Down but not out: Egypt’s revolutionary youth

Posted December 16th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
Egyptian youths shout slogans against the country’s ruling military council during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 30, 2011 (AP photo by Bela Szandelszky).
[Published in World Politics Review]

Young people and youthful energy propelled the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. And while the cohesion and impact of vaguely defined “youth” movements have been overstated, they remain the most important potential source of change—the Arab world’s best hope. The small vanguard that drove the original uprisings is growing more organized and more ideologically sophisticated even as, for the time being, it has lost political ground.

Egypt has always set regional trends in political thought. Its Tahrir Square uprising raised expectations for democratic transitions throughout the region, although the other Arab revolts brought wildly divergent results, especially for youth. Today the military appears to have won in Egypt, but the long-term outcome of the struggle there between revolutionary and reactionary forces is still in question; how it unfolds will be a bellwether for the Arab world.

Youth Is a State of Mind

Basem Kamel makes an unlikely revolutionary youth activist. I first met him four years ago, inside the small tent erected by the Revolutionary Youth Coalition to house its big-tent deliberations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He seemed decidedly middle-aged and established: balding, evenly shaved despite his sleep-deprived gaze, slightly stooped, his scruffy protest clothes accented with a knotted orange scarf. He was 41, father to three children, proprietor of an architecture firm. “Youth is a state of mind,” he laughed when I arched my eyebrows at his age.

But like the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and the fractious panoply of movements for which it briefly served as the umbrella, Kamel represented a radical challenge to the status quo. Against the mores of the ruling party, Kamel appeared young, pluralistic, open-minded, radically experimental and egalitarian. So were the other “revolutionary youth” I encountered in Tahrir Square, ranging in age from children to grandparents.

Kamel had gone within a year from apolitical observer to revolutionary policy wonk. He wanted to throw out the entire regime’s way of doing business along with then-President Hosni Mubarak. He wanted a rules-based social welfare state that encouraged entrepreneurship and initiative while efficiently taking care of the poor and vulnerable. He wanted justice for Egyptian citizens who had been abused by police and military personnel, and he wanted to see his fellow citizens learn to take responsibility for everything from litter to voting. “If we succeed, everything will have to change,” he said then. “It will take a long time.”

The Revolutionary Youth Coalition is no more. It collapsed a year and a half after its founding, because its secular and Islamist members lost trust in each other. It was the sole institution in Egypt that tried systematically to bridge the gap between Islamist and secular political actors. Elsewhere in the Arab world, only Tunisia’s Parliament has attempted the same feat, with equivocal success.

Yet despite its noble aims, the coalition also embodied the region’s political identity crisis in its very name. “Youth” and “revolution” are virtually meaningless as explanatory categories for what is taking place in Egypt and elsewhere across the Middle East. The Arab world today is in the grip of a regional struggle for control—and in some cases a fundamental redesign of government—being waged among many contesting visions: hereditary monarchs, old-fashioned nationalist states, incremental Islamists, nihilist jihadists, socialist reformers, anarchists and others. The young can be found in almost every one of these locales and movements, including the most reactionary establishment political parties and statist institutions. Similarly, some of the most creative and constructive political forces feature middle-aged or even old activists in inspiring roles.

The particular problems facing youth as demographically defined—completing secondary or higher education, finding a first job or career and establishing a family—are economic and social. And while young people have a special kind of energy that dissipates with age, none of these factors predispose the young toward any particular political tendency. Throughout the Arab region, as throughout the rest of the world, they are just as likely to be apathetic as political, or reformist as conservative.

Nevertheless, a set of new political ideas and processes has been unleashed in the Arab revolts. The energy of young street protesters catalyzed a moment of revolutionary potential, a moment that shattered the assumption of regime staying power and opened the way for competitive politics and new ideologies. That fundamental idea—that a peaceful popular movement can replace a repressive state with a responsive, democratic, just and egalitarian polity—has survived today in a battered condition.

In Egypt, the country with the greatest potential and the greatest political impact on other Arab countries, the idea of change survives mainly in the beleaguered family of “revolutionary youth” movements, for which the country’s broken political system has made no room. The story is different elsewhere. Tunisia, for instance, has a plethora of young activists but no predominant set of youth movements, most likely because the existing political structure, with its parties and trade unions, engaged in meaningful negotiation that was able to harness the energy of young revolutionaries and channel it into a successful transition to democracy. Lebanon offers a third alternative—a paralyzed dysfunctional state where established sectarian parties have managed to absorb and dissipate youthful energy and momentum for reform, without making any improvements in governance or way of life.

A close and honest look at the condition of the Arab youth movements tells us a great deal about the prospect for systemic change in the region. At the core of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia was a group of movements that espoused an agenda much more about revolution than about youth. Its supporters were concerned with political and economic injustice, and they touted democracy in a local vernacular, refusing the notion that it is a tainted or premature import from the west.

The revolutionary youth have been roundly defeated in Egypt. Tunisia’s more successful uprising has subsumed most of its youth activists into mainstream parties, perhaps a sign that political life is healthy or diverse enough not to require a binary external category such as youth to advocate for reform. Elsewhere, youth movements have remained marginal, as in Lebanon, or been sidelined by violence, as in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

But there is a clear and admirable agenda, one quite threatening to the region’s status quo regimes, articulated under the banner of revolutionary youth. Any Arab state that doesn’t grapple with its central claims and aspirations will remain fundamentally insecure, under threat any time circumstances conspire to make an opening for the latent uprising incubating in the warmth of their misrule.

The Bulge

The Arab world is disproportionately young; more than half of the population is under 25. Education systems are failing. Young people make up almost all the new entrants to the labor market, and the Arab region leads the world in youth unemploymentaccording to the United Nations. Demographers and economists who look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have rightly called attention to the youth bulge, including a looming one in Egypt, coupled with the region-wide systemic failures to educate citizens and provide them jobs.

The considerable scholarship about the demographic and economic implications of the youth bulge explains one of the many dispiriting constraints on growth and quality of life in the MENA region. A recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) paper summarizes the reams of demographic and economic analysis of the Arab youth imbroglio: “Without noticeable improvements in their economies or employment prospects, especially for much of the frustrated youth, rising demonstrations, unrest and violence appear unavoidable for the nearly half a billion people in the Arab world by 2025.”

But “demographic destiny” and the depressing economic conundrums of the Arab economies tell us nothing about the likelihood of political explosions, transitions or repression. Poor states that have little concern with the rights and welfare of their citizens can still perform at dramatically different points along a spectrum from murderous and self-destructive, like Syria; to aggressively indifferent, like Egypt; to muddling but occasionally passable, like Jordan. Regimes with massive youth bulges can successfully crush dissent, as Iran did to the uprising known as the “Green Revolution” in 2009, or escape it altogether with minor adjustments, as Saudi Arabia has done since the Arab uprisings. Demographics are not destiny, politically speaking.

Egypt’s Movement Youth

The past two years have brought a crescendo of terrible news for supporters of pluralism, rights and democracy in Egypt. The country’s first and only elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, ruled erratically and eroded civil freedoms. He was deposed in a popularly acclaimed coup in July 2013.

Reflecting the general patterns of society, an apparent majority of young people, including many activists, supported the anti-Morsi Tammarod protests. Only a tiny number of them immediately criticized the military’s direct takeover of power, although dissent quickened after the military regime massacred at least 1,150 Morsi supporters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square on Aug. 14. Egypt’s new leader, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, swiftly moved to outlaw protest and ban the Muslim Brotherhood, and over time has arrested almost all the leading dissidents across the political spectrum. He has restored and intensified the repressive methods of the old regime and has banned critical figures from appearing in the media.

In one sense, the playing field looks like it did under Mubarak: A state behemoth that is terrible at governance uses a heavy hand to crush opposition, and faces a very small but committed activist community that includes old veterans and youthful newcomers.

But Sissi, a general who resigned from the military when he decided to seek the presidency almost a year after his coup, may face open revolt much earlier in his tenure than Mubarak, unless he indefinitely maintains his unprecedented levels of violent suppression. The generation of activists that propelled Tahrir has gone on to establish political parties, youth movements and other institutions. Its ranks have gained invaluable organizational experience. They have built vast interpersonal networks, bound by the shared experience of torture, detention, long prison sentences, exile and mourning. The brightest of the revolutionary leaders and movements have slowly begun to address their biggest failings; they are creating clearer, more compelling alternative ideas of governance, and they are developing strategies that take into account the volatility of mass public opinion.

Moreover, a significant portion of the socially conservative elite—the centrists who leaned slightly toward the revolution in 2011 and toward Sissi in 2013—has experienced political mobilization and the sense of power that comes with overthrowing a regime. Egyptians have acquired a taste for political empowerment and accountability.

A survey of the current state of the activist youth movements, as well as the widespread apathy among the youth demographic, can invite depression. Yet it is remarkable, especially when compared with the period before 2011, that in the face of historically unprecedented violent repression of all dissenters, from human rights lawyers to Muslim Brothers to bourgeois middle-aged civil society activists, a wide array of movements has persisted in opposition to the state.

Public opinion has gone into a version of political hibernation. Protests against Sissi’s government are small, and polls suggest transition fatigue. Some individuals who casually participated in protests or politics from 2011-2013 told me they had “lost faith in politicians,” “no longer trusted activists,” or were “ready for stability so I can get a job and have my life back.”

However, among the most dedicated activists, only a few have defected from politics entirely, while many have made notable shifts. Top among them are the organized revolutionary youth who have shifted allegiance entirely, best represented by the anti-Morsi Tammarod movement. Its original founders were five youth activists, including veterans from the April 6 Youth Movement and from former presidential candidate Ayman Nour’s Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. They mobilized a signature campaign against Morsi, and after the coup they became stalwart cheerleaders for Sissi’s elevation from junta leader to elected president. Tammarod is undeniably a reactionary force that has benefited at times from state support, but it is also undeniably a youth movement toward which Sissi’s government has turned a jaded eye.

Basem Kamel, the 41-year-old revolutionary “youth” I met in Tahrir four years ago, went on to co-found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which has now positioned itself to the right of its revolutionary roots as a traditional liberal party. He became one of just a handful of revolutionaries elected to the short-lived parliament of 2012. After the Sissi coup, Kamel and his party supported Sissi’s transitional government, prioritizing secularism and a fight against the Muslim Brotherhood over opposition to military rule. “I didn’t support Sissi, I opposed Morsi,” he told me this winter. “Whatever we are now, it is better than the Muslim Brotherhood.” He now sounds like a cautious reformer rather than a principled revolutionary.

Kamel opposes Sissi’s crackdown on protest and free speech, but he believes it will take years or decades for vanguard activists to convince the Egyptian public to support a genuine move away from military rule. He has chosen to work within a political party that has been allowed to continue operating by the regime as part of a trusted or permitted opposition.

Youth and revolutionary politics continue to exist, despite the crackdown under Sissi, because of systemic state failures. Police still torture with impunity; runaway judges make a mockery of the rule of law; army officers control political life; and the economy continues to fail the vast majority of its citizens, while a corrupt elite connected to the army and a ruling clique rakes in rentier profits.

And the most visible independent activists have continued to agitate, demonstrate or write treatises even from prison. Alaa Abdel Fattah, an independent leftist who helped form a revolutionary coalition after the Rabaa massacre, has produced a powerful oeuvre from his jail cell. Most recently, this fall he spurred a wave of partial hunger strikes under the slogan “We’re fed up.”

Meanwhile, the April 6 Youth Movement, a grassroots movement that has made deep inroads among working-class Egyptians, has survived a concerted effort by the state to dismantle it, in part because the movement’s leaders and members have in fact collaborated with right-leaning nationalists. These positions drew enmity to the movement, but they also put it more closely in step with the Egyptian mainstream. Perhaps for this reason, April 6’s grassroots network has survived the imprisonment of its leadership. As recently as November, it was able to muster a sizable protest in Tahrir Square, along with other secular, non-Islamist revolutionary groups angered by a judicial verdict clearing Mubarak of further charges.

Egypt’s Islamist Revolutionaries

The final locus of continuing resistance activity in Egypt comes from the Islamist space. Always the largest, most organized and best-funded opposition to the state, Islamist groups have always had formidable youth wings. During the revolutionary period, the Islamist political space fragmented. Today it still includes the largest number of active opponents to the Egyptian regime, although many of those activists are young Muslim Brotherhood members calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. They are increasingly isolated not only by the state, but from revolutionary movements who view Morsi’s autocratic tenure as a betrayal.

Yet a principled group of former Muslim Brotherhood members forms one of the most interesting revolutionary cohorts. Hundreds of young men and women who were among the elite of the Brotherhood’s official youth movement defied their hierarchical organization bosses and took part in the original Jan. 25 uprising in 2011. Most of them believed the Brotherhood should stay out of politics and remain a social and religious organization. These were pious and committed Islamic youth who believed in a secular, pluralistic state. Three of them were founding members of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition; they were among the first Brotherhood youth officially expelled by the hierarchical Islamist group.

They founded a political party, the Egyptian Current, which failed to attract wide membership. Some of its members work as independent activists or have joined secular political parties. Many of its best-known leaders now work with Strong Egypt, the political party of an ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate, Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh. Strong Egypt has been one of the only political organizations to condemn authoritarianism quickly and consistently, whether practiced by liberal civilian politicians, Morsi or Sissi. It forms the only existing bridge between secular revolutionaries and the powerful Islamist bloc, which for now has distanced itself from a project of pluralism, reform or revolt.

But the distrust between the two camps runs too deep for the kind of cooperation it would take to effect meaningful change in Egypt, and continuing efforts to mediate between anti-regime revolutionaries and Islamists have failed so far. Moaz Abdel Kareem, a former Brother and Revolutionary Youth Coalition member, has been one of the most persistent advocates of secular-Islamist collaboration. “It is crazy to think we can have a revolution without the Islamists,” he told me recently over a water pipe in a cafe in Istanbul. “We need to start a dialogue and agree on things we can fight for.” His own predicament suggests the impossibility of unity now; his old Islamist colleagues reject him as far too secular, while his revolutionary colleagues suspect he’s still secretly a Muslim Brother.

Illustrating the divide, in late November, secular revolutionaries rebuffed a public call from the Brotherhood for “revolutionary unity.” An April 6 spokesperson told Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian publication, that his organization would never again trust the Islamists, while a member of Strong Egypt said it was waiting for the Brotherhood to revise it positions and prove it could “keep its word.” In a further illustration of the exclusion of political “youth” dynamism by established political players, the Muslim Brotherhood itself criticized its own young members for going too far in their efforts to forge a united front with secular activists. The Brotherhood’s paternalistic tone echoes that of first Mubarak and now Sissi, with its patronizing dismissal of youth politics as naive, subversive or outright traitorous.

Sissi is unlikely to address Egypt’s core failures: the collapsing economy, the utter lack of justice or rule of law and the smothering of political life. In Tahrir Square in 2011, many people told me they had finally been motivated to protest because the state “humiliated” them: It prevented them from supporting their families, and it didn’t allow them the slightest political voice. The implication is clear. A regime might be able to get away with corruption and misrule if it allows some democratic expression, or it might get away with oppression as long as it delivers basic quality of life. But it will have trouble keeping its population quiescent if it fails on both counts.

The Role of Youth Beyond Egypt

Beyond Egypt, the entire Arab state system has been called into question, which is why powerful vested interests from the Gulf monarchies to the region’s nationalist militaries have engaged so fully in what they rightly view as an existential struggle. Nearly every country in the region has responded to these profound forces, although it is still early in their historical lifespan. Each Arab state offers a model of how to crush, harness or coopt revolutionary energy.

Short of war, there are three general approaches. The first is to deploy a police state to marginalize revolutionary ideas; Egypt is the leading example, but Bahrain and to some extent Jordan have followed a similar approach. The second is to embrace revolutionary energy within the system and attempt a transition: Tunisia has done this most successfully, although at periods Yemen and Libya seemed to have managed some degree of systemic change. The third is to redirect or absorb the revolutionary energy with neither a frontal clash nor a sincere effort to respond to its demands: Lebanon is the quintessential master of this sort of twisted jujitsu approach, although its principles can be seen at work in the maneuvers of regimes in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A closer look at Tunisia and Lebanon, as alternatives to Egypt’s course, also highlights the problem with relying on youth as an organizing principle to explain Arab politics.

Tunisia, Model or Exception?

Increasingly, Tunisia seems like an outlier in the Arab world. Its peaceful uprising was disproportionately younger than Egypt’s, and it was quickly supported by key institutional players, including the military. The biggest political blocs, the Muslim Brothers and the secular trade unionists, managed to negotiate a consensual constitution and a balanced transitional government despite their divergent visions. Islamists voluntarily ceded power after losing in Tunisia’s second elections. Not everyone is satisfied, but none of the key constituencies profess to have been locked out of the political transition, in contrast to Egypt. Perhaps most important in the context of the current discussion is the fact that “youth” were not ghettoized, but rather dispersed across the spectrum of politics and civil society.

Tunisia is a small nation whose relative wealth and education levels make it hard to compare to other Arab countries. Yet activists elsewhere in the region have drawn some key lessons. Tunisia benefited from a balance of power that included trade unions with a sizable, organized following, and also from a wise provision in the transitional electoral system preventing the winning party from amassing an absolute parliamentary majority. The main parties engaged in sincere, if occasionally acrimonious, negotiations. Islamists repudiated violence committed by their supporters, while secularists have avoided the taint of military authoritarianism that has come to characterize so many of their Egyptian counterparts.

This is perhaps a result of the fact that, while in exile years before Tunisia’s uprising, Muslim Brotherhood leader Rachid Ghannouchi and liberal dissident Moncef Marzouki met regularly, despite their profound ideological differences. Their relationship produced a level of institutional trust during Tunisia’s initial transition period, when Marzouki was president and Ghannouchi’s party controlled the government.

The Lebanese Alternative

For better and often for worse, Lebanon’s muddle-through system of compromise and patronage has become a regional model. Once dismissed as dysfunctional and corrupt, Lebanon’s solution to its 1975-1991 civil war has come to be seen by many other regional actors as a lesser evil, often worth emulating. Iraq might have accelerated the path to sectarian civil war by adopting a Lebanon-style sectarian ethnic quota system, but many there still see “Lebanonization” as a palliative and a preferable alternative to a bloodbath. Syrian activists who in 2011 swore they would never be “another Lebanon” now tell me that ending up like Lebanon after a decade of fighting might be the best hope they’ve got.

Lebanon’s volatile stalemate has staved off civil war and internal political revolt despite myriad systemic failures to address the concerns of ordinary citizens, especially unemployed or underemployed youth. In this, Lebanon might once again suggest a somewhat distasteful workaround.

Interestingly, no substantive youth or revolutionary or reform movement has emerged in Lebanon since the Arab Spring uprisings. Polling and anecdotal evidence suggest that the majority of Lebanese resent the spoils system of governance, controlled by the same major warlords who have dominated politics since the civil war. Yet their economic energy has been dissipated, either absorbed into the corrupt spoils system at home or dispersed into Lebanon’s vast diaspora, the proceeds from which prop up the country’s crippled economy.

Youth are freer in Lebanon than anywhere else in the Arab world to engage in cultural activity, although state security censors still carefully police the boundaries of free expression to silence radical critiques of the power structure. But that freedom doesn’t extend to politics. Young Lebanese are free to harness their political energy into the vibrant youth wings of the existing political parties, but not to challenge the status quo. All the major factions have intricate institutions to tap into youthful energy, including scouts, paramilitaries, social clubs, student council elections, fundraising work and ultimately party membership. Opportunities for political participation are limited to the existing sectarian parties.

One exception is the on-again, off-again movement in support of civil marriage, which remains elite, small and, while threatening to the sectarian spoils system, neither radically revolutionary nor inherently political. Presently, the civil marriage cause appears dormant. In times of heightened security fears, the demands of civil society in Lebanon tend to be drowned out, although a dedicated core group of civil society activists has persisted in the face of decades of pressure and ups and downs.

Conclusion

The political movements that challenged the Arab world’s established order in 2010 and 2011 are still in the process of developing. Their ideas and platforms are inchoate, and their leaders and core members are often under attack. In multiple countries, including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, proponents of even nonviolent incremental reform have been subject to terrifying levels of state violence. Elsewhere they have been systematically but less bloodily silenced or co-opted, including in Jordan, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

But it seems obvious that these movements are not going away, just as the Muslim Brotherhood, with its compelling ideology and disciplined organization, has never disappeared—despite repeated attempts at state-sponsored eradication—since its founding in 1928.

The great energy and aspirations that drove the revolts haven’t disappeared, even if the revolutionary leaders in Egypt have been marginalized for now. There on the margins, they are still working.

Kamel has concluded that the fault lies not with Egypt’s stars, but its citizens. “We have fought four regimes in a row, but most of the people of Egypt are not with us,” he told me this fall. “The problem in Egypt now is not the regimes. It is the people. We have to convince them.”

Some still believe that Sissi’s overreach will drive people together again, just like Mubarak’s abuse of power did in January 2011. “The Mubarak verdict shocked people,” Abdelkareem, the ex-Muslim Brother and Egyptian Current founder currently in exile, told me. “Now the youth are starting to cooperate again.”

Throughout the region, the same force that drove the uprisings has been redirected. Some of it simmers out of sight. Some of it has poured into the call for violent takfiri jihad in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt and perhaps elsewhere. Some of it has flowed into the quiet, continuing organizing of the political parties, youth movements and civil society groups that challenged status quo power. In Egypt, Sissi’s regime will either have to address these aspirations or fight a constant rear-guard war against dissent. The harder it fights, the more dissenters it will find.

Publisher’s Weekly review

Posted December 16th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution,Writing

Another review out in Publisher’s Weekly of Once Upon a Revolution.

ONCE UPON A REVOLUTION

As the heady days of revolution in Tahrir Square recede further into the past, liberal democracy in Egypt seems increasingly like a pipe dream.  Beirut-based journalist Cambanis (A Privilege to Die) follows two leaders of the uprising from the beginnings of their political involvement to the military coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi.  Basem, an unassuming architect, becomes one of the few liberal members of parliament, while Moaz, a Muslim Brother, grows increasingly disenchanted with political Islam.  Cambanis eloquently describes post-Mubarak Egypt and the “chaos coursing below the surface, but open conflict still just over the horizon,” as well as the “inability of secular and liberal forces to unify and organize,” which left the political field open to the military apparatus and the secretive Islamists.  Crushed by arbitrary military edicts and ascendant puritanism, Egypt’s nascent civil society stalled and sputtered while its freewheeling press degenerated into “a brew of lies, delusion, paranoia, and justification.”  The people Cambanis shadows never lose hope, exactly, but he makes clear that they feel as if they are spitting into the wind, struggling to enunciate what the revolution accomplished.  Agent: Wendy Strothman, Strothman Agency. (Feb.)

In Congo, Peacekeepers at War

Posted November 30th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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KENNY KATOMBE/REUTERS/CORBIS

Soldiers from the United Nations intervention brigade in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section, November 28, 2014.]

MASISI, Democratic Republic of Congo—The massive peacekeeping effort undertaken here over the past 18 months hasn’t done much to slow the bloodshed in this central African nation. But it just might have destroyed a bold and hopeful new idea about how much the United Nations can accomplish.

Since Congo’s civil war broke out in 1994, it has become the world’s deadliest conflict, pitting neighboring governments and dozens of local warlords in a free-for-all over the prodigious profits to be made in eastern Congo’s mines. According to demographers, 5.4 million Congolese died during just one stretch from 1998 to 2006.

Fed up with the ineffectiveness of its traditional approach to peacekeeping, the United Nations Security Council decided last year to scrap its policy of firing only in self-defense. Instead, it launched a remarkable experiment: its first-ever “force intervention brigade,” a fully armed fighting unit to hunt down and stop predatory militias.

The goal was to put teeth in the UN’s promise to protect civilians in war zones. But after one early success routing the largest antigovernment militia, the brigade’s promise has faltered. The remaining militias have proved far harder to suppress, with foreign backers and sympathetic local supporters. And to some observers, the brigade has turned the United Nations into just another army in a war with too many armies already, helping hand territory over to a Congolese government that behaves just as badly as the militias it replaces.

For Congo, the failure of this experiment would mark a tragedy in a region already exhausted by tragedy. For the world at large, the test comes at a pivotal moment for the idea of international peacekeeping itself—a concept that is under increasing scrutiny from the nations upon whose money, troops, and political support its existence depends.

This year, the UN is taking a hard look at all its peacekeeping operations, trying to rethink how, and when, it should try to intervene in violent conflicts. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who normally has a reputation for avoiding conflict even within his own bureaucracy, called this summer for a formal review of peacekeeping, describing a crisis brought on by interventions in complex civil wars “where there is no peace to keep.” Congo is being watched closely, and observers are skeptical that the outcome there will be encouraging.

“Is this the future? I’d say no,” says retired Major General Patrick Cammaert, who commanded UN peacekeepers for decades, including in Congo, and who now writes about the endemic problems of peacekeeping. “What more can the international community do?” Cammaert asks. “That’s the frustrating question.”

He’s contributing to a debate that has erupted among experts who want the UN to do better in the world’s bleakest war zones. Some are convinced it only requires more resources and effort. Others, however, have come to believe that the best we can do is to drastically reduce expectations of how much the international community can help.

IN A SENSE, the experiment in Congo exposes a contradiction wound into the UN’s very DNA. One founding principle of the UN was neutrality: that it could be an outside arbiter, swooping in to resolve regional conflicts without preference for one side or the other. Another principle was humanitarianism—helping vulnerable civilians and children, through intervention if necessary.

Its architects, determined to prevent another global conflict like World War II, gave the UN the power to dispatch peacekeepers who could monitor cease-fires and truce lines, protect refugees, even end wars. They didn’t imagine how profoundly the principles of neutrality and humanitarianism might start to conflict, as states and nonstate actors fought complex multiplayer wars that blurred traditional categories.

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KENNY KATOMBE/REUTERS/CORBIS

UN peacekeepers with weapons recovered from militants in Congo in May.

Ironically, it was Congo that handed the UN its first major peacekeeping defeat in 1960. After a skirmish between UN troops and secessionists left hundreds of civilians dead, Western superpowers claimed the UN soldiers had acted beyond their orders, while the Soviet Union angrily accused the United States of supporting the assassination of Congo’s pro-independence prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Compromised by political rivalries, the mission was effectively put into deep freeze until its official closure in 1964.

The UN stayed away from such controversial engagements until the Cold War had ended. In the 1990s, it began to venture again into complex civil wars. Peacekeepers were armed, often with top-of-the-line military equipment, but usually stayed out of the fray, like referees during a hockey brawl.

The failures of this approach mounted quickly and painfully. International peacekeepers were humiliatingly sidelined during the 1990s genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia. Hundreds of lightly armed UN peacekeepers were even taken hostage in Bosnia and used as bargaining chips by warlords. In Rwanda, the UN commander presciently warned of the coming genocide—and was ordered not to take any action to try to prevent it. Peacekeepers proved equally ineffective in Somalia.

Spurred by those failures, thinkers and policy makers began to push for a more muscular approach, giving rise to the somewhat paradoxical idea of “humanitarian intervention,” an anodyne term for the use of military force to help people and restore peace. Its supporters believed that in some wars, especially when governments or militias weren’t directly fighting each other but were instead killing civilians, neutrality no longer made sense. To end a civil war, it might be necessary to pick a side and help it prevail.

Congo became the lab for this new vision in 2012. After a relative calm of several years, the civil war had ramped up once again. The Rwandan-backed M23 militia was sweeping through the eastern provinces; warlords engaged in mass rape and murder while seizing control of the diamond trade and eastern Congo’s profitable coltan mines. Millions of civilians were displaced, again and again, in a shockingly poor and undeveloped state where it sometimes takes an entire day over rutted muddy tracks, on foot or motorcycle, to reach a nearby clinic or market town. Hundreds of militias vied for control of sometimes tiny areas. In what looked like a replay of past humiliations in Bosnia and Rwanda, M23 conquered even the city of Goma, where the UN had a headquarters and massive operation.

The embarrassment this time was a catalyst. The major powers at the UN and in Africa agreed they had to do more, and came up with the force intervention brigade, approved in March 2013.

THE PEACEKEEPERS in the UN stabilization mission—known by the acronym MONUSCO—wear the standard UN blue helmets and insignia, but there the resemblance to previous UN missions ends. Its highly trained infantry troops, from a variety of African states, are led by South African soldiers. They track Congolese militias using drones and the kind of surveillance technology that US special forces use to pursue Al Qaeda, swooping in the from the air to disarm or kill them. When civilians seek protection on UN bases, the peacekeepers go after the militias who threaten them. They pursue enemy fighters deep into the jungle.

In certain respects, the effort is working. During its first year, MONUSCO’s crack intervention brigade successfully routed M23, driving its leaders into exile or arresting them, and helping the Congolese government disarm or absorb most of its gunmen. It has presided over the restoration of a tenuous calm in places like Masisi, where farmers have resumed grazing profitable herds in the grassy hills after decades when violence made agriculture impossible. Motorcycle taxis ply roads that just a year ago were too dangerous to traverse. Commerce is haltingly returning to many villages, and some of the millions of displaced people are returning home.

But that’s where the first problem arises. The UN has chosen sides, which means supporting Congo’s current government. When the UN troops finish, they turn the cleared areas over the Congolese Army. Local residents frequently complain that these forces subject them to another wave of the same violence they experienced under militia rule. For residents mugged and shot by marauding gunmen, it makes no difference whether the overlords wear the insignia of a warlord’s militia or of the government. The government pressures the UN to criticize only the rebels; in October, it expelled the UN mission’s top human rights official after he released a report on the national police force’s abuses.

Meanwhile, dozens of militias are proving harder to dislodge. Local supporters of one formidable militia, backed by Uganda, staged demonstrations outside UN facilities this month against international efforts to drive it out of the northeast Congo. And there are policy thinkers who believe that the UN’s new approach makes it a legitimate military target. A report released this month by the International Peace Institute, a New York think tank, argues that the UN Congo mission’s aggressive mandate means that under international law, its “peacekeepers” no longer enjoy the legal protections that normally cover UN personnel.

The new approach has also split the UN and the peacekeeping world by creating fears that it might endanger humanitarian aid workers, from both the UN and unrelated nongovernmental organizations, who normally rely on the protection of neutrality. My own trip to Masisi in September took place under the auspices of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, whose volunteers and local staff expressed exactly this worry. So far, it appears that local antigovernment warlords haven’t turned against the group. But as I interviewed villagers, it became clear that plenty of them mistakenly believed that Doctors Without Borders was part of the UN.

AS WITH MOST OF THE UN’S most difficult missions, there is no end game for the Congo intervention. Peacekeepers were first deployed in 1999, and since then there have been many rounds of political negotiations involving the government, the rebels, and neighboring African countries. MONUSCO’s intervention brigade was deployed to support this vague and open-ended negotiation process, and thus has no stated timetable to leave the country.

To many, its failure would represent a particular disappointment. In a certain light, the brigade represents the UN and the Western powers at their most flexible and creative, trying to combine military might with a genuine commitment to the relief of suffering.

Chastened or emboldened by the lessons of Congo, UN leaders, the nations that pay for peacekeeping missions (led by the United States and Japan), and experts in the field are scrambling for new ideas for interventions that work—or whose failure or success can even be determined. Some experts now suggest that it would be wiser to embrace something more like “conflict management” than “conflict resolution,” an acceptance that outside powers can help save lives, but never actually end a civil war. Others argue for more investment on the political side, to force peace accords.

Richard Gowan, a peacekeeping expert at New York University, believes the international community should pick its shots—“Go big or go home,” he says—and stay away from incremental interventions that prolong conflict without resolving it.

Retired UN official Michael von den Schulenburg has worked with UN peacekeeping missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and other hot spots and emerged as one of the system’s biggest critics, believing that Western powers have gotten addicted to the notion that there are military shortcuts to peace. “Peacebuilding is essentially cheating history. Look at our own states—our borders, what language we speak, which ethnic community predominates—it was always a bloody affair that went on for hundreds of years,” he says. “Now we want to solve these conflicts in 10 years.” He suggests dispensing with most peacekeeping altogether, and instead sending civilians to complicated war zones, in the full knowledge that they might be able to address small problems but not the big ones.

Slightly more optimistic is Severine Autesserre, a Barnard College political scientist who has spent years analyzing the dynamics and history of the Congo conflict. She embarked on a field study of all the reasons why foreign peacekeepers were destined to failure, and emerged with the opposite conclusion. In the book “Peaceland,” published this summer, she argues that through hundreds of minor, incremental improvements, the international community could dramatically boost the quality of life in conflict zones like those in Congo, thereby getting better value out of the troops it dispatches as peacekeepers.

If there is a lesson in the UN’s sporadic attempts to put weight behind its peacekeeping, it comes down to this: No outside power, not even an international mission blessed with moral authority and big guns, can unilaterally impose peace on a fractious war zone. An intractable stew of warlords, propped up by foreign states or nefarious funding networks, and a corrupt, authoritarian government prone to human rights abuses: This could easily describe Congo today, or Sudan, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. The West has tried all manner of approaches, from containment to invasion and occupation to staying out of it. That none of these tactics has reliably worked doesn’t mean that we should do nothing. But it does mean that whatever we do try is unlikely to bring a prompt end to the violence. It might, at best, save a few lives.

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of the forthcoming “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.

Once Upon a Revolution: Kirkus Review

Posted November 18th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

 

The first review, from Kirkus, of my forthcoming Egypt book is out. I’m excited to imagine people reading this story from the Egyptian revolution.

KIRKUS REVIEW

Smart, troubling study of the events surrounding Tahrir Square and their aftermath.

9781451658996That Cairo landmark is a metonym. As journalist/historian Cambanis (A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, 2010) records in this lucid account of the Egyptian uprising, strategists of the opposition spent much time figuring out just where they could organize protests without being quashed by the country’s well-organized military, setting some of the early demonstrations and meetings in places “where the streets were too narrow for police trucks and water cannons” until momentum grew. It didn’t take long for the revolt to sweep the country, with its crowning day on Jan. 25, 2011. Cambanis profiles ordinary Egyptians who rose up against the Mubarak regime, some out of support for the Islamist cause, others in the hope of secular democracy. Their political divide runs deep. As the author writes of one key actor, “El-Shater didn’t seem to understand how much the liberals hated the Islamists, and how much the revolutionary Islamist youth mistrusted the Brotherhood leadership, himself included.” It is for that reason that the revolution—which, Cambanis reminds us, necessarily involves tumult and violence—remains incomplete. “I fell in love with the Tahrir Revolution,” he writes, “but this love didn’t blind me to its faults.” Still, to judge by this account, those faults are fewer than those of the previous regime, which leaves some hope that the people of Egypt are headed in the right direction—even if the Muslim Brotherhood soon “exposed itself as power hungry and eager to use violent tools of repression to silence opponents.”

A clear exposition and analysis of complex, swiftly changing events. The book gives readers cause to understand why we might support regime change in the Middle East, even if it brings instability and incoherence.

Time to stop fearing OPEC?

Posted October 25th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]

 

THE INTERNATIONALIST

Why it’s time to stop fearing OPEC

The cartel has far less power than we give it credit for, argues political scientist Jeff Colgan

Some Motorists Ran Out of Gas Such as This Man in Portland and Had to Stand in Line with a Gas Can During the Fuel Crisis in the Pacific Northwest 12/1973. Photographer: David Falconer. Part of DOCUMERICA (http://research.archives.gov/description/542493). Original link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/4272498928/ Credit: The US National Archives

US NATIONAL ARCHIVES

The gas crisis of the 1970s left many motorists stranded.

THE GLOBAL energy market can be a scary place for America. For decades, one of the biggest reasons has been the cartel known as OPEC.

Saudi Arabia and the 11 other nations that make up the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries collude openly, setting production limits and shaping the world oil market in their interests. Concerns about OPEC have driven American energy policy ever since a devastating six-month embargo by Arab oil producers in 1973 plunged the nation into recession and seared the four-letter acronym into the national consciousness.

Today the group still holds 80 percent of world oil reserves; ambassadors from the most powerful economies in the world attend its biannual meetings with deference, and dangle aid and other enticements in the hopes of winning OPEC’s allegiance. With American antagonists like Iran and Venezuela in its membership, OPEC amplifies the ability of relatively small countries to buck the desires of Washington.

But a closer look at OPEC’s real influence over the oil market suggests that we’re making a huge mistake about its global power, says Brown University political scientist Jeff Colgan. A specialist in oil and global conflict, Colgan tracked almost three decades of oil production data and compared it to official OPEC policy, which sets quotas for member countries. What he found surprised him: OPEC’s decisions were all but irrelevant.

As formidable as OPEC is seen to be, its members appeared to produce whatever they felt like, regardless of official policy; Colgan found that OPEC decisions weren’t actually affecting world oil supplies, or world oil prices. The group seemed unable to control its members or accomplish the one thing that even its detractors might appreciate: bring stability to the market.

“It drives me nuts,” Colgan says. “Washington spends bandwidth on OPEC that could be better dedicated to something else.”

Colgan’s research, published this summer, made a splash within the small circle of OPEC scholars, and even his critics concede that his findings require a reassessment of our understanding of the cartel. His thinking has yet to trigger policy changes, however. Although skepticism about OPEC has been rising—just last week, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote about a 2013 Foreign Policy article titled “The End of OPEC”—most policy makers and academics still consider OPEC the key player in world energy markets, and the only one in a position to unilaterally disrupt the global flow of petrochemicals.

If Colgan is right, the implications go beyond OPEC: They suggest that petroleum is not the global bugaboo that many politicians and policy makers think. In this argument, Colgan has company: His findings echo earlier research suggesting that today’s American economy is no longer vulnerable to shocks in oil prices, or temporary supply disruptions caused by Middle Eastern wars.

His meticulous research suggests that OPEC is a sort of high-level con, which awards its member states unwarranted influence, wastes US time and energy, and distorts our energy policy and even our military priorities. An honest reckoning of power in the oil market might not only lead the United States to fear OPEC less, but even to behave a little more like it.

WHEN OPEC was formed in 1960, the oil industry was dominated by a different cartel. It was called the “Seven Sisters,” and was made up of western companies. Many of them have changed their names since then but are still industry giants, like ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell.

The developing countries that actually held the world’s oil reserves wanted more clout. Saudi Arabia, which had the world’s largest and most accessible oil fields, was joined by four other founding members: Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela. Soon, nine more nations joined the group and opened a headquarters in 1965 in Vienna, the home of other important international institutions like the International Atomic Energy Association.

OPEC became a household name after the infamous oil embargo of 1973, which left a lasting psychological imprint on Americans. Gas stations closed on Sundays. Customers waited in interminable lines for their ration. Homeowners and businesses couldn’t afford to leave their heaters running at full blast throughout the winter. The economy went into a tailspin.

Forgotten in the bitter memory is that the embargo wasn’t actually imposed by OPEC, but by the Arab members of the cartel, along with Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, in retaliation for America’s support for Israel in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. That distinction was lost, and policy makers ever since have railed against the dangers of dependence on OPEC oil. The legacy of the oil embargo drives American diplomacy, the rules governing worldwide oil contracts, and even the US case for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which contends that the political benefits of “energy independence” outweigh fracking’s environmental and economic drawbacks.

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DAVID BUTLER/GLOBE STAFF

Today, economists point out, the world energy market is far more integrated and interdependent than it was in 1973, when most oil was bought and sold in bulky, long-term contracts that made it hard for the market to quickly adjust to any change in supply.

Now producers need the profits as much as consumers need the gas. And despite the size of OPEC’s reserves—half of which are held by just two countries, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela—oil production is far more widely spread out than it used to be. Countries like the United States, Canada, and Mexico can satisfy a great deal of short-term demand even if their supplies will run low in a few decades. (In fact, the recent surge in US oil production last year made it the world’s largest oil producer, though its reserves are limited and the extraction process is only profitable when oil prices are high.) Oil is now bought and sold in a market that changes daily, so if one supply suddenly goes offline—like the oil industries of Libya and Iraq during various points of the last decade’s turmoil—other countries can step in to fill the gap in a matter of days.

Political scientists and economists have explored OPEC’s efficacy in multiple papers over the years, and almost all of them have concluded that even if it doesn’t function as a seamless cartel, it is the single most pivotal factor in setting global oil prices. It is this consensus that Colgan’s research punctures. He looked at official quotas since 1982, and found that OPEC member countries cheat an astonishing 96 percent of the time, pumping more than their permitted quota. He created a mathematical model to predict how much oil each country would produce if it were not constrained by the cartel’s quotas, and he found that when it came to a country’s oil production patterns, it didn’t seem to matter whether it was in OPEC or not. New members didn’t reduce production when they joined OPEC, and quota changes didn’t affect production levels.

Despite its reputation, Colgan found, OPEC simply doesn’t fit the definition of an effective cartel. Saudi Arabia—the sole producer with the spare capacity huge enough to unilaterally alter world supplies—floods the market or slashes capacity to suit its own needs, as it did in 2008 and is threatening to do again today in order to drive US fracking companies out of business. Almost all of the time, other OPEC members pumped as much as they could, whether prices were high or low.

Michael Levi, an energy and oil expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledges Colgan’s point that OPEC’s control of production and prices is not absolute, but believes he’s going too far in calling it powerless; cartels by definition aren’t transparent, and OPEC might still wield plenty of influence over member behavior. “It would be awfully unwise for policy makers or market participants to quickly flip to an equally over-confident belief that OPEC doesn’t matter,” he says.

American politics pretty much guarantees they won’t flip soon: In today’s debate over whether the United States should export its own oil, it’s still OPEC whose wrath the White House fears, rather than the more likely retaliation it might face from individual countries like Saudi Arabia. And OPEC is a convenient punching bag on Capitol Hill: Since 1999, the US Congress has introduced no fewer than 15 versions of a “NOPEC” bill, which would require the government to punish members of the international oil cartel. All the bills have failed, but they attract high-profile support. When they were senators, both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton voted for NOPEC bills.

COLGAN CALLS the cartel’s reputation a “rational myth”—a made-up story perpetuated because it serves an interest. OPEC initially was founded to control the oil market, but by the time member countries realized it didn’t, they were reaping too many political benefits from OPEC’s perceived clout to dissolve the organization.

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DAVID BUTLER/GLOBE STAFF

OPEC membership has unquestionable benefits on the world stage: Colgan measured the number of ambassadors to members and found that joining OPEC provides a noticeable bump in foreign missions. When countries like the United States are worried about global oil production levels, or prices, they make pleas to the biggest player in the market, and that means OPEC.

For America, though, the fear of OPEC has costs. For one thing, it means the United States misses opportunities to exploit the fissures between OPEC countries, which often have diametrically opposed interests (today for instance, Iran wants low production and high prices to help it survive sanctions; Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, wants low prices in order to regain its dominant market share). Since the 1973 embargo, almost every aspect of US energy policy appears designed to protect consumers and the economy from a price shock or supply disruption, even though today the United States is itself an oil giant that gets rich off the sale of oil and gas.

There are real lessons to take from OPEC as we have long understood it—and from comparing countries that have wisely managed their oil wealth, like Norway, to those that have used it to mask domestic stagnation, like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Whether a country is an oil exporter or importer, it’s a smart investment to reduce consumption and diversify sources as much as possible, including toward wind and solar power. The most impressive oil exporters husband their energy profits, treating them as a limited windfall rather than a sustainable and permanent revenue stream.

The experience of the OPEC countries also highlights the tension between gas pricing, environmental stewardship, and national interests in ways that are increasingly relevant for the United States. Traditionally, low fuel prices have boosted the US economy, but increased pollution and dependency. High gas prices are good for an energy policy built around restraint—less consumption, less pollution—and now they actually have an economic benefit as well, boosting the burgeoning domestic oil sector.

Even if OPEC is not the power we thought, the group’s recent history has lessons for us, most simply that it’s not a bad idea to maximize the profits you can draw from your limited reserves of underground oil. Pump less to drive prices up, pump more when you need cash (or extra energy), and worry less about the global economy than about your own bottom line and long-term fiscal health. That might be the formula of a villainous cartel—or just good business sense for a nation.

The jihadi hunters

Posted October 5th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

THE INTERNATIONALIST

The jihadi hunters

A new generation of self-made experts is tracking extremists through their online activity — and rewriting the rules of intelligence in the process

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THE RISE OF the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took much of the world by surprise. When it swept into Mosul and swiftly turned most of northern Iraq into the cornerstone of a regressive new caliphate, the organization was an unknown quantity even to many professional analysts, reporters, and policy makers.

But very quickly, some new go-to sources emerged. Two of them were Twitter streams that unleashed a torrent of crucial links and information. They revealed the depth of the group’s beef with Al Qaeda, which ISIS seemed to consider a higher-priority enemy than even the unbelievers it had executed. They published extracts of the recruitment literature the group had used to lure Western fighters, and shared some of its previously unknown ideological treatises. They brought to light the extensive ISIS propaganda network, while countering some of its claims. Since the United States declared war on the group and started bombing sites in Iraq and Syria, the sources have continued their indispensable work, providing details on little known targets like the “Khorasan Group” and the reaction of ISIS to the American strikes.

These gushers of highly useful information were not coming from inside a formal intelligence operation, or even from the Middle East. Instead, they were being run by ordinary American civilians out of their own homes. One was J.M. Berger, 47, a former journalist turned freelance social network analyst and extremism expert, who published scoop after scoop from his home office in Cambridge. The other was Aaron Zelin, a 26-year-old graduate student in Washington, D.C., who made his name with a blog called Jihadology. The two researchers had been mining the jihadi Internet for years, tracking it with a combination of old-school scholarship and new purpose-built apps.

Zelin and Berger are something new in the intelligence world: part of an emerging breed of online jihadi-hunters who have done pathbreaking work, often independently of government and big media outlets, on a shoestring budget. Numbering less than a dozen, they have earned their reputations over the past four years by being the first to report key developments later confirmed by mainstream research and reporting—such as the split between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, the burst of jihadi recruitment in the West, and the entry of Hezbollah into the Syrian battle. The meteoric rise of ISIS has been a catalyzing moment for these analysts, pushing them into the spotlight as one of the most important sources of information and context.

These freelance online analysts offer a counterweight to decentralized militant groups. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, America has struggled to grapple with nimble, stateless groups that can move faster than national governments. But the same tools that militant groups and jihadis have exploited so effectively cut both ways. Those who want to shut down violent networks have a new weapon in intelligence-gatherers who operate outside traditional channels and aren’t hindered by bureaucratic myopia.

Despite some friction, their research is forcing the academic and intelligence establishment to treat Twitter, Facebook, and other social media as important sources of data. The small world of social media analysts who have established reliable reputations over time, relying on information freely available in the public domain, implicitly challenges the US government’s claim that only massive, secret surveillance can penetrate jihadi networks.

“Some people say, ‘Who is this guy to be writing about this stuff?’” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has developed an influential following for the analysis of global jihad that he writes after hours. Through Twitter, he’s been able to team up with dozens of experts who 15 years ago he wouldn’t have known how to contact. And through his blog, he’s found a high-level audience that government intelligence analysts could only dream of. “This is mostly a hobby for me,” he said. “The less involved I am in the terrorism analysis community, the more my posts get read.”

 

EONS AGO in Internet time, back in 2006, Hezbollah and Israel fought a quick and destructive war in Lebanon. I was one of the journalists who covered it on the front lines, and we struggled to report the precise nature of Hezbollah’s involvement. Hezbollah tried to obscure its hand, hiding the number of fighters under its command and even whether they were active in the war. It was rare to see a fighter in person at all, and those who were spotted often pretended to represent a local clan or a militia other than Hezbollah.

People guessed at the number of Hezbollah fighters killed, and ultimately had to rely on an unverifiable number issued by the party itself. It was the kind of information that watchers of the conflict had to resign themselves to never being able to know for sure.

During the recent conflict in Syria, Hezbollah denied taking part in combat altogether. But a 27-year-old self-taught analyst named Phillip Smyth, staying up all night in his Washington, D.C., home, began systematically to expose its denial as a lie. Smyth tracked deaths and funerals among Hezbollah supporters; he would identify the same funeral poster on as many as a hundred Facebook pages, then on Hezbollah’s television channel Al-Manar; finally, in some cases, he would telephone friends in Lebanon and ask them to look for and photograph the same poster on a wall. While Hezbollah was still claiming it had no military role in Syria’s civil war, Smyth had proved the group’s leaders were deploying fighters to the Syrian frontlines. He compiled lists of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syrian battles, complete with names and photographs, and posted them in a new Jihadology feature called Hizballah Cavalcade. Months later, Hezbollah finally admitted involvement.

A story like Smyth’s illustrates just how stark a change has come across the once-staid world of intelligence analysts. As recently as a decade ago, this kind of expertise resided almost entirely in government agencies like the CIA and the State Department, or in universities and think tanks with the resources to gather and sift through the data. And it might never surface in public at all.

But today some of the best data are in reach of anyone with an Internet connection—and the Web offers a public platform for anyone able and willing to do the work. Smyth, for example, never worked for the government and didn’t even finish college. He bounced around during adolescence and dropped out of Suffolk University after a year. From an early age he developed a fascination with Lebanon, however, and his mother helped him travel there as a teenager. Smyth learned Arabic and immersed himself in Lebanese culture, obsessively studying the Christian and then the Shia Muslims militant groups that took shape during the civil war. “I was a strange child,” he says.

What started as a lark led him to a job as a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, but his passion was tracking the world of Shia militants. He chatted with them in forums, and built an enormous database of their tweets, Facebook posts, and websites. He listened to their pop music.

As the Arab Spring spiraled into regional upheaval, Smyth would stay up most of the night soaking up the militant movement’s social media feeds. Lurking on Shia militant forums, he learned that rebellion was brewing in Bahrain months before it escalated. Through his careful reading of religious pop music lyrics he learned that Iraqi Shia militias were preparing to join the Syrian civil war. In each case he amassed reams of evidence, running them by Zelin, an acquaintance who ultimately became a close friend. Finally he wrote about his conclusions. Mainstream media, and eventually the US government, picked up his evidence that an internal Syrian civil war had fully morphed into a regional conflagration.

An undated image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, purporting to show ISIS fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE

An undated image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, purporting to show ISIS fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria.

In a sense, Smyth’s work, like Zelin’s and Berger’s, is as new as the media they use: It lies at the intersection of journalism, policy analysis, and intelligence. And fittingly, its practitioners have backgrounds that span those fields. Before he found a perch at a Washington think tank, Zelin was a master’s student with a prolific Web presence. Berger was a freelance journalist before he developed his own apps to scrape and analyze the jihadi Web after a collaboration with Google Ideas.

Clint Watts, on the other hand, was an insider: He spent more than a decade in the military and the FBI before setting out on his own as a consultant with an initially small blog called “Selected Wisdom.” These days, he still prepares his analysis using the same template he learned in 1992 in an entry-level military course, “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield.” But it was only after Watts left the government that he began to build his reputation. The amount of information freely available on the Web, he said, was dizzying compared to what he could access on classified government computers. Liberated from the restrictions of classified computer systems and bosses looking for analysis on narrow subjects, he began to follow Al Qaeda and its offshoots across the world. He sparred on Twitter with Omar Hamami, the American who fought with Al Shabab in Somalia. He followed dozens of academic experts, drafting some of them as collaborators in his research.

“I was explaining to my parents just recently that most of what I do would be impossible just 10 years ago,” he said.

If the online ecosystem that these researchers are mining is surprisingly open, it is also uncharted territory. The Islamic State and Hezbollah are both savvy users of online propaganda, which means disinformation as well as the real stuff. For every piece of data Smyth has verified through his research, there are a hundred pieces of misinformation: fake websites, made-up militia names, descriptions of bombings that never happened, and fabricated death announcements. “They try to trick you,” Smyth said. “You’re dealing with some understandably very paranoid people.”

To combat this, the most respected new Web analysts (a group that also includes Charles Lister, a Brookings Institution fellow, and Aron Lund, who edits a Syria blog at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) tend to vet each other’s work, and prioritize accuracy over speed. They help each other with translations and argue over interpretation. They collaborate with an ease that traditional analysts, cut off in organizational silos, would scarcely recognize.

Some Twitter analysts do compete to break news first, but much of this crew would rather be late than wrong. Smyth sat for months on evidence of brewing militancy among Bahraini Shia until he could confirm it. In another instance, he encountered a trove of online evidence that Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was working with Iran to send fighters to Syria, which would have been explosive news at the time; after months of work he concluded that all of it was fabricated, probably the work of Iranian psyops.

 

THE NEW BREED of online analysts has arisen entirely in the years since Sept. 11, when our government was so notably caught off guard by an underground terrorist threat. The value and speed of their work carries the strong implication that the business needs to change.

That’s not a message the establishment always welcomes. Smyth describes one encounter when a State Department employee bought him a drink to discuss Smyth’s work, before telling him he never could take seriously any research that cites Facebook. Watts recalls the disappointment of another speaker at a Washington conference when she learned that he was reaching all his conclusions without drawing on top-secret sources.

“There are still people who don’t view this as a real form of study,” said Zelin.

But as the online jihadi hunters have risen in prominence, the establishment has increasingly started to embrace their work. White House officials have privately circulated Watts’s memos on the trajectory of global jihad. Berger has found himself in demand as a consultant and commentator, and just got a book deal, his second, to write about ISIS with the Harvard-trained terrorism expert Jessica Stern. Zelin was hired full time as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and has started a PhD at King’s College London. The university computer lab where Smyth works has asked him to continue his off-duty Hezbollah analysis at the office.

It is easy to imagine that this freewheeling analyst community is a new face of intelligence: decentralized, exciting, and hard to verify, like much about the online world. But it might also be the harbinger of a larger shift. Even in the Twitterverse—the Wild West of people who tweet about terrorism, jihad, and the American policy response—the dozen or so serious analysts in this group are exceptions; it’s much easier to find trolls taunting terrorists or self-appointed experts falling for friendly gambits from propagandists. In interviews, they admit that what they’re doing doesn’t follow an easily replicable template, and they don’t imagine doing it indefinitely. Smyth said it’s exhausting to check his social media sources throughout the night, and even now Zelin said he’s given up on his original goal of being in constant connection with the Twitterstream around the clock.

What they do hope, though, is that their efforts will give a push to the bigger community of well-funded, trained analysts who still provide the bulk of intelligence to the United States. Warfare and communication have changed, and Zelin and his peers expect that ultimately, their work will force academics and the intelligence community to expand their horizons. They will have to accept the value of new kinds of primary-source data, like Twitter, and take seriously the threats and ideas that percolate there.

International jihadis might one day abandon Twitter as quickly as they took it up, and groups like Hezbollah might find ways to police their members on Facebook. But after Facebook and Twitter, more platforms will surely follow. The true lesson of the independent jihadi trackers might be that the intelligence and policy establishment needs to be quicker to follow the culture wherever it chooses to communicate, sometimes leaving secret insights scattered in plain sight.

 

The Corniche

Posted October 2nd, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Published in Architectural Review, June 2014]

VIEW FROM BEIRUT

Gripped by a wave of gentrification, Beirut’s coastal promenade acts as an enduring social mixer for an increasingly ghettoised populace, says the AR’s Middle East correspondent

 

In Beirut nothing works except the people. It is ungoverned and entropic, a busy city with few police, no enforced zoning and no organised transport system. This is a city without parks or a central plaza yet quality of life is high. You can understand why along the city’s Mediterranean corniche, a wide waterfront promenade where Lebanese of all classes and sects mingle in harmony, unmolested by security forces and development.

The corniche runs a mile along the coast, demarcated on one side by a new luxury marina and on the other by a headland occupied by the military. Horrific residential towers line the inland side of the corniche road, blocking the sea views of the old neighbourhoods on the bluff above.
Vendors clink coffee cups to advertise their wares. Men on bikes sell crescent loaves of bread laced with sumac, za’atar or cheese. In the evenings, there’s boiled hominy and grilled corn on the cob. Children on bikes weave through the stream of pedestrians; so does the occasional motorbike.

This is perhaps the only truly mixed zone in a stratified city that’s become in so many other ways a libertarian paradise for the rich and a daily affront to the poor. The rich ladies-who-lunch clad in Juicy Couture jog alongside men from the suburbs in knock-off tracksuits. Boys dive in the sea from the railing. Families bring waterpipes and stools and picnic across the avenue from the expensive condos.

As lived, the space is a product of the nature and the enduring tastes of its residents. Since the war, Beirut has segregated into a patchwork of sectarian enclaves, and the rich have increasingly walled themselves off from the rest. Yet there’s a countervailing force that’s more evident here than anywhere else. Sunnis from West Beirut, Christians from the East and Shia from the southern suburb feel equal ownership of the corniche. In recent years when they’ve resorted to violence, they’ve continued to mingle peacefully on the corniche. There are no visible guards, just sporadic army patrols. Here, Beirutis self-police.

A mile to the east lies the ‘New Corniche’, a wide paved stretch along the reclaimed land that’s part of Solidere, the private megaproject that turned the historic downtown into a gated development controlled by family of the assassinated Sunni political boss Rafik Hariri. The New Corniche has no history. The landfill it flanks is barren although will soon be a hotel and entertainment zone. Solidere’s security guards roam the walkway.

Corniche

The Corniche, a seaside promedade lined with palm trees overlooking the Meditteranean

And yet, despite the forbidding extra layer around public access, the Beiruti public has quickly claimed the New Corniche too. They ignore the unarmed guards who order them not to ride bikes on the cement. They climb over concrete barricades to picnic.

There’s much to find enraging in Beirut, a city whose cultural and architectural patrimony has been gutted by a corrupt and unaccountable elite. It’s a city of communities with no communal space, where the right to private property trumps the rights of the individual citizen.

Yet the anarchy that benefits megaprojects like Solidere and the sterile area encasing the New Corniche also leaves residents free to intervene in the city. Drivers can park on the pavement, but pedestrians can turn the street into an open-air café. A crumbling, abandoned house on my street serves by morning as a vegetable market and by afternoon as a car park for a maternity ward.

Those who love the city worry that Solidere’s downtown will remain a Disneyland for the rich and that people will be ghettoised by class and sect in Balkanised neighbourhoods. But the corniche says otherwise. Beirutis like to stroll by the sea. In the evenings they smoke sheesha with friends or people-watch. This communal pleasure hasn’t been stamped out either by civil war or the dizzying gentrification that followed.

Why can’t Greece shake its corruption problem?

Posted August 24th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

THE INTERNATIONALIST

Why can’t Greece shake its corruption problem?

A report from a country where everyone knows a thousand ways around the rules

PAROS, Greece — A few summers ago, every merchant on this island—which means pretty much everybody with a job—faced ruin. Greece’s economic catastrophe had bankrupted the government and brought nearly every industry to a standstill. A modern European country faced the prospect of unthinkably widespread poverty. The local crisis reached up to the highest level: the European Union contemplated the collapse of the euro. Meanwhile, here on Paros, where the crisis was exacerbated by a global recession that had depressed tourism, mom-and-pop hotels, cafes, and tchotchke shops were going bust.

To avoid calamity, Europe agreed to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out Greece. In return, Greece pledged to overhaul nearly everything about its economy. The government promised to fire half its employees, and liberalized laws on everything from trucking to private universities. Generous pension benefits were slashed, and once-cushy lifetime government gigs were turned over to the free market.

Europe came through on its end of the deal: hundreds of billions flowed into the Greek treasury. This year, the island is flush again. The tourists are back, eager to spend their euros. New souvlaki joints fill once quiet alleys. Bars have sprung up in orchards. Small business owners who have exuded anxiety since 2008 are once again smiling and confident.

But not everything has changed in Greece. In daily life here, cheating, bribes, and tax evasion are still a matter of course. Even anticorruption officials reputedly accept bribes, and only one Cabinet minister has gone to prison for embezzlement. At the bottom level, freelance workers and shopowners still hide most of their income, like a workman who got angry when I filed a receipt for the repairs he did at my house.

What’s happened over the past five years shows Europe’s surprising ability to pull together as a region and avoid a financial disaster. But developments on the ground in Greece offer a less encouraging view of human nature. In response to additional laws and regulations, Greece’s corrupt system has simply upped its game. If anything, the new rules have just given Greeks more official protocol to maneuver around.

Why does this corrupt system survive, when everything points toward how it needs to be improved? Macroeconomists and development theorists have studied this problem for years, examining cases in countries that are abjectly poor and ones that are developed and comparatively rich, like Greece. There have been bold initiatives underwritten by international loans, and pointed local efforts like Italy’s long-losing battle against Mafia-driven graft. But conversations with ordinary people in Greece make it clear just why it’s so hard to reverse a culture of corruption once it becomes engrained. Even in a relatively prosperous European country, never mind Liberia or India, the most immediate self-interested move is for everyone to keep playing the game.

 

MY ANCESTORS HAVE LIVED for centuries on Paros, since before Greece fought for independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. My grandparents were the first generation to leave the island for Athens, after World War II, but we’ve been coming here every summer since then.

Although my lineage is pure Greek, I grew up with American attitudes about cheating. I spent my childhood surrounded by a certain moralism that I found appealing: you don’t cheat not because you might get caught, but because it’s wrong. You pay taxes because it’s the law and the government provides security and services in return, regardless of whether your politics are welfare-state liberal or “don’t tread on me” libertarian.

This is not how people see the bargain in Greece. Individuals refuse to pay taxes or obey the rules not just because it’s cheaper and easier to do so, but also because they don’t want to be suckers.

“I took my daughter to the government day care and they put her on the waiting list. The waiting list! Can you imagine?” a man griped to me recently. “And then they expect me to pay taxes! I’ll pay taxes when they do their job.”

The man wasn’t a sidewalk souvenir vendor or otherwise working in the gray market. He was an insurance broker, making small talk in his office while filling out a 20-page form to insure my moped, a glorified bicycle whose Greek government-mandated paperwork was more complicated than an American mortgage application.

The Greek system can feel like a Mexican standoff. Citizens won’t obey the law until the government fulfills its duties. The government shirks its duties because it doesn’t have enough revenue to govern responsibly. Small-time tax cheats refuse to bend until the corrupt elite is tried and imprisoned. The government says it can’t punish scofflaws because it doesn’t have the resources. And so the vicious circle turns.

Beach touts in Paros, Greece, sometimes pick up old receipts and give them to new customers as a way to avoid paying taxes to the government.

EDUCATION IMAGES/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Beach touts in Paros, Greece, sometimes pick up old receipts and give them to new customers as a way to avoid paying taxes to the government.

Merchants watch out for the tax man. If they know the customer, they don’t issue the legally required receipt. Workmen offer discounts: 20 percent off a job if you pay under the table. Beach touts pick up old receipts and give them to new customers. Only nerds check carefully and demand a fresh receipt.

The electrician who rewired my house called in a panic after I deposited the payment in his bank account.

“Can you take it back?” he pleaded. There was no way to erase the transaction. Now he would have to pay value-added tax (as he was legally obligated to do).

“There goes all my profit,” he complained. That wasn’t true, but it irked him that he’d have to share a few hundred euros of his take with the government.

Cheating is so common that the few who don’t do it feel like saps. Among them are salaried employees who don’t have the option to hide their income. They must pay their ever-increasing tax bills, carrying a disproportionate share of the burden, and yet they don’t see any improvement from the government. Complaining is a social lubricant, whether it’s about the tab you escaped, or the one you paid.

“Sixteen thousand euros, my friend, that’s the name of my pain,” an antique dealer told me. “After you pay that, nothing feels good.”

“You must have made a nice profit if your tax bill was that high,” I said.

“I’m barely living,” he said.

***

IT’S TEMPTING to blame all this misbehavior on some kind of national character. I admit at times I’ve thought that myself, but I’ve observed enough to know that it’s not that simple. A whole web of social structures undergirds bad attitudes and practices. Historians go even deeper; they start the story with the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the region, including most of Greece, from 1453 until the end of World War I.

Greece still carries the traces of Ottoman rule, under which it chafed for four centuries. The sultanate in Istanbul tried to crush provincial uprisings, but was remarkably tolerant toward territories that paid their tribute and created no problems. The Ottomans ruled through a combination of neglect and stifling bureaucracy, which gave rise to a system of institutionalized bribes. The sultan milked his provincial governors, who in turn squeezed the citizenry. Taxes were just another negotiable kickback.

That Ottoman legacy is still alive, nearly two centuries after the first parts of Greece won independence. The Greek elites mirror the predatory habits of the sultanate, while the citizens act as if evading taxes is a heroic act of revolt against the occupier. “You know what they say about the rotten fish, don’t you? It stinks from the head,” said a restaurant owner who for most of my lifetime has avoided ringing up dinner bills at the cash register.

Those officials and the plutocratic elite have escaped the crisis relatively unscathed. One minister, Akis Tsochadzopoulos, who stole an obscene amount of money from defense contracts, was sentenced to 20 years in jail. For the most part, however, the rich and powerful have been left alone even as small business owners and pensioners have been squeezed by huge tax hikes and massive cuts in benefits. For the vast numbers of Greeks in that category, it’s hard to appreciate why they should be more accountable than the government itself. Even the new tax inspectors sometimes turn out to be on the take, shopowners say, offering to take a bribe in exchange for a lower fine that goes to the treasury.

After Greece instituted tax hikes, demonstrators rallied outside Parliament against the increases, claiming that they were being driven out of business.

PETROS GIANNAKOURIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2013

After Greece instituted tax hikes, demonstrators rallied outside Parliament against the increases, claiming that they were being driven out of business.

Suspicion breeds suspicion, and everyone has a horror story. A doctor who is a family acquaintance told me that he used to be a model citizen, declaring all his income and scrupulously paying taxes. Then, he said, some years ago he was hit with a huge bill by the tax inspector.

“We know you hide 40 percent of your income,” the inspector told him. “So we’ve charged you accordingly.” The doctor promptly stopped reporting his full income, and has been strategically lowballing it ever since.

Academic economists have been fascinated by the persistence of Greek corruption since the reforms. Yannis Ioannides, an economist at Tufts University, and Costas Azariadis, an economist at Washington University in St. Louis, surveyed the topic for a forthcoming book published by MIT. In it, they offer suggestions on stanching the corruption: they’d like to see the government mount a genuine effort to punish wrongdoers at the top, coupled with a robust new independent watchdog agency to catch tax cheats and embezzlers.

Still, they’re not optimistic these measures would change what they call “the entire value system of nihilism and antisocial behavior that parents and schools have allowed to percolate through Greek society.” Research has shown that Greece’s culture of mistrust and cheating is far more extreme than anywhere in Europe. According to surveys, 80 percent of Greeks believe it’s all right to claim government benefits to which they are not entitled, while 20 percent disapprove. In most of Europe, the ratio is almost exactly flipped.

A look around the world doesn’t offer much inspiration that corrupt cultures can mend their ways. There have been some successes: New York’s Tammany Hall was once synonymous with total corruption. So were Hong Kong and Singapore. Time and reform turned them into models of efficiency, relatively speaking, though the latter two are notably undemocratic today. More common are the kinds of marginal improvements seen in places like Rwanda or the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where reformers have steadily improved police, courts, and some other government services but where graft, bribery, and inefficiency are still serious problems.

Some observers argue that Greece’s economic near-death experience wasn’t deadly enough. “People didn’t starve in the streets,” said Yiannis Vlahos, a surgeon who also writes a column for Estia, one of Greece’s oldest newspapers. “We didn’t suffer enough. Now things are a little better and everyone thinks they got away with it.”

His daughter, a marketing executive, lists a litany of banal ignominies visited upon her by the state: she had to take three full days off work to stand in line to register with the Greek tax authorities so she could pay her taxes online. She can’t count on public education or health care for her children, and must instead pay for private schools and doctors. When a neighbor encroached on a family summer home, it took 20 years for the courts to issue a ruling.

“Only one thing has changed,” she said of the reformed Greece. “Now I ask for receipts.”

***

WHEN I WAS A KID in the 1970s, Paros regularly ran out of water during the summer. There was no sewer system, and mosquitoes flourished in the septic tanks whose stench marred the scenic whitewashed alleys. No one had a swimming pool, and most of the roads were unpaved.

Today Paros has a better infrastructure than Beirut, the far more cosmopolitan and wealthy capital city where I live and work. A custom-built miniature garbage truck circulates every morning through the ancient streets, and immigrant workers roam around picking up litter.

After Greece instituted tax hikes, demonstrators rallied outside Parliament against the increases, claiming that they were being driven out of business.

PETROS GIANNAKOURIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2013

After Greece instituted tax hikes, demonstrators rallied outside Parliament against the increases, claiming that they were being driven out of business.

The carpenter drives an Audi and the restaurateurs send their kids to university in Athens or London, but almost everyone I talked to swears to me that they still have to cheat to make ends meet. No amount of unearned money, apparently, will ever be enough.

Jokes aside, it’s obvious that there’s really no such thing as national character—just culture and history. By their nature Americans aren’t less prone to lie, cheat, steal, or kill than people from any other country. Habitual high-scorers on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, like the Scandinavians and Singaporeans, aren’t wired to be more honest than low-scoring North Koreans and Somalis.

Corruption persists because it is a system, and it provides benefits in places where the state does not. Inefficient states create incentives for people to pay bribes to get things done—a building permit, a health department seal of approval, a new passport. Scandinavia is less corrupt than other parts of the world because it’s a better deal to not cheat; you pay really high taxes, but the government really does give you everything you need.

Overcoming corruption, therefore, requires almost unimaginable transformation. You have to build an entirely new system—for instance, a new tax code and incorruptible people to collect the taxes—and you have to convince individuals to completely overhaul their personal behavior and their view of authority. One only has to spend a few weeks in Greece to see why, not just here but in places like India and Afghanistan, this is such a Herculean task.

The resistance lies in institutions, in political cultures, and in expectations that have become deeply ingrained in daily life. Cultures and institutions are made of people; people and policies can both change. But some places, like Greece, have been stuck in these feedback loops of corruption and stagnation for so long—for their entire modern history—that it’s hard to see where the reservoir of a new public morality would come from. You’d have to look back to Pericles, two and a half millennia ago, to find a Greek leader who could claim with a straight face to be “not only a patriot but an honest one.”

The world’s next nations

Posted July 28th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

THE INTERNATIONALIST

The world’s next nations: a brief guide

After Scotland, here’s who’s voting on independence next

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GLOBE STAFF PHOTOILLUSTRATION

 

Surveying our violent and sometimes weird world, it might seem that things change only for the worse. Tensions between Moscow and Washington, with ripple effects across the globe? Check. Iranian ayatollahs fulminating against the Satanic West? Check. Israel and Palestine at war again? Check.

But one historically bloody rite of passage seems to have gotten a lot easier of late: the birth of a nation.

Lately, however, the world has seen some surprisingly smooth independence movements in which the path to statehood has been achieved through voting, not battle. The latest candidate for the new nations club is another British territory: Scotland.

On Sept. 18, Scots will vote whether to withdraw from their union with Britain. Like their 18th-century counterparts in the American Colonies, if they declare independence they will remove bountiful riches from London’s control, in this case probably most of the North Sea oil fields. But in a sign of changing times, the United Kingdom is only striking against the secessionists with words. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to accept the referendum results.

A lot has to go right for an independence vote to take place, and to be honored. A “parent” nation has to be confident enough—or scarred enough by civil infighting—to let go willingly. A breakaway republic needs the resources to survive and prosper on its own. And a stable region helps: South Sudan, the world’s newest country (see sidebar), has already fallen back into the violence that characterized its existence as a persecuted region under the control of Khartoum.

Scotland’s coming vote might be getting all the attention, but there are other countries with independence referendums in the offing. Some are more likely to work out than others; if they do, the world could see a handful of new flags, and also new challenges. Here’s a tour of the new nations you just might be able to visit soon.

Scotland

 

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If it votes for independence on Sept. 18, Scotland will become the newest entrant to the European Union. It’s already a popular tourist destination and an economic powerhouse. If current political trends continue, an independent Scotland will form a leftist, socialist counterpart to a more right-wing England. The Scots have proven more committed to national health care and labor rights than Britain under Conservative rule. Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival has been an alternative cultural mainstay for decades, and Glasgow served as Europe’s Cultural Capital in 1990.

Will it change much? Maybe Scotland will be forced to abandon the pound sterling after three centuries, but an independent Scotland probably won’t look that different. It’s unlikely to sever its relationship to the United Kingdom entirely, like Ireland did. It probably will maintain formal allegiance to the queen, like other former British territories including Australia and Canada. And its economy will remain intertwined with that of England, with whom it will continue to share a common language and island.

Catalonia

 

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The region of Spain that gave us Gaudi, Barcelona, and George Orwell’s best work of reportage has often been an economic basket case, but it’s undeniably beautiful region with an undeniable sense of separate identity. People there proudly speak Catalan, a Romance language as different from Spanish as Portuguese or French, and many refuse to identify as Spanish. Separatist parties won the Catalan regional elections in 2012 and promised to hold an independence vote, now scheduled for Nov. 9.

It’s unclear whether Catalonia could prosper independently; Spain, overall, isn’t doing so well itself. The region has its own manufacturing and finance base, and it remains a popular tourist destination. Unshackled from Spain, Catalonia would be likely to even more boldly embrace its linguistic differences and the region’s more populist politics. Visitors already in thrall to the delicious cuisine, with its famous mixing of pork and seafood, and eclectic architecture, will be able to bask in a romantic storyline of a persistent, stubborn, and maybe even ill-conceived commitment to national independence.

If it votes “yes,” Catalonia’s path forward won’t be smooth: The Spanish government says it won’t honor an independence referendum. Barcelona, the would-be capital, will have to negotiate gingerly with Madrid—which has promised to block the EU membership of not only Catalonia, but also Scotland, for fear of setting a precedent. Catalan leaders are already considering how to go around Spain and appeal for recognition from foreign countries and the United Nations.

If they both dig in, expect a long and strange standoff, but a diplomatic one: It’s almost impossible to imagine contemporary Spain going to war to retain control of its wealthy eastern region.

Western Sahara

 

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This one has been underway for longer than most college students have been alive. A huge, mineral-rich territory almost as large as Morocco itself, Western Sahara stretches south of Morocco along the Atlantic Coast. If it didn’t have generous phosphate deposits to mine, it’s conceivable that its half-million inhabitants would have been left alone when Spain ended its colonial rule in 1975. Instead, Morocco moved in and fought a long war with a local independence group called the Polisario Front. Since 1991, the United Nations has monitored a cease-fire and was mandated to organize an independence referendum to settle Western Sahara’s future.

Some diplomats—perhaps a bit Pollyanna-ish—believe that the vote could finally come to pass in two or three years, and their assumption is that the independence faction would win. Western Sahara has beautiful desertscapes and an undeveloped coastline; it is huge, 100,000 square miles, and mostly uninhabited. It probably wouldn’t join Morocco as a top tourist destination, but its mining industry and natural resources could position it as a relatively wealthy neighbor to Morocco and Algeria, if things go right—or could doom it to the “resource curse” that often mires resource-rich countries in poverty and underdevelopment.

New Caledonia

 

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A French-controlled island in the Pacific, New Caledonia gained renown because of the brutal measures the French undertook to suppress the locals in the 19th century, and later for its critical role as an Allied naval base during World War II. Today it is one of the most prosperous economies in the South Pacific, with healthy agriculture, tourism, and mining sectors. French support has been generous, which might explain why voters rejected independence during a referendum in the 1980s.

Secessionist parties have grown in popularity since, however, and a second vote will be held before 2018. If it succeeds, New Caledonia would join Djibouti, Algeria, and the dozens of former French colonies sprinkled around the globe. France has already said it won’t fight to keep New Caledonia, but it’s not clear whether the island will really cut its ties: Many local opponents of independence believe that when they get to the voting booth, residents won’t want to let go of the French subsidies that would disappear after independence.

Bougainville

 

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A tropical Pacific island currently ruled by Papua New Guinea, Bougainville has a copper mine and about 250,000 inhabitants. Past governments have hired foreign mercenaries to quash secessionist rebellions, but now Bougainville is scheduled to vote on independence between 2015 and 2020 and Papua New Guinea now seems resigned to let the territory go if voters support independence.

Aside from miners, it’s unlikely to attract casual visitors. Like Papua New Guinea, it’s hard to reach. Fun fact: It’s named after the same French navigator as the ubiquitous warm-climate bougainvillea vine.

 

Iraqi Kurdistan

 

One example of the slow-and-steady approach is Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds have ruled their own enclave, more or less free from Baghdad, since 1991. They speak their own language, have their own regional government, and have developed their own oil industry. Kurdistan is its own country for all practical purposes; it even has its own border guards. But it has avoided war and preserved its relations with neighboring Iran and Turkey (which have their own restive Kurdish minorities) by stopping short of declaring independence.

Now, with Iraq’s central government distracted by its war against the jihadi Islamic State, the president of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government this month ordered his parliament to set up an independence referendum. Until recently, Kurdish politicians believed they could never secede without some kind of buy-in from Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, all of which oppose Kurdish independence. But the new turmoil in the region has these governments distracted with more pressing issues, and they might be willing to accept an independent Kurdistan if it means a genuinely stable new neighbor.

If the referendum were to pass, Kurdistan would be a landlocked mountainous territory with stunning mountains and lakes and major oil and natural gas reserves. Compared to its neighbors, Kurdistan has been prosperous and politically coherent, controlled mostly by a few traditional clans who have proven adept at developing the economy and coopting potential challenges from Turkey and Iran by inviting them to invest heavily in Kurdistan’s economic boom. A free Kurdistan would bring to a close a curious irony: one of the Middle East’s most stable countries in recent years has stayed that way by not being a country at all.

The surprising appeal of ISIS

Posted June 29th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

THE INTERNATIONALIST

It’s murderous, intolerant, and dangerous. But the group offers Sunnis something rare in the Middle East: a chance to feel like a citizen.

An ISIS fighter in the city of Mosul last week.

REUTERS

An ISIS fighter in the city of Mosul last week.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, smashed its way into the world’s consciousness earlier this month when it seized Mosul and the Beiji oil refinery in Iraq. Starting last fall, ISIS began imposing its theocratic rule over a wide swath of Syria, then quickly wrested control of the emblematic Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. With the more recent attacks, it menaced the government in Baghdad; it also forced President Obama to reengage with a war from which he thought he had extricated the United States.

In trying to explain ISIS’s rapid success, alarmed observers have pointed to the extreme tactics that drew condemnation even from Al Qaeda: mass executions, beheadings, and crucifixions. Some see local conspiracies, believing Arab governments allowed the group to grow in order to justify their own heavy-handed crackdowns. Others suggest that Shi’ite Iran indirectly funded the movement as part of its own strategy to divide the Sunnis from within.

But that view of ISIS’s success and prospects overlooks one key element. A look at both ISIS’s written edicts and its tactics suggest that the group has gotten one important thing right: It has created a clear—and to some, compelling—idea of citizenship and state-building in a region almost completely bereft of either.

ISIS’s support comes from a direct appeal to Sunni Muslims as a religious and political constituency. It has made clear that it expects people under its power to take an active role in establishing a new Islamic state. And it has enlisted them in a project to assert the power of their religious community over the Shia, who currently dominate the territory from Iran to Lebanon.

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Its idea of statehood is far from the modern Western one, to say nothing of its idea of citizenship; anyone not considered part of ISIS’s goals is subject to death, the more grisly and public the better. But the brutality of ISIS can distract from the way it has offered its constituents something they’ve been denied by the despotic regimes of the region.

During decades of independence, post-colonial Middle Eastern governments have failed to establish national identities strong enough to counter the attraction of violent, intolerant groups that promise members a genuine stake in their own futures. Whether in fractured states like Lebanon, Iraq, and Libya, or strong centralized dictatorships like Egypt and, before its civil war, Syria, Middle Eastern governments have ruled more by force than persuasion, eliciting only shallow loyalty from their people. As repugnant as its tactics are, ISIS offers Sunnis a rare opportunity: a chance, in effect, to be a citizen. Irreconcilable fanatics might form the group’s core membership, but it has attracted broader support in the Sunni community. Understanding that appeal is the key to countering it.

 

THE REBELLIONS that have ripped apart Iraq since 2003 and Syria since 2011 are complex, pitting a confusing patchwork of militias against the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, and often against one another. Even in that tortured context, ISIS stands out for its brutality, its uncompromising theology, and the rapidity of its success.

Originally established in 2004 as Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group changed its name after its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by the US military in 2006. Its current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took over in 2010, and has steadily expanded the group’s power and reach. (Al Qaeda formally disavowed ISIS at the beginning of this year.)

Olivier Roy, a French political scientist and author of several definitive books on political Islam, reflected the consensus on ISIS when he dismissed it as a classic jihadi group. “ISIS is an army of militants, not a political party, nor a social movement,” Roy told The New Republic. “It succeeds because the others failed; and as everywhere it will confront a backlash of the civil society.”

The extensive paper trail that ISIS leaves wherever it goes, however, suggests a more complex and deliberate strategy, combining a typical religious-splinter-group playbook with a genuine interest in building a state and a citizenry.

When ISIS stormed into Mosul in June and sent the Iraqi Army running, it did not begin governing by whim. Rather, it published rules. In a 16-point communiqué signed by the secretive al-Baghdadi, ISIS stated expectations for the local population that were clear, direct, and to the point. Women had to “dress decently” and only go outside “if needed.” Muslims must go to prayers on time, and thieves would have their hands cut off.

These requirements were placed in a larger ideological context. “People tried secular forms of government: republic, Baathist, Safavids,” ISIS declared. “It pained you. Now is time for an Islamic state.”

The decree announced that all Iraqi government property was confiscated and could only be distributed by ISIS leaders. Tribal leaders were warned not to cooperate with the government. Guns and flags were banned. Police and soldiers were instructed to register at special “repentance centers.”

ISIS militants breach the Syrian-Iraqi border, aiming to carve an extremist state out of Sunni-dominated swaths of the two countries.

AFP PHOTO/HO/ALBARAKA NEWS

ISIS militants breach the Syrian-Iraqi border, aiming to carve an extremist state out of Sunni-dominated swaths of the two countries.

In territory under its control, ISIS has followed a methodical script. Once it has established military dominance, it takes over power plants, factories, bakeries, and food supplies. Its lawyers draft modern contracts that spell out the Islamic responsibilities of local organizations that want to work with the displaced. Even its name is telling. Critics address it derisively by its acronym, but ISIS members call it “al-Dawla,” or “the state.”

Like all the movements that have built influence in the region, ISIS asks its constituents to take active responsibility—enforcing moral codes, reporting crime and corruption, spreading the call to God.

“It’s not the old model where the citizen is passive and plays no role,” said Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid, author of the book “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.” “Within certain limits, if you agree to abide by these strict rules, there is an active role for citizens under ISIS.”

In countries where citizens have well-established political rights, this level of participation might seem inconsequential. But in modern Middle Eastern states—where regimes rule through benign neglect or, worse, by deliberately seeking to keep their populations passive and disengaged—even the smallest call to action can feel appealing.

Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have all thrived by mobilizing members around a project and a shared identity. So have smaller groups led by clerics or militants in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Much of the early enthusiasm behind the Egyptian uprising of Jan. 25, 2011, arose from the promise that after decades of effective military dictatorship, Egyptians could finally live as citizens, with both rights and responsibilities.

To Westerners, ISIS’s combination of participatory, grass-roots governance with total rejection of pluralism and democracy can be puzzling. But like the Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda, ISIS draws from the Sunni jihadi tradition, which has always demanded huge commitment and involvement from its followers while excluding everyone else. ISIS takes these concepts to their limits; in its view of sharia, or Islamic law, “heretical” sects like Shia Islam should be eliminated. Christians and Jews would theoretically be allowed to live under ISIS protection as heavily taxed second-class citizens.

That may strike observers as extremism, but in fact, sectarian governance is already the de facto rule in much of the Middle East. To supporters and fellow travelers, the ideology of groups like ISIS can seem like a rare acknowledgment of reality: Ruling parties only pretend to believe in a national identity while actually just enforcing the power of one sect or clique. Iran holds elections, but only to calibrate the balance of power within one faction of the Shia clerical establishment. Iraq is a multi-ethnic democracy that is in practice run by a Shia warlord. Saudi Arabia, the richest and possibly most influential state in the region, is run as a feudal monarchy by a single family that enforces many of the same intolerant religious rules as ISIS.

As a result, ISIS has won support, or at least acceptance, from people who would never identify as extremists. “They’re in control, and they’re no worse than the regime,” said one engineer named Abdullah. He was speaking at the bus station in Kilis, Turkey, where he had brought his family to escape regime bombing in Aleppo. Some of his relatives lived in ISIS-controlled areas, others under the Assad regime, and some, like Abdullah himself, under the less virulently Islamist Free Syrian Army. Abdullah said he didn’t share the views of ISIS but didn’t mind them either. “Their rules are clear. If they leave people alone, it’s not so bad.”

***

 

NIHILIST EXTREMISTS have managed to attract armed followers in corners of the United States, Europe, India, and elsewhere, but they remain nothing more than a violent nuisance when countered by an effective state that commands the loyalty of its citizens. Not so in the Arab world. So far ISIS has bested the armies of Syria and Iraq, which appeared unwilling to fight, and small Syrian militias that have gone head to head with ISIS but are at a colossal disadvantage in funds and firepower.

ISIS hasn’t yet clashed directly with the Shia sectarian militias, like Hezbollah and like the reconstituted Mahdi Army, Badr Brigades, and others in Iraq, which display a similar fanatical sectarian zeal and lack of restraint. It already has some advantages over some of these organizations, however. Unlike Al Qaeda’s vague vision of a borderless world run by extremist jihadis, ISIS has a plan to build a viable state right now. In less than a year it has secured a de facto country, and acquired an arsenal of American weapons as war booty. It has formed alliances with non-jihadi Sunni leaders, including Baathist allies of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And crucially, it has laid out a blueprint for a viable self-funding Islamic state, drawing a steady income instead from a commercial tax base and the crucial energy industry it has captured.

Until the Arab states come up with a counter-appeal, groups like ISIS will continue to rise and peel away the loyalty of their citizens. The obvious solution is a system of Middle Eastern government that grants genuine representation and a national identity to people regardless of sect or ethnicity. Two hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire provided a template that allowed its subjects to live locally within their own religious and ethnic communities while leaving matters of law and commerce to a transnational authority. Fifty years ago, governments flirted with Baathism and Arab Nationalism, both ultimately failed experiments to create a transcendent and unifying ideological identity.

As the region has grown more diverse and its population more educated, its governments have moved in the opposite direction, acting more repressive, intolerant, religious, and antipluralistic. Today, there is not a single alternative vision of citizenship being offered in the region, not even a bad one. Groups like ISIS, or for that matter Hezbollah—which in all other matters is its polar opposite—thrive because they have an idea of what a citizen should do and be.

Today fragmentation and sectarianism seem to have the upper hand, but the regional uprisings that began in 2010 bespoke a widely shared desire to break free of the old categories of identity and the old relationship of omnipotent rulers and passive subjects. Unless those revolutions bear fruit, the people who rose up will face waves and counterwaves of domination from two difficult kinds of masters: tyrants who offer no shot at citizenship, or extremists who offer it to a select religious group on their own violent terms.

What It’s Like to Fight ISIS

Posted June 11th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
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Photo

An image taken from a video uploaded on Sunday by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claiming to show fighters in Tikrit, Iraq. CreditISIL, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Continue reading the main GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The fighters with the Free Syrian Army were expecting an attack any day from the jihadists besieging the city of Minbej in war-torn Syria, fortifying their base, once a carpet factory, with concrete bomb-blast barriers.

But they did not suspect the teenagers pushing a broken-down sedan past the front gate. Then a boy who looked no more than 14 blew up the car and himself, unleashing an assault that killed or wounded nearly 30 rebel fighters and ultimately put the entire city of Minbej under the control of the most extremist jihadi group in the Syrian conflict.

“They call us godless. They attack us from the front, they attack us from the back,” said Sheikh Hassan, the leader of the Free Syrian Army brigade that came under attack.

Map: Where ISIS Is Gaining Control in Iraq and Syria

In doing so, it is simultaneously battling the Syrian and Iraqi governments and Sunni rebels it considers insufficiently committed to Islam. Having seized vast areas of Iraqi territory and several large and strategic cities, including the country’s second-largest, Mosul, it controls territory larger than many countries and now rivals, and perhaps overshadows, Al Qaeda as the world’s most powerful and active jihadist group.

The fighting in Minbej took place six months ago, but the methods the Islamists used so effectively in northern Syria helped set the stage for their blitzkrieg in Mosul, Tikrit and other key Iraqi cities this week.

Detailed descriptions from Sheikh Hassan and his men, along with several other rebels who have been fighting the jihadists for the last six months, paint an unsettling portrait of the formidable jihadist movement.

The group is a magnet for militants from around the world. On videos, Twitter and other media, the group showcases fighters from Chechnya, Germany, Britain and the United States.

Its members are better paid, better trained and better armed even than the national armies of Syria and Iraq, Sheikh Hassan said.

Many of the recruits are drawn by its extreme ideology. But others are lured by the high salaries as well as the group’s ability to consolidate power, according to former members, civilians who have lived under its rule in northern Syria and moderate rebels.

Other rebel groups often squabble with one another while fighting the government. But the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has stayed cohesive while avoiding clashes with the military of Mr. Assad, who seems content to give the group a wide berth while destroying less fundamentalist rebel groups.

In areas that fall under their control, the jihadists work carefully to entrench their rule. They have attracted the most attention with their draconian enforcement of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, including the execution of Christians and Muslims deemed kufar, or infidels.

On a recent Sunday, a steady trickle of civilian refugees from Minbej walked across the border to Turkey. “Thank God we’re free,” said a teenage boy named Ahmed, who had escaped with his family. He was relishing a cigarette, the first he had openly smoked in six months. But he refused to give his family name, because “I.S.I.S. watches everything.”

But the group is not only following a stone-age script. It rapidly establishes control of local resources and uses them to extend and strengthen its grip.

It has taken over oil fields in eastern Syria, for example, and according to several rebel commanders and aid workers, has resumed pumping. It has also secured revenue by selling electricity to the government from captured power plants. In Iraq on Wednesday, the militants seized control of Baiji, the site of Iraq’s largest oil refinery and power plant.

PLAY VIDEO|1:37

ISIS: Behind the Group That Took Mosul

ISIS: Behind the Group That Took Mosul

Background on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Islamist group that appears to be in control of the second-largest city in Iraq.

CreditYaser Al-Khodor/Reuters.

In Minbej, the jihadists initially left bakeries and humanitarian aid groups alone, taking over their operations once they had established military control of the city. The group takes a cut of all humanitarian aid and commerce that passes through areas under its control.

One of the first militia leaders to resist the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Abu Towfik from the Nouredin Zinky Brigade, said that its sophisticated tactics made its fighters hard to dislodge. Since last year, the militant group has fought with tanks captured from the Iraqi military.

Given that tenacity, Abu Towfik said, they will be hard to drive out of the territory they now occupy in northern Syria and Iraq. “I am afraid as time goes on they will spread their extreme ideology and we’ll have a regional war,” he added.

At a meeting of rebel commanders at a Gaziantep Hotel cafe, Abou Sfouk, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Palestine Brigade, brought a prized captive: a former jihadist named Mustafa.

At the beginning of the uprising, Mustafa had fought with Abou Sfouk’s brigade, but he joined the Islamist group in early 2013, when it entered Syria from Iraq, because it offered to triple his salary, starting him at $400 a month.

“Wherever we took territory, we would declare people apostates and confiscate their property,” Mustafa said. “We took cars and money from Christians, and from Muslims we didn’t like.”

Mustafa, a trained bulldozer mechanic, became the “emir of the motor pool.” But he eventually came under suspicion when it became known that he had once served under the kufar, or infidel, rebel army.

After a summary trial before one of the group’s Islamic courts, Mustafa was sentenced to death. A friend helped him escape, and he sought protection with his old brigade commander.

“I would never trust him again,” said his old commander, Abou Sfouk. “But he has useful military information.”

The defector has revealed the locations of Islamist prisons and the identities of the group’s commanders. Many of the top leaders and front-line soldiers come from abroad, but more than half of the membership is made up of Syrian and Iraqi tribesmen, people well known to their relatives and former neighbors now fighting against them.

“We are moderate Muslims,” Sheikh Hassan said. “We will fight anyone who covers themselves in Islam and tries to talk in the name of our religion.”

A graduate of Koranic studies from Damascus University, Sheikh Hassan considers his own credentials impeccable. He learned to fight as a foreign volunteer with Iraqi resistance fighters attacking American soldiers a decade ago.

Now, he said, he is desperate for more American help as he wages a war against jihadists with whom he once shared a struggle. “There is a hole between us,” he said with a shrug. “We will have to kill them. But we’re humane. We won’t cut their throats; we will shoot them.”

Could Aid to Syria Be Prolonging War?

Posted June 1st, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

 

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BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE 2012

The Oncupinar refugee camp in Kilis, near Turkey’s border with Syria.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas]

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — In a provincial town previously known for its nuts, Byzantine fortress, and Ottoman souk, shiny trailers now nestle among the pistachio groves. Smugglers, businessmen, Western aid workers, and Turkish police greet each other with warm familiarity. Hundreds of trucks loaded with food baskets, tents, and other essentials hurtle out of town every day, headed for the nearby Kilis crossing on the rebel-controlled border to Syria.

In 2012, as the Syrian civil war escalated into the deadliest conflict of our day, a pop-up humanitarian aid city sprang up here virtually overnight. There’s a sparkling refugee camp and a busy shuttle bus service for Syrians; an army of humanitarian workers operates hundreds of millions of dollars worth of programs out of offices kitted out with particleboard furniture. Syrian aid workers can attend their choice of international “capacity building” conferences, which teach them human-resources tricks while doubling as rest and relaxation from the war that is gutting their country.

The town has become a showcase for a generation’s worth of learning about wartime aid. After the wars in Darfur, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, aid groups and the governments that fund them refined their approaches, drawing lessons and crafting new tactics. As a result, messy as the Syrian conflict is, aid here has been a considerable success. International groups have continued to deliver vital food to areas that have switched hands over and over. Building on past experience with the Taliban, they’ve figured out how to help people living under the rule of militant Al Qaeda offshoots. Though an estimated 160,000 have died, the famine and epidemics predicted early in the conflict have, so far, failed to materialize.

Even so, many Syrians are still deeply unhappy with the aid effort here. “What is happening here will be a black mark for the world. It has nothing to do with humanitarianism,” said Sheikh Towfik, a lifelong farmer in Aleppo Province who since the war began has commanded an antigovernment militia called the Noureddin Zinky Brigade.

Syrian refugee children in a classroom at Kilis refugee camp near the Turkish border in June 2012.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Syrian refugee children in a classroom at Kilis refugee camp near the Turkish border in June 2012.

At the source of the tension is the political decision by the most important aid power of them all, the gargantuan United Nations agencies, to work with only one side of the conflict: the government of Bashar Assad. To preserve access to the Syrian capital of Damascus and avoid the risk of retribution, the UN aid agencies abide by Assad’s rules inside Syria, funneling funds through his bureaucracy and delivering aid only to the areas he permits.

Aid groups always face criticism in conflicts and natural disasters, the most piercing often from within their own ranks. But in Syria, the relatively effective technical response has intensified the focus on the political calculations of the aid industry and its overarching impact on the conflict. Even aid that seems impartial, like the food and blankets distributed by Western groups over the Turkish border, arguably extends the war, by taking good enough care of civilians that militants and the government are free to pour their resources into fighting.

What’s happening in Syria raises the unsettling question of whether humanitarian aid, in the largest sense, could actually sometimes do harm. Critics who study the aid industry point out that for all the short-term relief it provides, the flow of aid money can also help prop up warlords and militia leaders. And the more professionalized and better-funded the aid industry becomes, the more it can help prolong the very conflicts it is supposed to alleviate.

***

WARTIME AID as we understand it today has its roots in World War II. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees was established in response to the catastrophic displacement of millions of people across Europe, while Red Cross and Red Crescent societies expanded their reach and ambitions as well. By the 1970s, after the well-chronicled famine of the Biafran War in Nigeria, a host of smaller agencies and independent organizations sprang up to work with refugees, child soldiers, women, and others affected by conflict.

Under international law, humanitarian aid rests on the principle that people have a universal right to food, shelter, health care, and education even during a time of war. All the United Nations powers formally agree on this principle—even Russia, which this year used the threat of a Security Council veto to remove the enforcement provision from a resolution supporting equal access to civilians in all parts of Syria. This broad rights umbrella dictates that unarmed refugees should be free to leave conflict zones, and that neutral aid workers should be allowed unfettered access to provide medical care and deliver aid independently of combatant groups.

In real life, however, no one in a war zone can operate without regard for the people who carry the weapons. Aid workers, like everyone else, have to negotiate for access, and the more powerful the fighting groups, the more they may try to manipulate aid agencies and co-opt the flow of resources to their own ends.

Syrian refugees at the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GETTYIMAGES

Syrian refugees at the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey.

In Syria, the Assad government declared from the beginning that it would deal only with groups that agreed to “respect Syria’s sovereignty” and avoid working in rebel areas. In the early years of the conflict, when the regime was on the verge of collapsing, it overlooked some aid groups that operated on both sides. But as Assad regained his footing he began to enforce the rules more aggressively, and today any aid group or individual who enters Syria through a rebel border crossing is blacklisted by the regime. In Syria, this has resulted in a stark split, in which aid groups must choose to serve only one side of the conflict: either the regime areas, reached from Damascus, or rebel areas, reached from Gaziantep and nearby towns along the Turkish border.

In May, the aid group Mercy Corps—one of the only groups still helping civilians on both sides of the conflict—was given an ultimatum by Assad: Stop working in rebel-held areas, or be evicted from Damascus. Reluctantly, Mercy Corps officials said, they closed their Damascus operation, which reached fewer people and had less freedom than the independent operation from Turkey. The message resonated with the rest of the aid community: Syria wouldn’t hesitate to kick out an aid agency even if it meant, in the case of Mercy Corps, depriving 350,000 people of help.

The major player in aid, however, has chosen Damascus: the United Nations, whose UNHCR and World Food Program account for the lion’s share of global humanitarian aid. When the war in Syria escalated in 2012 and the number of displaced reached 1 million, the UN expanded its small existing presence in Damascus to deliver aid to hungry or displaced people in areas under the regime’s control. (The UN had a Damascus operation in place to deal with refugees from the war in Iraq, and political staff handling negotiations between Assad and the West.)

International law ran squarely up against the demands of the Assad regime, which insisted it would expel the UN from the entire country if it worked in areas controlled by groups the regime considered “terrorists.” The stakes were high: Banned from Damascus, the UN would not only lose the ability to reach at least half the population, but it would be unable to conduct diplomacy between the regime, the opposition, and international powers. UN personnel feared harassment or violent retribution from the regime if they begin working on both sides of the conflict; some also saw the foothold in Damascus, and the relationship with the regime, as crucially important in the long run if Assad wins the civil war.

As a result, billions of dollars worth of supplies now go to areas designated by Assad; the president can essentially order the UN to send supplies to areas filled with his supporters or funnel it through Syrian nonprofits controlled by his allies. He can also cut off aid where he sees fit. The government routinely blocks food deliveries to the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp, according to UN reports, creating a sustained emergency there.

A drinking water tank in the refugee camp nicknamed Container City in Oncupinar, Turkey.

CHRISTIAN MARQUARDT/GETTY IMAGES

A drinking water tank in the refugee camp nicknamed Container City in Oncupinar, Turkey.

“It’s insane. The United Nations is supporting a regime which is committing war crimes,” says Osama Kadi, director of the Syrian rebels’ Assistance Coordination Unit, which secures Western grants for local governance groups around Syria.

By humanitarian estimates, about half all Syrians, and two-thirds of those in need, live outside of regime control—and thus have no access to UN help. This means that a patchwork of aid groups is responsible for millions of displaced Syrians in the country’s north. Independent groups like Mercy Corps, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Doctors Without Borders have set up shop in Turkey and Northern Syria, navigating among dozens of armed groups, from Al Qaeda to the Syrian army, to help civilians in areas where rebels have pushed out the government.

They run food and emergency winterization programs to make sure those who were pushed out of their homes inside Syria were able to survive. (The UN estimates 6.5 million Syrians are displaced inside the country, and another 2.5 million have fled across the border.) In many ways, their effort has become a model for how to do wartime aid right: The Turkish government set up refugee camps near the border that are so clean and well organized that Syrians call them “five-star camps.” When polio broke out, international organizations collaborated with a Syrian opposition group and a network of Syrian medical volunteers to organize a vaccination campaign, still ongoing. Think tanks have sprung up in Gaziantep to assist the humanitarian response.

But to be effective, the groups also need to work with some unsavory local players, just as the UN has to work with Assad. Independent aid groups are delivering food and tents in areas controlled by local warlords, Al Qaeda, and even the ultra-extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has declared war on Al Qaeda for being too moderate. They have invested considerable resources and training in local civilian Syrian groups who are supposed to be able to operate in the war zone independently of the different militias. But there are no peacekeepers or neutral guards to protect them.

***

FOR ALL ITS SUCCESSES, the Syrian conflict highlights a systemic problem that is becoming only more acute as aid becomes more professionalized and more effective. In principle, humanitarian aid represents an independent international effort based on universal norms. In practice, it’s an industry that has to work in the world’s most dangerous environments, in uneasy cooperation with precisely the regimes and militants causing the conflict.

On the UN side, it’s clear that the heavy flow of aid to areas selected for government largesse allows Bashar Assad to harness foreign aid as another patronage stream. On the other side, independent aid to civilians in areas under the control of warlords or Al Qaeda-style extremists effectively buttresses their local power. On balance, the flow of aid greatly favors Assad: For a sense of comparative scale, last year the Syrian political opposition’s humanitarian budget was $44 million, while the American and European international aid groups run several hundred million worth of programs; the UN’s humanitarian aid budget for the Syria crisis in 2014 is $4.2 billion.

As the aid industry grows, critics have become concerned that it is helping prolong the conflict it’s supposed to relieve. On a political level, the more effective the humanitarian aid, the easier it is for Western superpowers to contain the humanitarian spillover and ignore the conflict itself. In a recent study, a Harvard and a Yale economist found that an increase in food aid directly correlates with an increase in violence and the length of civil conflicts.

No one can quantify whether the huge flow of UN aid to Syria has conclusively tipped the balance in Assad’s favor, but many policy analysts believe it has bought him considerable breathing room. They also point out that it is profoundly inconsistent, at best, for the United States and other governments to fund aid programs that are effectively under the control of a dictator who they are also trying to indict for war crimes.

Aid organizations and the UN have struggled with this dilemma before: They had to negotiate access to southern Sudan with the dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was later indicted for war crimes. In Afghanistan, they’ve dealt for decades with health care, education, and food programs in areas where the Taliban sometimes tolerates and other times targets aid workers.

In Syria, however, the political conflict is perhaps starker than it has ever been. UN aid is going through a regime that has plenty of its own resources to provide food and health care to its citizens, and the aid is largely directed away from where it’s most needed.

Not even the fiercest critics of the aid establishment would say that wartime aid should cease. Even the rebel commanders most incensed about the imbalance said in interviews that everyone deserved an equal share. “The answer isn’t to stop aid,” one commander said in an interview. “The answer is to give the same amount to everyone.”

But when it comes to how that is supposed to happen, answers are scarce. Tellingly, a recent UN Security Council resolution upheld the principle that access to aid should be equal throughout Syria—but didn’t include any enforcement mechanism. Every decision about access carries such urgent life-or-death consequences for both the recipients and aid workers that it has been hard to have a serious debate about the implications.

After decades of practice, the aid community has shown that it’s made great strides in overcoming the technical challenges to helping people during wartime. But the debate over “how” has submerged other questions—including where the limits should be, and at what point an environment or a regime becomes so noxious that the aid community, or more importantly the UN, would decide to pull out. It’s easy to agree that the aid community must do anything it can to help a starving family or a sick child. It’s harder to confront the prospect that a clean, well-run aid village could be the very thing that allows the war over the border to continue.

Despite Strategic Convergence, Israel-Egypt Ties Face Tactical Strains

Posted April 30th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Briefing for World Politics Review.]

Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011 sent waves of anxiety coursing through the Israeli establishment. By mid-February, a close partner had been deposed in Cairo, and popular Egyptian sentiment demanded a tough, polemical line against Israel: no more gas deals, no security cooperation, no political collaboration. The strategic relationship reached its nadir that fall, when a crowd in September stormed the Israeli Embassy while the Egyptian military stood by. A phone call from Washington was required to resolve that crisis, prompting the Egyptians to intervene before any Israelis were injured.

Fast-forward to today, and the Israel-Egypt strategic relationship appears to be back on the same consistent if occasionally bumpy track it followed for most of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power.

Egypt is poised for another round of outright military rule, this time by retired Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a strongman who for now can ignore public opinion along with complicating factors like political parties and open dissent. Moreover, el-Sissi, expected to sweep to the presidency in elections May 26-27, appears to hate Islamists as much as Israel does; under his management, Egypt has pursued the Muslim Brotherhood perhaps more intensively than Israel has gone after Hamas.

But beneath the surface, significant factors are tugging at the relationship. Unless it is renegotiated, it is likely to suffer from continued strategic drift, tactical challenges and political misunderstandings. Strategically, leaders in Egypt and Israel will have to articulate whether they see their partnership as a union of minority regimes against Islamist masses, or whether there is a broader and more compelling basis for the partnership. Tactically, both countries desperately need a more effective way to get a grip on the Sinai Peninsula. And politically, both governments will find the relationship under increasing pressure because of public opposition and strains with Washington, which provides the relationship’s ballast and cornerstone.

Strategically, the relationship between Egypt and Israel revolves around a shared interest in managing rather than resolving the Palestinian question. The two states also share a common aversion to Islamist politics, and, except during the short-lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, both have viewed the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as a threat. These shared interests drive the Israel-Egypt relationship more than does the military aid from Washington that grew out of the Camp David Accords, which amounted to $3.1 billion to Israel and $1.5 billion to Egypt last year. Today, the security establishments of both Israel and Egypt view their U.S. subsidies as an earned right rather than a bribe, and would continue to see shared interests between their countries in the unlikely event that U.S. aid payments ceased. Nevertheless, a shared aversion to Islamists and a common line of credit from a U.S. government widely disparaged in both Egypt and Israel is hardly a robust basis for a strategic partnership.

The tactical problems multiply the pressure. Israel needs a quiet border with Egypt and can still rely on the Egyptian army to act as an ally rather than an enemy. But the Egyptian state has proved incapable of either pacifying or modernizing Sinai, and often engages in behavior that intensifies the threat from the region. Egypt’s current counterinsurgency campaign on the peninsula is a case in point; so far it has radicalized and alienated even more of Sinai’s inhabitants while doing little to curb the violent jihadist groups that have armed and trained there and launched attacks from the peninsula into the rest of Egypt as well as Gaza and Israel. A quiet Sinai is something Egypt wants and simply cannot deliver. This failure creates real security pressure for Egypt and Israel both.

Finally, political accountability within each state serves as a strong countervailing pressure against the relationship between them. In Israel, an increasingly right-wing public expresses skepticism of the “cold peace” with Israel’s Arab partners in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt. In Egypt, public sentiment runs strongly against the relationship with Israel and in favor of a Palestinian state. Outside of the security establishment, few Egyptians see any reason to provide help to Israel; they oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, and they see no direct dividends to Egypt for its support of Israel. 

Politically, Israel’s maximalist stance toward the Palestinians makes it all but impossible for an Arab leader to enjoy an amicable and open relationship with Israel; only undemocratic leaders who are not concerned with domestic accountability can do so. Today Egypt’s relationship with Israel depends on stifling Egyptian public opinion, which remains unconvinced of the utility of a peace treaty entering its fourth decade.

For now, the security establishments of Egypt and Israel still cooperate closely. But profound distrust has flared on both sides, among both the public and the political elite. Both governments need to find a more compelling basis for the relationship and do more legwork to create a narrative of public support, especially in Egypt. If not, the relationship will continue to degrade, fueling illiberalism and authoritarianism while delivering diminishing returns in military cooperation and anti-jihadi operations. 

Israel and Egypt are not likely to return to the state of conflict between them that lasted from 1948 until 1978. But the dysfunctional relationship has relied excessively on secretive military-military contacts, which have failed to make headway on the most pressing security concern that joins Egypt and Israel. The storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in 2011 was a prelude to today’s implosion in Sinai, which affects Egypt even more than Israel. If the two governments can’t find a way to manage this shared threat, it augurs poorly for the prospects for cooperation in the future.

Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation. His next book, “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” chronicles political activism after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and will be published in January.

Musk Lemons

Posted April 29th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Family,Writing

Moskolemonia

Last week on Paros, we finally had the chance to prune my grandmother’s lemon tree. It hasn’t been trimmed in my adult life, and had sprouted branches around itself, tying a Gordian knot in citrus. Its top branches sprawled onto the neighbor’s second-story roof. Wasps had made nests in the shoots prodding into our kitchen veranda.

Kids-lemon tree 2013These lemons exude lemonness. Friends here call them moskolemonia, musk lemons, because their flavor and odor is so powerful and sweet. They’re not Meyer lemons, but they’re not the regular species either. Their peel grows thicker than a grapefruit’s, and even in miniscule quantities their zest can overwhelm a dish. When I futz around the tree, its scent imbues my skin and clothes for the remainder of the day.

According to my uncle Dimitri, the tree was already there in his childhood, dating its birth to sometime before 1940. I know next to nothing about the lifespan of citrus trees, but this gnarled old tree certainly looks that old. Some of the small upper branches that I cut had more than 20 rings.

cropped lemonia branchesI began the pruning surgery last August. Workmen did a third round this winter, and after Easter I finished what I could reach. The limbs that we sawed off filled the courtyard four times over.

I salvaged about 15 kilos of lemons from the trimmed branches. The kids helped me gather the fruit that fell to the ground. What to do with them? Even if they’re among the best lemons around, everywhere this time of year lemon branches hang low with unclaimed ripened fruit.

Lemon harvest 2014If life gives you an excess of lemons, make lemon sorbet.

We took them to Dimitris, the artisanal gelato maker of Paroikia. He graciously agreed to turn them into ice cream. When he found out when we planned to leave, he promised to turn it around overnight. He and his family spent the evening squeezing Yiayia Zabio’s lemons.

Precisely half an hour before our boat was scheduled to leave Paros, he trundled up to his shop on the market road to Ekatontapiliani, pushing a dolly stacked  with Styrofoam coolers. One held a tray of the fresh sorbet.

Irini serves the sorbetIt tasted better than any I’ve ever tried, and I don’t think it was only because of their provenance. Already, though, the flavor on my tongue is a feeble memory and I can’t quite describe the odor of that lemon musk on my skin. But the story gains clarity with each telling.

Days later the kids are still talking about Yiayia Zabio’s lemons, which six years after her death produced a sweet far more delicious than the Nescafe-infused frozen condensed milk she used to make for us. They intuitively grasp the nourishing power of narrative. The ice cream, they ate matter-of-factly. Its tale they shared with considerably more gusto.

Family eats the sorbet

How can America really promote democracy abroad?

Posted April 28th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Of all the authoritarian Arab states researchers studied, only one now meets the standards of electoral democracy.

 Of all the authoritarian Arab states researchers studied, only one now meets the standards of electoral democracy.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

MODERN DEMOCRACY tends to come with a strong evangelical spirit. If voting and personal liberty are good for us, the thinking goes, surely they’re worth spreading to the world as well.

The foreign policy driven by this belief is known as “democracy promotion,” and has long been an explicit goal of Western governments. At least since the 1950s, institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have aimed to promote democratic values in the economic and political life of developing countries.

The favored method is a top-down approach: Democracy-promotion groups funnel money to nascent political parties and help train people to run the institutions considered central to democracy, from elections commissions to associations for judges and lawyers. Western advisers push democratic ideas and try to strengthen local civic organizations. Then, when the opportunity for a new government arises, the wisdom goes, we have only to step back and watch citizens embrace it.

Tunisian voters lined up at a polling station in Menzeh, near Tunis.

AMINE LANDOULSI/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2011

Tunisian voters lined up at a polling station in Menzeh, near Tunis.

 

It may sound naive to think you can midwife societal change or transplant political ideals, but this method has long been almost universally accepted among policy makers. Even those lukewarm in their support for democracy promotion itself have believed it can work this way.

Then came the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. America and other Western nations had been working for decades and investing hundreds of millions of dollars to support a vast network of pro-democracy organizations across the Arab world. Based on prevailing theories, once protests started to shake one authoritarian government after another, the popular momentum should have been unstoppable.

Instead, the results have been dismal. In nearly every case—arguably, the only exception is Tunisia—the countries that rose up against dictators ended up less democratic than they began. Now, armed with new case studies from the Arab uprisings, a group of contrarian political scientists is arguing for a radical reconsideration of the whole notion of how to spread democracy to other nations—or if it’s even possible at all.

“We should be much more humble about what the best possible outcomes are,” said Tarek Masoud, a political scientist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who recently coauthored a study of the Arab transitions titled “Why the Modest Harvest?” The study, which took a systematic look at the results of the Arab Spring, concluded that the authoritarian regimes enjoyed a structural stability that no amount of Western-funded political idealism was likely to displace.

Masoud, once a believer in traditional democracy promotion, has become a vociferous new critic of its tactics and ambitions. Based on his research, he has come to believe that a more effective approach would be to focus on the underlying conditions that allow democracies to flourish—skipping the election coaching and party-building in favor of basics like education, health, and economic growth. If it means working with nondemocratic regimes to help get there, and giving up our vision of democracy sweeping out tyranny at the first opportunity, so be it. “Maybe in a place like Syria or Libya,” he said, “the best possible outcome is one in which the old regime is at the table.”

Masoud and other skeptics aren’t ideologues. They profess a deep personal preference for democratic rule, and sympathize with oppressed peoples who oppose tyranny. But, they say, our desire to see freedom spread has been clouding our judgment about what actually allows it to take root.

 

ALTHOUGH MODERN democracy promotion has ideological roots in the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union competing for influence in smaller countries around the world, by the 1980s it began to be accepted as a common-sense investment in human well-being. As an increasing number of nations climbed the economic ladder, and some replaced authoritarian regimes with democratic ones, most political scientists came to agree that bolstering civil society and good governance helped bring about both prosperity and democratic rule.

This dominant school of thought is called “voluntarism,” and it is fundamentally optimistic: It assumes that individual actions can change the course of nations, and that democracy can be nurtured by giving the right skills to promising leaders and activists. Duke political scientist Timur Kuran, in a highly influential 1991 paper on the Eastern European revolutions, put forth the notion of “cascades.” In a fear-based dictatorship everyone hides their opposition, he wrote, but if one or a few courageous individuals take a public stand, they might suddenly be joined by great waves of supporters emboldened to reveal their preferences.

In policy terms, the conventional wisdom on democracy promotion has translated into billions of cumulative foreign-aid dollars earmarked for programs that train everything from young journalists to labor organizers to members of parliament. The underlying assumption is that even when they don’t lead directly to democracy, these efforts are good for society, and from time to time they’ll yield a great leap forward in freedom.

While it started with national governments and intergovernmental organizations, democracy promotion has grown into an industry of its own. High profile groups funded by the US government, like the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, have became ubiquitous on the international scene. They help design elections, train political parties, and give advice to student groups and labor unions. A plethora of less-well-known organizations fund workshops and international travel for lawyers, human rights advocates, and community organizers.

Although George W. Bush talked about democracy more pointedly than Barack Obama, the amount of money invested in democracy promotion has steadily grown even under the current administration, according to Thomas Carothers, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Today, Carothers estimates, about $10 billion a year is spent worldwide promoting democracy in countries from Iraq to Mongolia, from Honduras to Pakistan.

At the time that the Arab uprisings broke out in late 2010, Masoud says, he was firmly persuaded by the conventional wisdom about democratization and transitions. Buoyed by the brave actions of so many individual activists and politicians across the Arab world, he expected to see the dictatorships replaced by a wave of democratic, or at least more democratic, regimes. Even in the worst cases, most scholars and policy makers assumed, surviving authoritarian regimes would be held to new standards and forced to govern more transparently.

Of course, that is not what happened. Instead of falling like dominoes, most of the Arab regimes prevented or crushed popular uprisings. In cases like Egypt, where longstanding president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, the current military regime has turned out to be even more repressive.

Masoud and two fellow political scientists studied 14 Arab states under authoritarian rule and found that in the end only Tunisia experienced an unequivocal improvement on the democracy scale. Elsewhere, within a few years of the revolts, even countries that had appeared promising, like Egypt, Syria, and Libya, were headed in a negative direction, their hopeful democratic movements having crashed against an immovable structural obstacle.

What made the difference? Masoud and his fellow researchers found that the biggest determinant of whether authoritarian regimes survived had nothing to do with civil society, individual protest leaders, or even the workings of the political system. The calculus turned out to be much simpler. As long as regimes had sufficient money and loyal security forces, they seemed able to ward off any pressure to democratize, regardless of whether they were monarchies or republics, or whether they were endowed with oil wealth. Though Western countries had spent enormous money and effort to support the development of democratic institutions in these places, this factor seemed to make little difference.

So what does help democracies take root? Even amid the mass support for the voluntarism theory, there’s always been a contrarian school of thought. “Modernization theory” argues that for any democracy to thrive, economic development must come first—and that the most useful way to encourage struggling countries is to help them improve literacy, per-capita GDP, and other benchmarks economists use to measure human development levels. Once a country is wealthy enough, better institutions, governance, laws, and political systems can take root and thrive. An influential 1997 paper by NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski argued that wealth didn’t cause democracy—the prosperous but authoritarian nation of Singapore shows that clearly enough—but in wealthy states that achieved democracy, the new order tended to hold.

For Masoud and other critics, the Arab uprisings made this view suddenly far more persuasive. The failures there couldn’t be blamed on lack of desire or exposure to democratic ideas. Rather, they pointed toward structural factors that had nothing to do with civic groups or courageous individuals.

Once the dust had settled on the Arab uprisings, Masoud began a separate research project comparing conditions in the Arab world to other nations that successfully made a transition to democracy, measuring literacy, per capita GDP, and other indicators of modern development. The results were striking. Egypt, he found, had literacy levels comparable to England in 1850, long before universal suffrage there. And Egypt’s per capita GDP wasn’t even where Argentina’s was in 1970, when that country embarked on a final round of dictatorial rule before emerging as a democracy.

It was this lack of wealth and development, Masoud concluded, that is currently impeding democracy in the Arab world. No one knows what causes democracy to break out, but Masoud believes the evidence shows what’s necessary to sustain it: an advanced economy. Otherwise, strong authoritarian regimes will be able to rebound even after a brief bout of democracy, just as has happened in Egypt.

 

MASOUD AND HIS two coauthors—political scientists Andrew Reynolds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jason Brownlee at the University of Texas at Austin—have expanded their research into a book to be released this fall, which takes a deeper look at the structures that enable or prevent new, more democratic politics.

Though the three differ in their prescriptions for US policy, they all agree that the prevailing expectations for our abilities to seed change are unrealistic. “We need to recognize that there is a historical time to these processes that can take generations,” Brownlee said. “There’s an impulse to want to accelerate these processes, to think that because we’re in the 21st century things move more quickly.”

Reynolds has spent decades designing new electoral systems for nations in transition; currently he’s helping to set up a regional parliament in a new semi-autonomous zone of the Philippines. The Arab revolts have made him “more pessimistic” about democracy support, he said. Now, he thinks only limited assistance can work. Instead of the vague and sprawling complex of democracy promotion programs we currently fund, he suggests, we should invest in technical help in situations where local powers have already agreed to do something.

Masoud, the most skeptical of the three, sees the policy implications as quite stark. The United States should preserve small, values-based programs, he says, like promoting human rights and opposing torture, in the hope of encouraging small but tangible improvements even in authoritarian countries. But we should dispense entirely with the fiction that our policies can bring about democracy directly. Not only doesn’t it work, he says, but it gives a false expectation of US support to antiregime activists challenging despots in places like Syria or Ukraine.

Not everyone is rallying to their position. Eva Bellin, a political scientist across town at Brandeis, looked at the Arab Spring and came to exactly the opposite conclusion: that ideology and individual choice really did matter, at least in Egypt and Tunisia. Once a dedicated believer in the importance of modernization, she has effectively switched places with Masoud in the debate. “The events of the last three years in the Arab world have persuaded me of the crucial importance of individual choice,” Bellin said. “As my 17-year-old daughter tells me, I have embraced the old ‘great man in history’ approach.”

There’s also an argument that we simply can’t tell how well democracy-promotion efforts work, since they’re always happening in the context of other foreign policy operations as well—some of them working at cross-purposes, and at a much larger scale. In Egypt, for example, the United States spends a few millions on overt democracy-promotion efforts, supporting civil society groups that monitor the regime’s abuses of human rights, while simultaneously giving billions to support the same repressive regime as a political ally. In Iran, the United States aims to empower citizens to challenge the ayatollahs in street demonstrations and on Twitter, but at the same time impoverishes them through economic sanctions. In Bahrain, which depends on a US naval base for military protection, the United States stood aside while the government violently crushed its pro-democracy movement in 2011, apparently deciding the security relationship trumped its interest in nudging a nation toward democracy.

It may be, as Masoud suggests, that international democracy training programs amount to well-intentioned but ineffectual junkets. But there is another possible reading of this complicated picture as well. When those unexpected jumps toward democracy do happen—in Mongolia in 1990, Indonesia in 1998, Tunisia in 2011, Burma’s halting moves toward democracy today—it’s surely because of a web of factors.

It may be that we need to put more money into basic development for authoritarian countries—education, health, and so on—and put less faith in our ability to promote democracy directly. But it may be premature to cut off democracy promotion efforts as sharply as their harshest critics suggest. In the mysterious and complex picture of what leads countries toward democracy, it seems that we’re still figuring out which tools actually work. Until we do, it may not pay to get rid of the one that probably does the least harm.

Alaa Abdel Fattah on this moment of suspended hope

Posted April 1st, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Alaa on DN!

Alaa Abdel Fattah has been one of the most interesting thinkers and actors of the Egyptian revolution. He knows politics, history and street activism, and he’s put his body and his mind fully into the struggle against authoritarianism for his entire life. He’s not always right, but he never has stopped thinking strategically and philosophically about the revolution, with  a sincere willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them. He’s done so at every juncture in good faith and with an unerring moral compass. (I think along with Amr Hamzawy he’s been unique in trying to think in historical-political terms while also partaking directly in the struggle.) Fresh out of prison, he talked to Sherif Abdel Kouddous on Democracy Now! yesterday. The whole hour is worth listening to, but I was drawn to Alaa’s final comments about why he uses the word “defeat”:

But for it to be a revolution, you have to have a narrative that brings all the different forms of resistance together, and you have to have hope. You know, you have to be—it has to be that people are mobilizing, not out of desperation, but out of a clear sense that something other than this life of despair is possible. And that’s, right now, a tough one, so that’s why right now I talk about defeat. I talk about defeat because I cannot even express hope anymore, but hopefully that’s temporary.

What line did Putin cross in Crimea?

Posted March 30th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Putin-crossing-the-line

[The Internationalist column published in the The Boston Globe Ideas.]

WHAT HAPPENED IN UKRAINE over the past month left even veteran policy-watchers shaking their heads. One day, citizens were serving tea to the heroic demonstrators in Kiev’s Euromaidan, united against an authoritarian president. Almost the next, anonymous special forces fighters in balaclavas were swarming Crimea, answering to no known leader or government, while Europe and the United States grasped in vain for ways to influence events.

Within days, the population of Crimea had voted in a hastily organized referendum to join Russia, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had signed the annexation treaty formally absorbing the strategic peninsula into his nation.

As the dust settles, Western leaders have had to come to terms not only with a new division of Ukraine, but its unsettling implications for how the world works. Part of the shock is in Putin’s tactics, which blended an old-fashioned invasion with some degree of democratic process within the region, and added a dollop of modern insurgent strategies for good measure.

Vladimir Putin at the Plesetsk cosmodrome launch site in northern Russia.

Vladimir Putin at the Plesetsk cosmodrome launch site in northern Russia./PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE VIA REUTERS

 

But when policy specialists look at the results, they see a starker turning point. Putin’s annexation of the Crimea is a break in the order that America and its allies have come to rely on since the end of the Cold War—namely, one in which major powers only intervene militarily when they have an international consensus on their side, or failing that, when they’re not crossing a rival power’s red lines. It is a balance that has kept the world free of confrontations between its most powerful militaries, and which has, in particular, given the United States, as the most powerful superpower of all, an unusually wide range of motion in the world. As it crumbles, it has left policymakers scrambling to figure out both how to respond, and just how far an emboldened Russia might go.

***

“WE LIVE IN A DIFFERENT WORLD than we did less than a month ago,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in March. Ukraine could witness more fighting, he warned; the conflict could also spread to other countries on Russia’s borders.

Up until the Crimea crisis began, the world we lived in looked more predictable. The fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter century ago ushered in an era of international comity and institution building not seen since the birth of the United Nations in 1945. International trade agreements proliferated at a dizzying speed. NATO quickly expanded into the heart of the former Soviet bloc, and lawyers designed an International Criminal Court to punish war crimes and constrain state interests.

Only small-to-middling powers like Iran, Israel, and North Korea ignored the conventions of the age of integration and humanitarianism—and their actions only had regional impact, never posing a global strategic threat. The largest powers—the United States, Russia, and China—abided by what amounted to an international gentleman’s agreement not to use their military for direct territorial gains or to meddle in a rival’s immediate sphere of influence. European powers, through NATO, adopted a defensive crouch. The United States, as the world’s dominant military and economic power, maintained the most freedom to act unilaterally, as long as it steered clear of confrontation with Russia or China. It carefully sought international support for its military interventions, even building a “Coalition of the Willing” for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was not approved by the United Nations. The Iraq war grated at other world powers that couldn’t embark on military adventures of their own; but despite the irritation the United States provoked, American policymakers and strategists felt confident that the United States was obeying the unspoken rules.

If the world community has seemed bewildered by how to respond to Putin’s moves in Crimea over the last month, it’s because Russia has so abruptly interrupted this narrative. Using Russia’s incontestable military might, with the backing of Ukrainians in a subset of that country, he took over a chunk of territory featuring the valuable warm-water port of Sevastopol. The boldness of this move left behind the sanctions and other delicate moves that have become established as persuasive tactics. Suddenly, it seemed, there was no way to halt Russia without outright war.

Some analysts say that Putin appears to have identified a loophole in the post-Cold War world. The sole superpower, the United States, likes to put problems in neat, separate categories that can be dealt with by the military, by police action or by international institutions. When a problem blurs those boundaries—pirates on the high seas, drug cartels with submarines and military-grade weapons—Western governments don’t know what to do. Today, international norms and institutions aren’t configured to react quickly to a legitimate great power willing to use force to get what it wants.

“We have these paradigms in the West about what’s considered policing, and what’s considered warfare, and Putin is riding right up the middle of that,” said Janine Davidson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US Air Force officer who believes that Putin’s actions will force the United States to update its approach to modern warfare. “What he’s doing is very clever.”

For obvious reasons, a central concern is how Putin might make use of his Crimean playbook next. He could, for example, try to engineer an ethnic provocation, or a supposedly spontaneous uprising, in any of the near-Russian republics that threatens to ally too closely with the West. Mark Kramer, director of Harvard University’s Project on Cold War Studies, said that Putin has “enunciated his own doctrine of preemptive intervention on behalf of Russian communities in neighboring countries.”

There have been intimations of this approach before. In 2008, Russian infantry pushed into two enclaves in neighboring Georgia, citing claims—which later proved false—that thousands of ethnic Russians were being massacred. Russia quickly routed the Georgian military and took over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today the disputed enclaves hover in a sort of twilight zone; they’ve declared independence but were recognized only by Moscow and a few of its allies. Ever since then, Georgian politicians have warned that Russia might do the same thing again: The country could seize a land corridor to Armenia, or try to absorb Moldova, the rest of Ukraine, or even the Baltic States, the only former Soviet Republics to join both NATO and the European Union.

Others see Putin’s reach as limited at best to places where meaningful military resistance is absent and state control weak. Even in Ukraine, Russia experts say, Putin seemed content to wield influence through friendly leaders until protests ran the Ukrainian president out of town and left a power vacuum that alarmed Moscow. Graham, the former Bush administration official, said it would be a long shot for Putin to move his military into other republics: There are few places with Crimea’s combination of an ethnic Russian enclave, an absence of state authority, and little risk of Western intervention.

The larger worry, of course, is who else might want to follow Russia’s example. China is the clearest concern, and from time to time has shown signs of trying to throw its weight around its region, especially in disputed areas of the South China Sea. But so far it has been Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels harassing foreign fishermen, with the Chinese navy carefully staying away in order not to trigger a military response. For the moment, at least, Putin seems willing to upend this delicately balanced world order on his own.

***

THE INTERNATIONAL community’s flat-footed response in Crimea raises clear questions: What should the United States and its allies do if this kind of land grab happens again—and is there a way to prevent such moves in the first place?

“This is a new period that calls for a new strategy,” said Michael A. McFaul, who stepped down as US ambassador to Russia a few weeks before the Crimea crisis. “Putin has made it clear that he doesn’t care what the West thinks.”

So far the international response has entailed soft power pressure that is designed to have an effect over the long term. The United States and some European governments have instated limited economic sanctions targeting some of Putin’s close advisers, and Russia has been kicked out of the G-8. There’s talk of reinvigorating NATO to discourage Putin from further adventurism. So far, though, NATO has turned out to be a blunt instrument: great for unifying its members to respond to a direct attack, but clumsy at projecting power beyond its boundaries. As Putin reorients away from the West and toward a Greater Russia, it remains to be seen whether soft-power deterrents matter to him at all.

Beyond these immediate measures, American experts are surprisingly short on specific suggestions about what more to do, perhaps because it’s been so long since they’ve had to contemplate a major rival engaging in such aggressive behavior. At the hawkish end, people like Davidson worry that Putin could repeat his expansion unless he sees a clear threat of military intervention to stop him. She thinks the United States and NATO ought to place advisers and hardware in the former Soviet republics, creating arrangements that signal Western military commitment. It’s a delicate dance, she said; the West has to be careful not to provoke further aggression while creating enough uncertainty to deter Putin.

Other observers in the field have made more modest economic proposals. Some have urged major investment in the economies of contested countries like Ukraine and Moldova, at the scale of the post-World War II Marshall Plan, and a long-term plan to wean Western Europe off Russian natural gas supplies, through which Moscow has gained enormous leverage, especially over Germany.

Davidson, however, believes that a deeper rethink is necessary, so that the United States won’t get tied up in knots or outflanked every time a powerful nation like Russia uses the stealthy¸ unpredictable tactics of non-state actors to pursue its goals. “We need to look at our definitions of military and law enforcement,” she said. “What’s a crime? What’s an aggressive act that requires a military response?”

McFaul, the former ambassador, said we’re in for a new age of confrontation because of Putin’s choices, and both the United States and Russia will find it more difficult to achieve their goals. In retrospect, he said, we’ll realize that the first decades after the Cold War offered a unique kind of safety, a de facto moratorium on Great Power hardball. That lull now seems to be over.

“It’s a tragic moment,” McFaul said.

Medical care is now a tool of war

Posted February 22nd, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

cross_bullet_holes copy again

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT — The medical students disappeared on a run to the Aleppo suburbs. It was 2011, the first year of the Syrian uprising, and they were taking bandages and medicine to communities that had rebelled against the brutal Assad regime. A few days later, the students’ bodies, bruised and broken, were dumped on their parents’ doorsteps.

Dr. Fouad M. Fouad, a surgeon and prominent figure in Syrian public health, knew some of the students who had been killed. And he knew what their deaths meant. The laws of war—in which medical personnel are allowed to treat everybody equally, combatants and civilians from any side—no longer applied in Syria.

“The message was clear: Even taking medicine to civilians in opposition areas was a crime,” he recalled.

As the war accelerated, Syria’s medical system was dragged further into the conflict. Government officials ordered Fouad and his colleagues to withhold treatment from people who supported the opposition, even if they weren’t combatants. The regime canceled polio vaccinations in opposition areas, allowing a preventable disease to take hold. And it wasn’t just the regime: Opposition fighters found doctors and their families a soft target for kidnapping; doctors always had some cash and tended not to have special protection like other wealthy Syrians.

Doctors began to flee Syria, Fouad among them. He left for Beirut in 2012. By last year, according to a United Nations working group, the number of doctors in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, had plummeted from more than 5,000 to just 36.

Since then, Fouad has joined a small but growing group of doctors trying to persuade global policy makers—starting with the world’s public health community—to pay more urgent attention to how profoundly new types of war are transforming medicine and public health. In a recent article in the medical journal The Lancet, Fouad and a team of researchers looked closely at the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and found that the impact of what they call the “militarization of health care” in modern wars goes far beyond the safety of combat zone doctors, ensnaring even uninvolved civilians, with effects that can persist for years.

Other groups have begun focusing on the change as well. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have documented and condemned disruptions of medical care by combatants. The entirety of the most recent issue of the journal Public Health is dedicated to a critical assessment of the failure of the World Health Organization to adapt to the new realities of conflict.

Fouad and his Lancet coauthors say—reasonably—that any new global policy norms for wartime health care ultimately need to be hashed out in the security and political realms, not by doctors. But doctors, especially public-health specialists, have a crucial role to play: They gather the data and define the issues that drive much of global health policy. And as war has become a free-for-all, dissolving the rules that long protected medical care, Fouad and his coauthors suggest that their own field has been slow to awaken to the importance of that change.

“To be honest, we are stuck in this problem, and we don’t know what to do,” said Omar Al-Dewachi, a physician and anthropologist at the American University of Beirut, and the lead author of the Lancet paper. “The first thing is to start a conversation, and come up with new tools.”

What will replace the current system is far from clear, they say, but it’s time to start figuring it out: Right now, war has a quarter-century headstart.

***

UNTIL RECENTLY, medical care was something of a bright spot in the history of conflict. Major European powers, shocked by the suffering and grisly deaths of their soldiers in the Crimean War, agreed in 1864 to the First Geneva Convention. It granted medical workers a special neutral status on the battlefield, and upheld the right of all wounded to medical care regardless of nationality.

It was the first article of international humanitarian law and became the cornerstone of all subsequent Geneva Conventions. When we talk about “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” we’re usually referring to the body of law that arose over the next century and half, built on the narrow foundation of neutral, universal medical care for combatants in the battle zone. There were always breakdowns and violations, but the laws of war were remarkably effective at limiting abuse, establishing taboos, and shaming the worst offenders.

That relative comity disappeared with the end of the Cold War. When the rival superpowers were locked in combat, they had an incentive to promote the laws of war; they didn’t want their own fighters mistreated if there were another world war. But with the United States and Soviet Union no longer in direct armed confrontation, small wars across the globe flared with new ferocity and fewer scruples.

The wars of the 1990s spread in shocking new ways, with widespread torture, starvation, and genocidal murder campaigns. Rather than fighting other soldiers, armed groups often concentrated on battling civilians. The Geneva Conventions barely figured for the combatants in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, the Congo, and Afghanistan. The United States contributed to that decline after 9/11 when it suspended Geneva Convention protections for prisoners in the “war on terror,” and normalized drone strikes against targets in civilian areas.

The protections around medical care started to collapse as well. Dr. Jennifer Leaning, director of Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, has worked in conflict zones for decades and has surveyed the eroding conditions of medical care. Increasingly, she found, the biggest victims in armed conflicts weren’t the combatants but the civilian populations suffering in scorched-earth or ethnic cleansing campaigns in which doctors and hospitals became explicit, rather than incidental, targets.

The final strike against medical neutrality, Leaning says, came in the last decade during America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgents targeted anyone connected to the “Western” side of the conflict, even local health care workers treating patients in public hospitals. The CIA used a polio inoculation campaign to gather information in its hunt for Osama bin Laden; ever since, Pakistani mullahs have condemned vaccination workers. By the time civil war broke out in Syria, the equal right to medical care in combat zones existed only on paper.

“What is now happening is the violation of deeply held legal norms that have taken 150 years of work,” Leaning said in an interview. “That is what is appalling.”

It’s been commonplace in the last decade in Iraq and Syria for militias to enter hospitals with guns drawn, and order doctors to treat their comrades instead of civilians. In the early 1990s in Mogadishu, such behavior was an oddity. In Baghdad in 2006, Shia death squads took over entire hospitals and infiltrated the health ministry, denying health care to Sunnis and even hunting down rivals in their sickbeds.

Doctors are also starting to document how a war-torn region’s health problems can continue even when dramatic violence subsides. Once a functioning health care system is destroyed, it can take years or decades to rebuild. Al-Dewachi worked as a physician in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, and has had a close view of how a war’s medical impact can persist and spread. With Iraq’s hospital system in shambles and doctors constantly emigrating to safer places, patients have flowed over borders, often seeking medical treatment at great cost in the relatively stable hospitals of Beirut. Even when Iraq is supposedly calm, the stream of patients never abates, he said. “It’s an invisible story of the war,” Al-Dewachi said. “The long-term effects continue even when the fighting stops.”

***

WITH THE OLD SYSTEM broken, what should replace it? This is where it gets hard. Stateless rebels and insurgent groups, by definition, aren’t signatories to any international agreements. And the entire shape of modern warfare looks nothing like the formal battlefields that gave rise to the Geneva Conventions.

“We have to build new tools, new concepts, new institutions, that adapt to this concept of conflict,” Fouad said.

On the ground, under fire, health workers have improvised solutions. One common response has been to withdraw completely, only returning if combatants agree to respect the neutrality of clinics. At various times, groups as tough as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross have temporarily shut down operations when they were targeted in vicious conflict zone. Some aid groups have used private diplomacy to negotiate protected, equal access to government and rebel areas.

Leaning notes that some medical-aid groups have resorted to armed guards for clinics and vaccine workers, while other health care workers have evolved to function like military medics, embedded with combat forces and providing care on the run.

As for the longer-term effects, the recent Lancet paper suggests some ways for the public health community to rethink its approach to medical care in war zones—starting with its definition of what counts as a war zone.

Health care is normally a massive undertaking that operates through fixed channels—governments, national budgets, and clinics, with clear borders and supply chains. The paper suggests it’s time to scrap this notion when it comes to war zones: One facet of modern conflict is that it obeys no geographical limits. The researchers suggest that the global health community adopt a notion of shifting “therapeutic geographies” that acknowledges people caught in modern conflicts may change where they live—and where they get health care—from day to day, week to week.

That concept, abstract as it sounds, would mark a significant departure in global public health. The World Health Organization, the single most important international body dealing with health matters, still operates almost entirely through diplomatic channels, dealing only with the sovereign government even in complex, multisided conflicts like Syria’s. That means that when the regime wants to isolate a rebel province, WHO can’t vaccinate people there and other UN agencies might not be allowed to deliver emergency food aid. Health organizations and other humanitarian agencies will have to work with nonstate actors and militias, as well as governments, if they want to be able to operate throughout a war-affected area.

Public health research can also put more energy into measuring the human toll of war beyond the battlefield. Part of the recent Lancet paper is a strong call for doctors to start quantifying the effects of modern war on health, looking broadly at its full impact. “At this point, we need to just pay attention and describe what’s going on,” said Al-Dewachi.

The effects of better data could be political as well as medical, the authors suggest: A clear picture of the full health impact of war might well change the justification for future “humanitarian interventions.”

Today, Fouad’s former home of Aleppo is largely a ghost town, its population displaced to safer parts of Syria or across the border to Turkey and Lebanon. The city’s former residents carry the medical consequences of war to their new homes, Fouad said—not just injuries, but effects as varied as smoking rates, untreated cancer, and scabies. Wars like those in Syria and Iraq don’t follow the old rules, and their effects don’t stop at the border.

The researchers are energized by their quest to reorient the public health field, but they betray a certain world weariness when asked what might replace the current order, and provide better care for the millions harmed by today’s boundary-less wars.

“If I knew,” Al-Dewachi said, “I would be involved with it.”

Processing the Arab Revolts

Posted February 9th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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While finishing work on my book manuscript I came across this video from an October 2013 talk I gave at Claremont MacKenna College. I share it here mainly so that my mother can watch it, but it captures my thinking at a moment when the forces of reaction were consolidating power and crushing dissent across the Arab region. This talk was one of my first attempts to synthesize the different regional events and at the same time find some reason to remain hopeful. Four months later there’s even less reason to retain even a shred of optimism.

A revolutionary playwright: Saadallah Wannous

Posted January 12th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Steve Wakeem, as Sheikh Qassim, the Mufti, delivers a religious decree. Photo: ALEXY FRANGIEH

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT

Citizens in Damascus were up in arms. An autocrat’s impetuous power grabs and flagrant infidelity had split the city’s ruling clans, while fundamentalist clerics issued blanket fatwas against “immoral behavior.”

The year was 1880. The contretemps quickly subsided, a footnote in Ottoman history. But in December it formed the backbone of a gripping play that delivered a stark critique of power and conservative social mores in the Arab world.

Staged for the first time in English by the American University of Beirut, “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” a 1994 play by the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, made a splash even in a city known for its relatively freewheeling culture. In literary circles, Wannous has long been considered a giant of Arab literature, but his work has rarely been performed in the region where he lived and worked.

Before his death in 1997, Wannous achieved renown not just as a Syrian dissident writer, but as a playwright on a par with Bertolt Brecht and Wole Soyinka. Politically, his plays in Arabic were akin to Vaclav Havel’s in Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia: They used the thin fictions of the theater to offer social criticism that would be otherwise unthinkable.

Like Havel, Wannous always saw himself as more than a playwright: He spent his life articulating a critique of authoritarianism, religious hypocrisy, and social repression. Up until his death, he was convinced that his plays were laying the groundwork for a complete reinvention of Arab society.

Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous reads a message at UNESCO’s World Theatre Day.

Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous reads a message at UNESCO’s World Theatre Day. 

STR NEW/REUTERS

 

Today, something of a rediscovery of Wannous’s work is underway: “Rituals” has been performed recently in Cairo and Paris, and a collection of his plays has just been published by the City University of New York. Despite it being in English translation, every performance of the play “Rituals” this month played to a full house of people eager to see Wannous’s ribald skewering of official sanctimony and social rigidity.

But the social revolution the playwright hoped for is still far off—and the eager audience for his rarely performed work is evidence of the immense hunger for an honest intellectual dialogue about the crisis in Arab society. Today, even in the arts, dissent like Wannous’s remains unusual here. And that work like his is so compelling, and yet hard to find, is a testament to just how narrow the scope of the region’s political dialogue has become.

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WANNOUS WAS BORN in a poor rural village in 1941, a member of the Alawite minority whose members would come to control the Syrian government, and came of age during the 1960s, the peak years of both the Cold War and Arab nationalism. Syria tried to solve its domestic problems by uniting with Egypt, part of a doomed project to create single “pan-Arab” government for the Middle East and North Africa. It failed, leaving Syria and the rest of the Arab world to seek protection as clients of the Cold War powers. Damascus fell squarely in the Soviet camp, and the authoritarian state it created was modeled directly on those of its Eastern bloc counterparts.

In an irony that many in those Communist states would have recognized, Wannous drew a paycheck for much of his life from the very regime that he excoriated in his plays. After studying journalism in Cairo, he held jobs as a critic and a government bureaucrat, while writing plays on his own time. He edited cultural coverage for government newspapers, and established his own journals when his critical views made that impossible. During a stint in Paris as a cultural journalist, he met key writers of his time, including Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco. Wannous ended up in charge of the Syrian government’s theater administration, which followed a Soviet model, generously supporting an arts scene that buttressed the regime’s values.

By the 1970s, the Assad regime had consolidated power and was fomenting anti-Israel militants around the region while avoiding direct conflict on its own border. Wannous rejected wholesale the primacy of the ruling Alawite minority, and his moral stances, presented in unusually vital dialogue and characters drawn as human beings rather than archetypes, established him as a major Arab writer of his generation.

Wannous’s work shares themes with other global dissident literature: In his play “The King is the King,” for example, a beggar successfully takes the place of the monarch, putting the lie to the claim that there’s anything unique about a divine ruler—or the dictator of Syria, for that matter. Every night at curtain call during its Damascus run, the director placed the stage-prop crown on Wannous’s head, to thundering applause.

“To this day, I don’t understand why it was allowed,” his daughter Dima said in an interview.

During his lifetime, Wannous himself said that he was allowed to write and live in Syria only so that the regime could pretend to the world that it tolerated free speech. He took full advantage of that liberty, savaging the failures of Arab nationalism and the autocrats who spawned it. He broke several taboos in “The Rape,” which as an epilogue featured a character named Wannous discussing the prospects for healing with an Israeli psychiatrist—a conversation that in real life would have been illegal.

As a body of work, his plays amounted to an argument that Arab society needed to break out of the political and social constraints that kept it locked in place. Confronted by his region’s stagnation and powerlessness, Wannous preserved a kind of optimism: The solution, he believed, lay within the Arab world and its citizens. He chafed at the convention of writing in classical Arabic, and wished writers felt free to reach more people by addressing their audience in colloquial language. He himself wrote his first drafts in the colloquial and then translated them into classical Arabic.

He bucked convention in other ways, too. In “Rape,” he depicts an Israeli soldier whose crimes against Palestinians distort his own psyche. But, crucially, he portrays other Israeli characters with empathy—not everyone is a villain—and he suggests there is value in engagement between Arabs and their Israeli enemies.

In “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” which many critics consider his masterpiece, Wannous took aim at all the Arab world’s sacred cows in one shot. In the play, the mufti of Damascus—the city’s top religious official—feuds with a local rival, the naqib, leader of the nobility. But then the naqib is arrested cavorting with a prostitute, threatening the authority of all the religious leaders. The mufti sets aside his religious principles and schemes to save his erstwhile enemy. The only completely honorable characters are the naqib’s wife, who divorces him and chooses to work as a prostitute herself, and a local tough who’s dumped by his male lover when he decides he wants to be open about his love. A policeman who tries to enforce the law and tell the truth is thrown in jail and branded insane.

The play was never performed in Syria during Wannous’s lifetime. The official excuse was that the sets were too bulky to import from Beirut, where a truncated version had been staged, but it couldn’t have helped that the real-life mufti of Aleppo issued a fatwa against the play. Even in Beirut, the director avoided state censorship by calling the mufti by another name.

That might sound like an evasion from another era, but little has changed. The director of last month’s production also changed the title of the mufti, using the less-religious “sheikh.” Lebanon’s censor regularly shuts down plays, concerts, and other performances; to reduce the likelihood of censorship, the AUB producers didn’t charge for tickets. During the final performance, emboldened by the show’s success, some of the actors reverted to Wannous’ original language, calling the character “mufti.”

“I told them that if we got fined, they would have to pay it,” said the director, Sahar Assaf.

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SEEN TODAY, “Rituals” still falls afoul of numerous taboos in the Middle East, from its attack on authority and religious hypocrisy to its unvarnished portrayal of child abuse, rape, and the persecution of gay people and women who seek equal rights. The audiences squirmed as much during the tender love scene between two men as during the soliloquies that reveal the mufti as a power-hungry schemer and another vaunted religious scholar as a serial child molester.

The continued power of Wannous’s work illustrates both his success as an artist and his failure, at least so far, to unleash the societal transformation for which he yearned. He aspired for a society where individuals could live free from tyranny, including the tyranny of his own Alawite sect. These are still not opinions that establishment Syrians are expected to discuss aloud. His daughter Dima, a journalist and fiction writer, last summer wrote approvingly about the spread of the war to Alawite areas. “Now they too will know what it means to be Syrian,” she said. She drew death threats from her father’s relatives.

“He thought his plays would transform Arab society, and all his life he was disappointed that they did not,” said Robert Myers, the playwright and AUB professor who cotranslated “Rituals.” “He thought his plays would ignite a revolution in thinking.”

One of the Wannous’s best-known lines comes not from a play but from the speech he delivered for UNESCO’s World Theater Day in 1996. It was the first time an Arab had been granted the honor, and it’s fair to assume Wannous knew he was speaking for posterity. “We are condemned to hope,” he said, “and what is taking place today cannot be the end of history.” At the time, he was speaking of the decrepit state of theater in the Arab world, but the phrase has lived on as a wider slogan.

Today the tradition Wannous embodied—the high-profile artist-intellectual driving a national conversation—is almost vanished itself. Throughout the Arab world, the publishing business has long been in decline. Millions watch high-end Arabic television serials, but only a few thousand attend theater productions. Most of the great dissident intellectuals are dead, and none in the new generation have achieved political influence. “Today’s intellectuals didn’t start the revolutions. That’s why they have to follow the people instead of leading them,” said Dima Wannous. She finds it particularly galling that sectarian religious fundamentalists have come to dominate the uprising in Syria, which she has been forced to flee because of threats.

Yet it’s also possible to see in Syria a testament to the staying power of Wannous’s ideas. The dream of a secular democratic state, the local initiatives to deliver food and health care, and especially, the early days of the revolt that pitted nonviolent citizens against a pitiless regime, all hark back to the ideals of Wannous—namely, his rejection of received authority and belief that if something better happens, it will arise from within. In 2011, when demonstrators first marched demanding the resignation of Bashar Assad, the signs some brandished read: “We are condemned to hope.”