Year Four: The Arab Spring Proved Everyone Wrong

I wrote this essay for the print edition of World Affairs. It is now available online.

Shortly after the Arab Spring broke out at the tail end of 2010, two narratives took hold in the West. Optimists hailed a region-wide birth of democracy, as though the Middle East and North Africa were following the path blazed in Eastern Europe during the anti-communist revolutions of 1989. Pessimists fretted that the Arab world was following Iran’s example in 1979 and replacing secular tyrants with even more repressive Islamist regimes.

Both narratives turned out to be wrong, and not just because their adherents had the wrong narrative. Any narrative superimposed over this series of events was doomed to be wrong.

The Arab Spring isn’t one thing. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing wrenching change, but unlike in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, each affected country is moving in different and sometimes opposing directions. Each has its own history, its own narrative.

Tunisia, where everything started, proved the pessimists wrong, and Egypt, which rapidly followed Tunisia, all by itself proved both the optimists and the pessimists wrong.

The mostly nonviolent removal of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from office in Tunis led to free and fair elections in 2011 that brought to power the Islamist party Ennahda, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Ennahda only won forty-one percent of the vote, with a majority voting for secular parties—hardly a mandate for radical Islam. From the very beginning, Tunisia’s liberal and secular opposition resisted Ennahda so effectively that the Islamists had to abandon their push for a religious state and grudgingly accept a secular civil state. Even that wasn’t enough for the majority; in January 2014, Ennahda, exhausted by the unrelenting onslaught from moderates, liberals, and leftists, resigned from the government. Later that same month, Tunisia adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the entire Arab world. “With the birth of this text,” center-left President Moncef Marzouki said, “we confirm our victory over dictatorship.”

So much for Iranian-style revolution.

But the optimists were wrong everywhere else.

When Egyptians dumped Hosni Mubarak, the majority didn’t vote for secular candidates in the first elections, as the Tunisians did. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won Egypt’s presidential election with fifty-one percent of the vote, a slim majority but a majority all the same. Meanwhile, the totalitarian Salafist party—which is more or less the political arm of al-Qaeda—won twenty-four percent of the parliamentary vote, meaning that, unlike the Tunisians, a substantial majority of Egyptians went for Islamists of one stripe or another.

Morsi’s power grabs, his incompetence, his lunatic politics—symbolized by the appointment of a governor associated with a terrorist group that murdered fifty-eight tourists near the city of Luxor in 1997—were too much for even a nation as conservative and Islamist as Egypt. Millions of people—the overwhelming majority of them fellow Muslims—took to the streets to demand his removal from power, just as they
had against Mubarak before him.

The army took care of the rest. General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Morsi in June of 2013 and immediately declared war against the Muslim Brotherhood. Millions of Egyptians celebrated Sisi’s coup as a revolutionary “correction.”

So while Egypt never became an Iran on the Nile, it did not become a democracy either. It’s right back where it started. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed all over again. The new regime and its supporters are no more liberal and democratic than Mubarak’s or Morsi’s.

In some ways, they’re worse. Sisi’s regime reeks of Stalinism these days. In March of this year, more than five hundred Muslim Brotherhood officials were sentenced to death in one swoop. Many of those sentences were commuted to life, but the regime did it again the very next day and sentenced six hundred more.

Read the whole thing.

An Excerpt from RESURRECTION

If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of my zombie novel, here’s an excerpt that might pique your interest. Be sure to read the book before the movie comes out. The studio that purchased the film option is moving ahead and has two outstanding actors attached to it. (Nothing is official yet so I cannot tell you their names.)

Like AMC’s The Walking Dead, this is a character-driven story. There are zombies, yes, but the story is about how the characters react to the zombies and to each other.

My favorite character by far is Parker, though he is not the most likeable. At best he’s an anti-hero. We are all flawed human being, but Parker is more flawed than most. And he is punished terribly for it.

*   *   *

Parker had been married once. Met his future wife at a trendy café named Spinoza’s in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. It was the kind of place Parker always hated, not only because he didn’t fit in there but because it attracted the kinds of people he wished never colonized his neighborhood to begin with—the young, the hip, the beautiful, and the moneyed. Ballard used to be an honest and slightly gritty place for men who worked the docks, the ship locks, and who made things with their hands. It was never intended for soft people who lived in undeserved luxury and made boatloads of cash clicking away on their laptops.

The only reason he went into Spinoza’s that day at all was because he needed the bathroom. But when he saw a young woman sitting there by herself with her newspaper and a latte, he couldn’t help himself. He decided to order one too and see if he could gin up the nerve to take the empty table next to her.

There was something about her, though he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Not even after they married could he figure out what it was. She was attractive, sure, but not the most attractive he’d ever seen. She seemed friendly and approachable enough, though he had no idea why he would think that since she was just sitting there reading the paper. There was just something … gravitational about her, like she’d been engineered just for him.

He ordered awkwardly at the counter. He’d never had a latte, a cappuccino, or an Americano. He didn’t even know what they were. But he couldn’t just say “I’ll have a coffee.” They didn’t have regular coffee in those kinds of places.

The pretty woman with the newspaper sat far enough from the counter that she couldn’t hear him fumble his order, and thank heaven for that or he wouldn’t have sat next to her. She looked so peaceful and content, so at ease in the world as she flipped strands of her brown hair over her ear.

He didn’t intend to hit on her or ask her out for a date. He just wanted to enjoy the pleasure of her attention even if it only lasted a couple of seconds.

She sat by herself at a table for two. He sat next to her at another table for two and placed his drink in front of him. It looked like a dessert. He expected it to taste like one too, like a coffee meringue pie or something. Normally he drank plain old coffee, black, but the creamy and bitter whipped goodness in his mug, despite being foofy and gay, was outstanding. Wow, he thought. This exists?

“This coffee is extraordinary,” he said.

“Isn’t it?” the woman next to him said. The corners of her eyes crinkled up when she smiled over her mug.

God, Parker thought. I love this woman. He didn’t know why. He just did.

Her name was Holly and she was a regular at Spinoza’s. She had gone to school with the café owners. He told her he was new to fancy coffee and she seemed delighted to explain all the options.

They were so very different, but they were married in less than a year.

He built cabinets for a living. She worked in an office downtown as a paralegal. His friends were working class. Hers were professional. He loved the outdoors. She enjoyed fancy meals out. He drank beer. She liked red wine. Once in a while he embarrassed her when they went out with her friends, and he knew he seemed a little rough around the edges in mixed company, but she loved him and he couldn’t imagine living without her. She had a soft and gentle soul and seemed to appreciate his brusque masculine qualities—she was genetically hard-wired to do so, after all—until one day he hit her.

He didn’t mean to. Really, he didn’t. It just happened. They were arguing about money, which was a stupid because they both made plenty. He wanted a motorcycle and could afford it. She wanted to spend the money on granite kitchen counters instead.

She might have talked him into it, too, but instead she said she was tired of being a slave to his lower-class lifestyle.

He’d never hit anybody before. He looked like the type of guy who had been in a couple of fights, but he hadn’t.

He didn’t hit her too hard. It was really more like a slap. He didn’t strike her with a closed fist, didn’t break any bones, didn’t make her bleed, didn’t even leave a mark that lasted more than five minutes. But he did strike her cheek, and he’d never forget the sound or the look on her face when he did it.

Her entire life shattered in one instant.

She’d never forgive him, not in her heart, and he knew it.

He could not have been sorrier. That slap hurt him more than it hurt her. It sounded ludicrous when he said so, and she screamed that it was the most outrageous thing she ever heard, but it was true. It changed him as a person. It sentenced him to be a different kind of man for the rest of his life, the kind of man who hit women. A domestic abuser. A wife-beater. He never did it again, nor would he ever—no, really, he wouldn’t—but he would spend the rest of his days as a man who had once smacked a woman.

Eventually she could look at him again, and a little while later she could talk to him again, and eventually she even had sex with him one last time, but it ended in tears, and at that moment he knew it was over. She never slept with him again. Never even hugged him again. She left a few months later and said she was sorry but she wouldn’t be back. She cried when she left and she even said that she’d miss him, but she was true to her word. She never came back.

That was two years ago. Parker thought about her every day since. After the plague swept the world, he worried about her so hard he vomited.

What happened to her? Was she alive? Did she get bitten? Was a distorted version of her out there somewhere, diseased and warped beyond recognition? What would he do if she came at him on the street baring her teeth? Would he shoot her? Would he smash in her skull with a crowbar?

Would he smash in her face if he had to?

*   *   *

If you want to read more, you have to purchase the book. It is available now as an audio book narrated by the outstanding Steven Roy Grimsley who also narrated Where the West Ends

Hamas is the New Lesser of Evils

A resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is further away than ever. Hamas is the biggest obstacle to peace between the two sides, yet Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog tells Colin Freeman at Britain’s Telegraph that Hamas needs to be preserved and maintained lest something even worse takes its place.

“One way in which an Israeli military operation could backfire is by shaking Hamas' control on the ground to the point that it allowed other factions, including jihadists, to come to the fore,” he said. “At least Hamas provides an address—you don't have that with the jihadi factions. They aren't dominant right now but Hamas no longer controls Gaza as firmly as it used to, and if it was seriously weakened they could take advantage. We don't want another Somalia on our doorstep.”

He could have said he doesn’t want another Iraq on his doorstep. If a group like ISIS seized power in Gaza City during the aftermath of a war, both Israelis and Palestinians would have a brand-new deadly serious problem.

So Hamas is the “lid,” and the Israelis won’t even try to get rid of it. Right now they only want to put a stop to the rocket fire. It makes sense considering what’s happening in Syria and Iraq, but think of the long-term ramifications: Hamas is indispensable even while making an end to the conflict impossible. What does that say about the prospects for peace in the near term?

If Hamas simply wanted independence for a Palestinian state, the two sides would only have to work out the details. But Hamas wants to “liberate” and “end the occupation” not of the West Bank but of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. It isn’t possible to negotiate a deal with these people. They aren’t interested in negotiating anything more than a temporary cease-fire. Hamas and the entire ideology behind it must be eliminated or at least marginalized before an end to the conflict will be in sight.

There is no reason to believe this will happen any time soon. An Arab Spring-like revolution against Hamas in Gaza would be an interesting development, but it’s not happening. Perhaps it will later, but it is not happening now.

The Israelis can and do change their government regularly with free and fair elections, but Palestinian politics are autocratic and slower to change. At least one more generational shift may be necessary. In any case, the jihadist factions will need to be vaporized first. And in the Levant, at least, they’re still ascending.

We could waste more time with another peace process to nowhere, I guess, but they sure do hurt when they fail.

Here We Go Again

The Israeli-Palestinian war is turning hot again, this time in response to the murder of three Israeli teenagers and one Palestinian boy.

Hamas is firing rockets at Israel. Israel is launching air strikes at Hamas. Maybe the Israelis will invade Gaza again and maybe they won’t. Either way, not a damn thing will be resolved by this fighting. Israel will stubbornly continue existing, as will Hamas.

A Lebanese friend of mine once asked me, “where are we going?” The “we” in that sentence referred to the people of Lebanon.

“In circles,” I said.

He smiled because he knew that I understood, that I had broken free of what Jeffrey Goldberg calls “solutionism,” an analytical error common among Americans who believe all problems are solvable.

Some problems are solvable. Lots of problems are solvable. We beat the Nazis and flew to the moon. But poverty, divorce, and the Middle East crisis are always with us. I won’t be the least bit surprised if cancer is cured before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One of the reasons I took a detour in Southeast Asia is because I needed a mental health break from a region that doesn’t get better. Vietnam is improving at the same speed Syria is disintegrating. Egypt is back where it started, Iraq has turned into a furnace again, and Gaza is still…well, it’s Gaza.

The Middle East is going in circles, but it’s not going away and it’s not going to leave us alone.

Back a Bit Early from Vietnam

A medical emergency forced me to return home from Vietnam a bit early, but I’m okay now and at least I got most of what I needed and wanted from Hanoi. I was hoping to spend a few days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to round things out, but alas that was not in the cards.

This is the first time I’ve ever had to go home early for any reason, let alone a medical reason, but I’ve been doing this for ten years now so I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.

No need to worry about me. I really am okay now, and I do have some good material to work with. Vietnam is a fascinating place and it will be great fun to write about. Just give me a bit of time to organize my notes, transcribe some interviews, etc.

On the Desert's Edge

The Moroccan American Center recently took me to Morocco and the Western Sahara. The following dispatch is the result of that trip.  

On the West Coast of Africa, directly across the Atlantic Ocean from Cuba, is the region known as the Western Sahara, one of the few remaining on earth that isn’t recognized as part of a nation-state.

It is administered by Morocco yet claimed by the Polisario, a guerrilla army hatched by Fidel Castro and Moammar Qaddafi that fought to take over from colonial Spain in 1975 and transform it into a communist state. The Polisario lost the shooting part of its war to Morocco, but the fat lady hasn’t even made her way to the dressing room yet.

You wouldn’t know by walking around that Western Sahara is the epicenter of what’s often (erroneously) compared with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor would you see any evidence that the cities, such as they are, were recently slums ruled by a police state.

You certainly wouldn’t guess, if you didn’t already know, that Western Sahara is still darkened by the long shadow of the Cold War or that the place still quietly bleeds from the unhealed wounds cut by Qaddafi and Castro, but foreign correspondents almost never go down there, and governments outside North Africa rarely give the problem more than a single passing thought every couple of years.

Western Sahara’s citizens don’t know how to suffer in ways that stir activists or make headlines, but they are suffering. Tens of thousands are to this day held in refugee camps—which are really more like concentration camps—across the border in Algeria. They’ve been living in squalor as hostages in one of the planet’s most inhospitable places almost as long as I’ve been alive.

Hardly anyone on earth has ever heard of them.


I flew down there from the Moroccan capital in early 2014 and could see from the air that I was about to land in a place no closer to anywhere else of significance on land than Ascension Island way out in the Atlantic. 

The city of Dakhla, my destination, is a bubble of sorts. It’s a seaside town on the edge of the Sahara Desert and closer to Africa’s tropical forests than to the Mediterranean on the continent’s north coast, yet the climate is near-perfect. The average high temperature in January is room temperature, and even in August it’s just 82 degrees Fahrenheit—the same summer high as in the mild Pacific Northwest. The cool waters of the Atlantic create a razor-thin coastal microclimate that spares Dakhla’s people from the infernal heat of the desert that broils alive anyone who dares venture far from the beach.

Few live out in the wasteland. Western Sahara is one of the world’s least-densely populated areas. It’s two-thirds the size of California, but only 800,000 people live in the whole of it, fewer than in metropolitan Omaha.

The area has virtually no resources to speak of. When Spain pulled out there was fewer than fifty miles of paved road and one schoolhouse. Dakhla was little more than an army base with a couple of stores outside the gates surrounded by ocean and sand.

It was a ghastly place until recently, filled with shantytowns typical of the poorest regions of Africa. People lived in cinderblock houses with no running water or electricity. And it was repressed.

“I went down there in 1998,” a retired diplomat said to me in Rabat, “and I counted 35 policemen in four blocks. I couldn’t go anywhere without being followed. It wasn’t possible to have even a peaceful demonstration without getting beaten up by the police.”

The Moroccan government has eased up dramatically in the meantime just as it has up north, and most of Dakhla is brand-new. A huge percentage of Sahrawis—the Berbers, Tuaregs, and Arabs of the Northwestern Sahara—were nomads well past the mid-point of the 20th century, but nearly all of them are now urban. 

Dakhla during my lifetime has mushroomed from a remote Spanish outpost into proper city of more than 85,000 people. Most have lived there for only one or two generations. Few are wealthy, but I saw none of the squalor typical of rapid urban migration in so many developing countries. Morocco has invested an enormous amount of money in the Sahara to make Dakhla livable, not just by building infrastructure and housing but by investing in parks and a new promenade on the waterfront lined with palm trees.

I’d get bored after a while if I lived there—Dakhla is provincial, small, and conservative—but I doubt I’d have many other complaints. The city is clean, friendly, and aesthetically adequate. Buildings and houses tend to be rectangular and consist of only the simplest ornamentation, but they’re painted in various desert hues and that’s enough. Everything seems to work. European tourists love the place for its outstanding kite-surfing, desert adventure tourism, and film and music festivals, and they bring a hint of cosmopolitan sensibility to the place that it would otherwise lack.

“Why did nomadism disappear now,” I asked a local man, “instead of decades earlier or decades in the future?”

“It’s the 21st century,” he said and shrugged. As good an answer as any, I suppose. Why shouldn’t the Sahrawis live in houses with televisions and Internet and drive cars to work like most of the rest of the world?

On weekends, though, families like to return to the desert. Their hearts still reside in the wildness of the Sahara.

Dakhla would be a great place for a day trip from Spain’s nearby Canary Islands if it had ferry service, but a deep sadness soaks into its bones. The war with the Polisario is frozen, but it is not over.

The Polisario was founded as a popular movement in 1973 to resist Spain’s colonization in what was then known as Spanish Sahara. Its primary sponsors were Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi and Soviet-backed Algeria.

In the fall of 1975, the Moroccan government orchestrated the Green March, a non-violent yet Godzilla-sized demonstration. Hundreds of thousands of citizens crossed the border on foot and walked several miles inside Spanish-occupied territory demanding General Franco’s forces withdraw. Spain did leave later that month, Franco died less than a week later, and the war between the Polisario and Morocco was on.

Thousands of refugees fled across the Algerian border and set up a constellation of camps, mostly outside the desert city of Tindouf, but—as expected of the proxies of Castro and Qaddafi—Polisario leaders soon turned those camps into prisons.

The conflict could have escalated into an American-Soviet proxy war, but Moscow was content to let Cuba, Libya, and Algeria handle it, and Washington figured correctly that Morocco could win on its own.

Tens of thousands of Sahrawis still live in the camps, some as willing refugees, most as hostages. If they want to go home—and most of them do—they’ll have to escape and risk imprisonment, torture, and occasionally murder.

The so-called Moroccan Wall—a ten-foot high barrier in the desert made of sand, stone, fencing, and land mines—separates Western Sahara from Polisario territory. Every single Moroccan-Algerian border crossing is closed, and the Polisario, in cahoots with the Algerians, hunts down everybody who runs.


Abdelatif Bendahane knows Africa better than just about anyone. He was the director of African Affairs at Morocco’s foreign ministry and works today as an unofficial advisor to the president of Burkina Faso.

He and I talked politics over coffee.

“Morocco was once an empire from Tangier to Senegal,” he said as he leaned back expansively. “The nomadic tribes in the Sahara always had good relations with the sultan in Rabat. Mauritania used to be part of the Moroccan Empire. There was no such entity as Mauritania before 1960. Today it’s independent, so some think it’s plausible that Western Sahara might also one day become independent.”

France ruled what is now Mauritania until 1960, and the French left Morocco in 1956 after 44 years of occupation, but the Spanish held onto their in-between piece of the Sahara until 1975. Morocco has no designs on Mauritania, but it chaps Rabat’s hide that its reacquisition of Western Sahara in the wake of the Spanish withdrawal hasn’t been recognized internationally, partly because the conflict is a relic of the now long-dead Cold War and also because from Morocco’s point of view the region has been liberated after a long colonial occupation.

The only reason the conflict  still simmers is because Algeria won’t let it go.

“The problem is between Morocco and Algeria,” he said, “not between Morocco and the Polisario. Without Algeria the Polisario wouldn’t exist. Algeria’s government used to be leftist and socialist. It’s not anymore, but their hegemonic ambitions are exactly the same. To this day there is no settled border between Algeria and Morocco. They want a federation with Western Sahara so they will have an Atlantic sea port. They believe this might actually happen.”

But it can’t happen unless somebody first forces out the Moroccans. And the Moroccans are no more likely to leave the Sahara than the United States will ever leave Texas. Franco’s Spain never considered Western Sahara an integral part of its territory, but Morocco does rightly or wrongly. “Imagine if Spanish-speakers in the US voted to secede,” he said. “Washington would never accept it.”

But since no country in the world recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the area, Rabat is making a compromise offer of autonomy under the umbrella of sovereignty. The Sahrawis could run their own affairs, and unlike under Polisario rule, they could do so democratically. Morocco could hold onto territory. And the stability Western Sahara currently enjoys as an extension of Morocco’s wouldn’t be lost. 

It’s the best deal the Polisario is ever going to get.

But Algiers thinks it’s all a zero-sum game, that any gain for Morocco comes at the mathematical expense of Algeria. That’s nonsense on stilts. All countries are better off with friends and allies as neighbors rather than enemies, but the Algerian regime, warmed up Soviet holdover that it is, hasn’t figured that out yet.

There was a brief period when Western Sahara might have slipped from Morocco’s grasp had things gone a bit differently. The Polisario was once much more popular than it is now, but it’s hard to gauge how popular or not the Polisario is today because no vote has ever been held on the question.

The Polisario won’t accept a referendum on the status of Western Sahara if everyone who lives there gets to vote, and Morocco won’t accept a referendum on the Polisario’s terms because it would disenfranchise anybody who didn’t live there before 1975, including all the Sahrawis who were forced out of the territory by the Spanish occupation.

The Sahrawis hold their own local elections, however, and they vote for their own representatives in the Moroccan capital, but Polisario Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz writes letters to Ban Ki Moon asking the UN to put a stop to it. (The man really does take his opinions and style from Castro and Qaddafi.)

“The Polisario might have won the vote on their terms if it was based on their restricted voter list during the reign of Hassan II,” Bendahane said. “Western Sahara was a police state back then. Today it’s different. The Polisario would suffer a crushing defeat if everybody could vote. That’s why there has not been a vote.”

“What do the other North African countries think of all this?” I said.

“Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Mali are all with Morocco,” he said.  “Mauritania fears Algerian power and splits the difference, supporting both sides more or less equally.”

In some ways the status quo should be fine from Rabat’s point of view because Morocco will never leave the Sahara and no one will ever force out Morocco. But the Cold War with Algeria makes the creation of a functioning and stable North Africa all but impossible while the region festers with chaos and violence that even with a non-perfect storm could metastasize. 


Former Moroccan political prisoner Driss el-Yazami says Morocco was in bad shape during the rule of the previous king, Hassan II, and that Western Sahara under his rule was even worse. “In the 60s and 70s,” he said when I met him in his office in Rabat, “we had huge tension between leftists and the monarchy. The leftists wanted to kill the king and were armed by Algeria and Qaddafi. We had disappearances, detention centers, secret trials. Socialist newspapers were censored and I was sentenced to life in prison.”

He’s out now and is President of Morocco’s National Council for Human Rights created by the younger and more-liberal King Mohammad VI after his father died.

“In the mid-1990s political prisoners were released and we began the process of democratization,” he said. “Sometimes it goes too slow, in my opinion, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Polisario, though, isn’t moving in any direction. The organization has apparently junked its ideas about Marxist-Leninist economics—it’s hard to build a dictatorship of the proletariat in a refugee camp whose only industry is smuggling—but its totalitarian structure remains intact.

Dakhla native Mohammad Cherif experienced that at its worst. He spent more than a decade with the Polisario—first as a willing recruit, then as a prisoner.

Growing up under Spanish colonialism, he found the Polisario’s demands for independence compelling, and he signed on in 1977. “Their propaganda appealed to a lot of people,” he told me.

He left Dakhla in 1978. After six months of military training the Polisario sent him to Libya where he trained three more years at a military academy.

But he’d barely even finished when he was arrested in 1981 for criticizing the Polisario leadership and scurrilously accused of collaborating with Moroccan security. “They use that tactic against people whenever they have trouble in the camps.”

The guards tossed him down a hole, slammed a grate over the top, and left him there for five years.

“I had no name in the hole,” he said. “They called me by a number.”

They permitted him no contact whatsoever with the outside world. He used a bucket for a toilet and had his hands tied behind his back at all times. “They wouldn’t let me sleep,” he said. “For five years I hardly slept. The guards banged on the grate every hour at night and forced me to yell out I’m here.” Whenever they dragged him out, usually to torture and interrogate him, they put a sack over his face so he couldn’t see anything or anyone else.

Their questions rarely even made sense.

“They hanged me from the ceiling by my wrists and ankles and whipped me,” he said. “I had to make up stories just to get them to stop. They’d leave me alone for a month to let my body heal, then start again.”

Pressure from his family, some of whom were senior Polisario members in good standing, finally got him out of that hole. He asked if he could rejoin the army, but there was no chance they’d give him a gun, so they sent him instead to the Polisario Embassy in Algiers and then on to Spain’s Canary Islands where he managed to escape to the Netherlands. 

“The Polisario are not the representatives of the Sahrawi people,” he said. “They are the torturers of the Sahrawi people.”


For decades the Polisario has been shipping Sahrawi children to Cuba for indoctrination at the primary source. Maghlaha Dlimi was one of them, but she’s home now in Dakhla and she agreed to meet me for coffee and talk about it.

I was keenly interested in what she had to say, partly because I had just returned from Cuba myself, which ties with Qaddafi’s Libya as the most repressive country I’ve ever visited. It says a great deal about the Polisario and its ideological severity that those two countries were its principal backers when it was founded.

“They sent me to Cuba when I was ten years old,” she said. My flawed Spanish is about as good as her flawed English, so we hobbled along in both languages. “First to the Isle of Youth, then to Santa Clara, then to Camaguey. This was in the 1980s. I got there on a Russian boat from Algeria with 3,000 other kids.”

She took Spanish lessons in the camps before heading over. Children who struggled with the language went to Algeria, Syria, Libya, Russia, or Yugoslavia—all communist or communist-aligned countries.

Ostensibly she went to Cuba for school since better teachers were available than in the refugee camps, but that wasn’t really the reason.

“I had no idea until I got there,” she said, “but the real purpose was to indoctrinate me with communist ideology. We also received military training, girls as well as boys. None of us wanted to stay. We wanted a real education.”

She didn’t get one. Nor did the other Sahrawi children. Castro’s education of children from across the ocean wasn’t a charity mission. He used them as pawns in one of his grand adventures in Africa. Western Sahara was but his latest. Havana’s men, including Che Guevara, trained guerrillas in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Congo. Cuba even sent soldiers into Angola

“The Polisario wanted to impose a communist structure on nomadic populations,” she said. “I don’t believe that has changed. The same people are the leaders today as when I was young. There are still Sahrawi children in Cuba right now.”

She wanted to study journalism and translation in school, but they wouldn’t let her. “I got good grades, but they said no. Only kids who were part of the Polisario cadre could choose what to study. They forced me to study education and teach Spanish.”

The leadership eventually sent her to Spain and she managed to escape through the Moroccan Embassy in Madrid.

Her cousins are still there, but her brothers and sisters made it out. Her oldest brother fled first, in 1997, then organized escapes for everyone else.

“It’s impossible for an entire family to get out at once,” she said. “And when one family member leaves, they keep a close eye on the rest. We don’t dare tell anyone we’re planning to leave, not even our parents. There is no family intimacy in the camps. You never know if one of your brothers or sisters will rat you out to the guards.”


The Polisario is the self-styled representative of the Sahrawis, but Khallihanna Amar has a much stronger case since he was elected to the local community council in Dakhla.

He too is one of the Polisario’s former prisoners.

They scooped him up the first time he tried to escape from the camps in 1995. “They interrogated me for a month,” he told me. “Over and over again they asked why I was trying to leave and where I was going.”

Surely, I said, the Polisario has an ass-covering excuse for not letting prisoners leave that makes at least some vague sense ideologically. They still refuse to admit they’re holding even a single soul hostage.

“Of course,” he said. “If you try to leave they accuse you of being a counter-revolutionary and a Moroccan agent. My father was accused of collaborating with the Mauritanian resistance and sent to a re-education camp. And for my second escape attempt I paid a smuggler to take me to the Mali-Mauritanian border. Traffickers there smuggle humanitarian aid, cigarettes, and everything else. I worked my way up the coast and walked past a minefield to the Moroccan border. The Moroccan soldiers saw me coming and grabbed me.”

Western Sahara is not a police state anymore, but not everyone who followed the conflict in the early days when it made headlines are aware of that yet. Dakhla isn’t exactly a hotspot for foreign correspondents. It’s more than 1,000 miles down the West African coast from Tangier and pinned in the middle of nowhere by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a Mars-like desert bigger than the United States on the other. It takes twenty hours to drive there from Rabat, about as long as it takes to drive from Seattle to Los Angeles. Aside from European kite-surfers, hardly anyone ever goes there.

I had to wonder, though, if I was being fooled by cosmetic relaxation that didn’t go very far. It happens. My thoughts kept returning to Cuba, not only because the Castro regime backs the Polisario but because I had recently been in Cuba myself and know all too well how many people visit on holiday and think everything’s fine when it’s not. It’s at least theoretically possible that repression in Western Sahara is simply less obvious than it used to be, as in Cuba, and therefore more insidious.

The lack of men with guns on the streets does not by itself mean it isn’t oppressive. I didn’t see men with guns in Havana, but Cuba has the worst human rights record by far in the Western Hemisphere. I was sitting across the table from a man who had been elected to the local community council in a multiparty election, though, so how bad could it be?

“When I came back,” he said, “I found that I still had all my social, political, and economic rights. And I got elected to the council. So no, I’m not being oppressed. No one here is oppressed. But there are young people who know nothing about the camps and who demonstrate against Morocco because the Sahara is not independent. They are like me when I was fourteen and Che Guevara was my hero. I didn’t listen to anybody back then.”

Morocco’s government isn’t like Cuba’s. It holds free and fair elections with a range of parties to choose from across the political spectrum. The Polisario runs an asteroid belt of actual police states in the camps across the border inside Algeria, which itself is smothered by a Soviet-style regime. That’s where you’ll find the Cuban analogue in North Africa, which makes perfect sense since the Polisario is partly a creature of Castro.

“Conditions in the camps are miserable,” Amar said. “People are living in tents and mud buildings built by Moroccan slave labor. Food is only available depending on what kind of relations people have with the leadership. There are constant epidemics. And they’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

Try to imagine living like that in the hottest place in the world. The climate in Dakhla is near-perfect thanks to the cool winds off the Atlantic, but go just a few miles inland and you’ll feel like you’ve stuck your face in front of an open oven on broil.

“What do people do all day in the camps?” I said.

“The Polisario gave us a schedule to occupy our time and our minds,” he said. “Men get military training. Woman are organized into committees for education, distribution of humanitarian aid, and social relations.” The disgraceful use of child soldiers in Sub-Saharan Africa is well documented, but they’re up north, too, out in the desert. “Children begin military training at age ten. They are taught how to take apart an AK-47 and put it back together blindfolded.”

Morocco’s human rights record is far from perfect. Freedom House ranks the country as “partly free” rather than “free.” But the Polisario’s patron states stomp on human faces with boots as a matter of course. It’s fine and good to be skeptical of the Moroccan government, its reforms, and its claims, but that goes double for Cuba, Algeria, and the Polisario.

“We want American guarantees to Morocco so we can fix this,” Amar said. “People here have suffered a great deal since the mid-1970s. We want peace and security and to have our families together again. What purpose has been served all these years by keeping our families hostage in those camps?”

North Africa is so close to Europe. The two continents can see each other across the Strait of Gibraltar. Yet they are politically, socially, and economically thousands of miles apart.

The entire Sahara-Sahel region is unstable. Egypt is ruled again by a military dictatorship. Libya is on the verge of total disintegration a la Somalia. Algeria is mired in a Soviet time warp. Northern Mali was recently taken over by Taliban-style terrorists so vicious they prompted the French to invade. At the time of this writing, US troops are hunting Nigeria’s Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram across the border in Chad.

Tunisia is doing okay, but it’s small. Aside from Morocco, the entire northern half of Africa is a disaster. Most of the continent, really, is still a disaster, but North Africa matters more to the West because it’s the southern half of the Mediterranean. The region isn’t Las Vegas—what happens there doesn’t stay there and never has.

The region’s potential is obvious to everyone who has seen it at its best. Marrakech in Morocco, Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, Ghadames in Libya—these are some of the world’s most beautiful places, and they’re inhabited by the some of the friendliest and most personally delightful people I’ve ever met.

Well into the 21st century, though, there is still more darkness than light, even in the blazing Sahara. Military dictators, Islamist mass-murderers, human traffickers, gun-runners, thuggish communist proxy militias, and kidnappers run roughshod and wild. The city of Dakhla has managed to keep it all at some distance, but it’s fragile. On most maps Western Sahara is nothing but a geographic abstraction.

That can’t possibly last.

Maybe, perhaps even during my lifetime, North Africa will realize its potential and flourish with the freedom and prosperity on the other side of the Mediterranean, but that time is not yet. Not even Morocco—the most stable and civilized state in the region by far—has managed to permanently secure its backyard yet.

“What would happen,” I said to Amar, “if the Sahara became independent and the Polisario, one way or another, became the government?”

“An instant civil war,” he said, “and an instant failed state.”

Post-script: If you enjoyed reading this dispatch and learned something, please consider contributing with a donation. Many thanks in advance!

The Consequences of Syria

The Syrian civil war is no longer the Syrian civil war. It's a regional war that started in Syria, has expanded into Lebanon and Iraq, and has drawn in the Iranians and to a lesser extent the Kurds and the Israelis.

Wars in North Africa tend to stay local, but wars in the Levant spill over and suck in the neighbors. There's no reason to believe this war has finished expanding or that an end is in sight.

Lee Smith's new short book, The Consequences of Syria, is about how we got here. Lee is a friend of mine. He and I met nine years ago in Beirut and have traveled elsewhere in the region together. We argue about the Middle East sometimes, but we agree with each other often enough that our arguments are interesting and productive.

We spoke by phone recently.

MJT: Tell us about your book.

Lee Smith: It’s a long essay commissioned by the Hoover Institution, specifically by Charles Hill, one of our country’s great statesmen and historians of grand strategy, as well as Fouad Ajami, who died Sunday at the age of 68. Not only was Ajami a great historian of the modern Middle East, he is also one of the great English language prose stylists. He wrote about the region, but like any writer his real subject was about the human condition, that is, man’s struggle with freedom. It was a huge honor that he and Mr. Hill included me in the Hoover series, “The Great Unraveling: The Remaking of the Middle East,” and I am indebted to them both, professionally and even more so personally. What an honor to get to work with them and other authors in the series, including a book by one of our mutual friends, Samuel Tadros, Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.

My essay is an account of the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011 as a peaceful protest movement. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired on unarmed opposition members, the uprising eventually became a rebellion as the opposition took up arms, and the conflict escalated into a full-scale civil war. That’s one aspect of the book.

The other part of the book concerns the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which has been one of neglect and mendacity. The administration has repeatedly misled the American public, the American media, and allies around the world about its intentions.

MJT: Give us an example.

Lee Smith: Look at what happened in May before the president’s speech at West Point. Various media outlets quoted unnamed sources that suggested the president was going to arm and train the rebels.

The president and his administration have been saying this for two and a half years now, most notably in June 2013 when Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a conference call with reporters that the administration was ramping up its military support for the rebels.

Again and again, reporters asked Rhodes if that meant the administration was going to arm the rebels. Rhodes said he couldn’t give us an exact “inventory”—a word he used at least three times—of the assistance the administration would provide. Major media—the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, etc.—reported that the White House was indeed going to arm the rebels, but this was all attributed to anonymous sources, which means that there absolutely nothing at stake if the information proved incomplete, inaccurate or just plain false. It was only months later when we found out from interviews with various rebel commanders that no American arms had been received.

Here it’s worth saying something about the press as well. I would have hoped that after the administration pulled similar stunts over the last few years regarding Syria that editors would’ve demanded more from their reporters. For instance, “Look, these guys are using us as part of an information operation to keep their domestic opponents and foreign allies off guard. We can’t keep publishing these stories straight anymore without someone going on the record and staking their reputation to it. At the very least we have to note that this may be part of a pattern of inaccuracies we’ve already seen with this White House regarding Syria policy.”

But of course no one did anything of the sort, and the US media has a lot of egg on their face for it. This White House has been bad for the press, and the readership’s faith in our press, but it seems most journalists don’t much care.

MJT: Why would the administration mislead everyone instead of just coming out and saying Syria is a mess that we don’t want to get sucked into? That’s the popular position in the United States right now. Plenty of people on both the left and the right would applaud him for that. Why the shenanigans?

Lee Smith: That’s a very good question. Maybe it’s because the administration is worried its foreign policy will haunt it in the mid-term elections. But then again the administration and a lot of its media surrogates keep saying the American public doesn’t care about foreign policy. And yet other polls show the American public does consider foreign policy an important factor in their decision.

My belief is that we Americans do care about foreign policy, more specifically about America’s role in the world, but we have come to distrust our leadership. Not just Obama but also Republicans, and that’s why I think Rand Paul is getting so much traction. His idea, which I don’t agree with at all, is at least clear: We should stay out of other people’s conflicts.

Compare that, for instance, to the Democratic frontrunner for 2016, Hillary Clinton. She says all the right things about a strong America projecting our values in the world, but, as we saw in the recent Diane Sawyer interview, Clinton will take no responsibility at all for anything that happened at Benghazi. So it doesn’t matter if she talks tough about our foreign policy—who can possibly trust someone to lead us into the world if that person’s primary interest is covering her own tail?

MJT: The White House’s Syria policy is about Iran, isn’t it?

Lee Smith: Part of it of course is that Obama understands himself as the man whose job is to get us out of entanglements in the Middle East, not to further commit American troops and resources. Still—yes, a large part of it has to do with Iran.

As I explain in The Consequences of Syria, there’s evidence suggesting that the administration feared that helping topple Assad, an ally of Iran, might have angered the Iranians and pushed them away from the negotiating table, and getting a deal with Iran was the White House’s chief goal in the Middle East.

Look at other exampled of how the White House wanted to stay on the regime’s good side. When the Green Movement took to the streets in June 2009 to protest what was quite likely fraudulent election results, the White House was extremely slow to support it even when the regime was attacking people on the streets just as the Assad regime did a few years later.

One of the reasons the administration was slow to respond—and we know this because it was reported in the New Yorker article that first put forth the now-infamous phrase “leading from behind”—is because, as one administration official put it, the White House wanted to negotiate with the regime. Same with sanctions relief, which the White House provided to keep the Iranians at the table.

It’s hard not to conclude that the administration’s Syria policy is a sub-set of its Iran policy. Many people were baffled for a long time, including me, that the president didn’t seem to see Syria strategically, as a way to weaken Iran. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis said that toppling Bashar al-Assad would constitute the most severe blow against the Iranian regime in 25 years. A number of administration officials seemed to recognize the same thing—from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and ex-CIA director David Petraeus. Only the president seemed to not recognize that or to see Syria in a strategic framework. What we now realize is that the president does see Syria in a strategic framework. He sees that the Syrian regime is an important ally of the Iranians and doesn’t want to be seen toppling the regime for fear of angering the Iranians.

MJT: Is there any chance that the White House is going to get what it wants from the Iranians this way?

Lee Smith: If we have a powerful American presence in the Middle East it might be possible to come to some sort of accommodation with Iran. I don’t know exactly what it would look like. But it would have to be demonstrated that the United States still calls the shots in the Persian Gulf and that the United States is still the great power in the Middle East.

What we’re seeing instead is a United States in retreat in the Middle East. So I don’t see what the accommodation would look like. It’s not a grand bargain with Iran, but an American fire sale, with the US virtually giving away its assets. The US is retreating from the region and leaving it in Iranian hands.

This is what Obama’s twin-pillars’ policy is about. In various interviews the president has described a new regional framework, a new geopolitical equilibrium, that balances Iran against the Sunni states in the Persian Gulf. This is precisely the idea the impoverished Brits had when they were on their way out of the Persian Gulf at the end of the 1960s. The problem is that there is no way to balance them—Saudi Arabia is incapable of projecting power without American backing. For instance, Riyadh has no equivalent of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its external operations unit, responsible for Iran’s war in Syria, as well as terrorist operations. Accordingly, when the White House says it’s aiming to “balance,” what US allies hear is that the US, like the Brits nearly half a century ago, are on their way out of the region, and are leaving it in Iran’s hands.

Consider how the administration has effectively partnered with Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq.

In Lebanon, for instance, American intelligence has teamed up with the Lebanese Armed Forces’ military intelligence, which is at present controlled by Hezbollah. So the United States is indirectly aligned with Hezbollah in Lebanon against Sunni fighters.

In Iraq we’ve seen the same thing. Up until the ISIS-led takeover of Mosul, the White House supported Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni policy, even though his allies include Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups with American blood on their hands.

MJT: Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria recently took over Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq along with some other cities. They're not as big a strategic threat as Iran right now, but they can certainly turn into one, can't they?

Lee Smith: Let’s be a bit more specific. What we’re seeing in cities like Mosul is a Sunni rebellion against Maliki and the Iranians. In addition to ISIS, there are also former Baath party figures, like one of Saddam’s deputies, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, as well as Sunni tribes. ISIS would appear to be playing the role of Sunni shock troops, who are dispatched to the fronts to terrorize and create havoc. Behind them are the Baathis and the tribes. It was Maliki and the Iranians, in particular Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who made this possible.

The American-led surge of 2006-7 was a success because it got the tribes to fight, and defeat, Al Qaeda in Iraq. What Maliki and the Iranians have done is unite the tribes and ISIS through their anti-Sunni policies. And so now the administration has a dilemma. As it has argued repeatedly regarding Syria, from their perspective the big issue in the Middle East is counter-terrorism against Al Qaeda and the Sunni jihadis. There’s no doubt Al Qaeda is a problem for the United States, but it’s not a strategic threat like Iran and the Iranian resistance axis.

Compare the two: Al Qaeda and Iran’s government are both radical Islamists, but the difference is that Al Qaeda doesn’t have the strategic resources of state at its disposal like Iran and its allies, including Islamists like Hezbollah as well as the Iraqi armed groups like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, do.

A radical Sunni who wants to establish a caliphate, yelling Allahu Akbar with a black flag in one hand and a Kalashnikov in his other hand is crazy and dangerous, but he’s not a strategic threat. How does that caliphate, assuming such a thing is even possible, affect how Americans live? Are they going to impose sharia on us? Are our female friends and relatives going to be forced to wear a veil because of what some guy in Aleppo says?

When people worry that Sunni Islamists want to create a caliphate in the Middle East they seem to forget that we already have a clerical regime in Iran. What they’re afraid might happen has already happened. And the concern coming out of Tehran isn’t sharia, but the fact that a nuclear weapons program in the hands of an expansionist regime gives them a dangerous say in the flow of energy resources through the Persian Gulf. They don’t have to actually use a bomb to destabilize the region and raise the price of energy around the world. That’s the danger—that Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf will affect how Americans, and our trading partners, live.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is an already-existing Islamist power, with an army, a navy, an air force, a ballistic missile program, a nuclear weapons program. They have a diplomatic corps as well as a terrorist apparatus. Al Qaeda doesn’t have any of that. Iran is the key strategic threat in the Middle East for American interests and American allies.

MJT: So on balance do you think we would be better off if Al Qaeda ended up controlling Syria or parts of Syria as long as bringing down Assad delivers a big enough blow to Iran.

Lee Smith: Well, I think it’s unlikely Al Qaeda winds up running all of Syria, but if they do, great. If anything comes out of there endangering American citizens, allies, or interests, then that Al Qaeda controlled Syria, presumably with its capital in Damascus, winds up paying a very steep price.

I think that American foreign policy works most efficiently when it prioritizes threats. Few people believed during World War II that Joseph Stalin was a great guy, but the immediate threat to the United States, its interests, and its allies came from the Nazis, so we aligned ourselves with the Soviet Union until Hitler was defeated, then we waged a Cold War against the Soviets for nearly half a century. That’s how American foreign policy works best.

Sarah Palin said she’s content to let Allah sort things out in Syria between Iran and Al Qaeda, but Allah doesn’t always sort things out according to American interests.

The Obama administration is prioritizing threats, but it’s prioritizing the wrong threat. It’s prioritizing a group of non-state actors over a state.

MJT: So what would you do if you were in charge of our Syria policy?

Lee Smith: The first thing I’d do is knock the Syrian air force out of commission. Make sure it can never get off the ground. Even the people worried about Al Qaeda taking over Syria shouldn’t have an objection to that. If Al Qaeda takes over Syria, do we want them to inherit an air force?

MJT: Of course not.

Lee Smith: It’s unlikely that Al Qaeda will take over Syria anyway. The jihadist groups are only part of the rebellion. But even in the worst-case scenario, if they do take the whole country and run a caliphate state from Damascus, we’ll all be glad Syria is a generation away from having a functioning air force. What’s the argument against taking the Syrian air force out of the equation? We want Assad dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas canisters on the opposition because we fear that 7-year-old girls are likely Al Qaeda recruits who will attack the West?

And it’s standard US policy to back proxies against American adversaries. The fact that we’re not backing moderate rebels to fight the Iranian bloc in Syria tells us something about how the White House views Iran. It doesn’t view Iran as a significant adversary. The White House sees only Al Qaeda as the problem.

I understand why the president sees Iran this way. He isn’t crazy, he’s just wrong.

The president has said in various profiles and interviews that while he recognizes the Iranian regime as a problem, it’s nevertheless fundamentally rational. And I think he’s right about that much.

There has been an argument in Washington for almost a decade now with one side holding that the Iranians are rational and the other side insisting that the Iranians are irrational and likely to do anything, including blow up Iran, because they’re nuts and they want to bring back the Mahdi. That’s not a conversation I’m interested in having.

One would be hard-pressed to find a regime anywhere in history that has actively sought to destroy itself. The Nazis were crazy, but did they actively seek their own end? No. Of course not. They sought to expand their power and reach, and that’s what the Iranians are doing as well.

History is nothing but the long chronicle of regimes, peoples, and nations that miscalculate their own power and that of their adversaries and thereby end up destroying themselves, but they did not deliberately seek their own end. Iran is not irrational in that way. Its leaders don’t seek their own end.

We need to base our policy on their actual behavior, for instance their expansionist policies in the Middle East, their desire to destabilize rivals in the Persian Gulf. Designing a policy based strictly on the fact that a regime is rational or irrational is mistaken.

The president has said that because the Iranian government is a state, it is susceptible to the various instruments of statecraft—diplomacy, engagement, deterrence, containment, and military action if everything else fails. That’s how the president perceives the Iranians. That’s not a crazy way to look at Iran.

The reality is, however, that the United States has never been able to deter or contain Iran. No American policy-maker has ever pushed back against the Iranians for their misbehavior. I’m not just faulting Obama here. I’m also faulting the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the Reagan administration which also sought a rapprochement with the clerical regime. No one has pushed back for 35 years.

So the idea that the Obama administration can handle this regime solely because it’s a nation-state goes against the entire historical record of American-Iranian relations.

MJT: What do you think Iran would do with a nuclear weapon? Why exactly should we be concerned about that?

Lee Smith: I think we have to take Iranian threats against Israel seriously and we have to take the concerns of America’s Gulf Arab allies seriously. The Arab and Israeli concerns are both to an extent existential. When Iran threatens to blow up Israel, it’s a threat that Israeli officials cannot afford to ignore.

That said, while we have to take that seriously, I don’t think it’s the real problem from an American point of view.

MJT: I agree. I doubt Iran would actually nuke Israel, but I don’t know that the way I know France won’t nuke Israel.

Lee Smith: Exactly. So you can’t ignore that if you’re the Israeli prime minister. And we can’t ignore that the Saudis might want to counter an Iranian nuclear weapon with their own nuclear weapon, perhaps purchased from Pakistan. What’s the Persian Gulf going to look like if it’s bristling with nuclear weapons?

The real problem is that an Iranian nuclear weapon would give Iran the ability to destabilize the Middle East whenever it wants. Look at what Iran is doing around the region. That’s also what my book is about—Iranian expansionism across the Middle East. That’s the real problem.

If you’re Israeli your concern is that these guys could put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and fire it at Tel Aviv, but there’s more. The Iranians are not only on Israel’s border through Hezbollah in Lebanon. They’re on Israel’s border in Syria as well.

The Assad regime has long been allied with the Iranians, but now we’re seeing Revolutionary Guard troops in Syria. Hezbollah is now in Syria. Further, the Israeli Hezbollah specialist Shimon Shapria has a new paper out explaining how Iran is building a replica of Hezbollah on the Syrian border, on the Golan Heights. And Iran has replicated the Hezbollah model in Iraq. They dispatched Iraqi Shia militias to fight in Syria, as well as Afghani, Yemeni and Gulf Shiites as well. Shapira calls this Qassem Suleimani’s Shiite version of the Comintern. This is what I mean by Iranian expansionism and why Syria is a major concern.

American allies such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have a massive refugee problem. A lot of journalists are writing about the possible end of Sykes-Picot, that the Middle East’s borders are being eradicated, but the borders aren’t the immediate problem. What we’re seeing instead are massive population transfers. We’ve seen it before, constantly, and it’s happening again now.

The United Nations estimates there a million or so Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but mutual friends of ours in Beirut put the number at closer to two million. And that’s in a country of barely four million. How is that going to throw off the sectarian balance in Lebanon? What’s going to happen if a million Syrian refugees stay permanently in Jordan?

These are the consequences of Syria. Iranian expansionism. Destabilization of the region though transfers of population. And a test case for American power.

The administration has failed that test. Our friends are confused, angry, and perhaps destabilized while our enemies are emboldened and strengthened.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

Egypt's Failed Revolution

I've spent enough time in Egypt and interviewed enough people there to know that authentic liberals (in the general, classical, sense of the word) are thin on the ground, but they do exist and Samuel Tadros is one of them.

Fortunately for us—and unfortunately for his country—he left and lives now in Washington.

Last year he published his first book, Motherland Lost, which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, and he returns now with a short book (a long essay between covers) called Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt published by the Hoover Institution.

He and I spoke about it a couple of days ago.

MJT: You make a strong case in your book that the Egyptian revolutionaries commonly described as liberals are not really liberals. So who are these people really, and why do you suppose the West misunderstood them?

Samuel Tadros: They are really an amalgam of groups and individuals who took a stand against Mubarak. Some of them were Nasserists whose complaint with the regime was that it abrogated the promises made by Gamal Abdel Nasser [after the military coup of 1952]. They were upset about Mubarak’s internal policies as well as his policies toward Israel and the United States. Others were revolutionary socialists unhappy with the regime’s economic policies.

Most of the original revolutionaries before the crowds joined in were Nasserists and socialists, though some were what we could call proto-liberals. These were intellectuals who didn’t have strong convictions, and they didn’t really understand political liberalism, but the word “liberal” sounded good to them. Communism was less attractive to these people after the fall of the Soviet Union. Everyone abroad was talking about liberalism in Egypt, donors were seeking like minded Egyptians, so some Egyptians adopted the label for themselves without really understanding liberal ideas.

The West misunderstood them because of the natural tendency to find a good guy in the story, someone who looks like yourself. It’s hard to tell Americans there are no good guys. Everyone who was not an Islamist and not a supporter of the Mubarak regime assumed that role, but hardly anyone examined what these people were actually saying. Many of the revolutionary socialists, for instance, were offended when they were called liberals.

MJT: When the revolutionary socialists hear the word “liberal,” what do they think that means?

Samuel Tadros: Of all the groups in Egypt, the revolutionary socialists have the best understanding of political liberalism, partly because they are so strongly against it. They are especially against liberal economic policy. They don’t want an open economy. They’re also strongly opposed to procedural democracy. They don’t want to limit it only to the political sphere. They think it should be implemented everywhere, especially in the workplace. They want it inside companies between owners and employees.

The revolutionary socialists understand liberalism, but the other groups have only a shallow understanding of it. Some of them claimed to be liberals, but their behavior was extremely anti-liberal. They say they support human rights, but only for themselves, not for other people, especially people they’re against politically. Their discourse is extremely anti-Semitic and they tortured people in Tahrir Square.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone given the lack of liberal discourse in Egypt. It would be impossible to find five books in Arabic that stand for liberalism. The great canon of Western civilization is not available in Arabic.

MJT: Expand a bit on that torture business. Those incidents aren’t widely known outside Egypt.

Samuel Tadros: The core revolutionaries believed the Mubarak regime was pure evil, that it was all powerful, and that nobody supported it. So any person they encountered who was against the revolution was automatically assumed to be working for this enormous powerful state. Anyone who disagreed with the protestors was accused of working for the secret police.

I’m sure Mubarak had informers in Tahrir Square. Any regime would have sent informers down there. But the revolutionaries didn’t know who these people were, and they created a small prison inside the square for people arrested by the revolutionaries. They conducted justice in the square as if it were an independent state. You can see videos on YouTube of people who were tortured by the revolutionaries, who were arrested and beaten.

This revolutionary justice, the taking of the law into their own hands, was seen again when police stations were attacked with Molotov cocktails. Policemen were beaten and killed in the streets. The revolution is often described as peaceful, but that’s not entirely correct. It was peaceful compared with the civil war in Syria, but more than 800 people were killed during the 18 days before Mubarak was removed from power. Police stations were burned and ransacked. Weapons were stolen. There was a lot of violence then.

MJT: Your book includes a sentence that really struck me. You wrote that the revolutionaries were completely ignorant of the country they sought to transform. How could they be so ignorant of their own country, and what exactly did they not understand?

Samuel Tadros: Egypt is a large country. There are around 90 million people, but 20 million people live in one city. It’s tempting to be blinded by Cairo. It’s a humongous city. So it’s not surprising that people who spend all their days in Cairo and only leave to go to the north coast on vacation would mistake Cairo for Egypt. Many of them have hardly seen the rest of the country.

They also saw the revolution as a struggle between black and white, between good and evil, between a corrupt regime and forces for change. That kind of struggle doesn’t require people to get involved in the details of the society. They didn’t want to see any gray in the story. For them, it had to be black and white.

And they don’t understand how politics really works. They entered politics through the human rights NGOs, which are inflexible and demanding, rather than the traditional method which requires you to visit villages, campaign, mobilize the vote, and make compromises with your opponents.

MJT: What do you think of Egypt’s new ruler General Sisi?

Samuel Tadros: He’s an extremely problematic figure. For someone who is now becoming Egypt’s president, for a long time we didn’t know much about him. He’s had an exceptional rise to power to say the least. But now we can see who the man really is, and it’s not pretty.

His view of the state’s relationship to the society is totalitarian. He’s not Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, but he sees no separation between the state and anything else. He views every aspect of the public and private sphere as an organic part of the state. When he talks about religion, for example, he says it’s his job as Egypt’s president to oversee the morals of the society. He thinks the media must work in harmony with the state in order to further Egypt’s national interest. Every businessman is expected to work in a harmonious way with the state.

MJT: He isn’t Hitler, but he does look a bit like Mussolini.

Samuel Tadros: He’s completely ignorant of how economics works. He’s probably a competent military officer. He can do the things he’s supposed to be good at—managing soldiers and tanks, etc. But he doesn’t understand the complexity of the modern economy.

And he did not view himself as a candidate who needed to win the support of the people. He viewed the people’s demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood as support for himself. He expects people to support him. He does not seem to think anyone should expect anything from him as a candidate. He had no campaign platform.

And lastly he’s a man with a very bad temper. Ministers who served with him after the coup said he banged his fists on the table whenever he heard something he didn’t like. He was easily provoked during media interviews, and these interviews were completely controlled by the military. Even then we saw outbursts of anger.

MJT: What’s the deal with his government claiming it found the cure for the HIV virus?

Samuel Tadros: That’s North Korean level lunacy. The military held a press conference and claimed Egypt found the cure for HIV and Hepatitis C. They say they can cure it with a device that looks similar to the device used to find bombs.

The public was shocked when the military announced this.

Ibrahim Abdel-Atti says the machine transforms the virus into nutrition. “I take AIDS from the patient,” he said, “and feed the patient on AIDS. I give it to him as a kebab skewer to feed on. I take the disease and I give it to him as food.” I’m not exaggerating. That’s actually what he said. The military claimed that by next year the entire country will be cured of HIV and Hepatitis C.

MJT: Did anybody actually believe this?

Samuel Tadros: Unfortunately, yes. There are those who under pressure will relent and say it’s probably crazy, but many people are afraid of what this tells us about our military. They don’t want to face the fact that lunatics are running the country.

MJT: Sisi has basically declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood, but I doubt that’s a war he can win.

Samuel Tadros: It depends on how you define the word “win.” The Brotherhood’s organization has been dealt a heavy blow, but that’s different from political Islam as an ideology. Political Islam won’t disappear any time soon, the reasons for the emergence of Islamism, the crisis of modernity and Egypt’s failure to find a place for itself under the sun are still there and there is no political ideology that can compete with Islamism at the moment, but the organization itself has really been hurt. The Brotherhood recruitment has stopped for eleven months. There are no new members joining the ranks.

The weekly meetings have been disrupted. Not only the first tier of leadership, but also the second and third tiers of leadership are in prison. So I think it’s possible for Sisi to win a war against the organization.

But where will the rest of the members go if there is no organization? There are hundreds of thousands of them. And these are not like people who decide to join the Democratic or Republican parties in the US where they can leave any time they want at the first sign of trouble. Muslim Brotherhood members commit five to eight years of their lives to become accepted. They study hard and are examined five times, and they go through all this despite personal risk to themselves. It was no fun becoming a Muslim Brotherhood member under Hosni Mubarak. They were often arrested. They spent time in jail. Their promotions might have been affected. Their businesses might have been confiscated. These people were extremely committed to the cause.

Where will they go? That’s the big question.

MJT: I worry they’ll become more extreme and violent. What else are they going to do? It’s either that or quit, right? And like you said the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t an easy thing to quit.

Samuel Tadros: Definitely. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they will become jihadis.

Islamism has been dealt tremendous blows. It’s still powerful as an ideology, but all the methods attempted to achieve it have failed. Ayman al-Zawahiri may be correct in pointing out to the Muslim Brotherhood that their attempt to work within the political system has failed, but his approach hasn’t been successful either. Thirteen years after the September 11 attacks, what has he accomplished? The jihadis are no closer to achieving the dream than the Brotherhood.

Look at the failures of the jihadists and the fighting between jihadists in places like Syria between ISIS and Nusra. Is that what people should aspire to? Salafism hasn’t been successful either, nor is educating people and transforming them one step at a time.

So we’ve reached an interesting moment in history. The ideology remains coherent and powerful, but all the means to achieve it are proven failures. Where does that leave us? That’s the question.

MJT: Do you know the answer?

Samuel Tadros: Some of the Muslim Brotherhood members will become jihadis, but others will move to what I would call revolutionary Islamism, which would be violent but not jihadist. That may sound contradictory, but I’m talking about a low-level violent insurgency within the cities. Not car bombs in markets, but throwing Molotov cocktails at police stations. They will kill police officers, but they won’t mount sophisticated military operations like the jihadists in Syria. They will focus on traditional revolutionary activities in the streets.

We already have seen the beginnings of such a movement even before the coup. Young people who gathered around azem Salah Abu Ismail and formed Hazemoon. It would make Ali Shariati, the Iranian Shia scholar, quite proud. It’s a mixture of Islamism and a Marxist discourse on the people in one package. This would be a tremendous development. Sunni Islam has never been revolutionized in this way before.

MJT: Right. The Iranian revolutionaries were like that in 1979.

If President Obama were to ask you for advice on formulating a new Egypt policy, what would you tell him?

Samuel Tadros: That’s the toughest question in the world.

A lot of people think the US is extremely limited in what it can accomplish, but I disagree. The Brotherhood strongly reacts to public pressure, especially Western public pressure. If Washington had tried to force the Brotherhood to abide by certain standards, the Brotherhood might have decided to take a slower route.

As for Sisi, there is an important debate in Washington about human rights, about American values versus American interests, but I think that blinds us to another serious question. Will Egypt’s new regime advance American interests in the first place?

MJT: I don’t think so.

Samuel Tadros: Two points concern me in particular. One is the very strong anti-American conspiracy theories that are being sponsored and spread by the Egyptian regime. This government isn’t acting at all like a friend or ally of the United States and what it’s doing will have powerful ramifications, not only on Egyptian views of the US but also on actual events.

For instance, the names of Egyptian employees at the US Embassy were published in newspapers and they were attacked as traitors. An employee at the embassy was arrested and accused of being a secret link between the American conspiracy and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And there’s the question of whether Sisi’s policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood is creating a larger problem for the US in the future. He might think he can control the situation in the Sinai, but that will take a very long time if it ever even occurs. Will his actions create a higher risk of attacks in the Suez Canal? Will his actions create more radicalization in Egypt? These are things the US needs to be thinking about.

I haven’t yet answered you about what President Obama should do, but I think the real question should be whether or not the regime will help US interests.

MJT: I doubt it.

Samuel Tadros: I doubt it too. But that doesn’t mean the US and Egypt should become completely detached. US interests in Egypt are complicated—stability, the right of passage on the Suez Canal, the right for planes to cross Egyptian air space, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and Egypt as a potential moderate force in the region in general.

But I think there is a tendency in the US to view Egypt as more important than it really is. That’s partly a result of the Cold War. The Egypt that forged a strategic relationship with America in the 1970s no longer exists. Egypt is not such a powerful state anymore. Egypt’s previous role has been filled by a variety of states, including Saudi Arabia and even Qatar. I don’t think this realization has hit Washington yet.

MJT: What about the US aid money to the Egyptian government? Should we cut if off? I’m increasingly convinced that we should.

Samuel Tadros: If you cut off the aid money the question is, what happens next? Egypt would be shocked, partly because the government views that money as its natural right. They signed the treaty with Israel for US money. That was the deal. And Egypt kept its end of the bargain. There’s a strong sense of entitlement there.

The government even thinks it should get more money because inflation has made it worth less than in the 1970s.

Thanks to the rampant conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, the government believes the US is completely controlled by the Jews, which means they’re safe as long as they maintain the relationship with the United States and keep the peace. As long as they do that, the US would never dare touch them.

They think they understand the US, but they don’t. And US policy has reinforced this belief. They truly believe that no matter what they do, the aid will never be touched.

If the aid is cut tomorrow, it will send powerful shock waves through Egypt. And Egypt will not turn to Russia. Russia can’t sustain or become a sponsor of a country like Egypt. And Egypt can’t just change its military doctrine, its equipment, and its weaponry over to the Russian system. That would take a generation.

So if you cut off the aid money, it will create an enormous shock in Egypt that would lead to a reassessment of everything. They would be forced to re-examine their policies and how they’ve been conducting themselves. Money from the Gulf might replace the money Egypt receives from the US, but it can’t replace the prestige attached to its relationship with the US. Sisi studied at a US military academy for a year. So did the minister of defense. Those relationships are much more important than the money the Gulf can supply.

MJT: Would the Egyptian government’s reassessment push it in a good direction or a bad direction?

Samuel Tadros: In a good direction, I think. It would destroy their entire understanding about how the world works and force them to change.


Samuel Tadros is the author of Motherland Lost and Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.

The Beginning of the End of Iraq?

Al Qaeda splinter group ISIS has taken the Iraqi city of Tikrit and the Kurdish Peshmerga has taken the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Iraq's army fled both and hardly fired a shot.

God only knows what happens next, but this much is clear—the Syrian war is no longer the Syrian war. It’s a regional war. It spilled into Lebanon at a low level some time ago. It sucked in Iran and Hezbollah some time ago. Now it is spreading with full force at blitzkrieg speed into Iraq and has even drawn in the Kurdistan Regional Government which managed to sit out the entire Iraq war.

This could easily suck in Turkey, Jordan, and Israel before it’s over.

Or maybe it won’t.

In the future we might see the events of the last few days as the beginning of the end of Iraq as a state, or at least the beginning of the end of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose American-trained army has proven utterly useless. Or maybe he’ll survive in an Iranian-backed rump state.

Maliki wants an American-backed rump state. Eli Lake in The Daily Beast reports that he’s asking for American air strikes and drone warfare.

But we are not going to save Iraq and we are not going to save Syria. It’s over. That’s what the Middle East wanted, and it’s what the Middle East is going to get.

Arab governments complain when we intervene and they complain when we don't intervene. Basically, they complain no matter what. So asking what they want is pointless. It takes a while to notice this trend over time, but there it is. They have not stopped to consider the consequences of this behavior, but those consequences are about to become apocalyptic for Nouri al-Maliki.

“We’ll kill you if you mess with us, but otherwise go die” is not even close to my preferred foreign policy, but it’s what President Barack Obama prefers (phrased much more nicely, of course) and it’s what the overwhelming majority of Americans prefer, including most liberals as well as conservatives.

Still, it’s only a matter of time before we get sucked in kicking and screaming one way or another. Because the Middle East isn’t Las Vegas. What happens there doesn’t stay there.

We're out for now, though. This is the time of festering.

Al Qaeda Conquers Mosul

Iraq is rapidly becoming one of the worst places in the world all over again.

Al Qaeda has reconquered the city of Mosul. Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons and fled.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared a state of emergency, but his army appears to be useless despite years of American training.

The Al Qaeda group that took the city is ISIS—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The Syrian war has been exploding beyond its borders for some time now. I see no reason why that should stop or even slow down. Soon we might stop thinking of it as the Syrian war and refer to it as the region-wide war that started in Syria. 

Pivot to Asia

I’m heading overseas this week, but don’t wander off. The blog won’t go fallow. I’ve been preparing some long-form material in advance that I can publish while I’m out in the field.

Should be an interesting trip, especially now that the Mekong River and the South China Sea are Asia’s new battlegrounds. I’ve been looking long and hard at East Asia the last couple of months and I understand now why the White House wants to “pivot” there. See especially Robert Kaplan’s new book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.

But it’s not a zero sum game. The Middle East will still demand attention from the president, and it will demand attention from me. We don’t get to quit a troublesome part of the world just because it’s exhausting.

Let me know in the comments what you’d like me to look into while I’m over there. I have my own ideas, but I’m sure I have not thought of everything.

Syria's Bogus Election

Syria is holding a presidential “election” today and Bashar al-Assad will win, probably with 99 percent of the “vote.”

Not even the world’s biggest political idiot will believe this is authentic, so why even bother? It’s happening because the United States is the world’s only superpower.

The international community, such as it is, expects elections to be held just about everywhere, and that’s because the United States expects elections to be held just about everywhere. Because the US is dominant, our preferences are the mainstream.

If you doubt it, ask yourself if democratic elections would be expected everywhere if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan won World War II and were to this day unreconstructed. Germany and Japan wouldn’t control every inch of the earth, but they’d certainly set the tone internationally.

And ask yourself if the international community would expect democratic elections if the Soviet Union won the Cold War. What if it was the United States that collapsed? And what if, instead of NATO’s eastward expansion, the Warsaw Pact extended all the way to Britain and France? Would elections be expected all over the world? I don’t see why they would. Countries that weren’t already invaded and conquered by Moscow or subverted by its proxies would do everything they could to avoid such a fate just as Armenia and Kazakhstan are doing right now.

In the world we live in, however, where the world’s only superpower is a liberal democracy, elections are considered the norm. Political freakshows like Moammar Qaddafi didn’t even pretend to believe in elections (he argued in his ludicrous Green Book that elections allowed 51 percent of the country to oppress 49 percent), and look at what happened to him. His regime was finally bombed into oblivion, and not by a cowboy like George W. Bush but by the dovish Barack Obama.

Even blood-soaked tyrants like Bashar al-Assad think they’ll benefit at least somewhat by pretending to adopt our political structure. Russia might even pretend to believe Syria’s election results. The Iranian regime and its state-run media will surely pretend to believe.

It does us no good at all that a monster like Assad goes through the motions of democracy. But how much fun would it be to live in a world where pleasing one or two totalitarian empires was the international standard instead?

“Tell Morsi to Leave or Egypt will Burn”

I finally got around to watching Vice magazine’s mini documentary about Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi. It packs a hell of a punch, especially with the benefit of hindsight.

Maybe I’m experiencing hindsight bias here rather than benefit, but it seems obvious, watching this, that something big and terrible was going to happen in Egypt.

Exactly what was going to happen could not have been obvious in real-time, but no country can withstand the eruption of mass anger and rage the Brotherhood triggered without somebody swinging a gigantic game-changing sledgehammer.

The Vice crew clearly knew it in real-time. Nobody knew the sledgehammer would be wielded by Egypt’s coup leader and military pharaoh General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but somebody would wield one. That was for damn sure.

The last words in this short little film, spoken by Egyptian economist Ahmed el-Naggar, were prophetic. “The social revolution will be huge,” he said, “and it’ll come to completion in the near future. It will be an apocalypse.”

Everybody should watch this. It’s riveting viewing. It’s educational if you want to know at least one set of ingredients that can precipitate a military coup. And it casts serious doubt on the idea that radical Islamist government is inevitable in the Arab world.

The episode is 29 minutes long and split into halves. (The first is about the enormous ghost cities in China.) The Egypt segment begins at 13:45.

The End of an Era

For more than two decades Ukraine did its best to have good relations with both the West and Russia, sometimes veering a little more in one direction than the other.

That will no longer be possible. If Russia were a good neighbor, sure, it would be easy. Having good relations with both would be no more difficult than having good relations with Canada and the United States simultaneously. But not once in its history has Russia been a good neighbor.

Russia’s bloodless annexation of Crimea was bad enough, but now there’s fierce fighting in the eastern city of Donetsk between the Ukrainian military and separatists who wish to join Russia.

It’s hard to say for sure when a nation crosses the threshold from unrest to civil war. Ukraine is in the murky in-between zone right now. This might get wrapped up quickly enough that the history books will register this conflict as “fighting” rather than “war.” But it could so easily escalate, especially if Vladimir Putin can’t resist staying out of it, and it could also drag on for years.

Either way, it will be impossible for anyone elected to Ukraine’s highest office to win the approval of people on both sides of these barricades. And it will be impossible to move toward the European Union and NATO while simultaneously moving toward Russia’s anti-Western Eurasian Union as Putin insists. These are differences that can no longer be split.

Whatever happens, whether it’s a little bit bloody or epic, the borderland between Russia and the West will be contested and tense. And the post-Cold War era, at least in Eurasia, is over.

So Much For All That

Last week I noted that an opposition newspaper run by the terrific author and blogger Yoani Sanchez was about to debut. I wondered aloud if the Cuban government was trying to fool its useful tools in the West again by pretending to respect free speech, but even that pessimistic assumption was too optimistic.

The government shut her newspaper down mere hours after her launch and is  redirecting readers on the island to a hysterical propaganda page.


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