Thursday, January 31, 2013

Egypt's instability casts doubt on regional Islamist ambitions

As unrest continues to rock Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi must have a good sense of what his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, felt two years ago, when he faced protests against his rule. Anything Mr Morsi does these days, it seems, is destined only to provoke new outbreaks of violence and fresh calls for his departure.

This situation raises interesting questions about the certainty of Islamist regimes dominating countries in the Middle East. What we are seeing in Egypt, which has often been at the vanguard of political change in the region, is that there is a treacherous phase after revolutions that can alter the narrative prevailing when the ancien regime falls. After all, the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952 was hailed as a grand democratic moment in Egypt's history. Yet within a few years, the country was led by a military dictatorship.

Mr Morsi appears to be facing two major problems: Egyptians have yet to digest his grab for power last November, when he declared that his decisions were not subject to judicial review. Many Egyptians saw this as an effort by the president to accumulate unchallenged authority. And the situation was little helped when Mr Morsi moved ahead with the approval of a draft constitution soon thereafter, without addressing the fears of the document's critics.

This behaviour was compounded by another of the president's actions. Since coming to power, Mr Morsi has ceded much autonomy to the armed forces and security forces, whose commitment to the revolution many Egyptians doubt, in exchange for imposing his will. The security forces are especially unpopular, and have repressed demonstrations in the Suez Canal area in recent days, as well as in Cairo. As for the armed forces, they have long tried to hijack the revolution. While they are respected, they are not entirely trusted.

The true test of success for revolutions like the one in Egypt is whether the institutions of repression are placed under the control of democratically elected civilians, and whether commanders can be held accountable. That has not happened in Egypt, where the new constitution gives considerable autonomy to the armed forces. Nor has the post-Mubarak order affected the security forces, as Mr Morsi has been unable even to appoint a new interior minister, who controls the security forces, from outside the ministry cadre.

There seem to be several Egypts coexisting uneasily today. There are the institutions of repression, holdovers from the days of Mubarak; there is the state's political apparatus, led by Mr Morsi; there are the adversaries of the president; and there is, over and above all, the general Egyptian population. Egyptians have very different, often clashing, loyalties and await tangible gains from their revolution. The cacophonic interaction of these groups prevents a consensus from emerging to push Egypt forward.

The notion that Mr Morsi is an Islamist who will try to impose an Islamist agenda on this cauldron is far too simplistic. He has tried, first, to consolidate his shaky rule. What Egyptians want more than anything is to enter into a postrevolutionary phase, in which their aspirations are met. This is easier said than done. Mr Morsi has made many mistakes in the last three months, but he is as eager as most of his countrymen to be rid of the legacy of the Mubarak era.

The president's difficulty is that he needs real power to effect change. But this involves relying on the security bodies and the types of decisions that made Mr Mubarak so hated. For instance, Mr Morsi declared a state of emergency in Port Said, Ismailiyya and Suez after rioting that followed the decision to sentence to death 21 football fans from Port Said accused of being responsible for the deaths of Al Ahly supporters at a match last year.

This created a perfect storm of resentment. Here was Mr Morsi, who had declared himself unbound by judicial review, and who had been unable to punish the security forces for what they did during the revolution, overseeing a judiciary prepared to execute football fans from Port Said, and falling back on a Mubarak-era practice and in particular the state of emergency, which Egyptians had thought they were done with.

Making matters worse, the president has not moved decisively to tackle the country's economic woes. The International Monetary Fund intends to lend $4.8 billion (Dh17.6 billion) to Egypt, but the government has delayed this process until next month. Part of the problem is that Mr Morsi is unwilling to implement tax increases on Egyptians, which are essential for the IMF loan to go through. The president is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. Meanwhile, with foreign reserves down to $15 billion (Dh55 billion), an agreement is needed quickly.

For those worried about what the Arab revolutions will bring, Egypt is instructive. It shows that the ideological agendas of the victors will often be battered by popular expectations. Mr Morsi won the most votes last June. Yet this backing has evaporated as the president has failed to unite Egyptians and take them into a post-Mubarak phase.

Islamists will have to absorb this message. The priority of Arab societies, from Egypt to Tunisia, from Libya to Syria, is to create prosperous, open societies. Islam is greatly valued, but it is not the bedrock of the social and political contract in most of the countries that have been through upheavals in the past two years. To replace one source of legitimacy, the people, by another, the Quran, is not what Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans or Syrians fought for.

As Egypt shows, Islamists are viewed as natural allies against dictatorial regimes. But legitimacy comes from the ability to create an inclusive political order that does away with the past, not from a desire to stifle rediscovered political action with religious doctrine. That debate is one society can have later, freely, without intimidation.

Don’t give in to Lebanon’s men in black

Evidently no one can free Lebanon of its turbulent priests. The latest example is the decision of the mufti of the republic, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, to declare that Muslims who support civil marriage would no longer be considered Muslim.

In a fatwa issued Monday, Qabbani wrote that “every Muslim official, whether a deputy or a minister, who supports the legalization of civil marriage, even if it is optional, is an apostate and outside the Islamic religion.” In other words these officials, once they die, “would not be washed, would not be wrapped in a [burial] shroud, would not have prayers for their soul in line with Islamic rules, and would not be buried in a Muslim cemetery.”

For merely approving of civil marriage, a foundation of the civil state, one can be banished forever from his or her faith? This takes the debate over the authority of clerics in Lebanese life to a new high. Worse, it says that one of the most fundamental of civil habits, preparing a marriage contract, is a privilege solely of the clergy.

What Qabbani realizes is that civil marriage, if implemented, would represent a financial opportunity cost for religious professionals, who live off the services they offer. Worse, it would legitimize this notion of opportunity cost, justifying the idea that there are domains where the state must not defer to clergymen. Once that idea grows, clerics fear, their dominion over all personal-status actions will collapse.

We are under no obligation to feed the clergy, a major preoccupation of that mostly overweight profession, who have positioned themselves in highly lucrative corners of Lebanese life. But let’s assume for one moment that the status quo over marriage holds, and all the signs are that it will, what can we demand from our clergymen in exchange?

For a start, that they stay out of politics. This is addressed above all to the Maronite patriarch, Beshara Rai, whose political impulses, unlike his political talents, are second to none. When Rai came into office, his priority should have been to reform his malodorous church, which is riddled with factionalism and corruption. He had the means to do so, as most senior clerics were over retirement age. Rai did nothing.

Even as the patriarch has delayed reform of the church, he has embarked on political initiatives left and right. Rai has been a conveyor belt of political impulses, on virtually every topic under the sun. Now his priority is to push for a consensual election law, though that really is no business of his. Rai is constrained by his closeness to Michel Sleiman, so that he will neutralize any inclination he has that clashes with that of the president. Thank heavens, because on most matters Rai has tended to behave like a parochial Christian rather than as a man endowed with a national role.

So, we might allow Qabbani and Rai to continue to marry us, on condition that they stay resolutely out of political life. Would they agree? Certainly not Rai. Nor Qabbani, who has enjoyed playing politics, knowing this is accepted by his community.

But then again, is it within our rights to make such an exchange? Isn’t conceding marriage to the clerics a step too far? The line defended by supporters of civil marriage is that the churches and mosques have hijacked questions that should be well within the sphere of the state. Lebanese citizens must be granted the right to opt out of their sectarian cages, with a form of civil status as a replacement. In other words, we are entitled to tell clerics to stay out of our lives and our politics.

One wonders how this will wash with another prominent political cleric, namely Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Recall what happened several years ago when a satirical program poked fun at Nasrallah. His angry followers drove their motorbikes into Ashrafieh and clashed with youths in the Sodeco district. Their line of reasoning was that, as a cleric, Nasrallah was off limits to satire.

Nasrallah is the most extreme example of clerics having power in Lebanon. He indirectly has a say over the fate of most Lebanese through his political choices, but also uses his clerical status to justify his views on the religious choices of his community, while being shielded from critics outside Shiite ranks. One thing that has given Nasrallah his tremendous sway is the nature of the Lebanese system itself, which surrenders far too much influence to those speaking in the language of religion, and even more so those who use their religious clout to bolster a political agenda.

We have seen this in Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who took his followers to Farayya last week for a day of frolicking in the snow. He had every right to do so, but one shouldn’t be surprised that the inhabitants of the area viewed the visit as a political challenge. For them, there are no borders between religion and politics. As they saw it, Assir’s aim was to show that he had the courage to defy his Christian foes in their heartland, since few Salafists generally take to the slopes in order to relax.

Everywhere, it seems, the Lebanese have made religion a part of their daily existence. Every other sentence has the word “God” in it, and to every good wish is appended some heavenly blessing. Now clerics are trying to intimidate believers who back civil marriage, as if this most sensible of demands invites divine punishment. Intimidation comes naturally to those who feel untouchable. Their boldness is our shame.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The luxury of privacy in today’s America

The Pentagon’s inspector general has cleared Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, of accusations that he engaged in inappropriate conduct with Jill Kelly, a Tampa socialite.

Kelly’s name came to light following the resignation of David Petraeus. It was her request that the FBI investigate threatening emails she received from an anonymous source, later identified as Paul Broadwell, Petraeus’ paramour, that led investigators to uncover a trove of emails between Kelly and Allen. The allegation that some of these emails were sexual in nature prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to order a formal inquiry.

The episode was an embarrassment for Allen, a moment when America wasted much energy in defense of its puritan mores. Given that military statistics show that some 30 percent of commanders fired since 2005 lost their jobs due to sexually related offenses, Allen and Petraeus were right to be worried. Petraeus opted to come clean quickly when it was revealed that he had conducted an affair, resigning as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

What has been most disturbing about Petraeus’ and Allen’s cases is that it showed how the notion of privacy can sometimes be insignificant in the United States. Petraeus’ emails to his mistress were discovered by the FBI when they began searching for the person who had sent hostile emails to Kelly. In other words, Petraeus had no way of preserving his own privacy as the feds first trawled through his and Broadwell’s private email accounts. On top of that, Allen was soon lassoed into the scandal, without any justification whatsoever.

Panetta has been criticized for asking that Allen be investigated. For some critics, this will have hampered his actions in Afghanistan and damaged his reputation, whatever the consequences of the Pentagon investigation. But Panetta had to act because America is a nation run by lawyers, and his civilian and military lawyers recommended that the secretary refer Allen’s case to the Pentagon’s inspector general.

You have to wonder why two senior officers entrusted with leading American most sensitive military operations overseas, have to be humiliated for possibly displaying too much fondness for women. What is it about America that allows the authorities to expend a great deal of time and money to see to it that officials are faithful only to God and their spouses?

Two decades ago, the sociologist Richard Sennett wrote a fascinating article in Harper’s magazine in which he examined the American propensity to open up all aspects of people’s lives. He explained this as a consequence of the fact that the early settlers tended to congregate around their churches. This strengthened their communal bonds, and interaction, so that privacy was seen as a way of separating oneself from the community. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a right to privacy in the modern American republic, because there is. However, time and again this has been too easily undermined by a combination of the American tendency to regard openness as a virtue, proof of one’s honesty, and the defense of free speech and a free press, as articulated in the first amendment of the Constitution.

Free speech means that when someone strays from the righteous path, this can be discussed in media outlets without fear of being silenced. Yet this didn’t quite convince the Kellys, who published a commentary in The Washington Post on Jan. 22, decrying the way they were hounded after the Petraeus scandal broke. They wrote, “Our experience of having our privacy invaded and our lives turned upside down by authorities leaking our names and the existence of private electronic correspondence highlights the need for measures that ensure citizens retain their privacy when they seek assistance and protection from law enforcement and that the names of those who report a crime are not made public.”

The Kellys also used their article to defend passage of legislation mandating that law enforcement agencies get a court-approved search warrant before they can examine emails or other electronic content. Today, all that the police need is a subpoena, which does not necessitate the consent of a court. A Senate committee has voted in favor of court approval for searches. This represents a victory for civil libertarians, because if the entire Senate endorses the proposal, law enforcement agencies will have to prove probable cause when asking for a warrant.

That may be too late for Petraeus or Allen, whose reputation has already suffered from intrusion into their emails. How ironic that both men come from the military, which plays so central a role in most agencies specialized in spying on private citizens. A society in which lawyers and security personnel are influential can hardly avoid ignoring privacy. The first tend to stick to the letter of the law, allowing little room for interpretation, while the second find no abuse too reprehensible in protecting against potential crimes or attacks.

Barack Obama is no admirer of George W. Bush. Yet when it comes to issues of privacy and civil liberties, Obama has continued what his predecessor started after 9/11. The American government and law enforcement agencies know too much about us, or want to know too much, so that whenever issues of privacy are discussed, the default position is to argue that privacy is a thing of the past, abandoned on fields littered with invasive cellular telephones and Internet networks. There is a sense that the battle is over, that privacy is a favor in this day and age when policemen can access our most personal details.

But how true is that? There is nothing that peeping toms like less than a fuss. If enough people, Americans and non-Americans alike, say no to being spied upon, they will see progress. Public safety should not justify being stripped down by utter strangers. Truly open societies are those that will thwart an excess of openness. States don’t own us, although you would hardly know that from the way they behave.

Self-destruction in the making

Suddenly, some are waking up to the dire implications of the Orthodox proposal for an election law. Even the Maronite patriarch, Beshara al-Rai has reportedly not embraced the proposal, though he rejects the 1960 law that will prevail if no alternative is found.

So, we may be heading toward another impossible Lebanese stalemate. We have problems with the new law, but will be damned if we accept the current law, while the proposal we do favor has no chance of gaining support. Now go resolve the problem.

If the Orthodox law is passed, and it is favored by most of the major Christian parties that have met in a parliamentary sub-committee—the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party and the Marada movement—it will be divisive and wreak havoc on the political scene. This is hardly advisable just months before elections are supposed to take place.

The law organizes Lebanon as a single electoral district, whereby each sect would elect its own parliamentarians under a proportional representation system. The system it outlines is archaic, divisive and, well, sectarian. It is built on dissatisfaction among Christians with seeing many of their representatives chosen by predominantly Muslim electorates. Therefore it cannot stand in any way as a model for national amity. Rather than uniting the Lebanese, it divides them hopelessly, which is perhaps one reason why Rai, despite having tried to sell himself as the prime defender of Maronite interests, appears today to hesitate to go along with the proposition.

Perhaps Rai’s reluctance has something to do with President Michel Suleiman’s views of the law. The president, with whom the patriarch is close, opposes the project and intends to challenge it on constitutional grounds. The thing is that all alternatives are equally problematical, above all the current 1960 law. Most Christians, Rai included, reject the 1960 law, since it means that many Christian parliamentarians will be brought into parliament by Muslim majority electorates.

But let’s pause for a moment and ask an obvious question. Given the demographic differences in Lebanon, and the fact that the country is perhaps two-thirds Muslim, is it realistic to bend laws out of shape to prevent non-Christians from bringing Christians into parliament? Some parties, principally Hezbollah, would say yes, because they realize that the Orthodox proposal is to their advantage. It helps their allies in the Christian community, it weakens those expected to win on the basis of alliances with Sunni electorates controlled by Saad Hariri, and it ensures that the party itself gets most Shiite votes.

Moreover, by favoring the Orthodox scheme, Hezbollah is heightening the contradictions between the March 14 parties and their own voters. Had March 14 been less hasty, it would have remained more ambiguous about the Orthodox proposal when it came out. Instead, many Christians in the opposition announced they favored the plan, to rally Christians who largely support the proposal. Yet, since the 1960 law is in the interest of March 14, this creates a dilemma. If March 14 Christians say no to the Orthodox project, they may lose their base; if they say yes, they may lose the election.

Many of the March 14 Christians are beginning to realize they are trapped. The aim of the Orthodox proposal—put forth by the ex-deputy parliament speaker, Elie Ferzli, a prominent ally of Syria and Hezbollah—was to deny March 14 Christian candidates support from sizable pro-Saad Hariri Sunni electorates. If the plan goes through, Sunni voters will not be able to help Christian candidates in key districts such as Zahle, Koura, the West Beqaa, Tripoli and Beirut III. Overall, Hariri would lose as a consequence.

The Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea apparently doesn’t sense that when he backed the Orthodox proposal, it was a maneuver too far. In order not to anger his Maronite base, he may now face a new election law that guarantees he wins fewer parliamentarians than he had hoped for. Yet Geagea also feels he has a growing Christian electorate and seeks to take on Michel Aoun among their coreligionists, while showing that he does not rely on Hariri’s backing.

No wonder this has strained ties between March 14 Christians, namely the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb Party, and the Future Movement. For Future, the Christians may be asserting their independence, but it means that as a whole March 14 loses. This would deny Saad Hariri a victory he needs to secure, at a time when the regime of Bashar al-Assad may be about to fall.

Beyond that, the Greek Orthodox law tells us something about the Christians in Lebanese society. As they struggle to define a role for themselves in a country where they have become a minority, some Christians are searching for all possible means, no matter how destructive, to reaffirm themselves against the Muslim majority. Some but not all. A meeting at Boutros Harb’s residence on Thursday strongly condemned the Greek Orthodox plan, saying that it would in time lead to the disintegration and disappearance of Lebanon.

Lebanon, as a unifying idea, risks being abandoned, as does the country’s social contract. From March 14 Christians, who once saw their alliance with Muslims as the cornerstone of a new Lebanon, this is worrisome. Christian insecurity is destroying the country, and not enough Christian leaders are admitting to this dramatic situation.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Witness for an execution?

Recently, the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar published the names of witnesses who are supposedly scheduled to appear before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Because judicial cases often require that the identity of witnesses remain secret until the last possible moment, that information should not have been publicized.

Strangely, the newspaper’s staff member most critical of the United Nations investigation of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination is the law editor, Omar Nashabe. His beef against the first investigator, Detlev Mehlis, was that he had put witnesses at risk by not placing them in a special protection program. So what did Al-Akhbar do? It published the names of witnesses who enjoy no protection, arguing that knowledge of their identity, an intimidating measure by definition, represented a “public right,” something the Lebanese people were entitled to know.

Since we’re worried about the public good, isn’t it true that Al-Akhbar has never warmed to the investigation of the Hariri murder, because those it sympathized with politically were likely the culprits in the crime? For all the talk that the paper is an invigorating and daring outlet, the reality is that it functions as the semi-official mouthpiece of the March 8 coalition, and that on the STL its agenda has been to discredit virtually everything the institution does.

In other words, the public’s right to follow a fair trial is precisely what Al-Akhbar seeks to undermine, through partisan reporting on most matters related to the UN investigation and trial. What the newspaper really wants, apparently, is for the Special Tribunal’s legal case to collapse so that it can then turn around and say, “We told you so!”

Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of Al-Akhbar, wrote a long piece justifying his paper’s publication of the witness names. It is from that missive that we took the contention earlier that the “public right” justified publication. Amin went on to argue that Hariri’s assassination was a public affair, which it certainly was, and that this had led to myriad leaks from the investigation. Presumably, Amin’s way of remedying the plethora of leaks, which he seemed implicitly to condemn, was to engage in further leaks and embarrass the tribunal.

Amin also mentioned his newspaper’s old target, Detlev Mehlis, pointing out that he “openly published witnesses’ testimony in his reports.” Perhaps, but his reports were in a way designed to do precisely such a thing. Yet he didn’t name names or give out addresses. Or perhaps Al-Akhbar is more impressed by the empty reports of Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, who not only told us nothing, but in retrospect appeared to cover up for their lack of progress in the investigation, which long delayed the start of a trial.

More ominously, Amin pointed out that “if anyone in Lebanon or the region, or even in The Hague, thinks there are any secrets or information that are unknown to those who want to know them—they are deluded and mistaken, if not deranged and excessively self-regarding.” In other words, Al-Akhbar only mirrored its environment by publishing the witnesses’ names, because it is easy for anyone, above all Hezbollah, to find out who they are and where they live.

Perhaps, but that troubling situation seems hardly to be in the public interest. Nor is Al-Akhbar’s ability to undercut the valuable principle of judicial confidentiality, particularly when names are fed to the paper to be published, and to issue warnings. But if there were doubts as to Al-Akhbar’s true intent, Amin removed them by writing that the paper had published documents “deemed necessary to counter the international campaign of fabrications targeting the Resistance.”

If defending the Resistance is the yardstick of Al-Akhbar’s journalism, then we’re entitled to ask whether the paper is a reliable outlet for anything pertaining to the killing of Rafiq Hariri. After all, Amin plainly believes that the indictments against four Hezbollah members are false. In that context, we can doubt whether publication of the witnesses’ names was an effort to inform, as opposed to frightening those helping prosecutors to make the indictments stick.

And yet Al-Akhbar would have had a good case if it bothered to examine the conduct of the investigation itself. Why has it taken a full seven years for the investigation to come to a trial? The Al-Akhbar staff knows well that after Mehlis the investigation was flawed, and that Brammertz did virtually nothing while in Beirut. The work of Bellemare, too, has been highly questionable, not because of the evidence he garnered, but because his indictments present us with a crime that is without any discernible motive.

Yes, the UN investigation for a long time was a scandal. But that’s hardly because the investigators mounted a conspiracy against Hezbollah (whose guilt still needs to be proven in a court of law). It was because the last two did much less than was expected of them. They then hid this under layers of obfuscation, all the while trying to persuade us that all was going swimmingly, when it wasn’t

That’s what Al-Akhbar should be focusing on, not on the bogus benefits derived from leaking witness names. The sole practical consequence of that will be to frighten others appearing before the tribunal. There is no public good here, just an imposition of silence.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Double standards as the US fails to act while Syria suffers

When it comes to Syria, it is strange how one particular group, which was outspoken during and after the US invasion of Iraq, has been so quiet. They are the people who pointed out that the Iraqi intervention in 2003 was illegitimate because it was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Yet today, as carnage continues in Syria, no one has mentioned that a deadlocked Security Council has only meant endless suffering for Syrians entitled to UN action.

If UN approval is the benchmark of legitimacy for foreign military intervention, then what about a lack of approval? Some 60,000 people are said to have died in Syria, and yet the international community has been unable to alleviate this ghastly state of affairs. Syrians are being wantonly killed, and one doubts whether they really care if outside powers that would assist them first gain UN consent.

This mood pushes the debate over Syria on to a different plane. Accepting that there are situations short of a UN vote where powers can take military measures in a country, let's say on humanitarian grounds, undermines the belief that Security Council endorsement is a necessity. If the suffering of a population is enough to lead to action by states, then it opens the door to intervention on grounds that are well short of those presently required.

The suffering in Syria cries for more than the lethargic international reaction. Bashar Al Assad's regime has gunned down unarmed civilians demonstrating peacefully. It has bombarded neighbourhoods with artillery and aircraft. And it has engaged in collective punishment of districts hostile to central authority. It has also kidnapped and tortured thousands of people, many of whom have disappeared. In short, its repression has been repulsive enough to merit outside involvement against regime forces.

And yet we must remember that in Washington these days, one is unlikely to find any appreciation for this position. President Barack Obama was a staunch critic of the Bush administration's war in Iraq, and is not likely to agree that cruelty on its own warrants America's entry into a war on behalf of a foreign population. Not only does Mr Obama want to draw down forces in the Middle East, a position supported by many at home, he does not want to take a position that might legitimise his predecessor's decision to sent troops to Iraq.

Yet the president did favour armed action in Libya, and explained it as being necessary to save lives. As Mr Obama told an audience at the National Defence University in March 2011: "[Muammar] Qaddafi declared that he would show 'no mercy' to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door-to-door to inflict punishment ... We knew that if we waited one more day Benghazi … could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."

How strange to see the president reaching for a human-rights argument in that context, something he now refuses to do in Syria. Mr Obama has set just one red line there: the employment by regime forces of chemical weapons. However, the standard is so high that the Syrian army can kill at will while avoiding any resort to such weapons. Is such a tripwire for action useful, so that it is apparent that Mr Obama is simply dancing around taking a decision?

Mr Obama has often made the case that the United States can no longer afford the commitments of the past. That's perhaps true, but in the present context does it really serve Washington well to appear so half-hearted? Syria is no secondary conflict. What happens there will affect vital US interests, above all the containment of Iranian influence in the Levant. Only days ago, an Iranian official close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that Mr Al Assad's removal was a red line for Tehran. Mr Obama offered no riposte, although Mr Al Assad's exit will greatly enhance American aims in the Middle East.

In other words, can America be effective if its refusal to go to war is always viewed as a default position? No one is suggesting that Mr Obama dispatch troops at every hint of a threat. America no longer has the financial means to maintain the military posture it did during the years of President George W Bush. But the solution is not to make it clear that military action has been taken off the table.

More important, can America anchor the international system if the worst abuses against international principles go unpunished, largely because Washington is so aloof? It's not enough to support others in such endeavours. France won't replace the United States, even if the French have shown nerve in recent years. France grasped the implications of the Syrian conflict early on, and while its ability to act is limited, it has done more for Syria's opposition than Mr Obama.

International law is not there to validate American inaction. That the UN has been deadlocked over Syria takes us back to the Cold War years and only discredits international collaboration, Mr Obama's purported ideal. If this is acceptable for the Obama administration, for whom stalemate offers an excuse not to act, then it tells us something about American lassitude that is worrisome for the future.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Orthodox proposal defended

Christian leaders who support the so-called Greek Orthodox plan for an election law have been defiant in the face of attacks directed against them for their choice. That’s to be expected, since part of their strategy is to show their coreligionists that they are willing to pay a price for the law, even if it means being criticized by their allies.

What is worrisome is that all this will only make the law more appealing to Christians, who believe that a proposal that creates sectarian outposts in Lebanon is actually good for their community. Unfortunately, this only confirms what many have long suspected: Psychologically, many Christians favor a federation of communities in Lebanon, where they can feel less of a minority than they do today in an officially unified state. Sadly, many of their leaders agree.

Take the Gemayel family and the Kataeb Party. In the Metn, where their political power is concentrated, there are very few Muslims, and yet Sami Gemayel has been at the vanguard of efforts to push the Orthodox proposal. Amin Gemayel declared to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar this week, “I am committed to the Orthodox Gathering law” before adding that he would accept a “better one” if it were suggested.

This notion of accepting a “better law” is interesting, and has also been a leitmotif in Samir Geagea’s comments on the Orthodox proposal. As Geagea recently remarked at a press conference: “No doubt the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal has many gaps, but criticizing a draft law without presenting another proposal that can be approved in the parliament is unacceptable.” The implication was that, offered an improved law, the Lebanese Forces would reconsider their endorsement of the Orthodox project.

How odd it is to see Christians turning against the 1960 law. After all, during the 1990s, that law was seen as a desirable alternative to those imposed by Syria and its local allies. Syria’s aims were to ensure that its Lebanese allies won parliamentary seats and to stifle Christian aspirations, through laws that would either water down Christian electorates (except in the north, where the pro-Franjieh Christians dominated) or hand the advantage to pro-Syrian Christian politicians.

Indeed, former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir repeatedly defended the 1960 law in the past. What he liked was the fact that it mandated voting at the level of the qada, or small electoral district. The thinking then was not very different from today: Christians would benefit from a law that allowed them to vote among themselves. Ironically, the 1960 law has come to embody Christian fears, when less than two decades ago it was regarded as an antidote to communal anxiety.

But the Christians have been devoured by new anxieties since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. Christians have remained divided, and elections have become periods in which these divisions are used against the community by Sunni, Shiite and Druze politicians. It’s understandable that Christians are not pleased, but the remedy is not to cure the symptoms of the illness, but the illness itself.

Yet what we are witnessing today is hardly an effort to cure the illness of Christian fractiousness. When Geagea backs the Orthodox law it is not any more a sign that he is seeking a reconciliation with Michel Aoun than that Aoun’s support for the law indicates that he wants to make friends with Geagea. The consensus around the Orthodox project from the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb, the Aounists and Marada is an effort to increase their appeal at the expense of their Christian rivals, so that each political group can tell Christians it supported a law perceived as good for the community.

To say that the 1960 law is there to please Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in Aley and the Shouf is over-simplification. Jumblatt recently denounced the “isolationist” discourse of Christians, and the unfortunate reality is that he was correct. What will the Orthodox plan do but reinforce Christian isolation? Jumblatt benefits from the 1960 law, but so too does Saad Hariri, and the law allows him to help Lebanese Forces candidates in several electoral districts. Geagea sees this, but doesn’t want anyone to say that he is Hariri’s lapdog.

Several politicians have looked at the current debate without a sectarian eye. They have questioned how the Orthodox proposal benefits Lebanon as a whole. In what way does it ensure that elections, an instance of national institutional rejuvenation, are either national or rejuvenating? All the Orthodox idea does is to create the framework for a Lebanon broken up into separate sectarian islands, which have no incentive to deal with one another.

This is the last thing that Christians need. Geagea gained in stature during the past seven years thanks to his voicing, specifically, of Sunni Muslim concerns. One reason he was obligated to open up to Sunnis is that electoral calculations required it. By the same token, Hezbollah has had to appeal to Christians in mixed areas, as Christians have appealed to Shiites, so they could win seats together, for instance in Jezzine. What’s wrong with that? Cross-sectarian cooperation is a saving grace that the Lebanese system still offers.

Let’s forget for a moment who wins according to what law. The moment one factors short-term expectations of gain into an election law proposal, everyone suffers. That was, of course, what characterized Syria’s many previous election laws in Lebanon, and yet we now see Lebanese Christians pining for the same standard. The future of the Christian community lies in a united Lebanon, not a communal ghetto. The Orthodox law delays realization of this.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Has the American empire struck out?

When the U.S. president, Barack Obama, appointed John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to his new administration, what did he intend? By naming them, Obama sent a message about his policy preferences. And what he also said was that he favored those who had irritated the neoconservatives, thus helping Obama sharpen his own image.

That was always Obama’s main problem. He has spent too much time affirming what he isn’t, fighting against the legacy of George W. Bush, while failing to underline what he really stands for himself, especially in foreign policy. The president hopes that once Kerry and Hagel are approved, he can tell us more about himself. But how likely is that? Is there really any sharpness to the eternally shifting Obama?

One thing apparent is that Kerry and Hagel, though men of character, are not endowed with a strategic vision. Both are used to the maneuvers habitual in Congress. Their life has been shaped more often by compromise than by any sense of the ultimate goal. Rarely in the past few years has either man formulated a broad policy vision. They are known for how out of step they were with the Bush White House, not for how they hope to rewrite America’s role in the world.

This was particularly true in the Middle East. Hagel is famous primarily for criticizing the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and Iran. For a Republican after 9/11, this required courage. He has been accused by Israel’s supporters of not being dedicated enough to the relationship with the Jewish state. This Hagel’s defenders deny, but even if correct, it says little about his long-term ambitions for America’s armed forces, or the policies he will adopt at the Pentagon. It seems absurd to argue, for instance, that he will cut military cooperation with Israel, even if he is less eager to go to war with Iran than others.

As for Kerry, he sought to thrust the U.S. in directions opposed by the Bush administration. Yet we cannot underestimate how beneficial it is that he failed. Kerry’s efforts to spur cooperation with Syria went nowhere. The man he thought he could sell as a legitimate partner of Washington, namely Bashar Assad, has become toxic, a mass murderer who even Kerry will avoid mentioning these days. Yet, quicker than most, the senator sensed the mood change after April 2011, swerving away from Assad when the killing began in Syria, calculating that it might undermine his sway in Washington.

One can debate Hagel’s and Kerry’s choices, but what we cannot debate, simply because there is nothing on the table to debate, is how they will make use of their new role. Both men have bucked the consensus in Washington, but nowhere do we get a sense of what this might mean in their new positions. Kerry’s thinking outside the box on Syria showed how little he grasped realities in that country, namely how eager were the Syrians to impose change at the top.

Assume that his criticism of Bush was justified, though one would have thought that all the ex-president’s talk about democracy in the Arab world showed that his worldview had something going for it. Bush is an easy target, and in Obama’s America, those like Hagel have been reborn as visionaries, men bold enough to have taken on Bush and his staff. If what Obama wants is a man who will shoot down prevailing wisdom, fine, but once again it hardly offers us a worldview, or about what to expect in terms of military or diplomatic strategy in the years to come.

Perhaps that is what is most distressing in Obama’s Washington. There is a lot of attitude and a willingness to challenge past policies, but without any direction or ultimate purpose. Strategy is not a thing Americans do particularly well, and since the end of the Cold War, American officials have rarely thought two or three steps ahead, devising policies to advance strategic objectives. More often they have tended to look only at the next step, deciding on policy and action based on the current context.

That’s not bad when it reflects the dynamics of an accountable democratic order, whereby officials will shift tack depending on how their policies are received. But it’s also true that when overseas policies are almost entirely driven by domestic attitudes, themselves usually formed by media, it becomes very difficult to decide on long-term aims, or even specify what is important and what isn’t.

That will be the challenge for Hagel and Kerry. Hagel, some believe, will have as one of his roles a radical cutback in American military spending. Perhaps, but if so, foreign policy will have to adapt accordingly, which is Kerry’s role. Less money for the military, for instance, will delimit precisely what the Obama administration means by the “pivot to Asia,” sold mainly as a pivot away from the Middle East. But if there are not enough resources for anywhere but Asia, that means that Kerry will have to work heartily to show the other regions of the world that America is still relevant.

But how relevant does America really want to be? Obama has been a revolutionary president in deciding that the empire had to greatly slash its ambitions, or else it would go bankrupt. He may be right, but the implications are dramatic. Does he see the U.S. as British officials did Britain in 1947, a country incapable of sustaining its overseas presence due to national insolvency? In a way yes, but can the United States really afford to retreat into its shell?

The questions Obama raises are worthy ones. They have to be discussed by Americans, who must ask whether the empire is ending. Meanwhile, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry will be the face of America’s reach. Their actions will elucidate whether the empire is no more.

Lebanon's Christian rivals unite only in their mutual decline

There seems to be no proposal too outlandish for many of Lebanon's Christians, as they contemplate a future in which their role in their country is bound to diminish.

Since the end of the war in 1990, Christians have had to deal with a Lebanon vastly changed by the 15 years of conflict. Christians were a major force in 1975, when the fighting began, but by the time it ended they were fighting themselves, in a destructive confrontation between the Lebanese Army, led by Michel Aoun, and the Lebanese Forces militia, led by Samir Geagea.

Both Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea are still around, leading lights in the Christian community. No wonder their followers remain apart. The split was reinforced by the decision of both men in 2006, after the Syrian withdrawal of 2005, to go their separate ways. Mr Aoun aspired to be president and allied himself with the Shia Hizbollah, while Mr Geagea stuck with the Sunni leader, Saad Hariri.

Mr Aoun's calculation was that a powerful Hizbollah would hoist him into the presidency, against the will of the parliamentary majority. This proved a mistake, as the party finally voted for the army commander, Michel Suleiman. Nor was Hizbollah persuaded by Mr Aoun. They backed him when pressed, knowing this would keep Christians divided, but when Mr Suleiman emerged as a consensus candidate, Hizbollah endorsed him.

The episode highlighted how secondary the Christians - particularly the largest Christian community, the Maronites - have become when facing the principal rivalry shaping Lebanese affairs, namely that between Sunnis and Shia. Electorally, Mr Aoun has done well because he can rely on Hizbollah voters. Similarly, in several districts Mr Geagea needs Sunni votes to send his candidates to parliament.

And yet, several months ago, both Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea reacted favourably to a proposal presented by a gathering of Greek Orthodox luminaries. Pushed mainly by the former deputy speaker of parliament, Elie Firzli, a close ally of Syria, the plan was for a law saying voters could cast ballots only for candidates from their sects. Under this system, Lebanon would be organised as a single electoral district with proportional representation deciding who entered parliament.

Many condemned the law for enhancing sectarianism and barring collaboration between Christians and Muslims. It was seen as signalling an end to a multi-confessional Lebanon. These accusations were alarmist, but the core of the warnings was true. If sects can no longer function together in the electoral system, then what is Lebanon coming to? What are the unifying factors for a country already divided along communal lines? Critics were distressed that an instrument of cross-sectarian partnership was being abandoned so Christians would feel more at ease.

Ironically, Mr Firzli's plan duped nobody. Many in the March 14 coalition, which opposes the current government, saw the scheme as an effort to undermine their alliances, particularly between Mr Geagea and Saad Hariri, the former prime minister. That was indeed the aim. But Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea were also aware of generalised displeasure among their co-religionists over the fact that many Christians were entering parliament thanks to non-Christian voters.

There were more prosaic reasons from Mr Aoun's backing of the proposal. It had the endorsement of his ally Hizbollah. Under the Orthodox law, Hizbollah and its comrades would be expected to do well in elections scheduled for this summer. The party would benefit from the majority of Shia votes, while Mr Aoun, even without Hizbollah's backing, would win a substantial share of Christian votes, and might defeat Mr Geagea in many districts.

However, Mr Geagea also felt a need to go along with the Orthodox proposal, because he realised that not doing so might cost him Christian loyalty. Recently, the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, created a parliamentary subcommittee to agree to a new election law. Mr Berri, an ally of Hizbollah, grandly announced in 2012 that he would approve of any law to which the Christians agreed, knowing full well that they would agree to nothing. The subcommittee was supposed to discuss a range of options, including a proportional representation bill approved by the government.

Recently the Christian parties - the Lebanese Forces, its allies in the Kataeb Party, the Aounists and the Marada movement, which is close to Mr Aoun and Syria - announced that they backed the Orthodox proposal. This was a tactical necessity, since all had to show they were for a plan permitting Christians to choose Christians. However, Mr Geagea's attitude, like that of the Kataeb, angered those in the mainly Sunni Future Movement of Mr Hariri, who see the Orthodox proposal as a means of weakening Mr Hariri and March 14.

Yet faced with growing hostility to the idea, from Future, from many of the major Muslim religious leaders, as well as from the Maronite Mr Suleiman and independent Christians in March 14, most of the Christians in the parliamentary subcommittee appeared to step back from the Orthodox proposal. Importantly, Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai also seemed unenthusiastic. The scheme is not dead, but seems unlikely to be adopted.

Less remote is the prospect that the Christians will continue to adapt poorly to their decline in Lebanese society. As they rush to reaffirm themselves, Christians are easy prey for those benefiting from their divisions. One can understand their frustration, but the way to counter this is to have confidence in their future role in Lebanon. Yet a continued sense of doom seems inevitable for those Christians who fail to realise that influence is not just a matter of numbers.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Only 'plan' Assad has is to wait out misery of his making

Days before Bashar Al Assad's speech last Sunday, pro-Syrian Lebanese media outlets raised expectations of what would be offered. Al Akhbar, a pro-Hizbollah newspaper, said that Mr Al Assad would offer a five-point transition plan that would bring a new government into place, led by Haytham Manna, an opposition figure who favours dialogue with the regime.

Mr Al Assad did no such thing. His aim was different: to dash all hopes that he would be flexible, and in that way show that he was still confident of victory. He offered, instead, a three-point plan conceding very little. His opponents, whom he labelled "terrorists", would begin by laying down their weapons, while their foreign backers must stop aiding them. The government would then initiate a dialogue to prepare a charter, which would be submitted to a national referendum. After this legislative elections would be held.

In a third stage, a broad unity government would be formed. It would organise a national reconciliation conference and issue a general amnesty for those detained during the conflict. No doubt the amnesty will be based on what the security apparatus reports about the detained, the same apparatus that is at the vanguard of repression.

Needless to say, the Syrian opposition saw nothing in the plan to interest them. Even the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has offered more, putting forth a proposal that would see a new government formed with full powers, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. This would, in theory, precipitate Mr Al Assad's departure. The Syrian president's plan, by making no concessions on the presidency, was effectively a rejection of Mr Brahimi's scheme, which today lies in tatters.

And yet what does Mr Al Assad have to offer as a realistic way out of his country's mess? Absolutely nothing. That is why his unwillingness to consider more realistic political options will prolong the butchery. He may find it useful to show confidence at a time of generalised despair, but no one is duped by Mr Al Assad's bravado. When the president's most ardent supporters can see that his plan is unworkable, this must further undermine their confidence.

They know well that Mr Al Assad's forces are not winning against the revolt. It has been months since the regime promised to take back Aleppo, but to no avail. Instead, since then large swathes of the north and north-east have been lost, with rebels now challenging the regime in the suburbs of Damascus. The army is abandoning territory everywhere, so that the president's bravado only promises more suffering, not the beginning of the end of Syria's misery.

It would be a mistake to view his speech as detached from reality. Such a verdict suggests that Mr Al Assad doesn't realise what's going on around him. But deception is par for the course for the current leader of a regime that has mutilated the truth for some 43 years, since his father, Hafez Al Assad, took power in 1970. Bashar Al Assad has very consciously manipulated reality to send a message that he is still in power, and that he will not give it up under present circumstances.

Some may see strength in this defiance, but more likely Mr Al Assad simply refuses to go because he knows the reaction of the three principle pillars of his power: his Alawite community, its political-military elite, and his own family. By negotiating his departure, the Syrian president would, first, have to persuade these three circles, who would almost certainly oppose his exit, as this would pose an existential threat to them as well as to their influence in Syria.

In that case, what did Mr Al Assad hope to gain by making a speech fraught with conscious denial about the reality of his situation? For starters, the president appears to believe that he has not reached a breaking point, and that he still has enough military leverage and foreign backing to hold out for a better deal. By better deal, Mr Al Assad probably understands an arrangement allowing him and the Alawite elite to play a significant role in any transition process.

Indeed, while the opposition has made gains, it continues to face foreign doubts, with arms and ammunition deliveries from abroad having apparently been reduced. The opposition regards this as an effort to perpetuate the war between it and the Syrian regime. This will only make opposition groups more reluctant to turn against allied organisations such as the Al Nusra Front, which the United States has described as a terrorist organisation with ties to Al Qaeda.

The complexity of the Syrian conflict may create more problems for the opposition than for Mr Al Assad. All he has to do is stay in power and resist an onslaught against Damascus. The opposition coalition, in contrast, must prove it can take over Syria's leadership, persuade governments abroad that it is not allied with terrorists, and above all, persuade Syrians and non-Syrians that it has a sensible political plan, one that integrates all those who fear that Mr Al Assad's downfall will bring with it great hardship for Syria's minorities.

Mr Al Assad's speech was a dud, but the president continues to play on the doubts directed against his enemies. For as long as the opposition is not given the means to win a military victory, these doubts will dog them. By complicating the conflict, therefore making it more bloody, Mr Al Assad hopes to find an exit. It may not work, but that's how one should read the president's speech. It pushed Syria deeper into a mire that the regime alone hopes to exploit.

With a perfect storm, perfect failure

The incompetence of the Lebanese state, it is true, is the result of decades of training. At no time was this more obvious than in recent days, as Lebanon has struggled with the devastation from a storm in the Eastern Mediterranean.

With greater imagination, the leaders of March 14 might have legitimately demanded the government’s resignation for its shortcomings. The Mikati government has dealt with the effects of the storm with the same ineptitude as its predecessors. This is a default setting for the state, which waits until disasters happen before taking measures to address or alleviate the outcome.

It’s not as if we did not know ahead of time that the storm was coming. There were several days to take steps to prevent some of the worst consequences. It may be impossible to prevent the Litani River from flooding, but did the government plan ahead to prepare for more manageable contingencies? How is it that rescuers have not found a child lost Monday, Youssef Rakan Fadl? The search will be resumed tomorrow by a “specialized team” that has just arrived in Lebanon, we are told. In the interim, his family has been on its own.

Specialized or not, no team is likely to find alive a child who was swept away by the waters four days earlier. Where is Lebanon’s rapid response system? And if we do not have one, then isn’t it time to admit that we are no better than a third-rate state, one that should devote more time to improving governance than it does to ensuring that ministers have impunity and that their patrons are content?

Myriad pressures have been building. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that some 180,000 Syrians are receiving assistance in Lebanon. This is potentially catastrophic for a country that fears a rise in salaries would undermine the national currency. Nor is it enough to attribute our woes to outdated or depleted infrastructure. What about all the roadwork during the 1990s? Our new highways are as likely to be flooded as older byways.

To make up for the abysmal tourist season, which forced many establishments to close down, the government has embarked on a campaign to encourage Lebanese and foreigners to make purchases in Lebanon’s stores. But why would tourists flock to Lebanon if the country cannot even clear streets of water after rainfall? The scheme is interesting: 50 percent reductions on items for 50 days. But as critics have argued, the tourists did not stay away from Lebanon in 2012 because prices were high. They didn’t come, because they were little reassured about the government’s ability to deal with crisis. Will the latest debacle persuade them otherwise?

Even those who support parties represented in the government hardly seem convinced. A television crew ventured into the disaster zone of Hay al-Sellom, in Beirut’s southern suburbs. There they met an old woman whose house had been flooded. She began by thanking Hezbollah for its help, before complaining of the poor response of the state. It was odd to hear her remarks, for what she really meant was that a government dominated by Hezbollah had done nothing for her, while the party itself had. It’s remarkable how easily people will distinguish between the two. But then a system that discourages any sense of official collective responsibility does that to you.

Have we ever seen a Lebanese minister accept blame for errors by his ministry? When the public works minister, Ghazi Aridi, says that the destruction in Hay al-Sellom was “due to the population in that area” who have built along the Al-Ghadir river, we must pause. Yes, the state is little respected in Hezbollah’s stronghold, so that if it were to warn against construction along the river, it would be ignored. But that doesn’t prevent the state from issuing such warnings publicly, to show that it has a better grasp of future realities than the population.

Nor is it a good idea for Aridi to blame the population for a natural catastrophe, especially when the state has taken no precautions to alleviate the worst of that catastrophe. Or indeed when the state, through its lamentable oversight over public works projects, has virtually ensured that the infrastructure in place to avert flooding is wholly inadequate. For instance, the Beirut-Jounieh highway was closed Tuesday. At best, the highway is a procession of lakes when there is rain, even though work on it remains unfinished.

The key to addressing storms like the one that just came through Lebanon is foresight. Certainly, one cannot expect the state to perform miracles. But when it comes to supervising and fixing man-made structures that are not performing as they must, then the state has a responsibility to act. More can be done to inform the public of likely problems ahead of time, and prepare contingency plans if these take place. And when manpower is insufficient, the emergency services must plan to collaborate with the Army.

One of the worst storms in Lebanon’s recent memory occurred in February 1983. At the time, the multinational forces had to free villagers trapped by snow in the area of Qartaba, and people died in their cars at Dahr al-Baydar. Little has changed in three decades. The state is still unprepared, its response mostly ad hoc and unsatisfactory, and the impact on the Lebanese far worse than it needs to be.

Najib Mikati is a respectable man, but if he deserves to resign, it is for his government’s deficiencies in what was a storm everyone expected and for which ministers should have been ready.

Friday, January 4, 2013

In Syria, evil now has a number

The United Nations human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, did not tell us much that we didn’t already suspect. And yet the reaction to a report put out by a UN commission claiming that some 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since March 2011 can only be shock. It means that an average of almost 3,000 people were killed monthly, mostly victims of President Bashar Assad’s followers.

The figure is considerably higher than that estimated by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, which places the death toll at around 45,000. The new figure for deaths may still be too low. Last year already, a well-informed Lebanese politician told me that death estimates had been underestimated, since they did not include the thousands of Syrians who had disappeared and were presumed dead.

These numbers lead to two questions. First, what is being done internationally to punish those responsible for the carnage? And second, morally speaking, what does the death toll tell us about the international community’s response to the Syrian conflict?

To the first question, the answer can be summed up in two words: Not enough. Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. This means that any decision to refer Syrian officials to the court requires, first, a request by the UN Security Council to begin an ICC investigation. With both Russia and China having refused to condemn Assad during the period when most of the killings were committed, it is unlikely that they would turn around and initiate an investigation that may implicate them in the regime’s abuses. That makes improbable any resort to the ICC.

Option B is to create a special tribunal specifically focused on Syria. If it’s a UN court, once again it would require Security Council approval. However, if the Arab League wanted to set up such a body, as proposed by Aryeh Neier, the former president of the Open Society Institute, technically it could do so. However, how likely are Arab states to go down that path? Given the implication of many Arab leaders in crimes against their own populations, probably near to nil.

With this in mind, it’s possible that Assad will never stand before a judicial institution and answer for the actions of his army and security forces. Still, the Syrian president will always have to look over his shoulder, since someone will be tempted to take matters into his or her own hands and kill Assad themselves, wherever he resides.

As for the second question, pertaining to international responsibility for the deaths in Syria, the best observation came from Pillay herself. She recently remarked that “Collectively, we have fiddled at the edges while Syria burns.” That’s putting it mildly. The Security Council has been deadlocked for over a year on Syrian matters, thanks primarily to Russian and Chinese obstructionism.

Even the United States has shown indifference to the plight of Syria. President Barack Obama claimed that he had gotten involved in the uprising against Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi because he would not allow a massacre of the population of Benghazi by Qaddafi’s armed forces. Yet Syria has seen a secession of Benghazis, with civilians, above all children, routinely targeted by Assad’s men. Where has Obama been? Missing mainly, keen to ensure that he would be re-elected on the grounds that he removed the United States from the Mideastern labyrinths into which President George W. Bush had taken the country after September 11, 2001.

Obama will pay a price for his standoffishness. The Syrians opposition already holds America partly responsible for the death toll in Syria. As they see it, Obama was in a position to stop the killing, but didn’t do so. This may be shaky on legal grounds, but it is persuasive on moral grounds. For 21 months, Washington has largely stood by while the butchery has continued, expressing its fear of a Jihadist takeover of opposition ranks as justification for its shameful immobility.

Obama’s bankruptcy has been almost as bad as that of the Russian, Iranian and Chinese leaderships, or indeed that of Arab leaders, for instance Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, who should know better for having once suffered from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Assad has lasted for as long as he has because he is surrounded by counterparts as unconcerned about what constitutes evil as he is.

But with 60,000 deaths, most of them caused by the regime, evil now has a number that can no longer be ignored. Lebanon’s 15-year civil war led to the death of some 120,000 to 130,000 people, according to some estimates. For Syria to lose half that number in less than two years is astonishing, a grim illustration of the savagery of Assad rule.

That tens of thousands of people should die because a small clique of people won’t surrender power and influence is as good a definition of malevolence as we can conjure up. Assad will not escape the dead, whose fate has sealed his. A cell may be preferable for a man who will walk the streets in constant fear, the memory of his victims following him wherever he goes, 60,000 uneasy spirits seeking revenge.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Endgame in Syria increases pressure on Al Maliki in Iraq

The recent protests against Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, by Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar province, is worrisome in light of the conflict in Syria. The impending overthrow of Bashar Al Assad by Syria's Sunnis risks reinvigorating their brethren in Iraq, who have been displeased with what they view as Mr Maliki's sectarian Shiite agenda.

Sunnis began demonstrating in Anbar last week, following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to a Sunni politician from the province, the finance minister, Rafeh Al Issawi. In remarks to the protesters, Mr Al Issawi said "injustice, marginalisation, discrimination and double standards, as well as the politicisation of the judiciary system and a lack of respect for partnership, the law and the constitution ... have all turned our [Sunni] neighbourhoods in Baghdad into huge prisons surrounded by concrete blocks".

The protesters have used the language of the Arab uprisings. That is why the revolt in Syria represents a challenge to sectarian relations in Iraq. Once President Al Assad goes, so too does Iran's headlock on the Levant. Iraq's Sunnis, especially the tribes straddling the border between Iraq and Syria, will have an incentive to follow the path of their Syrian co-religionists and demand greater equality from the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad.

This, combined with greater Kurdish demands for autonomy, could pose a serious challenge to the Iraqi Shia, who would be wary of seeing Gulf states, above all Saudi Arabia, assisting Iraq's Sunnis, as they have Sunnis in Syria. In the worst-case scenario, we would witness a return to the sectarian clashes of a few years ago, even though most Iraqis have no desire to go back to those dark days.

Events in Syria could lead to a profound realignment of power in Iraq, unless Mr Al Maliki plays his cards right and absorbs Sunni discontent through a more inclusive Iraqi political structure. Until now, however, the prime minister has done little to ameliorate sectarian or ethnic relations, while Iranian influence has sparked much uneasiness among the country's Sunnis, as well as among Iraq's Arab neighbours.

A breakdown of communal relations in Iraq would also test the United States. President Barack Obama has stayed clear of the political situation in the country, and has no desire to expend any more American power there. And yet Iraq, like Syria, could become another front against Iran. Washington ignores events there at its own peril. Sectarian animosity could invite outside intervention, making continued US regional disengagement impossible.

At the same time, the Obama administration appears to have little latitude to persuade Mr Al Maliki to be more accommodating of his political foes. Even the recent stroke suffered by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani provoked little public reaction in Washington, though Mr Talibani often acted as a valuable mediator between Mr Al Maliki and those opposed to him, especially the Kurds.

In the absence of such mediation, the Sunni-Shia relationship may further deteriorate, affecting all of the countries with a stake in Iraq. Iran has long seen the close linkage between what goes on in Syria and events in Iraq. That is why it has been so active, with its Lebanese Hizbollah allies, in bolstering Mr Al Assad. For officials in Tehran, Mr Al Assad's defeat could undermine Iranian dominance of Iraq.

Like Syria, Iraq will face before long the need to reach a new compact to govern sectarian ties. Civil peace depends on it. It is the nature of the Iraqi political condition, as it is of the Syrian and Lebanese conditions, to incarnate what goes on in the region, making Sunni and Shia coexistence a necessity.

The problem is that such an accommodation is a priority for no one.

Iran is badly placed to mediate between the communities. In fact, the fear is that Tehran, once it loses a valuable partner in Damascus, may opt to reinforce Shia power in Iraq, which can only exacerbate communal relations. Similarly, the Sunni Arab states are more preoccupied with neutralising Iran than they are with working out compromises between Sunnis and Shia.

As for the United States, it has adopted a hands-off approach to developments in Iraq and Syria. We should expect little different from Mr Obama down the road. He has spent 21 months not taking a decisive position on Syria, despite the carnage there. This behaviour is unlikely to change in the one place the president has always made it a point of honour to disregard, namely Iraq.

And yet the situation in Syria now more than ever requires a regional approach to conflict resolution. The problem is that because no one seems capable of imposing an integrated regional approach, sectarian relations are bound to get worse before they get better.

In that case, each Arab country will have to find a solution of its own to prevent the sectarian rift from widening. This may not be as absurd as it sounds. Iraqis, like the people of Syria and Lebanon, realise what a Sunni-Shia war implies, and no one wants to go down that path if it can be averted.

But without a regional contribution, the chances of success are limited. Unless Iran and Saudi Arabia talk, perhaps with some kind of US sanction, local actors will not be able to take far-reaching measures for communal reconciliation. And yet no one benefits from sectarian animosity. A Sunni victory in Syria will mean little if Alawites fight a new power structure in Damascus, just as the Shia cannot run Iraq in the face of Sunni rejection of Baghdad's authority.

Stability in the Middle East will come only when the two Muslim communities find a way to live with one another. Until then, the embers of sectarian tension will remain with us, ready to ignite the region at the first fear of an existential threat.

Hug Hezbollah to death if necessary

Turkey’s assessment is that the regime of President Bashar Assad will survive another three months. If that’s true, it may undercut Hezbollah’s strategy in Lebanon, namely to use summer elections in order to gird the party with the legitimacy of state institutions, in that way protecting its weapons. Hezbollah will not disappear, but the party must pursue more modest objectives, or it may lose everything.

Hezbollah has already stated that it seeks a proportional law for the elections, hoping this will bring it a parliamentary majority with its allies, so it can choose a president in 2014. Hezbollah assumes that Saad Hariri would lose more seats than the party under a proportional system. And yet March 14 and Walid Jumblatt’s bloc control the majority of parliamentarians who favor the 1960 law. This assumes that Christian parties in March 14 will accept the law as a basis for elections. If no broad agreement over a new law is reached, the 1960 law will prevail, and Hezbollah in all probability will lose.

So what are Hezbollah’s options? To delay elections and retain the present government? That is possible, but the downside, especially if Assad is ousted before then, is that this would provoke anger in Lebanon, with few people understanding why there are no elections given that the Syrian conflict is over. This would make Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s position untenable, particularly if Jumblatt bolts. So, that path is hard to envisage, and no doubt foreign embassies would urge the government to hold the elections on time.

The 1960 law would surely govern those elections, as there is almost no likelihood of a consensus over an alternative law before summer. Christians don’t like the 1960 law, which is why Geagea needs to show that he’s unhappy with the law, before ultimately agreeing to it. His final approval of the 1960 law he would probably use to push Saad Hariri to place Lebanese Forces candidates on his lists, and in that way secure a substantial bloc. Perhaps Geagea is hoping that this would allow him to claim that he is the principal Christian representative, in the hope that in 2014 it will propel him into the presidency.

Hezbollah will attempt to rally Christians against the law, but this will not be easy. That’s why Geagea has to be careful and not discredit the 1960 law too much. The election law proposal of the Lebanese Forces has zero chance of being approved, and it is useful only as an instrument that Geagea can use to extract concessions from Hariri on behalf of Geagea’s candidates. Beyond that, Geagea must avoid falling into Hezbollah’s trap of becoming a bettering ram against a 1960 law that the party regards as its ticket to defeat.

What the party would ideally like to do in 2014 is use a parliamentary majority to bring a friendly president to office. The assumption is that the party favorite is Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander. However, once Assad goes, Kahwagi will see his electoral chances virtually disappear. He is regarded as someone too close to Hezbollah and Michel Aoun to be reassuring to March 14. In order to improve his chances, Kahwagi may distance the Army from Hezbollah after Assad falls, so that March 14 finds him more palatable.

But even then, Kahwagi would face two sets of problems: Those backing him may be on the defensive, while the political alliance expected to benefit from the collapse of the Assad regime distrusts him. To reverse the latter mood, the commander will have to take steps to satisfy his critics and alienate his supporters. And second, we would have to watch Michel Aoun’s moves. Aoun may present himself as a presidential candidate, putting Hezbollah in a quandary.

Hezbollah’s inability to impede the 1960 law is at the heart of its dilemma. The party’s problem is that Jumblatt cannot possibly accept a proportional law, which would guarantee his political marginalization. That is why Hezbollah must find a system that satisfies Jumblatt and undermines Hariri. That’s no easy task. There is mistrust between Hariri and Jumblatt, but neither sees an interest in breaking ranks over a new law. They intend to be electoral allies and together have a majority to derail any alternative to the 1960 law.

If Hezbollah cannot impose a new law, and cannot block elections, and cannot elect its favored candidate to the presidency, what is the party to do? The assumption in March 14 is that Assad’s downfall will bring the party running to the negotiating table. That’s doubtful. But what the situation may do is make Hezbollah reckless, as it deploys the one thing it still retains, military power, to keep its political foes in line.

However, Sunnis are no longer willing to stand down. Hezbollah’s intimidation is bound to lead to a new civil war, which Hezbollah cannot hope to win, whatever its prowess. Lebanon would be destroyed in the process, with no one emerging a clear victor.

That’s why March 14 must head off Hezbollah’s actions by pursuing the dialogue that it today deems unnecessary. The party has read events in Syria wrong and is reaching a political dead end. Helping it out of this impasse through negotiations, and not through a frontal assault, is the best way to earn concessions from an over-armed organization.

The party’s political strategy, in light of what the removal of the Assads would mean for Lebanon, will fail. Otherwise we may see violence, which March 14, the prospective beneficiary of change in Syria, must avert at all costs. This means divining Hezbollah’s objectives and ensuring they are neutralized. And if it requires hugging Hezbollah to death, so be it. The party will not melt away, even if the future looks increasingly bleak to its officials.