Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The League of Extraordinary Autocrats

Here's the good news from the Middle East this week: In an Al Jazeera poll of 17,955 viewers just before the Arab League's two-day summit in Algiers, thousands of people voted for "democracy and political reform" as their number one priority--so many, in fact, that they almost equaled the number that voted for "supporting the Palestinians" (26 percent for the former, 27.6 percent for the latter, with a 3 percent margin of error). Furthermore, "independence for Iraq" came in near the bottom at sixth place--trounced by such causes as "improving the status of human rights" and "fighting poverty and unemployment." All these results together suggest that Arab societies are beginning to assign greater importance to development and liberty than to the hot-button issues of Palestine and Iraq. That's a historic and exciting shift.

Now here's the bad news: As far as the region's most powerful decision-makers are concerned, Arab public opinion still doesn't matter. The thirteen-nation Arab League summit did little more this week than stymie the latest initiatives for peace and democratization: Jordan's proposal to improve Arab relations with Israel was nixed; the West's pressure on Syria was denounced as "foreign intervention"; and political reform was mentioned "only in passing," according to The New York Times.

Sadly, the big winners this week were neither Arab societies nor even their unelected leaders. That trophy belongs to Hamas, which has been working for many years to discredit any discussion of Israeli-Arab normalization. Hamas played no small part this week in helping to torpedo Jordan's peace plan. Also, honorable mention goes to an obscure Western consulting firm that is reported to have begun its own dialogue with terrorist groups in Lebanon; more on that in a moment. The trouble with both these mini-victories is that they are a blow to mainstream Arab aspirations.

Underlying the week's many political maneuvers is a familiar tag-team alignment: On one side, authoritarian Arab regimes like Syria and Egypt are clinging to power and Islamist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas are clinging to their weapons. On the other side, Israel and Jordan want to bolster prospects for regional change, for starters by making Islamist militias obsolete. That means encouraging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to disarm Hamas and cutting off the umbilical cord that ties Hezbollah to Syria. It also means formally ending the Arab League's opposition to Israel. This week's Al Jazeera poll seems to indicate that many Arabs would like to see the latter team succeed. But of course, it's easier said than done. From the seaside splendor of Sharm al Sheikh back in February, Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom told journalists that as many as ten Arab governments "have a diplomatic representative in Israel," suggesting their willingness to sign a peace deal. The government of Jordan's King Abdullah II has worked toward that goal over the past few weeks. Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Mulki argued to Arab leaders that Jordan's peace proposal would strengthen Ariel Sharon's hand to dismantle Jewish settlements (although he later backed off somewhat, clarifying that he was not advocating "normalization," a loaded term among Arab leaders fearful of backlash by groups like Hamas).

Unfortunately, that proposition had too many downsides for the tag team on the other side. The authoritarian Gulf states are struggling to beat down crops of homegrown Al Qaeda-style insurgents--so why should they cede a rhetorical chip by caving to Israel? Egypt's leadership has already paid its dues to Washington by brokering a temporary Hamas-Islamic Jihad truce and permitting select opposition parties to run for the presidency in May--so why take more heat in the region by siding against the Islamists now? Lebanon's hands are tied. And though they are supposedly being untied in excruciatingly slow motion by Syria, they may be retied again if Syria somehow deflects the international pressure it now faces. As for Hamas and other armed militias, blocking normalization with Israel is one of the reasons they wake up in the morning. And this time, it's also a matter of prestige: They want to claim victory in the Palestinian Intifada. Ten new peace deals (or even two or three) between Israel and Arab states would make it clear those groups had lost.

All these considerations have converged in light of America's pressure on Arab autocracies--strengthened by pressure from Arab societies--to reform. Historically, the best way to deflect such pressure has been to claim that it was inauthentic--nothing more than an imperialist imposition--and speak out against the Zionists for good measure. The need to do that again, and do so convincingly, is why Islamists and some Arab rulers are now, in effect, each other's allies of convenience.

Thus the message from the rostrum at the Arab League summit was familiar. Speakers repeated platitudes from the last big summit in 2002, as if Arab geopolitics had barely changed in the past three years. Having ruled out the Jordanian peace plan at the outset, they simply defrosted the hard-line Saudi plan of 2002, knowing full well that Israel has already rejected it and even secured a tenuous truce without it. As for the question of political reform, the tone was set by the following rousing statement from Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika:

We recognize that it has become imperative for all societies, particularly Arab societies, to [carry out] reforms. But it should also be recognized that we have already arrived at that [conclusion], for we have begun to carry out these reforms. Reforms shall not be imposed on us. I say, they shall not be imposed on us! They shall not be imposed on us!

Presumably the crowd loved it; the crowd, after all, was composed of Arab heads of state.

Meanwhile, in the streets of Arab capitals and via satellite television, Hamas and Hezbollah delivered rallies and sound bites that bolstered the League's retro stance. On the first day of the summit, protesters near the Jordanian University in Amman burned American, British, and Israeli flags, and called on Arab leaders "to form a unified position in support of the Palestinian people and to apply Islamic law," according to Al Jazeera.

Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah assured journalists in Beirut that his movement "would bear responsibility for defending Lebanon and confronting Israeli aggressions." Translation: We won't disarm. And leading Hamas ideologue Mahmoud al Zahhar appeared on an Al Jazeera panel to offer his version of a "mission accomplished" speech, regarding the outcome of the Intifada: "On the issue of resistance and withdrawal," he said, "the goal of the resistance has been to banish the occupation, and now the occupation, its entire apparatus, will leave the Gaza Strip, God willing, this coming July or shortly thereafter." Translation: We won. It's the stick that works. So don't try and sell us a bunch of carrots.

Of course, which fighting force won the Palestinian Intifada depends on your definition of victory. But if ever there was a definition of defeat, it's the toll in physical and human infrastructure that the Intifada has taken on Palestinian society over the past four years. A failure to defang the resistance factions will only guarantee that gang-land culture rules in Palestine and south Lebanon for years to come--whatever political authority prevails there in name. For this reason by itself, it's too bad that the Arab League turned down a ten-state mega-treaty with Israel this week. The sweeping move might have helped to take the steam out of Zahhar's "mission accomplished" and further isolated Hezbollah. Then again, Silvan Shalom and Jordan's King Abdullah may have expected too much out of the rickety League to begin with. Now that the preeminent assembly of Arab leaders has spoken, hopes for transformative change turn once again to the societies they rule.

The role some Islamist movements played in bolstering the leaders' intransigence is manifest for all to see. And that's why, now of all times, it's discomfiting to observe some well-connected Americans and Brits touting their new unofficial dialogue with Hezbollah and Hamas. An Al Jazeera news segment Tuesday reported on an "unprecedented meeting" in Beirut between leaders of the two terrorist groups and a new U.K.-based consulting firm, Conflicts Forum. Participants were said to include "American persons close to American decision-makers." The Forum's co-founder and director, Beverley Milton-Edwards, speaking in English, had this to say to Al Jazeera:

I think the importance of this meeting, as the speaker from Hezbollah pointed out this afternoon, is that this isn't actually about enmity between the people from Islam and Muslims and those in the West. In fact, the idea here is to end this disconnection--for people to understand that there is a common platform between the peoples of Islam and the West. So this is a unique opportunity for opinion formers in North America and Europe to hear that enmity is not on the table.

There's a presumption implicit in this statement: that the militant factions participating in the meeting are somehow representative of the "peoples of Islam." In fact, many of the "peoples of Islam" now favor regional priorities that these factions are aligned against, like "democracy and political reform." You just wouldn't know it from listening to Beverly Milton-Edwards or the Arab League.

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 March 25, 2005.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Gender Gap: What President Bush, American Feminists, and American Muslims Haven't Done for the Women of the Middle East

The Bush administration and its supporters are claiming credit for the advancement of women's rights in Muslim countries. Last Tuesday, at a White House ceremony to mark International Women's Day, First Lady Laura Bush told an audience of Arab and Muslim women that her husband had made their cause a "global policy priority" and cited an impressive list of achievements won by American military actions. She noted that the Taliban no longer oppresses women in Afghanistan and has been replaced by a government with three female ministers, along with a new constitution that is "one of the most progressive documents on women's rights in the Muslim world." She also cited high female voter turnout in the Afghani, Palestinian, and Iraqi elections, and the fact that a third of Iraq's elected parliament members are women. Both the First Lady and another speaker at the event, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stressed the administration's desire to spread these gains across the region through the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative. Rice told the audience, "As you stand for your rights and for your liberty, America stands with you." Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger summed up the impact of White House policy on Middle Eastern women with this observation: "After the fall of Saddam and the election of January 30, it is harder than it was for authoritarian regimes to force their women into the shadows."

Perhaps it is harder to force women into the shadows; but it's still not actually hard. Women remain marginalized and oppressed by many of the Middle East's secular and Islamist governments alike--including both America's allies and its opponents--and it's not clear what exactly the White House intends to do about it. Even in the two countries where the U.S. exerts direct military authority, the cause of women is advancing in some ways but regressing in others. In Afghanistan, human rights organizations report that rape, sex trafficking, and extra-judicial "honor killings" remain prevalent in rural areas, in part because the central government is too weak to exert much control outside Kabul. In Iraq, the security situation has effectively barred many women from leaving their homes to go to school or work. Furthermore, some newly elected Iraqi Islamist parties are pressing to repeal the relatively liberal personal status law for women that has been on the books since 1959. They want to replace it with a version of Islamic law that would take away women's inheritance rights and skew divorce law to favor men. These setbacks are the downside of political destabilization brought about by American hard power. The trouble is, American soft power is weak and inconsistent on the issue of Middle Eastern women--at a time when soft power is precisely what is needed to mitigate the negative side-effects of an aggressive foreign policy.

The inconsistency begins at the top. President Bush has declared that "No society can advance with only half of its talent and energy--and that demands the full participation of women." But he also said, in his last State of the Union address, that he does not seek to impose Western culture on new and fledgling democracies: "Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens, and reflect their own cultures." So what should the United States do when entrenched cultural forces call for the curtailment of women's rights?

During the year ending in June 2004 when the Coalition Provisional Authority ruled Iraq, Americans largely acquiesced to a strengthening of Islamist control over women and families. In one fateful decision, the army discontinued the pre-war system of food rations and begin distributing food to Iraqis through mosques. Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi feminist who is CEO of Women for Women International, was in Baghdad at the time. In a phone conversation, she described to me what happened next:

We were talking with women who were saying, During Saddam's time we would go to the store [for food]. ... Now we had to go to the mosque, had to cover from head to toe, and we had to fight with men for the food because we were forced to the back of the mosque. When I asked the general who was giving us the briefing, I asked him, 'Are you considering the impact you are having on women?' ... He did not understand the word gender.

While Islamists began to consolidate power and influence, some women's rights activists lobbied the U.S. government for a measure of affirmative action--initially, by asking CPA chief Paul Bremer to give women special consideration as he selected the Iraqi Governing Council. Though women are a majority of the country's population, only three were nominated by Bremer to serve on the 25-member Governing Council. Moreover, only one woman served among the country's 25 ministers, no women participated in the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law, and out of hundreds of judges appointed by the CPA to serve in the country's court system, only 15 were women. When later confronted by women's groups with the suggestion that 40 percent of parliament seats be reserved for women--similar quotas have been established in 80 countries worldwide--Bremer initially refused ("out of a Republican ideology," Salbi alleges). A de facto parliamentary quota was eventually put in place by the CPA-appointed NGO tasked with setting the rules for Iraq's election: Each party had to list one woman for every two men among its candidates, thereby guaranteeing a one-third women's presence in any parliament. But the American role in this victory for women, now touted by Laura Bush, wasn't exactly enthusiastic from the start.

The Bush administration's apparent discomfort with the notion of affirmative action for Middle Eastern women is unfortunate in light of its stated commitment to advance their rights. There's a broad consensus among Arab feminists that quotas for women in the political arena are crucial in any attempt to offset the overwhelming cultural pressure against women's advancement. Consider the following percentages of women in the parliaments of Arab countries where the government is secular and America has some influence: Palestine, 7 percent; Jordan, 5.5 percent; Egypt, 2.9 percent; Oman, 2.4 percent; Lebanon, 2.3 percent; Yemen, 0.3 percent. Conspicuously missing from the list is Saudi Arabia, where the percentage is, of course, zero; recent municipal elections barred women from voting--let alone running for office.

Bush supporters have defended U.S. policies by noting that the most conservative voices in Iraq on women's issues include some female Islamist politicians, as documented by a front-page story in last week's Wall Street Journal. But a central explanation for this odd state of affairs is inconvenient for Bush backers: The fact that secular governments routinely disenfranchise women from power is often the reason that politically ambitious women resort to Islamist parties for a piece of the action.

American soft power, of course, is more than just the policies of the U.S. government. Grassroots movements play a vital role as well. Yet here too, Middle Eastern women have too often been let down. Some of the largest American feminist organizations opposed the Iraq war, which was their prerogative, but did so in part by whitewashing Saddam Hussein's record on women's issues. The fall 2003 edition of the National Organization for Women's NOW National Times, in a piece called Iraq: A Step Backwards for Women, had this to say about Saddam's rule: "Prior to the 2003 invasion, women comprised more than 20% of the Iraqi workforce, holding a wide range of technical, professional, and governmental positions, including a full fifth of the country's parliamentary seats."

Say what you will about the Iraq war and its aftermath, it's hard to deny that Saddam's departure in and of itself was good news for the country's women. In his final years, the dictator had ordered prostitutes to be beheaded. His security services had raped and tortured female relatives of Iraqi opposition activists and sent videotapes of the sex acts to their families. Thus it was unconscionable of NOW chief Kim Gandy to draw moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and Bush in an antiwar protest called "Code Pink: Women's Pre-Emptive Strike for Peace." Gandy said: "The real terrorism is the Bush administration's disregard for international law and destruction of civil liberties at home. This has become an issue of one dictator versus another." Of course, there are feminists who take a more constructive position. Feminist Majority leader Eleanor Smeal (also a supporter of the Code Pink rally) was among the first American activists to identify Taliban atrocities against women in Afghanistan. In December 2001, she called upon Bush to "construct a foreign policy as if women mattered."

Yet somehow, voices like Smeal's were largely absent last fall when the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative tasked American NGOs with training Iraqi women for public life. Perhaps the Bush administration is to blame, or perhaps the feminist establishment decided to wash its hands of Iraq policy in an election year, or perhaps a little bit of both. In any case, a major recipient of a $10 million grant package for Iraqi women's programs was the Independent Women's Forum--a right-wing group originally formed to counter feminists who opposed Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. Among other campaigns, the Forum had lobbied in opposition to the Violence Against Women Act. How well the organization has been doing on the ground in Iraq is unclear. What is clear is that the talent and resources of the mainstream American feminist movement have, for the most part, not been put to constructive use on behalf of Iraqi women.

Nor have America's most prominent Muslim organizations been particularly vocal on the empowerment of women in the Middle East. Part of the reason may be the funding some of these groups are widely reported to receive from conservative clerical endowments in the Gulf states. Thus the Council on American Islamic Relations, allegedly a recipient of Saudi funding, has been aggressive in advocating the right of women to wear a headscarf in the American workplace and outspoken on Israel's occupation of Palestine--but, as far as I can tell, silent on the exclusion of women from elections in Saudi Arabia or the struggle for women's suffrage in Kuwait. The content of Al Zaitounah, a biweekly pro-Hamas newspaper from the Islamic Association for Palestine in Chicago, has been lacking in introspection on the challenges women face in Islamic societies. In an article last year, the newspaper quoted the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement as saying, "The woman has not been dignified in any civilization or any religion as she has been dignified in Islam."

Having invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has arguably set in motion a wave of political change that stands to weaken authoritarian rule in numerous other countries. In this respect, setbacks for women in Afghanistan and Iraq that stem from weakened central authority, physical insecurity, and a rise of Islamist political influence may be a harbinger of things to come in many places. Which is why it's so important for American politicians and grassroots movements across the spectrum to shed their ideological baggage and formulate coherent stances on the use of soft power to advance Arab and Muslim women.

There are some encouraging signs that this process has already begun. The National Council of Women's Organizations weighed in with a statement on women's rights in Iraq on February 25. Other groups with a global reach, like Women for Women International, have been active and influential on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, and across Africa and Asia for years. This afternoon at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York City, in a move of symbolic importance, the Progressive Muslim Union will publicly break with a Muslim tradition of long standing that denies women the right to lead mixed-gender prayer services. The leader of the Friday prayer, who will also deliver the afternoon's sermon, is Amina Wadud, an African-American Muslim theologian from Virginia Commonwealth University. A New York mosque refused to host the event, claiming it would be incompatible with Islamic law. Wadud, who has already drawn coverage on the satellite network Al Arabiya, says she has received numerous death threats in the past few weeks. At a recent lecture in Toronto, she was accused by one Muslim man of being a "CIA agent." He apparently had no idea of the gap that often divides the U.S. government from American grassroots movements. This disconnect is intolerable at a time when American policy stands to affect millions of Muslim women--for better or for worse, and whether the U.S. manages to formulate a coherent strategy or not.

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 March 18, 2005.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Hyperspace: How the Internet Is Transforming Arab Politics

Two years is a long time in the history of the Internet--especially in the Arab world. Consider the following statement made by Jonathan Alterman, director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies's Middle East Program, in April 2003:

There was a good deal of loose talk in the late 1990s about how the Internet would change everything in the developing world, democratizing information and empowering citizens. It didn't quite work out that way, and Internet penetration remains lower in the Middle East than perhaps any other region of the world. ... Rather than embracing "high-tech," Arab publics have embraced what I would call "mid-tech," basically 1970s technologies like satellite TV, photocopiers, fax machines, and videocassette recorders. These technologies share several things in common: they are relatively cheap to the end user, they have a remarkably easy interface, and they facilitate spreading compelling messages to broad populations.

At the time, I agreed with him. I wrote the following in my book, The New Iraq, which was published in March 2003: "As unruly as it is, the Internet remains merely a nuisance and not an existential challenge to the stability of Arab governments ... due in part to the medium's small audiences." As a then-consultant for Pyramid Research, I gave similar advice to state-owned Arab telecommunications companies as they pondered their Internet development plans.

Arab regimes seemed to buy this argument. Most governments fearlessly embraced the new technology, apparently believing they could promote computer literacy among their populations while filtering out subversive content and keeping tabs on cyber dissidents, all at the same time. So it was that in 2002, Egypt offered free dial-up Internet access in Cairo and promoted "Arab-financed" computer manufacturing; that the Saudi government, with the help of an American company called Secure Computing (which builds corporate firewalls) succeeded for the most part in filtering out Al Qaeda's online threats to the royal family as well as cyber porn; that the United Arab Emirates now boasts a remarkably advanced Internet infrastructure, but also one of the more subtle cyber-monitoring systems in the world.

Yet there is growing evidence of tension. Last week in Bahrain, protestors covered their mouths with tape and silently demonstrated in front of a prosecutor's office; they are demanding the release of a local webmaster accused of "inciting resentment against the government" via his site, Bahrain Online. Several weeks ago an Egyptian blogger announced what he claims is the region's first-ever threat to bloggers by the secret police. Other bloggers, like this one in Syria, write that they are worried of potential interrogations. Two years ago in Tunisia, a man was imprisoned for 18 months for running the site TUNeZINE, which was critical of the government. And recently in Saudi Arabia, a religious court flogged and imprisoned 15 people for trying to march against the government; the instructions to march had come from a Saudi webmaster in London who operates a digital radio station.

These incidents are symptoms of a larger trend: The Internet is now a destabilizing force to Arab governments, some of which are trying and failing to bottle it back up. Despite its relatively modest penetration in the region, the web is threatening the status quo--in societies as conservative as Saudi Arabia and police states as tightly run as Syria and Tunisia--in ways that previous technologies never could. That's in part because it is making obsolete the strategies that Arab governments had used for centuries--with almost perfect success--to quash dissent and cling to power. It may be trite to speak of the Internet's transformative power; but in the case of the Arab world in 2005, it appears increasingly to be real.

Authoritarianism is as old as government, and its oldest tactics have a way of surviving until they're proven thoroughly obsolete. One measure that Arab regimes throughout history have employed against dissidents has been to force them to flee to a distant land--making back-and-forth communication with a homegrown movement nearly impossible. For example, the ninth-century historian Tabari quotes a governor in the Umayyad Arab empire explaining why he banished an insurgent: "What I fear from him if he is banished is less than what I fear from him if he is living here, for a man who is exiled from his country becomes less powerful."

This wisdom persisted for over a thousand years. The advent of the telephone did not fundamentally change it, because Arab phone lines have been, for the most part, effectively monitored. Thus the exile of Egyptian dissident Karam Mutawwa from Cairo to Baghdad in the early 1970s was just as effective, from the perspective of an authoritarian government, as the exile of a medieval rebel to Cyprus in the year 700 would have been. The advent of the tape deck greatly facilitated exile politics, but not enough to shift the paradigm. When the Shah of Iran forced Khomeini to Paris before the 1979 revolution, the cleric had already built a formidable infrastructure and courier network back home; so he continued preaching via recorded sermons, which followers then smuggled into Iran by cassette and reproduced en masse in the country. But it's hard to conceive of his founding an Iranian political movement via cassette from some distant land. Even the advent of the satellite dish--used so effectively by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who continues to inspire his fighters inside the desert Kingdom via Al Jazeera--did not render the ninth-century approach obsolete. That's because bin Laden's speeches, delivered to the Kingdom via satellite broadcasting, remain a one-way form of communication only.

Only through the Internet is it feasible to run an Arab political organization by remote control. For instance, the Saudi dissident Movement of Islamic Reform in Arabia, managed out of London by Saad al Fagih, relies on the web to recruit and expand its base inside the Kingdom. Fagih recently managed to solicit oral oaths of loyalty in Real Audio format from 99 Arabian clans and post them to his website--a feat he achieved by proxy, ten years after having been exiled from the Kingdom. Much of his information on political developments in the Kingdom reaches him through email, which he discusses frequently on his radio broadcasts; and he often encourages listeners to email him directly. The anti-government demonstration he fomented on the ground back in December was relatively modest, but for chutzpah, the 15 protesters--including one woman--were off the charts. As a result of all this, Arab regimes may be rethinking their propensity for exiling dissidents; after all, those dissidents would be freer to wage Internet warfare if sent to a freer country. In Tunis last month, political prisoner Abdallah Zouari finished his eleven-year prison sentence only to be exiled not abroad but to the remote south of the country (near the red desert of Tataouine where portions of the movie Star Wars were filmed). According to Human Rights Watch, he is closely monitored--and prevented from using the Internet.

Of course maintaining tyranny isn't only about targeting specific dissidents; it's also about inhibiting the masses. Here, too, a paradigm has been smashed. For over a thousand years, governance in the Arab world has been marked by an uneasy truce between state and society--namely, the state policed the public sphere but cut society some slack in private. This bifurcation of space was brilliantly delineated by the seventh-century caliph Umar, who instructed his citizens, "Show us the best of your character, while God knows your secrets well." That bifurcation held in Saddam's Iraq as well. As Iraqis who lived through those bitter years will tell you, it was common to spend the day at work, at school, or outdoors feigning loyalty to Saddam whenever called upon to do so. On returning home, however, an oft-repeated phrase was Allah yantaqim minnak ya Saddam ("God wreak vengeance upon you, o Saddam"). In Saudi Arabian cities today, the ubiquitous guardians of public virtue--who whack women's ankles that are exposed in public and haul away teens for having alcohol on their breath--enjoy jurisdiction in public places but shy away from inspecting people's homes. As a result, even though it is illegal to own a satellite dish, Saudis are the biggest consumers of satellite television in the region. You can have your MTV; just close the door to your house.

The growing phenomenon of Arabic-language blogging makes this awkward truce between citizens and their governments untenable. Blogs, by their very nature, blur the line between private and public expression; bloggers are free to publish their most strident personal views anonymously for all to read--and from the privacy of their own homes. In some Arab countries, like Egypt, because of the dispersed way Internet connections are distributed, it is virtually impossible to curb the continued distribution of this content short of shutting down the country's fixed communications infrastructure altogether. And some of those countries' bloggers seem to know it. One blog went so far as to post a poem in Egyptian vernacular called "We'd like you dead, o President" alongside a photo of Hosni Mubarak on February 11. The first of thirteen posted comments reads, in formal Arabic: "We in the secret police have determined from which site this threat against the person of his Excellency the President originated. We will take the necessary measures to punish whoever carries this out. Wait for us." Rather than cow the bloggers concerned, who perhaps believed the note to be a fake, this seems only to have egged them on. The comment that follows, posted in English, reads, "Oh look, I'm shaking in my little space boots." The comment after that begins with the well-known cyber-acronym "lol" (short for "laughing out loud").

The big question, of course, is whether any of these shifting paradigms is actually capable of changing the present distribution of power in an Arab country--and if so, how and where. Maybe all this online noise is just so much noise, and the medium is still no more than an annoyance to the status quo. Or perhaps it has merely grown into a migraine for the status quo. You can live with a migraine. On the other hand, the pressure imposed on several Arab countries today by the United States stands to exacerbate all the internal tensions these regimes already face, making even a migraine no "lol" matter. The fact that Internet penetration of Arab populations remains low--the regional average is below 5 percent--means that the extent of the web's influence will depend on whether it can somehow nudge forward broader political trends.

Some human rights activists will tell you a first nudge has already taken place. Years before Arabic blogs were widespread, email from dissidents across the region made it easier to gather testimony and photographs documenting human-rights infractions. "Twenty years ago, the way we found information," says Neil Hicks, International Programs Director for Human Rights First, "we had to go to the country, in a very laborious process. Even making an international telephone call to Egypt--you'd wait for hours. Just the speed of information flow, there's no comparison." Human-rights groups have long faced a problem: It's easier to level accusations against open societies, where information can be more easily gathered. By making evidence from closed societies more readily available, the Internet may have already begun to correct this imbalance. Which may well lead to heightened global awareness of human-rights abuses in Arab states--and more political pressure on the authoritarian governments that run them.

Then there is the prospect of systemic change in an Arab country owing to a ruler's personal obsession with the Internet. Bashar al Assad, Syria's young president, spearheaded the introduction of web technology to the country himself and reportedly browses in his spare time. Users of the medium there are fewer than 2 percent of the population, and you won't find anything like the seditious sentiments of Egyptian bloggers because the state-run Syrian Computer Society controls the web with an iron fist. And yet there is robust activism of a sort, and the organs of state are acknowledging it. "Sometimes," writes an Aleppo-based journalist for Al Hayat, "it has seemed that the government has responded to some of the desires and suggestions of the electronic 'lobby.'" A group called Restoration of Civil Society in Syria has amassed thousands of signatures in an online petition calling on the government to lift its nearly-40-year state of emergency. The existence of such groups provides western powers--who increasingly seem to be interested in pressuring Assad--with an opportunity to build ties with dissidents and perhaps push the regime toward reform. (To be sure, Assad might also view such groups as a relatively harmless way to placate foreign governments by creating the appearance of free and open discourse.)

There is also the opportunity to draw attention to the abuses of authoritarian regimes that have escaped the ire of western governments because of their inoffensive foreign policies. For instance, this November, Tunisia (where crackdowns on political activity are frequent and severe) will be hosting the International Telecommunication Union's World Summit on the Information Society, a major world convention intended to promote openness through new media. Bloggers in the Arab world and beyond could demand the right to converge on the country and picket--or at the very least use their outlets to draw attention to the amazing hypocrisy of the Tunisian government in hosting such a conference.

Still, it seems likely that the web's most crucial impact on Arab politics won't be in alerting the west to human rights abuses or rallying support in the international community; it will be in allowing Arab dissidents to talk to one another and coordinate their activities. I recently read extensive Arabic blogging, dated from January and early February, on behalf of an anti-Mubarak group called the People's Peaceful Front for the Rescue of Egypt. A series of rambling entries began with an invitation to join an anti-government demonstration planned for Alexandria, "place and time to be announced shortly, God willing." Stay tuned, apparently.

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 March 7, 2005.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Language Barrier: The Problem with Using Arabic to Reach Arab Audiences

Since September 11, the U.S. government's bid to promote democracy and improve America's image in the Arab world has consisted largely of countering anti-American pan-Arab media with pro-American pan-Arab media. In 2003, the State Department launched a glossy magazine called Hi, which it distributed in 13 Arab countries. The U.S.-backed Al Hurra television network--which recently celebrated its first anniversary--offers programs resembling those of Al Jazeera in nearly every local market reached by its rival. The former chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, Harold Pachios, has written, "Now more than ever, the United States needs it own voice in the Arabic language." And these efforts go beyond government programs. Witness the Global Americana Institute, which seeks "to engage in translation, publication, and distribution of books on the United States in Arabic. The initial volume will be the key works of Thomas Jefferson."

But there's a problem with these initiatives. Just as you won't win over a crowd of Mexican villagers by speaking Latin, the United States can't sell democracy and reform to Arab populations by speaking to them in modern standard Arabic--and ignoring the Middle East's more widely understood vernacular languages.

The challenge of winning hearts and minds among populations with high illiteracy rates is doubly complex in the case of the Arab world. Not only are 70 million Arabs unable to read or write; a much larger number of the region's 280 million people do not fully speak or understand the standardized Arabic language (known as "Fus'ha") that is used in broadcast news as well as official discourse and the academy. Fus'ha was introduced in schools across the region beginning about 90 years ago as a component of pan-Arab nationalism. It is a formal construct, gleaned from classical Arabic grammar and wholly consistent with Koranic syntax, designed to unite the 20-odd Arab countries culturally and politically. But nine decades later it unites, in effect, only the region's elites.

Most everybody else prefers to speak a version of their country's vernacular. Ninety percent of Moroccans, for example, can only understand their unique brand of Arabic, which is heavily infused with Berber phonics and French vocabulary--testimony to the country's multiethnic and colonial history. The Moroccan language, in turn, is barely comprehensible to, say, Iraqis, whose unique idioms and usages reflect more ancient Mesopotamian tongues as well as the country's proximity to Turkey, Iran, and the Kurdish mountains. These vernaculars, derided by pan-Arab ideologues as "dialects," are in fact the region's major living languages. They are the contemporary Middle Eastern equivalent of Romance languages, which, of course, were all derived from Latin and were also once known as dialects--but now are known as Spanish, Italian, and French.

The Arab world today stands at a crossroads--between an old-fashioned allegiance to the contrived political agenda of a single Arab nation (or a single Islamic nation) and a new twenty-first-century emphasis on distinct, democratic national polities that focus on their own social and political challenges. But the latter will not be possible if a country's majority does not understand the language of government. Thus where countries have grassroots movements calling for mother-tongue media and education--the list includes Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco--the United States should support their efforts. The renowned Beirut linguist Sa'id A'il plans to publish the first ever "dictionary of Lebanese" this summer for a small group of scholars, but there is no program in place to develop his life's work into a curriculum. An independent newspaper began publishing in "Moroccan" in May 2003 and has won a large following among the working class but requires investment in order to expand.

Might the Middle East Partnership Initiative--founded with great fanfare by the Bush administration in January 2003 to promote discourse and civil society in the Arab world--consider supporting projects like these? One of the Initiative's existing projects, which subsidizes the translation and publication of children's books by Scholastic, predictably does so in Fus'ha--a one-size-fits-all approach for every Arab country. Not an encouraging sign. On the other hand, the U.S.-backed Radio Sawa, which broadcasts locally on FM dials across the region, has begun to include some local vernacular content in five separate Arab markets. More work along these lines is needed.

Meanwhile the natural evolution of new media in Arab countries is bolstering the use of local vernacular all by itself. The proliferation of Arabic-language blogs means thousands of webpages are updated daily in the versions of Arabic spoken in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Tunis, and so on. Rather than fall behind this curve, the United States should adjust and adapt its strategy for reaching Arab audiences. We stand to gain considerably from speaking to the Middle East in languages that Arab majorities, not just elites, can understand.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay originally appeared in The New Republic Online on February 22, 2005.

Friday, April 01, 2005

5 More Years: Why Hosni Mubarak Should Be Allowed to Re-Elect Himself One Last Time

Two senior Egyptian officials are visiting Washington this week amid heightened American pressure on their boss, Hosni Mubarak, to permit free elections--which he would probably lose. Mubarak has ruled Egypt under emergency laws and nixed political activity for nearly 24 years. His recent arrest of a liberal contender for the presidency on trumped up charges is symptomatic of his abysmal human rights record. His excesses have embittered many Egyptians, while his establishment press routinely parrots anti-American and anti-Jewish canards. Yet the U.S. government has maintained its support for Mubarak, paying out tens of billions of dollars in aid to his regime over the last few decades. The Bush White House has also made use of the regime's "special talents," outsourcing the interrogation of terror suspects to Cairo.

Now the word in Egypt is that Mubarak wants to run without serious opposition for a sixth consecutive term in the upcoming spring elections--and perhaps groom his son Gamal to succeed him. So what's a freedom-loving country like ours to do about it? Not for the first time, President Bush called upon Egypt in his recent State of the Union address to "show the way toward democracy in the Middle East," and pundits want to hold the administration to its word. A Washington Post editorial in January hailed a group of anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo and slammed Bush for giving "no indication that he objects to another of the fraudulent referendums with which Mr. Mubarak has ratified his rule." Max Boot, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has asserted that there is "little evidence that Islamists are popular enough to win a free election in Egypt" and urged Washington to cut or squeeze the umbilical cord of aid to the regime "unless there's real economic and political progress." Throw the bum out, some argue, and let the chips fall where they will.

The desired ends of the Post editorial writers and Boot--liberal democracy in Egypt--are noble, and I share them. But the means they apparently envision--regime change through free elections this spring--would be self-defeating. The Post seems unaware, for example, that the organizer of the very protests in Cairo that they praised, Nasserist party stalwart Abd Al Halim Qandil, penned the following words in Arabic in his opposition newspaper just a few days after September 11, 2001: "Yes, we have the right to celebrate [the September 11 attacks]. This was the first step in a thousand-mile journey toward defeating America in a knockout blow." Nor is Boot's dismissal of Islamists' prospects in free elections--casually stated in the piece without any evidence to back it up--borne out by reality: As most scholars of modern Egypt acknowledge, the Muslim Brotherhood, though banned from official political activity, dominates Egypt's influential professional associations and maintains the strongest grassroots organization in the country besides the ruling party. Both Boot and The Washington Post neglect to address the obvious fact that the political arena in Egypt today is lopsided: Liberals are exceedingly weak and radical nationalists and Islamists are strong. This is a mess of Mubarak's making. But ironically, for reasons unique to Egyptian politics, Mubarak may also be the person best suited to clean up this mess, paving the way for liberal democracy in Cairo. And strange though it may seem, the longtime foe of liberal reform could soon have every incentive to do just that.

The stakes in Egypt are higher than some might realize. The apparent success of the Iraqi elections--despite sweeping gains by Shia Islamists--might incline some Americans to believe that Islamist victories are an acceptable price to pay for the arrival of democracy in Muslim countries. And in some places, they'd be right. Egypt, however, is different. By contrast to some Shia Islamist parties, which began making conciliatory gestures toward the United States months before the invasion of Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood--a Sunni, Egyptian-dominated international movement--has been ratcheting up its anti-American rhetoric. Just a few days ago on Al Jazeera, I watched Abd Al Mun'im Abu 'l-Fattuh, a Cairo-born leader of the organization, affirm his support for the Iraqi insurgency, restate his opposition to the Camp David accords between Begin and Sadat, and appeal for nationalist-Islamist unity in the Arab world in order to confront "our real enemy," the United States. Leaving aside the fact that more radical groups, including Al Qaeda, arose directly from the Muslim Brotherhood--the mentoring relationship in Afghanistan between Brotherhood stalwart Abdullah Azzam and Osama Bin Laden has been ably chronicled in an Al Jazeera documentary--the stated goals of the mainstream Brotherhood leaders are bone-chilling enough. For instance, they aspire to undo the entire framework of Arab-Israeli peace. Hamas, the Brotherhood's offspring in Palestine, is now in the delicate early phases of political d├ętente with the Palestinian Authority--an encouraging move due in no small part to the prodding of Egypt's intelligence services. A new Egyptian governing coalition with any significant Brotherhood presence would likely switch off such pressure, and Hamas could well regress toward militancy. In the Palestinian territories and throughout the Sunni-majority Arab world, political gains for the Brotherhood in Egypt--the country where the movement was born, and still the cultural and political capital of the region--would give a dramatic boost to hardline groups and undermine the nascent liberal movements that oppose them.

Yes, such dire warnings of an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood play right into Mubarak's hands. Indeed, Mubarak has long used the strength of the Brotherhood as an excuse for his authoritarian rule. But he has done more than merely talk up this threat--he has done his best to make it real by working to undermine Egypt's liberal movement and outdo his Islamist rivals on religious matters. There are now over 100,000 mosques in Egypt, most of which were built under Mubarak's reign. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has greater influence today on public mores and government censorship of writers and artists than at any time in the country's modern history. All these gestures to appease potential Brotherhood recruits have only helped strengthen a physical and legal infrastructure that enables the Brotherhood to function as a semi-overt social movement. Meanwhile, most of the liberals whose views would be more amenable to the United States and Europe have become marginal players--due to their comparative lack of legal and cultural influence, their thwarted attempts to start newspapers of their own, and Mubarak's penchant for throwing them in jail.

As a result of all this, liberalism is weak in Egypt, and it needs time to strengthen itself. True, it may be pleasing to hear the following words from Muhammad Farid Hassanein, a former parliamentarian who wants to run against Mubarak: "I see the Europeans who came to Israel with a culture of freedom, and we can learn from them by becoming closer to them." But a more mainstream voice with a much larger following, Mustafa Bakri, has written in response, "I am willing to bet that if he were to say these things in the streets, he wouldn't get away unharmed." And he's probably right. A liberal voice with a party and following of his own, Ayman Nour--who now sits in solitary confinement in Cairo--is by all accounts a lovely man with a progressive social agenda. But even Nour must pay homage to the Brotherhood. In his own words: "We have no objection to the Brotherhood or any political force whose legitimacy is from the people, rather than via a mere license." If Nour were to win a presidential election this spring, he would have little choice but to pander to the Brotherhood in order to stitch together a coalition that could command a governing majority.

In short, the skewed political environment that has been created by Mubarak's long years of anti-liberal manipulations would only be enshrined if free and fair elections took place now. To foster a semblance of political balance in Egyptian society, political and cultural pressure must first be exerted from the top--a twenty-first century Ataturk-style project to undo the country's decades-long tilt toward Islamism is needed. This means opening Egyptian broadcast media to progressive voices, not just religious clerics and the political establishment. It means advancing a secular humanist agenda through the educational system. It means opening the organs of state, from the judiciary to the executive, to the sort of exchange programs with democratic countries that bore fruit so profoundly in the Ukraine in recent months. The details of the project would best be left to Egypt's liberals themselves, who know better than outsiders what they need to gain ground. But the central question has already been well expressed by Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, no stranger to the country's prison system himself: "What, Mr. Mubarak, have you done to preserve the popularity of non-Islamist forces in the country?"

The idea that Mubarak might be counted on to perform such an about-face will induce skepticism--and rightly so. But two new factors argue in his favor. First, he has lately demonstrated that he responds to robust American pressure. His contribution to the fragile truce between Israel and the Palestinians marks a departure from previous years of cold peace and obstructionism toward Israel. And as Max Boot observed in his Times op-ed: "Dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim credits US pressure with helping to win his release from prison in 2003. And that involved a threat to withhold merely $130 million in supplemental aid. What might a threat to cut off $2 billion accomplish?" With Bush signaling that he intends to make the promotion of liberal democracy a staple of his second term, it would be a bad time to see one of the world's more malleable Arab despots pass from the scene--assuming, as seems likely, that a replacement governing coalition gleaned from today's political opposition groups would be worse.

Second, the 76-year-old Mubarak's own calculations have changed. His personal horizons are shorter and his long-term agenda revolves around his son Gamal. Unlike Saddam's son and chosen heir, a homicidal psychopath, Gamal Mubarak is a well-liked businessman with the esteem of Western-oriented liberals in the country--but he is not well liked by radicals. Mubarak's Egypt is not Saddam's Iraq, where a ruler's offspring could conceivably have been forced upon the population. Nor is it Assad's Syria, where the minority ethnic clique that brutally rules naturally coalesced around the late president's son in order to perpetuate an unnatural status quo. In Egypt, perhaps the most thoroughly globalized Arab country, Gamal's future lies with the class of secular liberals who, up until now, have been discouraged from entering the political fray. He hasn't paid his dues with the Islamists and he has no credentials with the military and security establishment. His ambitions require a change in Egypt's political landscape--a change for the better. In this respect, the old man who rules the country has more hopes in common with liberals and reformers than he used to, albeit for entirely selfish reasons. This confluence of interests should be exploited by the United States--not discarded.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Mubarak will die in office--he would be the third Egyptian dictator in a row to do so. The ruling regime's 35-year precedent would call for a senior member of the security establishment to succeed him--defense minister and armed forces chief Muhammad Hussein Tantawi is a possibility, as is the minister of intelligence, Umar Suleyman, who happens to be making the rounds in Washington this week. In either event, American leverage over a new interim president to prod reforms forward would be just as strong as American leverage over Mubarak, because the state would rapidly turn insolvent without our foreign aid. Furthermore--as I know from personal experience, having met with Egyptian brass as a telecommunications consultant in 2001 and 2002--institutional culture within the armed forces is evolving. A prominent stratum of technocrats who are deeply involved in systems overhauls within the security establishment is made up of Western-oriented liberals with degrees from American and Canadian universities. Many would be receptive to U.S. exhortations to reform.

It's true that calls of "five more years" for Hosni Mubarak might seem at first to be pouring cold water on the vision of cascading democracies in the Middle East--especially after the successful elections in Iraq. And it's understandable that nothing would please democracy advocates more than to see last month's massive Iraqi turnout one-upped by free and fair elections in Egypt this spring. But a bit of patience is sometimes wise--and now may be one of those times. At this writing, I observe reports on Arabic television suggesting that Egypt's ruling party intends to grant dissidents the constitutional amendment for which they are clamoring, to make it easier to contest the presidency--but only after the spring elections. This move will anger Mubarak's many detractors because it would enable the incumbent to squeak by and have his sixth term. But it also would redefine the political system in Egypt in the leader's final years, creating a set of expectations for reform that America can hold him to on penalty of bankruptcy. The alternative, an ostensibly democratic government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, would only set back the cause of liberalism in the Middle East. For Egyptians, true democracy is finally on the horizon--and also worth waiting for.

Note: Translated quotes from Abd Al Halim Qandil, Muhammad Farid Hassanein, and Mustafa Bakri were taken from the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute. All other translations are mine.

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 17, 2005.