April 2012

Good article in The Christian Science Monitor about the rebirth of Egyptian state media. It starts out by pointing to the phony story last week about the Egyptian law allowing husbands to have sex with their recently deceased wives and how this was a classic attempt to deride the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist segments. This story, bytheby, was picked up by major international news outlets without any scrutiny. To his credit, Dan Murphy at the CSM called BS for what it was at the time.  

I don’t want to focus on why so many were and are willing to believe such things about Islamists and Muslims more generally—living in Washington, DC for so many years, I’ve seen “Terronoia” seep into the unquestioned consciousness of many an otherwise sober person—but on the state-backed strong-arm tactics at play in Cairo and what this might mean for the impending presidential elections.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power from Husni Mubarak and has since gone from the great hope of the Egyptian people to its curse, is trying to secure its privileges, which are considerable. What many Egyptians failed to realize, but which should have been obvious, was that the military (especially the higher brass) was the regime. Mubarak’s fall was due in part to his having alienated those members of the regime with whom he didn’t happen to share DNA. They weren’t sorry to see him go, though they don’t appear to relish ruling out in the open as he did.

More than a year into it, the SCAF is getting the hang of ruling. They still seem to want an exit back to the quiet role of privilege they once enjoyed, but to do that they have to get a favorable government in place. That means winning an election—something they’ve never had to truly go through before (all elections up until this point being theater). And so, we see them cranking up the old machinery and seeing if they can make a go of it.

So what sort of government would the SCAF like to see? The article above lists Amr Moussa, former Secretary General of the Arab League and Mubarak’s former Foreign Minister, as the SCAF’s preferred candidate. He’s not a bad face for them, but I’m not sure it’s that clear cut. A few weeks ago, erstwhile spymaster and Vice President Oman Suleiman was disqualified by the election commission along with the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and several others. Suleiman had hoped to take the Putin approach as a strongman capable to setting the post-revolutionary chaos aside and bringing back the stability the people nostalgically longed for. Too soon, Omar. Too soon. The commission next disqualified Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s Prime Minister during the uprising, but later recanted and allowed him to run.

The big question here is why Shafiq and not Suleiman? Both come from the ranks of the military elite and both have strong ties to the SCAF. Both stayed with Mubarak and the SCAF leadership when Moussa distanced himself. Either one could be the ancien regime’s favored son, so why the difference in treatment? We are left to speculate here as the commission hasn’t issued any explanations for either decision.

One possible answer is that Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, leader of the SCAF and de facto leader of Egypt, hates Suleiman. Suleiman generally considered Tantawi to be an effeminate weakling and Tantawi seems to have relished in being able to get the best of Suleiman. Shafiq and Tantawi, by contrast, have little personal enmity and can come to an agreement.

Another important question is who is on this election commission, what do they want out of the elections, and by what authority do they make decisions? This is a very good question, but alas, I have no good answer. A commission existed before, under Mubarak, and the current one was put up by the SCAF. It stands to reason that it has the SCAF’s interests at heart, if not that it takes orders directly from it, but that is an assumption. Its rulings sometimes defy easy explanation.

If we can’t know the mind of the commission, how about knowing the mind of its masters: the SCAF or the military elite more generally? This seems a reasonable course of enquiry. One problem: despite decades of US military support and bilateral military relations, the US Intelligence Community and top brass somehow have no idea how the Egyptian military works, thinks, or what its major strategic interests are (aside from wanting nice toys to play with in the dessert and look cool while posturing towards Israel). Given that the US and Egypt have regularly conducted joint military exercises (the twice-yearly “Bright Star” exercises) the main point of which is to improve military-to-military relationships, this is embarrassing to put it mildly.

The mystery is intentional. All during the Mubarak regime, and possibly longer, and continuing to this day, the Egyptian military has encouraged the development of relationships with US counterparts, but only in so far as it benefits Egypt. Egyptian service members are forbidden to get too close to their American friends or to disclose anything that might give the US too much insight into their inner workings. There are ways the Intelligence Community could get around this, or course—it’s not an impenetrable black box of an operation—but for years the US was satisfied to work with Mubarak and assume that it was his will that mattered. That false assumption is now proving to be a problem. We’ll add it to the list.


I mentioned that the UN “blue hats” had moved into their HQ in Damascus the other day, but I didn’t go too far into assessing the implications of their presence. To that end, it is worthwhile to ask what exactly they are there to do and for whom?

Right now, the UN mission is to monitor the ceasefire and to prepare the way for the  arrival of 100+ more monitors and possibly peacekeepers.* Once in place, those peace keepers would… well, that remains to be seen, but going by precedent, they would somewhat reduce the severity of the most obvious violent abuses. Along the way, they may damper the sense of urgency felt by the international community to do anything further. It is highly probable that the Syrian regime will try to manipulate the UN presence – showing them what the regime wants them to see and justifying their own actions to the world as being under UN oversight. So, for whom are the monitors and potential peacekeepers acting? I’ll score that to the Syrian regime and the international community writ large with half a point to the Syrian people, who might get slightly less killed.

Also, while I mentioned Iran’s motivations in playing along – they will be good international community members when that means helping their lackey regime survive – I failed to mention the other big outside interested party: Russia. Russia is the Syrian regime’s most powerful security guarantor aside from Iran, and in terms of keeping the international community at bay, they dwarf the Iranians. Iran provides money, arms, and a certain amount of legitimacy through force. Russia provides all that plus FSB security training and cooperation, a large well-trained military able to swoop in and save them, plus a UN veto.

What does Russia get out of its relationship to Syria? The port of Tartous. Tartous hosts a soviet-era naval base still in use by the Russian navy. Russia finds this arrangement very much to its liking. As the very last Russian outpost in the Arab world, and a very useful Mediterranean port, it is unlikely that Russia would be willing to easily part with this and would be willing to do almost anything to prevent the Assad regime – which allows Russia to use the base in thanks for Russia forgiving Syria’s enormous debt – from falling. Does this mean that the issue is hopeless and that Russia will automatically prevent the international community from acting in Syria? No it does not, but it is a major factor with which to contend for anyone trying to do so.

*Update: in my first posting, I stated that UN peacekeepers were slated to follow the monitors. While that is certainly possible, I do not believe that’s been resolved; only more monitors are to set to follow. Any peacekeeping actions would need a further UN resolution.

Unlike for much of the past in writing about the Middle East, where the challenge was in trying to make old subjects seem new, the current challenge is in picking just one thing to discuss at a time. It seems that more has happened in the past year than happened in the past thirty. Right now, we have presidential election challenges in Egypt, unrest in Yemen, state-building in Tunisia and Libya, and governmental reform and efforts to redefine the status of women in Morocco, just to name a few. For today’s entry, however, I will stick to my guns (as it were) and discuss Syria.

The UN set up its observer HQ in Syria yesterday and today has gone about trying to do what the Arab League could not – monitor peace efforts. From the initial reports, things aren’t going so well. Neither side is cooperating fully, which is hardly a surprise when you stop to think that neither side hopes to gain much by doing so.

The Annan plan is arguably more favorable to the regime, which it leaves in power with only promises to reform (promises the regime has already shown it is quite willing to break), but even a little movement in that direction could have disastrous consequences for it as its survival depends upon remaining unchallenged. It holds no basis for power other than the power it already has. Meanwhile, the opposition gains nothing from the compromise unless the regime were to do a complete about-face and genuinely open up the system to reform, which as I just said, would be fatal.

I’ve thought for a while that the writing was on the wall for Assad – that his abandonment by Turkey spoke volumes as does Iran’s desire to play for time by supporting the Annan plan – but a friend of mine with access to good information has maintained that he would weather the storm. Lately he’s slightly shifted his position saying that he still thinks Assad will survive but that he may become little more than the mayor of Damascus and Aleppo when all is said and done. I don’t give good odds at such a situation working out well for the mayor for very long.

So if the plan helps no one involved, why are both sides making efforts to abide by its terms (even though they are failing to fully do so)? Both sides think they stand to gain by waiting, that time is on their side. Both are right in different ways. The regime can steadily grind down the opposition, destroying their homes, their lives, and their livelihood. The opposition gains popular support the more the populace sees that the regime cannot win outright and, if the deals go through, money and possibly arms from outside interested parties (namely, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states). Their fighters also get better with practice. In the short term, then, both sides see a good opportunity to regroup and resupply. I predict this ceasefire is a temporary halt and not the beginning of serious peace efforts.

Kofi Annan’s negotiated ceasefire between government and opposition forces in Syria may have taken hold today. It’s reported that most violence stopped and both sides were holding themselves mostly in check, a few scattered incidents with no reported casualties aside. However, in contravention of the agreement, the Syrian regime has not made any effort to pull back its tanks and other forces. It also imposed some extra conditions in the eleventh hour, like written agreements from the opposition groups to surrender their weapons.

Writing for the Council of Foreign Relations, current Director of Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy  Tamara Cofman Wittes (former US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, before than, Brookings Fellow, before that Director of Programs at the Middle East Institute, where she once turned me down for a job but gave me some splendid advice while doing so) says that the “one thing that could make a real difference is if there were a more unified and concerted pressure from the international community.”

The case of Libya shows what a difference international intervention can bring, but outside support is not the only thing that could change the balance inside Syria. The biggest problem Syria’s opposition faces is not the disunity of the international community but the disunity of its own members. There are several opposition groups, the largest of which is the Syrian National Council (SNC), formed in January as an umbrella group along the lines of the National Transitional Council in Libya and headed by the Paris-based sociologist Burhan Ghalioun, but it is unclear how broad or study an umbrella the SNC truly is and there are other opposition groups besides. The SNC was partly coerced into blessing the main military opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the two don’t work as one and there are many in the SNC (including Dr. Ghalioun) who dislike the sectarian, Sunni/Salafi character of the FSA (Josh Landis has argued that this can only increase). Unlike what transpired in Libya, the various opposition groups have not genuinely joined forces and the militias are not following any real chain of command. Unless they do, it would be difficult for them to have much chance of success.

Another thing that could shift the balance is for the business elite within Syria to abandon the regime. They have stuck with Assad and his crew thus far because they have benefited tremendously from their patronage; however, if they were to be convinced that the regime is not their only or best means to prosperity, and that switching sides would secure their futures, then the Assad regime would be in real trouble.

There are also the other minorites to consider. The Christians and Kurds (both Shia and Sunnia) have largely stayed out of the fighting, unsure of how things will go and not wanting to incur the regime’s wrath should the opposition fail. Bringing them into a more-unified opposition camp would change the calculations of success.

Several things could change the situation inside Syria and give the opposition a better chance of success, but the Annan plan – praised by all with the dubious qualification of being the only plan there is – is actually a pretty good deal for the regime and has little to offer the opposition. Still, it doesn’t answer all the regime’s concerns either. Were the regime to give ground to the opposition, it perhaps fatally undermines its own ability to survive.

Somewhat over a year ago, I sat in a conference with some of the premier talking heads of the day discussing possible futures for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and in particular how a handful of potential leadership successions might play out. At that time, I asked point-blank what the likelihood was of a “color-like” revolution scenario, with large-scale, (mostly) peaceful pro-democracy movements mobilizing to topple their autocratic regimes. To a man (and they were all men, though I’m not sure if that’s relevant), the heads dismissed the possibility as fantasy or wishful thinking. “Not a chance” I was assured.

I felt at the time that they were giving short shrift to the possibility, and a year plus later, I’m still left scratching my head that somehow “nobody saw this coming,” when for decades experts following the region and the issues had been pointing to the long-standing structural problems and saying “any day now.” Somewhere between “any day now” and “not a chance” lies a vast, grey landscape full of assumptions and unasked questions.

In remembering that day, I am reminded of the importance for academics, analysts, policymakers, and just about anyone to thoroughly interrogate their assumptions and to ask “what ifs.” That some of the biggest thinkers failed to see even the possibility, dared not even ask the questions necessary to critically address their subject, is inexcusable.

I will attempt to do just that in this blog. My writing won’t always be polished, my thoughts won’t always be profound, my proffered explanations won’t always prove correct, but I will strive all the same to ask every question I can and to follow that reasoning through to its end.

It is for this reason that AbuShenib speaks.