Since its first running in 2004, the Bahrain Grand Prix has been a mainstay of the country's complex political calendar. Indeed, controversy brewed well before a single race could take place, with critics decrying the expense of constructing the vast Bahrain International Circuit even as many citizens struggled to find jobs, housing, and affordable land. At the same time, the track's isolation in the far south of the island -- well, as far south as one can go before hitting military fences -- fed the notion that the race, hosted not far from Sakhir Palace, was conceived mostly as a diversion for society's elite, and aptly demonstrated the misplaced social and economic priorities of the ruling family.
As such, the Formula One event consistently has been the occasion for popular protest and violence, giving the impression that the event is but a microcosm of Bahrain's larger opposition-government divide, with the latter pursuing self-serving policies while ordinary Bahrainis try in vain to effect meaningful change.
MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.
But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty?
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Looking at the past 10 years of Iraq's history through the lens of displacement reveals a complex -- and sobering -- reality. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, humanitarian agencies prepared for a massive outpouring of Iraqi refugees. But this didn't happen. Instead a much more dynamic and complex form of displacement occurred. First, some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been displaced by the Saddam Hussein regime returned to their places of origin. Then, in the 2003 to 2006 period, more than a million Iraqis were displaced as sectarian militias battled for control of specific neighborhoods. In February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askaria Mosque and its violent aftermath ratcheted the numbers of IDPs up to a staggering 2.7 million. In a period of about a year, five percent of Iraq's total population fled their homes and settled elsewhere in Iraq while an additional 2 million or so fled the country entirely. It is important to underscore that this displacement was not just a by-product of the conflict, but rather the result of deliberate policies of sectarian cleansing by armed militias.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
As the United States and its allies continue to debate intervention in Syria, the example of NATO's air campaign in Libya is frequently marshaled -- often carelessly. Most arguments against drawing unwarranted analogies cite the size of the Syrian military, the robustness of its air defenses compared to Libya's, as well as obvious differences in the countries' sectarian makeup and topography. But no one has bothered to ask Libya's revolutionary fighters and their commanders what they thought of the NATO air campaign and how it affected their strategy, tactics, and morale on the battlefield.
In March and July of 2012, I traveled to Libya to conduct over two dozen interviews with anti-Qaddafi commanders who fought on the war's four main fronts: the Nafusa mountains, Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi. The results are surprising, with important implications for current deliberations on Syria. Nowhere is this more evident than in Misrata, the central coastal city that was the location of the Libyan war's most pivotal battle. Anti-Assad forces in Syria have long boasted of making Aleppo their Benghazi -- a haven from which to topple the regime in Damascus. But perhaps a closer analogy is Misrata where, after months of grinding, urban combat, Libyan revolutionaries pushed out Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops and paved the way for the liberation of Tripoli. Precision airpower, combined with the presence of foreign ground advisors working alongside the city's defenders, helped in this crucial battle, but in ways that were dependent on a number of other factors -- all with important implications for Syria.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images; Misrata Military Council
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.
Libya's embattled transitional government is not only struggling to appoint a cabinet, disarm its powerful militias, and deal with the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. It is also locked in a tense battle with the International Criminal Court (ICC) over where to try Muammar al-Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and the former regime's mysterious intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi. Since the fall of Qaddafi's regime and the assertion of a newly sovereign Libya, the ICC's intervention has degenerated into a controversial and, at times, acrimonious battle between Libya's new rulers and the Court over where the highly prized indictees should be tried. Over the past year, Libya's transitional government has sought to demonstrate its effective sovereignty to its citizens and the world by proving itself able and willing to prosecute senior members of the Qaddafi regime. At the same time, the ICC has striven to establish itself as an effective institution that can have positive effects on post-conflict accountability. However, the fight over where to try Saif and Senussi may ultimately serve to undermine the aims of both the ICC and Libya -- not to mention the pursuit of post-Qaddafi justice.
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
As soon as mobilization started to sweep across the Arab world in 2011, observers started to make analogies to the wave of 1989 protests that brought down the Soviet Union. But less thought has gone into the "1990 analogy"-- the ways that international efforts to support democracy in the Middle East in 2012 are similar to or different from the efforts that took place in Central and Eastern Europe in 1990. With Egypt's democratic transition in limbo, now is the time for U.S. officials to think critically about what they can realistically do to aid democracy in the Middle East and keep the hopes of the Arab Spring alive. An important part of the calculus must be Tunisia, which is frequently called democracy's "best hope" in the region. Unfortunately, some of the international community's efforts to help Tunisia's transition to democracy already show some disturbing signs of repeating the mistakes of 1990.
Thirty years ago in June, U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered a landmark speech to the British Parliament that pledged the United States' support to democracy builders around the world. Although Reagan sought to promote democracy in the Soviet Bloc primarily as a strategy for winning the Cold War, democracy assistance has long out-lived its original purpose; it is now a major component of U.S. foreign policy throughout the world. After the end of the Cold War, democracy promotion became, in the words of the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, a "world value." But it is more than a rhetorical affirmation or a value commitment: U.S. democracy assistance is now a multi-billion dollar a year industry.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
In 2008 -- 18 years after New York City threw him a ticker tape parade for helping to end apartheid -- it took an act of Congress to ensure that Nelson Mandela did not need a special waiver to enter the United States, finally removing his terrorist designation. In November 2011, Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah was removed from the "Individuals and Entities Designated by the State Department Under E.O. 13224" terrorist list. He had been dead for three and a half years. The "German Taliban," Eric Breininger, was dead for more than a week when he was added to the list. Although these may seem like bureaucratic oversights, they are indicative of wider problems in terrorist listing systems. While attempting to punish terrorist groups and restrict their activities, these systems have reduced the space for diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These disparate examples also highlight the continuing lack of agreement on who is a "terrorist."
During its latest meeting on the Middle East peace process, the Council of the European Union repeated its warning that the emergence of a viable Palestinian state living peacefully beside Israel was in jeopardy. Perhaps angered by reports that more than 60 development projects funded by the European Commission and several EU states had been deliberately demolished by Israel, the Council blamed the Israeli government for threatening to make a two-state solution "impossible" through increased settlement construction, house demolitions, forced population transfers, and revoking Palestinian residency rights in Jerusalem. The EU urged the donor community -- especially donors from the Middle East -- to do more to assist the Palestinians by providing financial assistance for donor-funded projects in areas under Palestinian Authority (PA) control.
In Egypt, on every street and in every alleyway, there has been one topic of serious debate over the past few weeks: today's presidential elections, the country's first of any suspense or consequence. Figures from Egypt's formerly quasi-underground opposition stare down from billboards blanketing the country. Leading civilian candidates debate on television for the first time in Egypt and the Arab world. It is not quite a democracy -- Egypt remains a military dictatorship, albeit one in flux -- but it is a bumptious mirage of what Egyptian democracy might look like in 2016 or 2017, if there are free, peaceful elections at the end of this next president's term. Charges and recriminations will begin soon enough, and everything will look inevitable in hindsight. But the days ahead of the polls were memorable for their mix of resurgent hope, pride, and the anxiety of real suspense.
Is it time for Kofi Annan to declare that his bid to resolve the Syrian crisis has failed? A growing number of Western diplomats argue privately that he should. U.S. officials have stated publicly that Annan's peace plan "is failing," and the Saudi foreign minister has said confidence in his efforts is "rapidly falling." Syrian security forces continue to target dissidents, rebel forces remain active, and there have been attacks on convoys carrying U.N. monitors -- reinforcing the case that Annan should admit defeat.
The former U.N. Secretary-General has made it clear that he knows his mission is close to failure. But it's very difficult for him to call the whole thing off. While violence has continued in Syria at what Annan calls "unacceptable" levels, the death-rate has generally been lower than prior to the "ceasefire" he engineered in April. But whoever is attacking the U.N. observers probably wants to foment a full-scale war, and fighting appears not only to be on the rise again but also to be spreading into Lebanon.
U.S. President Barack Obama might prefer to give the "green light" for an Israeli attack on Iran (if the diplomatic talks on Iran's nuclear program fail) if he were convinced that it "could get the job done," as recently assessed by Walter Russell Mead. Is it really a bad idea? Absurd as it sounds, is there a logic to America letting Israel strike Iran's nuclear installations rather than dissuading the Israelis? Could an ill-conceived war actually be a way to achieve a net-positive impact?
In the past, diplomatic breakthroughs for Israel have come after intense and prolonged periods of violence. Ironically, therefore, Israel's attack could probably be an effective way to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace process that shows no signs of going anywhere on its own. While this path is certainly not a desirable option, it is worth considering how it might play out.
The leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait) will meet in May to discuss creating a closer federal unit among the states. The idea of closer integration was first put forward in December 2011 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and recently fleshed out in a speech in the name of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. The potential benefits of creating a $1.4 trillion economic area of 42 million people were championed, as were the potential benefits of close cooperation and coordination in defense and security policy. While all this makes sense superficially, it is all but impossible to see how a meaningful GCC Union could take place.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
It's easy to hate Bashar al-Assad, the crypto-modernizer-turned bloody tyrant. What is there to commend about a regime that kills thousands of its own? How could it not be fair to demonize a president who, in his first interview after coming to power after his father's death in 2000, questioned the very notion of a civil society in Syria? Yet however good righteous indignation may feel, it makes for bad policy.
When U.S. President Barack Obama called for Egypt's octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak to step aside last year, he could be confident that by doing so he was breathing new life into the "deep state" -- ruled by the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). U.S. policy was not abetting revolution in Egypt so much as short-circuiting it, even if we tried to convince ourselves otherwise. And our policy was consistent with the often inchoate sensibilities of Egypt's majority. Remember the popular refrain: "The Army and the People are One!" In that case, U.S. policy was both right and smart.
On April 17, 2012, M. Cherif Bassiouni, international Arab legal expert and Chairman of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry joined Middle East Channel editor Marc Lynch for a short conversation at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies. Among the topics covered: Bahrain's response to the BICI recommendations, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immunity deal, a war crimes tribunal for Syria...and why Muammar al-Qaddafi's sex addiction will make it difficult to convict Saif al-Islam.
Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to begin tomorrow for the first time since January 2011. These talks will offer one of the best opportunities that the current administration has had to begin a diplomatic process that could help end the nuclear stalemate with Iran.
Since discussion about the possibility of these talks first began last month we have heard much talk about a diplomatic "window of opportunity." This phrase made its first appearance at a White House press conference where U.S. President Barak Obama explained: "We still have a window of opportunity where [the standoff over Iran's nuclear program] can still be solved diplomatically." This phrase has since been repeated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, among others.
Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany resume again this weekend, with Tehran giving hints that it may take a more constructive attitude to negotiations than it did during the previous round in 2011. Iranian nuclear officials have suggested that Iran might curtail its 20 percent uranium enrichment program, which would meet almost halfway the expected demands of the United States and its so-called P5+1 negotiating partners.
The United States and its allies reportedly plan to demand the immediate cessation of uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and a closure of the hardened Fordow enrichment plant, possibly in exchange for promises of no further sanctions. If the United States and its international partners are able to achieve these objectives, they will significantly slow Iran's progress toward having the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, score a victory for the two-track policy of diplomacy and economic pressure, and provide a template for more fully resolving outstanding issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program in future talks.
Despite the tentative and fragile ceasefire that appears to have now taken hold in Syria, skepticism and outright vitriol regarding the mission of United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan remains. This frustration is understandable as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has until now shown no signs of credible compromise and the human costs of conflict have continued to escalate. The odds against success remain high. Even as the Syrian regime has observed a cessation in hostilities, it has ignored agreements to redeploy troops and heavy weapons from population centers. However, even if the current iteration of the Annan mission fails, a sequential diplomatic approach remains the only avenue by which an international consensus might be reached; without such consensus there is simply no hope for a near-term resolution of the conflict through managed transition.
The ceasefire that is at the crux of current attention is not an end in and of itself. The six-point plan endorsed by the Arab League and the United Nations also seeks to establish a Syrian-led political process that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. While the terms of a transition are left unspecified, it should be clear to Russia and others that any credible managed transition will require the removal of Assad from power. There can be no stability in Syria if the regime remains fully intact. In light of the indispensability of Russia and China and their reservations about the consequences of a political transition, focus should now shift to fashioning a serious transition process that retains specific figures and institutions from the Assad regime while allowing for genuine political change to take root. If international consensus cannot be marshaled around such basic realities then Syria is destined to suffer from escalating and protracted conflict that is the sole alternative to a diplomatic resolution.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
It's just over a month since U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chose Kofi Annan to represent the United Nations and Arab League as their envoy for Syria. Annan has moved quickly to create a diplomatic framework for dealing with the crisis, putting together proposals for a ceasefire and "Syrian-led" talks that both the Security Council and Arab League have endorsed. But the last week has seen mounting criticism of this plan.
At first sight, Annan's proposals don't seem so contentious. The main pillars are an "inclusive Syrian-led political process," an "effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence," and "timely provision of humanitarian assistance." Other points include the release of political prisoners, letting journalists move freely, and permitting peaceful demonstrations. While these are unquestionably urgent priorities, however, the plan will ultimately be judged on the implementation of its political and military aspects.
As the brutal crackdown in Syria turns one year old with little sign of a solution on the horizon, skeptics and defenders of invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine can agree: Syria has put the doctrine, which obligates states to be concerned about the welfare of those outside its borders, in crisis. Critics charge that it requires intervention on the Libyan precedent, exposing R2P as a crusading utopianism mandating perpetual war for peace. Supporters worry the doctrine will be made into a discredited farce if Bashar al-Assad is allowed to massacre innocents with impunity. In one colorful phrasing, "R2P, R.I.P."
Both are wrong. Military intervention in Syria would not only be a misapplication of R2P, but would radically weaken the doctrine's role in building both a better Middle East and a better world. Our responsibility to protect both Syrians and the R2P doctrine itself demands that we stay out of it.
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
Even before the looming confrontation with Iran, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been engaged in their own related tussle -- more civilized and subdued no doubt, but arguably no less consequential. Their dueling speeches this week were striking in the degree to which they simultaneously mirrored and defied each other. It was no coincidence.
The U.S. president lavished praise on the one Israeli in the audience who most accurately reflects his own pragmatic views (Israeli President Shimon Peres) while bringing up Netanyahu only fleetingly. The Israeli prime minister enthusiastically applauded the many Americans in the room who share his more belligerent stance (members of Congress) while politely referring to Obama. Each paid lip service to his counterpart's central claim -- Obama, by acknowledging that Israel was entitled to its own sovereign security decisions; Netanyahu by conceding that the nuclear standoff would be best resolved by diplomacy. Both then proceeded to ruthlessly tear it apart: the president, by underscoring the imprudence of precipitous military action and the need to give negotiations time; the prime minister by stating flatly that Israel had waited long enough. Finally, the two leaders took aim at statements they argued were either dead wrong, or deadly dangerous -- Obama decried careless talk of war; Netanyahu mocked the endless recitation of war's perils. Neither bothered mentioning to whom they were referring, but there was no need. Not a day goes by without Israeli officials raising the specter of military action; meanwhile, a succession of U.S. officials have warned about the catastrophe such action might provoke.
Seldom has it been as justified to be pessimistic about developments between the United States, Israel, and Iran. This dysfunctional state of affairs is getting so out of hand that the danger of war is no longer just a remote possibility but instead looms large on the horizon. David Ignatius reported on Feb. 2 in Washington Post that "[Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May, or June," though he does not believe that the final decision has been taken yet.
In a couple of days Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in Washington to reiterate the Israeli position that keeping up the pressure on Iran requires a credible threat of war. In effect he will argue that President Barack Obama must toe the Israeli party line both for the sake of keeping a united front against Iran but also, ironically, because he does not want his own decision-making process on a possible war on Iran influenced by Washington.
As tensions escalate between the West and Iran over the country's nuclear program, some Western analysts cannot help but be excited that Turkey's relationship with Iran also seems to be deteriorating. Indeed, the two neighbors, who only recently appeared to be forging a close friendship, now find themselves on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain, with Turkey's decision to host a NATO missile shield as yet another point of divergence. But to suggest that these tensions will lead to a complete breakdown in the Turkey-Iran relationship is to sensationalize the rift, just as earlier fears of an anti-Western Turkish-Iranian alliance misunderstood Ankara's engagement with Tehran.
To be sure, Turkey and Iran's battle for regional hegemony has intensified recently amidst historic changes in the Middle East. In Syria, Turkey has abandoned its close friendship with President Bashar al-Assad, and is leading international efforts to bolster the Syrian opposition and end the humanitarian crisis there. Iran, by contrast, remains one of the few supporters of the Assad regime, and continues to provide arms, surveillance, and training to Syrian security forces as they brutally crush protests.
Yet another deadline passed late last month in the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process," this time over the initial exchange of proposals on border and security issues. Palestinian negotiators were (and remain) under pressure on a number of fronts. The Quartet still holds to a resumption of talks under the current guise and a recent visit from Ban Ki-Moon called for "a gesture of goodwill by both sides" in order to create a positive atmosphere for continuing negotiations.
Instead, many Palestinians are urging the PLO to end negotiations altogether until Israel halts all settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Palestinian frustration with the international community and the hollow negotiation process was embodied by the slippers and sticks that showered the Secretary-General's convoy upon entry to the Gaza Strip two weeks ago.
Episode 4 of Abu Aardvark's Middle East Channel Video Blog, guest starring
Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University. In this week's installment, I talk
about why arming
the Free Syrian Army is a dangerous option and weigh in on the standoff
between the Egyptian government and the United States over democracy NGOs. The
heart of the episode, though, is a ten-minute conversation between Mitchell and
me about his new book, Carbon
It's a special treat to be able to present the conversation with Mitchell, who is one of the most innovative and original minds in academic Middle East Studies. His earlier books, Colonizing Egypt and Rule of Experts, were path breaking intellectual works that reshaped entire disciplines. Carbon Democracy, selected as one of The Middle East Channel's Top Five Books on the Middle East for 2011, offers a radical new reading of how coal and oil have shaped not only the Middle East but also Western democracy, the international system, and the discipline of economics. You can watch Mitchell and me talk about his book, about the meaning of an "oil crisis," and about how Middle East Studies has responded to the Arab uprisings. If you enjoy the discussion, let us know -- we'd like to do more of this kind of extended conversation on the Video Blog.
I hope you enjoy the show!
For months, neither the Syrian regime, the international community, nor the opposition in exile have offered much hope in a dangerously deteriorating crisis. Increasingly, they seem to be unintentionally conniving in bringing about a civil war although it will serve no one's interests, destabilize Syria for years, and suck in the rest of the region. Their enduring pursuit of maximalist demands may sabotage what chance still exists for a negotiated transition.
The regime's vision consists in cracking down decisively against residual pockets of foreign-backed trouble-makers, then opening up politically within sensible boundaries -- similar to Jordan's or Bahrain's promise of limited reforms. Outside players currently bent on its demise, it wagers, ultimately will realize it cannot be destroyed; already hesitant for lack of good options and fear of ensuing chaos, they will grudgingly move to softer forms of pressure and, in time, even resume engagement. The regime's sympathizers and allies are all too keen to believe that it is strong, that the reach of the protest movement is wildly exaggerated by hostile media, that the foreign conspiracy is both all-encompassing and impotent, and that Syrian society is so disease-ridden -- a hodgepodge of fundamentalists, thugs, and third party proxies -- that it cannot but deserve the security services' tough medicine.
On the top floor of a towering apartment block in Cairo, half a dozen Syrian activists are hunched over their laptops. Each man organized demonstrations in his home town before escaping the Assad regime's intelligence agents in the last few months. Now, armed with a list of trusted contacts that stretches across the borders from southwest Syria to Lebanon and Jordan, they have become a key link in the supply chain of an opposition movement that is struggling to outmaneuver a brutal crackdown. Donations collected from Syrians and well-wishers in Cairo are used to purchase cell phones, satellite communications equipment, medicine, and money, which is smuggled to friends and family members on the inside. In turn, protesters send out video evidence of attacks, which the men in Cairo catalogue, upload to YouTube, and forward to media outlets.
The men work with close contacts in their own villages and neighborhoods, independently of organizing committees or opposition bodies. Abdel Youssef fled from Ad Dumayr, a city northeast of Damascus. Syrian authorities went door to door there searching for military defectors on Wednesday night and he spent the day following their movements through eyewitness accounts. As he tells the story of how he fled, a Skype window flashes up on his screen. A woman he knows tells him that security forces attempting to arrest a man have captured his daughter instead. "Now I'm looking out the window," the message reads. "She is being beaten up by the security forces because she is saying ‘Allahu Akhbar'." Abdel Youssef passes on information like this to a contact in the Free Syrian Army, who he says use this information to block roads and set up ambushes in an attempt to protect demonstrations.
The Arab League has had observers to monitor the violent situation in Syria for less than a fortnight, but they are already a source of derision. The Syrian opposition claims that the roughly 100 monitors, deployed to oversee the army's withdrawal from urban areas, have been manipulated and fed disinformation by the government. There have been accusations that the military has used the observers' presence as a cover for increased violence. Perhaps most notoriously, the League selected a Sudanese general associated with the war in Darfur to lead the mission. The observers, dressed in brightly-colored waistcoats and armed only with digital cameras, often look lost and ineffectual.
In any plausible scenario, the monitors were never going to have a decisive impact on Syria. Although the Syrian government promised that it would halt military operations against civilians in December, few analysts took this promise seriously. A handful of observers were not going to change political calculations in Damascus, especially as they have neither their own guards nor secure communications equipment -- leaving them excessively reliant on Syrian assistance to monitor and report anything at all.
On January 6, 2011, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Sharm el Sheikh in an effort to resuscitate the flagging peace process. Egypt for many years played the role of regional protector of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which was extremely heavy on process while being ever-more transparently light on delivering peace. It is a role that the new Egypt is unlikely to volunteer for.
Almost exactly one year later, Jordan has gone some ways toward assuming that role by convening Israeli-Palestinian exploratory talks in Amman on Tuesday. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did not meet officially or publicly throughout 2011 at the Palestinian insistence that Israel first stop settlement activity. It took a considerable effort to make yesterday's meeting happen, given ongoing settlement construction, land seizures, and home demolitions. The meeting, hosted by Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on behalf of King Abdullah II, brought together Quartet envoys, Yizhak Molcho, legal adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, and the indefatigable chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, awkwardly pictured at the table's head as he presented positions on border and security (proposals well known to his interlocutors). Following the meeting, Judeh sought to manage expectations while announcing that a series of talks will follow. Preserving an old school peace process is going to be very hard work in the new realities of the Middle East.
Watching Tawakkol Karman jump to her feet and clap along throughout Jill Scott's anthem, "Hate on Me," at the Nobel Peace Concert on Sunday was a moment I will most certainly never forget. As a visibly emotional Scott sang with defiance, "You cannot hate on me, ‘cause my mind is free. Feel my destiny, so shall it be..." the room was electric, each of us watching to see the faces and reactions of the extraordinary women for whom we were told this song was specifically requested.
But aside from the unifying fact that the three recipients of this year's Nobel Peace Prize -- Tawakkol Karman, Leymah Gbowee, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -- have each persisted in the face of personal and political adversity, it has sometimes been hard to determine the common thread connecting their work. Throughout a range of festivities this last weekend, I was frequently asked how Karman, in particular, fit in.
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