Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Accountability remains core to the Arab Spring

At the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, one thing was immediately apparent. If the Arab societies in turmoil failed to make the security and military institutions more accountable, their revolutions would probably fail. What we have seen since confirms this.

In countries such as Libya and Syria, separate, but related, dynamics were at play. The collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya showed not so much the risks from a lack of accountability, but the catastrophe that could follow from too sudden a security void, when no provisions had been made for a transition to a more stable order.

In Syria, the supporters of Bashar Al Assad realised early on that the key to his survival was to maintain unity in the security organisations that had sustained his rule for years. Even as the Syrian army began crumbling from deaths and desertions, the security hierarchy managed to remain more or less unified, leaving the core of the regime intact.

In Egypt, the picture was more complicated. When the revolt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak happened, it was primarily directed against the security apparatus controlled by the interior ministry. The army was viewed by the population as a counterweight to it, an astute reading of a situation that had developed for some four decades in Egypt.

In a fascinating book titled Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, the Egyptian sociologist Hazem Kandil offered a historical reading of the relationship between Egypt’s security organs – in particular the relationship between the political leadership and the army, and between the army and the civilian security forces of the interior ministry.

For Mr Kandil much can be understood about Egypt’s post-1952 revolution period from examining the dynamics between these institutions. Just as Gamal Abdel Nasser established Arab Socialist Union, a political party, as a counterweight to the power of the military, then under the control of his friend and rival Abdel Hakim Amer, later both Anwar Sadat and Mr Mubarak built up the interior ministry’s security apparatus to contain the army.

The Egyptians’ disgust with Mohammed Morsi’s incompetence in 2013 led to massive demonstrations directed against him, and a call for the army to remove him from office. The military obliged, marking, as Mr Kandil might say, a return to the military’s political dominance. This was consolidated by Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s election as president in 2014 and is being done further through the current parliamentary elections.

In all these cases it was the actions, or omissions, of the security-military apparatus that defined the ultimate outcome of the uprisings. Only in Tunisia, where the military has been relatively small, have the security organs been less decisive in shaping political developments. Yet even there, the passage of an antiterrorism law last July, following the Bardo and Sousse attacks, raised worries the legislation might restrict liberties.

The tremendous power of security and military institutions – to which we can frequently add the judiciary – has largely defined the postcolonial Arab world. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that these institutions have accumulated vast power mainly to guarantee regime survival.

There is also the fact that security organs often reflected social realities in the postcolonial phase. Particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, they were instruments of social promotion for those on the social periphery. This, coupled with the often malignant nature of military and security politics, made for institutions far less turned towards the protection of society at large than towards self-preservation and consolidation.

The Libyan and Syrian regimes understood the implications of what they did in 2011 when they provoked civil wars to retain power once their populations rose up against them. They saw that war would not only serve to heighten solidarity within the regime’s ranks by increasing polarisation; but also that as security broke down the ensuing vacuum would mean chaos, making the regimes appear almost palatable in contrast.

That tactic failed in Libya, but may have succeeded in Syria. The international focus on ISIL has completely reversed the outlook towards the Assad regime, to the extent that American officials have admitted that were it to collapse too quickly, jihadist groups might gain. Needless to say the US fell for the oldest trick in the book of security regimes: portraying themselves as better alternatives to the calamities they create.

Post-revolutionary societies aspire to stability after a period of upheaval. Security institutions, on the contrary, require endless tension and threats to justify their existence and the rules they enforce. That is why for revolution to succeed, this contradiction between the aims of both sides must, first, be resolved.

In democracies there are means of accountability to keep the security bodies in line. But in much of the region proper institutions of accountability simply do not exist, allowing the instruments of repression to push their advantage. This dilemma will continue to profoundly define the Arab world.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Bear trap?

It’s remarkable that many have reacted to the Russian military intervention in Syria as if it were preordained that it would decisively change the dynamics of conflict there.

The European foreign affairs head, Federica Mogherini, described the Russian move as a “game-changer” earlier this week, while pro-Hezbollah journalists in Lebanon have gone into the details of how Russian-Iranian collaboration is about to shift the military balance in northern Syria.

No doubt the Russian deployment to Syria is a major development in that unhappiest of countries, but is it really the beginning of the end game — at least when it comes to the dynamics of the war? Until now Russia has merely introduced better weapons, while steadfastly refusing to send ground forces that could, potentially, shift the tide. Indeed, what seems inevitable is that the Russians will work in tandem with Iranian troops and pro-Iranian militias, which have been involved in Syria since at least 2013. This may provide tactical advantages in places, but is it really enough to be conclusive?

Not likely. Military action usually invites a contrary reaction to neutralize it, and the Russian deployment has spurred Bashar Assad’s enemies to send many more weapons to the rebels. Of note is that the Obama administration has dispatched new quantities of a particularly effective weapon, namely TOW anti-tank missiles. Reports from last week suggest the TOWs were behind at least two “tank massacres,” as the rebels called them.

TOWs also represent a politically convenient advantage in that they skirt the situation that existed in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles were given to the Mujahideen to shoot down Russian aircraft. The TOWs, which were being used in Syria before the Russians entered, are destroying Syrian armor and vehicles, and therefore do not represent a direct use of American weapons against Russia. They only help undermine Moscow’s ally, allowing the Obama administration to say, albeit somewhat lamely, that Syria is not a proxy war between the United States and Russia.

But beyond that, what can the Russians do? Their recent use of cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea seemed more a public display of strength than anything else. Usually such weapons are used against integrated air defenses or other major military targets, not against villages that can be more accurately bombed from the air or land. Amid statements from US officials that some of the missiles (perhaps four) landed in Iran, the value of the weapons in a conflict like Syria’s may be relatively limited.

Russian success will, to a great extent, be dependent on the success of its allies engaged on the ground. There have been reports that Russia has taken over the running of the war in Syria from the regime’s side, at Iran’s expense. It has also sought the dissolution of the National Defense Forces, the militia Iran helped establish, and its integration into the army.

That may be true, but as the Iranians showed America in Iraq in recent months, they have many means in Syria to resist developments that may threaten their interests. Russia and Iran are collaborating, mainly because they need each other. But measures that may significantly increase the power of one at the expense of the other will be harder to push through.

That is why for as long as Iran plays a major role in conducting ground operations, the latitude of Russia to impose its agenda and determine military outcomes may be relatively limited. A constant game of compromise between Moscow and Tehran could also create openings allowing the rebels to resist more successfully in certain places. The complex nature of the Syrian conflict and of the alliances involved make it difficult to accept today that the Russian deployment is a definitive game-changer.

The Russians have a strategy and a very clear sense of what they want to achieve in Syria. But ironically this clarity has imposed some clarity on the American side, where there was none. Barack Obama, who has spent nearly five years avoiding Syria, has taken a beating lately as one commentary after the other has affirmed that the president’s passivity toward the country virtually invited the Russian military intervention. Obama may not much care about the suffering of the Syrian people, but he does care about his legacy, and doesn’t want to be seen as the man who delivered the Middle East to Moscow on a silver plate.

A great deal can be said that is negative about the United States at present. But it’s not wise for Vladimir Putin to provoke the Americans, given Russia’s many vulnerabilities. And there is no reason why the political climate in Syria should be any more hospitable to Russia than it has been to the many regional states that have been struggling with the Syrian nightmare.

Indeed, so inhospitable is Syria that some conspiracy theorists have concluded that Obama drew Russia into the conflict to undermine Putin. That may be overestimating the American president’s lucidity, so shocking has been his lack of foresight on Syria, but it does acknowledge Russia’s very real challenges.

Putin is no indomitable Machiavelli. He has rushed into Syria with great self-confidence. While one cannot underestimate the Russians, so well do they know Syria and its dangers, to assume it’s all finished there is premature. As the ground war develops, the complications will become more daunting, the difficulties more numerous. A game-changer does not mean game over.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Aoun’s playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship

It was of questionable judgement for Michel Aoun to organise a triumphalist political rally last Sunday near Lebanon’s presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda. A quarter of a century ago, the palace was the site of Mr Aoun’s ignominious defeat at the hands of Syria’s military, from whom he fled to the safety of the French embassy.

Much has changed since then. Mr Aoun is now politically allied with the Syrian regime and Hizbollah. In 1989, as commander of the army and head of a military government, Mr Aoun embarked on a so-called “war of liberation” to force Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon. He failed when, on October 13, 1990, the Syrians bombed him out of the presidential palace.

And yet some things have not changed. Just as Mr Aoun sought to manipulate the anti-Syrian rallies of 1989-90 to bring about his election as president of Lebanon, so too, last weekend, did he view his march in Baabda as leverage to be elected.

This determination has effectively blocked the Lebanese political system since May 2014. Unless guaranteed of winning the vote beforehand, Mr Aoun has prevented a quorum in parliament to elect a new president. He has also hindered cabinet work, arguing that as the Maronite Christian presidency is vacant, Christian ministers collectively represent him, therefore all government decisions must be taken by unanimity.

Mr Aoun’s obstructionism notwithstanding, he has been supported in his efforts by Hizbollah, which has publicly said it backs him for the presidency. While some have argued the party is leading Mr Aoun on in pursuit of its own agenda, the reality is more nuanced. Hizbollah not only regards Mr Aoun as a politician who will defend its interests, it may well believe he will work to amend the constitution to the Shias’ advantage.

Both Hizbollah and Mr Aoun feel now is the time to benefit from the recent nuclear accord with Iran. They have, rightly, interpreted the deal as a boost for the Islamic Republic, shifting the balance of power in the region to its benefit. Therefore, they believe, this balance must be reflected in Lebanon through a pro-Hizbollah president and, very probably, a constitutional order that can secure and expand Shia gains.

While Hizbollah has not openly defined its aims, party officials have long talked about an overhaul of the sectarian political system. According to Lebanon’s 1989 constitution, agreed in the Saudi resort of Taif, representation in parliament, the government and the civil service is 50-50 between Christians and Muslims.

However, some Shia politicians have indicated that Hizbollah wants to put in place a system of thirds: a third for the Shia, a third for Sunnis and a third for Maronite Christians, with smaller communities receiving shares within this framework.

Mr Aoun appears to agree with this. While Christians would lose representation through such a scheme, the rationale of Mr Aoun and his son-in-law, foreign minister Gebran Bassil, is that many Christian parliamentarians and ministers are already appointed or brought to office by Muslim politicians, therefore the reduction in representation would not be a net loss for communal influence.

More important, to Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil, a structural majority of the Christians who back him and Shia would maintain Sunnis at a permanent disadvantage. This reflects their innate fear of Sunnis, whom they regard as oppressors of regional minorities. The crude judgement has gained traction as the war in Syria has allowed jihadi groups to proliferate. It also explains Mr Aoun’s sympathy for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

While Mr Aoun is over 80, Mr Bassil’s recent elevation to the post of president of the Free Patriotic Movement, Mr Aoun’s political party, opens up new possibilities for Hizbollah. Mr Aoun recently averted an FPM election he knew Mr Bassil would lose and, instead, imposed his victory undemocratically. Left unsaid is that if Mr Aoun were to die before becoming president, Hizbollah would probably shift its support to Mr Bassil.

It has been a strange path for Mr Aoun. He has been most responsible for perpetuating the debilitating political vacuum since May 2014. While claiming to defend Lebanese sovereignty, he has partnered with a party, Hizbollah, that has created a state-within-a-state in Lebanon.

While purporting to be above sectarian calculations, Mr Aoun has behaved in the most narrowly sectarian of ways, indifferent to the polarisation he has exacerbated, greatly harming Christian-Sunni relations in particular. Indeed, Sunni rejection of him, both in Lebanon and among the Sunni-majority Arab states, is now Mr Aoun’s greatest barrier to getting elected.

Mr Aoun’s brinkmanship will continue and he will not relent until he is voted into office. Yet Mr Aoun’s red lines are defined by Hizbollah, which will back him to the hilt, but does not want Lebanon to be dangerously destabilised as a consequence. However, as Mr Aoun showed in 1990, in pursuit of the presidency, destructive inconsistency is no vice.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Apocalypse soon? - In this case bend to Aoun’s and Hezbollah’s blackmail

There you have it. Lebanon is again on the edge of the abyss, politicians warning of apocalypse if there is no agreement over reviving the government and facilitating the making of decisions.

But the real problem, beyond day-to-day politics, is that the motor of the Lebanese political system, whose lubricant was always consensus, has broken down. Today, everything has become a source of polarization and brinksmanship, so that the different political groups, each pursuing their own agenda, have a vested interest in going to the absolute limits of their action.

One can speculate about the cause of this. No doubt a major factor in the past decade has been the behavior of Hezbollah, which has the military power to impose its will, and no commitment to the survival of the Lebanese political system, toward which it was always fundamentally hostile. On top of that, in 2005 when the Syrians were forced to withdraw from Lebanon, the party found itself without a powerful protector and decided, for itself and its Iranian patron, that it had to embark on a permanent coup to shape the bend its way.

Hezbollah had the tactical acumen to ally itself with Michel Aoun, realizing that the general was obsessively committed to becoming president. It has exploited his craving in two ways: by encouraging Aoun to block the political system when necessary, suggesting to him that his maximalism would pay dividends; and, through that, building up its relationship with a substantial share of the Christian community, in that way reinforcing itself with regard to the Sunnis, Hezbollah’s principal worry.

Since May of last year Hezbollah has used this method to ensure that the country has no president. It has encouraged Aoun to boycott parliamentary sessions to elect a president, while time and again party officials, above all Hassan Nasrallah, have hindered progress by saying Aoun remains their candidate. In other words, it’s either Aoun or continued deadlock.

Complicating matters have been regional developments. The nuclear deal with Iran and the Russian intervention in Syria have given new vitality to Hezbollah, whose main aim today is to see to it that the political system in Lebanon reflects the balance of power in the region. If America is looking to normalize with Iran and Bashar Assad has a better chance of surviving politically, then the party wants to ensure that Lebanon has a president who is acceptable to Hezbollah, Iran and the Assad regime. That is where we are at the moment.

Against them all stands a Sunni community in disarray. Its leader has been in voluntary exile since 2011, while its regional sponsors, above all Saudi Arabia, have largely left the Sunnis to their own devices. This has been a red cape to the Hezbollah bull, the party seeing a large opening to impose its writ.

In this broad framework, the compromise solution to revitalize the government, namely the promotion of Chamel Roukoz (as well as other officers) is a useful stopgap measure. The idea is that Roukoz’s elevation would allow a package deal, one of the consequences of which would be agreement over a mechanism pushing Aoun to end his obstruction of the government.

Some have already declared the compromise dead, but the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt are soldiering on, so to speak. There is a short cut-off point, with Roukoz scheduled to retire on 15 October. So unless a decision is reached by then, Lebanon may enter a political void in which none of the state institutions are functioning.

Certainly, this fear is part of the game of brinksmanship. But in Lebanon these days brinksmanship usually leads beyond the brink, and this time the dangers are worrisome.

Economically, Lebanon did not grow in the past year, with senior financial officials saying GDP growth was zero. This is alarming as the economic backbone of the country is the banking system, built on vast foreign currency reserves. For now reserves are high, but unless they expand by a certain percentage each year, banks become vulnerable. And with no growth and no government, the risk is real that Lebanon may enter a financial dark zone.

Promoting Roukoz poses problems for the military hierarchy. It is also opposed by the defense minister and the Consultative Gathering founded by former President Michel Suleiman. They may even be right if we apply a strictly institutional approach.

However, their argument ignores what may happen to the country if no agreement is reached. They might argue that it is not up to them to bend to Aoun’s and Hezbollah’s blackmail. Perhaps, but they joined a government in 2014 that many at the time knew would fill the long vacuum both were expected to create by not electing a president. In other words they covered then for what was Hezbollah’s and Aoun’s impending blackmail.

Nor has their stance on isolating the military from politics always been respected. In 2008 a majority voted Suleiman into office, though one member of the Consultative Gathering, Boutros Harb, abstained, considering it unconstitutional.

Harb would answer that Suleiman’s election and Roukoz’s appointment are different issues. The first is a political and constitutional matter, while the second involves the internal rules of the army. Perhaps, but the nuance is lost on most Lebanese. Suleiman’s promotion as army commander was itself controversial in the military, pushed as it was by Syria, so the sharp line between what is political and what is strictly military has been violated before with the politicians’ approval.

Lebanon is in extraordinary circumstances today. This may not be a good argument for purists, but a collapse of the political system is the worst alternative of all. If Roukoz is the key to a deal, use him. Otherwise the door to a solution may remain permanently closed and we will regret this opportunity lost.   

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Iran and Russia are united despite their differences

Russia has intervened militarily in Syria to prop up Bashar Al Assad’s regime. However, something more profound is occurring in the Middle East. The Russians, with Iran, evidently aim to rewrite power relationships in the region to profit from Washington’s disengagement and ultimately end more than four decades of American domination.

Barack Obama’s commitment to a nuclear deal with Iran was an eye-opener. In showing that the US was eager to normalise relations with Iran after more than 35 years of hostility, Mr Obama also revealed his willingness to accept Iran as a major regional player at the same time as the US was reducing its own regional footprint, alarming its traditional allies.

This attitude fits neatly into the White House’s vision for the region. Mr Obama sees few strategic rewards in the US continuing to be the sole major player in the Middle East. He wants to disengage, leaving behind a balance between the main countries so they can regulate their affairs.

This may appeal to political science students at the University of Chicago, but the void America has created has wreaked havoc in a region that has long relied on Washington to maintain a political equilibrium. Russia and Iran seek to replace what America has surrendered with a new order reflecting their own interests.

Much has been said about Vladimir Putin’s desire to take Russia back to the time of the Soviet Union. But the Russian president is not into nostalgia. Rather, as a true realist, facing difficulties at home, Mr Putin strives to enhance his country’s power abroad and show prospective Arab allies that Russia, unlike America, will intervene to preserve its rule and the status quo.

In the past year, Russia has reinforced its relations with Egypt, once a pillar of American authority in the region. Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s ties with the US president have been strained by Mr Obama’s quick abandonment of an old ally, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011 and Washington’s subsequent opposition to the military intervention that removed Mohammed Morsi.

Mr Obama never made any effort to mend the rift with Cairo, visiting Egypt only once, during his first year in office. The Russians, on the contrary, supported Mr El Sisi early on and he and Mr Putin have met several times

Mr Putin has also opened a channel to the Saudis, another of America’s principal allies. While the relationship is fraught with tensions, especially over Syria, the Saudis, too, see benefits in maintaining ties with both Moscow and Washington.

In the autumn, King Salman is scheduled to visit Russia. Mr Putin knows he may never replace America’s sway in Riyadh. However, as he expands Russian regional power, friendly relations with the Saudis are imperative.

And in Iraq recently, the Russians established a “security centre” with the Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians. The aim, according to the Russian representative in the centre, is to coordinate and exchange information to fight ISIL, and provide this to the military staffs in each country. Russian intervention has been welcomed by Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi.

But the possibilities go well beyond ISIL, with some viewing the project as a counterweight to American efforts to bolster a Sunni anti-ISIL force. Yet Mr Obama’s indecision was again on display last week when the US military suddenly suspended its activities against ISIL in Anbar province. The excuse given was so ludicrous (the hot weather) that no one could avoid linking it to the expanding Russian presence in Iraq.

At the heart of the changes in the region is the Russian-Iranian relationship. While Moscow and Tehran have different priorities, they are united in wanting the Americans gone, and both have a stake in Mr Al Assad’s political survival. Parenthetically, this collaboration also ensures that the nuclear deal with Iran will not marginalise Russia. As a new Middle East takes shape, Moscow wants its place.

While Mr Obama has wound down America’s involvement in the Arab world, other states – Russia, Iran and Turkey above all – have sought to revive previous statuses as regional powerhouses. Not surprisingly, the struggle for Syria, control over which was always a key for supremacy in the Levant, has meant these revivalist impulses have clashed.

What is interesting is that Iran and Russia, both aware of their limitations in a predominantly Sunni Arab world, have opted to work together. Syria will be a major test of their cooperation, as will Iraq. But both have a long way to go before they can successfully impose a new regional order. The Middle East has been notoriously destructive to the hubris of outsiders.

Strangely, only the United States was able to play a leading role for an extended period of time. However, Mr Obama has other plans. He wants to revitalise America by avoiding the Middle East. Mr Putin is wagering the Middle East can make Russia more relevant.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Power cut

Too often the notion of political realism is simply reduced to amorality, deriving from a notion that states pursue their interests irrespective of what this says about moral values.

Even before he became president, Barack Obama made clear that he would act as a political realist in America’s foreign affairs. His aim would not be to pursue chimeras such as democratization, as George W. Bush had. He would reorient American priorities to regions of the world that mattered to America, pragmatically accept the country’s limitations overseas, and stray away from situations that might entangle America in costly involvement bringing few tangible benefits.

But even the most hardened neoconservative would not profoundly disagree with much of this. After all, which administration has not sought to advance American interests? Where the two visions differ, however, is in the use of power, particularly military power. Obama has been a reluctant warrior, even if he has not hesitated to use other military means, such as drones, that do not risk American lives.

But for all that, has Obama been a successful realist? Today in Syria the president is in a position to put his ideas to the test. For almost five years he has been a realist only in his readiness to ignore the widespread suffering in the country, to depict the conflict there in dishonest ways in order to justify American inaction, and to mislead repeatedly about his intentions. Other than that, Obama has been an absolutely abysmal realist.

A classic formulation of realism in international affairs is found in the first sentence of Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, a realist bible for generations of college students. “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power,” wrote Morgenthau, before going on to define power as “man’s control over the minds and actions of other men.”

To Morgenthau, power is not military power, but rather a “psychological relation” between those exercising power and those over whom it is exercised. “It gives the former control over certain actions of the latter through the influence which the former exert over the latter’s minds.”

Today, Russia is doing a full-court press in the Middle East to fill the large empty spaces left by the United States. In the regional struggle for power Obama is nowhere to be seen. Russia is intervening in Syria, it is now coordinating with Iran, Iraq and Syria through a “security center” established in Baghdad, and it has strengthened its ties with the Egyptian regime. That is not to say the Russians will ultimately succeed. Their plans are full of potential minefields, but they are acting as old-line realists in pursuing power at the expense of their main global adversary.

Should this matter? Many a US official will say that the Middle East no longer has the same importance to America that it once did. If the Russians want to play a major role there, let them. Perhaps, but that is the language of retrenchment, not realism.

And it’s not as if doing nothing has no political cost. The refugee crisis in Europe, the rising terrorism threat, the fate of old American allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not to mention Israel, have all been affected by regional developments. What happens in the region cannot simply be tossed off as irrelevant. Under Obama, America’s regional alliance system in the past seven years has virtually collapsed, with two countries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, having largely lost faith in the United States and embarking on independent paths. So much for Obama’s ability to exert influence over their leaders’ minds.

Nor can this situation be, persuasively, depicted as being in America’s interests. Surrendering, through lack of commitment, what the United States had spent decades building up in the region, cannot be justified by changing circumstances. The Middle East is too complex and volatile a place for one to seriously believe that the situation prevailing today will remain static; or to assume that what Obama has abandoned may not one day provoke a backlash that decisively harms America.

The fact is that Obama’s publicists have often deployed mediocre explanations to explain his disengagement from foreign relations. There is a difference between realism and non-intervention, and on too many issues Obama has allowed lethargy to rule. In countries such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq, the Russians, realizing this, have rushed in to fill the void.

Today, Obama is playing catch-up, making statements about Syria that were perfectly evident years ago, but which the president refused to acknowledge at the time. The most notable of these was his remark on Tuesday that countries would not be able to defeat ISIS in Syria if Bashar Assad remained in office. That’s true, but last year, when the United States began bombing ISIS in Iraq, the president was completely unwilling to accept this logic and develop a cohesive strategy for Syria.

He still hasn’t. American criticism of Russian actions in Syria is justified. Russia has opened a Pandora’s box, one that it will not be able to soon close. Yet when Obama said before the UN General Assembly that Assad’s brutality had made a return to the status quo in Syria impossible, he was not really speaking as a realist. He was effectively making a moral observation that the Syrian leader, “after so much bloodshed, so much carnage,” was now so far beyond the pale that he could not remain in office.

It’s only when Obama happens to forget his political realist pretensions, it seems, that he begins to make sense.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Egypt is poorer for the demise of a wily playwright

Even post-mortem, Ali Salem’s critics could not bring themselves to say something nice about him. The death of the Egyptian playwright last week at 79 was greeted with customary denunciations of a man who, in 1994, published a book about his drive through Israel. Mr Salem, a defender of normalisation with the Israelis, paid a high price for this attitude.

However, those who condemned Mr Salem often left unanswered a fundamental question relating to peace with Israel: if peace was a strategic option of Arab regimes – and in the early 1990s when the playwright decided to visit the country it was – then of what value was peace without normalisation?

Even today an Arab peace offer remains on the table. The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and approved at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, has not been withdrawn. Yet Israel never showed any interest in the Arab offer, which could be summarised as “full withdrawal from occupied lands in exchange for full peace”.

Israel’s rejection of the initiative only made Mr Salem’s efforts appear more Quixotic, but it did not clarify what peace should entail. And here the experiences of the playwright showed that, while certain Arab intellectuals are well-endowed with outrage, they have greater trouble proposing practical solutions.

Famously, Mr Salem was expelled from the Writers Union in 2001, a decision that was reversed when he went to court. With a typical sense of provocation, Mr Salem then resigned. I recall him repeating the story to me in a hotel room in Doha. One could sense that, whatever Mr Salem’s critics did, they would not prevail over this indomitable man of oversized personality.

In deciding to turn Mr Salem into an outcast, his critics in Egypt resorted to behaviour that smacked far more of intellectual Stalinism than dedication to principle. His challenge was made in the realm of ideas; their answer was to engage in intimidation. Israel is unresponsive to peace, but that was always the best argument against Mr Salem, not segregation.

Perhaps, also, Mr Salem had greater faith in Egypt than his detractors. As the American journalist Charles Paul Freund recalled in a piece written for the Daily Star in 2005, Mr Salem describes an incident in his book that occurred after the signing of the Oslo Accords. An Egyptian academic described to novelist Naguib Mahfouz his fears that normalisation could mean that Israeli culture would threaten Egypt’s heritage.

Mr Mahfouz responded: “Do you really think that Israel is capable of doing this to us?” When the academic said that he did, Mr Mahfouz’s rejoinder was laconic: “If Israel is capable of annihilating the artistic, literary and cultural heritage of Egypt and the Arab world, then we’d better all die.”

By telling the story, Mr Salem was expressing his own confidence, alongside that of Egypt’s most eminent writer, in what his country stood for. He had shrewdly grasped that there was much more in his detractors than displeasure with his political stance toward Israel; there was a lack of conviction in Egypt itself and its capacity to defend its priorities.

Such doubts, to Mr Salem, were probably associated with an Egypt of the past, in which a sense of insecurity towards Israel was tied in to the many Egyptian defeats at Israel’s hands. In their refusal to address normalisation, his critics showed an inability to define a self-assured vision for Egypt in the region.

My last encounter with Mr Salem took place, perhaps not surprisingly, in the most surreal circumstances. He was visiting Beirut years ago and called me, asking me to pick him up at his hotel. I was happy to oblige and arrived at the Beau Rivage, with some amusement.

At the time the Beau Rivage was near Syrian intelligence headquarters in the capital, and the Lebanese would nervously use the hotel’s name to refer to Syrian intelligence rule. I entered the grim, empty lobby and waited for Mr Salem, wondering how on earth an advocate of normalisation with Israel had ended up in such a place.

The playwright soon arrived and provided an answer, blithely telling me that he had been invited to Lebanon by an Iranian television station for an interview.

This highlighted one of the paradoxes surrounding the man – no less so than the fact that his book on Israel became a bestseller in Egypt. It showed that even as Mr Salem faced censure, there were not a few people, Egyptians and others, interested in hearing what this iconoclast had to say. It’s a shame we won’t be able to do so any more. Egypt is poorer as a consequence.