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Notes on the Syrian Revolution from Marrakech

MARRAKECH – I'm in Marrakech, Morocco, attending the fourth meeting of the Friends of Syria gathering. One international delegation after another is taking to the podium and announcing where its capital stands on the bloodiest conflict to slam into the Levant since the Lebanese civil war.

I'm in the press room with hundreds people, almost all of them Arab journalists and most of them men. I hear a smattering of French spoken here and there, and it's the lingua franca of Morocco, but almost everyone is speaking Arabic. Most of my colleagues appear competent and professional, at least on the surface, and nearly all of them dress like I do. There are a few Gulfies around wearing the traditional robes and head gear of that region, but the rest of us look like Europeans even though we are not.

The speeches are being made elsewhere in an adjacent building. They're broadcast on a screen and over big speakers in the room, the kind of speakers you'll find in a bar where live bands play. A few of my colleagues stand near the speakers and record the speeches on little hand-held recorders, but most people are talking to each other or sit hunched over laptops and iPads.

Pre-packaged videos play during breaks in the main room. They're professionally-made short documentaries about the atrocities being committed a few thousands miles to the east. You could dismiss them as propaganda, but they seem solid enough and not terribly different from what I've seen on Frontline, which aired an outstanding two-part program in the United States a few weeks ago. The video footage from Syrian battlefields is intense. The sound of gunshots coming through those speakers is nerve-wracking. The war sounds closer than it really is.

It's safe to say most of us in this room detest the Syrian regime and wish to see it destroyed, and I confess to feelings of vindication. For years I took flak in the Levant for describing Bashar al-Assad as the villain of the region rather than the Zionist Entity, but here we are. This room full of Arabs has at least partially come around to my point of view. Not that they like Israel any more than they used to, of course, but Israel isn't to blame for the tens of thousands killed. Everybody knows that. It has been some time now—well over a year—since a single person, Arab or Western, has given me even an ounce of grief for describing Assad and his regime of Baath Party fascists as the principal arsonists of the Eastern Mediterranean.

* The meeting is taking place at a luxurious resort that's well out of my price range. I'm down the road at a nice enough place, but this resort really is something. We're in the shadow of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains. This time of year those mountains look like the Rockies, but they rise above palm trees. Supposedly it's sunny 350 days a year here. That's what they tell me. It's warm enough even in December to eat lunch outside without wearing a jacket.

Everything here is beautiful. This place is like a North African fairyland. Middle class tourists from the United States can afford to vacation here without any problem. It's not very expensive, at least not this time of year. And you'll get plenty of bang for your buck.

This place might as well be on the moon as far as the brutalized citizens of Syria are concerned. The beauty and serenity of Marrakech is beyond the comprehension of people who live in war zones, and I feel a bit guilty sitting here in a cushy chair with my coffee and wi-fi and nice weather outside while kids are getting their guts shot out on the streets over in Syria.

* It's not crucial for me to be here, nor is it crucial for anyone else. Covering a meeting like this is for wire agency journalists. The job entails writing that so-and-so said this thing or the other. I feel a bit out of place because I hardly ever do this sort of thing. All the reporters, including me, are entirely separate from the events we're here to cover. We're in the press room. It's huge and it's full. We're sitting around at tables and in the lounge waiting for someone at the meeting next door to say something interesting and quotable that grabs our attention. Hours and hours of talking gets ignored in favor of a couple of pertinent sentences.

Most of the speeches are in Arabic, but some are in French and some are in English. I only understand fragments of the Arabic speeches, and only a little bit more of the French speeches, so there's not much for me to do most of the time, but I'm no less busy than anyone else. Ninety five percent of my colleagues aren't paying attention at any given moment. I'm glad to be here, but I'm also glad I don't do this sort of thing every day.

* A messenger from His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco hands me a pamphlet with a statement from the palace written in four languages. Helpful! Something for me to work with. The King of Morocco isn't impressed with Bashar al-Assad. Doesn't think he's a reformer. Doesn't think he's a crucial part of the peace process. Of the war there he says, “This particularly serious and tragic situation is calling out to the conscience of mankind, given the ever-growing numbers of dead and wounded, tortured citizens, displaced persons and refugees. The numbers are set to increase dramatically if there is no resolute international reaction, especially as the Syrian regime has threatened to resort to weapons of mass destruction.”

Morocco is urging the United Nations Security Council to support a regime-change. That's my phrase, not the king's, but that's what he's saying. “I therefore call upon Security Council member states...to support the transfer of power in Syria for the establishment of a democratic multi-party system in which all representatives and components of the Syrian people would be involved.”

The king also says to those of us in attendance, “Welcome to your home [away] from home.” In Spanish he welcomes us to “our second country.” Moroccans are such magnificently hospitable people. Really, they are. They're not faking it, either. They're not. I know what forced and fake hospitality looks and feels like in the Arab world. I see it in Iraq and in Egypt from time to time. In Kuwait you won't even get that. The welcome I've received in Morocco feels like a hug.

* Some policemen come in for coffee. They look like SWAT team commanders. These are not the common traffic police officers I'm seeing elsewhere in town. They're not even in the same time zone as the bumbling idiots in the Iraqi police who so disappointed their counterparts in the U.S. Army's military police during General David Petraeus' “surge.” These cops at the Friends of Syria gathering in Marrakech look perfectly capable of putting down a serious ground assault by terrorist forces. You can tell just by looking at them.

* The United States government now recognizes the Syrian opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This is good and proper, but let's not kid ourselves, okay? The Syrian opposition is only united temporarily. Secular and Islamist factions will battle it out in the aftermath. They know it. Believe me, they do. They're united right now because they have to get rid of Assad. They'll settle their own accounts later. Sunnis and Alawites are likely to slug it out, too. And there might even be fighting between Arabs and Kurds. When the next phase starts in earnest, there will be no sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

* A pretty young woman from SNRT, the public broadcaster of Morocco, makes the rounds in the press room. She gives me a booklet, a DVD, and a thumb drive. The thumb drive has www.diplomatie.ma stamped on it. The Web site for Morocco's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The booklet is titled “Syria: The Destruction of a Nation.” It is professionally produced. I open it. A photo on the first page shows a woman with tears in her eyes and blood on her face and her hand over her mouth. The text says, “In Syria, to simply be alive is reason enough to be killed. Whatever your age, gender, sect, conviction, or skills, this savage regime will come after you.”

* People are smoking inside the building. I ask when the government will ban smoking indoors. Everyone says: “Never!”

* An American delegate is speaking at the meeting. The room gets quiet. People want to know what the United States has to say. It carries weight. Most of it is boilerplate for public consumption. Government people everywhere say far more interesting things off the record than on. Often they say the opposite things. Most of the real story is off the record. I hear off the record things all the time. I can't put any of it in quotes, but I can factor it into my analysis and use it in other ways.

But this time the United States is announcing policy changes. Washington now recognizes the Syrian opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And it considers the armed Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization.

* Now Britain is speaking. The room is still quiet. The United Kingdom is expanding its assistance to the Syrian opposition and is doing so publicly, on the record.

* Morocco's Ministry of Foreign Affairs helped me get in here and gave me a press card. Actually, they did more than just help me. They invited me.

I spoke to Youssef Amrani, Morocco's minister delegate for foreign affairs. He's second in command at that ministry. “We want a democratic transition in Syria,” he said. “The future of Syria should be democratic. Or there is no future. We hosted this Marrakech meeting so we could listen to the opposition and their platform and to help them move forward.”

Should the West get involved militarily,” I asked him, “or keep sitting it out?”

You need the United Nations Security Council to intervene,” he said. “And today the Security Council is divided.”

Yes,” I said, “but what if we did it without the Security Council?” We've done that before. “Or should we stay out of it?”

Personally,” he said, “I believe the Syrian people need to decide their future. They have the instruments. They have a vision. They want to realize a democratic transition. And they're on their way.”

That was his on the record response.

I wanted to ask him about something else, too.

You spend a lot of time in Washington,” I said. “So you have an idea what Americans think about Morocco. What do you think they need to know about this country that they don't know already?”

Morocco is an ally of America,” he said. “We share the same values. We have no conflicts at all with the United States. It's good for you to have a strong ally in the region that understands American values, that can work with America. We've been working together for a long time. We work together on promoting democracy in the Arab world. You can trust us and we uphold our commitments.” That was his on the record response. But I hear the exact same thing off the record. Just so you know. And I hear it from Americans as well as from Moroccans.

* I wasn't sure what to expect from this conference. I thought I might feel a bit lost amidst chaos. But it's being hosted by Morocco, and Morocco is pretty well organized, not just in Marrakech, but in general. Compared to Egypt, this place is Switzerland. Compared to Syria, well, the difference is incomprehensible.

* A delegate from Senegal is speaking now. He's speaking in French and sounds a little like James Earl Jones. The room is quiet for him, too. Morocco pays attention to Senegal. It's just down the coast. A different region, sort of, but it's just down the African coast.

* Have you seen the Moroccan aesthetic? This place is exquisitely beautiful. Really, it is. Its beauty has been refined over millennia.

 I recently reviewed a book called On Saudi Arabia by Karen Elliot House for the New York Times. And I quoted a line from her book that really struck me. “For millennia,” she wrote, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”

Morocco is a long, long way from Saudi Arabia, not just geographically, but culturally and aesthetically. That's for damn sure. It's also an opposite of Iraq. In Iraq, everything is a jagged assault on the senses. It's brutal, not just politically but also aesthetically. Morocco is a gem.

* I don't have any earth-shattering insights from the Friends of Syria meeting or any particularly juicy quotes I can use that you won't read elsewhere. Here's what you need to know: Assad is increasingly isolated. Even Russia is being forced to re-evaluate its position. And the Syrian opposition is increasingly being recognized as legitimate.

The mood here is one of near-absolute confidence that Assad is going to lose. At this point it's mostly a question of how long it will take and how many more people will suffer. No one is talking yet about what kind of conferences will be held in the aftermath, but there will most likely be many. Assad's fall won't be the end. It will only be the end of the beginning.

* I spoke with a man who sat in Assad's office many times, sometimes with others, and sometimes for one-on-one conversations during the time when his armed forces still occupied Lebanon. The subject of Lebanon came up during one of those conversations, and it took a turn Assad didn't like. He angrily jabbed his finger on his desk and said no Lebanese person had ever come into his office with a complaint. Instead, all asked what they could do to help Syria. (That's because any Lebanese person who did have a complaint would rather suffer in silence than suffer a car-bombing.)

Those days are over. Assad's Lebanese allies—most of them fear him, but not all of them are bullied into being his ally—will have a lot to answer for when a new flag flies in Damascus. Assad's Shia allies will still have Iran as a patron, but Assad's Christian allies will have accounts to settle with the rest of the country. It won't be pretty.

* Morocco is a gentle, civilized, and refined place. And it's stable. It's stable because Morocco is a coherent nation with a non-sectarian and non-ethnic identity, and because the monarchy is widely respected and provides space for modern secularists, traditional conservatives, and Islamists to co-exist without fighting each other. Visiting here after spending time in Egypt and Iraq is like coming up for air or slipping into a bath. I don't expect I'll ever see Syria doing as well as this place. I could be wrong. But I'm pretty sure that I'm not.

Post-script: It's really best that I not work for free, so if you haven’t supported me recently (or ever), please help me out. PayPal donations add up, as do sales of my new book Where the West Ends.

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Extraordinary Devastation

Egypt's Mohamed Morsi was forced to rescind parts of his earlier decree that gave himself unchecked powers. Turns out he's a little too fat for the Egypthian python to swallow. He and everyone else who thinks power grabs are a good idea ought to take a good hard look at this slideshow from Syria and see what can happen to a country when a repressive dictatorship refuses to yield. The last photograph in that series is especially shocking.

Interviewed by Lee Smith

Lee Smith over at the Weekly Standard interviewed me about my new book, Where the West Ends.

LEE SMITH:How is Where the West Ends different from your first book?

MICHAEL TOTTEN: Some of it is war correspondence—in particular the section on the Caucasus that takes place during Russia’s invasion of Georgia—but most of the book is more like a road movie.

My best friend and I took a road trip to Iraq from Turkey on a lark, for instance, and the book opens with that. It was by far the most unpleasant journey I’ve ever taken. Everything went wrong. Everything. But it was so much fun to write about that I actually have fond memories of the trip now. It brings to mind travel writer Tim Cahill’s observation that “an adventure is never an adventure when it happens. An adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.”

I made a lot of mistakes on the road this time around, and I decided to be honest about them and include them in the narrative. I was completely unprepared for my trip through Ukraine, for instance, partly because I didn’t expect to be there very long, but also because the place is just a lot harder to travel in for those who stray off the tourist paths, which I always do. Arab countries are much easier to travel in than Ukraine. That  astonished me at the time, and it still does.

LEE SMITH:Most of the places you visit in the book, from Ukraine to Azerbaijan, are either former states of the Soviet empire, or were part of the Soviet bloc, like Romania. Others, like Turkey, were Cold War powers that felt the hot breath of the Soviets on their neck for almost half a century. What did you learn about the vestiges of Soviet imperialism and communism in its post-Soviet phase?

MICHAEL TOTTEN: What struck me about some of the hard post-Soviet places is how lasting the damage is. You’d have no idea if your only experience of post-communism is in Budapest or Prague. Try going to the blasted up shoreline of the Sea of Azov or to remote places you’ve never heard of in Ukraine. They look like they were hit by an apocalypse. Want to know what happens to roads and other infrastructure after sixty years of no maintenance? You’ll find out. It’s a counterintuitive lesson. Places that suffered for far too long under way too much government have now been abandoned to weeds and decay.

Much of Eastern Europe is pleasant now because it re-integrated with the West through the European Union and NATO. But some of the more distant parts of the post-Soviet space are in ghastly condition. They never recovered. The Soviet Union fell apart half my lifetime ago, and I sort of blithely assumed that its victims stopped being victims around the same time, but that’s not what happened. Even Romanians I spoke to—and Romania is a Western country that’s now in the European Union and NATO—explained to me how they still suffer severe psychological damaged inflicted on them by Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian state.

LEE SMITH:As you show in that first chapter about making what amounted to a day-trip to Iraq by crossing the length of Turkey (first along the coast and then through the mountains), the post-Ottoman Middle East is also psychologically, and often physically, scarred by its history of authoritarian regimes. Some of those, like Iraq, were aligned with Moscow and others, like Syria, still are. In a sense there seems to be a shared, often unpleasant, sensibility. So what does your primary region of interest, the Middle East, have in common with the post-Soviet landscape?

MICHAEL TOTTEN: Whole swaths of the post-Soviet space have a great deal in common with the post-Ottoman space for the simple reason that both straddled the Muslim world and the eastern portion of Europe.

Each is jam-packed with squabbling ethno-sectarian factions. The post-Ottoman region consists of Arabs, Jews, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Sunnis, Shias, etc. The post-Soviet space is even more complicated, including Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, Chechens, Tatars, Abkhaz, and so on. Some of these people are Christians and some of them are Muslims. Horrible wars broke out after the imperial powers collapsed, from the crackup of Yugoslavia and the Lebanese civil war, to the now “frozen” conflicts in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region that fewer people have heard of. Russia’s invasion of Georgia a few years ago was about resolving two of those conflicts—in Russia’s favor, of course.

If you develop a firm understanding of how one of these regions works, it doesn’t take long to open up the hood and figure another one out. The various issues and conflicts are all completely different, and yet somehow almost the same.

Distant parts of the former Ottoman and Soviet empires are all but irrelevant to people in the Western world, but the westernmost fringes are part of the Western world. The European Union includes parts of both. They’re not beyond our backyard. They’re part of our yard. And sometimes, when things get out of hand, we go to war there.

Read the whole thing in the Weekly Standard.

Heading Back Into the Field

I planned on going to Libya this month, but the government hasn’t approved my visa yet and I can’t get in without it. The process is supposed to take a week, give or take, and I applied six weeks ago. Libya doesn’t seem to have much of a government at the moment, so I’m heading to Morocco while I wait for something to finally happen in Tripoli.

I have some meetings lined up the Moroccan capital, I’m heading to the disputed Western Sahara region down the west coast of Africa, and I’ve been invited to the next Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech later this month. So I’m going. And I’m leaving this week.

Ghosts from Rwanda and the Congo

Susan Rice is still facing a storm of criticism about her preposterous comments following the terrorist attack in Benghazi a few months ago, and now she’s coming under fire for her performance in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Clinton administration.

Few Americans pay much attention to Sub-Saharan Africa, and Rice’s record there is old news at this point, but Jason Stearns’ new piece in Foreign Policy magazine is bound to incluence some decision-makers in Washington about whether or not she replaces Hillary Clinton as our secretary of state.

Televised comments made by Amb. Susan Rice shortly after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi have dominated the debate over her probable nomination for secretary of state. This is a bit surprising, since it's clear that she played only a marginal role in the affair and appears to have just been reading from the briefing notes provided. It's also unfortunate that the "scandal" has crowded out a healthy discussion of her two-decade record as U.S. diplomat and policymaker prior to Sept. 2012 -- and drawn attention away from actions for which she bears far greater responsibility than Benghazi.

Her role in shaping U.S. policy toward Central Africa should feature high on this list. Between 1993 and 2001, she helped form U.S. responses to the Rwandan genocide, events in post-genocide Rwanda, mass violence in Burundi, and two ruinous wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

She did not get off to an auspicious start. During her first year in government, there was a vigorous debate within the Clinton administration over whether to describe the killing in Rwanda as a "genocide," a designation that would necessitate an international response under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. In a now infamous incident from that April, which was reported in her now State Department colleague Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell, Rice -- at the time still a junior official at the National Security Council -- stunned her colleagues by asking during a meeting, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?" She later regretted this language, telling Power, "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." And she has indeed emerged as one of the more forceful advocates for humanitarian intervention in U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, she has also often seemed to overcompensate for her earlier misstep on Rwanda with an uncritical embrace of the the country's new leaders.
Read the whole thing. And take what Stearns says seriously. I’m hardly an expert on Sub-Saharan Africa and I’ve never even been there, but Stearns’ recent book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa is one of the best I’ve ever read about that part of the world.

Now in More Stores

My new book, Where the West Ends, is now available at the Kobo store for those of you with a Kobo e-book reader. It’s also available on iTunes for those of you who buy your books there.

It’s also available from Barnes and Noble, of course, and you can get a trade paperback copy or an e-book for your Kindle from Amazon.com.

Egypt's Morsi Proclaims Himself Pharaoh

Almost two years after Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was removed from power, Cairo’s Tahrir Square is still an epicenter of protest and violence. It’s an epicenter of protest and violence because Egypt is again ruled by a man who has declared himself dictator. The country’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, announced that “constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.”

He’s already being called the new Pharaoh. It makes no difference that he was elected. Democracy isn’t just about getting elected. A democratic election is not a one-time plebiscite on who the next tyrant is going to be. Democracy requires individual and minority rights and the separation of powers. Winners cannot oppress losers, nor do losers get to wage war on the winners.

Some of us are more surprised than others by this development, but the Muslim Brotherhood was never a democratic political movement. It's not even a close call. You don't have to be a cheerleader for Hosni Mubarak to recognize its inherent authoritarianism.

Egypt expert Eric Trager explains in The New Republic how the organization weeds out moderates by design.

It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”  

Throughout this process, rising Muslim Brothers are continually vetted for their embrace of the Brotherhood’s ideology, commitment to its cause, and—most importantly—willingness to follow orders from the Brotherhood’s senior leadership. As a result, Muslim Brothers come to see themselves as foot soldiers in service of the organization’s theocratic credo: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” Meanwhile, those dissenting with the organization’s aims or tactics are eliminated at various stages during the five-to-eight-year vetting period.

Last year in Cairo I met a couple of young activist recruits who washed out. They weren’t fired, exactly. One just up and quit because he could no longer stand the paranoid and authoritarian politics of its leaders, and the other was pressured out by what Americans call a hostile work environment.

“Hamas is more liberal,” Mohamed Adel told me, “and more willing to cooperate with other movements than the Muslim Brotherhood is.” He had left just weeks before I met him at the journalist syndicate. “The Brotherhood thinks dealing with anyone who is a former member . . . or someone from other movements and parties, is like dealing with an infidel.”

Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby, another young activist, was an editor at the Brotherhood’s Web site. Party officials treated him horribly and it became obvious, from his insider’s view, that the leaders would lord it over Egypt with a military regime or a police state if given the chance. “The Brotherhood as it exists now,” he told me, “wants to come to power and rule the way Hosni Mubarak did.”

Egypt’s political culture is authoritarian and always has been. The Muslim Brotherhood is a logical and perhaps inevitable product of a pre-existing problem bigger than itself and older than its religion.

I’ve met Egyptian liberals. They exist, but they’re a minority. Moderates are a larger minority, but genuine liberals belong to an even smaller minority and they know it. They feel it keenly, and are therefore far gloomier about Egypt’s prospects than Westerners were when the so-called Arab Spring started almost two years ago.

“The Western worldview is not very popular in Egypt,” Egyptian journalist Mohamed Ahmed Raouf told me. “They watch American movies, they drive American cars, but they don't accept Western culture or values of democracy, pluralism, and enlightenment. They don't accept it. People have to be open-minded, and that's not the case here.”

Hala Mustafa, a liberal intellectual at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told me the Muslim Brothers grotesquely distort the words “freedom” and “democracy.” “I heard one of them just the other day referring to individual rights,” she said, “but in a very backward way. He thinks Islam already has all rights for everybody and that we have to respect that. He thinks this is freedom, but it’s completely different from any liberal concept of freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is against individual freedom not just for women and Christians, but also for Muslims and men.”

Egypt’s deeply embedded illiberalism isn’t exactly a secret. It’s the country’s most obvious political characteristic, one that imposes itself on the observant almost at once. Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh explained it to me this way the first time I visited Cairo seven years ago: “Most of the armed terrorist groups we see now were born out of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood…My biggest fear is that if the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt we will get Islamism-lite, that they won’t be quite bad enough that people will revolt against them. Most Egyptians don’t drink, so they won’t mind if alcohol is illegal. The same goes for banning books. Most Egyptians don’t read. So why should they care if books are banned? Most women wear a veil or a headscarf already, so if it becomes the law hardly anyone will resist.”

But sure, the Brothers threw the word “democracy” around when they were on their way up, especially when gullible foreign journalists were in town. They got a big kick out of portraying themselves as religiously conservative democrats, as though they were the Egyptian equivalents of Germany’s Christian Democrats or the Republicans in the United States. But their slogan is and always has been “Islam is the solution.” They’re only moderate compared with the totalitarian Salafists.

Morsi promises that his dictatorial powers are temporary. Feel free to believe that if you find it credible. Hey, it might even be true. Weird things happen in the Middle East all the time. The army could remove him tomorrow. Other regime components might tell him to get stuffed, making him more Hugo Chavez than Fidel Castro. The “street” might throw the country into ungovernable chaos. Morsi might even feel enough pressure from abroad that he dials it down. But whatever happens later, he just proclaimed himself dictator. If he isn’t stopped, that’s exactly what he will be.

 

Photo Credit: Aladlwlmosawah

My Kickstarter Project Has Funded

I can’t do field work abroad without finding ways to cover travel and operating expenses, so last month I launched a Kickstarter project to pay for a trip to Libya. And I’m happy to report that it has successfully funded. I even managed to raise more money than I asked for. Thanks very much to everyone who is helping me out here.

And I want to publicly thank the terrific folks at Basis Technology who pledged such a generous donation that they are now the official sponsors of my trip.

I also want to publicly thank the following people who donated fifty dollars or more to the project.

Joanne Gerber

Michael Ravine

Lee Benham

Bruce F Webster

John Mulder

Stan Tillinghast

Eric Rosenberg

Meir Kohn

Matthew Judd

William Terris

Dee Grant

Rob Hafernik

David Barzai

John Storr

Mike Robinson

Carlton Wickstrom

Henry H Bradley

Yancey Strickler

JM Hanes

Deb Steinshouer

J.M. Heinrichs

Tim Hulsey

Basil Mangra

Adam Harrison

Dan Hendrickson

Joseph Blankier

Sagavia

Jeff Kirk

Herbert Jacobi

Debbie McMillan

Andres Gentry

Tom Frymire

Dietmar

Corie Schweitzer

Chris Hancock

David Herr

Yair Alan Griver

Russell David Snow

Kat Wilton

Maged Ibrahim

Michael Hussey

Steve Feldman

Joanne Kessler

Gene Mitchell

Eric McErlain

Rick Woolard

Eric Soskin

Terri Goon

Eric Schell

Claudia Brown

Michael Krene

Michael Taylor

Sean O'Connor

Steve Drown

Milton W. Ferrell

Perry Branson

Barbara Berman

Francine Hardaway

Ira Lukens

Emily Robertson

J Alan Bennett

Leslie Watkins

Steve Ornstein

Christopher Frautschi

Mike McGinn

Barbara Skolaut

Philo Juang

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

Old School Terrorism Returns to Israel

A bus just exploded in Tel Aviv. Various Palestinian terrorist organization praised the attacks, as did the mosques in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Egypt brokered a cease-fire between between Israel and Hamas that should go into effect today. We'll see if it holds.

Arabian Labyrinth

The New York Times asked me to review a new book by Karen Elliot House called On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future. With a title like that it sounds like a homework assignment, but it’s fascinating, actually, and it doesn’t read like a text book at all.

I’ve said everything else that needs to be said in the Sunday Book Review, so here it is:

In Peter Berg’s whodunit “The Kingdom,” a young F.B.I. agent boarding a plane to Riyadh asks a seasoned colleague what Saudi Arabia is like. “A bit like Mars,” replies the more experienced man.

It’s not Mars, exactly, but for most Americans Saudi Arabia is probably more like another world than any other inhabited part of this one. It is about as distinct from the freewheeling United States as a country can be — not a modern totalitarian “republic” like Communist North Korea, but another kind of dictatorial regime, a fanatically conservative society self-oppressed by thousand-year-old rules, regulations, prescriptions and prohibitions. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as Christopher Hitchens once described the occluded realm ruled by the Kim family in Pyongyang, a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Karen Elliott House has been visiting the kingdom for more than 30 years, and in her new book, “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future,” she skillfully unveils this inscrutable place for regional specialists and general readers alike. “For millennia,” she writes, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”

Religious edicts are crushingly enforced by state, mosque and society. Movie theaters are banned, as are concerts and just about everything else related to entertainment. Women, even foreign women, must cover themselves in public. Unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mix anywhere. Even Starbucks coffee shops­ are segregated by gender.

Men have it rough, but women have it much rougher. According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are ­omnipresent.”

Western women like House, though, have an advantage, despite the fact that they’re forced by the Muttawah, the religious police, to cover themselves. In Saudi Arabia they are treated as “honorary men,” so House was able to interview whomever she liked — men and their wives, women and their husbands — something no foreign man or Saudi citizen of either gender is ever allowed to do.

She describes the society as a maze “in which Saudis endlessly maneuver through winding paths between high walls of religious rules, government restrictions and cultural traditions.” The labyrinth is not just a metaphor. Cities are claustrophobic places where even men but especially women live as shut-ins, socializing strictly with family. Walk down a residential street and in every direction you’ll see not porches and yards but walls “that block people from outside view but, more important, separate them from one another.”

And the country as a whole is riven with virtual walls. The sterile interior highlands of the Nejd are at odds with the relatively cosmopolitan Hejaz on the coast of the Red Sea. In the Eastern Province, where the country’s oil reserves are concentrated, Shia Muslims live under the boot, denounced by Wahhabis as heretics. The Ismailis in the destitute south, with their historic links to Yemen, are not-so-benignly neglected. Each of these regions in turn is divided by tribe, and each tribe is divided by family. Most Saudis marry one of their cousins. Hardly any of them marry outside their tribe, let alone region.

But the highest wall of all — the information barrier restricting knowledge of the wider world and its ways — is crumbling fast. Thanks to the Internet, the young (and 60 percent of Saudis are 20 or younger) know all about life in less cloistered Arab societies and in the West. And they’re not buying into the Saudi system the way their parents and grandparents did.

“Our minds are in a box,” a middle-aged businessman explains to House. “But the young are being set free by the Internet and knowledge. They will not tolerate what we have.” A single man in his 20s tells her: “Facebook opens the doors of our cages.” And a university official says: “A young man has a car and money in his pocket, but what can he do? Nothing. He looks at TV and sees others doing things he can’t do and wonders why.”

Read the rest in the New York Times.

Rocket Strikes Tel Aviv

A rocket from Gaza struck Tel Aviv today. Air raid sirens in the city sounded for the first time since Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel in 1991.

Hamas must think this is awesome, but they should think again. Most of the restraint the Israeli public places on the government in its response to terrorist and missile attacks comes from the liberal population of Israel's largest city. If those people feel threatened, everything changes.

Reminds me of something a left-wing American journalist friend of mine in Lebanon said: "I get a lot less liberal when you want to kill me."

Meanwhile, Israeli civilians are getting killed elsewhere. I don't get the feeling things are going to settle down any time soon.

UPDATE: Apparently a rocket "reached" Tel Aviv but didn't strike the actual city. It landed in the water off shore. The effect--making the residents of Israel's largest and most liberal city feel vulnerable--will be the same.

Boom

The Israel Defense Forces just killed Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari with a pinpoint air strike. You can watch the video of the air strike right here.

This didn’t just randomly happen out of the blue. Hamas recently decided it was a good idea to ramp up rocket attacks against Israel. Hamas knew Israel was bound to hit back eventually, and it happened today.

The Washington Post published a picture of an Israeli man standing in his living room after a rocket came down through the ceiling.

The IDF issued a warning to the rest of Hamas via Twitter: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

Ben Affleck's Masterwork

Argo is one of the best films about the Middle East that Hollywood has ever produced. Set mostly in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, the story centers on six American diplomats who, after escaping the U.S. Embassy when supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini break in and take everyone captive, take shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The hero is CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez, played by director Ben Affleck. He flies to Iran posing as a Canadian filmmaker who’s meeting his six-person advance team to scout for exotic locations to shoot a low-budget science-fiction movie. The Canadian government issues passports for the American diplomats, and Mendez helps them memorize their cover identities, their fake back stories in Canada, and their fake jobs as filmmakers. That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting out of Iran while predatory Revolutionary Guards hunt for them everywhere.

The real Tony Mendez, who has coauthored a book by the same name, worked closely with screenwriter Chris Terrio and says that the film version of Argo is magnificent. He’s right. It’s a relentlessly suspenseful political thriller whose 33-year-old subject matter resonates powerfully in the present. Deftly shot in Turkey rather than the now-tired standbys of Morocco or Jordan, the film recreates the shagginess of the late 1970s without overdoing it, and all the actors except Affleck look just like the real people they’re portraying. The superb acting, tight script, and smoldering tension brilliantly bring back the ominous mood that the hostage crisis engendered here at home. I was just a child in 1979, but the events that Affleck returns to life seared themselves into me nevertheless, and the horror and dread of it all came flooding back in the theater. A subplot in California, where Mendez goes to Hollywood to get assistance from the film industry, provides some refreshing, light-hearted breathing room, but it doesn’t last. The tale builds to an almost intolerably intense crescendo.

The leftist political bias that many of us have come to expect from Hollywood films about the Middle East and terrorism is absent here. “This is really a tribute to the folks in our clandestine services and our diplomats in the foreign service who are risking their lives over there,” Affleck said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. O’Reilly wondered what Affleck’s liberal friends in Hollywood might say. “I don’t worry too much about what my liberal friends are going to say,” Affleck said. “I made a movie that my friends who are Democrats and my friends who are Republicans can both watch.”

For the most part, he succeeded: Argo has a 96 percent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, which reviews movies. But the film does have detractors. Few of these are conservatives; the harshest review I could find anywhere on the right is Joe Bendel’s at Libertas. Bendel likes the film overall, but “in its opening voiceover narration,” he writes, “Argo helpfully explains that everything that happened in Iran was the fault of America and Great Britain, because we supported the Shah. After we’re properly chastised, Argo then admits that the early days of the Islamic Revolutionary regime were little more than a reign of terror, culminating with the seizure of the American embassy, in gross violation of international law.”

Many conservatives might agree. When the storyboard-style introduction informs the audience about the Shah’s British- and American-backed coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, it feels like the start of a lecture. But the lecture ends as abruptly as it begins, and at no point does the narrator say that the Shah’s crimes were America’s fault. He ran a police state with an oppressive internal security regime by his own choice. Besides, something had to be said to provide context for Iranian anti-Americanism in 1979. Otherwise, low-information viewers in the audience would be justifiably puzzled when they saw fist-pumping mobs shouting down the Great Satan in Tehran’s streets. They were angry about America’s support for the regime they just overthrew—and it wasn’t just the Islamists who were angry but the liberals and leftists, too. The background is a bit simplistic, to be sure, but it’s the intro to a thriller, not a documentary on the History Channel.

And it’s hardly fair to say Argo “admits” that Iran’s revolutionary government put a reign of terror in place. That’s partly what the film is about. The Iranian revolutionaries are the bad guys. They’re not portrayed as rebels with a cause or as the moral equivalents of their enemies. They’re unflinchingly shown as the hysterically bigoted and terroristic thugs that they are, shooting civilians in the streets and hanging enemies of the state from construction cranes.

Read the rest in City Journal.

The Petraeus Affair

Now that a few days have passed since David Petraeus resigned from his post as director of the CIA, it appears there isn’t much “there” there. The timing was peculiar and smelled of shenanigans—it happened right after the election and just before he was scheduled to testify before Congress—but the truth is actually rather mundane, even boring for a Washington scandal. Those making conspiratorial hay out of this incident might want to dial it back.

UPDATE: According to this article, Paula Broadwell, not David Petraeus, was under investigation. Apparently, Broadwell sent "harrassing" emails to the State Department's liaison to the Joint Special Operations Command, and that's how the affair was uncovered. The story as told is still a bit strange. Since when do harrassing emails trigger an FBI investigation? Something was going on aside from an Internet squabble. I have no idea what it is.

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