The world’s next nations

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


The world’s next nations: a brief guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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




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

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

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

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

Western Sahara



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

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

New Caledonia



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

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




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

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


Iraqi Kurdistan


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

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

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

The surprising appeal of ISIS

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


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

An ISIS fighter in the city of Mosul last week.


An ISIS fighter in the city of Mosul last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

What It’s Like to Fight ISIS

Posted June 11th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
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An image taken from a video uploaded on Sunday by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claiming to show fighters in Tikrit, Iraq. CreditISIL, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Continue reading the main GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The fighters with the Free Syrian Army were expecting an attack any day from the jihadists besieging the city of Minbej in war-torn Syria, fortifying their base, once a carpet factory, with concrete bomb-blast barriers.

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

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

Map: Where ISIS Is Gaining Control in Iraq and Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ISIS: Behind the Group That Took Mosul

ISIS: Behind the Group That Took Mosul

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

CreditYaser Al-Khodor/Reuters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Aid to Syria Be Prolonging War?

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


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

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas]

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Syrian refugees at the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey.


Syrian refugees at the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite Strategic Convergence, Israel-Egypt Ties Face Tactical Strains

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

[Briefing for World Politics Review.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musk Lemons

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family eats the sorbet

How can America really promote democracy abroad?

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

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

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

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alaa Abdel Fattah on this moment of suspended hope

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

Alaa on DN!

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

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

What line did Putin cross in Crimea?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a tragic moment,” McFaul said.

Medical care is now a tool of war

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

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[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Processing the Arab Revolts

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

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

A revolutionary playwright: Saadallah Wannous

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

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

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from 2013: Regime Power rivals People Power

Posted December 31st, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

File photo of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad answering journalists after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris

The Boston Globe Ideas section put together a package of year-end lessons. My depressed contribution was that –sadly — we can’t discount nasty old regimes simply because they’re nasty. [Original link behind paywall here.]

JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, people power seemed unstoppable. Arab revolts in 2010 and 2011 overthrew a quartet of tyrants—Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Moammar Khadafy in Libya. Vast police states proved no match for crowds armed only with newfound courage. Egyptian youth leader and labor activist Ahmed Maher could have been speaking for the entire region when he declared in January 2011: “The people are no longer afraid. We want a democratic state that respects human rights and allows all its citizens to live in dignity.”

The display was enough to rattle China, which tightened its control of the Internet, local party bosses, and the foreign press corps. Russia’s Vladimir Putin clamped down so hard that he threw the punk band Pussy Riot in prison. In Saudi Arabia, the king spent billions in new handouts to quell revolutionary sentiment, while the dictatorship in Syria went for broke, torturing and shooting the first unarmed demonstrators and escalating to a consuming and murderous civil war.

Popular movements, in 2013, turned out to have less power than it had seemed, while authoritarian states emerged as crafty and resilient. In Egypt, after a brief experiment with an elected civilian president, chanting crowds demanded the installation of a new dictator, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi; the activist Maher, meanwhile, is now in prison, sentenced to three years for protesting. Regimes in Iran and Syria regained their old swagger, while activists in Saudi Arabia and Algeria watched these outcomes and held back. The one bright spot in the Arab world was Tunisia, where elections have spawned coalition governments and where real change and compromise appear to be in the works.

After the crackdowns, the leaders of Russia and China today appear confident that no Internet activists or civil society groups can break their regimes’ monopoly of power. Egypt’s muscle-flexing new authoritarians, and Syria’s resurgent old ones, convincingly demonstrated that if the wind of people power is still blowing, it is far from an irresistible force.

Regional realignment with Hezbollah, Assad & Iran?

Posted December 4th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Hassan Laqqis, assassination scene. Source: Al Manar

There’s been lots of talk about the regional consequences of the Iran nuclear deal, and of a realignment as the West realizes that it might prefer Assad in power to a jihadi-dominated rebel government or some version of the current punishing settlement. Ryan Crocker told The New York Times that the US should resume cooperating with Damascus against Salafi jihadis, and various analysts and diplomats have been speculating that Iran, Assad, Hezbollah, and the US share plenty of common interests. Saudi Arabia and Israel stand to lose if the US begins to behave like a mature superpower, collaborating where it sees fit rather than holding itself hostage to the agenda of small allies behave as peers rather than clients.

The latest trigger was yesterday’s assassination of a Hezbollah official in Beirut. (Hassan Lakkis, according to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar Television, played an important role in the fight against Israel; Reuters reports that Lakkis was fighting recently in Syria.) That killing once again raised the question of Hezbollah’s broader direction. Has it provoked a maelstrom of jihadi attacks, retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war? Or is the conflict in Syria playing out in the interests of Hezbollah, Assad and Iran?

I think there’s some evidence that three years after a non-violent popular revolt against Assad’s nasty dictatorship, Assad has finally managed the shape the conflict he wanted. He wiped out the non-violent resistance, the intellectuals and the pluralists, and continues to mass his firepower against the FSA rather than the jihadists. As a result, the conflict pits an authoritarian but non-sectarian dictatorship against a Sunni rebellion dominated by takfiri jihadists. Hezbollah entered the war supposedly to fight the sectarian jihadis over there before they made it over here, a la George W Bush. It sounded facile then, but now it sounds true; each time there’s a bomb of assassination in Lebanon, it adds credence to Hezbollah’s claim that it’s on the side of a Middle Eastern order that tolerates multiple faiths and power-sharing, while on the other side Saudi and other Gulf money is supporting extremists who want to recreate the 7th Century Caliphate. Self-serving, but perhaps, true.


We’ve seen hints of change:

  • An increase tempo of back-and-forth attacks in Lebanon.
  • Stronger desire by Lebanese national institutions to contain the crisis.
  • Reports that the US has shared intelligence with Lebanon in order to protect Hezbollah from attacks.
  • A real push – in Track 2 and perhaps Track 1 diplomacy – to make the January talks in Geneva really amount to a negotiation for a settlement in Syria.
  • The Iranian nuclear deal, which could calm anxieties about the regional Iran-Saudi cold/hot war, and allow for some tit-for-tat that could reduce global interest in the Syrian theater.


What should we look for as signals of a coming, substantive change?

  • Rhetoric from Hassan Nasrallah that opens the door to a frigid détente with the US on some issues.
  • Continuing restraint by Hezbollah in its response to attacks and assassinations.
  • Agreements or accords that result from the vigorous outreach by Iran’s foreign minister to the leaders of the Arab countries in the Gulf.
  • Offers, even totally rhetorical ones, from Assad to cooperate with the US against the jihadi groups in Syria.


The interim Iranian nuclear agreement could easily collapse (Marc Lynch writes here about the enormous potential but also the need to remember that it could all come to naught), but it’s a major opening. Iran has always been a more natural geopolitical ally for the US than the tiny oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian peninsula. It’s hard to imagine a full realignment without an internal shift in the governance of Iran, but perhaps, that could occur with a political shift short of regime change. The most likely outcome is incremental, with Iran and the US finding more avenues of cooperation but stopping short of an open embrace. But even the prospect of a cooling in the US relationship with absolute monarchs of the Gulf and the hawkish establishment of Israel, in favor of a more pragmatic policy that leaves room to cooperate with all the region’s heavyweights, has prompted a panic in Riyadh and Israel. That anxiety suggests it’s a very real prospect, and one that in the long-term would serve to cool down the region.

Is Dubai the future of cities?

Posted December 1st, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Burj Khalifa soars above the other buildings in Dubai.


Burj Khalifa soars above the other buildings in Dubai.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Palestinian poet and filmmaker Hind Shoufani moved to Dubai for the same reasons that have attracted millions of other expatriates to the glitzy emirate. In 2009, after decades in the storied and mercurial Arab capital cities of Damascus and Beirut and a sojourn in New York, she wanted to live somewhere stable and cosmopolitan where she also could earn a living.

Five years later, she’s won a devoted following for the Poeticians, a Dubai spoken-word literary performance collective she founded. The group has created a vibrant subculture of writers, all of them expats.

To its critics—and even many of its fans—“culture” and “Dubai” barely belong in the same sentence. The city is perhaps the world’s most extreme example of a business-first, built-from-the-sand boomtown. But Shoufani and her fellow Poeticians have become a prime exhibit in a debate that has broken out with renewed vigor in the Arab world and among urban theorists worldwide: whether the gleaming boomtowns of the Gulf are finally establishing themselves as true cities with a sustainable economy and an authentic culture, and, in the process, creating a genuine new path for the Middle East.

Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower


Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower.


This is a question of both economic interest and huge sentimental importance. The Arab world is already home to a series of capitals whose greatness reaches deep into antiquity. The urban fabric and dense ancient quarters of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Beirut have long nourished Arab culture and politics. But, racked by insurrection, unemployment, and fading fortunes, they have also begun to seem, to many observers, more mired in the past than a template for the future.

The Dubai debate broke out again in October when Sultan Al Qassemi, a widely read gadfly and member of one of the United Arab Emirates’ ruling families, wrote a provocative essay arguing that the new Gulf cities, Dubai most notable among them, had once and for all eclipsed the ancient capitals as the “new centers of the Arab world.” A flurry ofwithering essaysnewspaper articles, and denunciations followed. “I touched a sensitive nerve,” Al Qassemi said in an interview.

His critics object that Dubai is hardly a model—as they point out, 95 percent of the city’s population is not even naturalized, but made up of expatriates with limited rights. And there’s another problem as well. Every one of the Gulf boomtowns—besides Dubai, they include Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Manama, and Kuwait City—has been underwritten, directly or indirectly, by windfall oil profits that won’t last forever.

A mosque in Cairo.


A mosque in Cairo.


In her seminal work “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” Jane Jacobs argued that cities that were a “monoculture” last only as long as the boom that created them, whether it involved bauxite, rubber plants, or oil. To thrive in the long term, cities need adaptable, productive economies with diverse, high-quality workers and enough capitalist free-for-all so that unsuccessful businesses fail and new ones spring up. Otherwise they risk the fate of single-industry cities like New Bedford, Detroit, or the completely abandoned onetime mining city at Hashima Island in Japan.

Can Dubai and its peers successfully make that transition? Started as the kind of monocultures that Jacobs argued are doomed to fail, they are now trying to harness their money and top-down management to create a broader web of interconnected industries in the cities and their surrounds.

Dubai is the cutting edge of this experiment. With its reserves depleted, its growth comes from a diverse, post-oil economy, although it still receives significant financial support from other Emirates that are still pumping petrochemicals. Its rulers are determined to make their city a center for culture and education, building museums and institutes, sponsoringfestivals and conferences, with the expectation that they can successfully promote an artistic ecosystem through the same methods that attracted new business. What happens next stands to tell us a lot about whether an artificial urban economy can be molded into one that is complex and sustainable. If it can, that may matter not just for the Middle East, but for cities everywhere.


JACOBS, A PIONEERING WRITER on cities and urban economics who died in 2006, is perhaps best known for “The Death and Life of the Great American City,” her paean to Greenwich Village and small-scale urban planning. But in her 1984 follow-up about the economies of cities and their surrounding hinterlands, Jacobs showed a harder nose for business. To be wealthy and dynamic, she argued, cities needed not to depend on military contracts or to be hampered by having to subsidize other, poorer territories—pitfalls that have driven the decline of many a capital city. In her book, she touted Boston and Tokyo as creative, diversified economic engines. But many of the world’s storied capital cities, like Istanbul and Paris, she wrote, were fatally bound to declining industries and poor, dependent provinces.

Today, that description perfectly encapsulates the burden carried by the Arab world’s great cities. Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo historically hosted multiple vibrant economic sectors: finance, research, manufacturing, design, and architecture. Eventually, though, they were hollowed out. Oil money, aid, and trade eliminated local industry, and the profits of these cities were siphoned away to support the poverty-stricken rural areas around them.

As these cities fell behind, a very different new urban model was rising nearby, along the Persian Gulf. As the caricature of the Gulf states goes, nomadic tribes unchanged for millennia suddenly found themselves enriched beyond belief when oil was discovered. The nouveaux riches cities of the Gulf were born of this encounter between the Bedouin and the global oil market.

The reality is more nuanced and interesting. The small emirates along the Gulf coast had long been trade entrepôts, and Dubai was among the most active. Its residents were renowned smugglers, with connections to Persia, the Arabian peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. When oil came, the Emirates already had a flourishing economy. And because their reserves were relatively small, they moved quickly to invest the petro-profits into other sectors that could keep them wealthy when the oil and gas ran out. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah (all in the Emirates) pioneered this model, with neighboring Manama, Qatar, and Kuwait City following it closely.

Skeptics have decried the new Gulf cities, often vociferously, ever since the oil sheikhs announced their grand ambitions to build them in the 1970s. In his 1984 classic “Cities of Salt,” the great novelist Abdelrahman Munif chronicled the rise of the Arab monarchs in the Gulf. He explained the title to Tariq Ali in an interview: “Cities of salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence,” Munif said. “When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive.”

And yet, despite the apparent contempt of cultural elites, when civil war swept Lebanon, the Arab world’s financial center moved to the Gulf. Soon other sectors blossomed: light manufacturing, tourism, technology, eventually music and television production.

Dubai led the way. It built the infrastructure for business, and business quickly came. Over the decades, investment and workers flowed to a desert city of malls and gated communities, which had a huge airport, well-maintained streets, and clear rules of the road. Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Doha followed suit, although they took it more slowly; with continuing oil and gas revenue, they didn’t need to take the risk of growth as explosive as Dubai’s. Unlike the austere cities of Saudi Arabia, all the Gulf’s coastal trading cities had a tradition of a kind of tolerance. Other religions were welcome, and so were foreigners, so long as they didn’t question the absolute authority of the ruling family.

In the last four decades of the oil era, that model has evolved into the peculiar institution of a city-state dependent on a short-term foreign labor pool from top to bottom. The most extreme case is Dubai, where less than 5 percent of the 2 million people are citizens. Citizens form a minority in all the other Gulf cities as well. Wages for expatriates—especially workers in construction and service sectors like the airlines—are kept low, and foreign laborers are isolated from better-off city residents in labor camps. Construction workers who complain or try to unionize have been deported. White-collar residents who have criticized Emirati rulers or who have supported movements like the Muslim Brotherhood have had their contracts canceled or their residencies not renewed.

The economic crash of 2008 wiped out some of Dubai’s more excessive projects (although the signature underwater hotel finally opened this year). The real estate bubble burst; expats abandoned their fancy cars at the airport. “There was this glee that the city was over. But it was resilient,” said Yaser Elsheshtawy, a professor of architecture at the UAE University. The Gulf cities bounced back. Millions of new workers, from Asia, Europe, as well as the Arab world, have migrated to the Gulf since then.

“The Dubai model might be good, it might be bad, but it deserves to be looked at with respect,” Elsheshtawy said. Egyptian by birth, Elsheshtawy has lived on three continents, and he’s grown tired of having to defend his choice to work in the Emirates. After he read dozens of ripostes to Al Qassemi’s polemic, including many that he felt smacked of cultural snobbery toward anyone who lived in the “superficial” Gulf cities, Elsheshtawy penned an eloquent defense of Dubai called “Tribes with Cities” on his blog Dubaization. He doesn’t like everything about the Gulf, but Elsheshtawy believes that Dubai and the other booming Gulf cities, “unburdened by ancient history” and blessed by a mix of cultures, can provide the world “the blueprint for our urban future.”


DUBAI AND ABU DHABI, the showcase cities of the Emirates, often seem like a they’re run by a sci-fi chamber of commerce. They’ve got the world’s tallest building, the biggest new art collections in starchitect-designed museums, the busiest airports, and growing populations. Beneath that surface, though, lies a structure that worries even many supporters: Freedoms are tightly constrained, and most of the population is made of explicitly second-class noncitizens. Other growing cities chafe under censorship or political restrictions—Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore spring to mind. But there’s a difference between those places, where citizen-stakeholders live out their entire lifetimes, and a city where almost everyone is fundamentally a visitor.

Even Al Qassemi, the Emirati who believes the new cities have pioneered a better economic model, has argued that the citizenship restriction will hurt Dubai and cities that follow its model. “Without naturalization, all the Arabs who move here and are creating these cities will see them only as stepping stones to greener pastures,” Al Qassemi said. “People make money and they leave.”

There’s a glaring moral problem with a city ruled by a tiny clan where most of the workers have no rights. But the last few decades suggest that citizenship and political freedom aren’t prerequisites for GDP growth. Jacobs wrote a lot about what cities need, but the only kind of freedom she wrote about was the freedom to innovate and create wealth. The new Gulf cities have carefully provided a state-of-the-art, fairly enforced body of regulations for corporations—precisely the kind of rule of law they actively deny to foreign workers.

In treating businesses more solicitously than individuals, the Gulf city model may depend on a twist that Jacobs never foresaw: They don’t care whether people stick around. In fact, these new cities assume they will be able to innovate precisely because they won’t be encumbered by citizens whose skills are no longer needed. If Dubai needs fewer construction and more service workers, or fewer film producers and more computer programmers, it simply lets its existing contracts lapse and hires the people it needs on the global market. The churn isn’t a flaw in the model; it’s part of its foundation.

That may explain why even Dubai’s defenders are not planning to stick around. Shoufani, the poet, says she cherishes the secure space to create that Dubai has given her, but she still plans to move on in a few years. So does Elsheshtawy, the architecture professor whose academic studies of urban space have helped counter the narrative of Dubai as a joyless, dystopian city interested only in the pursuit of money. He plans to retire somewhere else. It may not matter to Dubai’s fortunes, however, as long as people arrive to take their place.

The next few years will begin to tell how this experiment has turned out. Just as Jane Jacobs said, it doesn’t matter so much how a city was born. It matters how its economy operates. If Dubai and its imitators outlive the oil revenues and regional instability that helped them boom, it will be a lesson for cities everywhere in how to invent a viable urban economy—even if it leads to a kind of city that Jacobs herself might have loathed to live in.

How much to worry in Lebanon, once more?

Posted November 19th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

 Soldiers, policemen and medical personnel gather at the site of explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut


After today’s bombing at the Iranian embassy in Beirut, how much should we worry that the war in Syria will engulf Lebanon? First, the usual caveat: I live here, and I have a vested interest Lebanon remaining viable and stable, so discount my analysis accordingly.

Nonetheless, nothing so far has changed my fundamental view that the major players in Lebanon want to preserve the existing order here, as combustible as it is. The attackers presumably come from the jihadist strain of the Syrian opposition; they have little invested in the Lebanese status quo and are willing to upend it.  But the major actors with organizations in Lebanon, including the Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels, as well as the Hezbollah constituents who support the Syrian government, benefit from the truce in Lebanon. Beirut especially serves as a neutral area where all parties communicate with each other, raise funds, and do their political work.

Iran’s immediate accusation of Israel supports this view: if Iran wanted to raise tensions, it would point at jihadists or Lebanese factions allied with the Syrian opposition. Instead, it pointed at Israel (just like Hezbollah did after the Dahieh bombing in August), a convenient and unifying enemy. Blaming Israel is a calming gesture; even if Hezbollah and Iran suspect a local or Syrian Sunni network, it deflates tension to pin the attack on Israel. And if Iran genuinely has evidence or believes Israel is responsible, that’s all the better insofar as it minimizes the risk of hostilities taking root beyond Syria’s borders.

In coming weeks, we should watch the rhetoric of Hassan Nasrallah; if he repeats his previous positions on the Syrian war, as I expect, that will signify that Hezbollah maintains its interest in a calm Lebanon. We also should watch the retaliation; small attacks against centers of jihadist activity would remain with the limited framework that, again, minimizes the chance of escalation.

Today’s attack is certainly a worrisome development, since the apparent suicide bombers struck a diplomatic target. It will increase anxiety among all people in Lebanon, and will especially worry the civilians living in the Dahieh, who already suffered an indiscriminate attack in August that killed 20 people and wounded more than 100. These are not good things. But they don’t guarantee that war will engulf Lebanon either. For that to happen, the established parties here – in particular Hezbollah and the Future Movement – would have to radically change their cost-benefit analysis. So far, I don’t see that happening. Lebanon’s future holds more simmering violence, like the back and forth bombings, assassinations, and occasional skirmishes we’ve seen so far in the Bekaa, Tripoli and Beirut; but not, I expect, outright conflict.

What sprouted in the Arab revolts?

Posted October 29th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT — Three years after the revolts of the Arab Spring, the reformers’ initial euphoria has given way in much of the region to weariness and even despair. Civil war has overtaken Syria; Egypt is under the thumb of a newly aggressive military junta. In Bahrain, the opposition is in disarray or detention, despite representing a clear majority of the people; Libyans haven’t managed to tame the patchwork of warlords that overthrew Moammar Khadafy. Just recently, the head of the Maronite church in Lebanon joined the pessimistic chorus by talking about an “Arab winter.”

In writings, private conversations, and political forums, many of the most committed partisans of the popular uprisings are starting to ask just what has changed. What, if anything, did the Arab revolts actually accomplish?

The full answer to that question lies perhaps a generation away. But surveying the scene, it is becoming increasingly clear that for all that hasn’t happened, at least one positive change has survived and taken root: a vigorous and healthy new version of civil society.

In one nation after another, Arab citizens have come together into organized independent groups, keeping their distance from the state, even actively criticizing regimes and braving jail time. Egyptian collectives have arisen to document state torture and capricious detention; bootstrap Syrian aid organizations smuggle in supplies to run clinics and refugee processing centers. Bahrainis are agitating for political reform, and new groups in Yemen are trying to ensure reform follows regime change there. Tunisia’s notable successes have come alongside a flourishing of labor, media, and cultural groups.


A woman drove a car in Saudi Arabia on October 22.

A woman drove a car in Saudi Arabia on October 22. REUTERS/FAISAL AL NASSER 


“Organizations are the most important thing we made in the uprisings,” said Moaz Abdel Kareem, an Egyptian activist who has helped found half a dozen, including a political party and citizens forum.

As these civic groups deepen their roots, they could prove genuinely transformative. The autocrats that ruled Arab societies could do it only because they had systematically suppressed independent civic life for so long. And collectively, the very fact that these new groups survive and thrive is evidence of something bigger taking place across the region: a meaningful new understanding of what it means to be a citizen and live in a state.

The groups are still fragile, and their success in no way guaranteed. But even with the old regimes still largely holding their political power, they represent a meaningful ray of hope. And to see the ways in which they have sprouted in one country after another is to appreciate just how broadly this new thinking has touched the Arab world.


IN MUCH OF THE WORLD, civic organizations are taken for granted: They play roles from the local, like running shelters for the homeless, to the national, like crafting and lobbying for transformative new laws. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 22 times to civic groups rather than individuals—the first time in 1904, to the Institute of International Law. Where they exist, they testify to an empowered citizenry—and to a deeper social contract in which the state’s powers extend only so far.

Such groups are anathema to totalitarian regimes, and accordingly the autocrats of the Arab world staved off meaningful challenges by corralling and neutering civic organizations for much of the 20th century. Independent political parties were outlawed. The media swarmed with censors and intelligence agents planted by the state; even religious clerics were vetted. Syndicates and labor unions, religious organizations, welfare for the poor, women’s societies—none fell far from government control. Any remotely political-sounding civic activities—which in some cases extended to acts like delivering food to the poor or holding training workshops for women—were often simply criminalized.

In the past, some Arab states witnessed brief flare-ups of civic activity. One happened in Syria in 2000; another in Egypt in 2005-06. But those were cases of brief openings, allowed by the state, and then quickly and thoroughly shut down.


The Egyptian video collective Mosireen, which began as a group of videographers and filmmakers documenting the Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011, has survived and grown into an archive and distribution system explicitly challenging government propaganda.

MOSIREEN The Egyptian video collective Mosireen, which began as a group of videographers and filmmakers documenting the Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011, has survived and grown into an archive and distribution system explicitly challenging government propaganda.


Born in the 2011 revolts was something new. Partly galvanized by the genuine hope of change, partly because states had sunk to new lows in disregard for their citizens, and partly because of social networking, citizens began to coalesce into meaningful organizations. They often started very loosely—like the Egyptian Facebook group that protested the police murder of Khaled Said in 2010, or the online chat groups that discussed the potential presidential candidacy of Mohamed ElBaradei. But as the revolts gathered steam, so did the civic groups. The Khaled Said group organized small protests, then large ones, eventually attracting hundreds of thousands of citizens to risk their safety in the dangerous street actions that helped bring down the regime. ElBaradei’s Facebook fans eventually founded the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which has emerged as a key political player.

Today, that immediate revolutionary fervor has mostly subsided, but many of the organizations founded at its peak are still hard at work in Egypt and elsewhere, steering what little political debate survived the resurgence of the old power structures.

The most basic, and widespread, are service organizations. In Syria, for example, the embattled Assad regime has grudgingly allowed citizens to form solidarity and aid groups. In rebel-controlled areas, militia leaders have to share power with civilian coordinating committees. Vast new civilian aid networks have formed to serve the 2 million Syrian refugees and the 4 million more people who have been displaced within the country’s borders. Their work isn’t overtly political—securing housing, health care, and education—but their independence and resilience are new in Syria. Until now it’s been a crime for Syrians to form even a chamber music company without government permission.

The overtly political groups have had even more impact. In Bahrain, for example, where the regime cracked down on popular protests hard enough to marginalize its opposition, the 11-year-old Bahrain Center for Human Rights has established itself as one of the most important de facto political forces in the nation. As the three-year-long struggle simmers between the Shia majority population and the Sunni minority royal family, the small human rights nongovernmental organization has provided consistent evidence of sectarian discrimination and government torture, rallying Bahrainis and alerting the outside world. It is essentially a new element in society: an independent group that endorses equal rights under the law, eschewing both clerical oversight and government control.


A Bahraini human-rights center has emerged as a key political voice.

A Bahraini human-rights center has emerged as a key political voice. MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES


Traditionally the political leader of the Arab world, Egypt has seen an even more impressive array of groups emerge, built on a broad but tenuous community of activists that had weathered the Mubarak decades. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has unnerved authorities by simply documenting government actions, like prosecutions of journalists for critical speech or harassment of civic groups for receiving foreign funds. The No to Military Trials campaign tracks the number of civilians brought before military tribunals, helps them find representation, and campaigns to turn Egyptian attitudes against the practice. The Egyptian video collective Mosireen, which began as a group of videographers and filmmakers documenting the Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011, has survived and grown into an archive and distribution system explicitly challenging government propaganda. (Disclosure: I contributed to Mosireen’s Kickstarter campaign this year).

Even Saudi Arabia, seemingly the most change-proof of the Arab states, has seen an uptick of the kind of sustained pressure that only mature civil society can produce. Women fighting for their right to drive have in the last month begun a civil disobedience campaign, posting online videos of themselves driving and calling for a nationwide drive, all in hopes of forcing a change in the kingdom’s restrictive law.


WHEN I CANVASSEDa dozen activists across the region about the legacy of the revolts today, many of them bemoaned the current strength of military rulers in Egypt and Syria, and the triumphalism of conservative, cash-rich monarchs in the Gulf. But they all returned to the idea that a psychological threshold was crossed when once-passive citizens decided they could control their political fates.

“The Arab uprisings, particularly Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, seem to have done away with that haunting sense of powerlessness, of impotence, that was the badge of the ‘Arab malaise,’” wrote Farah Dakhlallah and Adam Coutts in an essay published in the 2012 book “Scepticism: Hero and Villain.”

This has not come easily. In the Arab uprisings, activists—most of them young and relatively unseasoned—have undertaken the gargantuan task of conjuring these new civic institutions from scratch. And over the last three years, they’ve suffered attacks from many directions—from Islamists with their own agenda for the future; from secular regimes; at times from vituperative nationalist public opinion. Dictators have succeeded before in squelching independent civic groups, and in co-opting any that survive.

Nonetheless, there’s reason to see this change as the foundation of a different kind of future. The iconic chant across the region, from the start of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, demanded the fall of the “nidham,” which translates as “regime,” but also as “system.” People knew their problems weren’t just with a ruler, but with a whole web of control. Healthy states depend on checks and balances, and civic groups matter deeply to their emergence. Think of Solidarity in Poland, Mandela’s African National Congress, or Otpor in Serbia; these were popular civic groups that became the seeds of a new system. In political science, study after study shows that a dynamic and independent civil society plays a determinative role in transitions to democracy.

The flowering and maturation of Arab civil groups might feel slow to the crowds flashing cellphone messages to each other three years ago, and less dramatic than the call for the head of one dictator or another. But it may be the only work that ultimately can replace the epic abuses of the Arab authoritarian states with a new culture of citizenship and law.

Egyptian activist Abdelrahman Ayyash, in an interview from exile in Turkey, said he and many of his colleagues had been discouraged by the violent crackdown that has accompanied the rebounding fortunes of the old ruling class in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. But he also took encouragement from the spirit he had felt arising among his fellow citizens. “Even if we are down right now, we have changed,” he said. “All of us.”

A new brain trust for the Middle East

Posted September 28th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing



[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT—In any American university, what the six researchers in this room are doing would be totally unremarkable: launching a new project to use the tools of social science to solve urgent problems in their home countries.

But for the young Arab Council for the Social Sciences, this work is anything but routine. The group’s fall meeting, initially planned for Cairo, was canceled at the last minute when Egyptian state security agents demanded a list of participants and research questions. The group relocated its meeting to Beirut, meaning some researchers couldn’t come because of visa problems. Still others feared traveling to Lebanon during a week when the United States was considering air strikes against neighboring Syria. Ultimately, the team met in an out-of-the-way hotel, with one participant joining via Skype.

Their first, impromptu agenda item: whether any Arab country could host their future meetings without any political or security risk.

The council’s struggle reflects, in microcosm, a much bigger problem facing the Middle East. With old regimes overthrown or tottering, for the first time in generations a spirit of optimism about change has swept through the region. The Arab uprisings cracked open the door to new ideas for how a modern Arab nation should govern itself—how it could rebalance authority and freedom, religious tradition and civil rights. But a key source of those new ideas is almost completely shut off. With few exceptions, universities and think tanks have been yoked under tight state control for decades. Military and intelligence officials closely monitor research, fearing subversion from political scientists, historians, anthropologists, and other scholars whose work might challenge official narratives and government power.

Just one year after its launch, the ACSS is hoping to fill that vacuum, giving backing and support to scholars who want to do independent, even critical thinking on the problems their societies face. It’s a daunting order in a region where for generations talented scholars have routinely fled abroad, mostly to Europe and North America.

“There’s been almost a criminalization of research here,” says Seteney Shami, the Jordanian-born, American-trained anthropologist tapped to get the new council running. “We want to change the way people think about the region.”

It took nearly five years of planning, but the new council is now finishing its first year of operation. It has awarded roughly $500,000 to 50 researchers. Its goal is ambitious: to build an enduring network that will connect individual researchers who until now have mostly labored alone, under censorship, or overseas. The council aims to give those thinkers institutional punch—not just funding for projects that aren’t popular with local regimes or Western universities, but muscle to fight authorities who still maneuver to block even the most innocuous-sounding research missions. Today issues of ethnic, sectarian, and sexual identity are still taboo for governments—and they’re precisely the focus for most of the researchers who met in Beirut.

Shami and the other founders envision the council as only a first step, helping push for new openness in universities and in publishing. Ultimately, they believe, it stands to change not only how Arab countries are perceived abroad, but the way those countries are governed. Given the incredible turbulence in the Arab world today, it’s easy to see why a new flowering of social science is needed—and also why it’s a risky proposition for whoever hopes to set it in motion.


WHEN WE THINK about where ideas come from, we often picture lone thinkers toiling indefatigably until they achieve their “eureka” moments. But in fact, the ideas that change the way we organize or understand our daily world grow most readily from ecosystems that can train such scholars, test their claims, and ultimately spread and promote their new thinking. The modern West takes this system for granted; universities are perhaps the most important nodes in a network that also includes foundations, think tanks, and relatively hands-off government funding agencies.

Even societies like China, with its tradition of centralized state control, support a vigorous web of universities and institutes that produce and test ideas. In China, the government might drive the research agenda—rural educational outcomes, say, or international trade negotiations—but researchers are expected to produce rigorous results that stand up to outside scrutiny.

Not so in the Arab world. Despite a historic scholarly tradition, and a vigorous cohort of contemporary thinkers, the intellectual institutions in Arab countries are today almost universally subordinated to state control. As the dictators of the 1950s matured and grew stronger, they feared—correctly—that universities would nurture political dissent and that students were susceptible to free-thinking. (Even today, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood induct most of their leaders into politics through university student unions.) So they dispatched intelligence officers to control what professors taught, researched, and published, and to curtail student activism of a political flavor.

To the extent that think tanks, institutes, and journals were allowed to exist at all, they became either government mouthpieces or patronage sinecures. Plenty of individual scholars have continued to work in an independent vein, and many do research or publish work outside the influence of the ruling regime. For the most part, though, they do so abroad; those who speak openly in their home countries have often encountered gross repression, like the Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an establishment thinker who was imprisoned in 2000 for taking foreign grant money. His prosecution—despite his close ties to the ruling dictator’s family— served as a reminder to other scholars not to stray too far from the state’s goals.

The obstacles to researchers who hope to confront the region’s problems run even deeper than that: in most Arab nations, even basic data on public issues like water consumption, childhood education, and women’s health are treated as state secrets. So are government budgets, and anything to do with the military, the police, and industry. Egypt still tightly guards access to land registries running as far back as the Ottoman Era; Lebanon famously hasn’t conducted a census since 1932, and refuses to release any government data about the population size or its religious composition. International agencies like the World Bank are allowed to conduct surveys and research as part of development aid projects, but only on the condition that they keep the data confidential.

As a result, great Arab capitals like Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and Cairo, once among the world’s great centers of learning, have suffered a systematic impoverishment of intellectual life, especially in the realms in which it is now most needed.


IN MANY WAYS Seteney Shami’s career illuminates those challenges precisely. She left her native Jordan first for the American University of Beirut and then to earn an anthropology PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. Even as a young scholar, she knew she might face problems at home simply for writing about matters of identity among her own ethnic group, the minority Circassians, so she had her dissertation removed from public circulation. In the 1990s, she returned to the Middle East and built a well-regarded graduate program in anthropology at Jordan’s Yarmouk University—one of few rigorous graduate-level social sciences departments in the region. The experiment was short-lived, collapsing after only a few years when government patronage hires swamped the university faculty. Several scholars, including Shami, left.

She spent the next decade at US-funded foundations, working in Cairo for the Population Council and later in New York for the Social Science Research Council. She found that the scholars with whom she collaborated—and to whom she sometimes gave grants—relished the networks they built and the ideas that flowed when they had a chance to work with colleagues from different Arab countries, as well as in Europe and the United States. But there was a hitch: When the grant money ended, so did the network. In the West, such a change wouldn’t matter so much; the scholars would always have their home institutions to fall back on. Not so for a scholar in Jordan or Egypt, whose home institution might be far from supportive of his or her work.

“There is no institutional incentive to produce research in most Arab universities,” says Sari Hanafi, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut who is on the board of the new council. Hanafi conducted his own study of academic elites in the region, and discovered that most regional research was confined to safe descriptive projects—“production that will not question religious authority or the political system.” Essentially, it’s scholarship that doesn’t produce any new knowledge, or offer the possibility of change.

So a group of scholars including Shami and Hanafi began to conceive of something that would rectify the problem. Their vision isn’t a “think tank” in the Washington sense, but really almost a substitute for what universities do, creating a new and permanent forum to research, talk about, and solve serious social problems, outside government influence.

They secured funding from the Swedish government and later from Canada, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Ford Foundation. Among Arab countries, only Lebanon had laws that allowed a foreign international organization to operate free from government interference; even here, it took two full years for ACSS to clear all the red tape. In a way, the group’s timing was fortuitous: By the time the organization came online in 2011, with a few dozen scholars participating, the Arab uprisings were in full swing.

The first projects illustrate the flair ACSS is bringing to the sometimes stuffy world of social science. One study focuses on inequality, mobility, and development, and has brought together economists and other “hard” social scientists to explore issues like the impact of refugees from Syria’s civil war. A second, called “New Paradigms Factory,” unabashedly seeks to midwife the region’s next big ideas, asking scholars to challenge its dominant notions of sovereignty, national identity, and government power. The third major project, “Producing the Public in Arab Societies,” probes minority identity, community organizing, and alternative media sources—sensitive issues that governments steer away from, but that will be key to any new ordering of Arab civic life.


SOME AMONG the inaugural crop of researchers worry that despite its forward-looking visions, the window for an experiment like the Arab Council for the Social Sciences might already be closing. Two years ago, when Shami recruited her first team of scholars and grant recipients, a wave of optimism was washing over the Arab world. “It was a time to be brave, to test the boundaries of free expression,” she said.

Now, many of the same old restrictions have returned: Egyptian secret police, who had backed off after dictator Hosni Mubarak’s fall, resumed their open scrutiny of intellectuals after the military coup in July. Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, fearing revolts from their own citizens, have also tightened their approach to academic inquiry, shutting down local research institutes and banning critical academics from attending conferences and teaching at international universities. Several of the scholars who met in Beirut as part of the “Producing the Public” working group declined to speak on the record even in general terms about the ACSS, fearing that any publicity at all might interfere with their work.

The first ACSS projects will take several years to yield results, and Shami says the long-term impact will depend, in part, on whether Arab governments continue to actively persecute intellectuals they perceive as critics. Meanwhile, Shami says, the group intends to go where it is most acutely needed—funding the edgiest and most relevant scholarship, and pushing for more open access to archives and data. To make up for the lack of regional peer-reviewed journals, it might begin publishing research itself. With the grandiose-sounding goal of transforming the entire discourse about the Arab world, Shami is aware that ACSS might fail; but she’s not interested, she said, “in biding our time and holding annual conferences.” If it proves necessary, she said, ACSS might create its own university.

Already, though, ACSS has had some visible impact. Omar Dahi, an economist at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, won a grant from the new council to study the way Syrian refugees are supporting themselves and how they are transforming the nations to which they’ve fled. He’s spending the semester in Beirut, and he expects to produce a series of articles that will bring rigor to a heated and topical policy debate. The council, he says, allows Arab scholars “to answer their own questions, and not only the questions being asked in North American and Western European academia.”

“It’s not easy, and ACSS alone is not going to be able to do it,” Dahi said. “But you have to start somewhere.”

The Secret History of Democratic Thought in the Middle East

Posted August 19th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

BG Ideas pic

Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi protested at the Republican Guard building in Nasr City, Cairo. AP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

IS DEMOCRACY POSSIBLE in the Middle East? When observers worry about the future of the region, it’s in part because of the dispiriting political narrative that has held sway for much of the last half century.

The conventional wisdom is that secular liberalism has been all but wiped out as a political idea in the Middle East. The strains of the 20th century—Western colonial interference, wars with Israel, windfall oil profits, impoverished populations—long ago extinguished any meaningful tradition of openness in its young nations. Totalitarian ideas won the day, whether in the form of repressive Islamic rule, capricious secular dictatorships, or hereditary oligarchs. As a result, the recent flowerings of democracy are planted in such thin soil they may be hopeless.

This understanding shapes policy not only in the West, but in the Middle East itself. The American government approaches “democracy promotion” in the Middle East as if it’s introducing some exotic foreign species. Reformists in the Arab world often repeat the canard that politicized Islam is incompatible with democracy to justify savage repression of religious activists. And even after the revolts that began in 2010, a majority of the power brokers in the wider Middle East govern as if popular forces were a nuisance to be placated rather than the source of sovereignty.

An alternative strain of thinking, however, is starting to turn those long-held assumptions on their head. Historians and activists are unearthing forgotten chapters of the region’s history, and reassessing well-known figures and incidents, to find a long, deep, indigenous history of democracy, justice, and constitutionalism. They see the recent uprisings in the Arab world as part of a thread that has run through its story for more than a century—and not, as often depicted, a historical fluke.

The case is most clearly and recently laid out in a new book called “Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East” by Elizabeth F. Thompson, a historian at the University of Virginia, who tries to provide a scholarly historical foundation to a view gaining traction among activists, politicians, and scholars.

Thompson sees the thirst for justice and reform blossoming as long as 400 years ago, when the region was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. In the generations since, bureaucrats, intellectuals, workers, and peasants have seized on the language of empire, law, and even Islam to agitate for rights and due process. Though Thompson is an academic historian, she sees her work as not just descriptive but useful, helping Arabs and Iranians revive stories that were deliberately suppressed by political and religious leaders. “A goal of this book is to give people a toolkit to take up strands of their own history that have been dropped,” Thompson said in an interview.

Not everyone agrees with her view: Canonical Middle Eastern history, exemplified by Albert Hourani’s 1962 study “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,” holds that liberalism did flourish briefly, but was extinguished as a meaningful force in the early years of the Cold War. Even today Hourani’s analysis is invoked to argue that there’s no authentic democratic current to fuel contemporary Arab politics.

But Thompson’s work resonates with a host of Middle Eastern academics, as well as activists, who are advocating new forms of government and who see their efforts as consistent with local culture and history. It may offer a way out of the pessimism gripping many Arab political activists today, finding connections between apparently disparate reformist forces in the region, and political ideas that are often seen as irreconcilably opposed. Most intriguing, she finds elements of this constitutional liberalism even within fundamentalist Islamist movements that democratizers most worry about. These threads suggest a possible way forward, a way to build a constitutional, democratic consensus on indigenous if often overlooked traditions. Islamists and secular Arabs, it turns out, have found common ground in the past, even written constitutions together. The same could happen again now.


NO ONE , including Thompson, would claim that democracy and individual freedom have been the main driver of Middle Eastern politics. Before World War I, almost the entire region lay under the dominion of absolute monarchs claiming a mandate from God—either the Ottoman Sultan, or the Shah of Iran. Later, Western colonial powers divided up the region in search of cheap resources and markets for their goods.

Yet lost in this history of despots and corrupt dealers is a long stream of democratizing ideas, sometimes percolating from common citizens and sometimes from among the ruling elite. In the 19th and 20th centuries, western countries were beginning to move away from authoritarian monarchies and toward the belief that more people deserved legal rights. During this same time period in the Middle East, a similar conversation about law, sovereignty, and democracy was taking place, encompassing everything from the role of religion in the state to the right of women to vote.

Although authoritarian governments largely won the day, Thompson argues that the story doesn’t end there: Instead, she weaves together a series of biographies to trace the persistence of more liberal notions of Middle Eastern society. She begins with an Ottoman civil servant named Mustafa Ali who, in 1599, wrote a passionate memo exhorting the Sultan to reform endemic corruption and judicial mismanagement, because injustices were causing subjects to revolt—thus making the empire less profitable.

From 1858 to 2011, a series of leaders—most of them politicians and also prolific writers—amassed substantial public followings and pushed, though usually without success, for constitutional reforms, transparent accountable governments, and the institutions key to a sustainable democracy. Thompson was surprised, she said, to find the case for liberal democracy and rights in the writings of Iranian clerics, Zionist Jews, Palestinian militants, and early Arab Islamists.

With support from the Maronite church, a group of Lebanese peasants formed a short-lived breakaway mountain republic in 1858, dedicated to egalitarian principles. The blacksmith who led the revolt, Tanyus Shahin, insisted on fair taxation and equal protection of the law. His followers took over the great estates and evicted the landlords, but their main demand was for legal equality between peasants and landowners.

An Egyptian colonel named Ahmed Urabi led a revolt against the Ottoman ruler in 1882, inaugurating a tradition of mass revolt that had its echo in Tahrir Square in 2011. Urabi in his memoir recounts that when the Ottoman monarch dismissed his demands for popular sovereignty in their final confrontation, Urabi replied: “We are God’s creation and free. He did not create us as your property.” Decades later, in 1951, Akram Hourani rallied 10,000 peasants to resist Western colonialism and local corruption in Syria. Eventually, he and his followers in the Baath Party were sidelined by generals who turned the party into a military vehicle.

Some of the stories that Thompson tells are less obscure, like those of the founders of modern Turkey—the one sizable Islamic democracy to emerge from the former Ottoman empire or the Iraqi Communist Party, which had its heyday in the decade after World War II, and whose constitutional traditions remain an important force today even if the party itself is almost completely irrelevant.

Perhaps most encouragingly, in a region known for clashes of absolutes, she finds an encouraging strain of compromise—in particular in the early 20th century, when secular nationalists negotiated with Islamists in Syria to hammer out a constitution they could both support. It was swept aside when France took over in 1923.

“The Middle East is going to see these crises in Tahrir and Taksim and Iran until it can get back to a moment of compromise, which existed a hundred years ago with Islamic liberalism, where you can have your religion and your democracy, too,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she was surprised to find support for constitutionalism and due process in the writings of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue whose writings inspired Al Qaeda. They believed that consensual constitutions could achieve even their religious aims, without disenfranchising citizens who opposed them.

Some of the characters in this tale have largely vanished to history. Others remain hotly contested symbols in today’s politics. The name of Halide Edib, a feminist and avatar of Turkish nationalism in the early 1900s, is still invoked by the governing Islamist party as well as its secular critics. In Egypt, which enjoyed a period of boisterous liberal parliamentary politics between the two world wars, activists today are trying to revive the writings of early Islamists who believed that an accountable constitutional state, with rights for all, would be better than theocracy.


IN THOMPSON’S VIEW , this world did not simply vanish: It lives on in contemporary Arab political thought, most interestingly in Islamist politics.

It’s easy to assume that religiously driven movements are all antidemocratic—and indeed, some have proven so in practice, like the ayatollahs in Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Thompson offers a more nuanced view, showing that many of these religious movements have internalized central elements of liberal discourse. The Muslim Brothers wanted to dominate Egypt, but they attempted to do so not by fiat but through a new constitution and a free-market economy.

Princeton historian Max Weiss says his own study of the Levant backs Thompson’s central argument that constitutionalism thrives in the Middle East: For more than a century, a powerful contingent of thinkers, activists, and politicians in the region have embraced rule of law, constitutional checks and balances, and liberal economics. Even when they’ve lost the political struggles of the day, they’ve remained active, shaped institutions like courts and universities, and provided an important pole within national debates.

For those in power, “constitutional” government can often be used as a fig leaf: Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamism and Arab legal systems at The George Washington University, observes that leaders like the monarchs in the Persian Gulf have often wielded constitutions as just another means of extending their absolute rule. And they’re not alone: Egyptian judges, Syrian rebels, and Gulf sheikhs often use law and constitution to “entrench and regularize authoritarianism, not to limit it,” he says.

But among the people themselves, there is a longstanding hope for the rule of law rather than the rule of generals, or of imams. Knowing this history is important, Thompson argues, because it establishes that democracy is a local tradition, with roots among secular as well as religious Middle Easterners. Reformers, liberals, even otherwise conservative advocates for transparency and human rights are often tainted as “foreign” or “Western agents,” imposing alien ideas on Middle Eastern culture. This slur is especially potent given the West’s checkered history in the region, which more often than not involved intervention on behalf of despots rather than reformers.

Even if democracy is far from winning the race, its supporters can take courage from how many Middle Easterners have demanded it in their own vernacular. As Thompson’s book demonstrates, it’s very much a local legacy to claim.

Why the Hezbollah Blacklisting Is Pointless

Posted July 22nd, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Originally published in The Atlantic.]

Today, the European Union designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” a terrorist group.

Aside from the fact that the very notion of a separate military wing is an absurd fiction, and that the designation has almost no chance of influencing Hezbollah’s behavior, is there any reason to care?

I would argue that yes, there is; terror designations carry real consequences — if not the ones their authors intend. On balance, I believe that when Western countries blacklist groups they define as terrorist, it harms their own policy aims much more than it does the targeted group. Talking to “terrorists” is political unpopular, but also necessary. It’s one of many tools required to deal with violent non-state actors, along with intelligence work, policing, force, and economic levers.

In the case of Hezbollah, the European Union will now join the U.S. and member governments like Britain in making it all the more difficult to find political solutions to the imbroglios of the Levant. Hezbollah is a major combatant in Syria, while at home in Lebanon it’s the largest and most influential elected political movement.

Hezbollah’s behavior is often frustrating (to its Lebanese rivals as well as to Western governments), and it has been credibly linked to violent plots, political assassinations, and pedestrian organized crime like drug dealing and money laundering.

Naturally, the European Union would like to find ways to curtail Hezbollah’s reach, especially after the group was found responsible for a deadly bombing in Bulgaria and a foiled attack in Cyprus.

But what does a terrorist designation achieve, and at what cost?

First, it eliminates communication with Hezbollah, putting even further out of reach meaningful diplomacy on the Syrian conflict and on Lebanon. It also necessitates foolish gymnastics for states that continue their relationship with the Lebanese government as if Hezbollah weren’t the primary power within that government. Effectively, it amounts to a blanket ban on dealings with Hezbollah, since the Party of God does not make any distinction between its military, political and social work; the organization is seamlessly unified, its fighters as distinct from the supreme leadership as America’s Pentagon is from the White House.

Second, it ties the EU’s hands in acting as a regional broker. How can the EU leverage its power across the Levant’s many conflicts if it won’t talk to one major player, and in fact has taken the step of branding it a terrorist group while leaving alone other factions who engage in similar violence?

In a reality where Hezbollah is a key central player, it makes little to no sense to erect a cone of silence around them (already some governments, like Britain, don’t talk to Hezbollah officials, following the U.S. lead). Any significant political accord in Lebanon must include Hezbollah, just as any political resolution of the Syrian conflict will have to include Iran and Hezbollah, along with the other states that sponsor the rebels and the government. Any other approach is simply a denial of reality and doomed to fail.

Third, the designation will hardly dent Hezbollah. Already Hezbollah operatives linked to violence or terror plots in the West are subject to prosecution in Western courts. Already, Hezbollah’s operations in the West are underground. If agents of Hezbollah are raising money for the group by trafficking narcotics in South America, or are training sleeper cells in Germany, how will the designation stop them? These already are secret, illicit operations; law enforcement and intelligence work might thwart them, but not blacklists.

Logic and experience both teach us that politics requires buy-in from the major stakeholders; that’s even more true in conflict resolution. You don’t make peace with your friends. You can’t influence a war — or an unstable polity like Lebanon — without points of entry to all the major players. It simply doesn’t work.

Historically, blacklists have never worked. Studies have shown that in a small proportion of “terrorist” groups are eliminated by force, but in the vast majority of cases when they give up violence, it is because of a political settlement.

In the case of Hezbollah (like Hamas and a plethora of Iranian institution before it), the blacklisting Western governments are setting themselves up at best for embarrassment and hypocrisy, and at worst for failure.

Ultimately, they will either let conflicts simmer on and do nothing about them (as they largely have in Syria), in which case blacklisting is just one element of a general diplomatic withdrawal. Or else they will get involved with political negotiations, talks, and maybe an agreement that will require them to make deals with the very groups that they earlier designated as beyond-the-pale terrorists with whom any parley whatsoever is unacceptable. When reality prevails, the Western governments end up in tortuous talks through intermediaries, or else they simply ignore their entire directive.

There is almost nothing gained from a terror designation other than the public relations bounce and perhaps some domestic political credit with the tough-on-terror crowd.

But only politics and long-term strategy stand a chance at limiting Hezbollah violence and shifting Hezbollah’s political priorities. It’s unlikely that a smart Western policy would result in a behavior change from Hezbollah, but it’s guaranteed that a terror designation won’t do the trick — and in fact, will only further limit the West’s poor options.