Where I lazily dump links to recent articles and a few notes.

– I know I can be a bit of a grouch about the American (and other) media. Actually I think the US press, especially magazines, is the finest in English — better, in general, than Britain’s in terms of the resources it devotes to serious reporting (the best newsmag is still the Economist, though.) And I certainly like the New Yorker (well apart from the fiction and cartoons and the celebrity worship). But David Remnick’s recent article on the 1967 war is a case in point about bias on the Israeli-Arab conflict. The entire article discusses the emotions Israelis felt about the war — the elation when reaching the Wailing Wall, the military planning, the change the war caused among Jews around the world and Israel’s image. But there is nary a mention of the impact on the Arab world generally or the Palestinians specifically. Even if this is a book review of Tom Segev’s 1967, which is about Israel, considering that the article is by the editor and came out on the fortieth anniversary of the conflict, something doesn’t quite feel right. Luckily, the same issue has a great article on Tintin and another good one on Turkmenistan.

– Similarly, the Economist’s coverage (it’s on the cover this week) is interesting but displays the same bias in the leader (but the reporting is excellent as always on the conflict). Also don’t miss the Economist’s original reporting, which is a great example of the symbolic impact of the war and Israel’s triumph in the Western media at the time.

Iraqi Refugees Turn to the Sex Trade in Syria:

Mouna Asaad, a Syrian women’s rights lawyer, said the government had been blindsided by the scale of the arriving Iraqi refugee population. Syria does not require visas for citizens of Arab countries, and its government had pledged to assist needy Iraqis. But this country of 19 million was ill equipped to cope with the sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of them, Ms. Asaad said.

“Sometimes you see whole families living this way, the girls pimped by the mother or aunt,” she said. “But prostitution isn’t the only problem. Our schools are overcrowded, and the prices of services, food and transportation have all risen. We don’t have the proper infrastructure to deal with this. We don’t have shelters or health centers that these women can go to. And because of the situation in Iraq, Syria is careful not to deport these women.”

Incidentally I am in Jordan at the moment. Yesterday I asked my taxi driver how many people lived in Amman (which is a very spread out city). He answered: “Four million. And one million Iraqis.”

– Not entirely unrelated to the above, Egypt To Send 120,000 Women To Saudi As Maids:

Cairo, Egypt (AHN) – The Egyptian Minister of Labor, Aisha Abdel Hady, has signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia to send 120,000 young Egyptian women to work as maids. The signing has angered local dailies, who called the accord “a scandal” and “part of the Gulf’s plan to humiliate Egypt.”

Arab powers seen taking over P.A.:

Egypt and Jordan eventually will be required to keep order in the Palestinian Authority, an Israeli official predicted.

Cabinet Minister Rafi Eitan of the Pensioners Party said Monday that Israel’s current fight against Hamas will lead to foreign intervention in the Gaza Strip akin to the boosted deployment of peacekeepers in southern Lebanon after last year’s war with Hezbollah.

“Today Hezbollah is no longer on our border,” Eitan told Israel Radio. “The same thing, sooner or later, will happen in the Gaza Strip, with the senior partner in such a force being Egypt, because it has no choice.”

Eitan added, “We are getting there gradually; we are aiming toward that. And the same will happen in Judea and Samaria with Jordan.”

Egypt controlled Gaza and Jordan controlled the West Bank before Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Six-Day War. Egypt has been active in trying to stabilize Gaza, while there have been reports in the Israeli media of a Jordan plan to re-establish administrative rule in the West Bank.

– More Muslim Brothers arrested as Egypt gets closer to the Shura Council elections. That makes it nearly 80 in the last two weeks, as well as two MPs who had their immunity lifted and the 34 facing trial in a military tribunal.

– From conservative French paper Le Figaro, just because I like the headline: Les Teletubbies sont-ils gays?

– Via Kafr al-Hanadwa, the Swiss vs. the minarets:

Across the country, there are only two small minarets, one in Zurich and one in Geneva, neither of which are permitted to make the call to prayer. In Switzerland’s capital Berne, the largest mosque is in a former underground car park…

Mutalip Karaademi, an ethnic Albanian who has lived in Switzerland for 26 years, was at first pleased when his proposal for a 5m-high (16.5ft) minaret was approved by the local authority.

But following a vociferous campaign against the plans, including a petition with thousands of signatures, the cantonal government in Berne delayed the project indefinitely. …

“We don’t have anything against Muslims,” said Oskar Freysinger, member of parliament for the Swiss People’s Party.

“But we don’t want minarets. The minaret is a symbol of a political and aggressive Islam, it’s a symbol of Islamic law. The minute you have minarets in Europe it means Islam will have taken over.”

Nice moral posturing from a country whose purpose appears to be giving financial refuge to war criminals and genocidal maniacs.

Great Satan sits down with the Axis of Evil.

Bacevich on his son’s death

Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich, an opponent of the war on Iraq who recently lost his son there, wrote this WaPo op-ed. Here’s the bit about what he blames for his son’s death:

Money buys access and influence. Money greases the process that will yield us a new president in 2008. When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing. By comparison, the lives of U.S. soldiers figure as an afterthought.

Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.’s life is priceless. Don’t believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier’s life: I’ve been handed the check. It’s roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning once he starts pitching next month.

Money maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels. It preserves intact the cliches of 1933-45 about isolationism, appeasement and the nation’s call to “global leadership.” It inhibits any serious accounting of exactly how much our misadventure in Iraq is costing. It ignores completely the question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.

This is not some great conspiracy. It’s the way our system works.

Congressional delegation meets with MB – again

Remember how a few weeks ago a Congressional delegation met — both in parliament and at an embassy function — MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood? That time around, the Egyptian government did not respond, even though it has always opposed contacts between foreign countries and the MB. Yesterday, another delegation met with MP Saad Katatni, the MB’s leader in parliament, and Egyptian officials were this time quick to speak out:

Egypt criticized the U.S. Sunday after four Congress members met with a lawmaker from the banned Muslim Brotherhood, less than two months after House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met the same politician.

The bipartisan delegation headed by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak early Sunday before heading to parliament to talk to a group of lawmakers that included the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Saad el-Katatni.

“The United States says that it doesn’t establish relations with a banned group, whether in Egypt or outside Egypt,” said Mubarak’s spokesman Suleiman Awaad. “The U.S. says it is meeting with the Brotherhood as Parliament members, but doesn’t make the same distinction and refuses to talk with Hamas, who is heading the Palestinian government and is occupying the prime minister’s seat.”

While that’s an excellent point about Hamas (there’s nothing wrong with meeting with them, just like there’s nothing wrong meeting with the MB MPs) it’s rather disingenuous to trot it out when Egypt is a full partner in the US-Israeli strategy to bring down the Hamas government. And it’s not like the Egyptians are particularly fond of Hamas anyway, or that they’re likely to change their approach to the group. As an American official recently told me (I paraphrase), “the Egyptians think they’re doing us a big favor with Hamas, but we keep reminding them that it’s in their interest too.”

Anyway, the interesting thing with this second US congressional meeting with the MB is that things are beginning to look like a pattern. The first meeting a few weeks ago looked like a feeler, as if US diplomats were testing the waters. That may still be what’s taking place, particularly if it’s something that the congressional delegation asked for (I believe the previous one wanted to see something different than the usual NDP apparatchiks). Or it may be a genuine change in policy, using the loophole the US embassy has always reserved — that it feels free to meet any elected official, but will not meet MB leaders outside of parliament.

The question then becomes, to what purpose? Simply to keep a channel open to what is, after all, the largest elected opposition group in Egypt? To send a signal to the regime that the US is not happy with the current state of things, notably the campaign against the Ikhwan, the continued imprisonment of Ayman Nour and the recent constitutional amendments? Or maybe I am reading too much into it and it’s just a few curious congresspersons. It’s worth noting, though, that the head of the delegation, David Price (D-NC) is the chairman of the House Democracy Assistance Commission (and a former political scientist at Duke University). Part of what that commission does is help “emerging democracies” develop better parliamentary practice and infrastructure.

YouTube blocked in Morocco

Why is YouTube blocked in Morocco? I remember seeing some nice historical archive of Hassan II on there, but nothing too compromising on King Muhammad VI. That’s the only political reason I could think of, as well the many critical videos on the Western Sahara. If YouTube is indeed being blocking by Morocco’s main ISP, the very corrupt Maroc Telecom, for political reasons there are grounds to take things further. Maroc Telecom’s main shareholder is the French mega-corporation Vivendi. Surely newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who made a big deal of supporting freedom and democracy in his victory speech, would be rather embarrassed to learn that a French company is collaborating in censorship? This is worth looking into.

Update: It’s unblocked.

Wael Abbas in WaPo

Don’t miss Wael Abbas’ op-ed in the Washington Post, which might help revive the flagging concern about Egypt in Washington (or just land Wael in further trouble):

CAIRO Last Thursday, I returned to my country, Egypt, after several weeks in the United States on a Freedom House fellowship. I came home full of anxiety. I feared that the authorities would arrest me as soon as I set foot on Egyptian soil.

That didn’t happen. But as I went through the airport arrival procedures, I felt that I was being closely watched and followed. Men using walkie-talkies observed me from a distance. When I joined my family members outside the terminal, they, too, told me that they had been watched while waiting for me.

I could still be arrested. And if I am, it will be because I dared to speak the truth about President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which continues to receive billions in foreign aid from the U.S. government — including funds ostensibly intended to support democracy. It will be because I dared to expose the actions that have made Mubarak’s administration one of the world’s foremost violators of human rights, according to human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.

I am an Egyptian blogger. And the Mubarak regime is out to get me and others like me.

It is engaged in an all-out campaign against those of us who use the Internet to report the truth about what is happening in Egypt. It is spreading rumors about us and targeting us for character assassination. Judges allied with the government have filed lawsuits against more than 50 bloggers, accusing them of blackmail and of defaming Egypt and demanding that their blogs be shut down. Meanwhile, security officials appear on television to claim that the bloggers are violating media and communications laws.

Is this the kind of regime you want your tax money to support?

I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago and, after talking to Egypt-watchers in the think tanks, government, Congress, and a few Egyptian dissidents living there I get the feeling that we’re not about to see any serious movement on tying aid to political reform and human rights. But more about that later.

Update: The US embassy in Cairo is having a “webchat” on May 29. The topic is public diplomacy, but perhaps this might be a good occasion for Egyptian bloggers to raise the kind of issues Wael is talking about.


So, where were we?

Thanks to the readers who wrote in and left comments about why I haven’t posted for over two weeks. The reason is basically that I’ve been traveling a lot and was very busy with work at the same time. I will slowly crank up posts again over the next week (still some travel left though). In the meantime here are links I’ve collected in the last few days.

– From an interview by the FT’s Martin Wolf with Bibi Netanyahu, current favorite as future prime minister of Israel:

FT: Does the fear many Arab regimes feel for Iran create a strategic opportunity for Israel?

BN: Categorically yes.

FT: How do you see that working?

BN: I think what it means is that if you broaden the search for a Palestinian-Israeli peace from two players to, say, four and you involve Jordan and Egypt in creative ways then you can probably resolve some of the problems – an example would be tackling a major problem the Palestinians have, which is instituting law and order in their own cities and streets and preventing the spillage of violence into their own homes and into ours. Clearly, they need assistance. Some kind of federated or confederated effort between Jordan and the Palestinians might introduce that function of security and peace.

FT: Does this apply to Gaza as well?

BN: That’s the point. We have to get our sights focused on a broader approach. Right now it’s all a zero-sum game. Israel is supposed to be constricted on its narrowest part, shut its eyes, hope for good and pray. And that doesn’t work out for Israelis or Palestinians. But if you look at this puzzle both in terms of territory and in terms of security functions and of course economic functions and transport, if you look at it at least with four players then there are many, many more opportunities and I intend to propose concrete plans along these dimensions.

– Chalmers Johnson (author of the excellent Blowback, Sorrows of Empires, and Nemesis) discusses “imperial liquidation” over at TomDispatch:

I believe that there is only one solution to the crisis we face. The American people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created in their name and the huge (still growing) military establishment that undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire. By doing so, Britain avoided the fate of the Roman Republic — becoming a domestic tyranny and losing its democracy, as would have been required if it had continued to try to dominate much of the world by force.

For the U.S., the decision to mount such a campaign of imperial liquidation may already come too late, given the vast and deeply entrenched interests of the military-industrial complex. To succeed, such an endeavor might virtually require a revolutionary mobilization of the American citizenry, one at least comparable to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Heady stuff coming from a very establishment former Cold Warrior. But do read Sorrows of Empire for some fascinating insight on US military deployments in the Middle East — the maps showing military bases around the Persian Gulf beggars belief.

J.G. Ballard on Dali and film.

– Le Monde Maghreb correspondent Florence Beaugé on Algeria’s recent elections: “To make themselves heard, Algerians have chosen silence.” For detailed analysis also see Hugh Roberts’ report for the Carnegie Endowment, which argues that what’s really at stake is the demilitarization of Algeria.

– Interesting post on food supplies for the US in Iraq and the history of military supply at Kafr al-Hanadwa. My comments on it are there.

– Check out War Criminals at Harvard, a group dedicated to highlighting and opposing the training of war criminals at the Ivy League school. Their campaign has lately been focused on former head of the Israeli military Dan Halutz, who just completed a management program at the Harvard Business School. Halutz was responsible for the death of over 1,200 civilians during last summer’s Lebanon war, including through the use of indiscriminate bombing, cluster bombs and other measures taken directly against civilians.

Anecdote from Pat Lang, former DIA spymaster, about interviewing with Douglas Feith:

It was at the beginning of the first Bush term. Lang had been in charge of the Middle East, South Asia and terrorism for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1990s. Later he ran the Pentagon’s worldwide spying operations.

In early 2001, his name was put forward as somebody who would be good at running the Pentagon’s office of special operations and low-intensity warfare, i.e., counterinsurgency. Lang had also been a Green Beret, with three tours in South Vietnam.

One of the people he had to impress was Feith, the Defense Department’s number three official and a leading player in the clique of neoconservatives who had taken over the government’s national security apparatus.

Lang went to see him, he recalled during a May 7 panel discussion at the University of the District of Columbia.

“He was sitting there munching a sandwich while he was talking to me,” Lang recalled, “which I thought was remarkable in itself, but he also had these briefing papers — they always had briefing papers, you know — about me.

“He’s looking at this stuff, and he says, ‘I’ve heard of you. I heard of you.’

“He says, ‘Is it really true that you really know the Arabs this well, and that you speak Arabic this well? Is that really true? Is that really true?’

“And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s really true.’

“That’s too bad,” Feith said.

The audience howled.

“That was the end of the interview,” Lang said. “I’m not quite sure what he meant, but you can work it out.”

Feith, of course, like the administration’s other Israel-connected hawks, didn’t want “Arabists” like Lang muddying the road to Baghdad, from where — according to the Bush administration theory — overthrowing Saddam Hussein would ignite mass demands for Western-style, pro-U.S. democracies across the entire Middle East.

There’s also some good stuff on Wolfowitz there.

– The Friday Lunch Club is a newish blog on the Middle East worth bookmarking.

, has a fascinating story in the latest issue (subscriber only) about the history of US President Thomas Jefferson’s war with the Barbary Pirates, which saw the birth of the Marine Corps and has been bandied about by right-wing idiots (and some people who know better like Christopher Hitchens) as the first war against terror. Another way to look at it is the birth of the military-industrial complex:

However, Jefferson’s most important legacy was probably his role in the creation of a permanent military machine for the U.S.

“We ought to begin a naval power if we mean to carry on our own commerce”, Jefferson declared. In contemplating the Barbary challenge, he added: “Can we begin it on a more honorable occasion or with a weaker foe?” And he elaborated, “These pirates are contemptibly weak”, their fleets reduced to a handful of poor vessels with mediocre artillery and un- trained personnel. That to Jefferson was a major lure. Jefferson also felt that it would be cheaper to build a few modern frigates, more powerful than anything in the Barba- ry fleets, than to pay subsidies. True, there were also operating costs to consider. To cover those, he proposed to hijack Otto- man vessels, kidnap Muslim passengers and crews, and sell the captives on the slave market of Christian Malta. Further revenues could be generated by selling the cargos stolen from Muslim merchant ships by U.S. frigates during the conduct of their anti-piracy campaign. However, Jefferson was not yet president, and the progress of the American Navy was slow.

The turning point came when, with British encouragement, corsairs from Algiers began to seize American ships again. By invoking fear of the Saracen Hordes, the Washington administration in 1794 secured passage of a bill to authorize construction of six frigates and to estab- lish a Marine Corps. Ardent militarists lauded the bill as the first step toward their dream for the U.S. to create a fleet so large that no other country could challenge it. The administration spread construction across major port cities to buy the sup- port of several Congressional districts, a practice followed in big military procure- ment contracts to this day. Even so, only congressmen from northeastern seaboard states were enthusiastic. Hence the bill passed with a clause that required the gov- ernment to also seek peace by negotiation, and to stop naval building if negotiations were successful.

– From this month’s issue of Harpers, Tajudeen Abdel Rahim‘s take on African dictators, as told by Breyten Breytenbach:

1. They come as liberators, but the longer they stay in power the more they become oppressors, intolerant of dissension and even of discussion within their own political and military formations.
2. The vanguard of the masses slowly become the vanguard of the ruling party or clique and soon degenerates into the vanguard of the leader.
3. They come with big dreams, but the paraphernalia of power, the glitz, the pomp and pageantry and all the trappings, take over. Add to that the institutionalized culture of sycophancy: jungle fatigues soon give way to the best of Savile Row suits, Gucci shoes, Rolex watches, etc. The “comrade” has now “arrived” and will be in no hurry to vacate the statehouse he ridiculed not so long ago.
4. A ruling group that had been held together for many years by shared ideology and perspectives is more and more built around the personality of the leader, his family, his in-laws, freelance opportunists, and other cronies.
5. The interests of the party, the government, and the people become indistinguishable from the whims and caprices of the leader. To oppose him is to oppose the people.
6. The progressive changes they have brought about in the country become “gifts” from a benevolent leader to his hapless citizens.
7. Most of them were revolutionaries who began their rebel lives as firebrand anti-imperialists but soon became converts to the free market and are now best friends with the imperialist countries, especially the U.S.A. and other Western powers.
8. These former revolutionaries who espoused Pan-Africanism now resign themselves to “better managing” the neocolonial state and are soon engrossed in competition rather than cooperation with their former comrades. Liberation become looters and occupiers.
9. & 10. The twin evils of these leaders becoming victims of their militaristic means of getting and retaining power, and wallowing in external validation by the same Western powers who not that long ago praised our erstwhile dictators as “moderate.”

You can find the full Breytenbach article here if you’re a subscriber.

The Central Boycott Office

This news is a couple of weeks old, but I found telling what German news magazine Der Spiegel discovered in attorney documents which are part of the file on the Siemens corruption scandal (which also extends to bribery in Saudi Arabia – see this excellent WS Journal article):

The documents suggest that a part of the €72mn which Siemens paid to a certain Mohiedden el Shatta was used to make sure that Siemens remained off the black list of the Central Boycott Office. This office which is Damascus-based but affiliated with the Arab League was founded in the 50s to organize the Arab world’s commercial boycott of Israel. Companies which are on the list face restrictions in doing business with Arab states.

Here is some background on the office from a paper published by MEMRI:

In other words, the Boycott Office has now become an instrument to fight globalization which threatens primarily the Syrian state-run command economy drowning under the weight of stifling regulations, pernicious corruption and a mafia-style political system. Syrian staff are the primary beneficiaries of the salaries advanced by the Arab League. If the CBO were abolished, many of these bureaucrats will be out of work or will be working as civil servants in the Syrian government at a fraction of their current salaries and benefits.

MEMRI has its agenda etc, but to me it looks like this thing still exists only to organize some extra baksheesh for Syria’s state-class, as the Der Spiegel article also claims:

“To be removed from the [boycott] list, Western companies allegedly paid millions.�