[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
CAIRO — The troop of bearded Islamists carried wooden clubs and wore motorcycle helmets. They marched in time beneath a sweltering noonday sun, rehearsing for the clashes they expected any minute with the Egyptian army. A military ultimatum was set to expire that evening, and the president was about to be deposed.
When they finished their drill, however, they didn’t want to talk about street fighting. Instead, they started a heated debate over a point of political theory—specifically, whether it is acceptable to question the legitimacy of a popularly elected leader.
“If they threaten President Morsi’s legitimacy, everyone will pay for it. There will be an Islamic revolution,” said a 49-year-old construction worker named Taha Sayed Ali, a lifelong member of Gamaa Islamiya, the group that waged an armed insurgency in Egypt in the 1990s.
What grants legitimacy to a leader? The question usually arises in the abstract realm of political theory, but in today’s Egypt, it has become one of visceral, daily importance. How big does a crowd of protesters have to be to indicate an elected leader is no longer the voice of his people? When do self-interested or authoritarian policy decisions go so far as to invalidate the mandate of an elected government? On the streets of Cairo, these questions have come to occupy the center of a serious, messy conversation about how to build a healthy and accountable new state.
Many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted just after the demonstration, argue that an election confers a legitimacy that only another fair election can take away. They are challenged by a coalition of secular liberals and nationalists, who suggest that even a fairly elected ruler can lose his legitimacy if he fails to deliver on his responsibilities to his citizens. The result, in Egypt, has been a popularly elected leader ousted by what many are calling a “legitimate coup”—an idea that would be almost unimaginable in the longstanding democracies of the West.
“People must believe that we are legitimate, that we represent the majority, or else there is no hope,” said Basem Kamel, a liberal politician who supported the unseating of Morsi and who is determined that the military’s intervention not be seen as a coup. “The only guarantee is the people.”
The Egyptian people are aware that if they’re going to establish a government they all can believe in, they’ll need to settle on a shared understanding of what gives a leader authority and how to determine when a government has lost it. They aren’t there yet. In his final speech before being deposed, ex-president Morsi used the Arabic word for legitimacy—shar’iya —56 times, as though it might serve as a protective cloak against mounting public unrest. With Morsi out and the clashes that followed injuring hundreds and killing dozens, it’s clear that his mere insistence was not enough.
As the debate over legitimacy plays out in Morsi’s wake, the questions at stake resonate far beyond Egypt. The same issues apply in other Arab states in transition, as well as in other countries that have some trappings of democratic rule but are plagued by weak checks and balances and corrupt, authoritarian rulers. As Egypt sorts it out, the country is blazing a path forward that Egyptians, political theorists, and others in the Arab world are watching anxiously.
FOR MUCH OF world history, “legitimacy” wasn’t a question at all—kings ruled by force and claimed legitimacy from a divine order. The modern belief that “legitimacy” can be defined by the people themselves—even that it derives from their consent—dates back at least to the influential writings of John Locke in the 17th century. Political philosophers have debated how legitimacy is created ever since, but a common idea runs through all the different views: To establish its legitimacy, a government must fulfill its core obligations to protect its people and help them thrive.
Today the broad consensus in the West is that legitimacy arises from the voting booth. Citizens should be able to have profound, even violent, disagreements about the direction of their nation without questioning the basic legitimacy of the government; if they want to depose the party in power, they can do so in the next election.
The revolutionary forces that overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 tried to establish a new system that might enjoy this kind of popular legitimacy. There would be elections and a process to write a constitution. The president, duly elected, was the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Voters also chose an overwhelming Islamist majority for Parliament.
In the presidential runoff, Morsi explicitly appealed to voters who hadn’t chosen an Islamist in the first round but were convinced by his promise that he would govern with everyone’s interests in mind. At the time, even critics of the Brotherhood and the revolution conceded that the ballot was fair and the new president legitimate.
That, however, is where agreement ended. The president proceeded to push through laws—and, ultimately, a new national constitution—without buy-in or input from the opposition. Morsi ditched all his non-Islamist allies. The ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its even more conservative Salafi allies believed they had public support to enact their platform, which among other things called for a doctrinaire application of Islam to the law. In effect, they claimed both God and the electorate on their side. At one point, after the Parliament had already been disbanded, Morsi tried to put himself above judicial review, which would have left his authority with no check at all.
To the politically broad spectrum of Egyptians who had helped overthrow the previous absolute leader, the president had overstepped. On the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, at the behest of the Tamarod, or Rebel, campaign, millions took to the streets. In advance, the Tamarod organizers claimed to have gathered 22 million signatures of citizens demanding Morsi’s ouster—significantly more than the 13.2 million who voted for him. By failing to rule either effectively or inclusively, the organizers of the Tamarod petition said, Morsi had lost “ethical, legal, and popular legitimacy.” Their petition cited his administration’s practical failures and the fact that it had rammed through a new constitution with no regard for the objections of sizable chunks of his own citizenry, including secularists, Christians, and women. They even coined a new term to describe the authoritarianism of a fairly elected leader: “ballotocracy.”
By this definition of legitimacy, the ballot box isn’t the last word. In essence, the Egyptian protesters were turning to a tradition that sees the roots of legitimacy in justice and in tangible results. The American Civil Rights movement made similar arguments: It didn’t matter if Jim Crow followed the letter of the law in Mississippi, or had the support of a majority; in failing so many of its citizens, it forfeited legitimacy. This broader notion of legitimacy underlay the original rebellion against Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, and prompted the June 30 uprising and the coup that followed. By this way of thinking, how a leader rules may matter more than how that leader came to power.
IT MIGHT SEEM strange to have to choose between majority rule or inclusive governance as sources for legitimacy; one tends to think legitimacy requires both. But in the kind of government Egypt is trying to establish, which will have to satisfy a significant Islamist constituency, that balance is not so easy. A state can’t be driven purely by majority interest and also protect the rights of its minority groups. It cannot be both Islamic and secular. And, yet somehow, the various factions must agree to respect the governance of whoever ends up in power, or the messy business of writing laws and addressing the nation’s ills will never get underway.
Esam Haddad, one of Morsi’s closest advisers, wrote in a posting on his Facebook page that the coup interrupted a legitimate political process. “In a democracy, there are simple consequences for the situation we see in Egypt: the President loses the next election or his party gets penalized in the upcoming parliamentary elections,” Haddad said. “Anything else is mob rule.”
Others think that in Egypt right now, proper electoral process isn’t enough. Critics of Brotherhood rule, like Brookings Institution fellow H.A. Hellyer (who coined the term “popularly legitimate coup”), argue that any ruler of Egypt today needs to at least address, if not solve, the country’s vast economic crisis while also appearing sensitive to popular opinion. Morsi, Hellyer says, had legal legitimacy but lost all popular legitimacy. “With theoretical legal legitimacy alone, no executive can function,” Hellyer said. Now, the transitional president appointed by the military faces the same challenge.
With enough will to cooperate, some of the problems of the Egyptian state may be reconciled. The experience of the West suggests that, given enough checks and balances, majority rule through popular elections is compatible with minority rights. Other directions for the state may be mutually exclusive, like theocratic concepts of justice and secular law.
How Egypt attempts to resolve these tensions could prove pathbreaking. In modern times, there have been cases like Iran, where an Islamist majority simply overwhelmed the country’s secular faction; or like India and Indonesia, where pluralism and minority rights were instituted initially by fiat, and haven’t always survived intact when put to electoral test.
In the coming months, whether Egypt manages to confer a lasting legitimacy on any particular governmental arrangement will go a long way to foretelling where the country is headed. Arguments over legitimacy quickly veer into dangerous territory; once the discussion is about who is morally right, rather than a simple power struggle or policy disagreement, it becomes hard to give the other side any credit whatsoever. Ultimately Egypt will settle on some governmental solution and see its constitution harden into established practice. But so long as the sole arbiter is not law but legitimacy, the people will remain on high alert, ready to spill back out into the street.
The government installed by the coup doesn’t include any Islamist members, repeating the exclusionary practice of the Muslim Brothers it replaced—a move that is sure to leave all this government’s decisions subject to a legitimacy challenge by Islamists. This toxic cycle will continue until legitimacy becomes not a rhetorical feint but a reality. It’s the first and most vital step toward a viable rule of law.
Processing more old stuff. Last weekend I was on “For Your Ears Only” parsing the next steps after Morsi’s ouster. You can listen to it here: FYEO_Seg3.
Some standouts from the 40 open tabs in my browser: Baheyya pins down the nefarious rhetoric of Sisi and the coup-sters: she observes that the meaningless cheerleading phrase “legitimacy of the people” has replaced the more important and actionable concept of “sovereignty of the people.” One of the activists I’ve been following for my book, the Social Democratic Party’s Basem Kamel, said to me last week when we talked about the coup-revolution debate, “The military has had the same power the whole time.” If Sisi tries to take direct power, Basem Kamel said, people would have to take to the streets. But I think Baheyya very succintly shows that the military is winning a long-term game, in which its narrative will prevail and it will remain Egypt’s ultimate arbiter. Sadly.
This builds on her previous post, which argues (convincingly, in my view) that Egypt’s deep state is engineering a wholesale rejection of messy politics in favor of neat military rule.
With their July 3 coup, Egypt’s new military overlords and their staunch American backers are playing an age-old game, the game of turning the public against the ineluctable bickering, inefficiency, gridlock, and intense conflict that is part and parcel of a free political life, so that a disillusioned, fatigued people will pine for the stability and order that the military then swoops in to provide.
Meanwhile Farah at Rebel Economy grounds us in the unrelenting horror show of Egyptian reality. She neatly portrays the crises that keep quality of life so low, and which are sure to bedevil all of Egypt’s successive governments, and observes that Sisi’s SCAF has taken possession of a rotting hot potato.
Ignore the economy at your peril. That is the lesson Arab leaders of transitional countries should learn from the Egyptian military’s removal of Mohammed Morsi from power, but one that continues to fall on deaf ears.
There’s tons more worth reading.
A member of the Tamarod petition drive against Morsi gestures with an Egyptian flag in front of army soldiers in Cairo on July 3, 2013. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)
[Originally published in The Atlantic.]
Egypt’s struggle today features two flawed and irreconcilable elitist groups, neither of which speak for the popular revolution that upended the status quo. So long as organized Islamists are competing with the resilient deep state, the contest for Egypt will continue to push the country in a reactionary and divisive direction.
Meanwhile, the popular revolutionary forces that seek a reinvented covenant between citizens and their government will continue to play a critical role as a check on tyranny. So long as revolutionaries are excluded from the drafting table of Egypt’s new constitutional order, the country will remain unstable and autocratic. Only when revolutionaries and sincere reformists are represented in a new constitution and a new government will Egypt begin its transition away from authoritarian rule.
The institutional power struggle between Islamists and the Military complex leaves out the most important development in Egypt over the last decade: people power, with an articulated philosophy embodied by the slogan “bread, freedom, social justice.” Until now, the country’s prolific revolutionary impulse remains hostage to the factions competing for the machinery and spoils of government.
Today in Egypt, on one side stand the Islamists, who can plausibly claim to represent a popular majority and who possess an articulated project to Islamicize the state, but whose style and substance runs roughshod over the rights and aspirations of many Egyptians, including Christians, women and those of a secular bent. The Islamists have the only organized popular movements with cohesive leadership and cadres.
On the other side stand the forces of the old order, whose byword is stability. It boasts undeniable resources: the army, the police, most of the state bureaucracy including the judiciary, the financiers of the deposed regime, and a powerful elite that benefited from President Hosni Mubarak’s rule and is loathe to erode their privileges. This coalition pays lip service to freedom for minorities and secularists, but has little interest authentic liberalism and liberty.
The ultimate arbiter for all factions remains the military.
Both lay claims to represent the majority, although the Islamists have the edge in the results of the rounds of elections since the Tahrir uprising. Neither of these poles speaks for genuine liberals, revolutionaries, or the idealistic youth movements who provided the heart, if not all the manpower, of the January 25, 2011 uprising. The long-term fight is between adherents of majoritarian revolution and revolutionary pluralism, a distinction made by the scholar Ellis Goldberg.)
Right now we’re caught up in a momentary conflict between the military complex and its reactionary supporters on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood and some religious extremists on the other, leaving out a major and perhaps decisive swath of the population that supports neither.
In this unenviable contest, the likely outcome is an illiberal, authoritarian government that will lay no claim to consensus, and which will be viewed as anathema, even treacherous, by nearly half the population. If the deep state prevails, it will never have the loyalty of the population. If the Islamists prevail, they will never control the security apparatus and the institutions of state.
The original Tamarod movement is not party to this conflict, but is still on stage, at times driving events. They are the constituency for pluralism, due process, political consensus-making, and accountable, transparent, civilian authority.
The deposed Muslim Brothers have been making an opportunistic appeal to the most superficial elements of the democratic process: elections and elections alone. Their arguments eerily echo those of Mubarak’s regime before it toppled. “There are a million people in Tahrir Square against Mubarak, but there are 79 million at home who support the regime,” a deluded police officer told me just before Mubarak resigned. President Mohamed Morsi lost his mandate to rule because of the unforced errors he committed in office, which alienated almost every constituency in the country.
Equally opportunistic are the military and police, which perhaps out of different institutional imperatives, have piggybacked on the outraged masses of June 30. Sure, there is a distasteful faction that applauds military rule and which is comfortable with the return of a corrupt, abusive police force that has not faced a single consequence for decades of corruption, criminality, and oppression. But we can’t forget that the millions who signed the Tamarod petition and demonstrated on June 30 and July 2 were demanding Morsi’s ouster; they weren’t demanding a military coup, or a return to Mubarak’s system.
Now, we’ll never know what would have happened had the Muslim Brotherhood government been allowed to confront, dismiss, or negotiate with people power. We’ll never know what the Islamists would have done had they continued to push their agenda and fail politically. We’ll never know how Egyptian politicians and civilians would have responded to the latest showdown absent military intervention. In some ways, the coup has absolved the Brotherhood of some of its share of the blame.
The Islamist threat is real — and so are the dangers of military rule. The most dangerous blow comes from the absence of political evolution. Why is it natural for Islamists to threaten jihad and generalized violence in the face of a coup? Why is it natural for liberals to turn to an abusive, totalitarian, corrupt, and inept military for protection? Both are suicidal moves.
For all the fears of Islamist totalitarian rule, the Brotherhood could never control Egypt; in a year in power, it made scarcely any inroads within the military and police.
Incredibly, some Brotherhood supporters now claim they’re justified in resorting to violence since the system failed them, as if the millions of other Egyptians whose aspirations were stymied by the security state over the years should have been building bombs instead of movements.
Yet the nasty outcome – military coup and Islamist resistance — doesn’t erase the vast and thirsty popular current, which is sizable and real. Its core has been the reformists and revolutionaries, but at different junctures it found allies among Islamists, former regime supporters, and the mostly apathetic citizens known in Egypt as the “Sofa Party.” This popular current felled Mubarak. It pushed the military junta from power in 2012, long before it intended to pass authority to an elected civilian. And now it has ousted Morsi.
It’s a critical problem that the revolutionary fervor has not found its expression in a coherent political movement that can agitate for a tangible system of checks and balances, rule of law, minority rights, economic reforms, and government policies. It is not yet, however, a fatal flaw, nor a weaknesses that justifies dismissing Egyptian people power.
Egypt can survive many more waves of revolt, election and coup, and it will, until the political order begins to reflect more of the will of the people. The latest roadmap repeats most of the mistakes of 2011 (for detailed explanations of how, readNathan Brown and Zaid Al-Ali). The Egyptian public has developed a profound intolerance for arbitrary authoritarian rule; for opaque, paranoid leaders; for governments that ignore the country’s collapsing economy and standard of living.
Revolutionaries might not represent the majority, but they are now a maturing, key constituency. They are unlikely to embrace fascism or fiats from anyone: not the military, not the Brotherhood, not the old political parties. That’s the underlying signal of Egypt’s latest revolt. Until Egypt’s power brokers recognize the core demands of the public and begin to address them, the public isn’t likely to go away.
Egyptian security forces strip and beat a protester in the Cabinet clashes of December 2011.
[Originally published in The Atlantic.]
CAIRO – History doesn’t operate in perfect analogies, but I couldn’t help comparing the celebration that marked President Morsi’s overthrow to the more exuberant outbreak when Hosni Mubarak fell.
Last week as I pushed past families, men blowing vuvuzelas, and candy peddlers, a policeman swaggered past in his white uniform, his belly and chin thrust forward, smiling ever so slightly. A man leapt toward him and brushed his forearm. “Congratulations, ya basha,” he said, in an almost feudal show of respect. The cop nodded in acknowledgement without breaking stride. He walked like a man with authority.
Two and a half years ago, one of the signal triumphs of the revolution was the expulsion not only of Mubarak, but of the detested police. They had strutted all over the rights and dignity of Egyptians. They had tortured with impunity, beaten the innocent and the guilty, detained at a whim, demanded bribes, colluded with common criminals. At the beginning of the uprising, the public had enshrined a magnanimous principle of people power; they won a street war and then declined to lynch the defeated policemen, instead in one instance releasing them to skulk home in their underwear.
On the night Mubarak fled the presidential palace, a 20-year-old engineering student named Mohammed Ayman murmured with awe and pleasure: “The policemen now speak more softly in the streets. People are waking up. We know our rights.”
This week, the policemen weren’t speaking softly at all. They were basking in the adoration of the latest, complicated wave of the Egyptian revolution. They joined the anti-Morsi protests, and stood by while Muslim Brotherhood facilities were attacked. In keeping with their motley history, rule of law still wasn’t on the police agenda. President Morsi was swept from power by vast reserves of popular anger at an inept and dictatorial Muslim Brotherhood government. But the June 30 uprising was by no means a purely organic revolt, like January 25; crucially, it was buttressed by the machinery of the old regime and the reactionaries who loved and missed it.
A few years hence, we’ll know for sure whether the July 2 military intervention represented a salutatory alliance between revolutionaries, the military, and the bureaucracy, or whether it marked the dawn of a full restoration of the old order, of Mubarak’s state without Mubarak. But revolutionaries and reformists obsessed today with convincing their fellow citizens and the world that Egypt just experienced a second revolution rather than a coup could more wisely concentrate on the omnipresent danger signs, which in the slim best-case scenario might not prove fatal..
If revolutionaries want to build a new better state, they now must quickly articulate their vision of a pluralistic society of rights and accountable government, free from the tyrannies they have overthrown in short order: those of Mubarak, the military junta that replaced him, and the elected Islamists who ruled as if their slim electoral majority entitled them to absolute, unchecked power. And they must be just as willing to challenge military rulers as they were to toss out Morsi and the Brotherhood.
* * *
Egypt’s revolution is in danger, as it has been at many turns since it burst forth in January 2011. Its best asset is people power and the creative, resilient activists who have gone to the streets over and over, and against three different kinds of regime so far. Its greatest vulnerabilities are the institutions of Mubarak’s authoritarian police state, which have bided their time and are still pushing for a restoration, and the profound strain of reactionary thought that courses through certain powerful sectors of Egyptian society.
There are vibrant forces in Egypt that want to chart an indigenous, authentic course toward Egypt’s own version of pluralistic, transparent, accountable governance. They aren’t interested in Western timetables or Western ideas about elections as the path to enlightened rule. It is crucial, if these forces are to succeed, that they see and describe clearly the terrible impasse that led to June 30 and the highly flawed, imperfect military intervention that broke it.
With a clear-eyed, unsentimental assessment, Egyptian progressives might yet bend the country to their will. A positive long-term outcome requires honesty about the Brotherhood’s errors as well as the unseemly alliance struggling to tame Egypt now — in short, the whole halting attempt at revolution so farThe Brotherhood abused Egypt and its electoral prerogative. Most insulting was the constitution that was rammed through in a single overnight session, with only Islamist participation, in an obscene savagery of the political process. There was also the state-sanctioned torture and vigilantism against the anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012, committed by Muslim Brotherhood members with the knowledge of presidential advisers. In less dramatic fashion, the Brotherhood scoffed in lawmaking at the idea of consensus or negotiation, insisting again and again that the fact they’d been elected justified any and all actions, including the president’s abortive attempt to dissolve judicial oversight, the last remaining check on executive authority after the parliament had been sent packing by the courts.
The Brotherhood’s failures exhausted their warrant to govern in the eyes of many Egyptians, prompting the June 30 Tamarod, or “Rebel” revolt, which brought more people to the streets from more strains of the public than any previous Egyptian protest. But while the Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior might justify its eviction from power, it doesn’t excuse the misbehavior of the opposition, which is now the adjunct to the second interim military authority to set rules for Egypt’s political transition after Mubarak. The opposition has yet to settle on a constructive vision. It opposed Islamists, but as a body it hasn’t stood in favor of an alternate idea for Egypt. Some reconciliation is necessary with the felool, the remnants of the old regime. But accommodation is one thing; a full embrace another. Worse still, many of the Tamarod supporters actively called for a coup, declaring that military rule would be preferable to that of electoral Islamists. In fact, both have proved corrosive to Egyptian well-being, and will prove so again in the period to come. The latest machinations over the next government, along with the continuing violence between “rebels” and Brothers, underscore the precarious state of Egypt today, a mess out of which only the military is guaranteed to emerge stronger.
“We are starting from square zero,” said Basem Kamel, an activist who helped organize the January 25 uprising, and who joined the organizers of June 30. He conditionally supported this week’s military intervention, along with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, for whom he served as a member of parliament in 2012. But he also condemned the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leaders this week and the closure of their media. He doesn’t want anybody’s authoritarianism.
“This time,” he said, “we must get it right.”
Perhaps people power is a good enough argument for those who supported this people’s putsch. And the violence of Muslim Brotherhood followers only buttresses the argument that old regime remnants, the felool, might be illiberal fascists, but the Islamists hold a greater danger still. The Tamarod/June 30/Revolution-not-a-coup school seems to believe that their role is simply to expel any leader who doesn’t serve Egypt. Their argument appears to be that the people don’t need to write the blueprint, but will stand in reserve to veto any regime that misrules. Somebody else needs to come up with an idea for how to extricate Egypt from the practical morass into which it has sunk. Meanwhile, the people will overthrow executive after executive until one does a good job.
Yet, many ideals that imbued the original January 25 uprising have yet to gain a wider purchase. Revolutionaries rightly mistrusted authority, including that of the military. They rejected state propaganda that held divisions between secular and religious, Christian and Muslim, made Egypt ungovernable except by a heavy hand. They trusted the public, the amorphous “people,” to choose its own rules and write its own constitution, so long as everyone had a seat at the table and the strong couldn’t silence the weak. They espoused rights and due process for all, including accused criminals and thugs, even for those who had tortured and repressed them. They forswore the paranoia and xenophobia with which the old regime had tarred as foreign agents Egypt’s admirable community of human rights defenders, election monitors, and community organizers.
And now, at a moment of both pride and shame, when the people rose up against an authoritarian if elected Muslim Brotherhood governance and unseated a callous, incompetent president with the help of the military, the revolutionary ideas are drowning in a torrent of reactionary sentiment. “We want a military man to rule us,” a middle-aged woman with a bouffant hairdo exulted to me outside the presidential palace.
Yes, revolutionaries and common folk and apolitical Egyptians took to the streets on June 30, and again later in the week to celebrate Morsi’s imprisonment by the military. But they were joined, and perhaps overwhelmed in numbers, by the felool, the reactionaries. Families of soldiers and policemen strolled among the protesters. Christians and proud members of the “sofa party,” who had sat out every previous demonstration of the last two and a half years, trumpeted their support for Mubarak, for his preferred successor, presidential runner up and retired General Ahmed Shafiq, and now, for military rule. Whether the original revolutionaries wanted it or not, their latest revolution has the support of some of their worst, most persistent enemies: the military and the police.
At the airport on Friday evening, a half-dozen uniformed police officers stood watching the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide’s speech, televised on a set mounted at the Coffeeshop Company. The Supreme Guide called for supporters of Morsi to “bring him back bearing him on our necks, sacrifice our souls for him.” Within hours, that cry would result in thousands marching to Tahrir Square and engaging in a bloody, deadly and avoidable clash with opponents of the Brotherhood.
As the Brotherhood leader spoke, the policemen laughed, while others looked on anxiously, mirroring the divisions within Egyptian society. Not everyone hates the Islamists, and not everyone loves the police.
On TV, the camera panned over the shouting Brotherhood supporters a few miles away, mourning a protester just shot dead. At the airport, an officer with three bars on his shoulder laughed. “Morsi’s finished,” he said, bringing his heel down and slowly savoring the crushing motion. “In two more days, the Brotherhood will be finished too.”
Beside him a stone-faced man winced.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
BEIRUT — Alex, a Swiss bicyclist and Internet geek, thought he’d get a welcome break from his work as a computer engineer and a teacher when he moved to Damascus for a year to study Arabic. It was January 2011, a few months before the Arab uprisings spread to Syria.
But once he was there, Alex noticed with irritation that he couldn’t access Facebook and a seemingly random assortment of websites. Some Google search results were blocked, especially if they turned up pages containing forbidden terms like “Israel.”
He developed tricks to navigate the Internet freely, and sharpened his online evasion skills. If the government was so heavily monitoring and censoring Web surfing, he reasoned, it was surely spying on Internet users in other ways as well. He beefed up ways to encrypt his e-mail and Skype, and learned how to scour his own computer for remote eavesdropping software.
These skills ended up being more than just a personal hobby. When Syrians began to demonstrate against the regime of Bashar Assad, Alex found that his techniques were of urgent use to the friends he had made in the cafes of Damascus. Syrians were turning to activism, and they needed help.
“What was before a nuisance for me was now a danger to my friends,” said Alex, who didn’t want his last name published so as not to endanger any of his Syrian contacts.
Alex ended up spending two years in Beirut training Syrian antiregime activists on how to encrypt their data and protect their phones and laptops from the secret police, in what turned into a full-time job. Alex had become one of a small and secretive group of Internet security experts who work not with governments or companies but with individuals, teaching dissidents the skills they need to evade regime surveillance. Internet activists estimate there are about a hundred technical experts worldwide who work directly with dissidents.
As surveillance steps up and activists get more wired, the practical challenges for these digital security experts offer a unique glimpse of the frontline struggle between free speech and government control, or, as many of them put it, between freedom and authoritarianism. And with surveillance more than ever a concern for Americans at home, the knowledge of these security activists casts a revealing light on the peculiar role of the United States, home of both a powerful tech sector that has generated some of the most skillful evaders of surveillance and a government with an unparalleled ability to peer into our activities.
Indeed, even the people who know how to keep e-mail secret from the Syrians or Iranians say that it would be difficult to make sure the American government cannot eavesdrop on you. “It’s hard to find a service that it isn’t vulnerable to the CIA or NSA,” Alex said in an interview in Beirut. “It’s easier if you’re here, or in Syria.”
ACTIVISTS IN AUTHORITARIAN states face a range of basic problems when they sit down at a computer. They need to communicate privately in an environment where the regime likely runs the local Internet service. They may want to send news about domestic problems to international audiences; they may want to mobilize their fellow citizens for a cause the regime is trying to suppress. Whatever they do, they need to keep themselves out of trouble, and also avoid endangering their collaborators by unwittingly revealing their identities to the government
Tech experts like Alex offer them a mix of standard security protocols and tools designed specifically with lone activists in mind. The first step is “threat modeling.” Where does the danger come from and what are you trying to hide? A well-known dissident might not be worried about revealing her identity, but might want to protect the content of her phone conversations or e-mails. A relatively unknown activist might be more concerned with hiding her online identity, so that the government won’t connect her real-life identity to her blog posts.
Users new to the world of surveillance and evasion must master a new set of tools. There are proxy servers that allow access to blocked websites without tracking users’ browsing history or revealing their IP address. Security trainers teach activists how to encrypt all their data and communications. And because circumstances change, Web security advocates emphasize the importance of multiple, redundant channels—different e-mails, messaging programs and social media platforms—so that when one is compromised, there are other alternatives.
A repressive regime like Bashar Assad’s can effectively stymie dissent with crude old-fashioned ruses. On one occasion, the government arrested a rebel doctor while he was logged in to his Skype account. Agents posed as the doctor, sending all his contacts a file that supposedly contained a list of field hospitals. Instead, it installed program called a keylogger that allowed the Syrians to monitor everything the doctor’s contacts did on their computers.
Alex warns all the activists he trains that all their encryption measures could come to naught if they are caught, like the doctor was, while their computer is running—or if they give up their encryption password under interrogation. “They can always torture you for your password, and then all your data is compromised,” he said. There’s no foolproof protection against that.
Though these security measures can go a long way, consultants also find themselves needing to balance the effort it takes with the unique urgency of some of the dissidents’ lives. In the heat of violent conflict, encryption doesn’t always take priority. “Many of them are just too busy to care, to follow all the disciplined procedures,” Alex said. “It got to the point where it felt useless to teach them how to encrypt Skype when thousands of tons of TNT were falling from the sky.”
AS ACTIVISTS have tapped online resources in their struggles, a range of security specialists have sprung up to assist them. Some, like Alex, are independent operators; many of them arose loosely around a single crisis and then expanded their efforts.
In response to Tehran’s Web censorship in 2009, a group of Iranian-Americans established an organization called Access Now to train human rights groups and other organizations on more secure communications. In the four years since it has expanded worldwide and now sends technical specialists to work with activists in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Africa. It also acts as a lobbying group, pressing for uncensored access to the Internet. “Access to an unfiltered and unsurveilled Internet is a human right,” says Katherine Maher, the group’s spokeswoman. “We should have the rights to free speech and assembly online as we have offline in the real world.”
A few years later, when the Arab uprisings began, activists again faced crucial concerns about technology and surveillance. Activists throughout the Arab world planned demonstrations online, and used social media as a major artery of communication. In Egypt, the government was so desperate to thwart the protest movement that in January 2011 it briefly cut off the entire nation’s Internet. Telecomix, a freewheeling collective that began in response to privacy concerns in Europe, was one of many groups that helped build workarounds so that Egyptians could communicate with one another and with the outside world in the early days of the uprising.
In Egypt, Alix Dunn cofounded a sort of nerd-wonk research group called The Engine Room in early 2011 to study and improve the ways that activists get tech support from the small community of available experts. “There are people who got really excited because all of a sudden IT infrastructure suddenly became part of something so political,” Dunn said. “They could be geeky and politically supportive at the same time.”
The advice is not always technical. For instance, in Egypt, Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of the country’s first bloggers and later a strategist for the 2011 uprising, championed a strategy of complete “radical openness.” He convinced other activists that they should assume that any meetings or communications could probably be monitored by the secret police, so activists should assume they’re always being overheard. Secret planning for protests should take place person to person, off the grid; in all other matters, activists should be completely open and swamp the secret police with more information than they could process. In the early stages of Egypt’s revolution, that strategy arguably worked; activists were able to outwit the authorities, starting marches in out-of-the-way locations before police could get there.
GIVEN THE RECENTrevelations about the US government’s online surveillance programs, it’s striking to note that much of the effort to improve international digital security for dissidents has been spurred by aid from the US government. The month after the Arab uprisings began, the US Department of State pledged $30 million in “Internet Freedom” grants; most of them have gone, directly or indirectly, to the sort of activist training that Alex was doing in Damascus.
In some ways, the latest American surveillance revelations haven’t changed the calculus for activists on the ground. Maher notes that almost all the State Department-funded training instructs activists around the world to assume that their communications are being intercepted. (Her organization doesn’t take any US government funding.)
“It’s broadly known that almost every third-party tool that you can take is fundamentally compromised, or could be compromised with enough time and computing power,” Maher said.
But there are new wrinkles. Some of the safest channels for dissidents have been Skype and Gmail—two services to which the US government has apparently unfettered access. It’s virtually impossible for a government like Iran’s to break the powerful encryption used by these companies. Alex, the trainer who worked with Syrians, says that a doctor in Aleppo doesn’t need to worry about the NSA listening to Skype calls, but an activist doing battle with a US corporation might.
Officially, American policy promotes a surveillance-free Internet around the world, although Washington’s actual practices have undercut the credibility of the US government on this issue. How will Washington continue to insist, for example, that Iranian activists should be able to plan protests and have political discussions online without government surveillance, when Americans cannot be sure that they are free to do the same?
For activists grappling with real-time emergencies in places like Syria or long-term repression in China, Russia, and elsewhere, the latest news doesn’t change their basic strategy—but it may make the outlook for Internet freedom darker.
“These revelations set a terrible precedent that could be used to justify pervasive surveillance elsewhere,” Maher said. “Americans can go to the courts or their legislators to try and challenge these programs, but individuals in authoritarian states won’t have these options.”
Kelly McEvers did this piece on Monday for NPR, in which she asked me about Hezbollah’s long-term chances here. The World followed up with questions about how Hezbollah’s involvement affects the risk of a regional war. There’s a lot of talk in Lebanon about whether Hezbollah’s all-in gambit on Syria will hurt the Party of God long-term. One side holds that killing fellow Arab Islamists rather than Israelis will prove a harder sell to the constituency over the long haul, while the polarizing sectarian fight will make Hezbollah more insecure, and therefore weaker and less predictable, once the regime in Syria falls or conclusively loses control of half the country. The other side sees a Hezbollah constituency fully on board for the fight in Syria, a constituency that understands the Takfiri Sunni fundamentalists to be a major threat not only to Hezbollah and the Shia but to the flawed model of mutual if grudging toleration under which Hezbollah, Assad and many other groups, including minorities and many Sunnis, have thrived.
I’m leaning toward the second interpretation. Sure, there’s a danger of wider war, and sure, there’s now a slightly greater possibility that it all backfires for Hezbollah. On the other hand, consider that the group has continued an uninterrupted expansion of power and intense popular support from its loyalists through the war of the camps in the 1980s, when Hezbollah battled its fellow Lebanese Shia Amal Movement; the hyperbolic years of Sobhi Tufayli’s leadership; its entry into politics; the expulsion of Israel from South Lebanon and thereby the removal of one key factor motivating Hezbollah’s support; the withdrawal of its patron, Syria, from Lebanon in 2005; the 2006 war with Israel; and the May 2008 battle with March 14. So let’s consider that Hezbollah has unchallenged dominion internally in Lebanon (it can’t rule alone, but no one can contest its hegemony either), and that it more or less alone writes the rules — so it might well emerge from this gambit in Syria still in control of Lebanon. The contours of its role would change, especially if the Assad regime falls, or Syria is de facto partitioned. But Hezbollah is unlikely to find itself disarmed, or dislodged from the center of Lebanese power, or bereft of supporters.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
EVER SINCE AMERICANS had to briefly ration gas in 1973, “energy independence” has been one of the long-range goals of US policy. Presidents since Richard Nixon have promised that America would someday wean itself of its reliance on foreign oil and gas, which leaves us vulnerable to the outside world in a way that was seen as a gaping hole in America’s national security. It also handcuffs our foreign policy, entangling America in unstable petroleum-producing regions like the Middle East and West Africa.
Given the United States’ huge appetite for fuel, energy independence has always seemed more of a dream than a realistic prospect. But today, nearly four decades later, energy independence is starting to loom in sight. Sustained high oil prices have made it economically viable to exploit harder-to-reach deposits. Techniques pioneered over the last decade, with US government support, have made it possible to extract shale oil more efficiently. It helps, too, that Americans have kept reducing their petrochemical consumption, a trend driven as much by high prices as by official policy. Total oil consumption peaked at 20.7 million barrels per day in 2004. By 2010, the most recent year tracked in the CIA Factbook, consumption had fallen by nearly a tenth.
Last year, the United States imported only 40 percent of the oil it consumed, down from 60 percent in 2005. And by next year, according to the US Energy Information Administration, the United States will need to import only 30 percent of its oil. That’s been driven by an almost overnight jump in domestic oil production, which had remained static at about 5 million barrels per day for years, but is at 7 million now and will be at 8.5 million by the end of 2014. If these trends continue, the United States will be able to supply all its own energy needs by 2030 and be able to export oil by 2035. In fact, according to the government’s latest projections, the country is on track to become the world’s largest oil producer in less than a decade.
Yet as this once unimaginable prospect becomes a realistic possibility, it’s far from clear that it will solve all the problems it was supposed to. As much as boosters hope otherwise, energy independence isn’t likely to free America from its foreign policy entanglements. And at worst, say some skeptics who specialize in energy markets, it might create a whole new host of them, subjecting America to the same economic buffeting that plagues most oil exporters, and handing China even more global influence as the world’s behemoth consumer.
As much as the shift brings opportunities, however, it is also likely to open the United States up to liabilities we have not yet had to face. The consequences may be both good and bad, enriching and destabilizing for US interests—but they will certainly have a major impact on our geopolitics, in ways that the policy world is only just beginning to understand.
WHEN RICHARD NIXON was president, America consumed about one-third of the world’s oil, importing about 8.4 million barrels per day chiefly from the Middle East. The status quo hummed along until the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. The United States sent weapons to Israel, and the Arab states retaliated with a six-month oil embargo, refusing to sell oil to America. It was the only time in history that the “oil weapon” was effectively used, and it made a permanent impression on the United States.
Over time, the American response to the embargo came to include three major initiatives that still shape energy policy today. First, the government promoted lower oil consumption by pushing coal and natural gas power plants, home insulation, and mileage standards for cars. Second, the country drilled for more of its own oil. Third, and perhaps most important from a foreign-policy standpoint, the United States promoted a unified global oil market in which any country had the practical means to buy oil from any other. That meant that even if some countries couldn’t do business with each other—say, Iran and the United States—it wouldn’t affect the overall price and availability of oil. Other countries could fill in the gap.
The dreams of energy independence crossed party lines. Though liberals and conservatives differ on the means—how much we should rely on new drilling versus energy conservation—both parties have endorsed the quest. It was one of the few issues on which Presidents Carter and Reagan agreed.
America has made steady progress over the years, to the point where the nation’s total oil consumption has actually begun to drop. As this has happened, the high cost of global energy has also made it profitable to increase domestic production of natural gas and oil. A few months ago, both the US Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency predicted that if current production trends continue, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest oil producer in 2017.
Taken together, our slowing appetite and booming production mean that with a suddenness that has surprised many observers, the prospect of energy independence—technically speaking, at least—looms in the windshield.
Energy independence looks different today, however, than it did in the oil-shocked 1970s. For one thing, the energy market is a linchpin of the world order, and any big shift is likely to have costs to stability. Some analysts have warned that America’s growing oil production will create a glut that lowers prices, eating up the profits of oil countries and destabilizing their regimes. (That’s in the short term, anyway; worldwide, oil demand is still rising fast.) Falling prices mean that countries that depend on oil will face sudden cash shortages. It’s easy to imagine how destabilizing that could be for a natural-resource power like Russia, for the monarchs of the Persian Gulf, or for the dictators in Central Asia. No matter how distasteful their rule, the prospect of an unruly transition, or worse still, a protracted conflict, in any of those countries could cause havoc.
In the long term, this is not necessarily a bad thing: Weakening oppressive or corrupt governments could ultimately be beneficial for the people of those countries. And a shift in the balance of power away from the Gulf monarchies of OPEC and toward the United States could have a democratizing effect. In any event, though, lower oil prices and a dynamic energy market make the current stable order unpredictable.
China’s economic rise has also changed the global energy equation. For now, China is largely without its own petroleum supplies and is replacing the United States as the largest importer. As China steps into the United States’ shoes as the world’s largest oil customer, it will gain influence in oil-producing regions as American influence wanes. It might also feel compelled to invest more heavily in an aggressive navy, fearing that the United States will no longer shoulder the responsibility of policing shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere—a costly security service that America pays for but which benefits the entire network of global trade.
Domestically, there’s also the “resource curse,” which afflicts countries that depend too heavily on extracted commodities like minerals or petroleum. Such industries don’t add much value to a society beyond the price the commodity fetches at market, and that price is notoriously fickle, meaning fortunes and jobs rise and fall with swings in global prices. The resource curse often implies corruption and autocracy as well. But economists are less concerned about that, since the United States already has an effective government and laws to thwart corruption, and because oil will still make up a minuscule overall share of the economy. Last year oil and gas extraction amounted to just 1.2 percent of the American gross domestic product.
THERE ARE STILL plenty of people who think that energy self-sufficiency will be an unalloyed good. Jay Hakes, who has pursued the goal as an energy official under the last three Democratic presidents, says that America will reap countless political and economic dividends. It will help the trade deficit, give American companies and workers benefits when oil prices are high, and insulate the country from supply shocks. It will also give Washington wider latitude when dealing with oil-producing countries, on which it will depend less. “There are some downsides,” he acknowledges, “but they’re outweighed by all the positives.”
One benefit that self-sufficiency won’t bring, it seems clear, is a sudden independence from the politics of the Middle East. The region produces about half the world’s oil, and Saudi Arabia alone has so much oil that it can raise its capacity at a moment’s notice to make up for a shortfall anywhere else in the world.
Already, America is largely independent of Middle Eastern oil as a consumer: Only about 15 percent of our supply comes from the region. But we do depend on a stable world market—even more so if we become a net exporter ourselves. So even if we don’t buy Saudi oil, we’ll still need a stable Saudi regime that can add a few million barrels a day to world flows, at a moment’s notice, to offset a disruption somewhere else.
Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book “The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future,” believes that the biggest risk of achieving a goal like energy independence is complacency: Without the pressures that importing oil has brought, we may have little reason to innovate our way out of fossil fuels altogether. The policies themselves have achieved a great deal of good, he points out—stabilizing the world’s energy markets, reducing consumption, and pushing us beyond “independence” toward renewable sources like wind and solar power (though today these still make up a vanishingly small portion of the US energy supply).
Levi argues that an American oil bonanza could easily remove the political incentives for long-term planning and sacrifice. “I get scared that we’ll become complacent and make foolish decisions because we believe we’ve become energy independent,” Levi says. Energy independence was a useful slogan to motivate America, but in reality, a sensible energy policy has to balance a plethora of competing concerns, from geopolitics and the environment to consumer demand and fuel’s importance to the economy.
“The real way to be energy independent,” he said, “is actually to not use oil.”
How much of a watershed were Hassan Nasrallah’s comments on Saturday night? I’ll elaborate on these thoughts in a full piece soon, but my take-away is this: Hezbollah’s open embrace of the war in Syria doesn’t change everything, but it’s a big deal, and it makes the regional situation more combustible. Nasrallah welcomed Lebanese to fight on either side of the Syrian conflict, so long as they don’t extend the battled back into Lebanon. And he said that the war was entering a critical new phase, in which Hezbollah’s ability to fight Israel — the group’s core mission — was threatened by the insecurity of Assad regime in Syria. Hezbollah will heretofore treat the threat to Assad with the same priority that it treats Israeli aggressions. These are major commitments, but they don’t actually mark a change in behavior; Hezbollah has been acting on these principles since the conflict in Syria accelerated. And Nasrallah has the freedom to speak as intensely as he did in part because he knows there’s no direct Western military intervention in Syria in the offing, and because he knows that Israel shares with Hezbollah an interest in avoiding a direct confrontation over the Israel-Lebanon border.
I discussed some of these points in a Sunday afternoon appearance on BBC Newshour, which will be available for a few days at this link.
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
ARSAL, Lebanon — For more than a year, leaders in Lebanon have anxiously eyed the murderous civil war in Syria, wondering whether it would leap across the border and engulf the small, fractious country. And yet, it is Lebanon that now has jumped decisively into the fray, with Hezbollah’s help apparently crucial to the Syrian regime’s strategy and survival.
Uniformed Hezbollah fighters openly patrol the northern reaches of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, fighting on either side of the increasingly porous border with Syria. Rocket and mortar teams target Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters a few miles away, and Lebanese Hezbollah infantry fighters crisscross the “Shiite villages” surrounding the city of Qusayr just across the border in Syria, which now forms one of the pivot points of the conflict.
The fighting around Qusayr has brought into the open the parlor game over whether Iran and Hezbollah are active combatants in Syria’s war. In an April 30 speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah hinted at greater involvement from the Lebanese paramilitary group in Syria, warning that the regime had “real friends” who would prevent Syria from “fall[ing] into the hands” of the United States and Israel.
The thunder of artillery fire in the mountains flanking the Beqaa Valley, like the spate of no-longer-hidden Hezbollah funerals, make clear that Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors have crossed a Rubicon. They are now fully vested factions in the Syrian civil war, and they’re committed to an open and escalating fight.
Not 20 miles from Hezbollah’s position as the crow flies, FSA fighters flee across the border to the Sunni village of Arsal, nestled north in the Beqaa Valley in the mountains separating Lebanon and Syria. They make no distinction between the Syrian army, Hezbollah, and Iran — because, they say, they get shot at by all three.
“We could have common interests with Hezbollah, but they’re attacking us. Now there are grudges, which we will have to settle after the war,” said Shehadeh Ahmed Sheikh, 24, a self-described mortar man in the FSA. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of an unfinished home in Arsal. Sheikh had brought with him 16 members of his extended family after their house in Qusayr had been destroyed earlier that week; as we talked, they squatted around him in the dwelling, which they had been assigned to by Arsal’s mayor.
Like many Sunnis in the area, he referred to Hezbollah, whose name means “the Party of God” in Arabic, as Hezb al-Shaitan — “the Party of Satan.”
By supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, Hezbollah and Iran are risking their hard-won reputation as stewards of an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. alliance that transcends sect and nationality. Syrian combatants increasingly understand the war in sectarian terms: On one side there is the Sunni majority; on the other side, other sects and a small group of Sunnis that have made common cause with the Alawite regime.
Western diplomats estimate that a few thousand Hezbollah fighters are involved in the Syrian fighting. Close observers of the group, which carefully guards its operational structure, say that they mistrust any precise numbers. But if Hezbollah has sent hundreds, or even a few thousand, of its best-trained fighters to Syria, that deployment certainly represents a significant percentage of its fighting force. During its 2006 war with Israel, the highest estimate of Hezbollah fighters killed was about 700, with the group’s own official death toll closer to 300.
Sunnis are increasingly framing the conflict as a sectarian jihad. The influential Lebanese Salafi cleric Ahmad Al-Assir has set up his own militia, suggesting his fighters would be just as willing to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon as they already are to travel to Syria to fight alongside the rebels there. Supporters of the regime and Hezbollah point out that the rebellion tolerates Sunni fundamentalist extremists whereas Assad and Hezbollah rely on a time-tested alliance of minorities, including Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shiite Muslims. The propaganda of both sides has sharpened a narrative of the Syrian conflict as a struggle between Sunni extremists and old-style authoritarians, who at least protect the minorities they exploit. Deadly identity politics have taken root, and people on both sides of the conflict see it more and more as a matter of survival. Sheikh, the young Sunni fighter, planned to return to battle as soon as he settled his family: “We cannot go back to the way things were before.”
* * *
On the eve of the uprisings just three short years ago, many Arab analysts observed half-jokingly that the most influential state in the Arab world wasn’t Arab at all — it was Iran, awash in oil revenues and ready to lavish cash on a region in the throes of an increasingly hot Sunni-Shiite cold war. Sunni monarchs and dictators fretted about a “Shiite Crescent” linking Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah. Tehran, for its part, strutted triumphantly across the Arab stage, bragging about an unstoppable “Axis of Resistance” oiled with ideological fervor and the supreme leader’s bank account.
What a difference a few uprisings can make. Today, Iran’s involvement in Syria has all the makings of a quagmire, and certainly represents the Islamic Republic’s biggest strategic setback in the region since its war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ended in 1988. Syria’s conflict has begun to attract so much attention and resources that it threatens to end the era when Iran could nimbly outmaneuver the slow-moving American behemoth in the Middle East.
Iran — already reeling from sanctions — is spending hundreds of millions of dollars propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the murky arena of sub rosa foreign intervention, it’s impossible to keep a detailed count of the dollars, guns, and operatives the Islamic Republic has dispatched to Syria. Westerners and Arab officials who have met in recent months with Syrian government ministers say that Iranian advisers are retooling key ministries to provide copious military training, including to the newly established citizen militias in regime-controlled areas of Syria. “We back Syria,” Iranian General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan reiterated on May 5. “If there is need for training we will provide them with the training.”
In private meetings, Iranian diplomats in the region project insouciance, suggesting that the Islamic Republic can indefinitely sustain its military and financial aid to the Assad regime. To be sure, its burden today is probably bearable. But as sanctions squeeze Iran and it comes under increasing pressure over its nuclear program, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might find the investment harder to sustain. The conflict shows no signs of ending, and as foreign aid to the rebels escalates, Iran will have to pour in more and more resources simply to maintain a stalemate. If this is Iran’s Vietnam, we’re only beginning year three.
The cost of Tehran’s support of Assad can’t entirely be measured in dollars. Iran has had to sacrifice most of its other Arab allies on the Syrian altar. As the violence worsened, Hamas gave up its home in Damascus and its warm relationship with Tehran. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has also adopted a scolding tone toward Iran on Syria. On Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s first visit to Tehran, he took the opportunity to blast the “oppressive regime” in Damascus, saying it was an “ethical duty” to support the opposition.
Gone are the days when Iran held the mantle of popular resistance. Popular Arab movements, including Syria’s own rebels, now have the momentum and air of authenticity. Iran’s mullahs finally look to the Arab near-abroad as they long have appeared at home — repressive, authoritarian, and fierce defenders of the status quo.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Iran’s commitment to Assad has put the crown jewel of its assets in the Arab world, Hezbollah, in danger. Just a few years ago, a survey found that Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world. Along with other members of the “resistance axis,” Hezbollah mocked the rest of the Arab world’s political movements as toadies and collaborators, happy to submit to American-Israeli hegemony. Today, however, it has sacrificed this popular support and enraged Sunnis across the Arab world by siding with a merciless dictator.
Hezbollah used to try to cultivate allies from all sects, so that it wouldn’t seem to be pursuing a purely Shiite agenda, but it now appears in the eyes of the Arab world to have cast its lot — hook, line, and sinker — with a brutal minority regime in Syria over a popular, largely Islamist movement. A Pew survey last year found that the group’s popularity was declining in predominantly Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, while Lebanese Sunnis and Christians also increasingly soured on the party.
In the border town of Hermel, usually secretive Hezbollah fighters have openly mobilized. They fight on both sides of the border, protecting a ring of Shiite villages in Syria that connect Damascus to the Alawite heartland. An untold number of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria — so many that the movement has stopped keeping the funerals secret and has even released videos of some of the martyrs. “We bury our martyrs in the open,” Nasrallah said in his recent speech. “We are not ashamed of them.”
Hezbollah positions in Hermel were shelled on May 12, and the Sunni jihadist Nusra Front reportedly claimed responsibility. In their rhetoric, Lebanese politicians have sought to downplay the sectarian nature of the fight in Syria, and there are plenty of individuals who say they have chosen sides out of interest or ideology, rather than sect. Yet to most of its participants, the conflict has taken on an undeniably sectarian hue: an almost entirely Sunni rebellion, against a regime supported by the majority of Syria’s other sects.
“There’s no difference between Hezbollah, the army, and the Syrian regime,” scoffed Mustafa Ezzedine, a driver in Arsal who was recently dragged into the conflict as a literal hostage, kidnapped because he was a Sunni Muslim by a Shiite clan that wanted one of its own kidnapped members released. It doesn’t matter that among his guests at a recent, lazy hashish-fueled afternoon tea was a member of that same rival clan: sectarian politics have little regard for personal views. For residents of the Beqaa Valley, the war in Syria has already drifted across the border, and they fear it could get worse quickly.
The regional stakes are high as well. On at least one occasion, the Syrian conflict has cost an Iranian military commander his life. In mid-February, a shadowy IRGC officer responsible for overseeing Iranian reconstruction projects in Lebanon who went by the names Hessam Khoshnevis and Hassan Shateri was killed on the road from Damascus to Beirut. Iran put out the story that Israel assassinated their man, but Western and Arab officials told me they had seen reliable intelligence reports that it was a Syrian rebel ambush.
A who’s who of Lebanese politicians paid condolences at the Iranian embassy, and Hezbollah’s number two, Naim Qassem, delivered a long tribute to the fallen IRGC offer at a memorial service in an underground theater in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. It was the latest sign that Hezbollah is willing to risk everything in supporting the Syrian dictator — and that Iran just may ask its Lebanese ally to fight to the end, or go down with the ship.
“We would be nothing without Iran!” Qassem thundered in his tribute. “Others hide the foreign funds they receive. We proudly open our hands to Iran’s gifts. What the resistance needs, they provide.”
Ian Masters spoke with me about the deepening war in Syria and its implications for the outside powers investing in the conflict. Syria’s civil war is increasingly a reflection of power struggles between the Sunni-Monarchical alliance (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, the US, Lebanon’s March 14, the Syrian rebels) and the Shia-Resistance axis (Assad’s ruling coalition, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s March 8, various Arab minority groups). Here we talk mostly about how the conflict affects Hezbollah and Iran, but the bigger picture is that — unfortunately for Syrians — the civil war is definitively deepening into a regional proxy fight as well.
Matthew Bell did a piece on The World this week about Hassan Nasrallah’s latest speech. In short, has Hezbollah gone all in? And why? You can listen to the conversation here. Quick points: Hezbollah felt compelled to more openly address its involvement in Syria after the big Qusayr offensive of the last month. But this isn’t so much a turning point. The turning point came last fall, when Hezbollah, and Iran, decided not to hedge their bets but rather to fully side with the regime. Now the “Axis of Resistance” stands to lose a lot more when or if Assad falls — but they could well have invested in pro-resistance alternatives.
[Orginally published at The Blog of the Century.]
Chemical weapons hold a special kind of horror. Ever since the widespread and horrifying use of chlorine and other poison gases in the trenches of the First World War, most nations have agreed not to use any of the increasingly sophisticated agents they have concocted.
It is because of this well documented taboo and the Chemical Weapons Convention that the United States government has said that it “will not tolerate” any deployment of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.
But beyond moral revulsion, what will it mean not to tolerate the use of chemical weapons? What if clear and convincing evidence is presented that Bashar al-Assad has used nerve gas or some other chemical weapon against his citizens? What is the White House to do differently—and why, ultimately, should this particular method of mass murder rise to a new level than the workaday means (mortar shells, bullets, rockets, bombs) employed until now to kill upwards of 70,000 people in Syria?
There’s an argument to be made that chemical weapons are potentially so lethal, and so easy to spread, that states must establish a strong deterrent to their use. But that thinking doesn’t really hold up. Iraq used chemical weapons against its own citizens in the 1980s with support from the US government, which tried to blame Iran for the battlefield use of toxins. In that case, chemical weapons were just one atrocity among many in an eight-year conflict, and the world didn’t see a spate of nerve gas attacks by stateless militants.
In Syria today, the White House must decide whether to invest more resources in the conflict. Already, the US is arming and funding the rebel factions that it finds most palatable. It has held back from doing more because of the plethora of Islamist extremists in the opposition and because of the uncertainty of what would follow in the event of a state collapse in Syria. If in fact the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons, there would be more urgency to resolving the question of whether the US should do more.
But the basic calculus won’t change.
The US wants to see a stable Syria, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, and unlikely to happen at all so long as Bashar al-Assad is in power. So far, there is no clear alternative. On one side, a bankrupt family regime; on the other, a splintered opposition with no unified leadership, no clear plan for after Assad, an Islamist flavor and a major streak of jihadi extremism.
The US and the other foreign sponsors of the opposition have funneled money and weapons to their preferred groups, hoping that incremental and indirect intervention will mould the opposition into a more coherent structure. This might or might not happen, but until a viable leadership actually controls a sizeable portion of the rebels, outside powers—including the US—are unlikely to escalate their involvement. This constraint holds whether or not the regime is using chemical weapons (and whether or not, as many allege, some factions of the opposition are also committing war crimes).
Confirmed chemical weapons use will surely create a public outcry and intensify the moral case for intervention, and the ensuing pressure will surely affect the White House calculus. But it’s unlikely on its own to make the US go to war in Syria, or propel a coalition like the one that intervened in Libya. That kind of game-changing development will require a real shift in the structure of the opposition.
Greater crimes by the regime—be it use of chemical weapons, or ever more prolific massacres—could galvanize such changes. But misbehavior or crimes committed by some rebel factions could well cancel out any momentum to get involved.
The latest evidence is worrisome indeed. But it doesn’t yet open the way for an international intervention.
Blast barriers in Baghdad, 2008. DONOVAN WYLIE / MAGNUM PHOTOS
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
BEIRUT — Everything that people love and hate about cities stems from the agglomeration of humanity packed into a tight space: the traffic, the culture, the chance encounters, the anxious bustle. Along with this proximity come certain feelings, a relative sense of security or of fear.
Over the last 13 years I have lived in a magical succession of cities: Boston, Baghdad, New York, and Beirut. They all made lovely and surprising homes—and they all were distorted to varying degrees by fear and threat.
At root, cities depend on constant leaps of faith. You cross paths every hour with people of vastly different backgrounds and trust that you’ll emerge safely. Each act of violence—a mugging, a murder, a bombing—erodes that faith. Over time, especially if there are more attacks, a city will adapt in subtle but profound and insidious ways.
The bombing last week was a shock to Boston, and a violation. As long as it’s isolated, the city will recover. But three people have died, and more than 170 have been wounded, and the scar will remain. As we think about how to respond, it’s worth also considering what happens when cities become driven by fear.
NEW YORK, WASHINGTON, and to a lesser extent the rest of America have exchanged some of the trappings of an open society for extra security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Metal detectors and guards have become fixtures at government buildings and airports, and it’s not unusual to see a SWAT team with machine guns patrolling in Manhattan. Police conduct random searches in subways, and new buildings feature barriers and setbacks that isolate them from the city’s pedestrian life.
Baghdad and Beirut, however, are reminders of the far greater changes wrought by wars and ubiquitous random violence. A city of about 7 million, low-slung Baghdad sprawls along the banks of the Tigris River. It’s the kind of place where almost everyone has a car, and it blends into expansive suburbs on its fringes. When I first arrived in 2003, the city was reeling from the shock-and-awe bombing and the US invasion. But it was the year that followed that slowly and inexorably transformed the way people lived. First, the US military closed roads and erected checkpoints. Then, militants started ambushing American troops and planting roadside bombs; the ensuing shootouts often engulfed passersby. Finally, extremists and sectarian militias began indiscriminately targeting Iraqi civilians and government personnel—in queues at public buildings, at markets, in mosques, virtually everywhere. Order crumbled.
Baghdad became a city of walls. Wealthy homeowners blocked their own streets with piles of gravel. Jersey barriers sprang up around every ministry, office, and hotel. As the conflict widened, entire neighborhoods were sealed off. People adjusted their commutes to avoid tedious checkpoints and areas with frequent car bombings. Drive times doubled or tripled. Long lines, with invasive searches, became an everyday fact of life. The geography of the city changed. Markets moved, even the old-fashioned outdoor kind where merchants sell livestock or vegetables. Entire sub-cities sprang up to serve Shia and Sunni Baghdadis who no longer could travel through each other’s areas.
Simple civic pleasures atrophied almost overnight. No one wanted to get blown up because they insisted on going out for ice cream. The famed riverfront restaurants went dormant; no more live carp hammered with a mallet and grilled before our eyes. The water-pipe joints in the parks went out of business. Most of the social spaces that defined the city shut down. Booksellers fled Mutanabe Street, the intellectual center of the city with its antique cafes. The amusement park at the Martyrs Monument shut its gates. Hotel bar pianists emigrated. Dust settled over the playgrounds and fountains at the strip of grassy family restaurants near Baghdad University.
In Beirut, where I moved with my family earlier this year, a generation-long conflict has Balkanized the city’s population. Here, most groups no longer trust each other at all. From 1975 to 1991 the city was split by civil war, and people moved where they felt safest. A cosmopolitan city fragmented into enclaves. Christians flocked to East Beirut, spawning a dozen new commercial hubs. Shiites squatted in the village orchards south of Beirut, and within a decade had built a city-within-a-city almost a million strong—the Dahieh, or “the Suburb.” The original downtown became a demilitarized zone, its Arabesque arcades reduced to rubble, and today has been rebuilt as a sterile, Disney-like tourist and office sector. Ras Beirut, my neighborhood, deteriorated from proudly diverse (and secular) to “Sunni West Beirut,” although it still boasts pockets of stubborn coexistence. In today’s Beirut, my block, where a Druze warlord lives across the street from a church and subsidizes the parking fees of his Shia, Sunni, and Christian neighbors, is a stark exception.
Mixing takes place, but tentatively, and because of frequent outbreaks of violence over the years, Beirutis have internalized the reflexes to fight, defend, and isolate. The result is a city alight with street life, cafes, and boutiques but which can instantaneously shift to war footing. One friend ran into his bartender on a night off at a checkpoint with bandoliers of bullets strapped to his chest. Even when the city appears calm, most people have laid in supplies in case an armed flare-up forces them to stay in their homes for a week. My friend’s teenage daughter keeps a change of clothes in her schoolbag in case she can’t return to her house. Uniformed private guards are everywhere, in every park, on every promenade, at every mall.
WITHIN A FEW weeks of our move to Beirut this year, my 5-year-old son traded his old fantasy, in which he played the doctor and assigned us roles as patients and nurses, for a new one: security guard. While we were setting up for a yard party, he arranged a few plastic chairs by the door. “I’ll check people here,” he declared. He also asked me a lot of questions about the heavily armed soldiers who stand watch on our street: “Will the army shoot me if I make a mistake?”
This is not the childhood he would have in Boston, even after this week. War-molded cities are nightmare reflections of failed states, places where government has gone into free fall, police don’t or can’t do their jobs, and normal life feels out of reach. Beirut is a kind of warning: Physically it appears normal on most days. But trust is gone. The public sphere feels wobbly and impermanent.
Boston is still lucky, with assets that Beirut lost generations ago; it has functional institutions, old communities with tangled but shared histories, and unifying cultural traditions. Boston has police that can get a job done and a baseball team that ties together otherwise divided corners of the city. One lesson of the city I live in now is that circumstances can sever these lifelines faster than we expect. Our connections require continued, perhaps redoubled, care. Without trust, a city can still be a magnificent place to live. Until all at once, it isn’t.
Syrian rebel fighters posed for a photo after several days of intense clashes with the Syrian army in Aleppo, Syria, in October. (AP: NARCISO CONTRERAS)
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
THE NEWS FROM SYRIA keeps getting worse. As it enters its third year, the civil war between the ruthless Assad regime and groups of mostly Sunni rebels has taken nearly 100,000 lives and settled into a violent, deadly stalemate. Beyond the humanitarian costs, it threatens to engulf the entire region: Syria’s rival militias have set up camp beyond the nation’s borders, destabilizing Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Refugees have made frontier areas of those countries ungovernable.
United Nations peace talks have never really gotten off the ground, and as the conflict gets worse, voices in Europe and America, from both the left and right, have begun to press urgently for some kind of intervention. So far the Obama administration has largely stayed out, trying to identify moderate rebels to back, and officially hoping for a negotiated settlement—a peace deal between Assad’s regime and its collection of enemies.
Given the importance of what’s happening in Syria, it might seem puzzling that the United States is still so much on the sidelines, waiting for a resolution that seems more and more elusive with each passing week. But it is also becoming clear that for America, there’s another way to look at what’s happening. A handful of voices in the Western foreign policy world are quietly starting to acknowledge that a long, drawn-out conflict in Syria doesn’t threaten American interests; to put it coldly, it might even serve them. Assad might be a monster and a despot, they point out, but there is a good chance that whoever replaces him will be worse for the United States. And as long as the war continues, it has some clear benefits for America: It distracts Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s government, traditional American antagonists in the region. In the most purely pragmatic policy calculus, they point out, the best solution to Syria’s problems, as far as US interests go, might be no solution at all.
If it’s true that the Syrian war serves American interests, that unsettling insight leads to an even more unsettling question: what to do with that knowledge. No matter how the rest of the world sees the United States, Americans like to think of themselves as moral actors, not the kind of nation that would stand by as another country destroys itself through civil war. Yet as time goes on, it’s starting to look—especially to outsiders—as if America is enabling a massacre that it could do considerably more to end.
For now, the public debate over intervention in America has a whiff of hand-wringing theatricality. We could intervene to staunch the suffering but for circumstances beyond our control: the financial crisis, worries about Assad’s successor, the lingering consequences of the Iraq war. These might explain why America doesn’t stage a costly outright invasion. But they don’t explain why it isn’t sending vastly more assistance to the rebels.
The more Machiavellian analysis of Syria’s war helps clarify the disturbing set of choices before us. It’s unlikely that America would alter the balance in Syria unless the situation worsens and protracted civil war begins to threaten, rather than quietly advance, core US interests. And if we don’t want to wait for things to get that bad, then it is time for America’s policy leaders to start talking more concretely—and more honestly—about when humanitarian concerns should trump our more naked state interests.
MANY AMERICAN observers were heartened when the Arab uprisings spread to Syria in the spring of 2011, starting with peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s police state. Given Assad’s long and murderous reign, a democratic revolution seemed to offer hope. But the regime immediately responded with maximum lethality, arresting protesters and torturing some to death.
Armed rebel groups began to surface around the country, harassing Assad’s military and claiming control over a belt of provincial cities. Assad has pursued a scorched earth strategy, raining shells, missiles, and bombs on any neighborhood that rises up. Rebel areas have suffered for the better part of a year under constant strafing and sniper fire, without access to water, health care, or electricity. Iran and Russia have kept the military pipeline open, and Assad has a major storehouse of chemical weapons. While some rebel groups have been accused of crimes, the regime is disproportionately responsible for the killing, which earlier this year passed the 70,000 mark by a United Nations estimate that close observers consider an undercount.
As the civil war has hardened into a bloody, damaging standoff, many have called for a military intervention, pressing for the United States to side with one of the moderate rebel factions and do whatever it takes to propel it to victory. Liberal humanitarians focus on the dead and the millions driven from their homes by the fighting, and have urged the United States to join the rebel campaign. The right wants intervention on different grounds, arguing that the regional security implications of a failed Syria are too dangerous to ignore; the country occupies a significant strategic location, and the strongest rebel coalition, the Nusra Front, is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Given all those concerns, both sides suggest that it’s only a question of when, not if, the United States gets drawn in.
“Syria’s current trajectory is toward total state failure and a humanitarian catastrophe that will overwhelm at least two of its neighbors, to say nothing of 22 million Syrians,” said Fred Hof, an ambassador who ran Obama’s Syria policy at the State Department until last year, when he quit the administration and became a leading advocate for intervention. His feelings are widely shared in the foreign policy establishment: Liberals like Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter and conservatives like Fouad Ajami have made the interventionist case, as have State Department officials behind the scenes.
Intervention is always risky, and in Syria it’s riskier than elsewhere. The regime has a powerful military at its disposal and major foreign backers in Russia and Iran. An intervention could dramatically escalate the loss of life and inflame a proxy struggle into a regional conflagration.
And yet there’s a flip side to the risks: The war is also becoming a sinkhole for America’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s most persistent irritants to the United States and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad’s regime and establishing new militias. Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world. Gulf monarchies, which tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side, sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up the attention and resources of its entire neighborhood, the greater America’s relative influence in the Middle East.
If that makes Syria an unattractive target for intervention, so too do the politics and position of the combatants. For now, jihadist groups have established themselves as the most effective rebel fighters—and their distaste for Washington approaches their rage against Assad. Egos have fractured the rebellion, with new leaders emerging and falling every week, leaving no unified government-in-waiting for outsiders to support. The violent regime, meanwhile, is no friend to the West.
“I’ll come out and say it,” wrote the American historian and polemicist Daniel Pipes, in an e-mail. “Western powers should guide the conflict to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing. The danger of evil forces lessens when they make war on each other.”
Pipes is a polarizing figure, best known for his broadsides against Islamists and his critique of US policy toward the Middle East, which he usually says is naive. But in this case he’s voicing a sentiment that several diplomats, policy makers, and foreign policy thinkers have expressed to me in private. Some are career diplomats who follow the Syrian war closely. None wants to see the carnage continue, but one said to me with resignation: “For now, the war is helping America, so there’s no incentive to change policy.”
Analysts who follow the conflict up close almost universally want more involvement because they are maddened by the human toll—but many of them see national interests clearly standing in the way. “Russia gets to feel like it’s standing up to America, and America watches its enemies suffer,” one complained. “They don’t care that the Syrian state is hollowing itself out in ways that will come back to haunt everyone.”
IS IT EVER ACCEPTABLE to encourage a war to continue? In the policy world it’s seen as the grittiest kind of realpolitik, a throwback to the imperial age when competing powers often encouraged distant wars to weaken rivals, or to keep colonized nations compliant. During the Cold War the United States fanned proxy wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Angola to Nicaragua but invoked the higher principle of stopping the spread of communism, rather than admitting it was simply trying to wear out the Soviet Union.
In Syria it’s impossible to pretend that the prolonging of the civil war is serving a higher goal, and nobody, even Pipes, wants the United States to occupy the position of abetting a human-rights catastrophe. But the tradeoffs illustrate why Syria has become such a murky problem to solve. Even in an intervention that is humanitarian rather than primarily self-interested, a country needs to weigh the costs and risks of trying to help against the benefit we might realistically expect to bring—and it’s a difficult decision to get involved when those potential costs include threats to our own political interests.
So just what would be bad enough to induce the United States to intervene? An especially egregious massacre—a present-day Srebenica or Rwanda—could fan such outrage that the White House changes its position. So too would a large-scale violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention—signed by most states in the world, but not Syria. But far more likely is that the war simmers on, ever deadlier, until one side scores a military victory big enough to convince the outside powers to pick a winner. The White House hopes that with time, rebels more to its liking will gain influence and perhaps eclipse the alarming jihadists. That could take years. Many observers fear that Assad will fall and open the way to a five- or ten-year civil war between his successor and a well-armed coalition of Islamist militias, turning Syria into an Afghanistan on the Euphrates. The only thing that seems likely is that whatever comes next will be tragic for the people of Syria.
Because this chilly if practical logic is largely unspoken, the current hands-off policy continues to bewilder many American onlookers. It would be easier to navigate the conversation about intervention if the White House, and the policy community, admit what observers are starting to describe as the benefits of the war. Only then can we move forward to the real moral and political calculations at stake: for example, whether giving Iran a black eye is worth having a hand in the tally of Syria’s dead and displaced.
For those up close, it’s looking unhappily like a trip to a bygone era. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze warlord, spent much of the last two years trying fruitlessly to persuade Washington and Moscow to midwife a political solution. Now he’s given up. Atop the pile of books on his coffee table sits “The Great Game,” a tale of how superpowers coldly schemed for centuries over Central Asia, heedless of the consequences for the region’s citizens. When he looks at Syria he sees a new incarnation of the same contest, where Russia and America both seek what they want at the expense of Syrians caught in the conflict.
“It’s cynical,” he said in a recent interview. “Now we are headed for a long civil war.”
Kholoud and Nidal, from Kholoud’s Facebook page.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
BEIRUT — Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish weren’t interested in making legal history when they got engaged last year. She’s a Sunni Muslim and he is Shia, and like many interfaith couples in this part of the world who don’t want to convert, they planned to get married outside their home country. Then, at a photography workshop, Sukkarieh met a lawyer with a cause and an intriguing proposal: Would she and her fiancé be interested in using their wedding to do something radical?
Last November, they tied the knot before a willing notary, becoming the first couple in the history of Lebanon to marry in a nonreligious ceremony. In January they embarked on what promises to be a long, fraught challenge to the legal status quo, using an obscure provision of old colonial law to demand that the Lebanese government officially recognize their marriage.
What sounds like a simple thing in the West—a civil marriage with a judge or a notary presiding, and no religious contract—is a near-impossibility in the Middle East. Their marriage, and the controversy it has triggered here, shines a light on a crucial but unappreciated way in which this region differs from much of the rest of the world. Lebanon, like almost all the Arab states, most Islamic countries, and Israel, simply doesn’t have civil laws for matters of personal status.
The effects of this difference percolate deeply through society. In the West and Asia, marriage and family law have evolved to reflect broader changes in society, even when religious authorities don’t agree. Civil codes have adapted to the rise of divorce, developed custody standards that are fairer to women, and are now starting to recognize the rights of same-sex couples and their children.
In the Middle East, on the other hand, the laws governing marriage, inheritance, and sometimes even citizenship move only when religious authorities allow, which means they’ve remained almost entirely static during the last century. They stifle identity and cause countless problems for families whose members might include different faiths or different nationalities; for couples that want to divorce; for women, who often have far fewer rights than men under religious codes; and for people who want to equitably share their inheritance with their daughters.
Sukkarieh and Darwish, and the civil-law advocates who support them, see their marriage only as a beginning. By forcing the state of Lebanon to recognize their union, they hope to catalyze a broader movement to grant people a legally recognized personal life outside the umbrella of religion—and establish a clear civil sphere outside the influence of clerics. In doing so, they are flying straight into the teeth of a countervailing trend: the rise of political Islam.
“We want political life to be 100 percent secular,” Sukkarieh explained one recent evening in the garden at Fitness Zone, the gym where her husband works as a receptionist. “I’m not afraid to question a sheikh. It’s time for the politicians to stop being afraid of clerics.”
MIDDLE EASTERN MARRIAGE and family law is, ironically, the legacy of what was once a very progressive idea. Over the centuries that the Ottoman Empire ruled the region, it presided over an astonishing patchwork of minorities, including sizable populations of Jews and Christians. The Ottoman Sultans, cosmopolitan Muslims based in Istanbul, took the open-minded approach of granting Jews, Christians, and other minority sects the right to govern their own personal affairs. Separate religious courts governed the private lives of different religious communities.
Ottoman rule crumbled in the 19th century, replaced by European colonial powers, and finally by independent states in the 20th century. As these emerged, new ideas jostled to replace the old balance of cleric and state. Islamist philosophers argued for a more rigid system governed entirely by Islam, while secular nationalists argued for new modern civil governments. Most of the Arab states ultimately moved toward more religious legal codes, though some, like Iraq and Syria, were resolutely secular for a time. Lebanon inherited some secular legal precepts from the French mandate period, which ended in 1943. But most of the former empire fell back on the Ottoman notion that, where personal life is concerned, each religion should govern its own.
For at least two generations, the laws of religious sects have controlled personal status matters almost everywhere. (One exception was Tunisia, where a secular dictator in 1956 implemented a progressive secular code that gave women equal rights.) Even in states that have some civil rules, Islamic law trumps them for Muslims. In Christian communities, clerics hold sway over family life with such strict and antiquated codes that many of the dwindling number of Christians in the Arab world have converted to Islam, which has comparatively simple procedures for divorce. Israel offers more of the same, with the most conservative ultra-Orthodox sect in charge of sanctioning marriages—and even of certifying who counts as a Jew. This has created some strange scenarios: One of the few ways that Israelis and Lebanese cross paths with each other, as citizens of two nations that have technically been at war nonstop since 1948, is in Cyprus, where package tour operators fly couples from both countries who must leave home to hold a civil marriage ceremony.
The result is a patchwork of laws where neighbors may have entirely different marriage rights and interfaith couples face myriad complications. For many communities it blocks any attempt to secure equal rights for women, and curtails the rights of people who consider themselves secular or nonbelievers. Ultimately, it creates a vast zone of activity that’s solely the province of clerics and off limits to the state.
There have been occasional bursts of reform, including a brief period during the 1950s and 1960s when secular regimes in Egypt and Syria appeared to have momentum on their side. In the years before recent the Arab uprisings, civil law advocates made some headway. Egypt reformed divorce laws to fix some of the most imbalanced practices, including custody rulings that almost universally favored fathers over mothers. Algeria gave women substantial rights to pass citizenship to their children. Saudi Arabia reluctantly began to consider giving children born to a Saudi mother and a foreign father—previously treated as complete foreigners—a chance to win legal residency in the kingdom.
Today, though, even those small steps are imperiled, as Islamists all over the region press for political power. In Egypt they are seeking to roll back the limited rights to divorce that women earned in the last decade. Some have also asked to lower the age of marriage from its current minimum of 18 and to limit the rights of religious minorities and women to run for high political office.
Though such extreme propositions appear unlikely to become law right away, Islamists have successfully shifted the political dialogue in most of the region. In Iraq, a new constitution written after the US invasion raised the status of Islam in the legal code, and sectarian officials have gained vast new powers over both the personal and the political. Libya’s new leader in his first speech legalized polygamy, which had been banned by Khadafy. Tunisia’s progressive personal status code, which gave women equal rights and cut clerics out of personal status matters, is under attack.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the history, when civil-law advocates look for a model legal regime they turn to Turkey. What was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire is now the only country to have completely scrapped its religious rules for a civil code that applies equally to all citizens—although there, too, Islamists are gradually chipping away at the state’s secular bedrock.
LEBANON, WHERE SUKKARIEH and Darwish live, has been an especially fertile ground for secular challenges to clerical control. This small country is notorious for the entrenched factionalism of its 18 sects—Muslims, Christians, Druze, and other smaller offshoots—whose animosity was inflamed during the civil war from 1975 to 1990. But it also has a deep tradition of interfaith cooperation, a powerful secular civil society built on the region’s best universities, and the Arab world’s most thriving independent nonprofit sector.
Even so, it remains bound by the region’s assumptions about the role of religion in civic life. In Lebanon, candidates run for office based on their sect. Public sector jobs are handed out by sect. Voting is regulated by sect. And naturally, marriage, divorce, and inheritance are controlled by religious codes.
Today, a small but vociferous group of activists is pushing against this. They include lawyers from prominent political dynasties, feminists, activists for political reform, frustrated youth, and working-class believers like Sukkarieh. Parallel movements exist all over the Middle East among urban elites and occasionally in rural villages.
Like Sukkarieh and Darwish, these advocates see civil marriage as a proxy for something bigger: a truly secular state.
“Only a secular regime guarantees freedom, even freedom of religion,” says Lina Abou-Habib, who runs a Beirut-based NGO that pushes for women’s rights around the region. One of their many campaigns hopes to force Arab governments to allow women to pass citizenship to their children—a right currently reserved, in most places, for men alone. Abou-Habib says the hegemony of clerics has led to absurdity. She’s a Greek Orthodox Christian married to a Sunni Muslim; under the prevailing legal code, since she hasn’t converted, if she were to die now her daughter wouldn’t even be able to inherit her car.
For Sukkarieh and Darwish, getting their marriage registered with the state has become a consuming second career. So far the government has withheld legal recognition of their marriage contract, but courts have recognized it—which, in Lebanon’s complicated bureaucracy, is looking like a victory for the couple. And the larger argument appears just to be beginning. Lebanon’s president came out on Twitter in favor of civil marriage; the billionaire prime minister opposed it. At the end of January, the top Sunni cleric threatened to excommunicate anyone who supported civil marriage, but the richest and most powerful Sunni politician said he supported civil marriage and opposed the mufti.
Meanwhile, other couples say they intend to follow their lead as soon as the issue is resolved. A Lebanese journalist has tentatively scheduled a group civil wedding for more couples in April, assuming the pathbreaking marriage successfully wins formal recognition this month.
It’s been 70 years since some Lebanese started talking about civil marriage, and no couple has gotten as far as Sukkarieh and Darwish. At a time when the future of the Arab state is being vigorously contested by empowered citizens around the region, secular activists have been buoyed by the unexpected landmark in Lebanon. It’s premature to read too much into it; after all, Islamists are sweeping to power in elections all over, and it could take decades for their own internal schisms and inconsistencies to create openings for a strong secular alternative. But the civil marriage faction hopes to build that, one family at a time. “We didn’t expect it,” Sukkarieh said, “but we’ve rejuvenated civil society.”
Yesterday David Alpern’s show For Your Ears Only talked to me about Kerry’s trip to the Middle East. You can listen here. The highlights were what you’d expect: Kerry’s diplomatic style will only go so far if he has to deal with a dog of a policy, as in Syria. But the optics matter, and perhaps he’ll have some impact with his visit to Egypt, where he spent extra time paying attention to elements in the government beyond the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood politicians, and also meeting extensively with members of the opposition. These gestures are messaging more than anything else, but in Egypt, where the elected Brotherhood has refused to negotiate with any actors beyond the military, US pressure and symbolism might actually provoke better behavior. As for Israel, Palestine and negotiations, my expectations couldn’t be lower, and I don’t think Kerry’s going to change that.
Old friend Aaron Schaachter put me on the radio on Friday to ask what we know about Hezbollah’s latest maneuvers as the Syrian civil war deepens and spreads. I talked about Hezbollah’s spreading involvement in the conflict, which includes so many outside actors (US, Turkey, Qatar, KSA, Iran, most Lebanese factions, and more) and the dangers for Lebanon as Hezbollah finds its interests threatened by the collapse of the Syrian state. You can listen to the discussion on The World on WGBH/PRI here.
Google Plus hosted a hangout on Friday to talk about whether Hezbollah’s tactics are changing. I joined Gareth Porter, Ali Gharib and Josh Hersh to talk about the latest European cases against Hezbollah, the debate over terror-listing, and the question of Hezbollah’s motives. The conversation was good, full of healthy skepticism. Hersh made smart points about how little is actually known about Hezbollah, and most of us agreed that it was hard to ascertain why Hezbollah would get involved in assassination plots and terror attacks on civilians at this particular point in its history. We also for the most part agreed that putting Hezbollah on Europe’s terror list would accomplish little. Where we departed was on our view of the evidence — I see accumulating data that connects Hezbollah to plots and killings, although I have questions about the logic at play, while Gareth Porter seemed convinced that there was no actual evidence at all connecting Hezbollah to crimes since and including Rafik Hariri’s murder in 2005.
You can watch the whole half-hour conversation here.
A reader peruses the front cover of the revolutionary Tahrir newspaper (Photo: Amr Dalsh/Reuters)
As the Arab uprisings continue, war and state repression aren’t the only threats to free expression. Egypt in the last week saw two other factors impinging on the independent media: bad finances and malignant bureaucracy. They pose a potent threat that could drastically worsen the dimming prospects for a transition away from authoritarianism.
The traditional print media’s business model has suffered all over the world, and Arab countries undergoing political transitions are not immune. Throw into the mix the fact that bloated state agencies control many of the major publishing conglomerates and television networks, and you have a gargantuan set of problems above and beyond efforts by the government to punish dissent and restrict speech (read my recent Internationalist column in The Boston Globe for more about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s exertions on that front).
This week, the dismal economics of the print media nearly forced the closure of the Egypt Independent, one of the best sources of critical and feature reportage about Egypt. The editors were told this week that their paper, formerly known as Al Masry Al Youm English, would be closed because it loses too much money. They persuaded management to give them a stay of execution while they made their publication financially viable, but it seems only a matter of time before they face the prospect of closure again. (Another English-language paper, The Daily News Egypt, folded in 2012 although investors have since brought it back.)
Meanwhile, the dismal values of the Muslim Brotherhood’s media commissioners have driven out the editor of Al Ahram Online, an odd bright spot of breaking news and dissenting journalism that thrived, in English, within the otherwise moribund state publishing conglomerate. Ahram Online’s editor Hani Shukrallah is a secular leftist with Christian origins. He was forced into early retirement by the new Ahram supervisors put in place by the Muslim Brotherhood. Shukrallah believes it’s a purely political decision, and spoke out only after his salary was cut and his chosen successor passed over. “The object of course is humiliation,” he wrote in a Facebook note. “Fools! I have something immeasurably more precious: my dignity and self-respect. What do you have?” So far, his successor hasn’t been named and his staff continues its impressive work. A Muslim Brotherhood loyalist has already been put in charge of Ahram’s daily Arabic edition, and prospects don’t look good for the independent editorial line of Ahram Online in English.
The English-language local press served an important function before the uprisings that broke out two years ago. Its reporters had more leeway than the Arabic press, and pushed boundaries in their reporting on torture, corruption and incompetent governance. They have extended that role in the two years since Mubarak fell. Egypt Independent and Ahram Online are read by people all over the world, and by activists in Egypt as well. They shape opinions in the international policy community, and have been invaluable forums for Egyptians in Egypt and the diaspora.
Ahram Online might revert to regime control, but that’s not irreversible. It could be a temporary setback in a multi-year transition. If Egypt Independent closes, many of its talented journalists will have to seek employment elsewhere or leave journalism – but the publication could be resuscitated by an angel investor. This has all happened before, and unlike in Mubarak’s Egypt, there’s now a boisterous Arabic-language media that’s pushing the limits of oppressive state regulation. While there’s considerable pressure from the state, there’s also more limit-testing and more free speech than ever before.
Even before the financial woes that struck her paper, Egypt Independent editor-in-chief Lina Attalah was worried about the unprecedented amount of attention the new Muslim Brotherhood regime was paying to the English language press. “They’re concerned about their image abroad, and they do not yet own the state,” she told me. “So they feel they have to resort to other methods of control.”
Elsewhere in the region things there was grim news for free speech over the last week. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan detained without warrant people who wrote critically about the government. An Australian outlet broke the news of a secret prisoner who died in Israeli custody in 2010, forcing the ridiculous spectacle of Israeli journalists, still facing prosecution if they talked about the gag order on the case, speculating about the case in the subjunctive. And in what passed for a bright spot Kuwaiti courts acquitted five online activists who had been charged with “offending the emir.”
All critics of the newly-elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt face a concerted campaign by the presidency to shut them up. For journalists, there are two extra dangers: a bureaucracy with tentacles through much of the publishing and broadcasting industry, and a dangerously deflated economy that is bankrupting all kinds of businesses, including the media. It’s a potentially lethal triple threat, and it couldn’t come at worse time. There are plenty of scurrilous journalists-for-hire making up slanderous and polarizing stories, but the dedicated and courageous Egyptian press corps – not least including the staffs of Egypt Independent and Ahram Online – have provided inspiration and, crucially, information. Let’s hope they’re able to continue doing their jobs.