Thursday, March 17, 2005

Analysis of a Speech by Al-Qaeda's Number 2

The Democrats had their rebuttal to the State of the Union address last week; yesterday Al Qaeda offered its own. Ayman Al Zawahiri, the organization's number two, broadcast a recorded message about five minutes in length on Al Jazeera around noon, eastern standard time. In it, he offered an alternative take on the meanings of "freedom" and "reform." Al Zawahiri's speech represents a departure from the Al Qaeda addresses of recent memory, most of which amounted to direct threats of violence targeting Western and Muslim regimes (including, needless to say, their civilian populations). This statement, by contrast, was not so much threat as political argumentation, and the audience was not Western but rather Arab and Muslim. Implicit in Al Zawahiri's speech was an acknowledgement that the United States is now actively competing in the war for hearts and minds in Muslim countries--leaving Al Qaeda no choice but to engage America at the level of politics and ideas. The irony, however, is that Al Zawahiri seemed in his speech to be entering the realm of politics precisely to make clear what Al Qaeda won't do politically: namely, countenance the entrance of Islamists into the democratic arena.
Below is my translation of parts of the speech, with my commentary. Al Zawahiri began by explaining what freedom is not:

The freedom that we want is not the freedom of interest-bearing banks and vast corporations and misleading mass media; not the freedom of the destruction of others for the sake of materialistic interests; and not the freedom of AIDS and an industry of obscenities and homosexual marriages; and not the freedom to use women as a commodity to gain clients, win deals, or attract tourists; not the freedom of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and not the freedom of trading in the apparatus of torture and supporting the regimes of oppression and Copts and suppression, the friends of America; and not the freedom of Israel, with their annihilation of the Muslims and destruction of the Aqsa mosque; and not the freedom of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

No big surprises here. Al Zawahiri draws attention to mainstream Muslim grievances against the United States, ranging from the universal abhorrence of our own human rights violations to the more parochial Islamist disdain for America's liberal sexual culture. The dig at "Copts," Egypt's sizeable indigenous Christian minority, is also a dig at the Mubarak government, which the Egyptian-born Al Zawahiri regards as more closely allied with American and Christian interests than the agenda of Islamists. This laundry list of anti-American headlines is Al Zawahiri's way of making the case to mainstream Muslims that America is not a desirable model for democracy or reform. He goes on to offer an alternative:

Our freedom is a freedom of monotheism and morals and probity and asceticism and justice. The freedom that we are striving toward is on three foundations: The first is the rule of the Shari'a. The Shari'a, revealed by Almighty God, is the path that is obligatory to be followed. ... The second foundation, upon which reform must be established--and this is a corollary to the first foundation--is the freedom of the lands of Islam and their liberation from every robbing and looting aggressor. It is unimaginable that any reform may be realized for us while we are under the coercion of American and Jewish occupation.

Al Zawahiri is developing an argument that many in the Arab world would embrace for reasons of their own--the notion that there can be no political freedom under occupation. This is Al Qaeda's equivalent of speaking to the center--trying to reach Al Jazeera's mainstream Arab and Muslim audiences. Having made his pitch to them, however, he moves on to what is almost certainly a less popular plank of his argument:

Reform cannot be realized under the coercion of governments installed by the occupier, through fraudulent elections, administered under the supervision of the United Nations, and under the protection of B-52 bombers and the missiles of Apache planes [sic].

The "governments" he is alluding to are apparently both the forthcoming Iraqi government and the government formed by the recent Palestinian election under "Jewish occupation," which he regards as equally illegitimate. Although there is no specific reference to Tuesday's Israeli-Palestinian mutual ceasefire declaration in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh, it's fair to assume that the Al Qaeda leadership is eager to see the nascent quest for a truce derailed. Arguing for the illegitimacy of the Palestinian elections--and any moves toward rapprochement subsequently attempted by the elected Palestinian leadership--is Al Zawahiri's contribution to ongoing Islamist attempts to thwart the peace process. But perhaps more importantly, it is also his way of saying that Islamist groups like Hamas should accept no role in the deliberative democratic institutions emerging in the Palestinian territories.

As for the third foundation, which is also a corollary of the first foundation, it is the liberation of man. The Ummah [pan-Islamic nation] must snatch back its right to choose its ruler and call him to account and criticize him and depose him, and snatch back its right to enjoin good and end that which is abominable. ... The Ummah must undertake [to end] repression and brute force and theft and fraud and corruption and dynastic succession in rule, which our rulers are practicing with the blessings and support of the United States.

The reference to dynastic succession is meant to condemn the Gulf regimes, Morocco, Syria, and Egypt--where Hosni Mubarak is believed to be grooming his son Gamal for succession--all in one fell swoop. But note that Al Zawahiri refrains from using the word "democracy" or calling for free elections. He is in essence calling for the freedom of Muslim nations to choose an Islamist ruler. Mind you, he uses the word "ruler" in the singular, because Al Qaeda calls for one caliph to preside over the whole region.

As for the reference to the "liberation of man," it is a trope that Islamists experimented with during the 1990s--notably the urbane leader of Tunisia's Islamist Al Nahda ("Renaissance") movement, Rashid Al Ghannouchi. The idea, then as now, was to espouse a pseudo-universalist rhetoric that might begin to sound palatable to human-rights activists and the secular left. Islamist groups such as Al Nahda have historically been aware of the importance of making rhetorical overtures to left-wing and human-rights movements in the West--valuing their intervention on behalf of political prisoners tortured by Arab regimes, not to mention the potential for making common cause in a united front against globalization. (Al Zawahiri, to be sure, can only pay lip service to these ideas because, as evidenced by his anti-Coptic and anti-gay references, there isn't exactly a place for all mankind in the political union his movement envisions.)

But while Al Zawahiri is willing to make a nod to the Western left, he makes no similar overture toward reformers in the Arab world. On the question of whether Sunni Islamists of any shade should participate in Arab elections--be they in Gaza and the West Bank a few weeks back, or perhaps in Egypt down the road--Al Zawahiri seems to be taking a decisive stand. He urges the Ummah to "snatch back" the reins of power, apparently eschewing the possibility of gains for Islamists through a nonviolent electoral process. This is a rejection, for example, of Hamas ideologue Mahmoud Al Zahhar's statement earlier this week to a Gaza newspaper suggesting that his movement might join the Palestinian legislative assembly.

Al Qaeda may kill hundreds of innocents in Spain to influence the outcome of elections there--or deliver a tirade against George Bush on the eve of the American elections, apparently to influence voters here--but the movement seems to have no appetite for achieving its goals through elections in Arab and Muslim countries. In this respect, today's message wasn't just another hyperbolic rant. It drew a philosophical line in the sand. And among Arabs and Muslims, it may prove to be an unpopular one.

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 February 11, 2005.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Palestinian Factions React to Condoleezza Rice

Hopes brightened for a revival of the Middle East peace process today in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh. With Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in attendance, Palestinian and Israeli leaders declared a cease fire. Meanwhile, in her first visit to the region as America's chief diplomat, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday shuttled from Jerusalem to Ramallah, where she announced the appointment of General William Ward as "security coordinator" to supervise an overhaul of the Palestinian security services. She also said the United States would remit $41 million in aid to the Palestinians--the first installment in a $350 million package proposed by President Bush last week in his State of the Union address.

But to read the Palestinian press from the last few days is to learn that all this good news is not without its detractors. Palestinian factions from Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the PLO itself are voicing criticism of Rice and serious reservations about the new plans. They are also trading blows with one another, revealing rifts both within the Palestinian Authority and among the various movements that could stymie a push for peace with Israel.

Some PA officials welcomed Rice's visit in warm tones. Chief Islamic Judge Sheikh Taysir al Tamimi, for example, had an op-ed in Sunday's edition of the PA mouthpiece Al Hayat al Jadeeda, titled HER EXCELLENCY DR. RICE, WELCOME. The piece cited Rice's success in overcoming prejudice as a child in Birmingham, Alabama, as a sign that she might learn to empathize with the Palestinian cause. But the same newspaper's editor-in-chief, Hafiz al Barghouthi, penned a piece in yesterday's edition headlined NO TO SUBORDINATION, which slammed the specifics of America's $350 million aid package. He claimed that an allocation of $80 million to Israel to build modern transit points (intended to facilitate the import and export of goods between Israel and the territories) "will once again benefit the Israeli economy, and not the Palestinian [economy], because the crossings in practice amount to economic subordination--that is, rather than establish the port of Gaza and permit our merchants to import by way of Jordan, we find Israel, together with the Americans, eager that our economy should be made to remain hostage to Israel." In fact, the allocation is for $50 million and does not preclude expenditures on the port of Gaza. But Barghouthi's greater argument reflects his disdain for the notion of economic interdependency in a two-state solution: He argued that "[d]isengagement from the Palestinians ... means economic disengagement as well." Not strictly true--at least, not as far as American and European policymakers have envisioned. Another op-ed in the same pages by a deputy PA minister, Adil Sadiq, opposed America's "Middle East project" for similar reasons, but more broadly:

They are striving for a coercive and deceptive peace process by which the American administration may spread lies among the countries of the region, that the Middle Eastern market may thereafter be opened to the Israelis, and the engagement with the Palestinian Israeli conflict--as if it is the remnants of the conflict--will be relegated to a small pocket, which may be contained, within a broader strategy.

It is true that Washington wants to reduce Palestinian-Israeli violence and that Israel eventually wants to establish political and economic relations with most Arab countries. Both achievements would stand to bolster the Palestinian economy, as well as the Israeli economy. If a deputy minister of the Palestinian Authority doesn't see this as desirable, that's not a good sign.

Nor did a spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of the PLO responsible for many attacks on Israeli civilians in recent years, offer the most winsome assurance, in his televised statement on Al Jazeera yesterday, that the cease fire would stick. "Abu Layth," a masked spokesman, reiterated calls for the release of all Palestinian prisoners, "particularly those who placed their hands in the bowels and necks of the tyrants, without condition or discrimination. Furthermore, we demand of our Authority to release the General Secretary of the Popular Front, the brother Ahmad Saadat, and not to return to opening the door to political arrests." The specific reference to PFLP hit man Ahmad Saadat--arrested in Jericho on Israel's insistence and detained under American and British supervision after being accused of killing Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi three years ago--came only a day after Sharon's denial that Israel would agree to such a release. By making such a demand and risking a rebuff, the Al Aqsa Brigades spokesman created a potential pretext for further attacks on Israel.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have their own beefs with the American-backed initiatives, stemming from both Rice's announcement of a "security coordinator" yesterday and from the overall suspicion that the United States wants PA President Mahmoud Abbas to confront Islamists by force. The leadership of Hamas, buoyed by the movement's recent landslide in municipal elections in Gaza, would like to be treated more like Shia Islamists in Sadr City--as opposed to Sunni insurgents in Fallujah. Both in Gaza and in Cairo, Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials have been negotiating the terms of a temporary truce with Israel through mediators from Egypt's intelligence services. Palestinian Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Abdullah Shallah told Al Jazeera yesterday he was open to the possibility of joining the political umbrella of the PLO, while Hamas ideologue Mahmoud al Zahhar told the Palestine Press that his group might conceivably join the Palestinian Authority's legislative assembly. But any such ventures, both groups contend, would not lead to their movements disarming.

Thus the pro-Islamist daily Al Quds ran an editorial Sunday, RICE AND HER CRIPPLING CONDITIONS, which faulted the Secretary of State for "call[ing] upon the Palestinian Authority to confront the armed Palestinian opposition factions, which the Secretary describes as terrorist, and go[ing] in her demands so far as to make this confrontation a condition for the resumption of the peace process and proof of the good intentions of the Palestinian side toward Israel." An official Hamas communiqué yesterday explicitly condemned "the appointment of an American security coordinator to reform the Palestinian security services" as "not merely an intervention into internal Palestinian affairs, but also representing ... a new attempt to push the Palestinian security services toward confronting the Palestinian resistance." And an open letter to Abbas in yesterday's edition of the daily Falastin contained a thinly veiled threat:

Isn't what happened two days ago--the violent clash because of the results of the municipal elections between Fatah and Hamas in the middle of the Gaza Strip--the first step toward showing that you [President Abbas] understand what the enemy is demanding of you? ... Those who carry out these acts of sedition are a greater danger to us than the Jews.

Whether the United States or Israel will press Abbas for the all-out confrontation his opponents expect remains unclear. In her press conference in Ramallah yesterday, Rice evaded a question by a Washington Times reporter about the implications of the Hamas landslide in Gaza. What is clear is that Islamist groups want a prominent political role in a nascent Palestinian state, and to that end they have committed to indirect negotiations with Israel. Some hard-line nationalists already fault the Islamists for having caved, just by agreeing to hold talks over a cease fire. Writing in yesterday's London-based daily Al Quds al Arabi, for example, Al Najah University professor Abd Al-Sattar Qasim says of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, "The two movements have broken their political barriers which they had made clear in their rhetoric by dealing directly with the Egyptian government, which recognizes Israel and is exchanging with it diplomatic, economic, and security relations." Qasim, whose aborted run against Mahmoud Abbas for the presidency had hinged on his unsuccessful attempt to unite the opposition groups into one coalition, is in many ways the odd man out in the maelstrom of Palestinian politics today. The "rejectionist front" he represents is weaker than it's been in four years or more. Then again, that doesn't mean the rejectionists have disappeared. They're simply waiting at the doorstep of the Palestinian Authority, with the price of entry not yet determined.

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 February 8, 2005.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Paper Over: How Arab Newspapers Spun the Iraqi Elections

This past Sunday must have been a rough day at the office for editors of the Arab world's pro-government newspapers. How do you spin democratic elections in Iraq when your boss is an authoritarian ruler with a restive population?

First option: Pretend those elections never happened. I scoured this Monday's major Libyan papers online for any evidence that Iraqis voted the day before and found nothing. Well, almost nothing: The Tripoli daily Al Zahf al Akhdar buried--under reports of momentous African conferences and ambassador meet-and-greets--a piece titled, 27 People Killed in Iraq. The article noted that "Police sources in Iraq said that no less than 27 people were killed in attacks targeting voting centers in sundry parts of the country." Voting centers? Whatever for? It seems unwise for a government-run propaganda sheet to print stories that create more questions than they answer--advice apparently heeded by the Sudanese daily Al Ra'i al Am, which in contrast to its Libyan counterpart, simply printed nothing about Iraq in its Monday edition.

The other tactic--and the more popular one--takes into account the fact that most Arab majorities have alternative sources of information, making a news blackout on the Iraqi elections infeasible. In these countries, the role of the pro-government press isn't to hide facts, but rather to spin them to the benefit of the ruling regime. Which explains why so many Arab newspapers dwelled on the negative Monday in their pieces on the Iraqi election. In Tunis, Al Sabah led with the headline, Bloody Election Day: A Giant British Plane Crash, Nine American Soldiers Killed, and Explosions in Voting Centers Leave 36 Iraqis Dead. The coverage is in keeping with a trope routinely expressed by apologists for the Tunisian regime: that full-blown Arab democracy stands to yield full-blown violence. (For example, in an Al-Jazeera debate on democratization two months ago, the Tunisian writer Burhan Bsayyis asked: "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?")

Other Arab papers sought to use the Shia-Sunni division in Iraq for maximum political benefit at home. That's why coverage in Syria's establishment daily Teshreen emphasized Sunni disenfranchisement. The paper reported "a great disparity in participation from one region to another; thus while turnout was extremely high in some regions, there was no election process at all in Ramadi, for example, and four municipalities in Mosul were not able to vote because they had not received their ballot boxes." Such coverage encourages readers in Syria, a Sunni majority country ruled by a minority Alawite clique, to associate Iraqi democracy with Sunni marginalization--and to therefore see it as no better than Syria's status quo.

What about in countries where pressure for democratic reform is coming not only from restive populations but also from a powerful patron--the United States? That's the dilemma now confronting Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, America's most populous Arab allies. Their solution? Play up the threat of Iranian regional dominance posed by a Shia victory in Iraq's elections--and, in doing so, appease their Sunni populations and appear concerned for the welfare of their patrons in Washington, all at the same time. Jordan's King Abdullah blazed the trail recently when he warned The Washington Post of a "Shia crescent" running through Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Egypt's semi-official daily Al Ahram echoed this sentiment more softly on Monday, writing in an editorial about "the difficulty of denying the role of regional intervention, direct or indirect, in the electoral process, beginning with the role of regional powers functioning as role models ... and ending in their direct support for Iraqi factions." Egyptian readers understand that "regional power" refers to Iran and that "role model" is an allusion to Khomeini-style governance. (Relations between Iran and Egypt remain strained; it's only been a year since the mullahs took down a street sign in Tehran that had named a busy intersection after the man who killed Anwar Sadat.) Meanwhile, a post-election editorial in the Saudi daily Al Riyadh similarly laments "regional and international interventions" in the Iraqi vote. The piece invites the conclusion that Iraqi democracy is hopelessly marred by the meddling of Iran, Syria, and Al Qaeda.

Finally there is the backhanded congratulatory approach, most visible in the Gulf press. Little oil-rich monarchies staunchly aligned with the U.S. for the most part hailed the Iraqi elections--but not as an historic first in a region of autocrats. They called it instead an historic first step on the long road to real democracy--a road, needless to say, that they all claim to be traversing themselves. Thus Qatar's Gulf Times asserted in an opinion piece that "Qatar is a staunch supporter of democratic ideals and elections." It added that "even though the elections in Iraq may be flawed and controversial, they are an important first step on the road to democracy." Meanwhile, Bahrain's Akhbar al Khaleej led with a front-page report of a congratulatory telegram dispatched by the country's king to his counterpart, Iraqi Interim President Ghazi Al Yawar. Gulf papers' front pages often print congratulatory telegrams between emirs--birthdays, national holidays, and so on--so the story makes the Iraqi elections appear equally momentous, that is, equally trivial.

If there is a common thread running through all these takes on the news from Iraq, it is that each state mouthpiece treated the election in a way especially tailored to deflect domestic pressure for reform. Then again, cleverly manipulative reporting of the news will only get you so far, which is why some editors also resorted to an old standby: outright invective. The same paper in which Bahrain's king offered warm congratulations to the Iraqi president also included a ferocious diatribe against "the imperialist attack of ideas ... the reinvention of all values, principles, and intellectual foundations which form the foundation of the Arab intellect and Arabic culture." This onslaught, it continued, "is beautified with resplendent ideas and principles of liberal thought about democracy, freedoms, and human rights, but in reality it is merely a deceptive show window for an American imperialist scheme." If it seems hard to reconcile such sentiments with the king's congratulatory note, welcome to the Arab status quo.

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, February 2, 2005.