There could be more outrageous public relations disasters for a government to engage in. There could be. I just can't think of any. Imagine Jon Stewart being arrested on charges of insulting U.S. President Barack Obama and insulting Judaism. Then imagine that in the entire English-speaking world, there are only political satirists. You then get to what it means for the Egyptian authorities to issue an arrest warrant for Bassem Youssef, and the easily predictable repercussions. But this case goes far beyond Bassem Youssef -- it speaks to the future of freedom of expression and the media in the largest Arab country, and to the success of its ongoing revolution.
Bassem Youssef is a unique phenomenon -- a political satirist that is well known all over the Arab world, as well as the West. His meteoric rise through the use of social media and television over the past two years could never have been planned, but he emerged at a time when Egyptians and Arabs were waiting for a non-partisan critic to combine classic Egyptian irony with political awareness. In the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising, Bassem Youssef considered the revolution as a continuing one -- and that his role within it would be to push the envelope of public discourse, holding authority to account. But always with humor -- and thus far, he has touched not only the hearts of Egyptians, but of Arabs around the world.
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With his decision to oppose the U.N. General Assembly's granting Palestine non-member state observer status, U.S. President Barack Obama leaves no doubt he is not modifying his pre-election position that "There is no daylight between Israel and the United States," and that no matter how deeply Israeli behavior violates international norms and existing agreements, U.S. support for Israel remains "rock solid." This continuity of U.S. Middle East peace policy was promptly reinforced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she assured Israel that despite her condemnation of its decision to proceed with new construction in the E1 corridor of the West Bank that will doom the two-state solution, this administration will continue to "have Israel's back."
The decision confirms America's irrelevance not only to a possible resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict but to the emerging political architecture of the entire region, the shape and direction of which will increasingly be determined by popular Arab opinion, not autocratic regimes dependent on the United States for their survival.
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When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent. Still, it seems strange that Republicans want to remind voters that President Barack Obama extricated the United States from a difficult and unpopular war in Iraq. But that is just what Peter Feaver did in the Foreign Policy blog Shadow Government on October 12. He said that the president had opened up a "civil-military problem" for himself, because "significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq." He went on to accuse the administration, and Vice President Joe Biden specifically, of blowing the chance to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, either through incompetence or a lack of serious commitment, that would have permitted the United States to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Those are some pretty stiff charges. (Full disclosure: Feaver and I went to graduate school together. He is a great guy, but just plain wrong here.)
We can set aside, for this discussion, the big question about whether keeping that many U.S. troops in Iraq would have been a good thing. It is pretty clear what the American people think the answer is. The interesting thing about Feaver's thumbnail account of the supposed failure of the administration on this issue is the utter absence of Iraqis from the story. When the United States fails to achieve a goal, it must be either because we really were not committed to it, or we messed up. The other guys just are not that important. It really is all about us.
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In 2007 and 2009 Saudi King Abdullah capped a decade of legal and judicial reforms in his country by reorganizing the judiciary and ordering that Saudi Arabia follow the step that virtually all other states in the region did long ago by codifying its laws -- committing to paper a comprehensive compendium of the operative laws in the kingdom. Since that date, however, his order has been neither challenged nor implemented. Why is codification of law seen as such a dramatic step in Saudi Arabia? And why does the king seem incapable of making it happen?
Egypt's first post-Mubarak elections are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks. It would be hard to exaggerate how badly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has prepared for these pivotal transitional elections. The election law is baffling and incoherent. Election preparations seem haphazard. The rules keep changing. People barely know what or who they are voting for. Some activists plan to boycott. Islamists seem poised to win big. The election is shaping up to be far messier and difficult than it needed to be.
And yet despite all of that, holding these elections is still the right move. For Egypt to make a transition to a more democratic, legitimate and accountable political order it has to actually start making that transition. And that means elections. And here, there are some all too rare good signs. There has been no backsliding on the SCAF's commitment to hold these elections despite ample opportunity to postpone them, and there will even be international observers of a sort. On the other side, while some activists have decided to boycott the election they seem to be in the minority. And the Obama administration recognizes the importance of the election and is determined to do what it can to hold the SCAF to its commitments and to assist with the transition. Holding elections now still remains the best choice for Egypt. But everyone needs to prepare for the likely outcome to make sure that the vote actually does begin a real transition to a democratic Egypt rather than digging its early grave.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Bohn
The performance of the Islamist party Ennahda in the October 23 Tunisian elections, in which it won 41.5 percent of the seats, has refocused attention on the upcoming Egyptian elections scheduled to begin on November 28. Some analysts have minimized the Muslim Brotherhood's prospects for success by pointing to polls suggesting that the group -- the largest and best organized in Egypt -- hovers between 15 to 30 percent approval. It may be true that the Brotherhood isn't as popular as we might think. But elections aren't popularity contests. In fact, as the campaign unfolds, it appears likely that Egypt's Islamists will do even better than expected, just like their Tunisian counterparts.
In an unexpected move, Qatar will hold its first-ever parliamentary elections in the second half of 2013. According to the plan announced Tuesday by Qatar's Emir Hamid bin Khalifah Al Thani, two-thirds of the country's advisory Shura Council will be up for vote, while the rest will remain appointed. But in contrast to similar reform initiatives undertaken by Arab governments made nervous -- or challenged directly -- over the course of the previous ten months, Qatar's decision is an entirely proactive one. Indeed, as indicated by the results of several recent, scientific public opinion surveys, its citizens are quite pleased with their current political system -- and have little interest in changing it any time soon.
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Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of Libya's interim National Transitional Council, declared the end of the war and the liberation of Libya on Sunday following the controversial death of Moammar Qaddafi. Judging by the tenor of discussion in the United States, you would think that this was an unmitigated disaster -- a humiliating end to an illegal war which prevented the UN from acting in Syria, massacred civilians, and opened the door to state failure, warlord violence, reprisals, and radical Islamist tyranny. (Though at least we can be relieved that the rebels can now get their mack on.) That's quite a catalog of failure dominating the public discourse at a time when the official war has come to an end, and most Libyans are celebrating Qaddafi's demise and planning a democratic transition towards a post-Qaddafi future. In fact, the intervention in Libya has been broadly successful and has helped to give Libyans the opportunity to build the country which they so deeply deserve.
There's every reason to be cautious about Libya's future, of course. There will be massive challenges facing the emerging new country, from independent militias to tribal and regional conflicts to the legacy of decades of the systematic destruction of independent civil society. But nobody denies that. Despite what Google tells me is 64,300,000 articles warning that "now comes the hard part in Libya," this is a straw man. I have heard almost nobody arguing the opposite -- certainly not the White House, which consistently has warned that "We’re under no illusions -- Libya will travel a long and winding road to full democracy. There will be difficult days ahead."
But for all those concerns, the intervention in Libya should be recognized as a success and real accomplishment for the international community. The NATO intervention did save Libya's protestors from a near-certain bloodbath in Benghazi. It did help Libyans free themselves from what was an extremely nasty, violent, and repressive regime. It did not lead to the widely predicted quagmire, the partition of Libya, the collapse of the NTC, or massive regional conflagration. It was fought under a real, if contestable, international legal mandate which enjoyed widespread Arab support. It did help to build -- however imperfectly and selectively -- an emerging international norm rejecting impunity for regimes which massacre their people. Libya's success did inspire Arab democracy protestors across the region. And it did not result in an unpopular, long-term American military occupation which it would have never seemed prudent to withdraw.
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In recent weeks Daniel Drezner and Anne-Marie Slaughter have been having an epic debate about whether nation states remain the dominant players on the world stage or non-state "social actors" are fundamentally changing international relations. Now, in a Bloggingheads.tv dialog, Drezner and Slaughter have taken their argument to video. Here they use post-Mubarak Egypt as a case in point:
Drezner and Slaughter also apply their different perspectives to the most famous non-state entity in the world: Al Qaeda
Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkul Karman was announced last night as one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. For once, the Nobel committee really got it right. Karman has been a tireless, creative and effective advocate for human rights, media freedoms, and democracy in Yemen for years. And Yemen's struggle for change has been largely forgotten by the world in spite of its almost unbelievable resilience in the face of dim prospects for success. She represents the very best of the new Arab public. Now let us hope that the award sparks the international community to refocus on Yemen's forgotten revolution and push hard for the political transition which it so desperately needs and deserves.
MICHELLE SHEPHARD/ TORONTO STAR. Via Facebook.
While in New York last week, Iranian president Ahmadinejad seemed to offer to stop producing highly enriched uranium. In a Bloggingheads.tv diavlog, Iran experts Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council and Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Saban Center debate whether the Obama administration is missing an opportunity to enter serious negotiations with Tehran:
Slavin and Maloney also discuss how serious the now-famous 2003 outreach from Iran was, and whether it was a missed opportunity for the Bush administration:
The long stalemate in Yemen took a bloody turn yesterday which was as horrifying as it was utterly predictable. Regime forces opened fire on the tenacious, peaceful protestors in Change Square in Sana'a, killing dozens and flooding the hospitals with the wounded. The internet has been flooded with horrific videos which could easily have come from Libya or Syria. The violent crisis which many of us have been warning would result from neglecting Yemen and allowing its political stalemate to grind on has now arrived. The Sana'a massacre should be a crystal clear signal that the Yemeni status quo is neither stable nor sustainable, and that the failure to find a political resolution ensures escalating bloodshed and humanitarian crisis. It is time to push for an immediate political transition -- and one which does not include immunity for Saleh's men.
It has been difficult to get anyone to pay attention to Yemen. For months, ever since President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been rushed to Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds from an apparent assassination attempt. Distracted by hot wars in Libya and Syria, the struggling transition in Egypt, and the diplomatic train wreck between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. and most of the region put Yemen on the back burner. Even though thousands of incredibly determined and resilient Yemenis continued to protest regularly, and analysts warned with increasing desperation that missing the opportunity to bring about a transition would be a disastrous mistake, the urgency faded away. Indeed, Saleh's regime counted on that fading external urgency as part of its strategy of delay and distraction, hoping to outlast, confuse, divide, and where possible crush the protest movement. Now, Yemenis are paying for that neglect in blood.
Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the commander of Tripoli's Military Council who spearheaded the attack on Muammar al-Qaddafi's compound at Bab al-Aziziya, is raising red flags in the West. Belhaj, whom I met and interviewed in March 2010 in Tripoli along with Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, is better known in the jihadi world as "Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq." He is the former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a jihad organization with historical links to al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Egyptian al-Jihad organization. Does his prominent role mean that jihadists are set to exploit the fall of Qaddafi's regime?
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Armed security officers wearing balaclavas led Nasser Abul, blindfolded and shackled, into a courtroom in downtown Kuwait City on July 19. Accused of crimes against the state, he answered the judge's questions from a wood-and-metal cage in the courtroom. His mother, watching the proceedings, hoped her 26-year-old eldest son would finally be released after nearly two months in detention. The judiciary has refused to grant her wish.
Abul found himself in jail because of a few tweets. Twitter was wildly popular in Kuwait even before protests began in Tunis and Cairo, and its use in Kuwait surged as the Arab Spring provided daily inspiration for news updates and commentary. Between January and March, people in Kuwait wrote over 3.69 million tweets -- more than any other country in the Middle East, according to a June report by the Dubai School of Government.
Would the monarchs of the Holy Alliance have supported a democratic uprising anywhere in Europe in 1820? Would Prince Metternich have backed nationalist movements in 1848? Of course not. But their supposed reactionary analogue in the Arab upheavals of 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, has now come out, forcefully if indirectly, for a regime change in Syria. That makes the third time during this Arab spring that Saudi Arabia, the supposed champion of the status-quo, has thrown an Arab leader under the bus. Bashar al-Asad now joins Muammar al-Qaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh in the club of Arab leaders Saudi Arabia can do without.
The immediate reaction to the Saudi recall of its ambassador to Damascus in many news outlets (including the BBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post) emphasized the incongruity (and the hypocrisy) of an absolute monarchy that had sent troops to Bahrain to put down popular protests calling on a fellow dictator to stop oppressing his people. But that is the wrong frame in which to understand Saudi Arabia's regional policy during this time of Arab upheaval. The right frame is the regional balance of power battle between Riyadh and Tehran. In that context, the Saudi move against the Asad regime makes much more sense.
AFP/Getty Images - 2009
Demography is like magic. Put the right numbers in the wrong hands, and you get manipulation. Put the wrong numbers in the right hands, and you get miscalculation. But the case of "The Million Missing Israelis" -- an article published in on ForeignPolicy.com at the beginning of July by Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin -- is a hard one to categorize. Indeed, the two writers have the wrong numbers. They also make some statements that might raise suspicions related to motivations -- namely, that their demography is driven by a political agenda rather than science.
Chamie and Mirkin argue that the unpublicized story of emigration from Israel is no less significant than the story of Jewish immigration back to the homeland, and that it has reached a point at which it should be considered a threat to Israel's future as a Jewish state -- both demographically but no less important ideologically. "The departure of Jewish Israelis also contributes to the undermining of the Zionist ideology," the authors write, based on the assumption that a million Israelis have chosen to leave the country since its 1948 birth. Magnanimously, they take the trouble to also include lower estimations of departing Israelis --"the official estimate of 750,000 Israeli emigrants -- 10 percent of the population" -- but even so, that doesn't change the perception that Israel is just like "Mexico, Morocco, and Sri Lanka." Not the most exemplary models of prosperity and success.
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Late last month, I was traveling through the south of Tunisia reporting a story for Foreign Policy about the travails of the people who made the revolution. I met with activists, workers, members of the Islamist al-Nahda Party and of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), and dozens of ordinary Tunisians idling away the hours on the backstreets of ghost towns. But it was only after midnight in a drowsy cafe that I found myself face-to-face with the young man whose fiery rap is credited as the soundtrack of the revolution.
"I'm a general, I start war," the soft-spoken 21-year-old Tunisian rap star Hamada Ben Amor, better known as El General, tells me. He explains how he was handcuffed to a chair for three days of intense interrogation at the personal behest of Ben Ali.
"Yo, is that your mom calling?" nudged his friend and fellow rapper Guito'N. El General's tough cover is quickly blown. "I'm a good boy," he says softly. "But I'm still a general. And an even better rapper."
"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on the ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."
That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy today. Ford sharply criticized the Syrian government's continuing repression against peaceful protestors and called on President Bashar al-Assad to "take the hard decisions" to begin meaningful reforms before it is too late. Not, Ford stressed, because of American concerns but because of the impatience of the Syrian opposition itself. "This is not about Americans, it is about the way the Syrian government mistreats its own people," Ford stressed repeatedly. "This is really about Syrians interacting with other Syrians. I’m a marginal thing on the sidelines. I’m not that important."
Some might disagree. Last Thursday and Friday, Ford made a dramatic visit to the embattled city of Hama to demonstrate the United States' support for peaceful protests and its condemnation of the Syrian government's use of violence. His trip to Hama electrified supporters of the Syrian opposition, and marked a sharp escalation in U.S. efforts to deal with the difficult Syrian stalemate. It also sparked a vicious Syrian response, as government-backed mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, inflicting considerable damage. In a caustic note posted to his Facebook page, Ford called on the Syrian government to "stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators." Ford's sharp criticism of the Syrian government's violence against peaceful protestors and detailed outline of multilateral and American diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian regime suggest that the recent U.S. rhetorical escalation does mark a new stage in the ongoing crisis.
Over more than six decades of statehood, successive Israeli governments have repeatedly stressed the centrality of Jewish immigration and the Law of Return of all Jews to Israel for the well-being, security, and survival of the nation. Yet while much is published on Jewish immigration to Israel, considerably less information is available about Jewish emigration from Israel.
Government estimates of the numbers of Israelis residing abroad vary greatly due mainly to the lack of an adequate recording system. Consequently, scholars and others have questioned the accuracy of government figures. Besides the statistical and methodological shortcomings, the number of Israeli expatriates is open to considerable debate and controversy because of its enormous demographic, social, and political significance both within and outside Israel.
The reconciliation accord formally signed by Hamas and Fatah on May 2 is beginning to show its first cracks. The two movements agreed to jointly contest new elections in late 2012 and were scheduled to announce a transitional government in June. But Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas's insistence that it should be headed by his current prime minister, Salam Fayyad, infuriated Hamas. The Islamists loathe Fayyad, who has overseen a four-year crackdown on their membership in the West Bank in cooperation with Israeli forces, as much as he is feted by Western chanceries. The latter have agreed to keep funding the PA on the condition that he controls its purse strings. Abbas fears that a new unity government might face a financial crisis similar to that endured in 2006, when Hamas won PA elections. On June 21, he accordingly insisted on his prerogative to choose the new prime minister, formally contravening the text of the reconciliation accord. In response, Hamas complained that he had become little more than a collaborator with Israel.
Declaring that the new government must "preserve room for resistance," Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh underscored why the odds on this political détente holding up had always seemed steep. If these odds are to improve, both factions will have to make new and steep rhetorical climb-downs. Yet signs indicate that Abbas in particular is reconsidering reconciliation, or at least looking for ways to mitigate the risks to which it has exposed him.
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