Thursday, December 20, 2012

A new low for AbuKhalil

[Originally posted at NOW]

The experience of reading the blog of As’ad AbuKhalil, the self-styled “Angry Arab”, belongs in the same category as visiting the dentist: sometimes tedious; often torturous; but always necessary, because the battle to keep the Left free of its sinister – and downright crackpot – strains demands constant vigilance and labour.

Fortunately, it’s been easier than usual to discredit the Professor’s howling gusts of intellectual dishonesty this week. Indeed, in that curious fashion one also sees in such other unstable persons as Mel Gibson and Glenn Beck, it almost feels like he wants to get caught.

I’m referring of course to his groan-inducing claim that the kidnapping of NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who was released on Tuesday, was orchestrated by the Free Syrian Army, in contradiction to Engel’s own testimony that the perpetrators were “shabbiha” militants “loyal to President Bashar al-Assad”.

In a series of posts, AbuKhalil cites “a knowledgeable Western journalist” (regular readers of his will know how hilarious this is) in addition to a blog called “Moon of Alabama”, which runs a sideshow in Darfur genocide denial, to conclude that “this entire captivity was set up by FSA to paint themselves in good light and to stigmatize their sectarian enemies […] This is one of many manufactured and fake operations produced by the fabricators of the Free Syrian Army.”

In his latest post, he modifies slightly without retracting the overall claim: “I received a message from a Western journalist in Syria. He tells me that the Free Syrian Army now admits that Mr. Engel was indeed kidnapped by a Sunni armed group but that the hostages were later sold to a Shi`ite armed group.”

I managed to get in touch with someone personally involved in Engel’s rescue attempt, who asked not to be named, who said: “That claim is incorrect. It is accurate that the NBC team was kidnapped by a different gang before being handed over to the group that kept them hostage. But the group that originally captured them was a criminal group, not an FSA unit or a jihadi unit associated with the opposition.”

Even if we didn’t know this, consider what AbuKhalil was asking us to believe: that the FSA killed three of its own men for a media stunt (Engel says one rebel with whom he was embedded at the time of the ambush was “executed […] on the spot”, and two kidnappers – who are the FSA, according to AbuKhalil – were also killed during his release).

He also asks us to believe that the FSA, acting as Shiite militants, stayed in character 24 hours a day for five days, even when talking privately in Arabic among themselves, despite not knowing that Engel understands and speaks Arabic (as AbuKhalil admits with some embarrassment that he does very well).

Stewing in fury as these thoughts thundered around my head, it occurred to me that for all his professed opposition to Assad, there has scarcely been one regime atrocity which AbuKhalil hasn’t tried, by a combination of spurious journalism and junk conspiracy theory, to blame on the FSA. See, for instance, his series of posts on the Houla massacre. A peculiar kind of “speaking truth to power”, is it not, to systematically assume the worst about the outgunned rebels, while giving the benefit of the doubt to the blood-drenched dictatorship?

No wonder Syrians themselves have a different name for him on Twitter…

Monday, December 17, 2012

Remembering Muhammad Bouazizi

[Originally posted at NOW]

“O nation miserable,
With an untitled tyrant, bloody-scepter’d,
When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again[?]”

– Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III

Two years ago today, a penniless and powerless 26-year-old street vendor from the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid took a decision that – though he never lived to see it – would lead to the overthrow of four of the most despotic dictatorships in the Middle East, as well as over half a dozen uprisings that continue to chip away at the region’s remaining tyrannies to this day.

Repeatedly rebuffed from a series of job applications, Muhammad Bouazizi was forced to sell fruit and vegetables from a wheelbarrow to provide for his extended family. This made him easy prey for a vulturine police establishment, who would routinely invent “fees” and other dues to be extracted at their pleasure, sometimes confiscating his produce altogether. On December 17th, 2010, they went further; reportedly slapping him and knocking over his cart when he declined to cough up for yet another bribe. Within an hour, a furious Bouazizi had got hold of a can of petrol and a match, and we all know what happened next.

So unrecognizable is the Arab world today from two years ago that it’s still difficult to believe that the following things actually happened:

In Tunisia, the man who had ruled for 23 years fled ignominiously to Saudi Arabia along with his detestable wife after a month of peaceful demonstrations. Free democratic elections followed, resulting in a human rights activist assuming the presidency.

In Egypt, the tyrant of 30 years was toppled after just 18 days of popular protests. In June 2012, Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life imprisonment for complicity in the killing of some 850 demonstrators during the uprising.

In Libya, the “Colonel” who had 42 years of dictatorship under his belt was hunted down and eventually killed in a drain pipe by rebels who had taken up arms, with NATO assistance, after initially peaceful protests had met with brutal repression by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces.

In Bahrain, large peaceful demonstrations against the institutionalized sectarian bigotry of the Sunni ruling minority against the Shia majority were countered with tear gas and shotguns by state authorities (bolstered by a 5,000-strong “Peninsula Shield” coalition of Saudi, Qatari and Emirati forces) who have killed over 90 civilians to date. Despite a professed commitment to reform by Sheikh Khalifa, unrest continues to this day.

In Yemen, protestors calling for the overthrow of President Saleh, who had ruled North and then united Yemen for 34 years, were fiercely repressed. After a full year of negotiated half-measures and quasi-resignations, Saleh eventually stepped down in February 2012, some 2,000 civilian deaths later.

And then, of course, there is Syria, where Bouazizi’s match lit not a fire but an explosion. As in Libya, what started as a peaceful campaign turned into a full-blown armed rebellion as the ruling Assad regime turned on demonstrators with pitiless violence. 21 months on, a civil war has sucked in every monster the region has to offer, with the Free Syrian Army competing with Sunni jihadists to gain ground on the depleted but still fearsome regime, assisted in turn by Shia jihadists – a gruesome contest that has already claimed over 40,000 lives, with no end presently in sight.

These are in addition to smaller (but still unprecedented) convulsions in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi, Sudan, the UAE and the West Bank.

The debates will continue for decades as to what all these uprisings were “really” about (Democracy? Economics? Religious/ethnic/tribal sectarianism? Corruption? Imperialism?). Whatever the case, let December 17th be remembered as the day that the untitled tyrants were challenged, and there followed at least a hope of wholesome days ahead.

Friday, December 14, 2012

In Tripoli clashes, economy biggest loser

[Originally posted at NOW]

Of all the streets in Lebanon on which a budding entrepreneur might choose to launch a new business, Tripoli’s Syria Street must surely rank among the very least enticing. The bullet-speckled front line of the regular clashes between the rival Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods was still largely closed for business when NOW arrived on Wednesday, three days after a ceasefire ended another round of bloodshed that left 17 dead and some 80 wounded.

The few who had dared to pull back the thick metal sheets that are their only protection from rifle and rocket fire and open their doors could only snort with derision when asked how trade was going.

“Very bad, of course,” said Nour, a vendor of ladies’ clothing. “I closed last Monday, the day before clashes began, because we knew things were tense. I didn’t open again till this Tuesday. Even now, there are no customers. People used to come from all around to shop here, but no more.” Despite this, Nour – whose selection includes a line of conspicuously adventurous lingerie – evidently hasn’t lost her sense of humor. While she’s talking, a friend pretends to reach into her handbag and pulls out from his pocket a live hand grenade. “Look what she’s got!” he exclaims.

“It’s not mine!” she laughs. “They’re always playing these jokes on me.”

At the Hayat pharmacy further down the street, it’s much the same story. Like everyone else, the owner, Omar Dabbagh, closed for the entire week of clashes. As far as he can remember, this is the ninth time this year he’s had to close due to violence. He estimates it’s reduced his sales by 60 percent compared to 2011.

And the effects are not limited to closures. “None of us has had electricity for eight days, because the fighting broke the connection,” he tells NOW as a convoy of army APCs rolls by outside. “I used to stay open till 8 p.m., but now I close at 4 p.m. even in ‘peace.’ It takes weeks after clashes end for customers to start returning, and by that time, shooting usually breaks out again.”

Nor is the damage confined to the immediate geographic vicinity. On Azmi St, Tripoli’s prime commercial boulevard several kilometers away, the manager of Zoabi Grill restaurant told NOW that only 30 percent of shops there were open last week – partly a result of a shell falling on a nearby street for the first time. “Even in al-Mina,” the farthest point from the clashes in the city, “shops stayed open but business was dead,” he said.

These factors combine to aggravate what is already a dire economic situation in the city. A report released last month by the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) stated that 51 percent of Tripoli residents live on less than $3.80 per day. Moreover, 25 percent of households earn a total income of less than $500 per month – a figure that jumps to 76 percent in the Tabbaneh neighborhood, bordering Syria Street. Indeed, across a wide range of indicators – including literacy, education, health insurance coverage, access to drinking water and job security – Tabbaneh ranks the lowest of the city’s neighborhoods.

Adib Nehmeh, author of the ESCWA report and a Tripoli native, told NOW that violence has long been a cause of the city’s economic woes. In the mid-1980s, heavy fighting in the city center interrupted the traditional commercial links between the far-north region of Akkar and the Zgharta, Koura and Batroun areas to the south, diminishing Tripoli’s historic standing as the business capital of the north. By the time the civil war came to an end, Tripoli had largely become disconnected from the national economy.

And the situation is even worse today. “Now there is no activity, no local economy,” he told NOW.

Fawaz Hamidi, director of the Business Incubation Association in Tripoli (BIAT), told NOW that while “there are still a few investors and entrepreneurs in the city, against all odds,” the city has “suffered the worst of the nationwide brain drain” as a result of the perpetual instability. He also cites a flight of capital from sectors such as real estate and a decline in tourism as further casualties of the conflict.

The solution to this overall predicament, says Nehmeh, is twofold. First, the state must decisively address “the issue of violence and the security situation because no one is going to invest if this is not radically solved.”

Second, there needs to be “an integrated strategic development plan, at the macro level, that starts with the implementation of five or six major projects.” These include regenerating the international exhibition center, creating free zones by the port, re-opening the oil and gas refinery, and jump-starting the tourism sector. “The government has to work closely with the local authorities, the municipality and the private sector.

“Unfortunately, this has not happened.”

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Don't let moral bankruptcy win

[Originally posted at NOW]

When an unelected dictator uses a vast portion of his military firepower, from troops to tanks to attack helicopters to fighter jets, in addition to outlawed weaponry such as cluster munitions, to kill over 30,000 of his subjects (many of them children), one might have thought few would disagree that the only suitable destination for the man was the dock at the International Criminal Court.

And yet disagree some do, including one Glenn E. Robinson, who on Monday called for keeping Bashar al-Assad in the presidential palace in a Foreign Policy article titled ‘Don’t Let the Syrian Rebels Win’.

The highlights in this impressive exhibit of moral and logical bankruptcy are legion, and they centre on his portrayal of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as the driving force of the uprising (“the most coherent political force in Syria’s opposition today”). It isn’t at all easy to keep up with the contradictions in his premises, but give it a try: He says that high-profile Syrian expatriate figures have no influence on the ground (“forget about the expats”). He says that while foreign jihadists are but “a sliver of those fighting the Assad regime”, Syria has “more than enough” “jihadis and radical Islamists” of its own to worry about. He also says that the rebels are “often people just looking to protect their families and communities from the Assads’ onslaught”.

These may all be true, but if they are, then it cannot also be true that the MB makes up the majority on the ground. For starters, the MB is the exiled opposition – the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, which directly or indirectly controls around half the seats on the new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, was compromised from day one by its MB domination. Second, for all the unpleasant elements of MB ideology, Iraq-style jihadism is not part of it. MB members may well privately approve of Salafist-jihadist suicide attacks and so on, but they will not carry them out themselves.

The examples of Egypt and Tunisia, unwisely raised by Robinson, are fully consistent with this. Third, if rebels “often” take up arms purely in self-defense, then on what grounds does Robinson smear them with the Islamist brush? All this, incidentally, after haughtily lamenting that “people so often miss the nature of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood”.

He ends by asserting that “a negotiated outcome remains the best solution” to the conflict. Even if we ignore (as he does) that this is impossible, it remains unclear why on earth it’s desirable. Consider that of the three possible outcomes – political solution; military victory for Assad; military victory for the rebels – the first two leave a mass-murderer in control of over 20 million people.

Robinson favours this, purely so as to prevent the hypothetical shortcomings of his successors. What conceivable sense does it make – morally, legally – to leave a war criminal in power, unpunished, while punishing his victims for crimes they haven’t yet committed?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Syrian rebels gain, but for how long?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

The resignation of Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi on Monday is just one of a series of recent setbacks for the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The news follows a week of unprecedented military victories for rebel forces, including the shooting down of two regime aircraft in as many days, a pledge by NATO to deploy Patriot surface-to-air missiles along the Turkish-Syrian border, and a diplomatic breakthrough that could see European nations arming the opposition by March 2013.

At the same time, the regime has been bombarding the Damascus province in a thus-far successful effort to repel an opposition advance into the capital, while also gaining on rebel positions in the Aleppo region. Perhaps most significantly, US officials claimed Wednesday that the regime had loaded aerial bombs with sarin, a deadly nerve gas, following a second warning from Washington that the use of chemical weapons would prompt military intervention.

On balance, several analysts argue the momentum has shifted in the rebels’ favor, particularly in light of their newly acquired surface-to-air weaponry. “Assad has been relying on air power to keep rebels pinned in their positions. Their ability to challenge this state of affairs has given them more confidence and enabled them to carry out bolder operations, as we are currently seeing in Damascus, Aleppo, Deir az-Zour and Daraa,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, an exiled Syrian activist and fellow at the Washington, DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The rebels are gradually breaking the stalemate and gaining the upper-hand […] A de facto no-fly zone is being created,” he told NOW.

Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, agrees that “the rebels have been regularly and steadily improving their tactical performance since the end of May.” He cautions, however, that the regime “is still very capable of” using its air force and remains “very much in command of what forces it has left—and these are not insignificant forces.” Accordingly, he argues that “what looks like quite dramatic and swift rebel advances and regime losses” may instead be a move “toward a new stabilized stalemate around a line running broadly from the Turkish border through Aleppo to Deir az-Zour, versus the regime holding onto Damascus and the Lebanese border to Homs, Hama and then around to Latakia.”

Moreover, it is unclear how long the rebels’ surface-to-air missile (SAM) stocks can last. “Rebel operations and fighting capabilities have always been undermined by an unsteady flow of arms,” said Abdulhamid. “That a portion of the surface-to-air missiles in rebel possession seems to have been gained from looting the military bases that rebels conquered and not from external suppliers” means that “depletion is a serious concern.”

Opposition activist Maher al-Esber, however, believes the rebels have already seized sufficient quantities. “They took missiles from more than one place,” he told NOW. “Practically if, [for example], you have 50 missiles and [the regime] has 100 planes, you achieve complete deterrence.” Current estimates put the rebels’ SAM stockpile at around 40, against more than 300 attack aircraft.

Elsewhere, rebel gains in the north and northeast have sparked concerns about the prominence of Jabhat al-Nusra, a secretive brigade of both Syrian and foreign jihadists that has carried out dozens of suicide attacks in the last year—sometimes killing civilians—and reportedly played a decisive role in recent battles. In a rare interview this week with the Telegraph, a member of the group admitted that some of his comrades “hate the West and all non-Muslims” and “want to attack churches.”

According to Abdulhamid, while “the growing size and involvement of Jabhat al-Nusra is pretty worrying,” it remains heavily outnumbered by non-jihadist rebels. “Jabhat has its allies among rebels who share its vision for an Islamic state, but it has more enemies, as most rebel groups refuse to endorse [this] option.” Moreover, Abdulhamid foresees “clashes between Jabhat members and other rebel groups” taking place “after or even during the liberation of Damascus, [which] will ripple elsewhere in the country.”

As for the fears of chemical weapons use by the regime, Sayigh believes it is essentially a regime bluff. “[Assad] has been using the chemical weapons issue to sort of play a little game, to say ‘Look, we can make trouble, and equally we can prevent that trouble. If you want these to be secure, you need us, so they don’t fall into bad hands, i.e., Islamists.’”

Abdulhamid, however, argues the threat is credible. “The psychopathic tendencies of Assad and his inner circle have been amply documented by now. We cannot put anything beyond them. For all their manifest corruption, we are dealing here with people who seem to believe their own lies […] Assad might decide that he is a dead man no matter what happens, so he might as well die as a ‘hero’ of the resistance to imperialism and Zionism.”

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ladies, don't expect God's help

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

It’s been harder than usual in Lebanon this week to escape the Lord’s omnipresence. In addition to the “normal” allocation of public space to the country’s religious celebrities, as well as the Papal paraphernalia still yet to be taken down (three months later) and the homages to politicians (each one boasting varying degrees of divinity), you might well have noticed the ubiquitous new billboards bearing the (mostly lugubrious) faces of the premier Maronite, Greek Catholic, Sunni and Shia clerics.

As those who have paused to read the text will know, these are actually not yet more expressions of sectarian devotion, but in fact an initiative by the Resource Center for Gender Equality, aka ‘Abaad’ (“Dimensions”), to combat misogyny as part of the “International 16 Days Campaign of Activism to End Violence Against Women and Girls”.

Thus each billboard bears the face of one cleric, along with a quote of his ostensibly condemning violence against women on religious grounds. The Sunni grand mufti Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Qabbani, for example, cites ahadith (saying of Prophet Muhammad) affirming that “None but a noble man treats women in an honourable manner, and none but an ignoble man treats women disgracefully” (see here for all four quotes).

This is all, of course, an outrage and insult to anyone who takes the cause of gender equality seriously. So far from being the torchbearers of equality, religious institutions in Lebanon – as in every country on earth – are bastions of patriarchy and Leviathans of misogyny: the gatekeepers of “traditional values”, keeping women firmly and permanently under the boot. How stupid do they think we are? Is this not the very same Qabbani who, in June last year, rejected a draft law criminalizing domestic violence on the grounds that it would “[harm] the Muslim woman and [deny] her of the rights granted [to her]”? Is this not the same Qabbani who described as “heresy” the idea of criminalizing marital rape, warning that to do so would risk “[a] mother threatening [a] father with prison, in defiance of patriarchal authority”? Are these not the cronies of the Jamaa al-Islamiyah MP who, last December, said “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and a wife. It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse”? Is this “treating women in an honourable manner”?

I don’t mean to impugn Abaad specifically – no doubt this campaign was well-intentioned. But asking for women’s rights from the religious establishment is like asking for Palestinian rights from a Zionist. The two are fundamentally antithetical. If women are ever to receive the justice they deserve, it will be by confronting and defeating the clerics, not collaborating in the whitewashing of their oppression.