President Obama, Pursue The Deal On Syria

President Obama, Pursue The Deal On Syria

An off-the-cuff comment by President Obama about red lines placed him in the current political quagmire on Syria. Thanks to another off-the-cuff remark, this time by Secretary Kerry, Obama has an opportunity to navigate out of this debacle while accomplishing all his objectives.

Obama’s Objectives

Obama’s stated objective in Syria is to “degrade Al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons against his own people and uphold the international norm against the use of such weapons in general.” An additional objective, occasionally acknowledged by Obama and his surrogates, is to signal to Iran and the rest of the world that U.S. warnings are credible. A critical domestic objective is to push Congress to take on its responsibility in the declaration of war and addressing international security issues, such as the threat of WMDs. Finally, there is the undiscussed objective of Obama’s legacy — will he become yet another U.S. President who gets the country mired in a poorly thought out war in the Middle East? Or will he earn his Nobel Peace Prize?

Would the military strike accomplish the objectives?

The planned military strike on Syria is unlikely to accomplish any of the above. The degradation of Assad’s capabilities will be limited at best, since the U.S. will only use missiles and target weapons caches that have now been moving around the country for over a month. Far from signaling the credibility of the U.S., this limited strike highlights the extent to which Americans are opposed to international military action, and the growing difficulty of coming to any political agreements between the White House and Congress. These facts are likely to more than offset any concerns by Iran about a future U.S. military strike.

A military strike will definitely lead to significant responses by Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, possibly with clandestine support from Russia. Widespread violence against U.S. and allies’ interests around the world will inevitably pull Obama into a spiraling conflict in the region, potentially worse than anything the U.S. has faced in recent history.

As for domestic politics, Obama has done the right thing by re-establishing the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches when it comes to military action. However, as Sen. McCain has said, a Congressional vote against a strike on Syria would be catastrophic. Obama has already staked out the position that he has the legal authority to move forward with this attack. If he does so in spite of Congress’ disapproval, he might create a constitutional crisis that he, as a constitutional law expert, would obviously be loath to do. If he acquiesces to Congress’ will, he would be terminally disabling the Executive’s capacity for managing international relations. Russia is already testing those waters by sending a delegation to speak directly to the U.S. Congress, bypassing the Executive altogether.

Would the proposed deal accomplish the objectives?

The proposed deal, on the other hand, accomplishes all those objectives. Forcing Al-Assad to hand over his chemical weapons stockpiles (and presumably establish an international inspection regime) may well disable a far larger quantity of such weapons than a limited U.S. military strike can. Additionally, it would force the international community to take a more active role in policing both Al-Assad and other regimes that might consider using chemical weapons in the future. And it would “save” the military option for later and lock Al-Assad into a carefully-enforced agreement. Any failure to abide by that agreement (hiding chmical stockpiles or by any further chemical attacks) would guarantee a unified international response, likely including military strikes.

President Obama should also maintain the pressure on Congress by taking the proposed agreement — including commitments for punitive steps if Al-Assad fails to uphold his end — to them for ratification. This would signal the unified commitment by American political representatives to achieving the President’s declared foreign policy objectives, while denying Russia the opportunity to meddle in internal U.S. political processes.

Perhaps most important of all, it creates a possibility that has thus far eluded the international community: pursuing a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. If Obama pulls off a peaceful solution to the chemical weapons crisis, and starts building on it to get close to resolving the overall conflict, he will have indeed earned his Nobel Prize.

President Obama: through your administrations entire political and diplomatic weight behind establishing this agreement. The American people deserve it, the Syrian people deserve it, and your legacy demands it.


Syria and the Meaning of the Arab Spring


A man holds the body of a dead child among bodies of people activists say were killed by nerve gas

By Sarah Eltantawi

At last, the world has woken up to the nightmare in Syria.  It took a vicious chemical attack that killed more than 1400, including hundreds of children, to pierce the slumber.  As we face the prospect of American intervention in Syria, I would like to pause to ask what lessons we can learn from the Syrian crisis in the ongoing struggle to uncover and actualize the “Arab Spring.”

First, clarification of a few points on the situation in Syria:

The vast majority of the carnage in Syria has been caused by the regime.

At this stage in the crisis, there are too many atrocities committed by the regime to count.  Because Amnesty International reports are generally agreed to be reliable among most observers of the conflict, I share here a few highlights from their dozens of reports.  If interested, you can look at all of Amnesty’s reports on Syria here:

A.  8-7-2013:  Destruction of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city:


 “With analysis of seven new images over a nine month period (early September 2012 to late May 2013), the project represents the most comprehensive physical damage assessment of Syria’s largest city to date. In addition to the destruction of infrastructure, the analysis also documents widespread damage within the Ancient City of Aleppo, a UNESCO world heritage site, such as the destruction of the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo and damage to the Souq al-Madina. Under international humanitarian law, parties to conflict are obligated to respect and preserve cultural property.

Government forces have relentlessly and indiscriminately bombarded areas under the control of opposition forces across Syria, with civilians being at the receiving end of such attacks and at the same time also being subjected to abuses by some armed opposition groups. In Aleppo, the comprehensive survey demonstrates the physical destruction emblematic of the relentless bombardment. Satellite image analysis suggests that the destruction across the city is “severely lopsided” toward opposition-controlled neighborhoods, according to the assessment by the AAAS.”

B.  7-26-2013:  On the summary executions of anti-government sympathizers in the village of al-Baydeh in the Tartus governate:


 “The deliberate killing on 21 July of 13 civilians from the same family at their home in the village of al-Baydah, in the Tartus governorate, allegedly by pro-government forces, has raised grave concerns that the area’s population may be at ongoing risk of summary executions for its perceived sympathies towards the armed opposition. Amnesty International urges the Syrian government to end immediately all extrajudicial executions, deliberate attacks on civilians, forced displacement of the civilian population and other serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross violations of human rights.”

C.  11-12-2012:  On the Syrian opposition’s armed groups’ human rights violations: 


“Amnesty International calls on Syria’s new opposition leadership to establish oversight mechanisms to stem such abuses by armed groups under their control. This includes creating an effective command structure capable of ensuring that fighters are aware of their duty to abide by IHL, including the necessary precautions to spare civilians caught, and which can enforce compliance with IHL obligations.”

Note that the same report continues:

“By far the main cause of civilian deaths during the armed conflict has been the Syrian armed forces’ relentless use of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling in heavily populated civilian areas. Government forces have also stepped up their use of internationally banned cluster bombs against towns and villages in areas under opposition control.

Such attacks constitute war crimes and have exacerbated the refugee crisis as well as dramatically increased the number of internally displaced persons inside Syria.  The Syrian armed forces’ use of banned weapons like cluster bombs as well as aerial bombardments in built-up areas have unlawfully killed and injured a large number of civilians and destroyed homes and infrastructure,  aggravating the ever-growing refugee crisis.”

Amnesty has not issued a report on the chemical weapons massacre in Ghouta on August 21, 2013.  Though I understand many are waiting for the UN Inspections Report to come to a final conclusion on who unleashed the weapons, I reproduce here an excerpt from the United States Government’s assessment of the massacre. (Here it is in full.) I explain below why, unlike in Iraq, there is relatively less reason to doubt the US’s report:


 “The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack. These all-source assessments are based on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open source reporting.Our classified assessments have been shared with the U.S. Congress and key international partners. To protect sources and methods, we cannot publicly release all available intelligence – but what follows is an unclassified summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s analysis of what took place.

Syrian Government Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21

A large body of independent sources indicates that a chemical weapons attack took place in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. In addition to U.S. intelligence information, there are accounts from international and Syrian medical personnel; videos; witness accounts; thousands of social media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area; journalist accounts; and reports from highly credible nongovernmental organizations.

A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children, though this assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information.

We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely. The body of information used to make this assessment includes intelligence pertaining to the regime’s preparations for this attack and its means of delivery, multiple streams of intelligence about the attack itself and its effect, our post-attack observations, and the differences between the capabilities of the regime and the opposition. Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation. We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place.”

 On the Question of Intervention

The international community has its reasons for not having intervened thus far.  For a start, it is an unfortunate fact that intervention so often occurs once the humanitarian situation has reached a catastrophic level.  A case in point frequently referred is the paltry 5,000 UN troops sent to Rwanda months after the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis.

As Mathew Waxman points out in this piece reflecting back to the debate over intervention in Kosovo, just as in today’s discussions of Syria — Russia and China made vociferous arguments against intervention based on a stringent and amoral (my adjectives) conception of “national sovereignty.”  To this end, Russia, along with China, used their Security Council votes to block the first and second drafts of a UN Resolution that would have condemned Asad’s use of weapons against civilians.

Russia, for its part, makes the same argument today with respect to Syria with a straight face, even as it generously arms Asad.  In March of this year, Russia sold the Asad regime four S-300 antiaircraft missile batteries at a cost of $900 million.  The Syrian regime’s contracts with the Russian defense industry is estimated to have exceeded $4 billion dollars.  Moscow made a $550 million deal to sell the Asad regime combat training jets.  Russia also leases a naval facility at the port of Tartus, giving it direct access to the Mediterranean.  (Source: Jeffrey Mankoff, adjunct fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Russia and Eurasia Program.)

Syria is also reported to have begun as early as 2009 a delivery of ballistic missiles to Hezbullah.  This is significant because Hezbullah is Iran’s client, which explains in part the Islamic Republic’s support for the Asad regime.  Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described the struggle as an ideological one between the “front of hegemony and the front of resistance.”

As for the rebels’ access to weapons, there is no question that they have far fewer and its suppliers far less reliable.  Indeed, one must only look at the state of stalemate — and more recently, significant rebel losses — to appreciate that they are not well armed.  There are reports that Syrian rebels acquired “large amounts” of SA-7 weaponry from Libya after the Benghazi attacks.  It is thought that those who obtained these weapons are affiliated with al-Qaida.  The United States has supplied small amounts of light weaponry, and not the anti-tank missiles requested by FSA leader Salim Idris.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia are thought to have transported weapons to rebel groups.

Implications for the “Arab Spring”

Having followed the Syrian revolution since it began in April of 2011 with peaceful protests fired upon by the regime with scud missiles, it has been clear to me  that Asad has responded to what began as a grassroots, Syrian-people-based call for much needed reforms with brutality so extreme it can be only described as suicidal for both the regime and the Syrian nation.  Clearly Bashar has calculated that following in his father Hafez’s brutal footsteps in the face of opposition would yield similar (quietist) results, as the latter “successfully” quelled an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982 by killing up to 25,000 — largely escaping international approbation.

Let me state now that I am not making an argument in favor of American intervention.  My concern on this point is that an American intervention — limited as it would have to be due to domestic American pressure — would risk not fundamentally defanging the regime.  I find it difficult to support a “cosmetic” strike whose major aim is to demonstrate that the United States and its western allies have not lost all moral authority in the face of an illegal and repugnant chemical weapons massacre. I am also aware that hypocrisy is at issue here, as the US has used chemical weapons in Falluja, Iraq, though I do not, strictly speaking, see the direct connection between that hypocrisy and the question of intervention to weaken Asad.

I also have major concerns about which entities would come to power in Syria if the regime’s sudden fall leaves a dangerous vacuum to be filled by Islamist extremists who have flooded the country for their own ideological reasons that are largely disconnected from the will of the Syrian people.  While I am utterly convinced by the argument made by many observers of Syria that while being slaughtered, anyone can be forgiven for making a deal with the devil, I think these same observers would also agree that jihadist elements of the resistance represent a true danger to the viability and health of a future Syria, which will take generations to rebuild and reform.  The Syrian opposition has unfortunately largely failed to organize themselves into a coherent body capable of taking power. (As an observer of Egypt, I sympathize with how difficult this task really is — Rime Allaf describes her frustration with the Syrian opposition eloquently on her facebook page, in a public posting on August 31.)

Having said that, much like I found it difficult to ignore the cries of Libyans facing Qadaffi’s tanks at Bengazi who cried out for a NATO strike, I can not ignore Syrians who have been begging for international intervention for over two years to stop the nightmare they are currently living.

Therefore, to be clear, I am not advocating an American strike, but I will not condemn Syrians who welcome it should it occur.

Many oppose potential American intervention because they recall the United States’ debacle in Iraq.  I do not find that analogy fruitful for the following specific reasons:

1) The United States lied about Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons — they had none — but the Syrian government certainly does.  (I remain unconvinced by floating reports and intimations that the rebels possess or have used chemical weapons– but am open to revising that opinion in view of more convincing evidence.)

2.  The neo-conservatives who held sway over the Bush administration in the run up to the war in 2002-2003 argued that toppling Saddam Hussein was in the US and Israel’s strategic interests.  No such arguments are being made about Syria — on the contrary, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to avoid engagement.  As for Israel, despite the claim that Syria makes up a crucial part of the “axis of resistance” against it, the fact is that Asad did not give Israel too many problems:  the Golan border has remained quiet, and steadily colonized by Israel.  It seems clear to me that to the extent that the Israelis are taking a serious interest in Syria, it is due to their fears that Russian weapons, including chemical weapons, will end up in the hands of Hezbullah.  This stance is utterly predictable.

3.  There is little to no domestic appetite in the United States for more war in the Middle East.  Regular Americans are still paying the price for engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan in the form of body bags, budget cuts that affect already minimal social services, and a general economic slump.  Therefore it seems to me that any US engagement in Syria would have to, for political reasons, be very limited.

The Meaning of the “Arab Spring”

However there is a larger reason beyond these specifics some Arab progressives oppose American intervention, and that is the notion that the Asad regime, Hezbullah and Iran make up an “axis of resistance” to America and Israel in the region.  Here I must also be clear:  the American role in the region in the form of tethering Arab armies to the Military Industrial Complex, the United States’ frankly terrible record of supporting autocrats and dictators in the region to preserve their foreign policy imperatives — often described as “oil, Israel and stability” — and propping up of Gulf regimes that have exported jihadism and extremism in the region have been disastrous for Arab peoples and must be opposed.  Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians (including the use of White Phosphorous chemical weapons) and ongoing colonization of Palestinian land must also be opposed.  (see this 71 page report from Human Rights Watch on Israel’s use of White Phosphorous in Gaza).

But I would like to take a step back here.  Speaking personally, I oppose Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians because I am outraged by years of watching innocent Palestinian civilians be killed, dispossessed and displaced.  My opposition and that of many observers of the conflict has nothing to do with anti-Semitism or any animus toward Jews in particular, despite some pro-Israel rhetoric that aims to change the subject in this manner.

Ergo, when one sees Syrians killed, dispossessed and displaced in a frankly much more aggressive manner by their own regime, I find it quite difficult to understand why the conscience should not be similarly exercised.  Indeed, what is the substantive meaning of an “axis of resistance” against the US and Israel killing, displacing and dispossessing Arabs when that same “axis of resistance” is upheld at the cost of killing, displacing and dispossessing Arabs?

One of the interesting outcomes of the Arab Spring is the emergence of different conceptions of what the movement means.  What is the Arab Spring’s essential set of values?  I have heard and read discussions of “sovereignty” “self determination” “freedom” “justice” and “bread.”  I would like to suggest that these goals are fundamentally undermined by our unwillingness to categorically oppose and combat by all means necessary the slaughter of Arabs by other Arabs.  There cannot be any meaningful moral authority (and yes, Arabs should aspire to moral authority) to oppose American and Israeli atrocities in the region so long as we justify or turn a blind eye to local atrocities.  I submit that we must shift our focus to opposing these atrocities in Arab countries at the hands of other Arabs (and other regional players) first and foremost to build a sound and integritious basis on which to oppose foreign meddling (of the western kind.)  To dream aloud for a moment, we need a regional humanitarian peace keeping force to account for the paradox that to preserve peace, one must organize war.

With freedom, the kind called for in the Arab Spring, comes responsibility; and if we are serious about it it will no longer do to focus almost entirely on the real or imagined “hidden hand” of the west to explain all problems in the region.  Self determination includes the capacity to commit atrocities, abuses and terrors, and compels us to deal with them and correct them on our own rather than letting situations get so catastrophic that western intervention becomes all but inevitable.

Quite frankly, anyone observing Syria could have seen this all but inevitable American intervention coming a mile away.  Our obfuscations of Asad’s atrocities has directly resulted in this intervention — there are no two ways about it.

[twitter – @SEltantawi]

A View of Egypt from Morocco: Islamism and Geopolitics

By Sarah Eltantawi


A view of the beautiful city of Rabat from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean

I am in Morocco for a few days, and, having steeled my resolve to understand the dialect as much as possible, I’ve begun engaging people on their impressions of the events in Egypt.  I am finding Moroccans very empathetic and willing participants in this discussion.

I am moved by the fact that almost everyone I’ve spoken to so far says, “First, may God protect Egypt.  Insha’llah it gets better and better.”  This prayer is made before launching into more detailed expressions of their opposition to the “coup”: so far — in a parallel universe to Egypt — a unanimous understanding of recent events.  I admit, this gentle preface makes subsequent conversation much more smooth.  A lovely whiff of the spirit of Ramadan, among other things.

What I have heard so far is a version of this:  “America and Israel will not let an Islamic government work.”

This sentiment, like all others in this complex scenario, deserves comprehension and deconstruction. The fact that America is universally blamed for what has occurred in Egypt — i.e., both pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi people feel America has sided with “the enemy” — reveals at least two things.  The first is that there is deep bitterness across the entire Muslim world about various U.S. policies in the region, especially unconditional support for Israel and the war in Iraq.  However the reasons for Anti-Americanism are in fact much more varied than this and have slight regional variations; but the above two issues have been cited everywhere I have gone in the Muslim-majority world.  Sometimes these issues are cited as a shorthand for more localized complaints about America’s role in regional politics.

The second theme is that, as a consequence of this history, many Arabs have internalized a posture of powerlessness and humiliation in the face of events they read as orchestrated by world powers who they feel defenseless against.  I believe it is this sentiment that fuels an infamous and unfortunate penchant for relying on conspiracy theories to explain world events.

Anyone who follows attitudes in the Muslim-majority world will find this old news.  Thus, I think the second broad suggestion that follows from this response in Morocco — that Islamic government is a threat to world powers — meaning, it will be effective and good for our societies — is a more contemporary and comparatively understudied one.

Despite having a majority Islamist party in Morocco’s parliament, it is a nation that has not lived under a contemporary Islamist government.  Therefore, Islamic morality and piety as a relatively untainted site of moral redemption, and a venue to pursue a sense of unrealized justice remains in tact (for those who are convinced of it.) My taxi driver from the airport stopped on the way to pray  and get dates and water from a mosque along our route during iftaar time.  When he returned (after offering me dates and inviting me to iftar at his family’s house), he told me how much better and at peace he felt after praying.  He then remarked how world powers would not let Muslims have this peace.

I could not say whether attitudes would change in Morocco were they to undergo an Islamist experiment.  But we can take a brief look at what happened in Egypt and Nigeria,   These are contemporary examples, unlike the more variegated and longer Iranian history of Islamism – about which there is a very rich literature. Analysis of the cultural effects of Islamism in societies like Pakistan, Turkey, and Tunisia are also currently gaining momentum.

I was in Northern Nigeria in 2010 to try to understand why that society went to the streets in a grassroots uprising to demand the re-implimentation of full Islamic Sharia law in twelve northern states.  I came away with two broad themes: to combat poverty and to punish (political) corruption.  Nigerians read the answers to these problems into “Islam” writ-large and into their local Islamic history and traditions.

By the time I spoke to Nigerians about eleven years after the first states changed their penal codes and established sharia courts, even the most hardline Islamist supporters of the project — the die hards — had to admit there had been significant failures were they to maintain their credibility.

The reasons for this failure are many – and to a large extent, they include the Nigerian equivalent of the “deep state.”  But there are other themes that are similar to the Egyptian example, including the Islamists’ lack of technocratic competency, which fuels a hollow application of vague Islamic morality to structural, material problems.  Empowering a new, corrupt religious class was another similar complaint.  All of this lead to a broad sense that Islam had been exploited for political ends.

Like in Egypt, regular Northern Nigerians, a remarkably religious society — especially in embodied forms of Islam like regular prayer — found this exploitation unacceptable and deeply distasteful.  “All you need is a beard and to speak a few words of Arabic and call yourself a shaikh,” said one of my informants on the Islamists, “they do not respect deeper scholarship.”  It was my sense that this person and many others believed that deeper Islamic learning would have lead to a gentler and more just political outcome.

It is clear to me that this same sentiment broadly exists in Egypt, and it is one that causes major offense in a society with rich religious traditions, both in the broader culture and familially. To see Islam used in the name of violence adds insult to injury.

Much analysis of the events in Egypt concentrates on the larger structural questions of governance, which is of course extremely important.  But it is a mistake to ignore the question of negative cultural reactions to politicized Islam.  It was a major — and until now, not adequately appreciated — fuel for the revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

[If you would like updates on these, follow me on Twitter @SEltantawi]


Day Eight in Cairo: On the Ethics of Waiting for a Massacre

By Sarah Eltantawi

rabaa praying

It is starting to feel that each new day in Egypt brings a more horrendous hypothetical to ponder than the day before.  Since I have no definitive answer to the question of the ethics of waiting for a massacre, this post lays out the problem and ask questions of it.

Today we are in a sickening purgatory between life and death.  I’ve spend most of the day walking through Cairo’s impossibly hot downtown, dodging terrible traffic, watching the typical lessening in patience and energy as the day’s fast unfolds into the late afternoon.  I’ve noted throughout the sad fact that the city is proceeding as usual, even as we wait for the security services to break up the protests at Rabaa’ and Nahda by “any means necessary” — a process that will certainly become violent — perhaps very violent.

What is the correct moral stance for those of us observing this slow-motion massacre to take?    This is a genuine question for which I do not have a confident answer.

Some pieces of the problem:

1.  Some have compared this to stand-off to Tahrir in 2011.  It is not a good comparison.  In Tahrir, the numbers were so overwhelming and so many different factions of society were represented there (including members of the security services such as regular police men who defected) that protesters had reason to feel confident that they would not face massive violence (though of course there was violence, including the infamous “battle of the camel.”)  Furthermore, the cameras of the world’s media were poised squarely on Tahrir square, and international sentiment — popular and official — were squarely on their side, particularly toward the end of January and beginning of February.

In this case, the protests are made up of a small percentage of the Egyptian population in real numbers and as a percentage.  A (much) larger number of Egyptians in real numbers and as a percentage do not support the protester’s aims, and many are caught in the mindset that they must be dispersed.  These Egyptians have become fed up, and they have been subject to weeks of propaganda against the protesters.  Reactions to the overall situation itself are much more polarized, and basic questions — like, what actually happened in Egypt, anyway? — are not answered with any certainty or consensus.  This state of affairs affects the international response, which anyway is not nearly as focused on Egypt as in early 2011, and which is as confused as everyone else is.

2.  Many Egyptians are convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership are manipulating these protesters, and that the former have a weapons cache stashed somewhere that they can and will use.  There isn’t conclusive evidence as to how big this cache is, but few doubt it exists to some degree.  But these details do not in fact seem to matter to many people; they are convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood are “violent” if not “terrorists”  (a very nasty piece of military propaganda that we should never tolerate or forgive) — and thus they conceive of this as a battle rather than as an attack on innocents.  [Please note that this is not my personal position — I think the protesters are overwhelmingly unarmed, and that if any are, those arms are negligible.  I think the first massacre — in which all of the deaths were on the pro-Morsi side — is ample proof of this.]

3.  Justness of the cause:  here the pro-Morsi supporters are also at a deficit with respect to public opinion, which is now overwhelmingly with Sisi, to the point of disturbing hero worship.  He has been crowned the “new Nasser,” and his pictures are everywhere.  During the pro-Sisi protests last Friday, my sense was that the support for him among those in Tahrir was sincere, fueled by a sense of relief that they had been relieved of Morsi’s misrule.  A few days later, I sense that an authoritarian consensus has taken hold, and I question the degree to which those who actually have doubts about the party line would feel comfortable saying so.  But I do not want to overstate this — I do not think at all we are back to the apolitical Mubarak days — far from it — but the point is that a rather stultifying consensus seems to have taken shape in public discourse, to say nothing of  the appallingly unprofessional local media (print and television.)

Given this consensus, the pro-Morsi supporters are seen by many as obstinate and disruptive of daily life, which most people are desperate to see go back to normal and improved as soon as possible, especially economically.

4.  Militarization of Cairo:  this fact is undeniable, and one I find extremely depressing.  The area around Rabaa’ looks exactly like a war zone, complete with trenches and tanks.  I was in the area the other evening and it took us almost two hours to get somewhere due to detours when it should have taken twenty minutes, even with traffic.  Qasr al-‘Ayni street, which feeds into Tahrir – -traditionally one of the most lively and central in Cairo — is dead because the military has built a huge concrete wall separating it from the square.  This has killed the business along those streets, many of which I used to frequent for all of my food and sundry needs when I lived in Mounira a few years ago.  I went there for the first time the other night during this trip, and I was genuinely depressed by what I saw.  I wonder what has happened to those people who sold nuts and fruit, had family groceries.

Tahrir is also somewhat unrecognizable to me.  I find it very difficult to drive in now because so many streets are closed.  There are tanks everywhere with snipers on top, walls have been torn down in some places and erected in others.  All of this is negatively affecting the local economy, from taxi drivers to small businesses.

I am not blaming pro-Morsi supporters for this (especially the transformation of Tahrir), but I am illustrating what has happened and why people want all of this political turmoil over with and a return to normalcy as soon as possible.

5.  The trickier question with respect to urban transformation and disruption is protests that choke major bridges and roads.  When stacked atop the structural changes in the city, these disruptions can be quite serious, sometimes backing up already terrible traffic for hours.  Moreover local residents around Rabaa’ and Nahda have been complaining bitterly for weeks about the disruption of their neighborhoods, to the point that civilians participated in last Saturday morning’s massacre of protesters at 6 October bridge.  The question here is: to what degree are these kinds of disruptions justifiable, how much should local residents and authorities put up with, and what are the proper responses to genuine complaints?

6.  The “warnings.” What is the proper ethical response to the fact that the protesters have been warned to leave, particularly in a context in which a) they do not have (determinative) public support, and b) there was just a massacre a few days ago, which strongly suggests there will be another?  Is the morally correct position to urge them to leave?  To send women and children home?  Given all of the above, is this “blaming the victim?”  Or should we advocate that they stay on principle, even if we are sure many will be brutally murdered?

Keep in mind that I do not know anyone that has any kind of idea of how to temper the unprofessional and brutal security services, particularly in the next hours or days.

When you are sure a lot of people are about to die, it seems to me that the correct position is to urge them to avoid that fate.  Let me be clear about my biases:  I think the ambiguity of this overall situation, and the fact that in my assessment these protesters will not have their demands met using their current means, means that the cause does not seem to me to be one to die for.  But my opinion does not matter, because they disagree, at least so far as we can tell by their leader’s rhetoric that they are ready to “die for legitimacy.”

Given all of these factors, what will it mean ethically — for them and for those of us observing — when and if they do?

There is a principled position that rises to the top of the stack that several friends have publicly urged: no matter what we think of the sit ins, the protesters have the right to be there and voice their discontent.  Therefore, Egyptian leaders of conscious (and all of us regular people) should go to the squares in huge numbers and prevent any violent dispersals.  The protesters should go home only after a political solution is found and agreed upon.  I agree with this position on principle and think it is correct.

The problem though — and it was reinforced for me today as I walked around the city — is that Egyptians are no where near in the mood or mindset to do this.  I am afraid that a very large number do not support the sit ins, a large number are ambivalent (and thus a small number of this category will put their bodies on the line for this principle), and the numbers in support who are not already at the sit ins are too small to make a difference.

I know there are ethicists out there of all persuasions that probably have more trenchant thoughts on this terrible problem.  I would love to hear from them.

[If you would like updates on these, follow me on Twitter @SEltantawi]

Day Seven in Cairo: Politics and Culture

By Sarah Eltantawi

Politics and Culture

“Fascism,” “totalitarianism,” Germans saluting Hitler, and sudden, mass collective brainwashing have been some of the more colorful ways “anti-coup” analysts have attempted to come to grips with Egyptians’ support for Sisi.

Another favored term to describe the millions who took to the streets to oust Morsi — “pro-coup Egyptians” — signals a partisan rather than analytic grasp on what has occurred.  I am not partial to grand, sweeping slurs to describe millions of people — isn’t that a bit Nazi Germany for comfort? — however, if you insist, “anti-Muslim Brotherhood” is probably more accurate.  After all, this same population rose against the military regime a mere two years ago.

But today, some of the most hated arms of Egypt’s security apparatus have now been re-empowered, including several special police units that were notorious in the Mubarak-era for committing some of the worst human rights violations.  However, civil society groups in Egypt that monitor state security brutality claim that these units were never shut down — despite claims to the contrary by SCAF leadership in March 2011.  They also assert that these hated units of state security continued their brutality virtually untouched under  Morsi.

Heba Morayef, who directs the Egypt office of Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian regarding the reinstatement of special police units:  “Basically, nothing changed at state security [in 2011] except for the name…So what is significant is that [Ibrahim] could announce this publicly. That would have been unthinkable in 2011.”

If the January 25 revolution was largely about dismantling this security state (in addition to bread), then how do we explain today’s rehabilitation?

The re-embrace of this order can be understood along one of two lines.


  1. The Egyptian population was caught in a wave of euphoria and supported Sisi to oust the Muslim Brotherhood because they were brainwashed and did not understand the full implications of what they were doing in “bringing back the old order.”  In essence, the Muslim Brotherhood was bad– but these people were duped and will be sorry.


2.  The Egyptian population understands what it means to empower Sisi and thus the security state, are upset that the “deep state/old order” will take advantage (and will get more and more upset as time goes on and the euphoria wears off), but since Morsi did nothing to reform state security services anyway and rather embraced them, the price of re-empowering the military (symbolically — it was never disempowered) is worth it if it means getting rid of Morsi.

I am more convinced by option two.  The millions on the street were a genuine slice of Egypt, which means that the majority are some form of Muslim, most some form of practicing Muslim, and most some form of traditional and conservative in outlook.

It is important that it is *those* people who have a cultural and religious objection to the Muslim Brothehood’s use of Islam in politics.  It is an absurdity to describe those millions as “liberals.”  Frankly, Egypt doesn’t even have that many “liberals,” whatever is meant mean by the term.  I suspect it connotes speaking French while replacing the poodle’s pink bow with a blue one and being an atheist, in which case a good sized phone booth rather than Tahrir would be a more comfortable place to gather.

In other words, if meeting the goals of the revolution, including reforming the security state, remains elusive, then people are objecting not only because no reforms are happening, but for cultural reasons.

When analysts fail to ask regular Egyptian people what prompted them to support Sisi, they miss this very important factor.  I have repeatedly heard, “al-Ikhwaan b’taagiru f’il diin” (the Muslim Brotherhood traffics in religion) repeated with disgust and the utmost disapproval.  Many told me that the Muslim Brotherhood are good at charitable activities and should continue them, but that religion belongs in the mosque and should be kept out of politics.  It is not (just) liberals who make this claim — it is conservative, practicing Muslims in the millions.

There is no question about it — Islamism — by which I mean grounding political legitimacy in some form of (usually highly reductionist) conception of Islamic law and theology has been dealt a severe blow in Egypt.  And what happens in Egypt reverberates in the Arab world.

And while some claim that Al-Azhar has been “co-opted” by the military in support of “the coup,” the fact is that Al-Azhar has been hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood for generations.  This is in part because the Brotherhood’s populism has included, over their decades of preaching, a rejection of traditionalism — for example sidelining the different and often subtle and complex legal differences of the four sunni schools in favor of “one Islam.”  It is the Salafis that insist on the authoritative posture of the ahl al sunna w’al jama’aa — not the Muslim Brotherhood, who I suspect find that traditionalist anchoring stifling for their political ambitions. It is easy to see how in the eyes of Azhar traditionalists, the Brotherhood are nothing but a renegade political movement that abuse the Islamic tradition to fulfill their personal aims.  It is no wonder, then, that the Brotherhood were aching to install Yusef al-Qaradaawi as the Grand Shaykh.

There is also a rejection of what we might call “Islamist culture,” including a genuine suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s hierarchical structure, which can create a sense of “being separate.”  From filling the Cairo stadium with only their supporters and addressing them as “my family and my tribe” to smaller scale instances of group snobbery — one man described to me going to a wedding of mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters and being left by himself at a table with no one to talk to — a rather unusual state of affairs in Egypt — the Egyptians who protested the Brotherhood to a significant degree did not feel culturally comfortable with the group.

Though some might be tempted to dismiss these cultural fault-lines as frivolous, I side with Aristotle — pathos is at least as important as ethos and logos in the polis; and in a revolutionary context that calls for, at bottom, a change in culture — this is perhaps the most important factor to get right.

[If you’d like updates on these, follow me on Twitter at @SEltantawi]



doftande lukt som jasmin, liksom, så unik brudklänning, är det inte också gör du älskar och fascineras av det brudklänning ?




Day six in Cairo: Polarization and Revisionist History

By Sarah Eltantawi

Today interim President Mansour authorized Prime Minister El-Beblawi to grant the military the right to arrest civilians.  This signals an intention to go after jihaadis in Sinai and pro-Morsi protesters — perhaps through a large scale operation.

In addition to the clear dangers this presents for innocent Islamists and everyone else in Egypt once a new group is declared “the enemy,” its profound tactical stupidity is difficult to overstate.

Any fair observer can see that the Morsi camp has a genuine, logical, and morally sound case — their elected president has been deposed and a military-appointed civilian government has been appointed (with the support of a massive popular revolt.)  This is a strange and unprecedented turn of events in political history, and where you fall on its outcome depends on the relative weight one places on individual factors.   In a revolutionary context, I would assign popular sentiment the lion’s share of the determinative weight, but I can understand Morsi supporters feeling quite differently.

On the diplomatic side, the state of negotiations between the new government and the Morsi camp is unclear, but one suspects the army is not bending over backwards to enfranchise Islamists, as they must, and that the Morsi camp is asking for “too much” (they could have gotten much more had they held early elections when they had the chance.)

The government’s military strategy, as we have seen, has been, so far, criminal.  What astounds me even so, however, is that the current regime does not seem to have learned a very basic historical lesson:  the Muslim Brotherhood thrives when oppressed.

In addition to the humanitarian atrocities that have and will result from dispersing pro-Morsi supporters violently, how can the current government fail to understand that creating “martyrs” will only prolong this stalemate and thrust Egypt into chaos?  It is a profound level of hubris that assumes Islamists will be silenced through killing and oppression.

In this sorry context it is easy to argue that Egypt has been thrust into a counterrevolution and reverted to its “old ways,” and many pro-Morsi supporters have been loudly making this claim.  But it is disingenuous.  The truth is, since the January 25 revolution, nothing in the security services’ behavior has changed.

The activist group “No to Military Trials” reported just over a month ago here that Morsi’s claim that no civilians were tried by military courts was incorrect.

Campaign member and human rights lawyer Ragia Omran stated, “I reject Morsi’s statement that no civilians have received military trials during his first year in office. We are in contact with detainees’ relatives and there are civilian detainees who are still awaiting military trials.”

The group also denounced Morsi’s threat to use his position as army commander-in-chief to utilize military law to sue opposition media.  As Wael Ghonim said on Twitter, “Mubarak tried Muslim Brothers in military courts because civilian courts acquitted them. Today Morsi is threatening to use the same military courts against his opponents.”

It as as if some pro-Morsi supporters want to suggest that Egypt has been enjoying a magical year of democratic freedom that has been disrupted by a simple military coup.  The facts belie that version of reality, and the Egyptian people who took to the streets on June 30 certianly do not feel this way either.

Subjecting civilians to military trials does not portend a counter-revolution, it is rather a continuation of authoritarian practices that have been left untouched over the past two and a half years.

At the same time, present historical moments do not simply revert to older historical moments.  Things are not good in Egypt today, but they are not the same as the Mubarak era.  Egypt’s best chance now is to capitalize on the fact that, at the very least, consciousness has been raised to the point that regular citizens are empowered to demand better.  Over these past years of turmoil, they   have been given the opportunity to name and critique various manifestations of the authoritarian enemy.

In this sense, the revolution continues.  It must.


Dr. Ahmed Hamad

This is Dr. Ahmed Hamad, killed by the security services at one of the pro-Morsi sit-in’s two days ago.  Ali Tobah makes the following comment about him on Facebook:

“For the past couple of days I’ve seen posts about this man. He is apparently loved very much by quite a few people, and seems to have been a pivotal figure in relief work in several countries. This is the type of terrorist that El-Sisi has been authorized to kill. Not only sickening, but also a crime that we lose such a person who could have done so much good. Positively sickening.”

He is just one of many victims, but one of the few to be humanized.  May he rest in peace.  Allah yarhamu.