Europe's Counter-Jihad Extremists

A valuable new report (pdf) from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London lays bare a new form of extremism—something it identifies as the “European Counter-Jihad Movement” (ECJM).

Based on fieldwork and interviews with participants, the report sets out four distinguishing characteristics of the ECJM, each of which sets it apart from traditional far-right and fascist organizations and makes it difficult to categorize.

First, the ECJM is focused on a single issue—what it sees as the existential threat to European culture posed by Islam and Muslim immigration. It raises the alarm about a conspiracy to “Islamize” Europe by terror and by stealth, a plot by Muslims centuries in the making, at once radically new yet also reassuringly old. The Islamic wave defeated at the Gates of Vienna in 1683 must now be defeated again, and the ECJM calls us to the ramparts.

Egypt’s Coming Revolution

If diesel is still scarce next month when the harvest begins, a savvy Egyptian wheat farmer informs the New York Times, “There will be a revolution of the hungry.” Fuel in Egypt is very hard to find now, even on the black market. Hoarders and profiteers are brandishing knives and guns at gas station attendants. Food prices are soaring. And the country’s leader, Mohamed Morsi, is doing … nothing.

Nothing about the Egyptian economy, anyway.

Snow Storm Shuts Down Ukraine

For a president who regularly engages in snow jobs, you’d think Viktor Yanukovych would have been better equipped to handle the massive snow storm that descended on large parts of Western Ukraine and capital city Kyiv on March 22nd to 24th. Instead, he and his Regionnaire minions were once again caught unawares.

The snow came suddenly and unexpectedly, and it made streets, sidewalks, and roads virtually impassable, leading to huge traffic jams and the cancellation of virtually all flights in and out of many of Ukraine’s airports. Public transport was battered, and electricity supplies were affected in some parts of the country. Almost overnight, Ukraine and Ukrainians were snowed in.

Is Peace at Hand with Turkey's Kurds?

Last week, Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), used the occasion of Nowruz, or the Persian New Year also celebrated by the Kurds, to call for the transformation of his militant group, which is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United States and Turkey, into a political movement. Ocalan said it was time for the PKK to end its armed struggle and to withdraw its fighters from Turkish soil, marking perhaps the most optimistic development since Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization entered into direct talks with him a few months ago.

Waiting for Gates in Ghana

With Bill Gates visiting Ghana this week as part of his philanthropic work, technology is in the spotlight.

Social media consultant Mac-Jordan Degadjor, a young Ghanaian blogger who recently briefed the United Nations’ rights council on government freedom and the Internet, told World Affairs that Twitter is becoming a hotbed of activity on the subject.

Here’s a glimpse of current discussion among leading Ghanaians active on the popular microblogging website:


Photo Credit: SandisterTei

Kremlin Critics Not Safe in UK

  • Alexander Litvinenko: dead, 2006, radiation poisoning.
  • Arkadi Patarkatsishvili: dead, 2008, fatality attributed to natural causes.
  • Alexander Perepilichnyy: dead, 2012, while out jogging. Cause of death unknown after two postmortems.
  • German Gorbuntsov: shot six times last year by an unknown assailant—and alive, yes, but currently plotting the death of someone else. I mean allegedly plotting the death of someone else, of course.
  • Boris Berezovsky: dead 2013, in fact just days ago, by hanging.

What do these four deaths and six attempted homicides have in common? Well, for one thing, they all occurred in Great Britain, which evidently is a great place to kill foreign fugitives with extremely long names.

Boris Berezovsky, the Man Who Made—and Tried to Unmake—Putin

In the spring of 2000, after his favored candidate, Vladimir Putin, officially won the Russian presidency (having been acting in this capacity since December 1999), Boris Berezovsky came to the office of then-leader of the liberal opposition in the State Duma, Boris Nemtsov, to complain of boredom. There was nothing else to do, Berezovsky lamented—the presidency was in his pocket; everything was under control. “You won’t be bored,” Nemtsov retorted, “[Putin] will never forgive you for your support.”

Northern Lebanon Burning

Northern Lebanon is currently suffering the kind of violent absurdity that occurs nowhere in the world but the Middle East.

The Syrian civil war is spilling into the city of Tripoli, the second largest in Lebanon. Sunni Muslims in the poor neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh are at war with an Alawite militia in the adjacent hilltop neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen that supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Last week there was even a shootout at a hospital, of all places.

So far this is hardly original. What makes this conflict absurdly unusual is that segments of the Lebanese army are protecting both militias, and they’re doing so on behalf of a foreign government—Syria’s.

I drove up there from Beirut to meet with Mosbah Ahdab, a political liberal who was a member of the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc of Lebanon’s parliament until a deal was struck to get rid of him after Hezbollah’s invasion of Beirut in 2008.

His name was on a kill list before he was booted. He hardly left his house for months at a time.

“We are hunted one after the other,” he told a Guardian reporter not long after five gunmen shot MP Pierre Gemayel through the windshield of his car with silenced machine pistols.

Ahdab belongs to an old and prominent family and the liberal wing of Tripoli’s Sunni Muslim community. He serves wine in his house. I met his wife. She looks like a model. She doesn’t wear a veil or a headscarf, nor does she have to stay in the back of the house when men come to visit as is customarily the case in the more-conservative Gulf countries.

I also met his daughter, a little girl, when she came home from school. She arrived with a friend and they sat at a table and worked on an art project. Ahdab and his wife spoke French to each other. His daughter spoke English to me. Clearly theirs is a well-educated household.

He hosted me in his living room.

“The fighting between Sunnis and Alawites looks pretty gruesome,” I said. “Is this city as dangerous as it appears from a distance?”

“It's very dangerous,” he said. “This morning some shop owners came here and screamed that no one comes to Tripoli anymore. We have no security. The security institutions are protecting the fighters on both sides. They're not protecting civilians. This is a fact.”

It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Factions within the Lebanese army really are protecting both the Sunni and Alawite militias. Partly this is because the army is just as divided along sectarian lines as the country is, but mostly it’s because many of the army officers are still loyal to Assad and to Hezbollah. That still hasn’t changed since Syria’s occupation of Lebanon when the Assad family and their henchmen sabotaged the Lebanese army and bent it to their will. When Hezbollah invaded Beirut in 2008, maintaining control over pieces of Lebanon’s army was on its list of demands.

Even so, it still sounds ridiculous. Why on earth would Assad’s people protect an anti-Syrian, anti-Alawite, and anti-Hezbollah Sunni militia?

It’s all about propaganda, for which the Assad regime is peerless in the Middle East. Not even Hamas is as practiced or competent.

“The security services are creating a narrative,” Ahdab said, “saying there's no such thing as revolution in Syria, that what we have is Al Qaeda fighting the government. They’re asking the international community which they prefer. They point at the same thing happening in Lebanon. Assad says Lebanon is sending terrorists across the border from the so-called ‘emirate of Tripoli.’ Syria’s ambassador actually said this at the United Nations.”

Assad and his Lebanese and Iranian allies have been framing the fight in Syria as a war against Al Qaeda from the very beginning, long before Jabhat al-Nusra—which the United States has designated a terrorist organization—even existed. Indeed, Assad framed the fight in Syria as a war against Al Qaeda even before the Free Syrian Army existed, when his soldiers were firing on unarmed demonstrators in the streets and calling them terrorists.

Now that the jihadist al-Nusra front does exist, though, Assad’s claims look a little more credible. But al-Nusra—which is a separate entity from the Free Syrian Army—isn’t coming from Lebanon. Its funding comes from the Gulf. And some of its leaders are the very same individuals Assad himself dispatched to Iraq to kill Americans.

“Nobody goes to the funerals,” Ahdab said, “but security guys show up and shoot their guns in the air. They film it and people say, my gosh, look at that, it's Al Qaeda grieving its members who are fighting Bashar al-Assad. I saw them. I know those guys personally. I know exactly who sent them.”

This is one of the reasons conspiracy theories are popular in the Middle East. Bizarre conspiracies actually happen in this part of the world. It’s “normal.” The Syrian regime has been pulling stunts like that one for decades.

The liberal Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid recently highlighted similar shenanigans in NOW Lebanon: “The campaign by the Assad regime included releasing known jihadist and terrorist elements from state prisons at the same time nonviolent protest leaders were imprisoned. This tactic is sometimes called ‘tailoring your enemies.’ It is inherently a risky approach, but can serve to divide enemy ranks by creating a more radical camp in their midst, and in this case, undermining the advocates of nonviolence. This tactic had been repeatedly used by the Assad regime during the Lebanese civil war, allowing it to emerge as the main power broker there.”

Ahdab’s phone rang. He answered and switched to Arabic.

“Sorry,” he said to me after a couple of moments. “There is this little girl who has a problem I need to fix.”

Fixing citizens’ problems is part of his job now. He is no longer in the government, but he’s a community leader, a modern urban “sheikh” of sorts, and that’s what such people do in the Middle East. It’s one way they get their support, and it’s something that’s expected of them once they have power and influence.

His assistant served lunch. After we finished eating, Ahdab had to host a delegation of locals in a second room for a couple of minutes while they hashed out another of Tripoli’s problems.

“The fighters are very aware of what’s happening here,” Ahdab said, picking up where we left off. “Setting this place on fire was very successful in 1982 when Syria created the so-called ‘emirate’ in Tripoli. It gave the Syrians international cover to bomb the city. They came in here and massacred 800 people. Nobody dared to even identify the corpses. They used the port for executions and they rounded up people in Tripoli’s schools and deported them to Syrian prisons. We still haven’t heard about what happened to some who disappeared. But the emir, Sheikh Shaban, stayed at home and was protected by the Syrians while all this was happening.”

Don’t misunderstand. The fighting between Sunni and Alawite militias is real. It is not theater. The fighters are pawns in a larger game, but they’re deadly serious.

Each side deserves at least some measure of sympathy. The Alawite fighters feel threatened as detested minorities in league with a dying system while the Sunni fighters wish to see Assad and his local proxies destroyed.

But the idea that there is a general conflict between Sunni and Alawite citizens, Ahdab says, is ridiculous. “I know the Alawites. My bodyguard is an Alawite. He has been with me for sixteen years. But we have this Alawite militia that has been protected by the Syrian regime, and now they're protecting by the quote, unquote, resistance.”

The “resistance,” of course, is Hezbollah. That’s what they call themselves. They’re currently “resisting” the Zionist Entity by killing Sunni Muslims in Syria. 

“Recently,” Ahdab said, “some of the Alawite fighters were captured by civilians and beaten. They wouldn't hand them over to the army because the fighters would be freed in an hour. There's a dirty game going on here that has nothing to do with the population.”

The Alawites are backed by Syria and Hezbollah while the Sunni militia is funded and armed by Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis. And while the Sunni militia is hostile to Syria and its interests, it can’t very well be shut down by the Syrian regime and its local allies because that would alter the narrative. It’s ludicrous, truly. But that’s the Middle East for you.

“Everybody knows what's happening,” Ahdab says. “It's not just me saying this. You can talk to people in the streets.”

I did confirm it with others, not just people on the street, but by professional political analysts in Beirut whose jobs and reputations demand they get this stuff right.

“It has become ridiculous,” Ahdab said. “Everyone is now talking about this so-called Islamic emirate in Tripoli.”

The so-called “emirate” is the Islamist state-within-a-state that’s supposed to exist in Tripoli but which does not actually exist outside the phantasmagoria of Syrian and Hezbollah propaganda. In Tripoli, alcohol is available. I saw plenty of uncovered woman walking around. I didn’t see a single man with a beard, a forehead bruised from prayer, or wearing any clothing which would mark him as an Islamist. Not one. Such people exist, but they vanish into the enormous population of regular people. This is Lebanon, not Gaza or Saudi Arabia.

He took me out into the city. “You’ll be safe with me,” he said.

I wouldn’t have felt in much danger without him, to be honest. The fighting between Sunnis and Alawites is concentrated on the front line between the two neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen. As long as I stayed clear of that particular area, I almost certainly would not have any problems.

But he drove me to that area so I could see it. Jebel Mohsen, the Alawite neighborhood, is perched upon a hill (Jebel means mountain in Arabic) over its enemy neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

The Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh feel threatened by this. How would you feel if people who wanted to kill you lived in the hills right over your house? But the Alawites feel threatened, too. They look down the hill and see that they are surrounded by hostiles in every direction.

We passed a Christian church in the car. There are Christians in Tripoli, too.

“It’s stressful enough living here as a Sunni,” Ahdab said. “Can you imagine what it’s like here for the Christians?”

We got out of the car and walked through an old part of the city near the waterfront.

“Here is the center of the Islamic emirate of Tripoli,” he said sarcastically.

It looked and felt no more Islamist than the Christian half of Beirut. The area could be a very nice place with a little fixing up, but there’s no money. The economy has collapsed. No one goes to Tripoli anymore. They’re afraid.

Everyone on the street recognized Ahdab. Everyone. They waved and smiled and ran up to him. Clearly he’s popular. Barack Obama would get a similar reception in Harlem or the Upper West Side. I could see how Ahdab easily won elections. The reaction of strangers on the street to his presence went a long way toward confirming that he, not the Salafists, represents the real social fabric of Tripoli.

Would a bearded Islamist with a rifle get the same sort of treatment while walking those streets? I highly doubt it. The overwhelming majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis back Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. Its ideology is one of liberal and capitalism and peace with the neighbors. Hariri even wants peace, or at the very least the cessation of hostilities, with the Israelis. The Muslim Brotherhood exists in Lebanon, but it’s microscopic in size and has no clout of influence. The only reason the Salafists have even the small amount of influence they do have is because they’re backed by Saudi and Qatari money. Their ideology isn’t indigenous. It’s implanted.

Back at his house, Ahdab opened a bottle of red wine from Lebanon’s Chateau Kefraya and refilled my glass when it got low. He drank, too. Why shouldn’t he? Lebanon is a nation of drinkers. The Lebanese—including Lebanese Muslims—consume copious amounts of beer, wine, and liquor, especially arak and Scotch.

“I'm staying in Tripoli,” he said, “because people like me are the real Tripoli residents. We cannot disappear. Even the bearded guys who receive millions from the Gulf have to deal with us.”

The Lebanese government could shut all this down instantly if it wanted. A war to disarm Hezbollah would blow the country to pieces, but disarming ragtag ideological crackpots with microscopic support bases would take no time at all and likely wouldn’t even cost lives as long as both sides were disarmed simultaneously.

The reason this isn’t happening is because Hezbollah and its allies control the government—or at least they did before Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned over these very issues a couple of days ago. And the reason they controlled the government is because they seized power in 2008 when they invaded Beirut. So Northern Lebanon will have to keep simmering in ideological and sectarian conflict. Apparently, the road to Jerusalem passes through Tripoli.

But Assad and Hezbollah and their Lebanese allies are not protecting Sunni fighters in and around the town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley on the other side of Mount Lebanon.

“The Syrian army has bombed it many times,” Ahdab said. “Everyone there wants the army to protect them, but the army will not. The same thing is happening on the northern coastal border. The Syrians are shelling the area and the people there get no protection. The Syrians are shooting continuously inside Lebanon. People are terrified. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t say anything. The Ministry of Interior won’t send the army.”

Hezbollah’s main focus is in Syria. Its fighters never thought they end up waging a battle for their own survival in the Arab land to the east, but that’s what the “resistance” has become now that one of their patrons and armorers is in an existential fight for his life.

The war really is existential for the Assad regime, and it is seen as such by much of Syria’s Alawite community, too. They only make up twelve percent (roughly) of Syria’s population. And since the Alawite regime has been lording it over the Sunni majority with a totalitarian and terroristic police state for the last forty years, they’re deathly afraid of retribution and perhaps persecution should the Assad family and its local allies lose power. That’s why the regime opened fire on unarmed demonstrators before the conflict became militarized. Even a non-violent revolution threatens their lives as well as their power.

Washington has hardly done anything. Syria isn’t Iraq, but it’s similarly complex. It’s riven along sectarian lines, and there are no institutions aside from the repressive regime backed by one sect against the majority. Assad also has friends in Iran and in Lebanon. An intervention of any kind could destabilize the whole region even more than it already is. That’s the last thing the White House wants.

President Obama’s caution, however, looks like overt support for the Assad regime to Ahdab and many others I know in Lebanon.

“There was a peaceful revolution to start with in Syria,” Ahdab said. “but nobody talks about it. Assad and the Gulf have turned it into a confrontation between Al Qaeda and the government. Assad is receiving arms from Iran and Russia and the Nusra extremists are receiving arms from the Gulf. Why shouldn’t the Free Syrian Army receive weapons? Everybody here is wondering what’s going on. Why on earth does the international community think it’s okay for the Gulf to send money to extremist groups while the moderates in the Free Syrian Army get nothing?  Iran doesn’t want to lose Syria, but Iran will keep Syria if this thing gets stalled by the West. At least tell your friends in the Gulf to stop sending money to al Nusra. Then Al Qaeda will no longer be financed.”

He scoffed, clearly disgusted at the whole situation.

Keeping the Syrian and Iranian regimes in place is not a viable policy option for those who are at war with Al Qaeda, not only because Assad has been using Al Qaeda himself for years against his enemies—including the United States—but also because Iran can just as easily do so as well.

“People in the West,” he said, “are saying there is no possibility for an alliance between Sunnis and Shias, but Ayatollah Khomeini was very clear in his book when he talked about the alliance of the oppressed. I said this a long time ago and nobody wanted to believe me, but I think now it’s obvious. Half of Al Qaeda is in Iran. It’s financed and protected by Iran. Hizb ut-Tahrir has a mixed leadership of Sunnis and Shias. After 2008, Hezbollah sent a delegation to Tripoli to talk to the Salafists. Why would they talk to the Salafists? They aren’t part of the social fabric.”

Tripoli is hardly an Islamist environment. Some Tripolitans are Salafists, but I haven’t seen any there. And—believe me—Salafists are easy to spot. With their beards and their clothes they look like Osama bin Laden. I’m not sure I’ve laid eyes on even a dozen Salafists in the eight years I’ve been living in and visiting Lebanon.

“There is a different Islam from the Wahhabi and Salafist Islam,” he said. “It’s here and it can’t disappear. Half the imams in the mosques are Salafists because they’re paid by the Gulf, but half the population isn’t Salafist.”

“What percentage of the population here is Islamist?” I said. In my own gut-level and from-the-hip assessment I’d say the percentage of people in Tripoli who are Islamists have to be in the single digits at most.

“Just like you have Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews,” he said, “we have Orthodox Muslims. And we have Takfiris—extremists who say I am not a real Muslim—but they are a very small minority. They are at most one percent. They are not from here.”

That sounds about right to me. He ought to know. He’s from there. Perhaps he’s a little more liberal than the average Tripolipolitans, but it doesn’t stop him from winning elections. People like him are unelectable in Egypt, but they’re the majority of elected Sunni politicians in Lebanon. The only reason Ahdab isn’t still in the government is because he was forced out after Hezbollah’s coup d’etat in 2008.

“You can’t put everyone in one basket,” he said. “Some people put Sunnis, Salafists, Wahhabis, Takfiris, and Al Qaeda together. It’s nonsense.”

He sipped from his glass of red wine.

“I’m fought by all the money that has been coming here for the last twenty years,” he said, “but I am still here. Why? Because I represent the real social fabric of Tripoli. A Muslim like me would never survive here if Tripoli was Islamist.”

Post-script: If you haven’t supported me recently (or ever), please help me out. Donations add up, as do sales of my books.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternatively, you can make recurring monthly donations. Please consider choosing this option and help me stabilize my expense account.
$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:
If you would like to donate yet don't want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

The Failure of Deterrence in Korea

In a poll released last month by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 66 percent of South Koreans said they wanted their country to develop nuclear weapons to ward off attacks from North Korea. In fact, only 48 percent of the population last year believed America would use nukes to retaliate against a North Korean nuclear strike against them, down 7 percent from 2011.

The survey by the private think tank in Seoul is a clear vote of “no confidence” in the US, which has, by treaty, since 1953, pledged to defend the South, with nukes if necessary. If the South Koreans trusted Washington, they would not want to have their own arsenal of the world’s most destructive weapons. 

And if this many South Koreans suspect Washington’s resolve, it’s a safe bet that many policymakers in Beijing and Pyongyang doubt America as well. China and North Korea have increased their war-mongering rhetoric conspicuously of late, and both are behaving arrogantly, as if they think they can push the US out of Asia.

Lebanon's Pro-Hezbollah Government Collapses

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati—who was selected by Hezbollah as the country’s premier—has resigned, bringing his cabinet and the government with him.

Armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites have since resumed in the city of Tripoli, the country’s second largest after Beirut. The Syrian government continues striking targets in the Bekaa Valley and in the north. Ransom kidnappers run wild. The threat of a serious internal war between Hezbollah and Sunni backers of the Free Syrian Army hangs heavily over the country.

It’s rather extraordinary that it hasn’t already started since Lebanese Shias and Lebanese Sunnis are currently killing each other just across the border in Syria.

And now Lebanon is without a government—again.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Since Hezbollah picked the prime minister, is it any great loss that he’s gone?

Actually, maybe it is. Najib Mikati is not a Hezbollah member. And if the leaders of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group thought they could use him as a tool, they were wrong, at least for the most part. They’re the reason he got the job in the first place, but they’re also—at least according to Reuters—the reason he quit.

Mikati has been pressing for Lebanese neutrality in the Syrian war, but Hezbollah wants Lebanon to side with Bashar al-Assad. What's the point of seizing power in Lebanon if Beirut won’t back Hezbollah’s allies in Tehran and Damascus?

He looked like a Hezbollah ally on the surface, but only if you squinted hard and didn’t watch what he did or listen to the things that he said. He acted and sounded like an independent, and sometimes even like he was aligned with the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc. Some of my Lebanese sources and friends said that’s exactly what he wants me to think, but others I trust and know just as well told me he is, in fact, quietly aligned with March 14 and is therefore “one of us.”

The man has not been easy to read, and it’s important not to get suckered when Middle Eastern politicians say things you want to hear just to get you on side. This sort of thing happens. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood knows exactly what to say to Westerners to trick them into believing the organization is moderate and democratic. They’re completely and utterly full of it, but that hasn’t stopped an embarrassingly huge number of journalists, analysts, and diplomats from getting fooled by an organization that has always been theocratic and authoritarian.

Najib Mikati, though, is  a Sunni while Hezbollah is Shia. Mikati isn’t a Sunni Islamist, either. He’s a businessman, a tycoon. He’s the richest man in the country.

There are a couple of reasons Hezbollah picked Mikati for prime minister. Primarily because he is not Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik Hariri whose assassination in downtown Beirut kicked off the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution in 2005.

Second, their pickings were slim. They couldn’t select one of their own. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the prime minister be from the Sunni community. (The president, meanwhile, must be a Christian while the speaker of parliament is reserved for the Shias.) And the number of competent Sunni politicians in Lebanon who sincerely support Hezbollah is zero. Syria has a small number of Sunni allies—and Mikati made his money in Syria—but Hezbollah doesn’t have any.

Mikati was the best they could get.

And he wasn’t that great from their point of view.

A Wikileaks cable published in 2011 quotes him describing Hezbollah as “cancerous” and saying he wishes to see their Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist statelet destroyed.

Hezbollah must have been furious when that came to light. The day that he would resign (or be otherwise removed or even killed) over a conflict with Hezbollah was all but inevitable.

I asked Ed Gabriel what he thinks of Mikati. He’s a former US ambassador to Morocco and the founder of the American Task Force for Lebanon. He’s from the United States, but his family is from Lebanon and he knows everyone over there. He has known Mikati for years. And I trust his judgment.

“He was elected to parliament in Tripoli as an independent allied with March 14,” he says. “He agreed to become prime minister in January 2011 because he wanted to avoid a clash over the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.”

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, is the international court set up by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute Hariri’s assassins. The STL is fingering Hezbollah for the crime.

“It was presumed that Mikati had made a tacit agreement to withdraw Lebanese government support for the STL to become prime minister,” Gabriel says, “but Mikati used a clever mechanism to pay Lebanon’s STL obligations for 2011 and 2012. Although he previously had business interests in Syria, Mikati is smart enough to have avoided going to Syria since the outbreak of violence. March 14 seemed willing to accept a Mikati government until the assassination of Wissam El Hassan on October 19, 2012, when they accused the Mikati government of tolerating murderers. Meaningfully, and with the support of Mikati, a Lebanese military court charged Mahmoud Hayek, a Hezbollah security official, on February 1 with the attempted assassination of prominent March 14 politician Boutros Harb. In my opinion, Mikati has proven his skeptics wrong.”

He has indeed proved his skeptics wrong. He also proved Hezbollah wrong since they thought they could use him.

And they couldn’t.

Now the country is without a government. Mikati has called for a “caretaker government” to take over until the next elections are held. Maybe Lebanon will get one and maybe it won’t. Either way, the country is closer now to collapse than it has been at any time since the civil war ended.

Post-script: If you haven’t supported me recently (or ever), please help me out. Donations add up, as do sales of my books.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternatively, you can make recurring monthly donations. Please consider choosing this option and help me stabilize my expense account.

$10 monthly subscription:
“"$25 monthly subscription:
“"$50 monthly subscription:
“"$100 monthly subscription:

If you would like to donate yet don't want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Spring Springs Eternal. Again.

The cat had been slumbering around the house for months, with only brief pauses for food, drink, and getting rubbed behind the ears. Three days ago he got up, stuck his nose out the door in the freezing rain, snorted disgustedly, and went back to sleep.

The talk of this year’s exhibition season in London is the British Museum’s Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, which features some amazingly voluptuous, 30,000-year-old Moravian ladies. It shows that to have a modern mind, you first have to be cool. Global warming won’t help.

A Ukrainian Gas-State?

Is the shale-gas deal President Viktor Yanukovych signed with Royal Dutch Shell on January 24th good news or bad news for Ukraine? 

Here, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, are some of the details:

Under the agreement, the Yuzivska shale-gas field in eastern Ukraine would be tapped using the controversial new technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Ukraine is believed to have an estimated 1.2 trillion cubic meters of shale-gas reserves, the third-largest such deposits in Europe. Ukrainian officials say Shell’s investments would likely be around $10 billion but could go as high as $50 billion. Environmental groups say chemicals used in the fracking process can threaten the health of surrounding communities, but the industry has aggressively challenged those claims.

The good or potentially good news is:

Ghana's Wireless Revolution

Youth in Ghana are pressing for political reform from their cell phones, according to 27-year-old Mac-Jordan Degadjor. He says the rapid rise of a mobile phone culture has been revolutionary for Ghana—so much so that Internet cafes have become downright passé.

Speaking to World Affairs from the Ghanaian capital of Accra on Wednesday, Degadjor explained:

We have a youth culture of mobile Internet users. Also, the youth is actually accessing information on their phone. They no longer need to go to [an] Internet café to check their e-mail or check their news because … they are able to, like, check Internet on their phones. That is why we are using social media to reach out to the youth more, because if you look at the demographics, a lot of the youth have access to mobile phones or the Internet and they are able to access all of this information on Twitter, and on Facebook, and on blogs, on everything, right from their homes. They don’t need to go to an Internet café anymore.

The Iraq Invasion's Anniversary

I remember the start of the invasion of Iraq well. As it happened I was at a long-scheduled celebratory dinner at Le Cirque, though it didn’t feel that celebratory because the restaurant was nearly deserted. Everyone was home glued to their TVs. Everyone was worried, as I was, that there might be a chemical weapons attack on our troops or some undreamt-of atrocity committed by Saddam. This wasn’t a right-wing plot; it was something that seriously worried journalists who had scored embeds with the invading forces. Jokes about the chemical-protection suits they’d been issued scarcely concealed their fear.

Like so many people I knew, I supported the war, not so much to disarm Saddam Hussein or to stop him from developing WMD, but to free his long-suffering people and promote democracy in the Middle East. We imagined something like the Arab Spring, as it turned out, but we thought we could bestow it on the Iraqis as—in Fouad Ajami’s apt phrase—“the foreigners’ gift.”

Hanging with King Abdullah

Jeffrey Goldberg has a fun new piece in The Atlantic about Jordan’s King Abdullah, with whom he got to spend some quality personal time.

It is not necessarily good to be the king of a Middle Eastern country that is bereft of oil; nor is it necessarily so wonderful to be the king during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Arab Spring. It is certainly not good to be the king when the mystique that once enveloped your throne is evaporating.

But when a squadron of Black Hawk helicopters is reserved for your use, and when you are the type of king who finds release from the pressures of monarchy by piloting those Black Hawks up and down the length of your sand-covered kingdom—then it is still good to be the king.


It was obvious to me that King Abdullah was looking forward to flying his helicopter—but not so much to the meeting that awaited him in Karak. “I’m sitting with the old dinosaurs today,” he told me.

The men he would be meeting—a former prime minister among them—were leaders of the National Current Party, which had the support of many East Bankers of the south, and which would almost certainly control a substantial bloc of seats in the next parliament. What the party stood for, however, beyond patronage and the status quo, was not entirely clear, even to the king. Shortly after the eruption of the Arab Spring, the king told me, he met with Abdul Hadi al-Majali, the leader of the party. “I read your economic and social manifesto, and it scared the crap out of me,” the king said he told Majali. “This makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re going to reach out to the 70 percent of the population that is younger than me, you’ve got to work on this.” The party manifesto, the king told me, “didn’t have anything. It was slogans. There was no program. Nothing.” He went on, “It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe.’ I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand.”


The 30 or so men (and one woman, a daughter of one of the tribal leaders) sat on couches against the walls. Tea was served. The king made a short plea for economic reform and for expanding political participation, and then the floor was opened. Leader after leader—many of whom were extremely old, many of whom merely had the appearance of being old—made small-bore requests and complaints. One of the men proposed an idea for the king’s consideration: “In the old days, we had night watchmen in the towns. They would be given sticks. The government should bring this back. It would be for security, and it would create more jobs for the young men.”

I was seated directly across the room from the king, and I caught his attention for a moment; he gave me a brief, wide-eyed look. He was interested in high-tech innovation, and in girls’ education, and in trimming the overstuffed government payroll. A jobs plan focused on men with sticks was not his idea of effective economic reform.

As we were leaving Karak a little while later, I asked him about the men-with-sticks idea. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said, with fatigue in his voice.

We boarded the Black Hawk and took off. I was seated behind the king. He asked me whether I wanted to make a detour: “Have you ever seen Mount Nebo from the air?” He flew northwest, toward the mountain from which, the Bible tells us, God showed Moses the Land of Israel. The Dead Sea shimmered just beyond. I suggested a quick detour to Jerusalem, which was 30 miles away. “The cousins like to have more warning,” one of his aides said with a smirk. “The cousins” are the Israelis.

Read the whole thing.


Subscribe to RSS - blogs