Monday, February 28, 2005

Virtual Glasnost for Arabia

A religious court in the Saudi port city of Jeddah recently sentenced 15 people to flogging and prison for an unusual crime: peacefully demonstrating against their government. They were demonstrating at the behest of Saad Al Fagih, a London-based Saudi dissident who heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) and runs his own website, radio channel, and TV station. A few days earlier via streaming audio and satellite, he had called on his countrymen to march in Riyadh and Jeddah. Al Fagih claimed that tens of thousands had planned to march. But hundreds of police and security forces were dispatched to prevent any large assembly. A small number persisted in protesting, and they were rounded up by the police. Al Fagih claims he has more than 50,000 supporters in the Kingdom, and his website features audio statements of allegiance from 99 Arabian tribes and clans. (I have listened to ten of them; each had dozens of signatories. For every person who had the gumption to give his or her name--a choice that carries severe consequences in the authoritarian desert kingdom--one may assume that others harbor similar sentiments, but quietly.)

The movement's heightened profile comes at a time of mounting Al Qaeda violence in many Saudi cities and towns. Since May 2003, about 170 have been killed in several incidents, and Osama Bin Laden's most recent audio message calls on the faithful to step up attacks on oil installations. Though London-based MIRA officially eschews violence as a tactic, the Saudi government insists that Saad Al Fagih and his minions are dedicated to the overthrow of the royal family and to replacing it with an Al Qaeda-inspired form of government. And Western governments seem to agree. After the United States named Al Fagih a suspected Al Qaeda financier in late December, the United Kingdom froze his London assets, and the United Nations imposed anti-terrorism sanctions on him. Meanwhile, according to the Open Net Initiative at Harvard University's Berkman Center, MIRA's website has been blocked by Saudi authorities since at least 2002. And, if Al Fagih's Arabic-language broadcasts are to be believed, Saudi security has conducted waves of arrests and interrogations of his sympathizers, jammed his satellite transmissions, and also blocked many of his mirror sites on the Web. (Full disclosure: I worked for a private firm that consulted for the Saudi Telecommunications Company, which has near monopoly control over Internet access in the country, before it was privatized in December 2002; as a result, I'm familiar with its practice of blocking mirror websites. And I would not be surprised if Al Fagih's claims in this regard are right.)

This response won't work; it only gives him a hero's status. Al Fagih may be far from a sympathetic character, but the Saudi campaign of suppression should be eased. A pragmatic carrot and stick approach--letting reformist elements in the Saudi government try to win over some of his sympathizers while the security services continue to monitor others--would be more successful in eroding his support. This view relies neither on faith that Al Fagih believes in liberal democracy, nor on the wishful thinking that Islamists across the region are reformists clad in traditional garb. Rather, it's simply practical advice stemming from a constellation of factors unique to Saudi Arabia today.

By publicly rounding up protestors and blocking websites, the Saudi government signals that it can't defeat Al Fagih in an open war of words and ideas. But it can. In the world of Internet and satellite broadcasting to which Al Fagih is confined because he lives in faraway London, he stands to be severely outsquawked, by state and society alike, once enough Saudis get the chance to hear what he has to say. MIRA seeks to win followers by persuading them that the Saudi government is insufficiently committed to Islamic tenets. Most of the people who take the trouble to search for Al Fagih's signal today--whether online or via satellite--are zealous enough to buy into this argument. If the broadcast were more easily available, however, Al Fagih would have to reckon with a larger and vastly more discriminating audience. The most progressive and worldly segment of the population, on balance, is that subset of techno-savvy Saudis, now about two million strong, who use the Internet regularly--fans of Western pop culture who generally believe that the Saudi regime and its enforcers are plenty committed to the conservative tenets of Islam already, thank you very much. Al Fagih would get an online earful from the many Saudis who want fewer Islamic mores in their country, not more--a demoralizing dose of democracy, if you will, for a London-based dissident with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. Only the regime's censorship shields him, in effect, from this backlash.

He poses a more serious challenge to the House of Saud when he complains about its corruption and ineptitude. The same young people who like American pop music also detest their government's failings, and many if not most also resent its pro-Western foreign policy. But here, too, he has a weakness vis-à-vis his potential audience: Most of what he says is old hat. Civil discourse in Saudi coffeehouses and media has evolved somewhat and now allows for open criticism of government, provided it is not existential. The other day I listened to Al Fagih, via streaming audio, rail against the rulers for not having conducted a population census in many years. Big deal; on business trips to Jeddah and Riyadh I have seen similar grievances aired in local newspapers. Al Fagih's novelty is limited to his strident personal attacks on the royal family and unbridled calls for regime change. Once he descends to the level of domestic policy, his criticism is comparatively banal. His ultra-Islamist views make him an unattractive symbol of political reform among the more progressive Saudis who clamor most loudly for it.

Which leaves the problem of his ultra-Islamist base. The real reason Saad Al Fagih is a potential threat to the government is not that he makes a compelling case to a majority of urban Saudis--which he doesn't--but that his Islamist puritanism is most winsome among the clique of tribal and clerical elites that the royal family leans on for legitimacy and security. They populate the Saudi armed forces and police and serve as teachers and guardians of public virtue. Al Fagih supporters tend to sympathize with bin Laden as well. But why suppress one in the name of defeating the other? If the problem is how to purge the state apparatus of its malcontents, then a nonviolent shadow movement such as MIRA is more useful out in the open than underground. The conservative stalwarts of the regime would be better served to simply monitor and rebut Al Fagih's dispatches. This exercise in virtual counteragitation could win back some of the group's minions for the establishment even as the government keeps tabs on the rest.

None of this is to suggest that Saad Al Fagih is a benign influence on Saudi Arabia. Nor is it to suggest that the government should, or will, ever let MIRA function as a full-fledged political party in Riyadh. Indeed, adopting a softer approach towards Al Fagih carries risks for the Saudis. But cracking down on his broadcasts and followers may well carry more. And besides, if risks must be taken either way, perhaps it wouldn't hurt the House of Saud to try erring on the side of liberal risks, for a change.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on January 26, 2005.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

The War on Phonics: Sudan at a Crossroads

You wouldn't expect an obscure linguistics project to earn a headline in an international newspaper. But that's pretty much what happened in the October 3 edition of Al Hayat, a Saudi-owned Arabic-language daily, which featured disapproving coverage of a book party in an eastern Sudan village. The back story goes something like this: A group of Americans had helped a local tribe print texts in their mother tongue, a non-Arabic language dating back 4,000 years, for use in classrooms. Amid heightened U.S. pressure on the Arab government in Khartoum to take responsibility for genocide in the western province of Darfur, this seemingly innocent cultural celebration in the rebel-controlled east suddenly took on geopolitical implications.

"The armed resistance in eastern Sudan is using the Bedawie language," the Al-Hayat correspondent writes, "which is spoken by more than two million people, as a language of instruction in the 'liberated areas' where its forces are in control. [This comes] at a stage when the conflict between the 'marginalized region' and Khartoum is reaching a new phase of increased clamoring by other [non-Arab] peoples to demand the revival of their languages and to resist the Arabic language in Sudan." The article concludes: "It is expected that Sudan will confront the project fiercely." In essence, the story suggests that the promotion of Bedawie by an American NGO is part of a broad U.S. strategy to divide the country linguistically and politically--like God sabotaging the Tower of Babel.

The charge is, of course, preposterous. But it does demonstrate the kind of deep-seated suspicions confronting U.S. policy in much of the Arab and Muslim world, and the sensitivity required if Americans don't want to see their most noble ambitions in the region thwarted.
Anyone looking for evidence of benign U.S. intentions toward Sudan need look no further than the details of USAID funding for the textbook program--which at $7,000 annually had already run dry in September, before the Al Hayat piece was even published. The New York-based International Rescue Committee, which administers the project, has kept it alive on emergency funding ever since. "I've been trying to sell copies of the books here and there to people," lamented project manager Fergus Thomas, reached by phone in eastern Sudan, "to academics, universities, several departments in Europe." He is finding, alas, that Bedawie funeral rites transcribed in Latin characters do not a best seller make.

As it happens, USAID, the largest provider of humanitarian and development assistance to Sudan over the past two decades, supports a united federal Sudan and assists opposition governance structures only "on the county level and below," according to its Interim Strategic Plan for Sudan, 2004-2006. USAID has offered modest support to local leadership in the 15,000-square-kilometer region of southeastern Sudan where the rebel National Democratic Alliance is concentrated, but only to provide a modicum of health care and local governance.
The Strategic Plan calls for assisting town councils and schools in the "marginalized regions" of the country in order to make the north-south peace accords viable. USAID's plan for the next few years more closely resembles American humanitarian aid to the Kurds of Iraq throughout the 1990s than the direct military assistance that the British gave to the Saudis of Arabia in 1918.

But for all the goodwill with which American aid-givers approached their Sudan projects, what they obviously didn't appreciate was the powerful political and historical symbolism associated with the Bedawie language. The tribe that speaks Bedawie is called "the Beja." They are semi-nomadic pastoralists, merchants, and smugglers who have been resisting central governments in North Africa since the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. They are one of several ethnic groups in the Muslim world, like Kurds and Berbers, for whom the demarcations of modern nation-states have not been kind. Beja communities spill over the borders of Sudan, Eritrea, and southern Egypt.

The threat this community potentially poses to the Khartoum government stems not only from their mobility and omnipresence in the country--Beja traders, for example, are ubiquitous in Port Sudan, on which Khartoum's supply line depends--but also from their left-leaning militia, the Beja Congress, which makes up a good chunk of the armed opposition in southern Sudan. A Reuters report published a few days after the Al Hayat story describes a Sudanese intelligence official as asserting that his government had begun to arm Arab tribes in the east for attacks on eastern rebels--repeating, if true, the bloody counterinsurgency tactics infamously employed in the western province of Darfur. In light of its genocidal record, the expectation that the Khartoum government "will confront the [Bedawie] project fiercely," as Al Hayat's correspondent put it, is not hysterical speculation but a legitimate humanitarian concern.

Ironically, USAID may have done more to bolster Beja nationalism by cutting off its support this year than in all the previous four years of engagement. A lesson that ought to have been learned in Iraqi Kurdistan is that once a marginalized group begins to establish its own middle class, local governance, and mother-tongue education, it loses its taste for armed confrontation and becomes more open to a confederated arrangement with an Arab central government. If NGOs leave the Beja region for lack of funds and conditions continue to deteriorate, then USAID's achievement in the eastern province will have been just enough to provoke the ire of Khartoum but not enough to foster sustainable bourgeois leadership. Which means an end to book parties once and for all and a return to the trenches.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online, January 5, 2005.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Republic of Slick

A December editorial in The New Republic, “Ought and Is,” rightly exposes hollow arguments against democratization made by Arab leaders at the recent American-sponsored Forum for the Future in Morocco. The conflict with Israel is no excuse to stymie calls for free elections, and the quest for economic progress in Arab countries need not slow political reform.

But it’s worth pointing out that neither argument enjoys the acceptance it used to in many Arab societies today. The internal debate between ruling cliques and their subject peoples has grown more sophisticated, especially over the past few months, in light of baby steps toward change by North African heads of state on the one hand and TV images of Ukraine’s non-violent revolution on the other. As a recent opinion poll and live debate on Al-Jazeera demonstrate, Arabs are overwhelmingly fed up with their leaders’ political window dressing, but remain complacent anyway, due in part to the opiate of slick new sales pitches for the status quo. American diplomats should enter the debate on Arab politics armed with a response to the regimes’ latest hits, not just the golden oldies; even “blame Israel” has been remixed.

It was the TV talk show Al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis (“The Opposite Direction”) that opened one week back in December with a breezy run-down of recent election results in Arab republics Bush rarely mentions: Tunisia, where the “incumbent” won 94.9% of the vote; Algeria, where the landslide was a more modest 83%; and Mauritania, whose president squeaked by with 67%. It is widely believed in these and other authoritarian Arab states that election results are a foregone conclusion – the President always wins, even though the days of 99.98% victories may be over – and that Arab elections are essentially tantamount to a coronation of the ruler. The host asked viewers to call and e-mail in their opinion of whether Arab elections are “a waste of time and money.” 91% said yes, they are – burdening the pro-establishment voice among the show’s two guests with the task of changing their minds.

Burhan Bsayyis, a Tunisian writer who supports the country’s president, Zein El-Abdin bin Ali, rose to the challenge. He made the case that Arabs should embrace their ersatz elections and strive to achieve change by somehow working within the system. He did so not by scapegoating Israel, but by indirectly validating a core pro-Israel argument: “It is just as when Bourguiba went to the Arabs of Jericho,” he said, “and told them, ‘Accept the legitimate international resolutions, even if they are unjust, then ask for more!’” He was referring to the landmark visit of former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba to Jericho in 1965, wherein he urged the crowd to recognize Israel and accept a peace settlement. History proved Bourguiba right, the TV guest suggested, because if only they had played ball with the Jews then, they’d have had a Palestinian state by now. So too, he concluded, should Arab societies play ball with their governments today. Vote in any elections, however skewed the result, he urged, “then ask for more.”

The argument apparent won over a few television viewers. The running audience tally on whether Arab elections are a waste of time and money slid one point, to 90% in the affirmative.

But Bsayyis’ tiny gain was short-lived. His opponent accused him of deceiving the audience with “smoke.” Arab elections are an obfuscation of democracy and not a component of democracy as they should be, said Sa’d Jabbar, a London-based Moroccan lawyer affiliated with the Center for North African Studies at Cambridge. That’s a particular tragedy in North Africa, he went on, where Arab societies are more ripe for democracy than elsewhere in the region. “We are qualified,” he said, “more than any other Arab peoples, to begin a democratic process.” He cited the presence of an educated middle class, the region’s history of close contact with the democratic societies of Europe, and guarantees of free speech and assembly in most North African constitutions – freedoms granted in writing but not applied in practice. Jabbar’s call for democracy to replace the present dictatorships was no less idealistic than Colin Powell’s speech to Arab leaders in Morocco. But Jabbar was addressing Arab societies, rather than their leadership, and he used minimalist rhetoric – urging North Africans simply to demand that their rulers respect their own constitutions – an approach that evidently found favor. Within minutes, he had neutralized his Tunisian opponent’s modest gain in the ongoing TV poll.

Enter the hot button issues. Bsayyis countered Jabbar with a series of arguments light on reason but laced with emotional impact. “Fine, you can have a ballot box,” he said, “like you have in Afghanistan, and you elect Karzai. But are you going to tell me that’s a democracy? Look what’s happening in Iraq: over 200 political parties, 1000 newspapers, but are you going to claim there’s a transition to a real democracy in Iraq?” In the Al-Jazeera milieu, these are not questions worthy of exploration; they are meant to be rhetorical, and their politically correct answer is “no.” Jabbar did not even bother to respond. Bsayyis then invoked the memory of Algeria’s civil war following its aborted democracy experiment in the early ‘90s: “Do you want us to embark on a democratic experiment that could result in 100,000 dead, like in Algeria? Do you want us to allow a freedom of the press that could result in vituperation and calumny that could pit the society against the state and result in violent conflict – civil war?” With this emotional appeal for stability at any cost, Bsayyis won over a slightly larger segment: now only 87.3% of the running audience poll agreed that Arab elections were a waste of time and money.

He went on to cite baby steps toward democracy in recent months by heads of state across North Africa: Bin Ali’s decision to allow a presidential challenger to win nearly 4% of the vote, Mubarak’s release of some Egyptian Jihad activists from prison, the Algerian president’s effort to promote “national healing.” But he did not manage to persuade more viewers to poll his way. The “waste of time and money” vote climbed back to 90% and stayed put for the rest of the hour. Yet another Arab landslide.

Implicit in this TV back-and-forth was the obvious, unasked question of whether Al-Jazeera audiences should try and overthrow their governments. Judging by the poll results, you’d think much of the Arab world was on the brink of revolution. The example of Ukraine’s nonviolent election vigil, invoked repeatedly by the program’s host as well as London-based Sa’d Jabbar, seemed to offer a way forward. But as callers phoned in their comments later in the segment, a less radical picture emerged. One caller said he despised the status quo but felt compelled to protect it anyway, because the alternatives are worse for Arab societies, and because democracy only serves the interests of the West. “I prefer the presence of a dictator,” he said. “Democracy has killed 100,000 Iraqis in a short period.” He also contended that the West has double standards on Arab democracy: “Bush demanded that the world have nothing to do with Arafat, may God have mercy on him, even though he was popularly elected, while demanding that the world deal with Ayad Allawi, even though he came [to Iraq] on an American tank.”

No caller embraced the Tunisian guest’s defense of Arab establishments, and one went so far as to lambast him for it. (“These rulers hold spend our nation’s money on weapons and entertainment and travel and the building of palaces,” a Saudi man said. “… They do not believe in abdicating under any circumstances.”)

And yet, Bsayyis deserves a pat on the back in Tunis. Not for having won the debate, which he didn’t, but for achieving the one goal Arab elites who defend their regimes take seriously: placating their societies. They adjust their pitch book to current events and evolving popular sentiments, and they do so artfully. American diplomats are yet to craft a serious rhetorical response.