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China Eyes a Forward Base in the Atlantic

Last Tuesday, the US House of Representatives unanimously voted to block the Air Force from reducing its presence at Lajes Field. Congress did the right thing in freezing, at least for the moment, the American withdrawal from the Portuguese base on Terceira, one of the Azores.

Lajes, formally called Air Base No. 4, is the second-largest employer on the economically depressed island in the Atlantic Ocean. The Air Force had planned to send home 400 of the 650 military personnel and civilian employees as well as 500 family members. The transfers would have devastated the economy of Terceira and put many of the base’s 790 Portuguese workers out on the street.

In Egypt, Political Cartoons Make the Front Page

“Supreme Guide Seeks Guidance,” a cartoon by the Egyptian artist Andeel, depicts the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, in a therapy session. “Sometimes,” he says, “I suspect that I’m a state security agent, implanted inside the Brotherhood to screw it up.” Andeel’s hashtag reads, “Brotherhood Subconscious.”

 

Imagine that you check your mailbox one afternoon and find a postcard that shows a smiling Arab family under the words, “A souvenir postcard of the great Egyptian people.”

Then you notice the card feels a little slimy. All of a sudden, you realize it’s covered in blood.

Such was the image drawn by Egyptian cartoonist Andeel in response to deadly clashes in the wake of President Mohamed Morsi’s ousting earlier this month.

Brazil's Post-Papal Test

After a triumphal visit by Pope Francis, Brazil returned to its days of protest—begun in June to condemn corruption, inflation, and inept government—with new hope for change. The Roman Catholic pontiff publicly endorsed the right of youth to publicly demand that corruption be punished and that governments serve the people. He deplored the violence of vandals who infiltrated the peaceful protest, but he called for more “dialogue” with the young and said that “solidarity” should be the basis of a just society. Francis emerged from the visit as a global leader for social reform and economic cooperation.

The Syria Quagmire

Members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, continue urging President Obama to take a more aggressive role in the Syria war.

This month, Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who’s chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called for “limited targeted” airstrikes and other actions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Several other senators endorsed his remarks, and the debate continues almost every day.

But the most realistic view came from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a letter to Congress this month, he warned that after taking any military action, “we must be prepared for the unintended consequences of our actions.” And what might those consequences be? A nasty fight to determine who will take Assad’s place.

“Deeper involvement is hard to avoid,” Dempsey added.

Tunisia on the Brink

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and it’s lurching toward the brink again just weeks after the Egyptian army overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government.

Last week an assassin took out left-wing opposition leader Mohammed Brahmi with a 9mm pistol. Ballistics reports indicate the killer used the exact same weapon to murder another opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, last winter. And this week Al Qaeda-linked terrorists dug in on Mount Chambi killed at least eight Tunisian soldiers.

Ennahda, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, is taking the heat. While they aren’t being fingered as directly responsible, they’re being blamed all the same because they dominate the government and they’ve gone easy on the extremists this past year and have sometimes even colluded with them.

Thousands of furious demonstrators converged on parliament this week, yelling, “the people want the fall of the assassins.” Police officers repelled them with tear gas. Prime Minister Ali Larayedh refuses to step down and is blasting the demonstrators as “anarchists.”

Unlike in Egypt, the Islamists won less than half the vote in the election. Tunisians are stuck with them anyway, though, because secularists split their votes among dozens of parties and the Islamists walked away with a plurality. And though they were forced into a coalition with liberal and secular parties, they still got to choose the prime minister.

Ennahda is described as “moderate” in almost every single article published by wire agency hacks, but the only reason it’s relatively moderate is because it’s forced to share power. Tunisia’s Islamists conceded to building a civil state instead of an Islamic state because they face massive resistance and they don’t have enough seats in the parliament to do anything else. Since the police and the army are loyal to the country and not the party, that’s that. If Ennahda had won a majority and had the strength to muscle everything through, we would be looking at a different Tunisia—an Egypt in the Maghreb.

But Tunisia is much more liberal, secular, prosperous, and politically developed than Egypt. Both countries have problems that look similar on the surface, but the difference between the two is enormous. Tunis looks and feels more like France than like Cairo. The northern part of the country, where most people live, is more culturally similar to Europe than anywhere else in the Arab world outside of Beirut, which is almost half Christian.

In Egypt’s parliamentary election in winter of 2011, the Salafists—the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden—won a shocking 28 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Salafist party is still banned in Tunisia, even with Ennahda in the government. It’s a marginal movement that scares the hell out of just about everyone, not just on ideological grounds, but also because it’s responsible for a spree of violent incidents since the Ben Ali government fell, including setting fire to an American school and threatening to kill all the Jews.

Algerian Salafists killed tens thousands of people during the 1990s. Most Americans haven’t heard word one about that horror show, but Tunisians won’t forget it any time soon. Algeria is next door. The border between the two in the Tunisian Sahara is unmarked and wide open. The Salafist Movement for Preaching and Combat is still active on the Algerian side, and terrorists are trickling into the country.

The Al Qaeda attack near Mount Chambi this week was the most lethal against Tunisian security officials in decades. I drove to the top of that mountain two years ago. It’s the tallest in the country and from the top you can see into Algeria. The entire south side is a national park, and it’s lovely. But today it’s a terrorist nest. You go there, you die.

Ennahda and the Salafists ostensibly hate each other, but they have things in common ideologically, and they have an on-again off-again modus vivendi that’s no longer a secret.

Last year someone leaked a video showing Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, delivering a speech to Salafist youth leaders. He winked and nudged and not-so subtly suggested they were on the same side, and he got busted. “I tell our young Salafists to be patient,” he said. “Why hurry? Take your time to consolidate what you have gained.”

That video set the country on fire. The average Tunisian should have known Ennahda was little more than the “good cop” next to the Salafist “bad cop,” but at least they know it now, and it’s one of the reasons Ennahda’s popularity has cratered.

My Tunisian fixer Ahmed tells me he’s all but certain the labor parties will win the next election and that Ennahda will be out on its ass. He can’t really know that, but it’s certainly plausible. Ennahda might even fall sooner than that if one of the liberal parties resigns from the government or if demonstrations become an unstoppable tide like they did during the revolution a few years ago. The country’s political center of gravity has been moving away from the Islamists since the day they entered the government, and the only hard power leverage they have is the banned Salafist movement, and even that’s just theoretical.

Tunisia is mellow, even pacifist, compared with Algeria. The army is smaller than Egypt’s, and it is not—or at least it has not been—a political player. So I don’t expect a full-blown Algerian-style insurgency or an Egyptian-style military coup. Nor is a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in the cards. Tunisia is not a police state, and Ennahda admits it’s afraid of the army.

But tensions are rising, the situation is volatile, the country is more dangerous now than even a week ago, and the region is always surprising. Keep an eye out because even the “moderate” Islamists empowered by the Arab Spring are back on their heels. They thought they owned the future, but they do not.

How Free Is Speech in the West?

France has just announced that, basically, it’s a democracy. By which I mean the French cannot insult their president any more. Or rather they can—they can call him stupide, they can write that he’s arrogant—only now they can’t be fined for it (although they can still be sued for libel), which is certainly a giant step in that country.

France was once the nation where onetime presidents who took bribes, large diamonds from dictators in fact, were fond of making yet a few extra francs more from those who criticized them. Now, thanks to a new law, the French can mention—as former President Nicolas Sarkozy did—that current President François Hollande is “a ridiculous little fat man who dyes his hair” without retracting or even paying for a statement that is totalement vrai.

Egypt’s Morsi Investigated for Conspiracy and Murder

Egyptian prosecutors are investigating the now-overthrown president Mohammad Morsi for his alleged involvement in a plot with Hamas to break Muslim Brotherhood members out of jail in 2011—including Morsi himself—that left fourteen prison guards dead.

The Brotherhood claims the charges are politically motivated. That may well be the case. Egyptian prosecutors aren’t exactly above board and honest, not now and not ever.

Far more interesting than whether or not Morsi was involved is that the charges cast Hamas as a bad actor that murders Egyptians. This is not the standard narrative we’re accustomed to hearing in Egypt.

Misrepresenting History at the Kyiv Museum

Does Kyiv have a history?

If you go to the Museum of the History of the City of Kyiv, you’re likely to conclude that the answer is a resounding No. You’re also likely to conclude that the people who set up the Museum at its present site a year ago have no idea of what the purpose of museums is.

The museum is currently lodged in a fancy new building on Khmelnytsky Street, just across the street from the Lesya Ukrainka Theater of Russian Drama. The building was constructed amid substantial controversy: its ornately neo-modernist, glass-and-steel-and marble, “Late Yanukovych” style doesn’t quite jive with its surroundings, while its very placement in a formerly open space creates a sense of intrusiveness and crowding on an otherwise leisurely thoroughfare. (To be slightly fair, the recently constructed German Embassy just up the road is just as much of an eyesore, and the Germans can’t blame their bad taste on the woes of transitional societies.)

Whatever the merits or demerits of the museum as a building, you’d think that as important an institution as the city museum would tell an interesting story and aspire to look professional. Not so.

Global Narrative About the Chinese Economy Darkens

Last week, the global narrative on China’s economy changed. On Thursday, the New York Times’s Paul Krugman told us China’s economy was hitting “its Great Wall,” and others raced to pen similarly dire forecasts. As Stratfor’s George Friedman writes this week, “We have gone from China the omnipotent, the belief that there was nothing the Chinese couldn’t work out, to the realization that China no longer works.”

China’s economy has shown signs of not working since the fall of 2011, but most economists and analysts chose to ignore them. Now, just about everyone is commenting on Chinese economic weakness. Expert opinion never seemed more synchronized.

Of course, pessimistic observers today could be wrong. Friedman, however, makes one crucial observation as to why the change in global discourse matters: “The admission that a crisis exists is a critical moment, because this is when most others start to change their behavior in reaction to the crisis.”

Kickstarter Rewards Delivered

Those who donated to my Kickstarter project to fund my last trip to the Middle East have just received a full color e-book for their iPads, Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, etc.

This book is only available to my Kickstarter supporters. You can't get it anywhere else.

If you wish you had one of these, I’ll be running another Kickstarter project soon and you can guarantee yourself a copy of the next one.

If you donated to my Kickstarter project and did not receive your copy today, send an email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com.

Thanks very much to you all.

The Extraordinary Rendition of Osama Nasr

In February 2003, a Muslim cleric walking the streets of Milan found his face sprayed with chemicals, after which he was snatched and packed off to Egypt. There, he was undoubtedly, as he has maintained ever since his release, tortured. Mind you, Hassan Osama Nasr, a.k.a. Abu Omar, was the kind of guy who would have been happy, given the opportunity, to return the compliment and then some: he was a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, a group linked to both the murder of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and the 1997 Luxor massacre.

The snatchers of Osama Nasr were mostly CIA agents (along with a few cooperative carabiniere who were under orders from their own superiors)—22 exceptionally clumsy, extravagant, and useless spies who famously left behind gigantic bills from five-star Italian hotels, assorted passports, cell phone records, and identity cards. Not all of the agents used false names: perhaps it was too much trouble.

'Anti-Imperialist' Latin America Challenges US on Snowden?

Regardless of where Edward Snowden winds up in his flight from US justice, the hard-line group of “anti-imperialist” Latin American countries called ALBA, led by Venezuela and backed by Cuba, have chosen to draw a fighting line against the United States on Snowden’s right of asylum. If the Obama administration does not meet this challenge with political skill, ALBA could turn the Snowden affair into a new banner of leftist defiance against Washington’s influence in the hemisphere.

Ever since the Cuban revolution took power in 1960, it has been a tenet of the Castro regime that US intervention against the “revolution” was an existential danger, requiring national mobilization against an implacable “enemy.” This became a manifest truth when the Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban dissidents, organized by the CIA, came to grief on the southern beaches of Las Villas Province. “Fatherland or Death: We will Prevail” became Castro’s nationalist slogan.

Not Even Zombies Can Save the Middle East

Israelis and Arabs aren’t likely to get along in the real world any time soon, but they briefly pull it off in the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ mega best-selling novel, World War Z. People who hate Israel for a living are giving the movie a big thumbs-down because of it.

As’ad AbuKhalil, the self-described “Angry Arab,” quotes a reader named Mohammad who describes the film as “Zionist pornography.”

Here is Jesse Benjamin at the relentlessly axe-grinding Mondoweiss Web site: “Not only is Israel’s fanatical Wall Building proven to be justified, against the hordes of undead invaders, and not only are Jewish victimizations paraded to justify the aggrandizement of Israeli military prowess, but it’s Israel’s supposed humanism, and multicultural inclusiveness, which in the end weakens the fragile post-apocalyptic state and allows the zombies to overrun everything.” He goes on from there on a bizarre racialist rant against Zionism and the American “empire” and concludes by yearning for a tonic against such evils with a story told from the zombie horde’s point of view.

The Associated Press rounds up negative reactions from the Arab world. “It's free propaganda for Israel at a time when it occupies other people,” says Palestinian cartoonist Ramzi Taweel. “It portrays Israel as a moral power that protects human beings. It justifies the wall. ... The Israeli occupation army in the movie is a humane army that protects the world.” “I don't think it was trying to justify Israel's occupation,” says Aleena Khan in Dubai, “but it was glorifying the Israelis by emphasizing peace and harmony of the two nations, which is far from the truth.”

World War Z does portray Israel and Israelis positively. No one is imagining that. But at no point is Israel positively portrayed at the expense of the Arabs.

Most of the kvetchers are tired and predictable, are they’re over-reacting. World War Z is a popcorn movie. It doesn’t even pretend to be a serious geopolitical film. The novel is complex and brilliant. The film version is not. It’s a straightforward summer blockbuster designed to get the main character Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) from one exotic locale to another so he can get chased by zombies.

The book is subtitled An Oral History of the Zombie War. As in Studs Terkel’s classic oral histories, no one appears in the book for more than a handful of pages, so there is no main character. We get a few pages from a man in China who lives in the village where Patient Zero appears. Another chapter is narrated by a blind man in Japan who manages to flee the city and survive in the wilderness. An American soldier describes how the United States army sweeps and clears the continent from one coast to another. And so on.

Because the characters in the book span the entire world over a long sweep of time, there’s no plot in the conventional sense, but there is a story. The story is the human race’s struggle against an extinction event. Humans collectively are the protagonist, and the zombie horde—known by the United States Army as “Zack”—is the terrifying antagonist.

No one could film that in two hours. The movie, by necessity, is only glancingly similar. There is a main character, but he isn’t developed. Gerry Lane is a United Nations researcher who bounces from one part of the world to another trying to figure out where the outbreak started. His quest takes him from Philadelphia to East Asia, the Middle East, and to Europe. The film’s final stretch in Wales is by far the most suspenseful, but Lane’s visit to Israel provides the film’s most interesting, though brief, foray into international affairs, and this of course is where all the controversy is focused.

In the film version, Israel is one of only two countries that survives the initial zombie outbreak. The other is North Korea. Pyongyang pulls out the teeth of the entire population in 24 hours, making it impossible for the virus to spread. But Israel is not a totalitarian police state. The Israelis survive the initial wave intact because they have a clever intelligence tool at their disposal that no other country in the world possesses. I don’t want to spoil the film by revealing it here, but I will say that whoever developed this part of the story understands Israeli history and culture well enough to think of a semi-plausible explanation that, fortunately for the film’s reputation among mainstream filmgoers, has nothing to do with the Palestinians, the West Bank, or Gaza.

The Arab countries have been overrun with zombies, and the Israelis construct an enormous wall to keep them out. If you stop right there you could say the zombie wall is a thinly disguised metaphor for the real-world separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank and that the zombies represent Arabs. But in context that’s ludicrous. The movie makes it clear that zombies are zombies and Arabs are humans. The towering zombie wall is not a stand-in for the real wall separating Israelis from Arabs. In World War Z, the wall separates Israelis and Arabs from zombies. The Israelis let non-zombified Arab refugees pass through the wall to relative safety. The eternally squabbling neighbors are finally at peace, united against a common enemy. “Every human being we save,” says an Israeli intelligence agent, “is one less to fight.”

Israelis and Arabs banding together to fight zombies is the stuff of fantastical science-fiction, of course, but it’s a nice message all the same, one that has been a staple of the genre since its beginning. Our differences as human beings vanish when faced with zombies, alien invasions, killer asteroids, and so on. Harlan Ellison put it this way in his classic science fiction collection Dangerous Visions, originally published in 1967:

Between the time I wrote “The Day After the Day the Martians Came” and now, I met a minister from a small town in Alabama. Like many churches, not only in Alabama, his is torn on the question of integration. He has found a way, he thinks, to solve it—or at least to ameliorate it—among the white teen-agers in his congregation: he is encouraging them to read science fiction in the hope that they may learn, first, to worry about green-skinned Martians instead of black-skinned Americans and, second, that all men are brothers…at least in the face of a very large universe which is very likely to contain creatures who are not men at all.

It’s easy to botch that message and make it sound juvenile and pat, but World War Z takes it seriously. The antagonists in the film are so overwhelmingly violent and hostile that even a Middle Eastern pessimist like me managed to swallow it.

Unfortunately, World War Z’s message of common humanity is lost on much of the real Middle East and its legion of commentators.

You can watch the trailer here.

Tips on Speaking Ukrainian

If you’ve ever heard Ukrainians speak Russian, you will have noticed that they almost always pronounce the Russian G as an H. Hence, gavaril (I spoke) will come across as havaril, gaspadin (mister) as haspadin, golod (hunger) as holod. Gorbachev will be Horbachev, Grozny will be Hrozny, Germaniya will be Hermaniya, and so on.

When Ukrainians transliterate their own names into English, you’d think that Hanna would, by this logic, be Hanna, that Ihor would be Ihor, and so on, right? Wrong. For some reason Hanna becomes Ganna and Ihor becomes Igor.

Awright, you must be thinking, in that case the English H should be a Ukrainian G, right? Or, at least, an English H should be a Ukrainian H.

Nyet.

English Hs remain Hs, except of course when they don’t: and then they become—no, not Gs—but KHs (as in Loch Ness). So, Houston is spelled and pronounced KHyuston, art house film is pronounced artKHous film, coffee house becomes coffee KHous, and so on.

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