We are facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent decades, if not the worst since the Balkans war and Rwanda. Syria is becoming a field of ruins with millions of people, mainly women and children, affected. According to the latest gruesome statistics, more than 115,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.
And what about the survivors, those who deserve the attention and support of the humanitarian community? A quarter of the Syrian population is internally displaced while more than 2.1 million are refugees in the neighboring countries, mainly Lebanon and Jordan. This means that a third of the population has been forced to leave behind home, land, and work.
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Rarely is there a single discrete event that provides the ultimate test case for understanding the interests at play in U.S. foreign policy decisions. When the Egyptian military placed former President Mohamed Morsi under house arrest after he allegedly failed to agree to a referendum on his presidency, this was a coup d'état. It was also as close to a smoking gun as any theorist of International Affairs could ever hope to witness -- robust evidence that U.S. military assistance is aimed primarily at generating private corporate profits, not influencing Egypt's military leaders or maintaining regional stability.
The July 3 coup d'état may have been accompanied by unprecedented popular support, but our normative rejection of coups as a legitimate method of resolving political conflict is based on a consensus that the armed forces should always be subordinated to an elected civilian leadership and never acquire the status of an institutionalized political actor. This is the basis for the U.S. law that requires the cessation of aid to countries where the military has played "a decisive role" in deposing a "duly elected head of government ... by coup d'etat or decree." Which is to say that all aid must be suspended regardless of whether that head of government is removed through widespread military violence or merely spirited away in the custody of the armed forces. The events that took place in Egypt meet this definition without question. The fact that defense equipment financed with U.S. military aid continues to flow to Egypt in the immediate aftermath of Morsi's removal is a flagrant violation of this edict, and the bill just put forth by House Republicans that keeps Egypt's $1.3 billion in military aid intact but excludes the $250 million in economic aid traditionally dispensed alongside it is nothing short of outrageous.
While the gradual meltdown of the Egyptian constitution-drafting process has been at center stage in Cairo over the past few months, the negotiations between the Egyptian government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $4.8 billion loan have rapidly become central to political conversations in Egypt. Egypt has a checkered past with the IMF. While it views Egypt as a success story for structural adjustment and privatization during the infitah, Anwar Sadat's economic liberalization, and the Hosni Mubarak-era transition away from state ownership, the Egyptian public associates the IMF with the human downside of structural adjustment policies: unemployment, rising prices, and increasing poverty. Even the IMF's own policy papers on Egypt now admit that the "social outcomes were unsatisfactory" during the 1990s and early 2000s.
President Mohamed Morsi's government has a real economic problem: a budget deficit around 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), falling tourism revenue, and difficulty encouraging international investment. Bilateral financial support has been forthcoming over the past few months, particularly from the Gulf states, but the IMF loan would be a key international indicator of approval for the regime, and would provide critical support for Egypt's position in the world market. In fact, the loan has been supported by both the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafi leaders, despite concern among other Islamists that the interest on the loan counts as usury and that the loan has been rendered haram. (The counterargument is that the low interest rate counts as a fee, and that no profit is being made; this is less than convincing to Islamist opponents, but serves as effective ideological cover for the Brotherhood.) The IMF had expressed a willingness to offer a loan package, provided that the Egyptian government drafted an economic plan that met with its approval.
As pressure increases on western governments to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, "non-lethal" assistance has become the promise of the hour. The term is ubiquitous, cropping up in White House press briefings and the European Union's arms embargo on Syria.
Yet despite the pervasive nature of the term, it does not yet have a widely accepted legal definition. Broadly speaking, it is used to describe equipment and intelligence that cannot be directly used to kill. This can encompass anything from helmets and body armor to more facilitative assistance such as encrypted radios and satellite imagery. In practice, the lines between non-lethal equipment and its lethal counterparts are more blurred. In fact, both are required for a soldier to maximize the use of his weapon. As Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, "a guy with a helmet and a radio is more likely to use his gun effectively because his protection increases his survivability and his radio [improves] his targeting through better communication."
In late 2011, the British government sent one of its top humanitarian advisors to Yemen after a year of protests, bloody crackdowns, and inter-elite fighting. Drawing on his experience from a career spanning three decades, the advisor reported back that Yemen faced the most complex set of circumstances he had ever seen.
Some of the key issues at the time, such as fighting between elite military and tribal factions in the capital of Sanaa and north Yemen's second largest city, Taiz, have since eased off. But others, including rising violence between Shiite Houthi tribesmen, government forces, and Sunni Salafists in the northern Saada province and the rise of Ansar al-Sharia -- the local al Qaeda affiliate -- in the south, are still causing mass displacement on a daily basis.
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As Syria spirals downward into a sectarian civil war, a "soft landing" for Syria's transition seems an increasingly distant prospect. Horrific YouTube scenes from the regime's four-week long siege of Homs underscore the urgency to "do something" in the face of a gathering humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, international consensus on how to respond remains elusive amidst an ever-fragmenting Syrian opposition.
Calls for various military options are mounting, but the pitfalls of further arming Syria's disorganized, armed opposition in a highly fluid and chaotic environment have been well documented. (See also here, among many others.) A more frontal, international military intervention either for humanitarian purposes or to unseat the regime is currently not in the cards, and for good reason.
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The recent crackdown on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt has sparked a new round of diplomatic hand wringing over Washington's long-standing military aid program. Despite tepid threats from the White House and Congress, the United States is unlikely to end official military assistance -- not because of concerns over Egypt's peace treaty with Israel or Washington's desire to maintain influence over Cairo -- but because the aid benefits a small and influential coterie of elites in both capitals. In the United States, the aid program provides a large and predictable source of demand for weapons exporters, while in Cairo, collaborative military production with U.S. firms help subsidize the army's commercial economic ventures.
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Critics are right to interpret the decision by the government of Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri -- to refer 43 pro-democracy activists, including 19 Americans, to trial before a criminal court, where they will be charged with distributing illegal foreign funds "with the intention of destabilizing Egypt's national security" -- as a blatant attempt to intimidate pro-democracy forces in the country.
Nor can there be the slightest doubt that Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is directly behind the attempt. The evidence is twofold. None of the three interim cabinets that have taken office since the SCAF assumed power in February 2011 has been able to undertake policy initiatives in any public sphere without military approval. Additionally, no mere civilian would be allowed to jeopardize United States military assistance worth $1.3 billion annually on his or her own initiative, as Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga has seemingly done.
Civil society is an essential component of any democracy and it will be a key factor in determining the success of the democratic transitions now underway in the Middle East and North Africa. In his May 19 speech, President Barak Obama identified "a vibrant civil society" as one of four areas in which Egypt and Tunisia should set a strong example for the region. Speaking to a global forum in Sweden last month, Secretary Hillary Clinton described civil society as "a force for progress around the world," while noting that "in too many places, governments are treating civil society activists as adversaries, rather than partners." Sadly, nowhere is that now more true than in Egypt, where the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has steadily escalated a campaign against this community which is even more repressive than during the Mubarak era.
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It has now been a little more than five months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt. While no one predicted that the post-Mubarak transition would be a stroll in the park, many Egyptians seem genuinely surprised at the extent of post-revolutionary divisions in Egypt. The transition has not been helped by a disturbing tendency of conflicting political forces to accuse their political opponents of working secretly for the "counter-revolution" or prematurely raising "particular" interests at a time when all citizens should be thinking only of the public good. And, as yesterday's front page of the New York Times reported, the Egyptian military is exploiting ideological divisions among Egyptian civil society to entrench its status as an extra-constitutional actor, with the connivance of some liberal forces including one sitting justice on the Supreme Constitutional Court. Has revolutionary momentum in Egypt therefore ground to halt, confronted by the harsh reality of the complexities of governing a country of over 80 million people that suffered 30 years of institutional rot under the Mubarak administration? And if so, what can be done to renew revolutionary momentum?
While many liberals believe that regaining revolutionary momentum requires focusing their energy on establishing a bona fide liberal constitution as exemplified in the "constitution first" slogan, I believe the revolution would be better served by focusing on establishing the foundations for an accountable and effective government that would allow Egypt to make the structural changes its economy needs in order to establish a stable and prosperous democracy for all Egyptians in the long-term. Only after those conditions have been satisfied will it make sense to discuss the thornier and much more divisive questions like the relationship of religion to the state.
Since 1979 the United States has spent nearly $2 billion annually on aid to Egypt. Approximately two-thirds has been spent on "foster[ing] a well-trained, modern Egyptian military," with the purpose of ensuring stability in the country and in the region. The remainder of the aid has funded development and economic aid programs targeting civil society development, political party training, and educational exchanges, among other aims. In light of the Egyptian people's ongoing and forceful demonstrations for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and their calls for a free and democratic political order, the U.S. should shift its aid distribution so that development aid is on par with funding to the military.
President Obama has already called for political change in Egypt leading to more freedom, opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people. In remarks on February 1, the President went so far as to press for an immediate and "orderly transition," leading to free and fair elections rooted in democratic principles. It is now time to begin putting in place the policies that support these words.
In mid-March, right after his tumultuous visit to Israel, Joe Biden enjoyed a much more tranquil day in Amman. While there, he met with leading activists and civil society groups. The next day, the government-affiliated Jordan Times printed a sneering attack on the U.S. vice president, accusing him of clumsily meddling in Jordan's domestic affairs by meeting "clandestinely" with hopelessly marginal organizations preoccupied with "amassing foreign funds without necessarily having any real message that resonates with the wider public."Read more.
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What are oil-rich Arab states doing with their money? A new database called AidData allows for new insights into the aid activities of such "non-traditional" international donors. A recent conference at Oxford featuring papers using AidData has drawn attention in the blogosphere to trends in aid from Arab states. Among the largest non-traditional contributors tracked in the AidData dataset are Arab countries: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The database provides an interesting glimpse into the flow of money from these oil-rich states and while the numbers don't capture full picture, they suggest that the national aid organizations of key Arab donors (particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) have become less "generous" during the past decade by not increasing their giving in line with their rapidly growing wealth.
Since a Yemen-based militant group's claim of responsibility for the failed Christmas Day plot to blow up an airliner over Detroit U.S. policy makers have been paying more attention to Yemen. In early March, Yemen launched airstrikes on suspected al Qaeda hideouts, and in mid-March, Yemeni security forces arrested a U.S. man in San'a on suspicion of belonging to al Qaeda. Figuring out what to do about it has been more difficult. Should the U.S. primarily help Yemen's security forces to defeat the militant group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, by capturing or killing its members? Or is it also necessary to reduce the lawlessness and impunity in Yemen on which the militant group thrives?
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