Israel Strikes Syria -- Again

The United States Defense Intelligence Agency confirms that the Israelis struck another Syrian weapons depot, this time in the Mediterranean city of Latakia. The Israelis are worried that Russian missiles will be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon and have repeatedly destroyed them on the ground before they can be moved.

Unlike the United States, Israel doesn't have a foreign policy in the Middle East. It has a defense policy. There is a difference. The Israelis don't have enough power or leverage to shape regional politics to their advantage. They learned that the hard way during the Lebanese civil war. All they can really do is defend themselves and quietly cooperate with the few friends they have over there.

Al Qaeda, including its Al Nusra Front franchise in Syria, has never been particularly interested in Israel. That might change if Assad falls, but so far all the recent Israeli strikes in Syria were against the Iranian-Assad-Hezbollah axis. None were against any faction on the rebel side.

Iran is striving to aquire nuclear weapons. Hezbollah has direct support from Syria and Iran and indirect support from Russsia. The Assad regime ties them all together. As a bloc they are much more dangerous, for now anyway, than ragtag stateless irregulars, and the Israelis are acting accordingly.

Out of Town This Week

I'm taking a professional writing and publishing workshop this week that will occupy me for twelve hours a day, so blogging might be slow. We'll see how much energy I have left at the end of each day. Either way, I'll be back to normal next week.

The Next Syrian War

It has been obvious for some time now that if Bashar al-Assad is overthrown, the next big Syrian war will be fought between Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army. There’s no room for both. (There’s no room for anyone to co-exist peacefully with Al Qaeda.)

It made a certain amount of sense for them to wait until Assad is out of the way, but they might start fighting sooner than that.

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said on Friday the assassination of one of their top commanders by al Qaeda-linked militants was tantamount to a declaration of war, opening a new front for the Western-backed fighters struggling against President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Rivalries have been growing between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamists, whose smaller but more effective forces control most of the rebel-held parts of northern Syria more than two years after pro-democracy protests became an uprising.

"We will not let them get away with it because they want to target us," a senior FSA commander said on condition of anonymity after members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant killed Kamal Hamami on Thursday.

"We are going to wipe the floor with them," he said.

Yesterday I wrote that nobody can really know anything about the future, but it's pretty unlikely that Al Qaeda will suddenly learn to play well with others.

Getting the Muslim Brotherhood Wrong

Everybody got the Muslim Brotherhood wrong, including me, and starting with the Egyptian people themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi won Egypt’s first free and fair election for its head of state. Picking him seemed like a good idea at the time to the typical Egyptian voter, but clearly it wasn’t since Egypt just vomited him and his party up into everyone’s lap.

I figured that would happen eventually, but I’m still astonished that it happened so quickly.

Genuine political liberals are thin on the ground in Egypt, but they do exist. I know several. Some are my friends. Most of them were wrong about the Brotherhood, too. They were right, of course, when they warned the rest of us that the Brothers would transform Egypt into a theocratic dictatorship, but they were wrong when they estimated how much support the Brotherhood had. Hardly any expected the Islamists to win most of the votes, though that’s exactly what happened.

American liberals made a different mistake. Despite warnings from secular Egyptians and former Islamists, the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate and democratic party became an article of faith here in the States, particularly among academics and journalists who should have known better. Even James Clapper—who, as the Director of National Intelligence, really should have known better—said the Muslim Brotherhood is “a largely secular organization.” Surely that ranks among the dumbest things ever said about the organization in all of its 85 years.

Look: the Muslim Brotherhood is not a mysterious new group that no one knows anything about. It was founded in 1928, for crying out loud, and its ideology has been documented exhaustively. Not for even five minutes has it been a democratic or moderate party. It has been struggling for theocracy since the day it was born, sometimes peaceably and sometimes by force. Every Sunni Islamist terrorist organization in the region is a spin-off of the Brotherhood or a spin-off of one of its spin-offs.  

Western liberals should have spent a lot more time listening to their Egyptian counterparts and no time at all swallowing the lies of faith-based gangsters with a Pharaonic complex. This whole business quite frankly baffles me. An American Christian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would be denounced as fascist by every Western-born liberal on earth. We’d hear no end of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, General Franco’s Falangists, and the Crusades. And yet so many Westerners proved incapable of applying the same political analytical skills to Egypt that they use every day in the US and Europe. I’ll leave it to them to explain how that happened once they figure it out.

American conservatives always understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bad news. Many also seemed to sense instinctively that the Muslim Brotherhood would win the election in Egypt. They were right on both counts.

But then the narrative among some parts of the American right went off the rails. Many argued that radical Islamists were bound to triumph everywhere in the Middle East since they had just triumphed in Egypt, as if nearly everyone who self-identifies as a Muslim yearns for political Islam as a matter of course. This point of view regularly appears in my comments section.

It didn’t seem to register that non-Islamists and anti-Islamists frequently do well in elections in Muslim countries, even in Arab countries and even in the wake of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda won less than fifty percent of the vote and was forced into a coalition government with secular parties that block it routinely. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party lost big. In Lebanon, secular parties have won most of the votes since the nation’s founding, and, except for the Israelis, the Lebanese have held more elections in the region than anyone else. 

More recently, the citizens of Mali cheered the French as liberators when they invaded and routed Al Qaeda in the north. Mali, by the way, is not even close to being a largely atheist nation like the nominally Muslim countries of the former communist bloc.

Islamist victories happen sometimes, but they aren’t inevitable. Karl Marx cobbled together psuedo-scientific arguments for why socialism was destined to triumph over capitalism. He claimed history was teleological, that its endpoint could be delayed but not forever resisted, but that’s not how it worked out for communism, nor is it working that way for radical Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution” is but one point of view among many. Sometimes its adherents win and sometimes they lose, just like the proponents of ideas everywhere else.

I got a few things wrong, too. Like Egypt’s liberals and America’s conservatives, I understood all along that the Muslim Brotherhood was theocratic and authoritarian. But I did not think they would win. I knew they’d do well—Egypt is the most Islamicized place I’ve ever been, after all—but I assumed they’d have a hard time breaking fifty percent.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood win, a huge percentage of Egyptians who voted against them went for the Salafists, the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden. Egypt turned out to be even more politically Islamicized than I realized, and I knew it was bad.

Yet in the long sweep of Egyptian history, it lasted about as long as a hiccup.

I think it’s safe to say everyone, regardless of their political orientation and what they got right and wrong a year ago, was surprised by how quickly Egypt rejected the Brotherhood. The United States government has sound reasons for not describing what happened as a military coup, but that’s what it was. The rest of us shouldn’t kid ourselves. Yet it’s clear that the coup was a popular one. Morsi ended up more hated than Hosni Mubarak, and he achieved that dubious honor in one year instead of in thirty.

That ought to make American liberals rethink the notion that the Brotherhood is democratic and moderate. And it ought to show American conservatives that Muslims are perfectly capable of rejecting political Islam whether or not they’re secular Jeffersonian democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood might recover somewhat if the next government fails as badly as Morsi’s, but then again it might not.

No one can predict the future anywhere in the world. It’s even harder in the Middle East than in other places. History doesn’t move in straight lines over there. Sometimes it goes in circles. Other times it veers off in wild directions. Keen observers can figure out what’s happening now, but when it comes to the future, nobody really knows anything.

Terrorizing the Terrorists

Somebody just detonated a car bomb in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah’s de-facto capital. Fifty eight people were hurt. No one claimed credit.

One of the creepy things about Lebanon is that it’s not always obvious who is behind this sort of thing. It’s probably related to the Syrian war, but it might not be. 

From the Mouths of Babes

I’m afraid Walter Russell Mead is right when he says, “Egypt has none of the signs that would lead historians to think democracy is just around the corner. Mubarak was not Franco, and Egypt is not Spain.”

Democracy requires democrats, liberalism requires liberals, and Egypt doesn’t have many of either.

But Egypt has some! Take a look at this short video interview with a 12-year-old kid back in October. He’s startlingly sophisticated for someone so young, and he makes the adult person interviewing him sound like an ass.

I’ll have real hope for Egypt when its young people en masse rebel against their parents. It happens sometimes. And it needs to happen in Egypt.

Required Reading

NOW Lebanon columnist Michael Weiss is on fire. His entire piece, Between Sisi and Morsi, is magnificent, so go read it all.

Here is but a taste.

In a way, it’s hard not to sympathize with former anti-Mubarak agitators turned army nostalgics such as Mohammed Badr, now the de facto leader of the Tamarod (“rebellion”) movement to unseat Morsi. If his ideology weren’t a big enough problem on its own, Morsi’s tone-deaf incompetence surely was. Presented with a national complaint that exceeded in both size and scope the one that ousted his predecessor, Morsi has done everything to legitimate the opposition’s argument that, at a time of emergency, Egypt is being lorded over by an authoritarian nincompoop who thinks he’s got all the time in the world. (One way to make the word “coup” suddenly palatable again is to appoint a member of a terrorist group the provincial governor of the region where that group once perpetrated it worst terrorist attack.)

Morsi has indeed treated his opponents as if they simply do not exist, surely a reflex response of decades of having kept only the counsel of his fellow subscribers of a cult movement that seems to borrow from both Bolshevism and Heaven’s Gate. Even as half a dozen or so members of his own cabinet tendered their resignations, even as Brotherhood heavies were being seized and placed under house arrest, and even as Brotherhood HQ was being set alight, the president was neither seen nor heard from. When he finally took to the airwaves at midnight last night to reject Sisi’s ultimatum, Morsi affirmed that the price for his maintenance in power could be his own life – not realizing that this was a price many are eager to see paid.


President Obama has said recently, though only discovered belatedly, that democracy must not be confused with the mere holding of elections. Whatever happens from here, one lesson that should be learned from Egypt’s latest round of convulsions is the sentimental pieties and determinisms with which we continue to approach history require a serious rethink. The image of an ink-stained finger or an old man arriving at a polling station to participate in the first free election of his life are undeniably more captivating for viewers of CNN or Al Jazeera than the latest report from the International Monetary Fund or Human Rights Watch. And yet, because the more significant bricks-and-mortar work that goes into building a functioning state and safeguarding an independent civil society is so easily ignored, that work is usually the first victim of the aspiring tyrants of the ballot box. Critical journalists can thus be fired from their jobs, NGO workers can be put on trial for phantom conspiracies, women can be characterized as Adam’s rib, opposition leaders can be beaten or locked up – all in the name of a concept “democracy” that been fetishized to near meaninglessness. Put it this way: if the ruling party in a true democracy is shown to be running torture facilities out of the official residence of the chief executive, it will not take a new election to remove that party from power.

Read the whole thing at NOW Lebanon.

A Study in Contrasts

Two days after rampaging mobs sexually assaulted 91 women at demonstrations in Egypt, Libya is preparing to make rape during armed conflict a war crime.

A Prediction

Terrorism is coming to Egypt.

Armed Forces Control Egypt

Egypt's Mohamed Morsi is now officially overthrown by the military. Adly Mansour, the head of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, is the new president.

Military commanders say they don't wish to govern, but they're clearly the real power in Egypt.

This, by the way, is why Iran's Revolutionary Guard was created after the Shah was overthrown in 1979. State armies everywhere in the Middle East are allergic to radical political Islam even though the armies are made up of Muslims.

Genuine liberals exist in the Middle East. In some places, such as in Egypt, they're a tiny minority. Seriously, don't kid yourself. The millions of people out in Cairo's streets are not all Jeffersonian democrats. Some of them are, but those crowds also include a motley collection of Nasserists, communists, socialists, anarchists, reactionaries, garden variety hooligans, and gang rapists.

In other countries, such as Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco, civil society institutions flourish and liberals are much more numerous.

In most of the region, however, this isn't their moment. The contest for power is still being waged between the regimes and the Islamists.

Egypt is right back where it started. I’m reminded of something Lebanese President Amine Gemayel said during the civil war in the 1980s. “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.”

Here We Go

Egypt is No Place for Women

Every woman I know who has visited Egypt was sexually harrassed there over and over again. It’s relentless. It’s extremely aggressive and it never stops. Attractive women can't go outside for even five minutes.

And I’ve lost track of how many stories like this I’ve read lately.

A young female journalist was gang-raped during violent mass protests in Egypt on a night that saw 44 sickening attacks on women.

Five men attacked the 22-year-old Dutch woman in Tahrir Square, Cairo, leaving her in a “severe condition” and needing surgery.

[R]eports also claimed a grandmother and a seven-year-old child were sexually assaulted.


Last night Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, tweeted: “Sadly #tahrir revolutionary atmosphere of people behaving well with common purpose long gone. Sexual assault common. No cops in sight.”


Activist group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment recorded 44 cases of sexual assaults and harassment against women on Sunday night alone - the highest number it has encountered since the group formed in November 2012.

My wife has traveled with me to Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, and Libya, and she visited Morocco with her parents when she was a teenager. She had to deal with a few minor incidents in Tunisia and Libya, but nothing worth writing about and nothing that would deter her from going back. (She was with me, though, which may have discouraged men from bothering her.) In Morocco she ran into a man who jokingly offered her father a dozen camels if he could marry her, and that was it. She had no trouble in Turkey or Lebanon. I don’t know any women who have trouble in Lebanon. Men there know how to behave.

I don’t know why Egypt is so much worse, but for whatever reason, it is. I will never take my wife there. Never. She would not go there anyway. She knows how bad it is, but a lot of women apparently don’t. That needs to change.

Bluffing in Cairo?

Most of us mortals, when trying to figure out what’s next for Egypt, would be no worse off analyzing goat entrails and tea leaves than reading the news. But take a look at what Egyptian-born scholar Samuel Tadros has to say. He thinks the army and the president are bluffing. Maybe!

Morsi has a bad hand. His performance in actual governance has been miserable and he has managed to alienate many of his initial supporters. After the high expectations of the revolution, he has failed to deliver. The protests against him are massive and larger than he expected, though not as large as his opponents may be dreaming. He recognizes that this is a make-or-break moment for him, but, more important, for his organization.

Morsi is not an independent player on the table; he represents and is guided by a larger entity, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has waited for this moment for 80 plus years. It saw its future brighten unexpectedly with the fall of Mubarak only to find another danger awaiting it at the corner. It is obsessed with conspiracy theories and cannot see or interpret the world outside of it; it cannot allow this moment to slip from its hands. This is it: victory or death. The Brotherhood knows that in the event of a coup, no matter how hard it fights, the odds are not high for it. A prolonged civil war following in the footsteps of Algeria is not in its interests, and, contrary to expectations, the Brotherhood really isn’t a revolutionary movement. It accepted working in stages through the system for 80 years.

The Brotherhood has to act in the same manner the military is acting. It has to bluff. It knows the United States will not be enthusiastic about a coup and it knows the military is unsure of how much support the Brotherhood still has or what other Islamists might do. It has called for its supporters to demonstrate in the millions tomorrow and aims to show that Morsi still has a street backing him. It hopes that both the fear of the American reaction and the fear of clashing with Islamists will force the army to reconsider. It realizes it will have to give some concessions, but it does not want to share power in any serious manner.

Maybe there is some hope after all in Egypt. An actual balance of power may be in the making, not in constitutional articles but on the ground. All parties need to recognize that the country is larger than them and a bit of humility on their parts is badly needed.

There is, however, a perfect storm in the making here. Neither player has actually played poker before in his life. They may end up raising each other to the point of no return.

Egypt on the Brink

Extraordinary events are unfolding in Egypt.

Millions of people (millions!) surged into the streets of Cairo and demanded President Mohamed Morsi resign. Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm claims this was the biggest demonstration in thousands of years of Egyptian history.

Egyptian activist and blogger Sandmonkey posted the following on Twitter: “Dear World, pay attention: Muslims protesting in the millions against Islamism. This is Historic.”

It certainly is.

And the army is on side with the demonstrators. Commanders have given Morsi 48 hours to share power or be overthrown.

Meanwhile, protestors ransacked Muslim Brotherhood offices and a handful of people, including an American student named Andrew Pochter, were killed in clashes between Islamists and secularists.

I don’t have a clue where all this is heading. Not a clue. Just about anything could happen at this point.

It might all blow over. I’d be surprised if that happened, but I’m also surprised this is happening.

The army might actually remove Morsi from power. This is exactly how Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Protesters took to the streets and demanded he be removed, and the army took care of it.

Political Islam may be in the process of being discredited in Egypt before our very eyes. Then again, the Salafists may win hearts and minds by saying the Muslim Brothers were too moderate, that the only solution to what ails Egypt is their stern and unyielding and total imposition of political Islam.

Egypt could revert to its age-old default condition and be ruled again by a military dictatorship.

Civilian technocrats might take over.

Morsi could purge the army again and impose a vicious police state of his own.

Egypt could cycle through a rapid series of new presidents like Argentina did some years back when its economy collapsed.

Egypt isn’t prone to communal civil war like Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, and Iraq, but there’s a first time for everything.

Maybe none of the above scenarios will come to pass, but all of them are possible.

If Morsi is replaced, the new president will not have an easier time governing Egypt even if he does everything right. Egypt’s economy, an emergency room case to begin with, is imploding. Half the population lives on less than two dollars a day because they have no education or skills. That’s not a problem that can be fixed any time soon. Tourists won’t return any time soon, and Egypt desperately needs tourist dollars and Euros.

Nor will Egypt’s authoritarian political culture instantly become Jeffersonian. That could eventually happen, but it’s not going to happen before Wednesday morning.

Whatever comes next, the misnamed “Arab Spring” appears to be moving to a new phase.


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