My column this week focuses once again on human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. I actually had a different column on an entirely different topic written and ready to run -- look for it next week. But then I ran into the Saudi lawyer Abd al-Aziz Hussan here in Washington, and heard more about how he has been harrassed for his defense of human rights activists. I thought it was more important to point some attention to these issues, which have largely fallen out of the international spotlight since the mid-March detention of Mohammed Fahed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed. His case is only one small example of a much broader repressive trend across the Gulf which deserves more sustained attention and action.
Thanks to to all those Saudis who have already commented on the essay. I'd like to quickly point over to an excellent piece by former ambassador Richard LaBaron on a similar topic today, and also acknowledge Dwight Bashir's note that the U.S. Committee on International Religious Freedom did comment on Qahtani's and Hamed's detention in March. I hope you'll go over to the FP main page to read it, and I look forward to more discussion.
For some reason, this seems like a good time to post the video of my POMEPS Conversation with Christopher Davidson, author of After the Sheikhs, recorded during his visit to GW in March. Remember, you can subscribe to all the POMEPS Convos here (they will be sporadic over the summer, most likely, and then return regularly in the fall).
Meanwhile, it's been another great week of fantastic reporting and analysis on the Middle East Channel. Be sure to read them all:
- Andrew Lebovich, Confronting Tunisia's Jihadists, a carefully reported, detailed essay on Tunisia's simmering battles over salafism and new jihadist groups.
- Aaron Stein, Turkey Waits on Washington, reading the tough choices and limited options on Syria available to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.
- Nathan Brown and Mokhtar Awad, The Egyptian Judiciary Between a Japanese Tea Ceremony and World Wrestling Entertainment, diving deep into the political issues confronting the Egyptian judiciary
- Kirk Sowell, Provincial Elections and Iraq's Never Ending Crisis, a very sharp reading of how Iraq's electoral results will play out in the context of its growing violence and ongoing political struggles.
- Brian Dooley, Diplomacy, Threats, and Bahrain's Cabinet, on the remarkable criticisms of the U.S. ambassador by Bahrain's Cabinet.
Elsewhere on FP, don't miss Alia Malek's dispatch from Syria's Alawi community; Marwan Muasher's skeptical take on the attempted revival of the Arab Peace Initiative; Michael Knights' alarming take on Iraq's spiraling crisis; Thanassis Cambanis' analysis of Iran's potential quagmire in Syria; Mohamed Eljarh on the pushback against Libya's extremists; and this great photo-essay from Aleppo.
UPDATE: I just found out officially that I've been promoted to full professor here at GWU. That's a double L to the F U y'all!
-- Marc Lynch, Middle East Channel Editor
Two of Saudi Arabia's most prominent human rights activists, Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, were sentenced over the weekend to lengthy jail terms. As Ahmed al-Omran reports today for the Middle East Channel, the sentences were not a surprise (when I met him in January, Qahtani told me that they were inevitable), but the optics for American foreign policy are frankly appalling. Their sentencing was sandwiched between John Kerry's first visit to Riyadh as secretary of state and a visit by Attorney General Eric Holder. Neither appears to have publicly said anything whatsoever about this case nor about any of the massive human rights and democracy issues in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the rest of the GCC.
Quite the contrary. Instead, both Kerry and Holder waxed rhapsodic about U.S.-Saudi cooperation on strategic issues and went out of their way to praise the kingdom's appointment of thirty women to its unelected Shura Council. Holder was quoted across the Arab press as praising the Saudi Interior Ministry's counter-extremism efforts and the Kingdom's reforms. In Kerry's March 4 press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, he had this to say:
"Across the Arab world, men and women have spoken out demanding their universal rights and greater opportunity. Some governments have responded with willingness to reform. Others, as in Syria, have responded with violence. So I want to recognize the Saudi Government for appointing 30 women to the Shura Council and promoting greater economic opportunity for women. Again, we talked about the number of women entering the workforce and the transition that is taking place in the Kingdom. We encourage further inclusive reforms to ensure that all citizens of the Kingdom ultimately enjoy their basic rights and their freedoms."
In other words, he places the kingdom within the ranks of the regimes who have "responded with a willingness to reform." In a meeting with embassy staff, Kerry was even more effusive. On nearly every issue which concerns the United States, he said, "Saudi Arabia has stepped up and helped." (For those keeping score, those issues were the sanctions on Iran, arms to Syria, Yemen, counterterrorism, Israel, and Egypt's transition.)
And why should he be more critical? It's not like he was being pushed on these issues. In his various press availabilities in Riyadh and Doha and in the seven interviews he recorded in Doha on March 5, Kerry was peppered with questions about arming Syrian rebels and negotiations with Iran and how he was getting along with President Obama. Not a single question was asked about human rights or reform in the Gulf. No worries, though -- there was time for a question about Dennis Rodman. Because the American people want to know.
This is a mistake which will have enduring implications. I've been pointing to the problems caused by the "Saudi exception" in American foreign policy for a while now, and I had urged Secretary Kerry to not set aside human rights and democracy questions during his inaugural trip to the Gulf. By punting on these issues on this trip he sent a clear signal about American priorities, which do not include democracy or human rights in these Gulf countries. The sentences on Qahtani and Hamed have been months in the making, but it's hard to not interpret the timing of their harsh sentence amidst these two high profile American visits as a clear signal of "message received."
Ignoring these questions of reform, human rights in exchange for support on strategic issues probably seems prudent but I believe it reflects a real misreading of the evolution of Gulf politics. Bahrain isn't over. The Saudi public sphere is rapidly transforming. Gulf-backed sectarianism is doing serious damage across the region. Do go read Omran's essay on why this matters and how Saudi reformists are responding to this American silence.
My FP column last week argued that the Obama administration was correct to reject plans to arm the Syrian opposition. The objections to arming have become weaker as the conflict has become fully militarized, I argued, but the upside to arming has not become substantially higher. My column tomorrow will feature the second half of my current take on Syria, with a set of alternative policy recommendations drawn from my forthcoming CNAS Policy Brief. Stay tuned for that tomorrow!
Today I am happy to be able to feature three interesting and important responses to my column. This is part of my ongoing effort to promote serious, critical debate and discussion on these issues (for previous episodes, see the Egypt policy challenge responses and the Twitter Devolutions responses). Today's roundtable features Daniel Byman (Georgetown and Brookings), Emile Hokayem (International Institute for Strategic Studies), and Mona Yacoubian (Stimson Center). I am also going to quote from a piece by Karl Sharro that touched on similar themes. I regret that several others whom I invited didn't have time to contribute to the roundtable, but I look forward to hearing their thoughts in other venues.
ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images
If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, will it set off a cascade of unmanageable nuclear proliferation in the Gulf? Not necessarily, according to "Atomic Kingdom," a fascinating and deeply researched new report from the Center for a New American Security (full disclosure: I'm a non-resident senior fellow at CNAS, but I didn't review this report). Colin Kahl, Melissa Dalton, and Matt Irvine make a pretty strong case that its own self-interest would probably stop Saudi Arabia from taking the nuclear plunge. Their report is a vital corrective to one of those poorly-vetted Washington "facts" which too often shape policy ... even if it ultimately raises as many questions as it answers.
"375,000 Syrians have come to Jordan since March 2011, which is 6-7% of our population. In American numbers, at that rate, this is 17-18 million people." The spillover effects of the Syria conflict were very much on the mind of Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh during a wide-ranging conversation over coffee in Washington last week. His government's focus for Syria was very much on finding a political transition which, he said, "everybody realizes at this stage is the only game in town." His other primary preoccupation was to advance a narrative of successful reform following Parliamentary elections against my more cynical perspective.
On the problem of Syrian refugees, Judeh and I had little about which to disagree. Jordan has good reason to be concerned about the impact of Syrian refugees on the Kingdom. The flow from Syria has been more intense than the wave of Iraqi refugees during the last decade: faster, more concentrated, and with no end in sight. The early accommodations for a much smaller refugee flow have struggled to keep pace, and Jordanians are feeling the strain from hosting this massive influx (things have only gotten worse since this sharply reported FP account by Nicholas Seeley a few months ago).
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
A few minutes ago I asked Twitter: should the Middle East Channel cover the events in Mali? The first wave of responses was sharply negative: "Muslim =/= Middle East. Struggling to believe that this is a real question" (@lindsayiversen); "Sure, it's right next to Afriganistan" (@jimmysky); "Don't think I've ever seen a definition of "Middle East" that includes Mali"(@drjoyner) ; and a coveted "#headdesk" from Africa expert Laura Seay (@texasinafrica). But not everyone agreed: Andrew Exum asked whether the Sahara should be seen as a natural boundary or as a highway; Issander el-Amrani mused that "it is an issue on the periphery of the ME that can affect it, so yes."
When I asked the question, it wasn't because I misread my maps (see above, where Mali isn't part of the Middle East) or because I hoped to steal an exciting new conflict from my Africanist colleagues. Nor was it because I think that "the Middle East" should be expanded to include anyplace where jihadist movements pop up, or where Western countries intervene militarily (hence FP's AfPak Channel, which is different from the Middle East Channel). It was mainly because I've been receiving some excellent article submissions focused on the Mali policies of Arab states -- mostly, but not exclusively, Algeria. I'm still undecided as to whether that merits inclusion on the Channel -- right now, I'm leaning towards "Algerian foreign policy, yes; French realization that they are trapped in a quagmire they didn't think through, no."
But the Mali discussion then led to an ancillary, arguably more interesting one: should Algeria be counted in the Middle East? On what grounds? Now, I think there's a very strong case for inclusion of North Africa in our conception of the Middle East. If nothing else, the widespread regional impact of the Tunisian revolution should have settled that question. I believe that Algeria's aborted democratic experiment of 1988-91, where the army's decision to step in to prevent Islamists from winning Parliamentary elections helped spark an exceptionally gruesome five year civil war, remains one of the least appreciated and most central events in the modern evolution of Islamist politics. (See my POMEPS Conversation with Oxford University North Africa expert Michael Willis for more discussion of this). And of course, Morocco was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council.... just kidding.
But just for fun, could there be a case for excluding North Africa from "the Middle East"? It wouldn't be unprecedented. I recall some serious intellectual debates in the 1980s about Maghrebi exceptionalism. North Africa had an entirely different experience of colonialism than did the states of the Levant or the Gulf (people tend to forget that Algeria was actually part of France for more than 100 years). The EU's "Euro-Mediterranian" project and Barcelona process launched in 1995 offered an alternative institutional framework for these states which some thought might spark the evolution of a distinct Mediterranean identity (that didn't really pan out though). Its economies, particularly its vast labor migration and remittance economies, connecting North African states to Europe far more than with the rest of the Arab world.
What about realist definitions based on security complexes? East of Egypt, the Maghreb doesn't really share the same security environment as the Levant or the Gulf, with little at stake in the great regional conflicts surrounding Israel, Iran, Iraq or Syria. Political definitions? Tunisia may have hosted the PLO in exile, but it would be a stretch to argue that any North African country has really been central to the great political issues of the Middle East. Sure, the Maghreb states are members of the Arab League, but so is Djibouti (and the exclusion of non-Arab Israel, Iran or Turkey rarely makes people define them out of the "Middle East"). And then there's the general incomprehensibility (to non-Maghrebis) of the local dialect despite the formal "Arabic is the mother tongue" thing (not to mention the Berbers, plus the political implications of the large Francophone communities).
The Middle East Channel is going to keep covering all the countries of North Africa, no worries. To me, the similar political institutions and dynamics of authoritarianism and opposition, the common language and membership in regional organizations, and the manifest belief on all sides that it is part of the Middle East are enough. But it's an interesting thought experiment -- one which applies not only to Algeria or Mali but to other potential candidates: South Sudan, after the secession? Afghanistan? Cyprus? How does this fit with those intense political battles to refuse the "normalization" of Israel, and by implication its full membership within the "Middle East"? Or with Gulf Arab campaigns to define Iran as Shi'a rather than as an authentic part of a "Muslim" (i.e. Sunni) Middle East?
So no, Mali isn't part of the Middle East. But thinking about it can be fun for the whole family! And the discussion did produce one broad consensus which I whole-heartedly endorse: FP should find somebody to run an Africa Channel.
The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog
On December 26, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed off on a new constitution. It was not a cheerful occasion for many politically active Egyptians, following one of the most intensely, dangerously polarized months in recent Egyptian history. The bitterly controversial two-round referendum approving the constitution revealed the depth of the political and social chasm which had been torn through the political class. I offered my own thoughts on the meaning of these events late last month in my "Requiem for Calvinball," but that was only one part of the wide range of coverage on the Middle East Channel of coverage of the crisis. So I'm pleased to announce here the release of POMEPS Briefing #17: The Battle for Egypt's Constitution, collecting our articles on the constitution and the political landscape left in the wake of this explosive crisis.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
or... a requiem for Calvinball
With the passage of its controversial constitution through a referendum marred by low turnout, a deeply dysfunctional process, and bitter recriminations on all sides, Egypt's latest crisis has finally moved on to a new stage. This offers an opportunity to take a step back from the intensity of crisis, the polarized rhetoric, mutual dehumanization and feverish speculation which has dominated the last month. What has unfolded in Egypt is not a morality play, with good and evil clashing by night. Nor was it the unfolding of an Islamist master plan. This was the worst kind of Calvinball politics: hardball, strategic power plays by sometimes obtuse and occasionally shrewd actors in a polarized political environment with no clear rules, unsettled institutions, high stakes, intense mutual mistrust and extremely imperfect information.
As bad as the last few weeks in Egypt have been, there is a somewhat optimistic counter-narrative to be told. I have the same sense now that I did this May in my "Egypt's Brilliant Mistakes" post: for all the horrible political decisions on all sides, the stunningly mismanaged transition, and the mandatory mass panic of the analytical community, Egypt still has a chance to muddle through and end up in a pretty decent place by this coming spring. It would not be the worst outcome for a chaotic transition if Egypt emerges in March with a constitution establishing institutional powers and limiting the powers of the Presidency, a democratically elected but weakened President, a Muslim Brotherhood in power but facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny and political opposition, the military back in the barracks, a mobilized and newly relevant political opposition, and a legitimately elected Parliament with a strong opposition bloc. The costs may have been too high and the process a horror movie, but getting a Constitution in place and Parliamentary elections on the books puts Egypt just a bit closer to that vision.
Professor Emeritus of Egypt Studies Bill Watterson
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