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Egypt's Lurch Toward Autocracy

Eric Trager at the Washington Institute has a new piece about Egypt’s lurch toward autocracy. I know Eric. He’s a smart guy. And he knows Egypt, better than I do and better than most. He has been clear-eyed about the revolution there from the very beginning.

Egypt's prosecution of comedian Bassem Youssef for allegedly insulting President Muhammad Morsi and denigrating Islam is the latest indication of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government's undemocratic disposition. The move will likely deepen the non-Islamist opposition's mistrust of the country's political and judicial institutions, encouraging groups to continue seeking change through increasingly violent demonstrations rather than official political channels. Given Washington's interest in promoting democratic governance and stability in Egypt, the Obama administration should urge Morsi to pardon Youssef and end the crackdown on critics of the Brotherhood.

Youssef's case is not unique. According to the Egypt-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, four times as many lawsuits for "insulting the president" were filed during Morsi's first 100 days in office than during Hosni Mubarak's thirty-year reign. Although private citizens filed many of these suits, the Brotherhood has encouraged them by frequently depicting its media critics as remnants of the old regime. The group has also made politicized prosecutions even more likely in the future by pushing a new draft electoral law through parliament allowing the use of religious slogans in campaigns. Article 44 of the new constitution, ratified in December, prohibits "the insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets," and this can be broadly interpreted to insulate Islamist religious political slogans from non-Islamist attacks.

Morsi and the parliament have also worked to stifle media criticism by appointing a Muslim Brother as minister of information, using their control over state-run media to fire writers and editors who question the new government's policies, and hiring new editors sympathetic to the group's ideology. Meanwhile, the government has begun prosecuting wealthy anti-Brotherhood businessmen, potentially denying opposition media outlets and political parties vital sources of funding.

Can we call Morsi a dictator yet, or do we still have to wait a little bit longer?

Northern Lebanon Burning

Northern Lebanon is currently suffering the kind of violent absurdity that occurs nowhere in the world but the Middle East.

The Syrian civil war is spilling into the city of Tripoli, the second largest in Lebanon. Sunni Muslims in the poor neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh are at war with an Alawite militia in the adjacent hilltop neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen that supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Last week there was even a shootout at a hospital, of all places.

So far this is hardly original. What makes this conflict absurdly unusual is that segments of the Lebanese army are protecting both militias, and they’re doing so on behalf of a foreign government—Syria’s.

I drove up there from Beirut to meet with Mosbah Ahdab, a political liberal who was a member of the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc of Lebanon’s parliament until a deal was struck to get rid of him after Hezbollah’s invasion of Beirut in 2008.

His name was on a kill list before he was booted. He hardly left his house for months at a time.

“We are hunted one after the other,” he told a Guardian reporter not long after five gunmen shot MP Pierre Gemayel through the windshield of his car with silenced machine pistols.

Ahdab belongs to an old and prominent family and the liberal wing of Tripoli’s Sunni Muslim community. He serves wine in his house. I met his wife. She looks like a model. She doesn’t wear a veil or a headscarf, nor does she have to stay in the back of the house when men come to visit as is customarily the case in the more-conservative Gulf countries.

I also met his daughter, a little girl, when she came home from school. She arrived with a friend and they sat at a table and worked on an art project. Ahdab and his wife spoke French to each other. His daughter spoke English to me. Clearly theirs is a well-educated household.

He hosted me in his living room.

“The fighting between Sunnis and Alawites looks pretty gruesome,” I said. “Is this city as dangerous as it appears from a distance?”

“It's very dangerous,” he said. “This morning some shop owners came here and screamed that no one comes to Tripoli anymore. We have no security. The security institutions are protecting the fighters on both sides. They're not protecting civilians. This is a fact.”

It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Factions within the Lebanese army really are protecting both the Sunni and Alawite militias. Partly this is because the army is just as divided along sectarian lines as the country is, but mostly it’s because many of the army officers are still loyal to Assad and to Hezbollah. That still hasn’t changed since Syria’s occupation of Lebanon when the Assad family and their henchmen sabotaged the Lebanese army and bent it to their will. When Hezbollah invaded Beirut in 2008, maintaining control over pieces of Lebanon’s army was on its list of demands.

Even so, it still sounds ridiculous. Why on earth would Assad’s people protect an anti-Syrian, anti-Alawite, and anti-Hezbollah Sunni militia?

It’s all about propaganda, for which the Assad regime is peerless in the Middle East. Not even Hamas is as practiced or competent.

“The security services are creating a narrative,” Ahdab said, “saying there's no such thing as revolution in Syria, that what we have is Al Qaeda fighting the government. They’re asking the international community which they prefer. They point at the same thing happening in Lebanon. Assad says Lebanon is sending terrorists across the border from the so-called ‘emirate of Tripoli.’ Syria’s ambassador actually said this at the United Nations.”

Assad and his Lebanese and Iranian allies have been framing the fight in Syria as a war against Al Qaeda from the very beginning, long before Jabhat al-Nusra—which the United States has designated a terrorist organization—even existed. Indeed, Assad framed the fight in Syria as a war against Al Qaeda even before the Free Syrian Army existed, when his soldiers were firing on unarmed demonstrators in the streets and calling them terrorists.

Now that the jihadist al-Nusra front does exist, though, Assad’s claims look a little more credible. But al-Nusra—which is a separate entity from the Free Syrian Army—isn’t coming from Lebanon. Its funding comes from the Gulf. And some of its leaders are the very same individuals Assad himself dispatched to Iraq to kill Americans.

“Nobody goes to the funerals,” Ahdab said, “but security guys show up and shoot their guns in the air. They film it and people say, my gosh, look at that, it's Al Qaeda grieving its members who are fighting Bashar al-Assad. I saw them. I know those guys personally. I know exactly who sent them.”

This is one of the reasons conspiracy theories are popular in the Middle East. Bizarre conspiracies actually happen in this part of the world. It’s “normal.” The Syrian regime has been pulling stunts like that one for decades.

The liberal Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid recently highlighted similar shenanigans in NOW Lebanon: “The campaign by the Assad regime included releasing known jihadist and terrorist elements from state prisons at the same time nonviolent protest leaders were imprisoned. This tactic is sometimes called ‘tailoring your enemies.’ It is inherently a risky approach, but can serve to divide enemy ranks by creating a more radical camp in their midst, and in this case, undermining the advocates of nonviolence. This tactic had been repeatedly used by the Assad regime during the Lebanese civil war, allowing it to emerge as the main power broker there.”

Ahdab’s phone rang. He answered and switched to Arabic.

“Sorry,” he said to me after a couple of moments. “There is this little girl who has a problem I need to fix.”

Fixing citizens’ problems is part of his job now. He is no longer in the government, but he’s a community leader, a modern urban “sheikh” of sorts, and that’s what such people do in the Middle East. It’s one way they get their support, and it’s something that’s expected of them once they have power and influence.

His assistant served lunch. After we finished eating, Ahdab had to host a delegation of locals in a second room for a couple of minutes while they hashed out another of Tripoli’s problems.

“The fighters are very aware of what’s happening here,” Ahdab said, picking up where we left off. “Setting this place on fire was very successful in 1982 when Syria created the so-called ‘emirate’ in Tripoli. It gave the Syrians international cover to bomb the city. They came in here and massacred 800 people. Nobody dared to even identify the corpses. They used the port for executions and they rounded up people in Tripoli’s schools and deported them to Syrian prisons. We still haven’t heard about what happened to some who disappeared. But the emir, Sheikh Shaban, stayed at home and was protected by the Syrians while all this was happening.”

Don’t misunderstand. The fighting between Sunni and Alawite militias is real. It is not theater. The fighters are pawns in a larger game, but they’re deadly serious.

Each side deserves at least some measure of sympathy. The Alawite fighters feel threatened as detested minorities in league with a dying system while the Sunni fighters wish to see Assad and his local proxies destroyed.

But the idea that there is a general conflict between Sunni and Alawite citizens, Ahdab says, is ridiculous. “I know the Alawites. My bodyguard is an Alawite. He has been with me for sixteen years. But we have this Alawite militia that has been protected by the Syrian regime, and now they're protecting by the quote, unquote, resistance.”

The “resistance,” of course, is Hezbollah. That’s what they call themselves. They’re currently “resisting” the Zionist Entity by killing Sunni Muslims in Syria. 

“Recently,” Ahdab said, “some of the Alawite fighters were captured by civilians and beaten. They wouldn't hand them over to the army because the fighters would be freed in an hour. There's a dirty game going on here that has nothing to do with the population.”

The Alawites are backed by Syria and Hezbollah while the Sunni militia is funded and armed by Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis. And while the Sunni militia is hostile to Syria and its interests, it can’t very well be shut down by the Syrian regime and its local allies because that would alter the narrative. It’s ludicrous, truly. But that’s the Middle East for you.

“Everybody knows what's happening,” Ahdab says. “It's not just me saying this. You can talk to people in the streets.”

I did confirm it with others, not just people on the street, but by professional political analysts in Beirut whose jobs and reputations demand they get this stuff right.

“It has become ridiculous,” Ahdab said. “Everyone is now talking about this so-called Islamic emirate in Tripoli.”

The so-called “emirate” is the Islamist state-within-a-state that’s supposed to exist in Tripoli but which does not actually exist outside the phantasmagoria of Syrian and Hezbollah propaganda. In Tripoli, alcohol is available. I saw plenty of uncovered woman walking around. I didn’t see a single man with a beard, a forehead bruised from prayer, or wearing any clothing which would mark him as an Islamist. Not one. Such people exist, but they vanish into the enormous population of regular people. This is Lebanon, not Gaza or Saudi Arabia.

He took me out into the city. “You’ll be safe with me,” he said.

I wouldn’t have felt in much danger without him, to be honest. The fighting between Sunnis and Alawites is concentrated on the front line between the two neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen. As long as I stayed clear of that particular area, I almost certainly would not have any problems.

But he drove me to that area so I could see it. Jebel Mohsen, the Alawite neighborhood, is perched upon a hill (Jebel means mountain in Arabic) over its enemy neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

The Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh feel threatened by this. How would you feel if people who wanted to kill you lived in the hills right over your house? But the Alawites feel threatened, too. They look down the hill and see that they are surrounded by hostiles in every direction.

We passed a Christian church in the car. There are Christians in Tripoli, too.

“It’s stressful enough living here as a Sunni,” Ahdab said. “Can you imagine what it’s like here for the Christians?”

We got out of the car and walked through an old part of the city near the waterfront.

“Here is the center of the Islamic emirate of Tripoli,” he said sarcastically.

It looked and felt no more Islamist than the Christian half of Beirut. The area could be a very nice place with a little fixing up, but there’s no money. The economy has collapsed. No one goes to Tripoli anymore. They’re afraid.

Everyone on the street recognized Ahdab. Everyone. They waved and smiled and ran up to him. Clearly he’s popular. Barack Obama would get a similar reception in Harlem or the Upper West Side. I could see how Ahdab easily won elections. The reaction of strangers on the street to his presence went a long way toward confirming that he, not the Salafists, represents the real social fabric of Tripoli.

Would a bearded Islamist with a rifle get the same sort of treatment while walking those streets? I highly doubt it. The overwhelming majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis back Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. Its ideology is one of liberal and capitalism and peace with the neighbors. Hariri even wants peace, or at the very least the cessation of hostilities, with the Israelis. The Muslim Brotherhood exists in Lebanon, but it’s microscopic in size and has no clout of influence. The only reason the Salafists have even the small amount of influence they do have is because they’re backed by Saudi and Qatari money. Their ideology isn’t indigenous. It’s implanted.

Back at his house, Ahdab opened a bottle of red wine from Lebanon’s Chateau Kefraya and refilled my glass when it got low. He drank, too. Why shouldn’t he? Lebanon is a nation of drinkers. The Lebanese—including Lebanese Muslims—consume copious amounts of beer, wine, and liquor, especially arak and Scotch.

“I'm staying in Tripoli,” he said, “because people like me are the real Tripoli residents. We cannot disappear. Even the bearded guys who receive millions from the Gulf have to deal with us.”

The Lebanese government could shut all this down instantly if it wanted. A war to disarm Hezbollah would blow the country to pieces, but disarming ragtag ideological crackpots with microscopic support bases would take no time at all and likely wouldn’t even cost lives as long as both sides were disarmed simultaneously.

The reason this isn’t happening is because Hezbollah and its allies control the government—or at least they did before Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned over these very issues a couple of days ago. And the reason they controlled the government is because they seized power in 2008 when they invaded Beirut. So Northern Lebanon will have to keep simmering in ideological and sectarian conflict. Apparently, the road to Jerusalem passes through Tripoli.

But Assad and Hezbollah and their Lebanese allies are not protecting Sunni fighters in and around the town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley on the other side of Mount Lebanon.

“The Syrian army has bombed it many times,” Ahdab said. “Everyone there wants the army to protect them, but the army will not. The same thing is happening on the northern coastal border. The Syrians are shelling the area and the people there get no protection. The Syrians are shooting continuously inside Lebanon. People are terrified. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t say anything. The Ministry of Interior won’t send the army.”

Hezbollah’s main focus is in Syria. Its fighters never thought they end up waging a battle for their own survival in the Arab land to the east, but that’s what the “resistance” has become now that one of their patrons and armorers is in an existential fight for his life.

The war really is existential for the Assad regime, and it is seen as such by much of Syria’s Alawite community, too. They only make up twelve percent (roughly) of Syria’s population. And since the Alawite regime has been lording it over the Sunni majority with a totalitarian and terroristic police state for the last forty years, they’re deathly afraid of retribution and perhaps persecution should the Assad family and its local allies lose power. That’s why the regime opened fire on unarmed demonstrators before the conflict became militarized. Even a non-violent revolution threatens their lives as well as their power.

Washington has hardly done anything. Syria isn’t Iraq, but it’s similarly complex. It’s riven along sectarian lines, and there are no institutions aside from the repressive regime backed by one sect against the majority. Assad also has friends in Iran and in Lebanon. An intervention of any kind could destabilize the whole region even more than it already is. That’s the last thing the White House wants.

President Obama’s caution, however, looks like overt support for the Assad regime to Ahdab and many others I know in Lebanon.

“There was a peaceful revolution to start with in Syria,” Ahdab said. “but nobody talks about it. Assad and the Gulf have turned it into a confrontation between Al Qaeda and the government. Assad is receiving arms from Iran and Russia and the Nusra extremists are receiving arms from the Gulf. Why shouldn’t the Free Syrian Army receive weapons? Everybody here is wondering what’s going on. Why on earth does the international community think it’s okay for the Gulf to send money to extremist groups while the moderates in the Free Syrian Army get nothing?  Iran doesn’t want to lose Syria, but Iran will keep Syria if this thing gets stalled by the West. At least tell your friends in the Gulf to stop sending money to al Nusra. Then Al Qaeda will no longer be financed.”

He scoffed, clearly disgusted at the whole situation.

Keeping the Syrian and Iranian regimes in place is not a viable policy option for those who are at war with Al Qaeda, not only because Assad has been using Al Qaeda himself for years against his enemies—including the United States—but also because Iran can just as easily do so as well.

“People in the West,” he said, “are saying there is no possibility for an alliance between Sunnis and Shias, but Ayatollah Khomeini was very clear in his book when he talked about the alliance of the oppressed. I said this a long time ago and nobody wanted to believe me, but I think now it’s obvious. Half of Al Qaeda is in Iran. It’s financed and protected by Iran. Hizb ut-Tahrir has a mixed leadership of Sunnis and Shias. After 2008, Hezbollah sent a delegation to Tripoli to talk to the Salafists. Why would they talk to the Salafists? They aren’t part of the social fabric.”

Tripoli is hardly an Islamist environment. Some Tripolitans are Salafists, but I haven’t seen any there. And—believe me—Salafists are easy to spot. With their beards and their clothes they look like Osama bin Laden. I’m not sure I’ve laid eyes on even a dozen Salafists in the eight years I’ve been living in and visiting Lebanon.

“There is a different Islam from the Wahhabi and Salafist Islam,” he said. “It’s here and it can’t disappear. Half the imams in the mosques are Salafists because they’re paid by the Gulf, but half the population isn’t Salafist.”

“What percentage of the population here is Islamist?” I said. In my own gut-level and from-the-hip assessment I’d say the percentage of people in Tripoli who are Islamists have to be in the single digits at most.

“Just like you have Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews,” he said, “we have Orthodox Muslims. And we have Takfiris—extremists who say I am not a real Muslim—but they are a very small minority. They are at most one percent. They are not from here.”

That sounds about right to me. He ought to know. He’s from there. Perhaps he’s a little more liberal than the average Tripolipolitans, but it doesn’t stop him from winning elections. People like him are unelectable in Egypt, but they’re the majority of elected Sunni politicians in Lebanon. The only reason Ahdab isn’t still in the government is because he was forced out after Hezbollah’s coup d’etat in 2008.

“You can’t put everyone in one basket,” he said. “Some people put Sunnis, Salafists, Wahhabis, Takfiris, and Al Qaeda together. It’s nonsense.”

He sipped from his glass of red wine.

“I’m fought by all the money that has been coming here for the last twenty years,” he said, “but I am still here. Why? Because I represent the real social fabric of Tripoli. A Muslim like me would never survive here if Tripoli was Islamist.”

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Lebanon's Pro-Hezbollah Government Collapses

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati—who was selected by Hezbollah as the country’s premier—has resigned, bringing his cabinet and the government with him.

Armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites have since resumed in the city of Tripoli, the country’s second largest after Beirut. The Syrian government continues striking targets in the Bekaa Valley and in the north. Ransom kidnappers run wild. The threat of a serious internal war between Hezbollah and Sunni backers of the Free Syrian Army hangs heavily over the country.

It’s rather extraordinary that it hasn’t already started since Lebanese Shias and Lebanese Sunnis are currently killing each other just across the border in Syria.

And now Lebanon is without a government—again.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Since Hezbollah picked the prime minister, is it any great loss that he’s gone?

Actually, maybe it is. Najib Mikati is not a Hezbollah member. And if the leaders of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group thought they could use him as a tool, they were wrong, at least for the most part. They’re the reason he got the job in the first place, but they’re also—at least according to Reuters—the reason he quit.

Mikati has been pressing for Lebanese neutrality in the Syrian war, but Hezbollah wants Lebanon to side with Bashar al-Assad. What's the point of seizing power in Lebanon if Beirut won’t back Hezbollah’s allies in Tehran and Damascus?

He looked like a Hezbollah ally on the surface, but only if you squinted hard and didn’t watch what he did or listen to the things that he said. He acted and sounded like an independent, and sometimes even like he was aligned with the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc. Some of my Lebanese sources and friends said that’s exactly what he wants me to think, but others I trust and know just as well told me he is, in fact, quietly aligned with March 14 and is therefore “one of us.”

The man has not been easy to read, and it’s important not to get suckered when Middle Eastern politicians say things you want to hear just to get you on side. This sort of thing happens. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood knows exactly what to say to Westerners to trick them into believing the organization is moderate and democratic. They’re completely and utterly full of it, but that hasn’t stopped an embarrassingly huge number of journalists, analysts, and diplomats from getting fooled by an organization that has always been theocratic and authoritarian.

Najib Mikati, though, is  a Sunni while Hezbollah is Shia. Mikati isn’t a Sunni Islamist, either. He’s a businessman, a tycoon. He’s the richest man in the country.

There are a couple of reasons Hezbollah picked Mikati for prime minister. Primarily because he is not Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik Hariri whose assassination in downtown Beirut kicked off the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution in 2005.

Second, their pickings were slim. They couldn’t select one of their own. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the prime minister be from the Sunni community. (The president, meanwhile, must be a Christian while the speaker of parliament is reserved for the Shias.) And the number of competent Sunni politicians in Lebanon who sincerely support Hezbollah is zero. Syria has a small number of Sunni allies—and Mikati made his money in Syria—but Hezbollah doesn’t have any.

Mikati was the best they could get.

And he wasn’t that great from their point of view.

A Wikileaks cable published in 2011 quotes him describing Hezbollah as “cancerous” and saying he wishes to see their Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist statelet destroyed.

Hezbollah must have been furious when that came to light. The day that he would resign (or be otherwise removed or even killed) over a conflict with Hezbollah was all but inevitable.

I asked Ed Gabriel what he thinks of Mikati. He’s a former US ambassador to Morocco and the founder of the American Task Force for Lebanon. He’s from the United States, but his family is from Lebanon and he knows everyone over there. He has known Mikati for years. And I trust his judgment.

“He was elected to parliament in Tripoli as an independent allied with March 14,” he says. “He agreed to become prime minister in January 2011 because he wanted to avoid a clash over the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.”

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, is the international court set up by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute Hariri’s assassins. The STL is fingering Hezbollah for the crime.

“It was presumed that Mikati had made a tacit agreement to withdraw Lebanese government support for the STL to become prime minister,” Gabriel says, “but Mikati used a clever mechanism to pay Lebanon’s STL obligations for 2011 and 2012. Although he previously had business interests in Syria, Mikati is smart enough to have avoided going to Syria since the outbreak of violence. March 14 seemed willing to accept a Mikati government until the assassination of Wissam El Hassan on October 19, 2012, when they accused the Mikati government of tolerating murderers. Meaningfully, and with the support of Mikati, a Lebanese military court charged Mahmoud Hayek, a Hezbollah security official, on February 1 with the attempted assassination of prominent March 14 politician Boutros Harb. In my opinion, Mikati has proven his skeptics wrong.”

He has indeed proved his skeptics wrong. He also proved Hezbollah wrong since they thought they could use him.

And they couldn’t.

Now the country is without a government. Mikati has called for a “caretaker government” to take over until the next elections are held. Maybe Lebanon will get one and maybe it won’t. Either way, the country is closer now to collapse than it has been at any time since the civil war ended.

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Hanging with King Abdullah

Jeffrey Goldberg has a fun new piece in The Atlantic about Jordan’s King Abdullah, with whom he got to spend some quality personal time.

It is not necessarily good to be the king of a Middle Eastern country that is bereft of oil; nor is it necessarily so wonderful to be the king during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Arab Spring. It is certainly not good to be the king when the mystique that once enveloped your throne is evaporating.

But when a squadron of Black Hawk helicopters is reserved for your use, and when you are the type of king who finds release from the pressures of monarchy by piloting those Black Hawks up and down the length of your sand-covered kingdom—then it is still good to be the king.

[…]

It was obvious to me that King Abdullah was looking forward to flying his helicopter—but not so much to the meeting that awaited him in Karak. “I’m sitting with the old dinosaurs today,” he told me.

The men he would be meeting—a former prime minister among them—were leaders of the National Current Party, which had the support of many East Bankers of the south, and which would almost certainly control a substantial bloc of seats in the next parliament. What the party stood for, however, beyond patronage and the status quo, was not entirely clear, even to the king. Shortly after the eruption of the Arab Spring, the king told me, he met with Abdul Hadi al-Majali, the leader of the party. “I read your economic and social manifesto, and it scared the crap out of me,” the king said he told Majali. “This makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re going to reach out to the 70 percent of the population that is younger than me, you’ve got to work on this.” The party manifesto, the king told me, “didn’t have anything. It was slogans. There was no program. Nothing.” He went on, “It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe.’ I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand.”

[…]

The 30 or so men (and one woman, a daughter of one of the tribal leaders) sat on couches against the walls. Tea was served. The king made a short plea for economic reform and for expanding political participation, and then the floor was opened. Leader after leader—many of whom were extremely old, many of whom merely had the appearance of being old—made small-bore requests and complaints. One of the men proposed an idea for the king’s consideration: “In the old days, we had night watchmen in the towns. They would be given sticks. The government should bring this back. It would be for security, and it would create more jobs for the young men.”

I was seated directly across the room from the king, and I caught his attention for a moment; he gave me a brief, wide-eyed look. He was interested in high-tech innovation, and in girls’ education, and in trimming the overstuffed government payroll. A jobs plan focused on men with sticks was not his idea of effective economic reform.

As we were leaving Karak a little while later, I asked him about the men-with-sticks idea. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said, with fatigue in his voice.

We boarded the Black Hawk and took off. I was seated behind the king. He asked me whether I wanted to make a detour: “Have you ever seen Mount Nebo from the air?” He flew northwest, toward the mountain from which, the Bible tells us, God showed Moses the Land of Israel. The Dead Sea shimmered just beyond. I suggested a quick detour to Jerusalem, which was 30 miles away. “The cousins like to have more warning,” one of his aides said with a smirk. “The cousins” are the Israelis.

Read the whole thing.

Americans Give Up on Middle East Peace

According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, American public opinion favors the Israelis over the Palestinians by a six-to-one margin. Only nine percent of the country sympathizes more with the Palestinian Authority.

As some would have it, the American left sides with the Palestinians while conservatives support Israel, but obviously this is wrong. Even if all nine percent of pro-Palestinian Americans are on the political left, they make up less than a fifth of those who voted for Barack Obama. Conservatives are more likely to support Israel, but the bipartisan consensus is iron-clad.

At the same time, an overwhelming majority think the United States should take a pass on leading peace negotiations. I can’t read the minds of hundreds of millions of people, but I’m pretty sure most recognize that peace talks are futile right now, so why should we take the blame when they fail again? There is nothing Barack Obama can do to make the two sides sign a deal. Not a thing. And it isn’t his fault. He might as well try to halt gravity.

The United States should mediate peace talks if and when both sides are serious. This might actually happen after the regimes in Syria and Iran are overthrown or reformed out of existence.

Sunni Arab governments haven’t waged a war against Israel for forty years. The 1973 Yom Kippur War was the last time it happened. Only the region’s non-Sunni governments in Syria and Iran, along with their Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist proxies, have bothered to keep the war going. Who knows what might happen when Damascus and Tehran have changed? Without patrons, Hamas and Hezbollah will feel an unprecedented amount of pressure to make deals with their enemies. Even if they refuse, they’ll be shadows of their current selves. Then the United States should consider getting involved again.

The so-called “linkage” theory, which places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of the Middle East’s Gordian knot, is ludicrous. Syria’s civil war won’t be resolved with a peace treaty, nor will Iran’s nuclear weapons program be put on ice, nor will tensions abate between  the region’s Sunnis and Shias, nor will secularists and Islamists achieve a modus vivendi in unstable post-Arab Spring countries like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. But all that said, it’s still in the United States’ interest to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and it will be worth pursuing the minute it’s viable.

In the meantime, conflict management rather than conflict resolution is the best we can reasonably hope for.

The next American president might see an opportunity where Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have failed. The next American president might think he or she is more clever than the last three and can pull it off with some stroke of genius. Such is the hubris that accompanies election to the White House. The American public, however, will surely remain skeptical and will laugh at jokes like the one in Adam Sandler’s ridiculous film, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. “They’ve been fighting for 2,000 years,” says the lead character’s mother. “It can’t be much longer.”

Last Chance to Pre-order an Autographed Copy

 

UPDATE: Orders are now closed. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

Syrians Protest Al-Nusra

Syria's war against Bashar al-Assad is merely stage one.

Anti-regime activists took to the streets of rebel-held Mayadeen in eastern Syria on Wednesday for a third straight day to demand that jihadist Al-Nusra Front fighters leave the town, a watchdog said.

"For the third day in a row, protests erupted in Mayadeen calling on the Al-Nusra Front to leave the town," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Protests erupted after the Islamist Al-Nusra Front -- blacklisted in December by the United States as a "terrorist" organization -- set up a religious council in the east of Deir Ezzor province, where Mayadeen is situated, to administer affairs in the area.

[...]

"The protests are an important indicator that people in eastern Syria -- where people do not have a culture of religious extremism -- do not welcome the imposition of religious law," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

When Assad falls—and fall he will, at least eventually—the Free Syrian Army will go to war with Jabhat al-Nusra. There is not enough room in that country for al-Nusra and everyone else.

The North is Ready to Blow

BEIRUT – Lebanon always looks and feels like it's ready to erupt into armed conflict, but today it's more ready than usual. The Syrian civil war next door weighs heavily on this place. Sunnis and Alawites are fighting round after round with no end in sight in the city of Tripoli, and now the Northern Bekaa Valley, between Mount Lebanon and the Syrian border, is likewise gearing up to explode.

Lebanese citizens in that region are already killing each other. The only reason their part of the country hasn't yet turned into a war zone is because they're killing each other on the other side of the border, which lies a mere handful of miles from where they reside. They're crossing into Syria to shoot at each other before hunkering down in an unnerving balance of terror when they return home.

The two sides are composed of Sunni and Shia Muslims. “Both communities,” Nicholas Blanford wrote in Beirut's Daily Star, “are rooted in strong tribal traditions, have a general disdain for the authority of the state, are fiercely independent, have a history of militancy, are well armed and, most pertinently, have chosen to actively back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war raging just across the border.”

Lebanon's Sunnis by and large support the Free Syrian Army while most of Lebanon's Shias support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah's second-tier patron after Iran.

Most residents of the Northern Bekaa are Shias, and most of them support Hezbollah. Yet there's a Sunni enclave up there, as well, centered around the town of Arsal in the Anti-Lebanon mountains between the floor of the Bekaa and the Syrian border. Since Arsal is so remote and so near the frontier, it is turning into a hub for the Free Syrian Army. People and weapons are smuggled over the border through there in both directions.

Meanwhile, the town of Hermel—the local Hezbollah hub—is just a few couple of miles away.

The fighting is taking place in the region of Qusayr, immediately north of the border and just south of the Syrian city of Homs. Hezbollah will desperately need control of that area if the Assad regime falls so it can continue receiving weapon shipments by ground from the Iranian government.

A couple of days ago I drove up there to look around. It's the only part of the country I hadn't seen before. I never had a reason to go there. Nothing much used to happen, and besides, it's controlled by Hezbollah and therefore better avoided.

Friends in Beirut warned me not to get out of the car. “You're obviously an outsider,” said one. “If you think Hezbollah's guys in the south [along the Israeli border] are tough, you really don't want to encounter the ones in the north.”

Lots of journalists have been “arrested” by Hezbollah and kicked out of the area, but Nicholas Blanford has lived in Lebanon for decades and is better connected than just about anyone. He managed to speak to a few people up there. A businessman in Hermel told him, “We are very worried about the Salafists coming here and attacking us. We all support Hezbollah here. They are our only guarantee of protection.” A Lebanese Sunni who fights with the rebels and lives a mere walking distance away from Hezbollah territory said, “When we are done there [in Syria] we are going after Hezbollah here. The Free Syrian Army will come and clean Lebanon.”

The Hermel Pyramid, an ancient pre-Roman monument overlooking the Syrian border, is the one place where it's sometimes okay to get out of the car—as long as you first scan the area for black SUVs with tinted windows and without any license plates. Those vehicles belong to Hezbollah. Spotters use the area as an observation post since they can see right into Syria. You can even hear the war raging in Syria if Homs is being bombarded or shelled. It's only a few dozen miles away in a straight shot across an open plain.

Look north and you can see Syria. Look to the left and you see Hermel, Hezbollah's local command and control. To the right is the Sunni enclave around Arsal. You could walk from one community to another in an hour or so. The Lebanese customs gate is just a ten minute drive from the pyramid.

How long can the people who live in this area continue to shoot at each other on only one side of an arbitrary line in the valley?

I hardly saw any Hezbollah flags. The Syrian-Iranian proxy militia is all but invisible. But it's still clear who lives in the area and who they support. Billboards on the side of the road feature Bashar al-Assad wearing sunglasses and military fatigues. Iran's dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini makes several appearances, as do Iran's current rulers Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I saw a couple of Iranian flags, but hardly any Lebanese flags. You could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere in Iran if you didn't know better.

The Lebanese Army mans a few checkpoints in the area, but the checkpoints aren't serious. They are pure security theater. I was waved through with hardly a glance and without even stopping the car. To be sure, I didn't look even remotely like a Free Syrian Army guy or a Hezbollah member in my little rented Renault, but still. A serious army on the razor's edge of a war zone should at least pretend to be interested in who is coming or going, but Lebanon's isn't. The border area is exposed and wide open. Just about anything could come out of the Syrian crucible and into Lebanon without meeting any resistance at all. Just yesterday artillery shells from the Syrian army landed in Lebanon's Akkar region, a few dozen miles to the northwest. The Lebanese Army has done nothing about it and will continue doing nothing about it.

I met with Samy Gemayel, a current member of parliament and the son of former President Amine Gemayel. “It's a miracle a war here hasn't already started,” he said. “I don't understand it. And I don't know how long this can last.”

Neither side is interested in fighting in Lebanon,” said Michael Young, the opinion page editor at Beirut's Daily Star. No doubt that's true—otherwise a war would have started. Or, more accurately, the war would have expanded. But we're only one miscalculation, one tragic misunderstanding, or one hot-headed overreaction away.

The country is on the brink of collapse,” said Hanin Ghaddar, NOW Lebanon's managing editor. “It has been on the brink of collapse my entire life.” Indeed, the country has collapsed repeatedly during her life and mine.

It always rebounds. As someone once put it, Beirut is a city that always seems to be “back.” The reason it's always “back” is because it keeps going down.

Syria has been exporting violence for decades. The regime in Damascus has exported terrorism to every single one of its neighbors. Now it's sucking them in. Iran is involved. Lebanon is involved. The Saudis and the Qataris are involved. Even Iraq is involved. Your guess is as good as mine how much longer Turkey, the U.S., and Israel can stay out.

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An Excerpt From My New Novel

 

It is normal to give away a little of one’s life in order not to lose it all.” —Albert Camus

I had been, you know, held in the closet for two months and … abused in all manner of ways. I was very good at doing what I was told.” —Patty Hearst

Chapter One

They took me from my house in the night. Rough hands slapped duct tape over my mouth and I sat up in bed, head swirling with gray shapes and vertigo, wondering if I was dreaming, but before I could yell, before I could reach up and rip off the tape, two hundred pounds of muscle and purpose shoved me back down onto the bed.

My wife was out of town teaching a class in Seattle, and I hadn’t bothered to turn on the alarm system or the motion detector downstairs. I didn’t hear the back door open, nor did our cats alert me that dangerous strangers had entered our home. I kicked with both legs but only flailed against my own sheets and blankets. A mass of hands gripped me, flipped me onto my stomach, and jammed my face into the pillow. I could hardly breathe as steel cuffs slammed around my wrists, the metal digging hard against bone.

For a moment I thought I was being arrested, that police officers had raided the wrong house, that I’d be released soon enough—and with an apology—after they took me down to the station and realized they had the wrong guy.

The moment was fleeting. I will never forget the sound of the voice I heard next: calm, professional, and chillingly void of emotion.

Get the blindfold on him.”

The man who uttered those words, I knew, would gut me as remorselessly as he would crush a beetle under his boot.

Get the blindfold on him.

Quick and certain, with just the slightest touch of impatience.

Get the blindfold on him.

Unaccented American English from a man who couldn’t be over thirty.

Get the blindfold on him.

They tied what felt like a pillowcase over my eyes. It covered everything from my nose to my forehead. No chance I could sneak a peek over the top or under the bottom. Two hands gripped each of my thrashing limbs and hauled me off the bed and down the stairs. I heard what sounded like work boots on hardwood, but their hands on my skin felt soft, not like those of laborers. I managed to fling an arm free and knock a picture frame off the wall, but they restrained me again and dragged me out the back and into the driveway at the side of the house.

A van door slid open. As I struggled to yell through the duct tape, they dumped me onto the van’s grooved metal floor. Two men climbed in with me, each holding one of my arms. The other two hopped in front.

When I heard the ignition turn over, I arched my back and kicked one of the bastards. Either a fist or an elbow—I couldn’t be sure—slammed into my mouth, mashing lips against teeth.

I tasted blood and iron and smelled body odor—theirs—as we hurtled down surface streets, the van’s engine gunning like a getaway car, and merged onto the interstate.

*

My name is Michael Totten, and I work as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. For ten years I feared something like this might happen. It’s a hazard of my profession.

Khaled Sheikh Mohamed kidnapped my colleague Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and beheaded him on camera with a kitchen knife. Murderous drug cartels south of the border have turned Mexico into one of the most dangerous countries on earth to work as a reporter. During the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, Hezbollah kidnapped journalists and chained them to radiators. I’m always taking a risk when I leave the comforts of home to report from the unfortunate parts of the world. I was especially concerned about being snatched off the street during myseven trips to Iraq, but I had no idea I’d ever be yanked out of bed in my hometown in Oregon.

Nobody said anything as we drove. Whoever these guys were, they weren’t talking. I tried to curse them but could only groan into the tape over my mouth. All I could hear was the thrum of the engine and the vibration of the wheels at interstate speed. If I’d been congested and couldn’t breathe through my nose, I would have suffocated.

The van’s floor dug into my back. My wrists ached from the handcuffs, and a muscle in my right shoulder cramped up. I noticed the smell of sweat in the blindfold that covered most of my face and realized it was my own.

After hours had passed, we finally stopped. It felt like four hours, but it must have only been three. Surely my sense of time was distorted. At least I no longer cringed and expected to be punched or elbowed again.

The man in the passenger seat got out and unscrewed the van’s gas cap. I listened carefully. Was anyone else out there? Would a gas-station attendant see or hear me if I kicked and thrashed and made a big enough scene? Did the van even have windows? I imagined it probably didn’t.

But there was no attendant. Nobody asked how much gas or what kind we wanted. I heard the man from the passenger seat swipe a credit card and insert the nozzle into the tank.

We were no longer in Oregon then. Self-service at gas stations is illegal in Oregon. You have to wait for an attendant to fill the tank for you. So at some point in the night, we had crossed into Washington. It had to be Washington. My house in Portland is just a fifteen-minute drive to the state line, but California and Idaho are six hours away. Nevada is eight hours away. Canada is also six hours away, and there was no chance I’d missed an international border crossing.

We left the station and after another hour or so, the van slowed and turned. The tires crunched onto gravel. I braced myself. This was it. Wherever we were going, we had arrived.

The man in the passenger seat climbed out and opened the sliding side door. The scent of pine overwhelmed me at once. We were in a forest, or very near one, and we were on the dry eastern side of the Cascade Mountains rather than the wet western side, where the forests are fir. I figured we must be somewhere in the vicinity of Yakima or possibly Ellensburg, a college town in the middle of the state.

The duct tape over my mouth was ripped away stingingly.

Will you walk?” It was that voice again. The one that said “Get the blindfold on him.”

I’ll walk,” I said, “if you take off the blindfold.”

Get him in the house,” he said, and I felt myself being hoisted by my shoulders, the tops of my bare toes trailing in gravel. “Go ahead and scream if you want. No one will hear you out here.”

A supernova of hatred exploded inside me. If they looked like they were going to kill me, I’d fight them. And if they kept me in cuffs and held down my legs, I’d bite the bastards’ fingers off with my teeth.

*

They took me inside, dragged me into a basement, and sat my ass down in a straight-backed wooden chair no softer than the van floor. They uncuffed one of my wrists and recuffed it to a table leg. I heard heavy booted footsteps heading up wooden stairs toward the main part of the house.

I sat hunched over in absolute silence with my shoulders nearly up to my ears. I figured they’d left me alone, but when I reached up with my one free hand to take off my blindfold, I saw sitting before me a man of about thirty with blue eyes, dark curls, and light brown skin. With a face like that, he could have been from a number of places around the world. Italy, Chile, and Armenia come to mind now, but I knew at the time he was almost certainly an Arab. He could have been from Pakistan or Iran, but I doubted it.

Behind him stood a hairy bear of a man with black eyes, a long black beard, and short-cropped hair. He was the one who had punched me. I could tell. He had an I like to kick the shit out of people look on his face.

Michael,” the blue-eyed man said. “Believe me, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”

I stared at him and tried as hard as I could to show no expression. No anger. No fear. Then I sucked my teeth hard enough to make my split lip bleed again, leaned to the side, and spit blood onto the floor.

Sorry about that,” the man said. “But you were flailing about and kicked Mahmoud here in the ribs.”

The larger man stood with his arms folded and drummed his fingers on his biceps at the sound of his name. I turned and wiped the blood off my lips and onto my shoulder.

My name is Ahmed,” the blue-eyed man said.

Ahmed what?” I said. “What’s your last name?” I’ve spent enough time in the Arab world that I can sometimes tell which country people are from by their last names.

Just Ahmed for now,” he said. “We have a job for you.”

I’m not working for you,” I said. “Shoot me if you want, but I’m not going to help you.”

I honestly didn’t know if I meant that or not. They expected me to resist and they weren’t beating me up, so what was I supposed to say? Sure, okay, I’ll do what you want?

I can understand your reluctance,” Ahmed said, “but you will do what we say.”

I looked at him and said nothing.

We aren’t necessarily going to kill you or even hurt you,” he said. "As long as you do what we say. If you cooperate, we’ll see what happens.”

He could tell by the look on my face that I didn’t buy it.

He sighed. “If I told you we’d let you go if you cooperate, would you believe me?”

No,” I said.

Okay then,” he said. “I didn’t think so. So I won’t insult your intelligence.”

What do you want with me, Ahmed?” I started grinding my teeth. I resisted clenching my hands into fists, but I couldn’t help grinding my teeth.

I appreciate that you’re pronouncing my name correctly,” he said. The h in his name is aspirated. It’s pronounced like the h in house.

Of course I know how to say Ahmed,” I said. “I’ve been working in and writing about the Arab world for ten years.”

Yes,” he said and smiled. “I know. That’s why we picked you.”

Why me?” I said.

I just told you,” he said.

No, I mean why me of all the American journalists who cover the Middle East? Why not kidnap Peter Bergen or Tom Friedman? They’re both more famous than I am.”

Because,” he said and stood up. “You have a widely read blog. And you’re going to give us the password.”

I had a blog at the Web site of The Global Weekly, where I published a weekly column, daily takes on the news of the world, and occasional long dispatches from war zones and trouble spots. I could write whatever I wanted. Unlike traditional journalism, my work was published instantly and unedited with the click of a mouse. If Ahmed had my password, he could hijack my column and publish whatever he wanted himself.

Mahmoud unfolded a four-inch Leatherman knife and flicked his thumb across the blade sideways. It took everything I had, but I resisted.

I’m not giving you the password,” I said and swallowed hard. My hands felt clammy, and it was all I could do to keep myself from shaking.

Cut off his eyelids,” Ahmed said.

Mahmoud grunted and stepped forward, the cords standing out in his neck. I spasmed as though I had just been zapped with a cattle prod.

Okayokayokay,” I said and gave up the password.

That wasn’t so difficult, was it?” Ahmed said. “You will do what we say. And it will be easier on everyone here if you immediately do what we say. Don’t ever say no to me again.”

I tried hard not to breathe too heavily, but it was difficult.

You kidnapped me just to get my blog’s password?” I said.

That’s just for backup,” he said. “For insurance, you might say.”

Against what?” I said.

Insubordination,” he said. “If you don’t do what we say, Mahmoud will cut off your eyelids, take a nice pretty picture, and upload the photograph to your blog. Even your wife and mother will get a good hard look at what’s happening to you.”

*

If you want to read the rest, you'll have to purchase a copy. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

Belmokhtar Killed in Mali

I'm in Beirut and will have some fresh material shortly, but in the meantime Al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar was reportedly whacked in Mali by Chad.

Good for Chad. Chad needed a win. When was the last time Chad had a win?

And the rest of the world had to be rid of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He was the Al Qaeda-linked gangster terrorist behind the recent hostage drama at a gas plant in Algeria that ended with dozens of innocents dead.

Thanks, Chad.

My New Book is Available for Pre-order

You can now pre-order autographed copies of my new book, Taken, which is my first novel. The book will be published in April. If you order from me directly, you'll receive a signed copy in March before it's available anywhere else.

Here are the front and back covers:

 

 

Here's the book description: Prize-winning author and journalist Michael J. Totten’s debut novel features a fictional version of author and journalist Michael J. Totten who is taken from his home in the night by terrorists and hauled bound and gagged to a remote house in the wilderness. So begins a harrowing journey across three states with a ruthless band of killers and sadists, and after all escape attempts fail, Totten faces a terrible question: what if the only way out is to join them?

 

Most of you don't know this, but I was a fiction writer long before I became a journalist. I'm a product of the English Department, not Journalism School, and I spent my entire early adulthood developing and honing skills as a short story writer and novelist. I expect that a few years from now I'll have more novels than non-fiction books published, but for now, this is my first.

UPDATE: Orders are now closed. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

This is No Way to Behave

The British parliament’s national embarrasment George Galloway (MP-Gaza) belatedly discovered in front of a live audience at Oxford that his debate opponent is an Israeli citizen, so he stormed out in a bigoted huff. Watch the video. It’s really something.

I suppose he’ll get “resistance” points in some circles for his theatrics, but Mahmood Naji, who organized the debate, condemned Galloway for his boorish behavior. I should also add that I learned of this video from a Muslim friend of mine who sent me the link with the words "George Galloway -- massive racist" in the subject line.

Free Syrian Army Threatens Hezbollah in Lebanon

Syrian rebels are (again) threatening to attack Hezbollah targets in Lebanon to retaliate for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.

They’ve said this before and it was just talk. I assume it’s still only talk. I don’t expect this will actually happen. But who knows? Lebanon is the kind of place where just about anything you can imagine eventually happens at some point.

If the Free Syrian Army does go after Hezbollah, things will get…interesting. Hezbollah is formidable when it fights a guerrilla war against a conventional army, but counterinsurgency is extraordinarily difficult, even for the American and Israeli armies, two of the best in the world.

Hezbollah is scary good at insurgency, but counterinsurgency is emphatically not a skill in its toolbox. That’s one of the many reasons the organization has never tried to conquer the rest of the country. It can’t. It can only push people around from its own corner.

I’ll have a much better sense of what to expect in the Levant soon enough because I’m heading to Lebanon myself later this week. Stay tuned.

Israel to Treat Wounded Syrians

The Israel Defense Forces plans to put up a military field hospital on the Syrian border to help refugees seeking assistance.

I would not expect Syrians to approach the Israeli border and ask for help, not after having their minds poisoned for so long by the violent propaganda of the Assad regime, but apparently some wounded refugees did just that a couple of days ago.

Hardly anyone knows it, but the Israelis do this sort of thing as a matter of course.

Quote of the Day

“Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”-- Senior Iranian cleric Mehdi Taeb in a speech to the regime's Basij militia

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