea may prove more practically useful than another in one’s experience, but no idea is more “real” than any of the others, and no idea is going to “win the Contest.”  Ideas compete, but they are not involved in zero-sum games.  Animals–humans very-much included–play zero-sum games.  This is a zero-sum game: To blame anyone other than the actual initiator of violent force for actions consciously taken, is to submit to domination by anyone immoral-enough to assert it.  They may portray themselves as victims, but the ironist at his most-illiberal would say that this is an old trick of those who want power they cannot earn.  The impersonal use–or even the credible threat–of deadly violence to counter an insult isn’t like the problem of terrorism, it is the problem of terrorism.

I want to close with an attempt to address Governor Romney’s attack on the President’s leadership through this episode.  Aside from on the most-basic level (regarding government’s role in protecting the peace and our interest in conducting a sure-footed foreign policy), I want to do this without recourse to politics.  Governor Romney responded to an unofficial tweet issued by someone in the US Embassy in Cairo; Andrew Sullivan marvelously noted that this tweet was tweeted before the film riots and the assault on the US consulate in Libya–but that Governor Romney’s response blamed the President for issuing an apology in the face of violent attacks that had not yet occurred, by way of a statement that he hadn’t seen or authorized.  Romney admonished him thusly:

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

This crosses the line, as does Romney’s equally shrill later “clarifications”–and not principally because the Governor is blaming the President for something he didn’t do, or because he saw fit to wade into the issue without actually knowing what was happening.  Governor Romney tried to make the President look weak while a security crisis unfolded that involved multiple United States diplomatic missions in the Middle East, as well as possible risks to American citizens and American property abroad.

I do not level this criticism lightly or opportunistically.  In 2007, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Syria to confer with President-for-Life Bashar al-Assad, who had not yet come fully into his own as a brazenly mass-murdering tyrant (merely a quiet, garden-variety tyrant).  Speaker Pelosi sought to show-up President George W. Bush for his strict policy of diplomatic silence towards the Assad Family Regime.  This was wrong–and not because “we shouldn’t have been talking to Syria.”  5 1/2 years ago, I agreed that our government should have been trying to establish better relations with the Assad Regime.  I cannot say for certain whether this would have benefited the pro-democracy movement in Syria in 2011 or would simply have made the United States look worse and the Assad Regime even more-confident; In any case, I was all for better communication with the Assad Regime at the time.  But I was not in favor of legislative leaders holding out the promise of alternate US foreign policies.  That is simply inappropriate behavior for an elected official of the same government.  In a CNN interview last night, former Utah Governor, US Ambassador to China and Republican Presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said “politics stops at the water’s edge;” that’s a sentiment I like very much–whoever happens to be President.  In-house disagreements are fine, as are serious disagreements about foreign policy.  But you do not undermine the President while he is conducting US foreign policy.  This is not a game.  This kind of opportunistic effort at backseat driving leaves us all worse-off; in any case, a Presidential candidate shouldn’t be making comments that could be taken for more than they are while a foreign security situation is unfolding, or in ways that could be construed as an attempt to force the President to change his policy tack.

I didn’t want to link these 2 judgments together, but tactical concerns and concerns of tact must be allowed to take precedence over statements of principle where foreign policy are concerned.  Lives are at stake; if a government’s foremost responsibility of protecting the lives of its citizens dictates that we not comply with the demands of violent malefactors, it also requires that the President be permitted to formulate a response to an emerging situation when our foreign service personnel or other Americans abroad may be in danger.  The initial provocateur’s political right to get us into this mess may still be a moral wrong, and in any case a doubling-down by a political candidate looking for an angle cannot help.  Those who want a position of power in government have to think responsibly, even if the proper functioning of our political system sometimes defends citizens when they don’t.

The Liberal Ironist hopes that you think without fear, speak your mind–eloquently, I must ask–and ask yourself when considering political action, “Am I helping to make the World a more- or a less-threatening place?”

11 Years After an Act of Terrorism

This blog started 2 years ago today.  The principal purpose of the Liberal Ironist is to offer political and moral opinion aimed at the lessening of human cruelty and the harshness of life (the aim and tendency of political Liberalism), and to offer a warning that our understandings of the Universe and our grasp of the good at their best are never more than another way of being human (which is the starting insight of the ironist).  2 years after this blog’s founding, we mark 11 years since a brazen act of mass murder by a very different political species–reactionary fanatics.

The terrorism of September 11, 2001 was the work of those who believed they had divine license to kill 3,000 people–principally American civilians but also foreigners and (a simple matter of probability with such indiscriminate killing in an urban area) their at least nominally fellow-Muslims.  This act of terrorism was carried out principally because of xenophobia; at the time the United States had thousands of soldiers–withdrawn by the Bush Administration following the invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq–stationed in Saudia Arabia, homeland to the 2 holiest cities in the Islamic tradition.  The other reason for that act of mass murder was the United States’ support for the State of Israel, which these terrorists believed to be a Crusader state.  While this blog on principal countenances criticism of particular Israeli policies as legitimate both as part of its aim to advance humane treatment of one another and as essential to the health of any democratic polity, it is noteworthy that the same terrorists who were so obtuse in including about 3,000 non-combatants at work in their home cities as legitimate targets of a war were also obtuse in seeing no difference between a political controversy between 2 nations seeking a homeland now and a murderous invasion fought on religious pretexts that essentially sought to plunder rich Arab cities about 900 years ago.  The vain masterminds of September 11th  (whom, whether they have died grisly deaths, been incarcerated by the United States, or remain at large in Pakistan are all greatly-diminished and far from home) seemed to enjoy admonishing us with references to history, but the crudeness of their obsession with fitting-in to that history (and their rage against their own inability to control events) is more-striking than their crude understanding of that history.

Both as a people and through the mustered force of their government, Americans have done both great and stupid things in response to the terrorist threat that reared its head on September 11, 2001.  Many Americans turned-out to clear the wreckage of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan; meanwhile, George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency assured Lower Manhattan residents and relief workers that their air was safe to breathe.  This lie led to respiratory illnesses and cancers among 70% of the first-responders at Ground Zero by as early as 2006; cancers from respiratory exposure to extremely-toxic asbestos may take decades to develop.  Then-New York Governor George Pataki established a compensation fund that expanded State death benefits for first responders who died from cancer following relief work at Ground Zero, but Federal action had to wait for the 112th Congress and the Obama Administration, whose compromise with Senate Republicans on tax cuts for the rich ended a filibuster and finally allowed passage of the James Zadroga Health And Compensation Act of 2010.  While there were scattered reportings of violent and at times deadly hate crimes–not just against Muslims but also against Sikhs and Hindus, whose religion wasn’t even nominally associated with the September 11th attacks–America as a whole did not regress 100 years in its social relations with minority groups.  That said, there was regression, both in the broad discretionary police powers of the USA PATRIOT Act (some of which had originally been proposed nearly 20 years before as measures to fight drug smuggling) and in the seizure of large numbers of American Muslims and Muslim immigrants on suspicion of material support for terrorism.  First opened to receive inmates in January 2002, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp was originally created on the reasoning that, being located at the US Navy base in Cuba, it was outside the jurisdiction of our country’s legal system.  779 men have been in carcerated at Guantanamo Bay on terrorism charges since that time; 600 have been released and 8 have died at the camp, including 6 suicides.  169 prisoners remain at Guantanamo Bay, half of whom have been cleared for release but remain in detention.  Today the prison is well-below it largest extent, and so far from the initial confusion and at times clumsy reaction following September 11th, both the number of those detained at the facility and their treatment is probably more-commensurate with the inmates’ suspected crimes.  Still, an untold number were simply wrongfully-detained, and the legal and moral snarl created both by their wrongful imprisonment and the torture or abuse of innocent and guilty alike at Guantanamo Bay may never be resolved.  And the allegations of abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay occurred in the shadow of far more-widespread cruelties committed against suspected enemy combatants at Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s old torture prison, after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

It warrants mention that President George W. Bush was good-enough to clarify that we were at war with a particular terrorist group and group of political ideologists, not with the religion of Islam and not with Muslims generally.  You may say it was a common-sense thing to say, but the truth is he didn’t have to say it, and doing so certainly had a positive effect in grounding our thoughts in the uncertain months ahead.  Let us not forget the times when evils were averted with the right words.

Our invasion of Afghanistan to root-out al-Qaeda and their protectors, the Taliban, was fought pretty cleanly as nationwide invasions go.  Owing to its poverty, long history of war, minimal infrastructure or commerce, and the ease with which these factors feed into political corruption, the chances of Afghanistan actually consolidating a democracy remain poor.  But we did try to develop a democracy in that country, and the arrival of US forces in Afghanistan brought the extreme oppression of the Taliban mostly to an end.  It is atypical in history for counterattacks to be waged so little in the spirit of revenge.  Of course, this war of such comparatively narrow scope and justification was followed by the Iraq War.

4,805 Allied soldiers and 1,554 security contractors (read: mercenaries) killed.  16,623 soldiers of the new Iraqi government we created killed by Iraqi insurgents to-date.  A projected total price tag to the United States of about $1.9 trillion.  Oh, and if anyone is keeping track, over 110,000 Iraqi civilians killed.  Note that these figures are just of US and allied military forces and civilian bystanders; I haven’t even listed the toll of enemy combatants killed.  This is harm we have visited upon ourselves and upon foreign innocents.  When the dust settled, we found Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.  I felt much ambivalence about mentioning some of these misadventures of ours–this one in particular–because I know people are hurting and that I risk provoking partisan dispute on a day our entire country was wounded; but it occurred to me that such an episode, combining a failure of the media to ask important questions, of a majority of the public to stay informed and ask follow-up questions, and of top State, intelligence and Defense officials to see past their own wishful suppositions, has to be seen for what it is.  The Iraq War was an ideological blunder of epic proportions that cannot be understood outside of the sense of insecurity we felt in the wake of September 11, 2001.  We have learned some valuable lessons from our mistakes of that time, but this mitigating fact still leaves me with a heavy heart, because we could have perceived in advance the lessons that we apparently had to learn from blunt experience, and those lessons cost us (and a country that had nothing to do with September 11th) dearly.

To our great credit, in the end we didn’t “learn” the worst possible lessons from this experience.  We didn’t “learn” that the entire Middle East is incorrigible, nor did we “learn” that foreign interventions were never worth the trouble or expense.  Our grim experience in Iraq probably retarded our response at the cost of Rebel lives, but the NATO intervention in Libya, jointly spearheaded by UK, French, and US forces, brought a murderous tyrant’s 42-year rule to an end and gave a home-grown movement for democracy an unprecedented chance there.  Rather than be overtaken by hysterical fear over Islamists, we have cautiously maintained relations with the strategically-significant governments of Egypt and Yemen as their people deposed long-running dictators, asking the old guard to stand aside in deference to popular sovereignty and offering assistance as transitional governments seek to consolidate democratic change.  We have done a lot of good–and where the good that needed to be done has been better-suited to those who live in the countries in question, our leadership and we ourselves seem to have grown in wisdom and perspective, letting oppressed peoples take the initiative in taking government into their own hands when they’re ready and offering assistance when needed.

We also continue to kill or imprison the masterminds and pawns of al-Qaeda.  A complicated–indeed, seemingly-contradictory–resolve seems to be needed to defend civlization against terror without submerging one’s awareness in messianic license. Americans often view themselves as standing outside of history.  This myth allows us to make mistakes (including serious mistakes) for want of perspective, but it also allows us to transcend those mistakes faster than the politics or shared perceptions of other societies might.  I won’t stoop to pretending we always do right or that the history of the World is our story alone.  But we have seen the precipice and pulled back before, and when errors or injustices come to light we make a change.  We owe this capacity to adaptation both to our political institutions and the respect for it that is a basic part of our culture.  I am proud of how far we have come, and of the common concern of Americans, in spite of the differences that motivate it, that we must remain vigilant.

May the day’s recollections be sober but not ache, may you demand justice without malice or prejudice, and may you find, as you celebrate what you love, that those you might not understand are nonetheless good–worthy not only of life, but of freedom also.

The Assad Regime’s Failing Counterattack in Aleppo

The Assad Family Regime’s brutal counterattack against rebel positions in Aleppo, Syria’s 2nd-largest city, was taken by many spectators to portend a significant setback to rebel progress in the country’s growing civil war.  A grim indicator of the Assad Family Regime’s use of helicopter gunships, tanks and even fighter jets to hammer rebel positions, both the Red Cross and the Red Crescent of Syria agree that over 200,000 residents of the city fled over the past weekend alone.

Though the rebel Free Syrian Army has shown many signs of growing strength in July, from a stunning assassination of high-level military officials in the capital Damascus to concurrent territorial gains in that city, the lack of material means to fight the Regime’s gunships and armor columns (let-alone the fast and crudely-destructive fighter jets the regime is now prepared to deploy in its own cities) has clearly hampered has for days been taken to imply a massive regime counterattack and inevitable rebel retreat.  The former has clearly happened; the latter has been more-measured than anticipated.

Even as they fall back in the face of the Regime counterattack, the Free Syrian Army continues to make progress on other fronts where the government has become vulnerable.  Following an overnight battle, the rebels captured a Regime military base manned by about 200 troops of the Syrian Army on Monday morning.  Somehow, casualties were light on both sides, and the rebels captured 4 tanks in fighting condition.

A dozen Syrian military and police officers, including the Deputy Police Chief of Latakia, defected to Turkey last night.  At the same time Khaled al-Ayoubi, the Syrian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, resigned his post, saying he would no longer “represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people.”  It is unclear whether Mr. Ayoubi now intends to represent the rebels in some capacity, but his resignation from the Assad Family Regime was favorably-received by the UK Foreign Office.

Even if rebel claims that they are repulsing the government’s counterattack in Aleppo prove to be exaggerated, the very fact that the rebellion has reached this point is devastating news for the Regime.  With a 2004 census count of just over 2.1 million people, Aleppo is home to about 10% of all Syrians; through most of the conflict the city has at least outwardly supported the Assad Regime.  The use of gunships, tanks, and artillery in the city’s streets–along with what amounts in effect to a military blockade of many neighborhoods that has cut off both food staples and electricity–will alienate many supporters of the regime, as will the Regime’s somewhat-lighter hand in Damascus.  The Liberal Ironist previously reasoned that Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s initial unprovoked heavy-handedness in dealing with protesters followed by abrupt offers of concessions, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s less-sincere offering of the same under similar conditions, presaged the collapse of those regimes under growing rebel confidence.  But in Libya Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi”s contrasting zero-tolerance policy towards any and all dissent simply inflamed existing popular mistrust and anger towards the stationary banditry that passed for a government there, converting protests into armed insurrection.  The same is coming to pass in Syria, where the Free Syrian Army can claim to have received no foreign direct assistance aside from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  At no time has the Assad Family Regime made an offer of concessions, or even really of peace.  The very fact of the massive reprisals the Regime is now taking on a city that had in relative terms sat-out this civil war is a sign that differences between the government and most of its people are now unbridgeable, and that the government is losing its grip on the material means it needs to support itself.  The Liberal Ironist no more has a crystal ball than anyone else, and so cannot predict when the Assad Family Regime will fall, but I am confident that fall will come more-suddenly and dramatically than many observers now expect–as it did in Libya.

Assad Regime Claims Chemical Weapons for Use Against Foreign Aggression Only…But Hasn’t He Labeled the Uprising the Work of Foreigners?

Earlier today Syria’s listing Assad Regime made an unprecedented public acknowledgement of its chemical weapons stockpiles, assuring its already-brutalized public that it would never use them against its own people but warning foreign powers that it was prepared to use them against any foreign aggressor.

That is a nice assurance for the son and nephew of those responsible for 1982’s Hama Massacre to make.  Surely it is an especially comforting guarantee, coming as it does after Syrian President-for-Life Bashar al-Assad missed an opportunity by responding to the peaceful protests of early 2011 with naked violence matched only by the avowedly-monstrous Colonel Moammar Gaddafi of Libya.  In 17 months 18,000 Syrians–including a growing proportion of the Assad Regime’s contracting force of loyal troops–have died in a civil war that only had to happen because Assad refused to allow any peaceful protests.  He seemed to have drawn the lesson from the collapse of the seemingly-safe Ben Ali Regime in Tunisia in just 4 weeks and the seemingly-safe Mubarak Regime in Egypt in about 3 weeks that a zero-tolerance policy toward protest, including peaceful protest, was the only way to cow the Assad Family’s opponents.  Actually, a reasonably-informed outside observer could see that in both of those contexts it was the combination of unabashed corruption of the regime in the face of high unemployment and inflation, coupled with violent repression of initial protests followed by the abrupt prospect of concessions, and finally capped off by the unwillingness of both country’s militaries to crush the protesters, that brought both of those previously-quiet single-party states down so quickly.

Assad’s obtuse grasp of politics is a fitting complement to his brutality.  His “zero tolerance” approach to dissent was intended to demonstrate his resolve, but instead it has simultaneously militarized his opposition and greatly increased the plausibility of their appeal, leading to its rapid expansion.  At first the Assad Family Regime seemed to think it would have a simple time of it, simply besieging the southern town of Daraa where the protests began and fighting the protesters into acquiescence.  But in keeping with a classic blind spot of dictators, the full extent of economic discontent, the speed with which news of the Assad Family Regime’s cruelty spread and even the light in which it was seen all seems to have eluded Assad.  He has started a civil war he cannot finish.  And in the middle of last week, 3 (later, as it turned out, 4) members of Bashar’s inner circle were killed in an astonishing bombing in Damascus.

In response a friend found a level-headed entry on a blog specializing in political violence, calling on onlookers not to uncork the champaigne just yet.  Well, if the point is that the rebels will have trouble consolidating their gains in the face of the Regime counterattack, and that Bashar will now feel he has to double-down to save himself, yes, that all seems logical and borne-out.  But the Liberal Ironist is leaning heavily on the “For Now.”  About 1/2 of Assad’s inner circle was killed in 1 bombing.  This could only happen because the capabilities, resolve, and connections of the rebels to disaffected members of the Regime have grown.  They may have made bids for territory they cannot hold, but early last year the protesters in Syria were peaceful and were not armed; the Assad Regime is clearly on a long-term trajectory towards failure.  Between its isolation, defections, rebel expansion, Turkey’s hostility and growing Russian embarrassment, I really don’t think the Assad Regime has the resources it would need to successfully gamble for resurrection.  Just because it isn’t dead doesn’t mean it isn’t dying.  Barring far more assistance from Russia than just diplomatic cover–which Russia’s current prevarications suggest is unlikely–I don’t think the Regime can survive this.  There’s really no good explanation for how it can considering the rebellion has reached this extent already.

But now, the Assad Family Regime has the Obama Administration to deal with.  “We’re looking at the controlled demolition of the Assad regime,” said a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in response to Administration officials’ weekend announcement that the United States will now accelerate its efforts to provide aid to Syria’s rebel groups–though it will not directly arm them or advise Israeli tactical action at this time.  Since, as the New York Times article linked above indicates, Turkey, Qat

In the face of such a prospect, all the Liberal Ironist can say is that it is reason-enough to intervene on the side of the rebels in the 1st place, and that part of the assistance the United States should offer the rebels is clear: They need whatever training and equiptment we could hope to provide them to minimize the losses that would attend such indiscriminate killing by this dying Leviathan.

Chinatown in the Middle East: Cairo, Corruption, and the Myth of Urban Apocalypse

A friend of mine is studying urban development in Cairo for his dissertation.  Almost exactly 2 years ago he explained his assumption that “in the contestation over what a city looks like, you can get an unusual and rich perspective on collective identity.”  It sounded like some kind of strange holistic remark at the time, but I think I understand now, and I see what he means.  He is in Cairo–a nice representation of the problem with Egypt.  I owe my view of Egypt’s problems (and my sense of brooding over current portents) to the observations of my friend, heretofore and eternally known as Jon.

The Arab Republic of Egypt currently has about 90 million citizens, about 8 million of whom live abroad.  35-40% of Egyptians live in poverty, on less than $2 a day.  The economy is still very agriculturally-focused, though petroleum exports (particularly in transit through the Suez Canal) and tourism are both very important.  Egypt’s population has expanded rapidly over the past 40 years due to the introduction of industrial agriculture techniques which have made the country far less-dependent on the flood-rhythms of the Nile River (which rhythms have ceased anyway with the construction of the Aswan High Dam).  The City of Cairo had a 2006 census count of 6,758,581 people; combined with its satellite cities and suburbs the Cairo Metropolitan Area counted 19,439,541 people–nearly 1/4 of all Egyptians.  As Egypt is by far the most-populous Arab country and so the cultural center of gravity in the Arab World, so is metropolitan Cairo as the most-populous urban center in Egypt the stage where the various twists in Egypt’s modern political drama unfolds in earnest.

Ugh, I’ll try to keep a lid on such talk, honest.

A year ago Jon characterized Cairo as a chaotic jumble that works (though he never seemed inclined to describe the Egyptian state that way).  But in spite of the millions of families, the neighborhoods and informal associations that traverse winding and narrow streets and often equally informal living accommodations–including people living in the mausoleums of the Necropolis–many Egyptians apparently fear an unspecified coming explosion of their city.

When Jon originally told me this, I was almost indignant at the mere mention of the myth.  The idea that cities foster violence and social collapse is now old–and way off the mark: “Cities don’t explode.  They implode when too many of their people fear a coming explosion and flee to the suburbs, which hollows-out the tax and consumer base necessary for the city to support itself.”

“Well, I know, but this mythology of Cairo’s coming explosion has a lot of power over people there.  And it is encouraging people to move out of the city.”

I hadn’t known of the plans to build satellite cities on Cairo’s outskirts.  About 1/2 a dozen such cities are now in varying states of development, within commuting distance of Cairo, with populations of hundreds of thousands to several millions planned for the end of the decade.  This population shift will be expensive, and heavily-subsidized: Public water from the Nile–quite accessible to Cairo which flanks the legendary and still-essential river–will have to be piped upland miles into the desert to irrigate parks and shade trees, and to provide clean drinking water and sewerage for major cities that in some cases only recently broke ground.  Maybe these new towns will be paradise on Earth, but with Egypt’s comparative poverty and aridity, and the intensity of infrastructure and services that would be needed to plan several new cities outside of Cairo at locations that have no economic value aside from being outside of Cairo?  Wouldn’t diverting all that water so far afield be wasteful?

“Wouldn’t diverting all that water so far afield be wasteful?”

“Well, sure,” Jon granted.

“…Well?  Why are they doing this?!” I asked.  “Can this whole process really be driven by some mythological fear of urban collapse in Cairo?  What, the government is marshaling the whole country’s resources to help the rich escape?”  Then: “Wait…Who owns the land?”

“Well, this is where it gets sensitive: Many people with connections to Egypt’s military own land outside of Cairo that’s worthless desert right now, but once the water is brought there and those cities are planned-out it’ll be worth a fortune.  And the development firms that will lead those building projects are owned by relatives of leading military figures, or else military leaders otherwise have a stake in them.”  It was then that a thought occurred to me about Jon.  He might work-out all the angles in a complex political architecture, then in subsequent conversation might leave it to you to work them out yourself in asking him the right questions, which he answers discretely if not discreetly.  It might be he wants to see if the next question that comes logically to you corresponds with the one he had, thus affirming his conclusions; or maybe he is simply curious to see which parts of a potentially-political subject you find interesting without direction.

The Liberal Ironist is a student of political science in general.  As such I want to know more about power.

A 2nd thought occurred to me promptly after the 1st: If Egypt’s collective identity is supposed to emerge in Cairo’s “urban renewal,” that collective identity is the plot of Chinatown: A vested oligarchy appropriates a vast hinterland of little natural value but near to a growing city, and conveys a regular supply of fresh water to that land at great expense, literally granting ownership of the future to itself through what on the face of it is a wasteful investment of infrastructure.  The political discourse calling for the expansion of Cairo does go back decades; in its latest iteration, here is a poorly-translated but still-illuminating 1993 op-ed from al-Ahram Weekly.  I’ll be curious to see whether elite abandonment of Cairo for these satellite cities leads to the impoverishment and decline of this cultural and media center of the Arab World.  In a brief but revealing 2010 report, the New York Times suggested that this process is already underway:

“The Egyptian government has spent untallied millions of dollars building new roads and power and water lines to the desert areas it designated for future development. It has sold huge parcels of land to developers in opaque deals, and built some low-income housing. But it has relied primarily on private developers to put up the cities’ more expensive villas and condos, as well as the malls and offices.”

The article noted that some public housing has been built–in theory for the working class–but that poor squatters have often been relocated there, too remote from jobs in Cairo to support themselves there.  The Liberal Ironist cannot decide if this is part of a callous plan to compel poor squatters to abandon the Cairo area altogether, or simply the result of incompetence.

Why bring this up?  This is what puts Egypt’s recent military coup into context.  This offers you, dear reader, an idea of the immobile assets Mubarak’s old coalition of military officers and commercial beneficiaries of state largess want to protect.

Will satellite cities built on the outskirts of Cairo create the living and working spaces for a growing new middle class, or simply a means for the insular rich and the protected to get away from the toiling millions?  If it’s the former, a few more years of tyrannical peace could come to appear providential looking back, leading Egypt into the global economy–and delivering Egypt’s expanded middle class to an easier democratic transition later on.  This would be similar to the East Asian development model–though in those cases the development of human resources and promotion of a high personal savings rate were as important as the development of infrastructure.  In a worst-case scenario the rich and regime-connected simply move out of Cairo into its newest suburbs, leaving behind them a capital city in which they are now not personally invested.  Failing political institutions in Cairo and declining job prospects for the young people left behind could lead to a 2nd, more-radical revolution, one that would actually embody the anarchic sentiment and embrace of violence that die-hard regime supporters allege about the current Muslim Brotherhood.  This would have been caused not so much because of Islamist sentiments among the masses–which are present but seem more-conservative than radical–but because the last existing state institutions which are viewed as offering an independent and patriotic voice (namely, the courts and the military) would have bared their fangs, for the deplorable end of protecting their large shares of the pie.

The villain in Chinatown didn’t have to worry about a revolution in the future because the people of Los Angeles were always free to choose their political leaders, and even he with all his power just has to accept the result of any election.  But if a military oligarchy sacrifices the health of its largest city to a massive contrived real estate bonanza, they could separate hundreds of thousands of Cairenes from convenient access to their jobs, and leave Cairo proper without effective public goods provision.  Cairo is too big to ignore, yet the Generals have just indicated they won’t give people a peaceful means to hold their leaders accountable once these plans come off the rails.