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Benghazi Circles the Drain

As Westerners evacuate Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, Islamist militias—whose fighters apparently number in the thousands—are moving in.

An unnamed activist there says, “There isn't anyone fully in control of Benghazi…[Militias] control entrances into the city, streets, key infrastructure. The police don't want to challenge them because they just don't have the manpower.” A downtown police chief says, “We only have pistols and rifles. They have tanks and heavy weapons. We want to do our job but some police officers are simply afraid.”

This sort of thing happnened in Iraq shortly before entire cities were taken over and occupied by terrorist organizations. Eastern Libya may well end up suffering the same grim fate as Northern Mali if the government doesn’t get its act together, and fast.

Change of Plans - Libya Has Become Impossible

Just as I'm finally ready to depart for Libya, travel warnings go from bad to catastrophic.

The United States government is now saying “the potential for violence and kidnappings targeting Westerners in Benghazi is significant.” The British Foreign Office says, “We are aware of a specific, imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi. We advise against all travel to Benghazi and urge any British nationals who are there against our advice to leave immediately.”

I cannot possibly defy these kinds of warnings. Following through on my plans at this point would be like going to the beach after a tsunami warning is issued. After processing this information, if I were to go there and get myself kidnapped or killed, I'd deserve a Darwin Award. I may not be right about everything, but I'm not dumb enough to earn myself a Darwin Award.

So what I'm going to do instead is cover the Syrian civil war from Lebanon. I think it's a worthwhile substitute. That gruesome civil war has been spilling over the border for a while now. Lebanese are rushing into Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad while Syrians are fleeing in terror across the border to Lebanon. What happens in Syria affects Lebanon and Iran, and what happens in Lebanon and Iran affects Israel, and what happens in Iran and Israel affects the United States. The current disaster in the Levant is just as important, if not even more so, than what's going on in North Africa.

The general public may perceive Lebanon and Libya to be equally dangerous, but they aren't, at least not for me, and not now, for a couple of reasons. First, no one is targeting Westerners in Lebanon at the moment. And second, I know Lebanon better I know any country in the world aside from the United States. I can handle myself there even if all hell breaks loose.

When I made the decision to go to Libya, things were dicey. I can handle dicey. I've been to Iraq seven times, I covered the Israeli-Hezbollah war from the front line, and I made a beeline for Georgia when Russia invaded. But Libya has apparently transformed itself from dicey to deathtrap since I made the decision to go there, and it took so long for the government to approve my visa that I couldn't go during the relatively “safe” window of opportunity that I had in November and December.

The absurdly long visa delay and the crap security conditions are related, I think. Libya just doesn't have a functioning government. Its bureaucrats don’t have it together any better than its security personnel.

This is the first and only time I have ever had to pull the plug on a trip, so believe me when I say I didn't make this decision lightly. I really did want to go. I didn't expect to enjoy myself there, but there was no doubt in my mind that a journey to post-Qaddafi Libya would be just as searing an educational experience as my first trip nine years ago.

Anyone who donated to my Libyan Kickstarter campaign and thinks I'm making the wrong decision, that I should go to Libya in spite of the rapidly deteriorating conditions, can have their money back. Just send me a message and I will take care of it.

And to those of you who understand and can still support me, thank you so very much.

Love It, Hate It--But See It

Zero Dark Thirty, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is weathering a storm of criticism. Critics overwhelmingly give the film positive reviews, but activists claim that it approves of and even glorifies the use of torture against suspected al-Qaida terrorists held in secret CIA prisons and “black” sites.

The accusation is ludicrous. Nothing in Zero Dark Thirty suggests that either Boal or Bigelow approves of torture. So many have accused Bigelow of torture advocacy that she took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times and answered the charges directly. “As a lifelong pacifist,” she wrote, “I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.” Not only is she against torture—she’s a pacifist.

The reason she’s being called out for the opposite—David Edelstein at Vulture.com even calls the film “borderline fascistic” and “barely distinct from a boneheaded right-wing revenge picture”—is that she set her own opinions aside and depicted the hunt for bin Laden journalistically and objectively. The film’s electrifying final third dramatizes the raid on the al-Qaida leader’s compound in Pakistan, while the middle third shows the painstaking detective work that went into tracking him down. The film’s first third—the portion catching all the flak—takes place in secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Poland, where terrorist suspects are ruthlessly interrogated for intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Anti-torture activists are picketing theaters in cities around the country and handing out leaflets. They seem to be confusing activism with journalism and art, which I suppose makes sense, since they’re the activists and Bigelow is the artist. But someone needs to explain to them how journalism and art work.

“Those of us who work in the arts,” Bigelow writes, “know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

But Bigelow’s critics didn’t want art, nor were they interested in a journalistic account. They wanted a cinematic op-ed piece and didn’t get it. True, neither the writer nor filmmaker articulate an anti-torture message, but those trained in the arts know this sort of thing is not always necessary or even desirable. Good novelists and filmmakers can manipulate the emotions and even opinions of their audience, but they also know that the strongest emotions and opinions are self-generated. One of the first things a student of creative writing hears from a good teacher is “show, don’t tell.” If you want the audience to think something is horrible, you don’t tell them something is horrible. You show them something that’s horrible and let them come to a conclusion about it themselves.

The first third of Zero Dark Thirty not only depicts scenes of prisoner abuse; it also includes gut-wrenching scenes of mass murder and terrorism. No character waltzes in front of the camera later to tell the audience that terrorism and suicide bombings are wrong. That would be gratuitous and insulting, as if the audience were made up of four-year olds.

The scenes depicting prisoner abuse are trickier, because the film’s protagonists are committing violence against helpless captives. It’s less obvious how we’re supposed to feel about that. American public opinion is divided. Speaking for myself, I sank in my seat and cringed during those scenes. I saw the movie twice, and I was no more comfortable the second time around.

My feelings of revulsion were entirely self-generated. Neither Boal nor Bigelow told me to feel that way. If the film had lectured the audience, or if one character lectured another, my own natural reaction to what I had seen would have been somewhat diminished. That’s why calling a book or film “preachy” isn’t a compliment.

There is no getting around it: What took place in those CIA black sites was a nasty business. If you abhor what went on there, you should appreciate the fact that Zero Dark Thirty portrays it unflinchingly. If, on the other hand, you approve of the rough methods used to extract information from captured al-Qaida members, if you think the results were justified by the means—rest assured that none of the film’s characters will step in front of the camera and call you a monster. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell anyone what to think. Its shows us what we should think about.

Journalists and consumers of quality journalism should be thankful for this; artists and consumers of quality art should be thankful, too. Activists, and those with an activist way of thinking, are the ones who have a problem with the neutral and balanced approach—not because they want to be lectured themselves, but because they want to sit in a room where everyone else is being lectured.

Read the rest in City Journal.

What Just Happened?

Algeria is a black box for most Western foreign correspondents. Most of us, including me, have never been there. I sort of want to visit, but the place gives me the creeps in a really bad way. It is by far the most bloody-minded and ruthless place in the neighborhood.

The biggest reason this fact is not widely known is because during the unspeakable civil war there in the 1990s, every faction—including the government side—murdered reporters both domestic and foreign. Pretty much nobody went there to cover it. So between 100,000 and 200,000 people were massacred with hardly anyone outside the country even knowing about it.

You’re therefore not likely to read much of anything in the mainstream media about the gruesome scene at the Ain Amenas natural gas plant by anyone with a solid grasp of the country. Algeria wanted to be off the media map. And so it is.

Adam Garfinkle, the editor of the indispensable magazine The American Interest, says he is not an Algerian expert, but he is compared with just about everyone else, and he wrote a background essay that everybody should read. I can only excerpt part of it here. You really ought to head over there and read all of it.

To properly set the stage for what I am about to tell you, dear reader, let me point out that the Algerian leadership is a stark atavism. There was a time when “progressive”, “socialist” and avowedly secular military elites lorded over huge swaths of the Arab world. These elites were invariably friendly with the Soviet Union in the Cold War parallax that defined the region’s geopolitics, with the conservative monarchies and a few outliers (Tunisia, Lebanon) more or less associated—one should not say allied—with the West, and in most cases the United States by indirection. Egypt before mid-1972, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and, for a time, Southern Yemen all muscled up with a Soviet-supplied and trained order of battle. Of these “progressive” military governments, Algeria is the only one left aside from the Assad regime in Syria, which is reeling on its last legs.

The present Algerian leadership consists of the very last remnants of the old guard that experienced the war of independence against France, and the generation right behind it experienced the civil war. Taken together, then, this leadership is as battle-hardened, ruthless and cold-blooded a group of guys as can be found anywhere. This is not a kind and gentle military that holds regular sensitivity-training sessions; it’s a military that uses eight bullets when two will do nicely, and that has no qualms about feeding still wriggling bodies through the wood chipper. They are also very proud and exquisitely sensitive to any slight coming from the general direction of foreigners. One former U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot (who of course will not be named) involved in a limited training mission has had this to say: “. . . the Algerians . . . . proved to be completely inflexible and almost hostile to the idea of working with us. Could it be their past experiences with the French or just garden-variety suspicion of the U.S. and our intentions?” Answer, friend: Both and neither. Yes, experience and suspicion figure in, but these people are just professional hard-asses and, as I say, they’re proud of it.

That said, they are also these days, I suspect, growing more fearful by the month. They are, as I say, the last of the breed of independence-era Arab military “progressives”, whose legitimacy formula has long since passed its sell-by date. If you look at a map of which parts of the country voted which way back in 1991, you can see that the government party won nowhere outside of the capital, and that the entire Tuareg south was disaffected both from the government and from the Arab Islamist opposition. Since 1991-92 the Amazigh—the Berbers—have also made their ticked-off presence very well known. And the general rise of Islamist energies with the so-called Arab Spring—particularly in neighboring Tunisia and in Egypt, but also in next-door Morocco—has probably got the Algerian leadership feeling not only somewhat antique but also increasingly isolated. At least some of them have to fear that if there is a second coming of their civil war, they might lose this time. These guys are so proud that they would never show fear publicly. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t down there somewhere in their guts.

And that, it seems to me, goes far to explain why they reacted to the In Amenas attack the way they did: quickly, and with deadly force. As I said in my second Flogging Mali post: “What the Algerians are saying, in effect, is we’re not going to come after you if you leave us alone, but if you mess with us we will show no mercy.” Well, just the next day, on the front page of the January 18 New York Times, I found evidence for my interpretation. The government spokesman, a fellow named Mohammed Said Oublaid, said as follows: “Those who think we will negotiate with terrorists are delusional.”  Just in case the Western journalists present did not get the point, Oublaid added: “Those who think we will surrender to their blackmail are delusional.”

It’s not hard to imagine the scene behind the curtain. The senior generals tell Oublaid to go out there and make one point, and one point only: We are focused on deterring more attacks against our country, period. And that had the merit of being true. The Algerian leadership did not give a flying fork about the hostages, Algerian or foreign. The way they see it, you play hard-ass and maybe a few dozen people die; you go soft and a new plague of civil war will kill tens of thousands. The bleating of some foreign governments about how the Algerians failed to employ standard counter-terrorist protocol—stun grenades and tear gas to help avoid needless bloodshed—completely missed the point. Maybe the Algerians know how to do that sort of thing and maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter because in this instance they wanted to shed blood. They wanted to look as unsentimental as a frozen brick, because that was the way to deliver the message they wished to send. And send it they did.

Read the whole thing

Potemkin North Korea

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently returned from a trip to North Korea with former Ambassador to the UN and Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson. Schmidt brought his daughter Sophie along, and she published a long narrative dispatch about her experience there, including photographs.

Everything foreigners see in North Korea is staged. And it’s staged to an astonishing degree. The Soviet Union used to pull similar stunts for visiting foreigners, but North Korea has taken them to the nth degree. As far as I can tell, no one is fooled, least of all Sophie Schmidt.

A Botched Hostage Rescue in Algeria

So the Algerian army stormed the Ain Amenas natural gas complex where terrorists held dozens of foreigners, including Americans, hostage. And the prelinary body count is 32 dead terrorists and 23 dead hostages.

Maybe the Algerians went in there and shot everything that moved because they were scared. Perhaps they didn’t particularly care about the well-being of hostages. I seriously doubt the soldiers have been trained in avoiding civilian casualties. (The armies of the Middle East and North Africa don’t exactly excel in that area.)

Then again, the Algerians may have fough bravely and carefully while the terrorists executed the hostages. That’s plausible, too. The French president says that’s exactly what happened, although I’m not sure many people actually know at this point exactly what happened.

The Game of Thrones in North Africa

It feels strange visiting a country like Morocco and listening to people extol the virtues of a political system my country waged a revolution against. Morocco has a king, and he’s a real one too, not some kind of a figurehead. But I went there, I listened, and after almost ten years of visiting Middle Eastern countries wracked by tyranny, terrorism, botched revolutions, and wars, I was perhaps a bit more willing to hear what they had to say than I might have been a decade ago.

A monarchy is a tough sell for Americans. The founders of our country fought against that system of government with force of arms. The very idea of a king is offensive to most of us on some level. It’s in our cultural and political DNA.

Yet Morocco has been an American ally and friend since 1786. Our alliance is not a wafer thin transactional one like it is with Saudi Arabia. It’s real. Morocco is a major non-NATO ally. So from a strict national interest perspective, there’s nothing complicated about our friendship with Morocco.

But what about politically? The Shah of Iran was a monarch, and look what our friendship with him got us: shouts of “Death to America” on the streets of Tehran during the 1979 revolution that are still repeated even today by Iran’s tyrannical government.

Monarchies are by definition not democratic. They are, however, more stable than anything else in the Middle East and North Africa at the moment. Elliot Abrams, in an essay for Commentary called “Dictators Go, Monarchs Stay,” describes a meeting he had with former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2005 when the Bush Administration was scheduling elections in Iraq. “The Iraqis were incapable of democracy, [Mubarak] argued; you don’t understand them like I do; they need a general to rule them.”

But now the “big men” in the “fake republics,” as Abrams described them, have almost all been overthrown while the monarchs remain. The kings on their thrones have staying power and they are not come-latelies. They have tradition on their side, at least.

Morocco’s King Mohammad VI is said to be a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. I asked some people in the capital Rabat if that’s really true. Everybody said yes. I asked how they know it’s true. The answer was always the same. “We just know.” Is it true? I’ve no idea. But everyone seems to think it is, or at least says that it is, and in any case the Alaoui family has ruled the country without interruption for hundreds of years.

The previous king, Mohammad’s father Hassan II, ruled more or less as an absolute monarch, and his ministry of the interior ran what basically amounted to a police state. The so-called Years of Lead, from the 1960s to the 1980s, were characterized by heavy state repression against opposition movements of both the left and the right, some of which were heavily armed. I don’t know if the word “lead” in that description refers to the use of ammunition or to just the general heaviness of the era. It works either way. 

The lead years were rough. The lead years were brutal. The lead years made Morocco a sadly typical country in the Middle East and North Africa at the time.

Then in 2004, Mohammad VI, five years after ascending the throne, established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission—the Instance Equité et Réconciliation—theonly one in the world I’m aware of that didn’t follow on the heels of a regime change. Victims of internal repression by Hassan II were rehabilitated and compensated. The young king encouraged everyone to let it all out, to voice their complaints and their grievances, to do so in public and even to scream if they wanted—and he encouraged them to do so against his own father.

Yet two million mourners attended King Hassan’s funeral. One man in Rabat explained the psychology to me this way: “He was a really tough daddy. But he was daddy.”

*

Monarchs still exist in the modern world, but they are not modern. They’re relics from feudal times. They probably won’t exist anywhere a century from now except as honorary figures like the king of Belgium—whose name (Albert II) I had to look up. 

But real kings with real power still govern in 2013, and one of them is in Morocco. And since the region’s biggest problems right now are terrorism, tyranny, and war, there are a few questions aside from the obvious that we ought to be asking. First, is a monarchical autocracy better or worse than an autocracy run by a military dictatorship, a theocracy, or a police state? Second, is the monarch in question contributing to his country’s political modernization and liberalization—which of course greases the skids to his eventual marginalization—or not? If the answer to that second question is yes, here’s a third: Is a slow transition to political liberalism better or worse than the kind of destabilizing transformation that follows revolutions?

Here’s a more general question: if you can’t have both, would you rather have liberalism without democracy, or democracy without liberalism? (I’m using the word liberalism here in the broad and general sense, not in the parochial American sense that describes only the center-left wing of the Democratic Party. Both American parties are more or less liberal.)

That dilemma is now a bit softer in Morocco than it was, though, because since 2011 it has been—at least on paper—a constitutional monarchy, a system of government that’s partly democratic and partly autocratic. Wikipedia puts Australia and Great Britain alongside Morocco on its list of constitutional monarchies, but this is misleading. Britain’s political system is far more like that of the United States than it is like Morocco’s. King Mohammad VI is extraordinarily powerful compared with the Queen of England. But it’s equally clear that Mohammad VI is a very different man from his father Hassan II. The political system the son currently presides over is one that his father might scarcely recognize.

Nadia Bernoussi is a professor of constitutional law at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration in Rabat. The king appointed her to the nineteen-person judicial council that drafted a new constitution that was ratified in 2011.

“This was the first time in the history of Morocco,” she said, “that the process of writing a new constitution was transparent, inclusive, and participatory. Under Hassan II, all the constitutional reform was done by himself with the help of a few specialists from France. It was a solitary authoritarian process. The new king told us, ‘you’re the engineers of the new constitution.’ He also appointed a second committee made up of representatives from the political parties.”

Of the nineteen people on the judicial council, five were women, one was Jewish, one was from the Sahara, one was from the Islamic ulema, one came from the magistracy, five were professors of constitutional law, and the rest were professors of political science. A handful were prisoners during the lead years of Hassan II.

“The majority were in favor of progressive politics, the equality of women and men, and secularism,” she said. “A second committee was represented by thirty three political parties and five trade unions. The parties of the extreme left and the extreme right were not invited.”

I asked her to define those terms for me. What do “extreme left” and “extreme right” mean in the context of Morocco?

“Unreconstructed communists on the left,” she said, “and radical Islamists on the right.”

They stripped the king of a great deal of his power. They did it with his blessing, of course—otherwise they couldn’t have done it.

Mohammad VI has nowhere near as much power, at least on paper, than the amount he inherited. That hardly means he’s a figurehead. Not at all. He is still a real king. He has plenty of legal power, and an extraordinary amount of non-legal political influence. “We could not take away all the king’s power,” she said. “The society isn’t ready and we didn’t have the authority.”

The second committee—the one made up of representatives from the trade unions and political parties—was not as liberal as the king’s hand-picked committee.

“The vision we on the judicial committee had was the dream of an elite,” she said. “The traditional political parties wouldn’t follow us. For instance, our draft of the constitution included freedom of conscience—the freedom to have no religion or to change your religion. I’d have the freedom to become Christian or Jewish. But the conservative parties wouldn’t agree, and freedom of conscience disappeared from the constitution. But we added other provisions that added up to the same thing—freedom of thinking and freedom from discrimination.”

You can read the constitutional changes yourself right here. Morocco’s constitutional changes look a whole lot better than Egypt’s. Mohammad VI is a more liberal man than Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammad Morsi, and the constitutions were drafted under each man’s direction. Yet Morsi was elected and Mohammad VI was born into the job. So here’s an awkward question for Westerners: Is Morocco’s constitution more liberal than Egypt’s despite the fact that the king wasn’t elected or partly because of the fact that an unelected head of state appointed the draft committee himself?

Morocco’s constitution is a startling document, and not just because the king lost some of his legal power at his own acquiescence. There are other things in there, too, things that are all but unthinkable in most Arab countries right now. For instance, Morocco is legally and formally described as “a sovereign Muslim state, committed to the ideals of openness, moderation, tolerance and dialogue to foster mutual understanding among all civilizations.” And then there is this: Morocco is defined—correctly, I should add—as “a nation whose unity is based on the fully endorsed diversity of its constituents: Arabic, Amazigh, Hassani, Sub-Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish and Mediterranean.” [Emphasis added.]

Describing Morocco as having a partially Jewish identity is not just a sop to Western observers. Anti-Semitism exists in Morocco, for sure, but it’s not as strong as it is elsewhere in the Arab world. Thousands of Jews still live there, just as they do in Tunisia, and they’ve been there for more than a thousand years. Jewish contribution to Moroccan culture is just a fact. Only a liar or ignoramus could deny that.

But there’s a big difference between the Jewish community of Tunisia and the Jewish community of Morocco aside from the fact that Morocco’s is bigger. Jewish schools in Tunisia are only for Jews. But Jews run schools in Morocco that are attended mostly by Muslim children. Morocco’s Jews run some of the best schools in the country, and everyone knows it. Upper and middle class families want their children to go to the Jewish schools even if they aren’t Jewish, just as many middle class American families send their children to Catholic schools even if they aren’t religious at all, let alone Catholic. Morocco’s Jewish schools are extremely competitive. Nothing even remotely like them exists in any other Arab country. I was surprised to learn this. Moroccans were surprised and slightly annoyed that I was surprised.

Israelis are also welcome in Morocco. They can and regularly do travel there on their own passports. They don’t have to visit on second passports while hiding their identity as they do in most Arab countries. It’s no longer even a secret that Morocco has friendly behind-the-scenes relations with Israel much like Jordan did before the peace treaty was signed by King Hussein in 1994. This state of affairs is almost certainly because Mohammad VI has a more moderate view of the Arab-Israeli conflict than the population at large, though I should point out that I detected a complete lack of hysteria about Israel among the Moroccan elitists I spoke to, something I can’t say about any other Arab country, period, not even Tunisia.

“Our intention,” Bernoussi said, “was not to hobble the monarchy, but to clearly set out the responsibilities for each branch of the government. Because the context we were working in was the Arab Spring that’s sweeping the region and all of its dangers. We didn’t want to hobble the monarchy because we looked to the monarchy to ensure the changes we were making wouldn’t get lost. The monarchy is the only institution that everybody has confidence in.”

“What do the Islamists think of the king?” I said.

“I don’t really know,” she said, “but my friends in Tunisia and Egypt say to me how lucky I am because we have someone who can balance everything out. My Tunisian friends on both the left and the right say this.”

The king and the government have separate powers now, separate areas of responsibility. Mohammad VI handles strategic sovereign questions—war, peace, and the like—while the government deals with the public—the economy, the budget, urban issues, and so on. In other words, the king takes care of Morocco and the government takes care of Moroccans.

“The king hasn’t retired from the government,” she said. “What changed is that the parliament has entered the government. Because before we didn’t have a real parliament. The king can’t make laws by himself anymore. He can’t issue executive orders.”

“But what if he did it anyway?” I said.

“Then we would have a serious political crisis.”

*

Moroccan journalist Abderrahman Aadaoui laughed when I asked him if he needs a license from the government to practice his profession. “Of course not,” he said, as if my question was bizarre. But journalists in plenty of Arab countries do need a license. They are heavily regulated by the dictators they write about. Not sufficiently toeing the party line? Say goodbye to your license and income, perhaps your family and home, and maybe even your life.

Aadaoui graduated with a degree in English literature from University Mohammad V in 1985 and he works today as the moderator of a weekly political show called “Issues and Opinion” on Moroccan TV.

I asked him about red lines in the media. Surely they must exist. All Arab countries have red lines. They aren’t the same everywhere, but they exist everywhere. And of course they exist in Morocco, as well.

The red lines are these: You can’t bang on the king. You can’t bang on Islam. And you can’t question the territorial integrity of Morocco—meaning you can’t say the still-disputed Western Sahara region belongs to the Polisario, a guerrilla army backed by the Soviet Union that tried to take over the region after the Spanish imperialists left. 

Theoretically Moroccan journalists can say whatever they want about anything else, including the parliament and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“But Moroccans can even cross those lines now to an extent,” Aadaoui said. “They can write about the king and argue about Islam.”

“Can you say terrible things about the king?” I said.

He smiled and laughed. “Well, it depends,” he said. “What do you mean by terrible? You can talk about his fortune, his wealth. People are talking about that right now. You can talk about his personal life. There used to be a red line, a wall, that has been destroyed. The word wall is better than line. Like the Berlin Wall, every day someone takes another brick out of it.”

“As far as liberty,” he continued, “Morocco has recently gone from zero percent to 95 percent. But we don’t have total freedom. Once in a while somebody goes to jail. And people ask, how come during the reign of Hassan II nobody went to jail? The reason is because no one wrote about anything controversial. Those were real red lines back in that day. No one had the right to write anything about the king except what was official, the things he was doing. Now people take the initiative and write about the king.”

Moroccan journalists do get arrested sometimes, and not only for crossing those red lines. For instance, in 2011 Rachid Niny, a controversial newspaper publisher, was jailed for a year for supposedly publishing “disinformation” about Morocco’s intelligence agency.

Because of incidents of that sort, and because of the red lines, Freedom House ranks Morocco’s press as “not free” even while listing Morocco as a “partly free” country.

Aadaoui thinks that’s grossly unfair.

“Freedom House,” he said, “is critical of Moroccan press freedom because they were expecting 100 percent freedom. They shouldn’t make judgments about the current era without taking into consideration what we had before. There was enormous oppression. We weren’t allowed to say one single word. I left during King Hassan’s reign. I went to the United States. And when I came back, Morocco was a different country. You had to have lived in the period before to enjoy what we have now.”

I can understand his frustration, but that doesn’t make Freedom House wrong. The ranking doesn’t by itself reveal that Morocco is more free than it used to be, but it’s nevertheless the case that the media isn’t yet free. The rating is accurate even if Aadaoui is right that the press is more free than it used to be.

Aadaoui sees a glass that’s half full while Freedom House sees a glass that’s half empty. They’re both right. They even agree with each other. Neither disputes the fact that half the glass is filled with water while the other is nothing but air.

He and I discussed the society as well as the media. Morocco is an inherently conservative place. Change occurs gradually and very carefully over very long stretches of time. That’s how it has always been there. That’s one of the reasons Morocco still has a king with actual power long after its European neighbors across the Mediterranean got rid of the theirs.

But this is the 21st century, and no culture is static.

“The modern political parties talk about separating religion from government,” he said. “This is new. But you should understand something. You see all this modernity around you.” I did, indeed, see a modern-looking country around me. “We’re modern in the street, but we are conservative when we go home. We have two faces. A man may watch a pornographic movie outside, but if he’s home with his wife and he sees a kiss on the TV he might change the channel. This is Morocco.”

“Can you explain that?” I said.

“Modernity is new here,” he said. “We got some of it from French and Spanish colonialism, and from America. After the French and Spanish left, modernity stayed. There will always be a debate between modernity and conservatism, but the new generation can be as modern as they want to be. They’re on Facebook and Twitter. They know only one thing. They are separating from the past. In twenty or thirty years, I think, we will no longer have two personalities. The duality we have here will fade. But people my age live in both worlds at the same time. And you find both points of view in the media. Some newspapers are strictly modernist and constantly attack the conservatives. One newspaper has pictures of women on what’s called the ‘hot page.’ It’s almost pornographic.”

“The women are wearing, what, swimsuits?” I said.

“Not even swimsuits!” he said. “You don’t see this in other Arab countries.”

“Which side does the king come down on in the argument between the modernists and conservatives?” I said.

“He isn’t supposed to take sides because he represents all the people,” Aadaoui said, “but he’s young and he encourages the modernist current. He says Morocco can’t abandon its roots or religion, but he insists all the time on modernity. It is a key word in his speeches.”

*

Morocco began its process of liberalization before the Arab Spring started. Hassan II ruled the country iron-fist style, but it was actually he—not Mohammad VI—who began the process. His son just stepped on the accelerator.

It’s impossible to say how much he’s reforming Morocco because he wants to and how much is because he feels that he has to, but it’s almost certainly a mixture of both. It would be silly to pretend it isn’t happening in the context of the Arab Spring. It is. The Moroccans don’t pretend that it isn’t, so we shouldn’t either. The new constitution didn’t just randomly happen to get written after revolution and war broke out across the Middle East and North Africa.

More than half of the northernmost countries in Africa just overthrew tyrants. The only reason the same thing hasn’t also happened in Algeria is because the country still hasn’t entirely recovered from the civil war of the 1990s when radical Islamists mounted a horrifically savage insurgency that killed more than 100,000 people. I briefly spoke to an Algerian last year who had this to say about why his country is stable: “the government is atrocious, but unlike the Islamists, at least they don’t want to kill me.”

Morocco has no such dynamic. Change was coming one way or another. The government could either get out in front of it and manage some kind of transition or hunker down and hope for the best while political hurricanes flatten the neighbors. Since the country was already reforming anyway, this was not a hard call to make.

One of the first things Mohammad VI did was get rid of his father’s minister of the interior, Driss Basri, the king’s right-hand man during the lead years who seemed to enjoy using the state’s instruments of internal repression to kick the crap out of people. Just four months after Mohammad VI ascended the throne, he shook Basri’s hand, said “thank you for your service,” and sent him into retirement. Basri, along with the entire circle around him, was and remains hated by a large number of people. Most of them, including Basri himself, exiled themselves to France, their names and reputations blackened at home.

Moroccans were stunned when the king fired Basri. So was the foreign diplomatic corps in Rabat. It brought the curtain down hard on the end of an era.

Basri’s political prisoners were let out of jail. Five of them helped draft the country’s new constitution. Others were given permanent jobs in the government. One of them, Driss El Yazami, is the president of the National Human Rights Council. It was established in March of 2011 to address past abuses in Morocco and to police abuses that are still going on.

He was jailed for being a left-wing activist by Hassan II. And now a major part of his job is stamping out the abuse of prisoners and detainees by prison guards and police officers.

“We take complaints from citizens about possible human rights violations,” he said, “and we have the power to intervene on behalf of detained people if we suspect a person’s rights have been violated. We can go right now to prisons and intervene if someone is being mistreated or tortured, but we have to give the prison prior notification.”

Shortly before I arrived in Morocco, the government ratified The Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. One of the requirements of that protocol is the creation of an organization that has the authority go intervene without prior notification. That hasn’t happened yet, but theoretically Yazami should be given that power.

“How bad are the conditions in Moroccan prisons?” I asked him. He ought to know better than just about anyone.

He didn’t answer my question directly. He put it this way: “No prison anywhere in the world could be described as civilized. Human rights organizations report catastrophic conditions even in Europe.” I assume he meant to say that Moroccan prisons are catastrophically uncivilized while saying, at the same time, hey, don’t judge us, yours and even Europe’s are terrible, too.

“More than forty percent of the people incarcerated here haven’t yet had a trial,” he added. “It has been like that for six years.”

*

“The Moroccan Spring began a long time ago,” said women’s rights activist Naima Benwakrim. She’s on the National Council for Human Rights and has a master’s degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University. “And the Moroccan Spring accelerated when Mohammad VI succeeded his father on the throne. In his very first speech he announced that the status of women had to conform with modern norms.”

Morocco’s family status law changed to more or less match Tunisia’s, which made women and men equal under the law in 1956. Morocco’s Islamists weren’t happy about it, but they voted for it unanimously in the parliament anyway. The Islamists were reeling from a massive wave of public invective after suicide bombers from Salafia Jihadia killed themselves and 33 others in Casablanca in 2003. The entire society was roiling with fury at the Islamists, and that was the moment the king decided to put the reform code up for a vote.

“It’s not perfect,” Benwakrim said, “but it’s a huge achievement in our struggle as women to improve our situation. I didn’t expect to ever see this sort of change in my lifetime. We struggled, but we thought we were just laying groundwork for future generations. We were so very happy about this reform because what we got was exactly what was in the action plan that was boycotted by the Islamists.”

Morocco is still in many ways a conservative Muslim society, but the traditions it is conserving aren’t the same as they are everywhere else in the region. The country has a strong moderate Sufi current, and the religion as practiced and understood there has long been influenced by ideas from Sub-Saharan Africa and from Europe, which is only eleven miles away. Plenty of uncovered women are out and about in the streets. I didn’t see a single woman with her face covered the entire time I was there. Female genital mutilation, with an incidence rate somewhere between 78-97 percent in Egypt, doesn’t even exist in Morocco.

And the city of Marrakech elected its first woman mayor four years ago. Fatima Zahra Mansouri from the Authenticity and Modernity Party is the first woman mayor in the country’s history. She speaks perfect French and wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the mayor’s office in Paris.

She does not wear a headscarf. Every time she meets with local Islamists they tell her she should cover herself, but she refuses. She has a standard—and I’m sorry to say, unprintable—response to that demand.

I asked her what’s the hardest thing about her job, and she knew the answer immediately. “The most difficult thing is making unpopular decisions that are necessary for the city’s future. Like making people pay for parking. People hate that, but it’s important! And I don’t like taxes, but the city needs money.”

That’s the kind of answer the mayor of a city in a peaceable and fully developed nation might have. The mayors of Benghazi and Baghdad have far bigger problems on their plate at the moment and likely will for a very long time. When public anger over parking meters become the biggest source of stress for the mayor of Baghdad, we’ll know Iraq has truly and finally changed.

Mansouri and I talked urban issues for a while—I can be a bit of a geek about cities and could have discussed such things with her all day—but she really came to life when I asked my final question.

“What do you wish Americans knew about Morocco that they might not already know?” Most Americans know Morocco is a nice place for tourists, but that’s about it. Most who know a little bit more know that Morocco is a Muslim country with a king, but—again—that’s about it.

“It may be hard for you to understand Morocco politically,” she said. “I often read analyses that are totally wrong, but I can’t blame people for not understanding, because this is a hard place to understand.”

She leaned forward and spoke in English rather than French to make sure I would understand.

“The Moroccan soul is not one of revolution,” she said, “but of evolution. It is our specialty. Transitions are easier here than they are in other places. We don’t have what they have in Tunisia today. We don’t have what they have in Egypt and Syria and Libya today. We have a special system, one with a strong king but one who does not have all the power.”

“We had the French protectorate period,” she continued, “but after independence we built our own institutions. And now we are building democracy. Democracy isn’t something that’s just declared. It has to be built. We have the separation of powers. And we will never tolerate radical Islam because our traditions here have been moderate for ten centuries. Look, Morocco is stable. We have a secular system. We have strong institutions and a growing economy. We are known as the door to Africa. We have so much cultural diversity here and I think we can turn into a model of human development. You have to live here to fully appreciate it. We can’t adopt a Western style of government yet, but we can strike a balance between who and what we are and what we will have to become.”

Nadia Bernoussi, the law professor who helped draft the new constitution, grumbled a bit about how some foreigners see Morocco’s democratic reforms as a sham.

“Well,” I said. “The king wasn’t elected.”

She was taken aback by my bluntness, and I felt slightly rude saying it, but it’s true and every single Westerner in the world who looks at Morocco’s political system notices that and takes it into account. It is the most salient feature of her country’s government from our point of view.

“It’s true that the king isn’t elected,” she said, “but he has a different kind of legitimacy. He has national, historic, and Islamic legitimacy.”

This isn’t the sort of political sentiment Americans like me can relate to, but I did hear something I could understand and appreciate easily. When I asked uncovered Moroccan women if they fear the Islamists, they all said they did not. (In Tunisia and Egypt the uncovered women I know absolutely fear the Islamists.) But even the feminists in Morocco aren’t afraid of the Islamists. And when I asked why, all of them said “because of the king.”

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War in Mali Heats Up

So much for the so-called “war on terror” being over. (You didn’t really believe it was, did you?) A coalition of Salafist Al Qaeda militias is pouring out of the statelet they broke off in Northern Mali and heading south while French warplanes are bombing their positions in the city of Gao.

While no one really knows much, Andy Morgan seems to have a better idea what’s going on there than the rest of us do. His analysis is worth reading. Here’s a taste.

The UN Security Council met in emergency session to “express their grave concern over the reported military movements and attacks by terrorist and extremist groups in the north of Mali, in particular their capture of the city of Konna, near Mopti,” according to a Security Council press statement.  The Council called for a rapid deployment of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and the immediate issuance of an agreed political road map, which includes serious negotiations with non-extremist Malians in the north and presses for the full restoration of democratic governance. It seems that the EU, UN and USA’s preferred option of a slow careful build-up to an invasion of the north by a Malian lead force of ECOWAS, AU and French Special Forces, with D Day set sometime next September and plenty of negotiation in between, has proved to be all too leisurely and fantastical.

Granted, the world and his dog knows that the Malian are in no fit state to fight a war in the north of the country. A military establishment that was riddled with corruption and incompetence even before the current crisis began has been bought to a state of catastrophic unreadiness by the army’s defeat at the hands of the MNLA and the Islamist coalition last April. It must also be remembered that the Malian army hasn’t won a military victory in the north without the use of Arab and Touareg militia since the early 1960s. The idea that the Salafist coalition currently ruling northern Mali was going to patiently wait around until next September whilst the Malian army was rebuilt with funding and expertise from the European Union was wishful thinking. The last few months have felt like a phoney war. There’s been nothing phoney about the fighting in the last few days.

The International Elite Bubble

Robert D. Kaplan is always worth reading. He’s interesting even when I don’t agree with him, and his recent piece in the Wall Street Journal called “The Return of Toxic Nationalism” is right on the money. (It was published over the Christmas holiday, so most of us probably missed it.)

Western elites believe that universal values are trumping the forces of reaction. They wax eloquent about the triumph of human rights, women's liberation, social media, financial markets, international and regional organizations and all the other forces that are breaking down boundaries separating humanity.

Tragically, they are really observing a self-referential world of global cosmopolitans like themselves. In country after country, the Westerners identify like-minded, educated elites and mistake them for the population at large. They prefer not to see the regressive and exclusivist forces—such as nationalism and sectarianism—that are mightily reshaping the future.

This is a real and serious problem. I’m prone to it myself and have to consciously go out of my way to counter it.

Lebanon taught me why this is necessary. When I first showed up there during the Beirut Spring in 2005, I met one cosmopolitan liberal-minded person after another protesting Syria’s military occupation in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. I interviewed some startlingly bigoted sectarians at the same time in the same place in the same crowd of activists, though they were the minority.

Had I left the country immediately after hanging with that crowd, I might have come away with a completely distorted impression. Or had that revolution of sorts taken place in any other country, I might have fallen right into the trap Kaplan describes and assumed Beirut was Berlin in 1989. The reason I didn’t, and couldn’t, is because I stuck around because Lebanon is also where Hezbollah lives.

Hezbollah was, and still is, far too big and powerful and nasty to ignore. So one of the first things I did after orienting myself in Martyr’s Square with Lebanon’s liberals was head down to the Hezbollah office in the dahiyeh south of Beirut, which gave me a serious education in totalitarian Islamist politics which I narrate in detail in my first book, The Road to Fatima Gate. The Beirut Spring was not enough to save Lebanon in 2005. Hezbollah blew the country to hell the very next year.

The first time I went to Egypt, also in 2005, I met the same kinds of people I met in Lebanon. Cosmopolitan, liberal-minded individuals who were like Arab versions of me. Egypt had nothing like Hezbollah controlling large swaths of the country and warmongering against the neighbors. No foreign army smothered the country. Instead it had a police state. The narrative there at first seemed to be: democrats against the regime. That’s what it looked like. But my experience in Lebanon prompted me to ask a question of my liberal Egyptian friends that seems not to have occurred to some of the other journalists and Western internationalists who have been there. I asked these Egyptian liberals, “how many Egyptians agree with you about politics?” The answer stopped me cold: five percent at the most.

These people felt profoundly alienated by their own society, but it didn’t seem to occur to them to tell me about it until I asked. Perhaps they thought I knew that already. And of course they knew they were a tiny minority. How could they not? They belonged to a smaller minority than a Republican in San Francisco or gay feminist activist in rural Utah. It isn’t possible to be so out of step with everybody around you and be clueless about it, at least not before the Arab Spring started.

Well north of five percent of Egyptians are secular, to be sure, but liberalism isn’t Egypt’s only secular ideology. Its biggest competitors after Islamism are Arab Nationalism and socialism.

Kaplan is quite right that Western internationalists often don’t like to see what’s going on outside elite bubbles in distant societies. I also prefer not to see it, but I can’t help seeing it anyway. It’s unpleasant, but I force myself to look anyway. It’s not going away. And it’s not at all hard to see if you take the time and effort to look.

How big of a problem are we talking about? Here’s Kaplan again:

Asia is in the midst of a feverish arms race, featuring advanced diesel-electric submarines, the latest fighter jets and ballistic missiles. China, having consolidated its land borders following nearly two centuries of disorder, is projecting air and sea power into what it regards as the blue national soil of the South China and East China seas.

Japan and other countries are reacting in kind. Slipping out of its quasi-pacifistic shell, Japan is rediscovering nationalism as a default option. The Japanese navy boasts roughly four times as many major warships as the British Royal Navy. As for Vietnam and the Philippines, nobody who visits those countries and talks with their officials, as I have, about their territorial claims would imagine for a moment that we live in a post-national age.

The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map. The same drama is being played out in Syria where Alawites, Sunnis and Kurds are in a territorial contest over power and control as much as over ideas. Syria's writhing sectarianism—in which Bashar Assad is merely the leading warlord among many—is a far cruder, chaotic and primitive version of the primate game of king of the hill.

[…]

Nor can Europe be left out of this larger Eurasian trend. A weakening European Union, coupled with onerous social and economic conditions for years to come, invites a resurgence of nationalism and extremism, as we have already seen in countries as diverse as Hungary, Finland, Ukraine and Greece. That is exactly the fear of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee, which gave this year's award to the European Union in order to make a statement against this trend.

Fascists are not about to regain power anywhere on the Continent, but the age of deepening European integration is likely behind us.

I’d like to see a world where the majority of people everywhere have cosmopolitan values. That world might be less interesting to write about, but more pleasant to live in.

We’re not there yet. And I’m not at all convinced we’re even heading in that direction. The cultural elites of the world are heading in that direction, for sure, but it’s not true of everyone everywhere.

Finally - I Got My Visa for Libya

It took a while, but the Libyan government has finally approved my journalist visa. I was starting to wonder if I'd get to go there at all, which would be more than a little bit awkward since I already raised travel expenses through Kickstarter, but the problem has been resolved.

The folks at the Libyan Embassy in Washington are responsive and friendly. The bottleneck was in Tripoli.

Morsi in His Own Words

Here is Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Al-Quds TV in 2010.

These futile [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations are a waste of time and opportunities. The Zionists buy time and gain more opportunities, as the Palestinians, the Arabs, and the Muslims lose time and opportunities, and they get nothing out of it. We can see how this dream has dissipated. This dream has always been an illusion. Yet some Palestinians, who erroneously believe that their enemies might give them something... This [Palestinian] Authority was created by the Zionist and American enemies for the sole purpose of opposing the will of the Palestinian people and its interests. 

[...] 

No reasonable person can expect any progress on this track. Either [you accept] the Zionists and everything they want, or else it is war. This is what these occupiers of the land of Palestine know – these blood-suckers, who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs. 

[...] 

We should employ all forms of resistance against them. There should be military resistance within the land of Palestine against those criminal Zionists, who attack Palestine and the Palestinians. There should also be political resistance and economic resistance through a boycott, as well as by supporting the resistance fighters. This should be the practice of the Muslims and the Arabs outside Palestine. They should support the resistance fighters and besiege the Zionist wherever they are. None of the Arab or Muslim peoples and regimes should have dealings with them. Pressure should be exerted upon them. They must not be given any opportunity, and must not stand on any Arab or Islamic land. They must be driven out of our countries. 

The real world is so far restraining him and may continue to do so, but there is no good reason to believe he is not still the Jew-hating terrorist supporter he proved himself to be just a couple of years ago. He’s a Muslim Brotherhood man, and this aggressively bigoted and warmongering attitude is de rigueur for that crowd.

The Great War of the Eastern Mediterranean

A few years ago Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi said something interesting to me in an interview. “Arabs are not a warring people,” he said. “We are a feuding people.” That’s true at least some of the time. It has certainly been true in Lebanon since the end of the Syrian occupation where brief microwars break out periodically without erupting into anything terribly serious.

But 60,000 people have been killed in Syria since the war to oust Assad was first launched. The UN Commission on Human Rights initially pegged the number at around 45,000, and just revised it upward to 60,000. Even that number is probably low. They have 60,000 actual names of the dead in their database.

This is no feud. This is a serious war.

An average of 10,000 people were killed per year in Lebanon’s civil war, which was vastly more deadly than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (although a subplot of that war was a part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). So far Syria’s civil war is several times more deadly than Lebanon’s. And it’s not going to tidily end when Assad finally goes.

Egypt Gets a New Constitution

Egyptian voters just approved a new constitution in a popular referendum, so it’s safe to say at this point that the country has undergone a regime change. The military government installed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “Free Officers Movement” in 1952, which continued in a crippled form for a while after Hosni Mubarak was removed from power, is now finished. 

The new constitution was translated into English and published on the Internet. It’s a mixed bag. Some of it is pretty good. Parts are incoherent and far too vague for a legal document. Other sections are toxic, especially Article 2 which says—and all of us knew this was coming—that “Principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation.” [Emphasis added.]

The referendum passed by a roughly 2-1 margin, which is more or less the same percentage of people who voted for either the Muslim Brotherhood or the totalitarian Salafists in the last parliamentary election.

ABC News reports that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi “called on the opposition to join a dialogue to heal rifts over the charter.”

There shouldn’t be any serious rifts. Not over a new constitution. It ought to be a consensus document, something liberals and conservatives, Muslims and Christians, and the secular and the religious can all live with.

The United States has used the same constitution for hundreds of years. Theoretically Egypt could do the same. It could still be on the books in 2213. That’s awfully unlikely, but a constitution is supposed to be written as a permanent, or at least semi-permanent, document that is seen as legitimate by the overwhelming majority of the population.

So a constitution in the modern era that’s written to last needs to have a couple of features.

It cannot be partisan. It makes no kind of sense for people in the year 2213 to be hemmed in by a legal straightjacket that was popular for a brief blip in their nation’s history hundreds of years ago. Political parties rise and fall over the ages, and in the medium term—in democracies, anyway—power shifts back and forth. If, say, the United States were to draft a new constitution, we’d need to make damn sure half those involved were Democrats and half were Republicans. It’s not okay if one particular political party that just happened to win the most recent election gets to dictate everything for everyone for all time.

In addition to being a consensus document, a constitution really ought to limit the power of government, especially in a country like Egypt which has known nothing but tyranny for thousands of years. If state power is sufficiently curbed, religious and secular people alike can both find justice within the same legal system. But if religion is part of the constitution, as it is now in Egypt, or if it’s effectively banned by the state as it has been in some parts of the world, then religious and secular people won’t both find justice in the same legal system. One will be oppressed by the other.

The separation of church (or mosque) and state protects both. In Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, as in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, no such separation existed. Mosques were subordinate to the government. They were heavily regulated. Religious figures served and even breathed at the pleasure of the palace. That might remain the case in Morsi’s new Egypt, or perhaps the mosque will end up dominating the state. The two may become so intertwined that it hardly makes any difference. It’s bad for both either way. And it’s certainly not healthy for the people of Egypt even if most of them think it looks good on paper.

Some Islamists have grasped this. Earlier this year in Tunisia I asked an official at the Ministry of Religious Affairs why his office even exists. “In my country,” I said, “your institution is unconstitutional. Everything about your job is outlawed in America.”

I saved that question for last in case he got angry and threw me out of his office, but he laughed. He understood exactly where I was coming from. He knew that Americans would never tolerate having churches as an arm of the state. But his answer surprised me. “Mr. Rachid Ghannouchi has asked the very same question,” he said. Ghannouchi is the leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s Islamist party.

And I understand perfectly well where he’s coming from. In his country, mosques have never been an arm of the state. They were suppressed by the state. They were suppressed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. So both Ghannouchi and I, for entirely opposite reason, look upon institutions of that sort with suspicion.

Tunisia is going a different way from Egypt. It’s a more liberal and secular place. The Islamists there are hardly any different from Egypt’s, but they’re a lot less popular. They dropped their demand to have Islamic Sharia as part of the new constitution. Before they dropped that demand, there was talk in Tunisia of a possible compromise, that Islamic Sharia would be cited as “a source” rather than “the source” or “the principal” source of legistlation. As it turns out, Sharia won’t likely appear in Tunisia’s constitution at all, not even in a watered down form. But it’s right there in Egypt’s, and it’s not watered down in any way whatsoever.

Tunisia’s Islamists don’t have the strength or the numbers to remake society in their own preferred image, but a theocratic constitution is what most Egyptians want. They just approved it in a referendum. It’s not a consensus document—that’s for damn sure—but it is a majoritarian one. In an illiberal “democracy” like Egypt, the majority just enfranchised itself to stomp the minority. It will be ugly.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everybody!

The Children of Hannibal

Here's a piece I wrote about Tunisia for the print edition of City Journal, which is now available to non-subscribers online.

The Arab Spring began in Sidi Bouzid, a small Tunisian town, at the end of 2010. In a desperate protest against the corrupt and oppressive government that had made it impossible for him to earn a living, food-cart vendor Mohamed Bouazizi stood before City Hall, doused himself with gasoline, and lit a match. His suicide seeded a revolutionary storm that swept the countryside and eventually arrived at the capital, Tunis, where it toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Just weeks later, Hosni Mubarak was thrown from his palace in Egypt. Muammar el-Qaddafi was lynched later that year in Libya. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad may be the next to fall.

For the most part, the Arab Spring isn’t going well. In the post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, Egyptians voted for radical Islamists by a two-to-one margin. The Libyan state, totalitarian under Qaddafi, is now so weak that it barely exists, as the September terrorist attack that killed the American ambassador demonstrated. In Syria, the revolt against the tyrannical house of Assad may be only the opening chapter in a long civil war. But things look different in Tunisia. True, a mob of radical Salafists rioted at the U.S. embassy in the capital, but the police did their job and protected our diplomatic staff and property. President Moncef Marzouki even dispatched hundreds of his own presidential guards to the scene. The Islamist party Ennahda won more votes in the election last year than any rival, but it still won fewer than half and was forced into a coalition government with secular liberal parties. In Tunisia, no one person or party has its hands on all the levers of power. Citizens are free, and so is the press.

Why is the Arab Spring looking sunnier in the country in which it began? The answer has much to do with Tunisia’s remarkable 3,000-year history.

The northernmost point on the African continent is just outside the Tunisian city of Bizerte. The Mediterranean bottlenecks there, with the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily about 100 miles to the north and east of Tunisia, respectively. The tiny Italian island of Pantelleria is even nearer: 37 miles away. Palermo, Sicily’s largest city, is closer to Tunis than it is to Rome.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this area became the overseas core of the Roman Empire. But an advanced civilization existed there long before Rome arrived. Legend has it that in roughly 900 BC, a princess named Elissa was exiled from the Phoenician city of Tyre, in what today is southern Lebanon. (Most Westerners are more familiar with her Greek name, thanks to Virgil, who immortalized her as Dido in The Aeneid.) She founded a new city on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and became its queen.

That city was Carthage, and it became a megacity by antiquity’s standards, with 300,000 residents. Indeed, the city was so dense that the Carthaginians built six-story apartment buildings to house everyone, a feat that had never before been accomplished. The buildings even had indoor plumbing. “To some extent, you could compare it to Manhattan,” Stefan Chrissanthos, author of Warfare in the Ancient World,told the History Channel. “It was a huge population living in a relatively small area.” The residents built baths, a complex sewer system, and enormous cisterns that survive to this day. The most backward and impoverished parts of the Arab world still don’t have all the luxuries that the Carthaginians had.

Carthage was a sea power, with one of the most formidable navies in the ancient world. At the height of its glory, it controlled most of the southern Mediterranean, from Morocco to Libya. For hundreds of years, it rivaled Rome in power and wealth. No other force at the time could challenge and threaten Rome as it did. When the two finally clashed, Carthage produced one of the greatest generals in history, Hannibal, whose army swung through Spain and France and invaded Italy from the north on the backs of elephants. Europe was very nearly conquered from Africa. And while Hannibal failed, he put fear into the hearts of Rome’s citizens. The Roman statesman Cato the Elder is famously supposed to have uttered the words Carthago delenda est—“Carthage must be destroyed”—after every one of his speeches.

At the end of the Third Punic War (Punic is the Latin word for “Phoenician”), Rome did destroy Carthage—utterly. Barely one stone remained atop another, and the Carthaginians were killed or enslaved. Little remains, therefore, of Hannibal’s Carthage today. But in the northern, more Westernized parts of modern-day Tunisia, people still admire and identify with Hannibal. Stores and hotels are named after him; the last light-rail stop before the lovely seaside suburb of Sidi Bou Said is called Carthage-Hannibal; the international airport is named Tunis-Carthage. Fragments of Phoenician culture may persist as well. During the spring and summer, Tunisian men walking the streets place jasmine flowers behind their ears, a fashion that they insist was popular in Hannibal’s time.

The three wars with Carthage convinced the Romans that they needed a serious empire, lest they be conquered by somebody else. “It was in Tunisia where Rome began to build its empire in earnest,” Robert Kaplan writes in his book Mediterranean Winter. “Tunisia became to Rome what India would be to Great Britain, its ‘jewel in the imperial crown.’ ” Julius Caesar rebuilt the city in the Roman style, settled it with Roman citizens, and made the new Carthage the principal European city in Africa. (The name “Africa” was originally what the Romans called Tunisia, and it eventually came to refer to the entire continent.)

The Romans later conquered the whole of North Africa, but they developed none of it as much as the area that now surrounds Tunis. You can see that influence today if you visit: Roman ruins are scattered everywhere. The largest coliseum outside Italy still stands in El Djem, just a few hours south of Tunis by car. Here again, modern-day Tunisians feel personally connected to their history. Ahmed Medien, a local journalist with whom I toured the ruins in Tunis, doesn’t think of them as something left behind by somebody else, the way many Americans might view Native American sites in Arizona and Colorado. He sees a straight historical line between himself and ancient Carthage and describes both the Roman and the (few) Phoenician ruins as parts of his own cultural heritage.

Tunisia belonged to Western civilization for nearly 1,000 years, more than four times longer than the United States has so far existed. And the Romans who brought Carthage into the West left an even more lasting imprint than buildings: a legacy of legitimate government and advanced urban development, two things that remain extremely weak in some modern-day Arab countries. It was as part of the Roman Empire, too, that Carthage made its great contributions to early Christianity. The biblical canon was confirmed there, the theologians Tertullian and Cyprian hailed from the area, and so did Saint Augustine—whose hometown, Hippo, is in present-day Algeria but was part of greater Carthage at the time.

Carthage was later ruled by the Vandals from Germany and then by the Byzantine Empire. Not until the seventh century did Arab armies finally take it. And when they did, they couldn’t impose the culture of the Arabian Peninsula wholesale on the inhabitants. Instead, the conquerors adjusted themselves to the advanced civilization that was already there. Conquering Arabs did this everywhere, but usually to a smaller degree: in few places was the indigenous culture as resilient as in Tunisia. And in few places—the most notable exception being Andalusia in Spain—was the preexisting culture Western.

Tunisia didn’t rejoin the West until 1881, when France took it from the Turkish Ottomans. The French architecture of the greater Tunis area is startling when you see it for the first time. It’s much more extensive than in Beirut, supposedly the Paris of the Middle East. Parts of northern Tunisia almost look and feel as though they’re in Europe. But the country’s European flavor results from far more than a period of French dominion. For one thing, despite its 1,000 years under Muslim rule, Tunisia has retained certain Western characteristics. It doesn’t have tribes, as most Arab countries do. Its culture is cosmopolitan and tolerant, its enthusiasm for religion relatively mild.

Another reason for Tunisia’s modern feel is that the instant it achieved independence from France in 1956, it set itself on a course different from that of other Arab states. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, was a dictator in the mold of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Like Atatürk, Bourguiba wanted his country to orient itself toward Europe. He decreed that education would be in French, though Arabic was (and remains) the country’s day-to-day language. He admitted, at least privately, that his brief experiment with socialist economics had failed, and he shifted to a market economy. As a result, 60 percent of citizens are middle-class today, more than in any other Arab state without oil.

Bourguiba also implemented a code granting equal rights to women and men—a first for the Arab world. He referred to the veil as “that odious rag” and banished it from schools and government offices. Even on the street, where women are free to wear what they want, many fewer opt for headscarves and veils than in most Arab countries. “No other Arab country has tried the same policy we tried—to free ourselves from the religious legacy and make religion merely a cultural reference rather than a way of ruling the country,” says Tunisian diplomat Ahmed Ounais, who was briefly the foreign minister last year.

Read the rest in City Journal.

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