Turkey’s model of democracy

Posted August 11th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan spoke during a visit to the Turkish police special forces base, which was allegedly damaged by a coup attempt. Photo: KAYHAN OZER/COURTESY OF PRESIDENTIAL PALACE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

THE “TURKISH MODEL” has been upheld as an exemplar of how democracy could come to the Middle East since 2002, when a once-banned Islamist party won free elections and took power under the wary eye of a military accustomed to calling the shots.

In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt on July 15, Turkey’s increasingly erratic and authoritarian strongman leader, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, has been busily erasing some of the signatures of that democracy: jailing journalists, banning academics from travel, purging hundreds of thousands of civil servants from the state’s payroll.

Erdogan is at the same time under threat from dark antidemocratic forces and posing such a threat to his own nation. This conundrum, more than anything else, is the Turkish model’s contribution. In a region that hosts hardly any experiments with democracy or accountable governance at all, Turkey is still grappling with the messy, destabilizing process of transitioning from poor military dictatorship to modern, developing democracy.

Turkey’s path under Erdogan embodies far more than the megalomania of its neo-Ottoman president; it reflects a popular desire for economic prosperity as well as political rights, for security along with freedom. While fending off a military that has continually tried to reassert control over national politics, Erdogan has shifted the balance of Turkey’s republic away from secular nationalist pluralism toward majoritarian Islamism. The once-oppressed rural and religious have acquired new rights and in the process have taken away some rights from the secular and urban.

As elected Islamists gained authority, Turkey accommodated the aspirations of a socially conservative, religious, and Islamist plurality. As the country became more democratic in electoral terms, it became less so from the perspective of secular liberals and nationalists in the mold of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Secularism had been zealously protected not by courts, rule of law, or accountable institutions, but by the heavy interventionist hand of the military, which until Erdogan’s rise had simply dismissed governments it did not like.

Clearly, Turkey offers an ambiguous blueprint for democracy. Sadly, in its neighborhood, it offers one of the only blueprints. What can the rest of the Middle East, laboring under monarchs and dictators and runaway generals, learn from Erdogan’s style of government and the shaky aftermath of the latest effort by the military to cancel Turkey’s experiment with democracy?

Erdogan consciously evokes Ataturk’s creation myth with his grand sense of historical purpose. A popular mayor of Istanbul and a charismatic Islamist, he was banned from politics in 1998 for reciting a militant religious poem. He went on to cofound the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2001 and led it to victory the next year.

He and his party have been in power ever since, at first governing as pragmatists with a religious background, but over the years adopting Islamist policies and dispensing with liberal niceties that got in the way of power. Erdogan even jettisoned founding figures of the AKP when he feared they could challenge his primacy.

What was most surprising about Erdogan’s rise was the absence of violence. To be sure, many have died in the conflict between the government and the Kurdish minority, and there has been some apparently government-orchestrated rioting against opposition political parties. Then there are the proven and alleged coup attempts. But until this July, there hadn’t been anything approaching widespread civil strife, and, even in this case, the coup plotters appear to have been swiftly routed.

Since the rise of a Turkish model touted as simultaneously democratic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern, its checkered history has defied easy categorization. Turkey is a lonely republic in a region ruled by dictators, kings, and ayatollahs. (The only other republic is tiny Tunisia, which exerts far less influence.) It is a country of ethnic Turks and Kurds facing a mostly Arab hinterland. Its imperial Ottoman history remains fresh in the minds of its neighbors.

Erdogan neutered the military and demonstrated that it was possible to have relations with powers like the United States and Israel without being their toady. But his methods have shown a contempt for rule of law and for Turkey’s democratic institutions. Turkey’s president has eroded the same traditions that brought him to power — Erdogan’s secular rivals in politics and the press have opposed military rule and defended electoral politics even when Erdogan has persecuted them for criticizing him.

Worried observers have been describing Erdogan as a dictator and a thug for some time, all the more vociferously since 2008, when he outflanked the military with a dazzling indictment. The ensuing Ergenekon trials defanged the military and allegedly stopped a pervasive conspiracy to overthrow the state, even if some of the evidence appeared to have been manufactured.

As with so much about Erdogan and his Turkish model, during the Ergenekon trials and the ensuing purge (which foreshadowed today’s ongoing and broader one), good and bad were both in evidence: A coup genuinely appeared to have been averted while at the same time strongman norms trumped institution-building. The republic was preserved, the republic was weakened.

This kind of yin-yang push-pull has repeated itself over and over in Turkey’s recent history, culminating with this summer’s chilling events. The military made its move late on a Friday night, attacking parliament and police stations, closing a bridge between Europe and Asia, and firing on civilians. Erdogan and his allies rallied support through the same independent news media that it has relentlessly undermined and, more crucially perhaps, through mosque loudspeakers.

Public opinion ran strongly against the coup, evinced in the great number of Erdogan supporters and detractors alike who took to the street against the military plotters. Crucially, so did official weight; the military hierarchy and rank and file did not support the coup plotters. Nor did any opposition political party or faction of the state bureaucracy.

A coup would have set back Turkey’s democratic trajectory. In a different way, some argue, so is Erdogan, with his encouragement of vigilantism against political rivals (predating the coup attempt) and his massive purge under the cover of a state of emergency since the failed putsch.

Amnesty International estimates that 45,000 government employees had been fired or suspended from their jobs, and more than 15,000 people had been detained. According to the government, 8,651 military personnel participated in the mutiny. The purges have so far affected about 1.3 percent of the entire civil service. And 131 media outlets and publishing houses have been shut down.

Surely there are criminals and coup plotters among the hundreds of thousands arrested, fired, beaten, harassed, or investigated since July 15. But just as surely, the disproportionate size of the dragnet and the speed with which it was rolled out suggest that its purpose is not merely to ferret out lawbreakers but also to stifle dissent once and for all.

It is hard to imagine how the Turkish military today, reeling from the purges (whether deserved or unjustified) will be able to effectively curtail attacks by the Islamic State or the Kurdish PKK, both of which have targeted civilians.

It’s also hard to imagine that Turkey’s overall progress and growth can continue in the wake of a government-led war against itself.

In a move that clearly went beyond the hunt for coup accomplices and metastasized into a war on any independent institution or patch of civil society, the government savaged education. It fired 1,577 university deans and rectors, revoked licenses for 21,000 teachers, and banned all academics from foreign travel. It closed more than 1,000 private schools.

“More than a decade after getting a formal invitation to begin EU membership negotiations, Turkey looks less like a liberal European democracy than a one-man autocracy that you’d find, you know, in the Middle East,” said Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The other way of looking at it is from the vantage point of Turkey’s neighbors to the south, the heartland of the former Ottoman Empire. Istanbul’s historical hinterland stretches to Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. European Union members probably aren’t taking notes on how Erdogan squares his constituents conflicting desires for economic growth, religious freedom, and civil liberties — but many people in places like Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are.

Erdogan has taken some bold stances that have had major ripple effects around the region. He has continued a lukewarm alliance with Israel marked by occasional confrontations over episodes like Israel’s catastrophic war on Gaza and its attack on a ship full of unarmed peace activists. He has supported Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and given it a welcoming exile base after the 2013 military coup ousted elected president Mohammed Morsi. He has been a partner to the United States but not a patsy — Washington still remembers with irritation his refusal to let US troops invade Iraq in 2003 from Turkish territory. Such independence is noticed in a region where despotic rulers tend to do anything to please their most important foreign backers.

On Syria, Erdogan has taken a hard-line position against Bashar Assad and Russia, costing Turkey extensively, especially after Turkey shot down a Russian jet last year and Russia retaliated with cuts to trade and the lucrative flow of Russian tourists.

Unlike any other government in the region (and virtually alone in the world), Turkey has welcome Syrian refugees — 3 million of them — and given them a clear path to citizenship.

Perhaps that is the most unique contribution of the Turkish model. For all the strains between Kurds and Turks, Islamists and secularists, and the troublesome identity politics and laws that reinforce denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide, Turkey boasts a national identity and an idea of citizenship that is flexible, open to multiple faiths and ethnicities, and has proven able to adapt and evolve far more than any of its peers in the neighborhoods.

Turkey is not an ethnocracy, or a theocracy.

And its elected leaders have bested would-be military dictators multiple times since 2002, in a region and historical period where authoritarianism in the norm and almost every state has regressed in terms of rights and freedoms.

Loss of some rights has also been the norm in Erdogan’s Turkey but not loss of all rights, or for all citizens. It’s hardly a Platonic ideal, but given the alternatives, it’s hardly a model to scoff at. Turkey’s approach, at least, offers a starting point toward two concepts in painfully short supply in the Middle East: elected civilian rule and a flexible concept of citizenship.

The one silver lining in Turkey’s attempted coup is that military dictatorship — for a change — didn’t win the day. In an era of authoritarian relapse, that’s no small matter. Even American and European politics today contain frightening doses of chauvinism, fear-mongering, and incitement to violence, reminding us that no one is immune to dangerous trends that have eroded freedom and security in places like the Middle East and former Soviet republics.

Turkey has offered a counterexample in the age of awful. Despite Erdogan’s increasingly tight grip, Turkey’s course since its last successful military coup in 1997 (dubbed the “postmodern coup” because the military managed to force a change in government without suspending the constitution or parliament) has offered an alternative to civil war, military, or sectarian dictatorship, royal or clan kleptocracy. It isn’t free or fair, but it also isn’t awful — or as bloody — as the rest of the neighborhood.

The Urban Mechanics of Beirut

Posted June 19th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Labaki-Reuters

MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS

Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki, a Beirut Madinati candidate, showed her ink-stained finger after casting her ballot at a polling station during Beirut’s municipal elections in Lebanon last May.

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT – THE UTOPIAN GROUP of professors, architects, artists, and white-collar professionals was supposed to be too naïve and elitist to make any headway against the entrenched warlords and clan bosses who have controlled Lebanese politics for as long as most voters here have been alive.

Instead, the upstart campaign called Beirut Madinati — “Beirut Is My City” — nearly scored an upset in May’s city council elections. With barely any money, a few hundred volunteers, and just three months of lead time, Beirut Madinati ran a lively campaign against the corrupt establishment that has literally mired a nation’s lovely, cosmopolitan capital in garbage.

Now, even though the insurgent movement failed to obtain a single seat because of a winner-takes-all municipal election system, Beirut Madinati has set its sights on national politics. Its founders believe that with a passionate, technocratic assault on a status quo that peddles stability at the expense of quality of life, they are belatedly delivering on the promise of the popular revolts that swept the Arab world five years ago.

“Even the word ‘politics’ has negative connotations in Lebanon,” said Jad Chaaban, an economist at the American University of Beirut, and one of the founders of Beirut Madinati. “People are thirsty for a good political dialogue that will change their lives. People are sick of the same old politics, the same old discourse.”

Although it eschews political and ideological labels, the movement is pointed in its attack on the current regime. Its platform enumerated specific proposals to improve public transportation, garbage collection, housing, parks, and more — each plank explicitly countering a government steeped in corruption, controlled by a few ultra-wealthy families, and incapable of delivering even the most basic essentials of daily life. Beirut Madinati’s structure is a radical rebuke to Lebanon’s powers that be as well: Its candidate list was divided evenly by sect and gender, its finances published online, and positions of responsibility are rotated so that no personalities can dominate.

This is the kind of political movement that many activists expected would flourish across the Middle East after the Arab Spring uprisings. But until now, most efforts to create methodical and viable alternatives have been swallowed by violence and repression, usually orchestrated by the very same authoritarian regimes that would be threatened by a credible opposition.

Rubbish trucks drive between a built up pile of waste on a street in Beirut's northern suburb of Jdeideh in February. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Rubbish trucks drive between a built up pile of waste on a street in Beirut’s northern suburb of Jdeideh in February. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Savvy civic politics is exactly what the Arab uprisings of 2011 promised. Back then, millions took to the streets all over the region, decrying the rotten governance of dictators and corrupt status quo elites. It was not to be, at least not as easily and quickly as the surge of people power first suggested. The old ruling class fought back and, in most cases, was able to thwart popular demands.

Five years later, however, Beirut Madinati is proving the exception — or perhaps, it’s the long-term fruition of a seed planted years ago. In its electoral campaign, the movement cannily avoided the label “political party” and sought to distance itself from Lebanon’s tainted political class. It even spurned alliances with independent politicians who had broken with established political parties and shared Beirut Madinati’s vision of incremental reform focused on tangible improvements to daily life in the city. The idea, according to Beirut Madinati candidates, was to make clear that this movement represented a clean break from business as usual.

HALF A CENTURY ago, the Arab world witnessed a flowering of political parties and ideologies. Communism and Arab nationalism fueled movements that attracted millions of followers and shaped powerful, modernizing governments. Ba’athist ideology took root in Iraq and Syria. The charismatic Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser sold much of the region on a brand of Arab nationalism that was so persuasive that he convinced Syria and Egypt — two large, important Arab countries with long histories and no common border — to briefly merge under a single unity government. In the 1970s, in response to the failures of the increasingly despotic and erratic secular rulers in the region, Islamist ideas gained political currency.

Since then, for the most part, few new ideas or political parties have emerged and gained traction. In part, the period of quiescence reflected a worldwide ideology fatigue toward the end of the Cold War. But in the Arab world, repressive governments have expended a great deal of energy policing the public sphere to keep out politics of any stripe. Nearly every Arab government invoked a variation on the same formula: It’s either our version of autocracy — or religious radicals.

Fed-up citizens challenged that false binary. The uprisings that began with Tunisia’s 2010 revolt put the first crack in the dictatorial establishment’s stale monopoly on politics. Demonstrations swept the region, frightening rulers everywhere: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, even the Palestinian Authority. For a moment, no Arab government seemed immune to people power.

But it turned out that the popular movements, with their lack of structure and their modest demands for rule of law and a more fair distribution of wealth, were little match for unscrupulous regimes, and in some cases, zealots and gunmen. Citizen movements in Syria were largely displaced by armed groups once the peaceful uprising deteriorated into a violent conflict. Yemen and Libya followed similar arcs from civil disobedience to civil war. Elsewhere, the old authorities waited out a period of upheaval and then struck back to regain their authority, as in Egypt, where military rulers lurked in the background until they reestablished power through a coup.

Some countries, such as Lebanon and the Arab monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, sat out the entire first wave of uprisings. In some cases, like Saudi Arabia, wealthy rulers dispensed generous subsidies and were able to rely on a substantial degree of public legitimacy. Yet, in nearly every case, status quo regimes relied on fear as well, promoting the risk of chaos and violence if existing authorities, no matter how profoundly disliked, were displaced.

In Lebanon, a cabal of hereditary political bosses — many of them former warlords — controls the country, dividing government positions, jobs for their supporters, and profits from graft according to a formula that sets aside a fixed share for each.

Each boss and political party has a power base in one sect: Sunni or Shia Muslims, Maronite Christians, Druze, and so forth. As Lebanon has lurched in recent years from crisis to crisis — it hosts one Syrian refugee for every three Lebanese, has been without a president for two years, and, for a year, didn’t have anywhere to put its garbage — the country’s leaders have engaged in a form of blackmail: Support the existing leaders, or face the prospect of civil war.

It was this threat that Beirut Madinati was most determined to contest. Lebanon’s leaders have spent the years since the civil war ended in 1991 telling voters that their boss-based sectarian balancing act is the only alternative to mass slaughter. Many believe it; memories of the war are still vivid even for people as young as 30.

For good and ill, Lebanon has long served as a model and testing ground for political currents in the Arab world.

Historically — as the supporters of Beirut Madinati are quick to note — Lebanon set toxic trends. Iraq borrowed Lebanon’s dysfunctional model of sectarian power-sharing in 2003, with unhappy results. Some combatants in Syria say their state is so damaged that its only hope for a negotiated settlement is Lebanon’s brand of enshrined paralysis.

But Beirut Madinati is selling a new, most hopeful kind of change. Supporters of the upstart campaign say the results show that Lebanon is finally ready for competitive politics and that at last their country can contribute a constructive example to the region’s political experiments since the Arab Spring uprisings.

“We are not garbage!” said Naheda Khalil, a landscape architect who worked as a volunteer for the campaign. Citizens are smart enough to see through threats from their irresponsible leaders, and she hopes they are now willing to settle in for the years of work it will take to build political alternatives. “We have a long fight ahead. They won’t give up easily.”

THE CAMPAIGN FOR Beirut’s city hall grew out of the summer of 2015’s “You Stink” protests, which flared in response to the Lebanese government’s deadlock over a national waste disposal contract, which, like most public business, is rife with corruption and nepotism. Saad Hariri, a billionaire former prime minister and the dominant Sunni politician, is believed to reap the profits from the country’s garbage collection, the details of which are a closely guarded secret.

Unable to agree on a new landfill when the old one reached capacity, authorities simply stopped collecting the trash. It filled the country’s streets and eventually found its way, by the ton, into rivers, ravines, and poor neighborhoods.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to decry the government’s failure. But the “You Stink” movement quickly faltered. Some of its supporters wanted only to talk about the trash, avoiding any mention of the political dysfunction that caused it to pile up. And others were unnerved at the prospect that a civil movement could topple the government and lead to chaos — a message hammered home daily by ministers and party leaders on the most widely viewed television networks.

Dozens of veteran activists diligently formed task forces to respond to the garbage crisis, crafting technocratic proposals for recycling, waste sorting, and new ways to devolve garbage handling from the national government to municipalities.

Beirut Madinati candidates and delegates cheered while monitoring ballot counts for the municipality elections after closing the polling stations during Beirut's municipal elections in May. MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS

Beirut Madinati candidates and delegates cheered while monitoring ballot counts for the municipality elections after closing the polling stations during Beirut’s municipal elections in May. MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS

When the news cycle moved on from the garbage crisis, the core group of activists kept talking. The country’s warped political system was the real problem, they agreed; if they wanted to improve governance, they’d have a better chance if they obtained actual power rather than relying on protests and white papers. With municipal elections coming up, the activists decided to test-drive their idea. If they did well, they could potentially go national, running for seats in parliament on an anticorruption reform platform.

Lebanon’s bosses were unnerved. Hariri, the Sunni billionaire, controls the Beirut municipality and saw his prestige on the line. Normally bitter rivals, the other sectarian bosses circled the wagons with Hariri, forming a single unified coalition that confused voters by adopting a similar name, “Beirutis.”

Hariri ran his campaign out of an ornate family mansion in the historic city center, which stands as a symbol of Lebanon’s mafia-style corruption. Beirut’s downtown was rebuilt after the war by a Hariri family corporation and remains nearly entirely under the family’s control. In campaign speeches, Hariri suggested that dark forces wanted to destabilize the country.

Although it suffered from accusations of elitism, Beirut Madinati’s campaign depended on unpaid volunteers who congregated in makeshift headquarters at a small rented apartment upstairs from an Armenian restaurant. Hariri is famous for the lavish lunches he serves visitors at his mansion. Beirut Madinati’s members didn’t even have equipment to make their own refreshments and had to dash up the street to buy tea at Lina’s Café.

Its candidates included the locally famous film director Nadine Labaki and a bevy of earnest if little known engineers, professors, architects, and other professionals who seemed genuinely captivated by discussions about subjects like the city’s water infrastructure.

The campaign revived the egalitarian and populist ethos of the region’s uprisings five years ago. Candidates sat in plastic chairs and listened to voter complaints at open forums they organized in the city’s few public spaces.

Symbolically, one such meeting took place on the fringes of the city’s only major public park, a pine forest called Horsh Beirut, which freely admits foreigners but is open to Beirutis only a few days a month.

“We can talk all we like, but nothing will ever change,” observed a teenage pastry chef named Ali, who lives in a poor neighborhood in the south of the city. He wore a pendant with the logo of the Amal Party, a Shia group notorious for corruption even by Lebanon’s low standards.

“I don’t trust them either,” Ali said when asked about the pendant. “We only see them every six years, before elections. They visit our house, promise to pave our street, and never come back.”

BEIRUT MADINATI’S MOST radical innovation has been to face discontent like Ali’s head on, with detailed proposals and an invitation to any interested citizen to join their efforts.

Hariri and his allies pulled out all stops to defeat Beirut Madinati, deploying dozens of paid advocates to every polling station on election day and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising and, according to independent monitors, illegal bribes to voters. Hariri even summoned some of the group’s candidates to his mansion and offered them slots in his coalition if they would abandon Beirut Madinati, several of the candidates said. They refused.

Supporters of the fledgling movement say they were just as emboldened by the fear Beirut Madinati inspired in the ruling parties as they were by the 40 percent share of the vote that the movement won in Beirut.

In the long game to shift attitudes and power in Lebanon, with its famously stubborn and unscrupulous ruling class, process and persistence will probably matter as much as inspiration.

Over the summer, nearly a hundred members of Beirut Madinati are holding weekend retreats to decide how to proceed. The group is debating whether to register as a national political party and take on Lebanon’s distorted elections laws or focus primarily on the problems facing Beirut. By September, group members said, they will announce a decision and begin the next phase of their campaign to hold the rulers of Beirut, and all of Lebanon, accountable.

“We grew really fast,” said Mona Fawaz, a professor of urban planning at AUB and a founding member of Beirut Madinati. She’s now part of the team sifting through the proposals for the movement’s future. The election campaign raised public expectations very high, she said, and the group needs to be careful to plot a course that allows it to deliver.

“The elections sent a major message, and it’s a very important one: The status quo will no longer be tolerated, and the political parties have one year to redeem themselves before next year’s [parliamentary] elections,” said Ramez Dagher, who writes the popular and critical political blog Moulahazat, which translates to “Observations.”

According to Dagher, in order to grow, Beirut Madinati will have to overcome formidable obstacles, including widespread loyalty to a pernicious but familiar sectarian political order, and voter fatigue. Elections in Lebanon have been known to be postponed sometimes for years at a stretch, which Dagher said could sap the secular antiestablishment movement’s momentum.

Perhaps the biggest taboo the movement has broken is the fear of politics. Until now, most critics of the power brokers in the entire region have treated “politics” as a dirty word, calling themselves activists, reformers, civil society, even revolutionaries — anything but politicians.

“People hate politics now, they think it’s all about dirty deals,” Fawaz said. “We want to reclaim the political, not only to dream about it but to act on it.”

In a region where incompetent and dictatorial rule is the norm, and unaccountable political bosses have grown accustomed to passing power to their cronies or relatives, any reform at all can seem like an impossible prospect. If Beirut Madinati persists, and builds on its unlikely success, it could prove a rare bright spot in the Middle East during a time of authoritarian resurgence and widespread civil strife.

The Middle East’s fading frontiers

Posted April 29th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

MPK1-426_Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916

A detail of a Royal Geographical Society map signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in 1916.

As the Sykes-Picot agreement turns 100, the borders it delineated are crumbling.

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

ONE OF THE Islamic State’s first gestures after conquering a vast portion of the Syrian and Iraqi deserts was to bulldoze the sand berm delineating the official border between the two states. In one of its first propaganda videos from the summer of 2014, “The end of Sykes-Picot,” a bearded fighter walks solemnly through an abandoned checkpoint in the former no-man’s land. “Inshallah this is not the first border we shall break,” the fighter declares in English.

Many Westerners taking their first notice of the toxic Al Qaeda offshoot were mystified: Wait, the end of what?

But the historical reference was not obscure in the Middle East, which for exactly a century has suffered the consequences of borders drawn by two diplomats who had orders from the top but weren’t considered the best informed Middle East experts in their respective governments — Sir Mark Sykes, an Englishman, and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot.

Since then, the Middle East has suffered a profound cognitive dissonance between the official state, often demarcated by unnaturally straight borders, and the human geography of how people live and who wields power in the lands stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the Sykes-Picot agreement has been blamed for many long-running catastrophes, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the violently thwarted national aspirations of many Kurds, Arabs, and other groups.

Yet for all the rancor, the Sykes-Picot borders are already crumbling. The orderly national borders they drew — mostly to please the interests not of the people who lived on the land but of colonial masters Britain and France — have been superseded, though not necessarily in the manner that anti-colonial critics would like.

SYKES AND PICOT’S era was roiled by the Great War, the deadliest conflict the globe had known until that time, and defined by American President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic notion of self-determination. People across the world were supposedly going to be free to choose their own borders and shape their own nations.

That might have been the case in parts of Europe but not in the Middle East. More interested in destroying what remained of the Ottoman Empire and thwarting each other’s imperial aims, France and Britain agreed in secret on May 17, 1916, to carve up the region heedless of the human and political realities on the ground.

The Sykes-Picot agreement was leaked a few years after it was brokered. It enraged not only the people in the Middle East who had been promised self-determination but even experts in the British foreign office who had warned exactly against this sort of expedient and destabilizing imperialist border-drawing.

“All borders in the world are, in their own way, artificial,” says Joost Hiltermann, who runs the Middle East program for International Crisis Group and has written a book about the Kurds. He believes the instability in the Middle East today reflects pressure from groups like the Kurds and the Islamic State who feel the current state order doesn’t accommodate them. “Over time, sometimes a long time, the internal contradictions will explode the prevailing order,” Hiltermann said. “What the new order, or series of orders, will look like is anyone’s guess.”

Sykes-Picot has had a doubly poisonous legacy. First are the borders themselves, which have continually been contested by groups convinced they didn’t get a fair shake, from the Kurds and Palestinians to Shi’ite and Sunni desert tribes. Second is that they were dictated in secret by outsiders, forever enshrining the suspicion that schemers in Western capitals fiddle with the region’s maps, which of course, they did.

Kurds, who call themselves the world’s largest nation without a state, are planning an independence referendum this year. Some originally hoped to hold a vote on May 17, the Sykes-Picot centennial, to drive home the symbolic point that the old colonial order is dead.

It’s high time to take stock of the de facto new states operating in the Middle East and stop pretending that the Sykes-Picot borders are even in operation.

The Middle East is full of borders that don’t appear on official maps.

AGAINST THE ADVICE of many of their better informed colleagues, Sykes and Picot fashioned a new Middle East, literally drawing new nations out of whole cloth and truncating millennial aspirations for nationhood with a clumsy stroke through a map. Their map created the made-up new Kingdom of Jordan, which ended up displaced by the house of a twice-displaced monarch, the Sherif of Mecca, who had supported the British during the Great War and had originally been promised the throne of Syria. Wags of the day called the British approach to the state-building in the Middle East “everybody move over one.”

Lebanon was carved out of Syria. Mosul and Baghdad were cobbled into Iraq. Palestine was given to the British, who already had promised the territory to the Zionists. The biggest losers were the Kurds, a distinct ethnic and linguistic group who weren’t given a state at all. Today the Kurdish heartland stretches into corners of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

British historian James Barr wrote a lively chronicle of the diplomacy of the Sykes-Picot era called “A Line in the Sand,” which is still wildly popular in Beirut bookshops five years after its publication. Barr unearthed secret British foreign office memos that correctly anticipated most of the terrible spillover from the Sykes-Picot agreement, including prescient predictions of the violence and instability that would follow the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

It is because of this history that even today random maps scribbled on napkins or published on blogs drive Middle East conspiracy theorists into a tizzy. After the United States occupied Iraq, many experts in the region were convinced that there was an official plan to divide Iraq into separate Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish states. Comments in support of partition by long-retired US diplomat Peter Galbraith were cited as proof that a conspiracy was afoot. Similarly, after the Egyptian popular uprising in 2011, supporters of the deposed dictator believed they were actually the victim of an American-Israeli plot to cut up Egypt’s territory into smaller, more easily cowed mini-states.

It’s common to hear cosmopolitan analysts in the Middle East speak matter-of-factly about unknown, but in the common view, utterly plausible, secret plots to divide the region in the service of someone’s agenda: Iran, the United States, the Zionists, or some other culprit.

“The Sykes-Picot agreement was only revealed in 1917 after the Communists took power in Russia,” wrote Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi, head of a think tank, the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. “So the fact that there are no current plans that have been publicly announced by certain powers to divide the region does not mean that such plans do not exist — perhaps the details will become evident at a later time.”

It’s a version of that old saw: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” There’s no arguing with the dirty facts of the secret map a century ago. It doesn’t help that Western powers have never stopped meddling even after the colonial era. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are fresh in the region’s mind, as is the ongoing war in Syria with all its foreign sponsors and military advisers.

As a result, any chitchat about drawing new borders can instantly become a sensation. A map published by the Armed Forces Journal in the United States imagined what new borders would look like if they were redrawn by ethnic and sectarian group; it remains one of the publication’s top viewed articles even a decade later.

FOR ALL THE unwarranted conspiracy-mongering, however, a new Middle East is, in fact, taking shape — and it’s not the product of a map scribbled on a napkin by jolly Western agents (at least, not so far as we know!).

“This region, and Kurdistan in particular, was divided without regard to the will of its indigenous people, which in turn led to a hundred years of troubles, war, denial, and instability,” the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, said earlier this spring. Barzani has promised an independence referendum this year during the Sykes-Picot centennial. He presides over the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has functioned in most ways as an independent nation since the United States established a protectorate there in 1991 to shield Kurds from retribution by Saddam Hussein. Kurdistan has its own military and gas fields, but it still depends on the central government in Baghdad for revenue and trade.

Travelers who fly into Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, don’t need visas from the central government in Baghdad. Kids growing up there are often educated in Kurdish and might learn English as a second language before studying any Arabic. While Kurdish officials are still organizing their referendum, a few weeks before the Sykes-Picot anniversary they announced the next best sign of sovereignty in the digital age: an Internet domain, “.krd,” which went online the first week of April.

“The same way that Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec, and other places have the right to express their opinions about their destiny, Kurdistan, too, has the right, and it’s non-negotiable,” Barzani said.

His statelet is one of many Middle Eastern de facto nations you can find in the world but not yet on an official map or the list of member states at the United Nations.

Palestine was accorded “nonmember observer state” status at the United Nations in 2012, and its flag now flies over the UN headquarters in New York. On the ground, however, geography is even more complicated. Parts of the West Bank are supposedly under control of the Palestinian authority, but the land crossings are all controlled by Israel. Gaza has functioned as an effective state since 2005, when Israel withdrew its settlements. Access to the Gaza Strip is controlled entirely by outsiders — by Israel in the north and Egypt to the south — but inside, Hamas holds sway over a de facto city-state.

Rojava, a Kurdish-controlled statelet in northern Syria, declared official autonomy last month. Because of its precarious location on a strip of land bordering Turkey, which resolutely opposes its existence, Rojava might seem unsustainable. But the Kurdish party that controls it has managed to woo support from both the United States and Russia, for complicated reasons having to do with the war in Syria.

The Sinai peninsula, popular with sunbathing and scuba-diving tourists, was briefly occupied by Israel after its 1967 war with Egypt. It returned to Egyptian sovereignty in 1982 but arguably never to its full control. Today, the Sinai is an unruly place, with powerful tribal leaders and vibrant Al Qaeda and Islamic State franchises.

Hezbollah, the Party of God, is the single most powerful movement in Lebanon. It has its independent military, ministers, and members of Parliament in the Lebanese government, and wide swaths of territory that everyone in Lebanon recognizes are under Hezbollah control. Hezbollah polices sensitive areas, like borders and military training areas, sometimes in tandem with national authorities, sometimes on its own. The movement sees no interest in making the arrangement more formal; power on the ground serves it better than any official designation.

One shorthand for figuring out the real borders is to ask who could protect you effectively if you were traveling in a certain area. If the answer is “no one,” you could be talking about an area of failed governance like Sinai, or a contested border zone like the front lines between the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian government.

If, on the other hand, the answer is some entity that’s not the official government, then you’re probably looking at one of the post-modern, post-Sykes-Picot regions that has emerged heedless of the rule-making of cartographers and international bureaucrats — like Hezbollah, the Islamic State, or Hamas in Gaza.

In fact, one of the most interesting developments a hundred years after Sykes-Picot is that many of the most dynamic, independent groups in the Middle East are accommodating their thirst for autonomy without any redrawing of official borders. The Kurds in Rojava are careful to describe their regional government as part of a federated Syria, and even the vociferous Barzani, in Iraqi Kurdistan, has made clear that even after a referendum he wouldn’t formally declare independence unless neighboring countries supported the move, which they are unlikely to do.

Hiltermann, who has followed the twists and turns in the Middle East for more than three decades, says it’s unwise to make predictions: “All we know is that what used to be will not return in exactly the same form. It might even look radically different: a brave new world.”

The maneuvering of groups who don’t fit neatly into the existing nation-states suggests that the map of the Middle East is already been redrawn. This is how sovereignty changes today: through human geography — or bulldozers — which changes not maps, but facts on the ground.

Trying to make a renaissance at AUB

Posted March 13th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

BEIRUT

THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY of Beirut used to tally its influence by the number of its alumni among the region’s monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers. Today, AUB’s boosters have stopped counting heads of state but remain as obsessed as ever with reclaiming the luster of an institution that remains the best-reputed and most independent university in the Arab world.

That’s no mean feat in an era when authoritarian rulers in most Arab states are using the tools of surveillance, torture, and state harassment to curtail freedom of inquiry.

Yet today, in the heart of this region’s historical turbulence, AUB has begun an ambitious effort to make — or remake — itself as a great Arab university. For the first time in its 150-year history, AUB inaugurated a Lebanese president this January, a biologist and medical doctor named Fadlo R. Khuri. He has begun quietly but steadily breaking taboos in a systematic effort to emerge from four decades of hibernation and reconstruction, hoping to restore AUB’s ambitions and connect unapologetically to Lebanon and the Arab world.

“We can’t sit there and say we’re going to wait for the country and the Arab world to get its act together,” Khuri said in an interview in his corner office at College Hall, a stone building with a New England clock tower built in 1871. “We are committed to being excellent without the asterisk — not excellent ‘for Lebanon’ or excellent ‘for the Arab world.’ ”

Khuri’s bold talk about shedding mediocrity, fighting corruption, and competing directly with top universities around the world marks a vivid departure for AUB, which until recently was still a deeply scarred institution. In 1984, gunmen murdered AUB president Malcom Kerr — an American famous for his magisterial study of Arab politics — inside College Hall as he was entering his office. In 1991, the last year of the civil war, a bomb blew the building and iconic clock tower to smithereens. Reconstruction began immediately, and College Hall reopened in 1999.

It took 14 years from Kerr’s assassination for AUB’s president to risk living in Beirut at all — during the interim, the university was run remotely from an office in New York. Today, the campus gleams like any well-funded small liberal arts college with a gifted landscaper.

But in many important ways, AUB has not yet begun to recover from the hiatus violently imposed by the civil war. Tenure was scrapped during the war years and only now, in Khuri’s first year, has AUB decided to reinstate it — a necessary precursor for the university to compete with top-tier research institutions. AUB’s leadership is so afraid of sectarian politics and student activism that it bans the mention of political party names on campus and so heavily regulates debate at a Hyde Park-style speaker’s corner that students stopped showing up even at the peak of the Arab uprisings.

And in a country beset with multiple crises and a crippling political divide, its preeminent university seems often strangely genteel and detached, with only glancing mention at public events of pressing realities like the next-door war in Syria, the 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, and the often violent struggle between Lebanese sectarian warlords underwritten by expansionist regional powers.

The stakes are high in a region where scholarship is severely restricted; for example, researchers are almost entirely unable to work in Egypt today because of restrictions on academics and the routine detention of scholars. Last month, an Italian graduate student was allegedly murdered by Egyptian security officials. The greater the limits, the more independent scholarship is sorely needed. Institutions of state are in shambles, and political discourse, even five years after a wave of mostly failed popular uprisings, remains in a state of suspended animation.

Lebanon is better off than many of its neighbors in the Arab world, and that’s saying something when the most basic essentials of life and government barely function: For nearly two years, Lebanon has been unable to elect a president, and for nearly one, it hasn’t been able to dispose of the nation’s garbage.

Khuri’s predecessor was more likely to chide faculty members for failing to go through proper channels when reporting litter on campus than for failing to take a public stand on the issues of the day. Reams of leaked documents published in the Lebanese press detail allegations of kickbacks, nepotism, and corruption in the university’s procurement and finances — especially significant considering that AUB is the largest employer in the entire country of Lebanon after the government.

In a refreshing change of tone, Khuri has dispensed with the notion that civility, or even pure scholarship, is more important than relevance. He wants his deans to define the criteria for tenure and promotion to value service to Lebanon.

“Yes, we want to have international impact. But we were put here to have an impact locally and regionally,” Khuri said. “I would rather have my engineer who designs a retractable school for Syrian refugee kids spend a lot of time and get that right than necessarily publish 20 articles and get cited.”

 

AMHERST COLLEGE GRADUATE Daniel Bliss founded the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, with high hopes to spread Christianity in the Levant. Instruction was in Arabic, and Bliss planned to quickly turn it over to local leadership. Within decades, however, Bliss had clashed with a faculty member who wanted to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and shut down a student protest movement. English replaced Arabic, and “native instructors” were relegated to secondary status. Eventually, the institution gave up on its failed missionary aims and in 1920 adopted it modern name, the American University of Beirut.

It became a cornerstone of an era of ferment in Arab political life. Liberals, nationalists, revolutionaries, communists, and others were agitating throughout the Levant and the Arab region. In the half century that followed — through World War II and decolonization, the establishment of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians, and a long cycle of regional wars — it was an epicenter of political activism and research in and about the Arab world.

Until the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, AUB hosted some of the most influential and prolific figures of Arab political and intellectual life. Arab nationalists, Lebanese chauvinists, leftists, Palestinian revolutionaries, and countless others sharpened their arguments in AUB’s lecture halls and the nearby cafés on Bliss Street.

But the civil war undid the university. After Kerr’s murder, the university hunkered down, improvising in order to continue teaching students throughout the ebbs and flows of violence. AUB survived by insulating itself from its surroundings. Once a petri dish of politics, AUB tried to transform into a sterile politics-free zone. When Lebanon’s fratricidal war ended in 1991, AUB rebuilt a gleaming campus that now enrolls 9,000 students and employs 800 full-time faculty members. But the university never fully recovered its luster or reputation. Top scholars were deterred by the absence of tenure, and many would-be faculty avoid Lebanon, considering it unstable or dangerous.

“It’s always been a real crossroads,” said Betty S. Anderson, a historian at Boston University whose 2011 history of AUB remains the definitive study of the school.

But it is still a draw because none of its new competitor universities can match Beirut’s intellectual climate. “You still have academic freedom at AUB,” Anderson said. “There are red lines you can’t cross, but there is still an openness and freedom to maneuver here.”

The failure of lavishly state-funded universities in the Gulf suggests that money can’t buy excellence in research or education, and AUB, diminished as it is, remains the Arab world’s top university.

AUB is making an effort now to reverse decades of decline and reestablish a distinctly, and distinctly Arab, renaissance. Its challenges mirror those that face researchers across the Arab world: political pressure to avoid sensitive topics, corruption, and instability.

Research is dramatically underfunded in the Arab world ($10 per capita is expended for scientific research in the Arab world compared to $33 in Malaysia and $575 in Ireland) and subject to extreme political pressure, according to an ongoing multiyear study of research in the region by an AUB sociologist, Sari Hanafi, and Rigas Arvanitis, a sociologist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in France.

This spring at an AUB symposium, they released their new book, “Knowledge Production in the Arab World: The Impossible Promise,” about the dismal state of Arab research. Across the region, the sociologists found, Arab researchers suffer a double bind, discredited by religious authorities as well as by authoritarian states.

Lebanon had fared slightly better, Hanafi said, but only because of international funding. “When we talk about producing knowledge, we always should ask what is its purpose,” Hanafi said in an interview. “AUB’s international success comes at the expense of local relevance.”

Much of the research done in the Arab world is set by the agenda of foreign donors, Hanafi said, or is locally driven but of poor quality or published on platforms only read in one country.

“There will be no important research in the Arab countries without freedom to think, speak, and write,” Hanafi and Rigas wrote in their book. “Important research will be done elsewhere, and far from the actual needs and desires of the Arab population.”

 

KHURI IS CANDID about AUB’s fallen stature, and about the need to think beyond the university’s American identity to its Arab and Lebanese role and responsibilities. But striking a balance will be tricky. Until the civil war era, the US State Department was a major funder and considered AUB an arm of Cold War foreign policy. AUB steadfastly refused to cast itself as a Lebanese institution in part as a hangover from its imperial roots but also out of a desire to protect itself from the sectarianism, political violence, and graft that pervade Lebanon.

Born in Boston, Khuri finished high school in Beirut and then returned to the United States, where he studied at Yale and Columbia universities and finished his medical training at Boston City Hospital and Tufts. Khuri salts his conversation with references to the Red Sox and Celtics; as a teenager in Lebanon he listened to Sox games on Armed Forces radio. He carefully describes himself as card-carrying member of the ACLU with family roots in Beirut and AUB — someone who can navigate Lebanon’s local political culture without getting sucked into sectarian politics.

“I think it’s high time after 150 years that one of us was qualified enough to lead this institution,” Khuri said. “I get AUB, and I get Lebanon, and I get the US.”

Some of AUB’s problems are familiar: Students complain about unsustainably high tuition and the difficulty finding jobs. Faculty complain of low pay and tone-deaf administrators.

Others are of an entirely different nature. Faculty search committees lose compelling applicants who drop out when a bomb goes off in Beirut. Lebanese government officials approve work permits for some of the foreign faculty but illegally delay or withhold permission for faculty from Syria, the Palestinian territory, and some African countries. AUB developed its own electricity and water infrastructure during the war, but, like the rest of Lebanon, it struggles from chronic shortages and resource mismanagement.

Despite the official ban on politics, student clubs with tame names run for council elections as Trojan horses for Lebanon’s sectarian factions. The student newspaper publishes a handy guide explaining that the Cultural Club for the South fronts for the Shia organization Hezbollah, the Youth Club for the Sunni Future Movement, and so on.

Speaker’s Corner, a prominent feature of campus life until 1974, was brought back in 2010 but quickly faded away. Administrators, terrified that open debate about politics could quickly escalate into sectarian strife, carefully vetted topics and heavily coached student speakers. Like many public events on campus about polarizing contemporary topics, the result was so anodyne that students lost interest even at the peak of the Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011. Speaker’s Corner is once again on hiatus, and students said that faculty members tell them it’s better this way, since the young don’t yet have the “maturity” to discuss sensitive political matters.

Suspicion borders on paranoia as members of the AUB community track the relative number of supporters of each of Lebanon’s main political factions. Some whisper darkly that Hezbollah has taken over the faculty; others point to recent hires to argue that the rival Future movement now dominates AUB. Any perception that the university has sunk into the clutches of one faction or another could hurt the institution’s standing and expose it to pressure, threats, or even violence.

In order to eliminate the perception of sectarian bias, university admissions stripped out personal artifacts like essays or portfolios; Khuri wants to reverse that.

As Lebanon’s national crisis has reached a breaking point over the failure to dispose of garbage since July 2015, political activism among AUB faculty has quickened. So far, perhaps as part of his commitment to the Arab nahda, or renaissance, Khuri has let it flourish.

Dozens of enraged professors banded together in the fall to propose technocratic fixes to the Lebanese garbage crisis and have become a major force in an accountability movement that paints all Lebanon’s politicians as party to a colossal failure. The faculty proposals have emerged as the main alternatives to government policy.

An AUB economist named Jad Chaaban has spearheaded a group that’s running a slate of candidates for the Beirut city council elections this spring. If it does well, the group could emerge as a new, antisectarian political party in the next national parliamentary elections — a return with a bang of AUB’s legacy as a political player in its own right.

With several of Lebanon’s entrenched politicians on AUB’s board, Chaaban said that Khuri will need thick skin to resist encroachment on faculty autonomy. “They say they welcome dissenting voices,” Chaaban said. “So far they have left us alone.”

Broken nations and the perils of dysfunction

Posted January 10th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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A van drove past piles of wrapped garbage blocking a road in the town of Jdeideh, northeast of Beirut, on Monday. Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

 

I USED TO feel smug about Lebanon’s dysfunction when I moved here from New York three years ago. I knew the country well as a frequent long-term visitor. I had reported the 2006 war from the battlefields in Lebanon’s south and subsequently criss-crossed it while researching a book. However familiar and modern Lebanon seemed, I was convinced that it lay in the category of failed states, its problems of an entirely different nature than those facing the United States.

Then two critical things changed, evaporating my smugness and leaving in its place a sort of dread that I fear might never leave me. I began to really live here, raising my family and establishing a home. Soon after, I realized the paralysis and failures that mar Lebanon are not so far removed from the pathologies of the United States.

Lebanon isn’t an alternate universe. It’s a potential future, perhaps not the most likely for the United States but definitely a possible outcome. For a quarter century since its civil war ended, Lebanon has ambled along with an awkward power-sharing arrangement that prevents any single group from dominating. The same compromise also prevents any political faction from governing effectively — political stalemate. Corruption is rampant. Money can buy almost anything.

Successive crises have wracked this little country since sectarian warlords agreed to disarm their militias and turn to business in 1991. In the last decade alone, local experts predicted a complete breakdown multiple times — when former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005 and half the country protested in the streets, when Israel bombed the entire country during the 2006 war, when Hezbollah and its allies briefly took over West Beirut in 2008, and then when a million or more Syrian refugees crossed the border from Syria after 2011. Every Rubicon crossed so far has led not to another civil war but rather to another unthinkable degradation in quality of life, which the population stoically endures because most Lebanese would prefer anything to another horrifying civil war. Meanwhile, for reasons entirely attributable to corruption, Lebanon suffers from a permanent shortage of water and electricity, and countless other ignominies inexplicable in a country so rich and so modern.

This year’s garbage crisis encapsulates the hopelessness of a system that successfully holds its citizens hostage. One of the ruling families, the aforementioned Hariris, benefits from a secret national trash collection contract. (Wrap your head around the fact that the national garbage contract is a state secret. No member of the public knows how much the government spends for waste disposal. Even members of parliament can’t pry the information out of the government.)

Years after the overstuffed landfill’s expiration date, local activists finally forced its shutdown last summer. Politicians figured something would work out. Nothing has. Since July, garbage has piled up in fetid mountains around the nation — beside villas, beneath underpasses, in the harbor, in the rivers. Rotting garbage fills Lebanon’s unused corners. Doctors blame its toxic effluence for an epidemic of infections.

As Lebanon’s problems go, the garbage morass is extra mind-boggling because the solutions are within reach. The government could open other landfills. It could agree to let local municipalities take care of their own garbage, as many Lebanese advocate. The government’s preferred solution is the most expensive (and really, the most absurd): to ship the garbage abroad, to countries not yet disclosed. Anti-corruption activists warned of an environmental disaster. They were proved right at the first winter rains, when trash floated down flooded streets and clogged the seacoast. The prime minister tried to claim that images of garbage floods had been faked. But in a country as small as Lebanon, such obfuscation didn’t work; almost everybody had seen the disaster firsthand. Today flotillas of garbage bags regularly cruise the waters along Beirut’s Corniche.

The politics of garbage are complicated and inseparable from the politics of everything else, from the thwarted selection of a new president (the office has been vacant since May 2014) to the system that ended the civil war with a web of sectarian quotas and set-asides. Two of the most deleterious factors that fueled Lebanon’s emblematic civil war were the insecurities of minority groups in a pluralistic society and the toxicity of foreign intervention. Ultimately, after 15 years of fighting and a quarter of a million killed, the dominant warlords in Lebanon couldn’t find a new modus vivendi. So they stuck with the old unstable system that collapsed in 1975. The same warlords, or their children, still run Lebanon, and they still have failed to resolve the underlying problems of communal fear and foreign intervention. Beginning with that signal failure, Lebanon’s leaders over the years have compounded their original sin by failing to solve easier and easier problems.

Stymied on the big questions of how to elect the government and how to separate citizenship rights from sectarian identity, Lebanon has gradually become incapable of resolving ever more prosaic questions — how to divvy up the ill-gotten proceeds of black market diesel crucial to running the nation’s generators, how to keep public schools staffed, how to register civil marriages, how to activate the existing fiber optic network so that Lebanon loses its stigma as one of the slowest zones of Internet access in the world, how to repair leaks in the water mains responsible for far more water loss than drought and groundwater overpumping, how to collect parking fines. Every one of these issues has reached a breaking a point in just the last three years. At each juncture the political system has essentially shrugged.

All this differs in degree rather than in kind from the American system. It’s only a few dystopian steps from today’s plutocratic-politics-for-sale and Washington gridlock to a great American variation on the Lebanese model.

It’s easy but misleading to see the Arab states as failing and the Western states as members of an entirely different, successful category.

Sure, the US and European systems function far better — so vote millions of emigrants with their feet. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the drawbacks of the Western systems, which have decidedly uneven foundations.

America is often seen as the most attractive destination because of its open and ever-growing economy, and as a model of assimilation that, despite deeply rooted racism, provides a surer path to belonging than Europe’s. America’s opportunity for earning and self-invention balance against its cultural roughness and weak social safety net.

The strengths and weaknesses of America’s fundamental compact are closely intertwined. As a system, the United States has been remarkably adaptive in some ways and remarkably brittle in others. Its grandeur and lack of rigid ideology — or fixed cultural identity — has allowed it to welcome a huge number of immigrants and create a great deal of national wealth. It has embraced stark inequality as integral to its brand of capitalism.

Europe more generously absorbs newcomers and provides its citizens with a beguiling array of social services. Governments provide comfortable benefits to workers and the unemployed alike. The system prioritizes social stability; there’s less inequality but taxes are high and economic growth limited.

But all is not perfect in Europe either. The concept of European identity only roughly veils a subterranean nativism flowing through many quarters of the continent, evoked in racist conceptions like Blut und Boden or francais francais and traditions like Santa’s slave helper in Holland, Black Piet, still played today by white people in blackface.

In Europe, the social protections are more humanist and mainstream politics long ago achieved consensus on matters that still bedevil Americans, like universal health care, gun control, the death penalty, and abortion. The system is more placid, but in many ways also more rigid and undemocratic. There is no direct electoral connection between the roughly 500 million European citizens and the executive European Commission that wields so much power over them. In Europe, it’s hard to get rich or move up the class ladder, and it’s much harder for an immigrant of color to gain full social acceptance.

Importantly, these Western systems can break. They’ve done so before, in recent times, and without careful stewardship will do so again. Before Europe’s system was so great, it was terrible. Many of its most impressive achievements came in the wake of World War II, when the continent was so thoroughly destroyed by decades of violence and fascism that its inhabitants were willing to take radical measures in order to protect against further war.

American history is littered with points of rupture. The constitutional system has enabled the United States to improvise in response to some modern developments. But the US system, at great risk to itself, continues to struggle with major issues of equality and human rights. Again and again in times of crisis, America has resorted to extrajudicial violence, including torture and assassination, in the name of national security and its foreign policy aspirations.

At home, the American system has been unable to accommodate reform on race and gun violence. The nation almost split twice during violent upheavals over systemic racism, first during the Civil War and then during the cataclysmic and constitutional crisis that we neatly call the civil rights movement. Generation after generation of gun massacres have failed to convince American society (or its politicians) that it’s time to reinterpret the Second Amendment like we have so many others.

A truly adaptive system has to evolve, even sometimes on matters of great significance like slavery, free speech, suffrage, and who is allowed into the ruling elite. America’s historical strength has been its ability to follow crises with genuine reinvention. But that history is no guarantee, and for two generations now American political life has been stalemated over fundamental issues including race, guns, and taxes.

The ambiguities in the American and European compacts remind us that there are drawbacks to the most attractive systems in the world, the systems to which people flock from failed or failing states like Lebanon. Resourceful people abandon the places that stop working — where violence makes life untenable, like in much of Syria, or where corruption and collapsed institutions erase the opportunity for education and progress from one generation to the next.

Many of the people most likely to succeed, who take risks and initiative, abandon these disrupted zones for alluring, safe boom countries.

The West’s global appeal today shouldn’t lull us into complacency. We don’t have garbage piling up in the suburbs, like Lebanon, but we have an alarming number of solvable national problems that our system has stubbornly refused to solve.

Lebanon’s garbage problem differs from America’s gun problem in degree. America is not Lebanon, of course, and for all its pathologies the United States is not a failed state. However, it is not immune to failure either. We would do well to look and learn from Lebanon, lest we repeat its mistakes.

 

ISIS’ rotten roots

Posted November 20th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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ISIS fighters march in Raqqa, Syria. AP File photo.

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

I broke the fast this summer one night during Ramadan in Gaziantep, Turkey, with a pair of activists who worked for “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.” At great danger, their organization documented the atrocities of the Islamic State in its de facto capital, the provincial Syrian city of Raqqa.

That day in June, the father of one of the group’s members had been murdered in Raqqa in retribution for the activists’ work. The clean-shaven younger one, named Ibrahim, spent most of the meal on his laptop, messaging contacts inside the part of Syria controlled by the Islamic State and uploading videos. Neither man ate. ISIS had announced a bounty on all their heads, but the citizen-journalists had no plans to give up.

“We are all worried,” Ibrahim said when he packed up his computer. “I will continue this work under any condition. We already have lost too much.”

Earlier this month, I learned that Ibrahim had been beheaded by ISIS — not like his friend’s unfortunate father in Raqqa, in the lawless badlands of the caliphate, but in his neighborhood in the city of Urfa in the supposed safe haven of southern Turkey.

Ibrahim’s murder jolted me — it was yet another instance in which ISIS had snuffed out another life and encroached on the area marked “safe” in my mind. Such encroachments have become all too commonplace, and this November ISIS has made a quantum leap beyond what some imagined were the group’s constraints.

In quick succession, the group claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner over the Sinai, a pair of suicide bombings in residential Beirut at rush hour, and then the paralyzing Paris attacks.

As with Ibrahim’s assassination at an Urfa apartment, ISIS wants to sow a sense of insecurity. It is part of the group’s message and ideology: There are no borders. You’re not safe anywhere.

While it’s natural to feel fear — more about that reaction in a minute — we can also remember our outrage and our own power. The temptation to strike back or lash out usually colors the first sorties after a cataclysmic terrorist attack. The response often feels dumb, brute, misguided: bombing in order to do something, joining a war on a fanatical adversary’s terms rather than reasoning out the most effective response.

We’re wiser today than we were in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — or at least we ought to be — and we have a great deal more data at our disposal. If we can sit still long enough to process our emotions and cut through the layers of obfuscation put up by the myriad combatants in today’s Middle East wars, we can see at least one clarifying truth: Bad government by bad rulers has created the most enduring problems.

An entire rotten cast of Middle East governments has spawned a lost era through misrule and repression. Rotten rulers are the root cause not just of the Islamic State but of hundreds of thousands of other deaths. A partial list of villains includes theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and secular nationalist states like Egypt and Syria.

Some of the killers are backed by the West, others by the East. Interventions and miscalculations have driven the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The hapless invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States and of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union are both on this list.

Not all the malefactors are equally responsible, but all have contributed to the regional order of miserable governance. Until it is replaced with new systems of rule — systems that are more transparent and representative, less dependent on torture, exclusion, and corruption — the Middle East will continue to host murderous conflicts whose strategic impact will ripple into the West despite the West’s best efforts to pretend those conflicts can remain local.

On one level, the bloody propagandists of the Islamic State can feel like master puppeteers. Until ISIS apparently blew up a planeload of vacationers returning to St. Petersburg, Russia was lackadaisically going after ISIS targets while concentrating its firepower on other, less gruesome, opponents of the Syrian government. The United States and the rest of the anti-ISIS coalition were making little more than a show of bombing ISIS targets while passively waiting for better partners to appear with boots on the ground. Everybody with a stake in the Middle East who could feasibly do something about ISIS has consistently preferred to make other struggles a priority. A partial list of actors whose rhetoric against ISIS has far outstripped any action includes the governments of Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United States.

Now, however, with our sense of relative safety punctured, ISIS is on everyone’s lips.

But it’s a mistake to fall into a war to annihilate one enemy (as a former US admiral, among many others, has now called for the West to do) while sparing the far greater culprit.

Bashar Assad, using barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and old-fashioned artillery, has killed far more civilians than the Islamic State — hundreds of thousands more. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have invested billions of dollars over decades in promoting intolerant education and preaching around the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia serves as a model of intolerant, repressive, sectarian governance, one of the richest and most influential of many such models in the region.

There’s not enough space to detail to the errant examples set by the most powerful countries in the Middle East, from the anchors of the Arab world (including Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) to the critical non-Arab states that flank it (Iran and Turkey). And of course, foreign powers deserve their share of blame for toppling some states and propping up others.

But it should be heartening to realize that something as simple, and fixable, as bad government is responsible for most of the deaths in the region and for the power vacuums and state failures in which pathological movements like ISIS thrive.

Ultimately, bad governance is a problem that can be solved. It’s daunting but also empowering, because we can do something about it.

Caliph Abu Bakr’s pornographically nihilistic shock troops have already destroyed life in much of Syria and Iraq. Now they have penetrated daily life far from their home base, and their bombastic threats against other cities suddenly carry weight. How much should we fear for Rome, for Washington, for other cities their sinister, buffoonish henchmen might mention in future videos?

A spiral of global attacks like those we’ve witnessed this November provoke the same rage of the powerless that many of us felt on 9/11: They’re everywhere, we can’t stop them, we must destroy them.

A short drive from where Ibrahim was beheaded in what he thought was his safe home beyond the war zone, on the frontlines of the conflict with the Islamic State, the casualties number in the thousands every month. Unlike in the West, jihadi fundamentalists have wiped entire communities out of existence and have managed to change the entire way of life in cities like Raqqa, Manbej, and Mosul.

This is a time of seeming mayhem, when events eclipse our ability to keep pace. Columns of men, women, and children stream across Europe, trudging through the mud from their destroyed homelands in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the periphery of the West’s foreign policy misadventures.

The horrifying images of displaced families and drowned babies look like some catastrophe from World War II. Such disasters are not supposed to occur in our modern world. Nor are failures like Syria, where no government has followed a constructive policy that could contain the chaotic spillover of the conflict, much less resolve it.

Fear is a natural first response when confronted with the stream of painful events such as we’ve witnessed this month and this year. So are despair and fatalism. They are understandable, but there is much we can do. We can overcome the temptation to surrender to impulsiveness or passivity. A starting point is to return to fundamentals. Unjust states that rule through routine murder, torture, and arbitrary detention, will only breed bad outcomes.

Washington is one among many international power centers that stakes its Middle East policy on utilitarian partnerships with unsavory regimes, placing a bet that stability requires deals with devils. These bets have gone bad for all the players, however, ensconcing an entire region of tyrants. The short-term stability has grown shorter and shorter, while the long-term misery and disorder have swallowed up most of the supposed benefits.

Rule of law and just government need to become the end-game for Middle East policy. It’s not only the right thing, it will better serve the interests of peace, stability, and saving lives than the current dirty partnerships and deals. Repression, corruption, and coercion rot the fabric of society and make for rotten alliances, policies, and governments.

Until we recognize that repressive governments are doing most of the killing and maintaining the perfect conditions for murderous strife and nihilistic extremism, our machinations against the Islamic State are likely to lead to nothing more than another dead end.

Behind the lines in Damascus, a war of neighbors

Posted October 16th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Syrian citizens stood near a burning truck that was destroyed by two cars bombs in the Jaramana neighborhood, a suburb of Damascus, in 2012. Photo: SANA VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

DAMASCUS — THE GOVERNMENT militiaman named Noor leaned out from the narrow service balcony and pointed at the trees flanking the airport highway a hundred yards away.

“We are fighting in that area to keep them from entering our street,” he said. A few months earlier, Noor said, the situation “was critical. They were too close.” Now, he said, rebels have been pushed a few miles away.

The war in Syria is a war of neighborhoods. Foreign fighters and foreign intervention have fueled the conflict, but at its heart is an intimate civil war between neighbors and relatives. Noor, a retired soldier, was running a family store when Syria’s popular uprising rapidly transformed into a bitter nationwide battle four years ago. He quickly formed a neighborhood militia, which was eventually absorbed into the paramilitary National Defense Force, that fights for the Assad government and is funded and trained by Iran.

In recent years, his neighborhood, Jaramana, remained a leafy and sprawling suburb of Damascus crowded with schoolchildren and informal sidewalk cafes by day. At night, it was a battleground, as rebels in neighboring suburbs attacked the strategically critical airport highway and lobbed shells indiscriminately, mirroring the government’s own tactics.

Noor’s apartment building in Jaramana exudes middle-class respectability. Half its current residents have fled the fighting elsewhere in Syria, but they are well-heeled refugees, wealthier and more comfortable than many of the other 1.6 million newcomers to Jaramana. Those with money rent spacious apartments. Poorer displaced people rent basement rooms at inflated prices, and some squat in unfinished construction sites.

On the ground floor lives a judge who fled Raqqa when the Islamic State made the city into its Syrian capital. Upstairs from Noor lives a retired tax official and Baath Party member displaced in 2012 from Idlib province, who serves coffee and juice in an immaculate set of china and crystal.

The tax official’s son Ahmed al-Basha, 20, studies law, but in his free time he volunteers with Noor’s militia unit. At first, he would borrow his father’s pickup truck and deliver food to the fighters stationed on the edge of Jaramana, a harrowing but quick drive from his home.

“Now I know how to work a gun. I’ve experienced combat,” Ahmed said shyly, proud that despite his lack of military training he’s been able to help the government’s war effort.

His father, Mohamed Sharif al-Basha, 60, said that masked gunmen came to his home in northern Syria in 2012 and ordered him to quit his government job. When some of his colleagues were murdered, Mohamed filed a resignation letter and fled, eventually making his way to Jaramana. His sons work, and he collects a government pension.

He is well off and donates fuel and other supplies to the militiamen whose pro-government struggle, in his view, is an extension of his own personal desire to reclaim his house and job in Idlib province.

Syria’s war is often viewed through the prism of geopolitics, but from up close, the conflict appears intensely localized as well. Like dozens of other Syrians interviewed during a recent trip to the government-controlled portion of Syria, Noor and his neighbors were well-versed in the role of Russia and Iran and speeches of President Bashar Assad. Day to day, however, many government supporters aren’t off fighting ISIS, or to reclaim the half of the country’s territory that has slipped from Assad’s grasp. They are fighting for the blocks they live on or the roads that connect them to the city centers where they shop or work.

IN THE FIFTH YEAR of the war, the Syrian government has lost much of the country and is now primarily restricted to a corridor running from Damascus to the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia. The main highway leading north out of the city toward the coast is beset by rebels, and drivers have to bypass a stretch immediately north of the city that’s still being fought over. About one-third of the country’s population is displaced inside Syria, and 4 million have left the country altogether. Government-held Syria, encompassing what French colonial officials termed “useful Syria,” hugs the edge of the vast deserts in the interior, spanning approximately a third of the country’s territory and by some estimates only half its remaining population.

A spring rebel offensive in Idlib threatened the government’s safe zones along the coast, while the Russian intervention that began in September appears to have shifted the momentum in the government’s favor. At least that’s how supporters view it. “God willing, it’s just a matter of a year now, and we can go back to normal,” said one government fighter interviewed on the coast.

But parts of government-held Syria are encircled and besieged. Rebels regularly smuggle car bombs into Damascus, despite ubiquitous checkpoints. The overwhelming majority of men on the streets are uniformed fighters, and many in civilian clothes turn out to be off-duty soldiers making extra money with part-time work driving taxis or helping at shops.

The war punctuates daily life and divides families. In private, many Syrians talk about relatives fighting on several sides of the conflict — some with the government, some with the nationalist rebels in the Free Syrian Army, and some with the Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group the Nusra Front.

One night over dinner in Damascus, a pro-rebel wife tangled with her pro-government husband over the conduct of the war.

“It’s inhumane,” the wife said of the vast number of civilians killed by the government.

“The terrorists are much worse,” her husband retorted.

An exploding barrel bomb in the nearby suburb of Deraya interrupted their argument. The sound is unmistakable — the steady beat of a helicopter’s blades and then for several seconds a low swelling boom.

“People are dying!” the wife exclaimed in tears.

“Not people,” her husband said. “Just fighters. All the people left Deraya long ago.”

Fear and combat long ago became normalized throughout Syria, where front lines are rarely far away. Around the capital, rebels in areas like Jobar, Deraya, and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk can lob mortars into the city of Damascus whenever they choose. Daily civilian casualties arrive in the city’s emergency rooms, victims of rebel shelling, doctors said — at a time when rebel shelling has been significantly restrained compared to the levels a year ago.

One of those casualties is Ashtar al Ahmed, a 23-year-old who was preparing for her final graduation project at Damascus University, where she studies graphic design, when a shell crashed onto her veranda in the Old City on Sept. 11.

“I saw a flash of light. I didn’t hear the bomb because I was in the center of the explosion,” Ahmed said. Her legs were shattered and she lost blood, but she was lucky. After a series of operations, her doctors said she would walk again and be able to go home after two to three months in the hospital.

The Ahmed family embodies the Damascene tradition of cosmopolitan coexistence. Ashtar and her twin brother speak English, French, and Arabic. Their mother is an academic who works for an international agency that protects Syrian folklore, and the twins frequent the Old City’s lively bar scene with a mix of friends less interested in sectarian background than in their ambitions to travel and launch careers. Both had options to leave Syria during the war but chose to stay to finish their university courses in Damascus.

“It happens every day in our neighborhood,” Ahmed said of the bombing. “We stay up late, we go out and party.”

“It’s normal life,” said her brother.

“If I had gone to a bar, maybe I’d be fine today,” she said.

She sees herself as a defender not of the Syrian government but of the Damascus way of life, which she believes doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world.

“War cannot stop me from doing what I love and living where I live,” she said.

INTENSE FEELINGS AND propaganda color all sides of the fight. Syrian rebels interviewed this summer at their rear bases in Turkey said many of the government’s front-line soldiers fight lackadaisically. They believe Assad keeps his most competent soldiers in reserve to defend Damascus and other parts of the government’s strategic heartland.

Government propaganda, meanwhile, portrays the rebels as mercenaries without a cause. In the days immediately following the beginning of the Russian bombing campaign, Syrian government outlets spread unsourced and never confirmed reports that thousand of rebels, terrified by Russia’s might, had dropped their weapons and fled into Jordan, Turkey, and Europe.

On the government side, information remains as tightly controlled as it was before the war. State outlets focus almost exclusively on the statements of the president and a few top officials. Government supporters who want a little more information or context along with the official line turn to Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese network that supports Assad but provides a more rounded news diet.

Secret police monitor cafes and hotel lobbies, despite the government’s manpower shortage, and in private some regime supporters say their greatest fear isn’t rebel shells but unscrupulous pro-government militiamen who might shake them down or arbitrarily detain them at checkpoints.

Many casual boosters of the government harbor hopes for a quick finish, fanned by a rush of breathless official reports of unparalleled battlefield victories since the Russian offensive began. But veterans involved in the fight, like Noor, the government militiaman on the edge of Damascus, expect the fight to drag on for another 10 years.

An entire generation of young men on all sides of the conflict has grown up under arms. Many have committed atrocities or resorted to extortion, even on the government’s side, Noor admitted: “We’ll have to deal with them after we resolve the political conflict.”

Forgiveness is not high on anybody’s agenda. President Assad has offered amnesty to fighters who surrender their weapons, but there is little evidence that any rebels have successfully been pardoned and reintegrated into government-controlled Syria.

And if amnesty ever became a government policy, Syrian officials might have trouble getting their foot soldiers to embrace it.

“We wouldn’t accept even the guys who give up their weapons,” Noor said. “We refuse anyone who even sympathized with the revolutionaries. They killed our friends, and we buried them. We will not forgive them. We won’t take them back. If the government wants to forgive them, that is their problem. We won’t.”

The Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry

Posted August 23rd, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

The Arab world can’t feed itself, and that’s how the region’s dictators like it.

“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end of us.”

As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.

Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings together not only the traditional cast of political and religious dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and apolitical citizens against the state.

Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid. Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy food.

The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself. Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share of national budgets.

So far, the bakeries haven’t run out of loaves in two of the region’s biggest bread battlegrounds, Egypt and Syria. But the sense of plenty is only an illusion. Food is expensive, people are poor, and repressive regimes rely on imported wheat financed through foreign aid. It’s an unsustainable and volatile cocktail.

“You have a system where access to food is a primary mechanism of social control,” said journalist Annia Ciezadlo, author of the book “Day of Honey,” who has written extensively about food subsidies, unrest, and the use of food as a weapon in the Middle East. “The moment something happens to that supply of subsidized food, everything can go out of control.”

THE ARAB UPRISINGS of 2010 and 2011 offered only the most recent glimpse of what it would look like if people got hit where it hurts the most: at the dinner table.

In 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt managed a feat that had been considered impossible when he broke with the entire Arab world and initiated a peace process with Israel, even traveling to Jerusalem to address the Knesset. The bread conundrum, on the other hand, proved much more intractable.

Sadat tried in January 1977 to cancel Egypt’s expensive wheat subsidy at the urging of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Riots swept nearly every major city, and in two days Sadat caved. He restored the bread subsidy that has remained in place ever since, and the Egyptian military took control of many crucial bakeries to ensure that the government could control the bread supply in a crisis. That awkward status quo prevails to this day. The government’s bread economy is inefficient, unstable, and nearly entirely dependent on foreign imports. But any attempt to tinker with bread prices or subsidies still terrifies the country’s rulers and enrages its citizens.

Regimes took heed. Hafez al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, extolled peasants in his rhetoric and made food independence a central pillar of his regime. For decades, Syrian officials constantly bragged they didn’t need to import wheat.

Dictators in the Arab world learned that one of the best routes to dominance runs through the bakery. Rulers the world round usually deploy some variant of pocketbook politics, rewarding their loyalists with perks like community centers, jobs, and payola — and punishing opposition areas by scrimping on their basic services like roads and schools. In many Middle Eastern countries, the level of control was more basic: Without the government, citizens would starve.

The brittle, undemocratic regimes had, however, no mechanism of oversight and little resilience to withstand outside shocks. So distant events like a bad crop on the Black Sea or low rainfall in Canada could quickly translate into a political crisis in the Levant or North Africa. In 2008, world food prices spiked, and, once again, bread riots broke out across the Middle East. Regimes scrambled to cover the shortfall with handouts and subsidies, on the assumption that their populations might tolerate repression but not hunger.

Indeed, rising commodity prices were one of the triggers in the 2010 to 2011 uprisings. Protesters in Tunisia brandished baguettes. In Egypt, many of the revolutionary chants talked about food, and a central demand was for “bread, freedom, social justice” (it rhymes in Arabic).

The first Syrians to rise up against Bashar Assad included many poor farmers who had been displaced by drought and the government’s neoliberal disinvestment from agriculture. Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C., argue that a series of droughts in Syria from 2006 to 2010 created the preconditions for the uprisings — crop failures drove farmers off their land and raised the level of desperation until Syrians directly challenged their ruler.

Saudi Arabia’s ultrarich monarchy calculated that it could survive any challenge from political dissidents critical of the country’s lack of rights and freedoms — as long as it could keep its citizens in material comfort. The king quickly increased handouts to citizens, and after a brief rumble, Saudi Arabians sat out the regional wave of protests that swept through nearly every other Arab state.

Yet the obsession with food sovereignty and security remains close to the region’s despots. Saudi Arabia has purchased land in fertile water-rich countries like Ethiopia in order to secure its food supply.

In Syria, unscrupulous combatants on all sides have made food one of the war’s central battlegrounds. The regime blocks delivery of food aid to rebellious regions; its blockade of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus has also kept out truckloads of UN food aid, causing years of famine in the camp. Further afield, the regime routinely bombs bakeries in areas that fall under rebel control, in a method colloquially referred to as “starve-or-surrender.”

The Islamic State, for its part, has made control of the food supply a basic part of its blueprint for power, starting with the bakeries and wheat warehouses, and even facilitating the international aid deliveries that have kept some parts of northern Syria from suffering the same fate as Yarmouk.

THE ARAB STATES are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.

So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about 44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz, author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”: “Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an interview.

Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.

In the Middle East, that means conditions are still ripe for a tempest. “At the end of the day, we can explain the crisis in terms of political economy: corruption, crony networks favored over rural populations. Droughts don’t cause civil war in Los Angeles,” said Woertz, who studies food and security at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, a think tank.

And it can’t be ignored that droughts have been a fact of life in the arid Arab world as long as there has been agriculture, and bread riots on their own have yet to transform a dictatorship into a democracy. That’s because the problem is much larger: People in the Arab world have been kept poorer than they should be by corrupt repressive governments that hog national wealth for a tiny elite. Until that changes, hunger and food insecurity will remain yet another symptom of the region’s terrible governance.

Permanent refugees reshape the Middle East

Posted July 11th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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PHOTO: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A woman and a child left a Syrian shop in Mersin in March.

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas]

MERSIN, Turkey — WHEN MARWAN MUNIR left Syria three years ago, he only intended to stay away from home a short while, like most of the refugees he knows. Munir worked as a trainer at the local professional soccer club in Lattakia, a coastal city known for its fair Mediterranean climate and its boisterous waterfront cafes.

Today, Munir is the founder and head coach of a new Syrian national soccer team made up of rebels in exile, which hopes to displace the regime-backed soccer team in Damascus. He has found a home in Mersin, Turkey, a sort of doppelganger just around a bend in the Mediterranean from his hometown. After practice, Munir and his players repair to teahouses along the sea where Syrian expatriates refresh the coals on the water pipes and Arabic competes with Turkish as the lingua franca.

“I don’t want to learn Turkish,” Munir said. “I don’t want to admit that we might stay here.” But he has proven quite adept at learning the ways of the country where he now lives with his wife and three daughters, along with approximately 1.7 million other displaced Syrians, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Munir has skillfully negotiated with the local mayor’s office to find a top-notch training facility in this resort town that’s a three-hour drive and a cultural world away from the Syrian frontier.

Some of the refugees in Turkey cluster just over the border, ready to slip back home as soon as they feel it’s safe. But many others, like Munir, have migrated deeper into Turkey and further from home, establishing bases and communities that hint at a long time horizon — and though it’s politically toxic to say so, at permanence. “It might take 10 years for the war to end,” said the coach.

He’s loath to consider the possibility that the regime could survive and the rebellion could end in complete failure, but he admits it’s a possibility. “If our side loses, then we’ll stay in Turkey forever,” he said.

IN THE MIDDLE EAST, Palestinians have long been synonymous with permanent diaspora. Waves of refugees remade the region after wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967, destabilizing neighboring governments in Jordan and Lebanon, while bringing with them established fortunes and businesses. Palestinian culture and politics provided a vital injection of dynamism to public life in the nations that hosted refugees. But the never-ending refugee presence also brought tension and periodic crises that continue to flare generations after the first Palestinian refugees arrived.

Arab governments vowed never to repeat the same mistakes. When millions fled Iraq after the civil war provoked by the 2003 US invasion, many were allowed to make temporary homes in neighboring Jordan and Syria, but entirely on a short-term, provisional basis. Governments made it very difficult for refugees to get papers and settle down. As the worst fighting subsided, they were encouraged or even pushed to return home.

Syria’s civil war has now dragged on far longer than the bloodiest period in Iraq, and the two biggest hosts of Syrian refugees — Turkey and Lebanon — are starting to see what it looks like when a long-term emergency ages into the new normal.

There are about 4 million Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR, and nearly twice as many displaced from their homes but still inside Syria. No precise numbers can track the human and societal toll, but the migration does take a disproportionate toll on certain groups.

Doctors, for instance, fled the city of Aleppo en masse early in the war after a concerted campaign of violence against them. Aleppo’s industrialists and skilled workers, who formed the backbone of the country’s manufacturing base, have also disproportionately moved elsewhere, sometimes reopening their old factories and workshops in Turkish cities like Gaziantep.

Syrian laborers and professionals have flooded into Turkey and Lebanon, sometimes displacing local workers and meeting with resentment. They gather at Syrian restaurants, usually reincarnations of establishments in abandoned, now war-torn, neighborhoods back home in Syria.

In Lebanon, the 1.2 million registered refugees represent about a quarter of the country’s entire population. The actual number of unregistered Syrians is probably significantly higher. Since the beginning of 2015, Lebanon has enforced a policy of limited welcome, after years of effectively leaving the border open. Now Syrians need a visa or proof of a certain amount of wealth before entering Lebanon. They’re more carefully tracked, after six months or a year many are forced to leave the country.

IN TURKEY, HOWEVER, signs of a permanent diaspora are emerging. Turkey has officially embraced displaced Syrians as part of its active support of the rebellion. Turkey’s government was among the first to call for the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and has placed its considerable political resources behind the uprising. A shared Sunni Islamist ideology unites many of the anti-Assad militants with Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some Turkish institutions, notably the more risk-averse military, have warned against getting too deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. But Erdogan has plunged ahead, allowing rebels to set up bases in Turkey, providing the most reliable staging ground for humanitarian relief to beleaguered northern Syria, and effectively keeping the opposition alive by providing a secure rear area for refugees and combatants.

Most of the time, Syrians cross the border freely, without officials keeping any record. Even when Turkish officials close the border for weeks or a month, as they did during clashes in June, they allow wounded Syrians to enter Turkey. Vetted Syrian rebels can cross the border freely even when it’s closed to civilians.

Those who intend to return home stay close to the frontier, like filmmaker Muhannad Najjar. He lives in Kilis, directly on the border, where dozens of new concrete apartment blocks and compounds have sprung up in the last two years, as the sleepy way-station has swelled into a sizable city-in-waiting, its new ranks populated almost entirely by people like Najjar who don’t intend to stay long.

Najjar visits his village near Aleppo whenever the crossing is open. He has registered his newborn daughter in Turkey, and until recently he had an official Turkish identity card that allowed him to access free health care and other Turkish government services. The last time he came back from Syria, he said, the card was confiscated without explanation.

“They don’t want to make it too easy for us,” he said. “But I feel safe here.”

There is a booming border economy fueled by the war in Syria, mostly centered on trade, smuggling, and humanitarian aid. International aid groups run massive operations along the border. Syrian and foreign companies that work inside Syria often have headquarters, training, and back-end facilities in Turkey where it’s less dangerous. But all this border activity will cease as soon as the war ends, or even sooner, if the rebels can secure some of the areas they control from regime bombing.

But hundreds of thousands of Syrians have moved further afield into Turkey, severing themselves from the conflict economy. Skilled workers have flocked to Bursa, on the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul, for jobs in mills and factories.

The Fethiye quarter, a few tram stops from Topkapi Palace and Istanbul’s premier tourist attractions, has become an almost entirely Arabic-speaking neighborhood. Syrian rebel groups have set up political offices in nondescript apartment blocks. Young refugees study in intensive Turkish language programs.

Like Istanbul, Mersin is a decidedly Turkish place, not some border town. It’s a popular beach destination, and enjoys a reliable Mediterranean breeze all the way into the green hills overlooking the city.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have settled down here, drawn by the cheaper rents and the sense of stability. In border towns like Kilis, speculators have doubled rents for tiny flats. Mersin, in contrast, welcomes newcomers to its steady port economy.

THE NEW NATIONAL Syrian soccer team trains every evening, when the summer sunshine has subsided. Manager Anas Ammo and the coach, Munir, recruited players to defect from clubs inside Syria, and held tryouts along the border. The full squad only came together in May, and expects to play its first exhibition matches in the fall.

“We represent the Syrian people,” said Ammo. “The regime’s team represents the military, politicians, and the Ba’ath Party.”

More than anything else, however, the soccer team is an acknowledgment that many of the millions of Syrians who have taken up residence inside Turkey don’t plan to go home. Nearly a hundred years ago, millions were displaced at the end of the war between Turkey and Greece. One of the first things the refugees did in their new homes was re-create a memory of their old communities through football clubs, usually named for the town from which they fled.

“My dream is to go back home. If I can’t, then my second dream is to play on the Syrian national team, even here,” said Omar Hajj Mohammed, 23, a star midfielder from Lattakia who is one of the new team’s prized recruits. He played on a junior club team in Syria as a teenager before he was drafted into the regime’s military at the start of the uprising. He defected to the Free Syrian Army after 10 months. Eventually, he quit the fighting, working first as a construction worker in a Turkish border town and later at the fish market in Mersin.

None of the founding members of the exiled Syrian football team like the idea that their idealistic efforts will cement their position in the diaspora. But they said that after years of active resistance, their return to football marks a turn away from war and toward a future, even one far from home.

Their familiarity with the waterfront neighborhoods, the local Turkish sports officials, even the passing workers laying a new promenade by the sea, bespeak a growing rootedness. It’s too early to say whether the Syrians, like the Palestinians, will remain refugees for generations. But most of them come from communities so thoroughly destroyed they will take decades to rebuild. They’ve been away so long, it’s hard for them to imagine what return would look like.

Smuggler boats leave daily for Europe from Mersin, but Hajj Mohammed has decided he’d found a place he could stay. “I don’t want to be any further way from my family than here,” he said. “If I can’t be with my family, I might as well return to soccer.”

How a handshake in Helsinki helped end the Cold War

Posted June 7th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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AP AND GETTY IMAGES PHOTOS; GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford met in Helsinki at the All European Conference on Security and Cooperation in July 1975.

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS AGO this summer, King John and a group of feudal barons gathered at Runnymede on the banks of the Thames River. There he agreed to the Magna Carta, which for the first time limited the absolute power of the monarch and established a contract between ruler and ruled. The mother of modern treaties and law, the Magna Carta began a global conversation about the responsibility of the powerful toward people under their control.

A scant four decades ago, also this summer, another gathering in the Finnish capital of Helsinki produced a second series of accords. While far less well known, the signing of the Helsinki Accords was a critical juncture in the long struggle of the individual against state authority. Building on some of the same ideas that undergirded the Magna Carta, the Helsinki Accords codified a broad set of individual liberties, human rights, and state responsibilities, which remain strikingly relevant today, whether the subject is China’s Internet policy, the Islamic State’s latest outrage, or the American “war on terror.” The language of human rights has become the lingua franca for criticizing misbehavior by states or quasi-governments.
Today, most governments have signed on to the United Nations’ definition of universal human rights, only disagreeing about whether their own transgressions run afoul of them. Rights groups are ubiquitous, criticizing the treatment of American prisoners, Chinese sweatshop workers, Iranian dissidents, and other groups whose rights are abridged.

Yet for the widespread agreement that human rights represent shared, universal values, it’s still hard to predict when a campaign based on moral accusation can change the actions of a state. Indeed, the question is no longer whether human rights can make a difference, it’s whether they will in any particular case.

It wasn’t always so. Until recently, human rights were hardly part of the realpolitik discourse and were certainly not considered an effective cudgel against powerful regimes. That changed 40 years ago, when powers from both sides of the Iron Curtain signed the Helsinki Final Act and unwittingly ushered in the era of the human rights group.

Solidarity in Poland, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, and the Moscow Helsinki Group played key roles in the fall of the Soviet Union. They galvanized public dissatisfaction at home, embarrassed their governments abroad, and catalyzed the Soviet bloc’s loss of legitimacy. Many historians now believe that the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the human rights movement they engendered played a pivotal role in ending the Cold War, far exceeding the humble expectations of the diplomats who brokered the agreement.

“The most important legacy of the Helsinki Final Act today is that citizens have the right to monitor and report on the human rights records in their own country,” said Sarah Snyder, a historian at American University who has written a book called “Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War.” Prior to 1975, groups like Amnesty International tried to create international pressure with letter-writing campaigns, usually from outside the country where an injustice was occurring. Snyder believes that Helsinki created a new paradigm of human rights and a global slate of organizations that pursued them, with lasting impact — all the more impressive, Snyder said, because Helsinki wasn’t a legally binding treaty. “The only way it was binding was morally,” she said.

Academics have given a name to the idea that human rights advocacy can change facts on the ground: “The Helsinki Effect,” also the title of a 2001 book by political scientist Daniel Thomas, which popularized the argument that human rights trumped geopolitics and economics in resolving the Cold War.

How did a nonbinding, lumbering bureaucratic agreement reached four decades ago spawn the modern human rights movement? And what’s left of the legacy of Helsinki?

Solidarity

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Members of the Polish trade union, Solidarity, on strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980.

AT THE HEIGHT of the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was a closed and inaccessible society. Many people who lived behind the Iron Curtain weren’t allowed to leave, and outsiders were permitted only tightly controlled, limited glimpses at life inside. The specter of cataclysmic conflict hung over East and West, with both sides brandishing thermonuclear and conventional arsenals that were unthinkably vast and destructive.

Throughout the Cold War, there were points of tension followed by periods of accommodation. The Helsinki Accords marked one of the latter. Relations across Europe had become so strained and so dangerous that Moscow, Washington, and all the capitals in between agreed there had to be some degree of relaxation. Both sides wanted to avoid a continental war between the superpowers. Both sides sought to end what they saw as belligerent expansion by the other.

They gathered in Helsinki on Aug. 1, 1975, to sign an agreement that turned out to be a seminal breakthrough — although not in the way that either side expected. The agreement signed by 35 states, including the United States and the USSR, focused for the most part on reestablishing respect for borders, national sovereignty, and peaceful resolution for future disputes between states. It also included a clause recognizing universal human rights, including freedoms of thought, conscience, and belief.

President Gerald Ford was castigated by his domestic critics for signing away the farm, because he had acknowledged Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Soviets trumpeted Helsinki as a tremendous victory, enshrining their sphere of influence and providing international legitimacy to their repression of citizens and governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. They were so unconcerned about the human rights provisions that they published the Helsinki Final Act in full in the pages of the state newspaper, Pravda.

Western diplomats had modest hopes that the personal freedoms enumerated at Helsinki would ease the way for Eastern Bloc spouses married to Westerners, and for cultural and academic exchanges that promoted international dialogue.

But the importance of Principle Seven became evident almost before the ink was dry. Civic groups sprung up across the Eastern Bloc, determined to exercise their right to monitor their own governments’ compliance with Helsinki. Andrei Sakharov, the famous Soviet dissident, oversaw the founding of the Moscow Helsinki Group at his apartment in 1976. Activist playwright Vaclav Havel helped set up Charter 77 in Prague the following year. A Helsinki watch group opened in Poland in 1979.

The watch groups became very public thorns in the side of Communist governments. Their leaders were well known domestically and had contacts in the West, particularly in the press. They mobilized global attention to the human rights abuses of the Soviet Union and its client dictators.

And when governments subjected the watch groups to withering pressure, the activists asked their supporters outside the Iron Curtain to establish a unified organization that could defend the Helsinki Watch monitors. Human Rights Watch, perhaps the best-known and farthest-reaching global rights advocacy group today, originated with the Helsinki Watch group founded in 1978.

A brilliant, if perhaps unintended, enforcement system was built into Helsinki. All the signatory nations agreed to reconvene regularly, and the 10-point document contained many items of great political and security import to the Soviet Union. If the Soviets wanted to keep the benefits of Helsinki, they’d have to put up with attacks on their human rights record at the follow-up meetings.

“Without this follow-up mechanism, I think there would have been a big celebration after the signing, and we never would have heard of the Helsinki Final Agreement again,” Snyder said.

Instead, a panoply of Eastern Bloc activists and their Western supporters flooded diplomatic confabs at Belgrade, Madrid, and Vienna with details about oppression and abuses. Often, the Helsinki monitors became celebrities themselves, drawing widespread attention when they were persecuted and detained by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

The Helsinki-inspired human rights movements put a face on government oppression and placed rights atop the Cold War agenda alongside arms control. To the frustration of Soviet leaders, the world became absorbed by the plight of jailed activists and refuseniks denied exit visas.

By time Mikhail Gorbachev took over the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985, he couldn’t sidestep human rights concerns when he began to negotiate a full détente.

THE NAMING AND SHAMING techniques pioneered by the Helsinki monitors run deep in the DNA of contemporary human rights groups. “The mechanisms that were so essential to Helsinki remain a key tool of the human rights movement today,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “How does the human rights movement get anything done? By shaming, and by enlisting powerful governments to act on behalf of victims of human rights violations.”

For decades after the ratification of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights remained largely an abstract concept in world politics. Most governments agreed with the principle but comfortably ignored human rights in practice.

The crumbling of the Soviet empire gave the human rights movement both experience and legitimacy. The Berlin Wall came down, and Eastern Bloc countries toppled their homegrown dictators. Lech Walesa, head of the Solidarity trade union, was elected president of Poland. Vaclav Havel, a playwright and signatory of Charter 77, won the presidency of Czechoslovakia and worldwide renown as a highly cultured philosopher-king. A generation after the Helsinki monitors came to prominence as victims of tyranny, they had become the face of a new democratic political elite.

The changing values that elevated them have become part of the world’s political orthodoxy; even governments that routinely violate human rights still pay them lip service.

“Even North Korea is pretending to accept human rights,” Roth said. “Governments care about their reputation and don’t want to be seen as violating human rights norms.”

Authoritarian backlash is another legacy of the Helsinki era. Dictators have also studied the rise of the civic monitors, and concluded that groups like Human Rights Watch really could cause them problems. A common result has been to strike hard and quickly against human rights groups, especially when they are run by locals who have moral authority. Vladimir Putin’s rise to power has been accompanied by the silencing and killing of many credible rights monitors. Iran’s ayatollahs deployed maximal force to destroy the “Green Revolution” of 2009. Egypt’s dictatorship rails against any criticism of its human rights record as meddling and foreign interference, and prosecutes domestic rights group with the same zeal that it pursues armed antigovernment insurgents. Despotic regimes have made it common practice to starve rights groups of funding and deny them permits to operate.

Given the success of authoritarian regimes, not everyone is convinced that the Helsinki effect is as pronounced as its champions claim. Among the many commemorations scheduled for the 40th anniversary year, a group of scholars is gathering at the Sorbonne in Paris this December to explore how much the agreement and the human rights movements it created really were responsible for social and political change.

“My feeling is that we really don’t know that much, beyond generalities, that is, in terms of how the ‘Helsinki effect’ effectively operated by way of changing East European societies from within,” one of the organizers, Frédéric Bozo, a historian the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, wrote in an e-mail. He’s also not sure whether anything about the Helsinki era applies to today’s thorny nexus of human rights and political power — another area he said is ripe for further inquiry.

Skeptics of the narrative of human rights triumphalism point out that the US government always paid more attention to transgressions committed by its rivals than by its friends. That pattern continues today in Washington, with pointed human rights criticism of China, Russia, Cuba, and Iran. There’s far less enthusiasm in the West for documenting human rights abuses by allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel — or for that matter, addressing the plight of those held without trial at Guantanamo Bay or killed in drone strikes.

In some ways, the world was more binary during the Helsinki era. Two major superpowers dominated the world; if they agreed, most other nations fell into place. Nonstate actors hadn’t assumed their central role in international politics, with their destabilizing penchant for asymmetric warfare.

Even pessimists like Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, admit that Helsinki produced an enduring change. Le Gloannec believes the world is headed for dark times, with resentment driving an anti-Western wave led by tyrannical demagogues like Russia’s Putin. The war in Ukraine could spread farther into Europe, she believes, and human rights norms won’t do anything to calm tensions.

Despite her grim forecast, Le Gloannec belives that civic and human rights are here to stay — thanks to Helsinki. “We have a new paradigm,” she said. “People have the right to defend their rights, to fight for their rights.” However fragile, it’s a paradigm that for the first time placed individuals, rather than nation states, at the center of international relations.

Signs and Incitement

Posted May 4th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Photo:  MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

LEBANON’S MOST powerful Sunni and Shia warlords entered delicate negotiations to calm sectarian strife earlier this year, terrified that the mass killing in next-door Syria was about to engulf their own country.

There were many prickly agenda items: the central role that the Shia party Hezbollah plays in propping up Syria’s dictatorship; the cozy relationship between rich Sunni bosses and the crop of nihilist jihadis who are responsible for some of the most chilling murders; and a spate of beheadings and riots.

In the end, the two sides could agree on only one major concession to cool the conflict from the boiling point it had reached: Take down the big posters.

This compromise, at first glance, may sound almost pitifully small. At the time, Sunni jihadists were killing national army soldiers in the mountain town of Arsal, while Shia neighborhoods were celebrating their war martyrs as the only defense against the creation of a stifling, genocidal caliphate. And the only thing that sectarian leaders could agree on was a moratorium on images and iconography.

Yet the accord makes a powerful true-life argument about incitement.

The ubiquitous images of martyrs, religious leaders, and warlords, the slogans about death, sacrifice, and religions painted on walls and banners, both sides agreed, posed a genuine risk. Taking down some of the most intense signs of sectarian propaganda isn’t as big a step as disarming a militia, but in Lebanon’s ongoing experiment with religious and communal tension, this spring’s accord over visual propaganda marks an important test.

If the architects of the agreement and the social scientists who argue that the visual displays of sectarianism raise fears and the risk of violence are right, then Lebanon will reap major dividends from the iconography gambit — and in the process, give credence to the argument that visual propaganda plays an integral role in conflict.

But just how important are these signs and slogans? Can posters actually shape people’s identities and political views, mobilize them to fight, prime them to enter a zero-sum struggle against other people whom they consider different and less human? Or do they merely reflect discord and sectarianism that come from conflicts over resources and are nurtured slowly in places like schools, mosques, and churches?

“These flags are everywhere. We need a break from them,” said Jeanine Jalkh, a Lebanese journalist who has written extensively about ways to heal war-torn societies.

Tens of thousands of dead from the Lebanese Civil War, which raged from 1975 to 1991, are still unaccounted for; many victims are believed to have been killed by warlords and factions that still predominate today. So for many Lebanese, Jalkh said, the banners and flags they pass every day serve as a painful reminder of an enemy group that might still control their neighborhood — and that they hold responsible for a major, unprocessed loss. “To make peace, we’re going to need a multifaceted process,” she said. “We’re going to have to deal with memory, and with accountability.” Toning down the symbols, Jalkh believes, is a great place to start.
ACROSS THE ARAB world, the fight for power increasingly is being waged in sectarian terms, by militias whose loyalists and leaders identify themselves as Sunni, Shia, Christian, or some offshoot sect rather than by any other ethnic or political identity.

It’s not always accurate, but the signs and banners make a good bellwether of where the conflict stands. When sectarian militias are enjoying an entente, the peacocking subsides: no new posters and flags, none of the enormous billboards, and building-sized banners. When tensions run high, on the other hand, sectarian iconography proliferates.

The first steps to remove the icons in Lebanon went smoothly. In March, Hezbollah and its biggest Shia ally, the Amal movement, dismantled some of their largest party banners hanging in Beirut. The main Sunni party, the Future Movement, took down many of its posters and banners in Beirut and the cities of Sidon and Tripoli, which have diverse populations but also host concentrations of Sunni jihadists.

Mixed neighborhoods and sectarian borders have, not surprisingly, been the biggest flashpoints in Lebanon. As a result, these areas also host some of the more in-your-face iconography. The main highway to the airport, for instance, is a road that nearly everyone in the country travels. It also passes through Hezbollah’s heartland in South Beirut. The party has erected dozens of massive posters featuring Hezbollah martyrs along the motorway and raised hackles when they erected photographs of visiting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2010, an event that many Sunnis still bring up today. Entrances to Christian neighborhoods, meanwhile, are often marked by spray-painted or stenciled crosses on walls — most often a stylized cross of the Lebanese Forces, a militia responsible for many of the worst atrocities of the civil war — and photographs of their militia-leaders-turned-politicians.

It was in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, that the campaign to calm sectarian tensions hit a bump. Since 2011, rounds of violence have wracked the city, pitting local Sunnis, who support the Syrian uprising, against Alawites, who support the Assad regime. Both communities have been sending fighters and weapons to Syria since fighting broke out there, and Lebanese politicians have tried in vain to keep their fighting on the far side of the border.

The city’s Sunni majority nurses a host of grievances. Poverty and unemployment are endemic. The central government has neglected Tripoli for decades. The city’s Sunni leaders, many of whom are multimillionaires and at least one of whom is a billionaire former prime minister, have stoked a sense of sectarian grievance while doing nothing themselves to help the city. Militancy and jihadist thought has proliferated among the Sunni populace, along with a sense that they are subject to punishment only because they are Sunni while the Lebanese Army and government are dominated by Shia and Christian movements.

One night this spring, Khaled el-Daher, a populist Sunni Islamist member of parliament, heard that the regional governor was removing jihadist flags from Nour Square, the symbolic gateway to Tripoli. He instantly framed it as a religious war against Sunnis and summoned a who’s-who of hard-core religious activists and jihadi sympathizers to join him in the square after midnight.

“This is a humiliation for the Sunnis!” he shouted to the crowd and assembled media. “If there is a decision to remove religious flags, let it be imposed on all religions, Muslim and Christian. Let them start with the crosses on the churches in Beirut and the statue of Christ the King in Jounieh!”

Daher’s stand brought Tripoli to the verge of open warfare, as Lebanese Christians, many of whom already feel politically marginalized and vulnerable, were stirred into action. The central importance of the sectarian symbols that adorn conflict in the region became immediately clear — as was the difficulty of taking even the most extreme of those down.

The centerpiece of Nour Square is a statue, about 10 feet high, of the word “God” written in simple Arabic calligraphy. A smaller sign identifies Tripoli as “the citadel of the Muslims.” Around the statue hang flags with verses of the Koran in Arabic script. Daher, an influential boss who was a member of the Sunni Future Movement until he was expelled as a result of his grandstanding about the flags, is unapologetic.

“This is God!” he explained in an interview. “Will you remove God from our city?”

God in Noor Square

JOSEPH EID/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The centerpiece of Nour Square in Tripoli is a statue of the word “God” written in Arabic calligraphy.

Islamic leaders and movements have flown flags with professions of faith ever since the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Today extremist groups, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, have adopted one form of this traditional flag as their battle standard, creating a vexing issue for purists like Daher.

Some Sunni leaders have found an easy workaround: Hang the same slogans on white flags, to keep the focus clearly on the religious dictates and not the contemporary political conflict. But it is on this score that Daher and other militant leaders in Tripoli expose themselves to charges of incitement.

“If criminals from ISIS kill under this flag that reads ‘No God but God,’ must we remove it?” Daher says. “Should we ask to Christians to remove the cross because it was used by the Crusaders?”

Daher defends all the symbols as a benign Lebanese tradition, a way of building community around leaders and shared values.

“The criminal is committing his crime under a flag — let us talk about the criminals, not the flag,” Daher said. “The problem is not with the pictures. It is with the practices: the weapons, the militias.”

 

SOCIOLOGIST SARI HANAFI at the American University of Beirut has been studying the process of incitement. He says that simplistic sectarian discourse has created a receptive audience for extremist recruitment: people deluged with banners and slogans, assertions about identity and threat that are not based on arguments and evidence.

“At one end of the spectrum, it’s about ignoring others, constructing a sense of otherness,” Hanafi says. “At the extreme, it becomes incitement, like ISIS.”

The peace process in Northern Ireland included a careful study of the use of flags and symbols to intimidate and mark territory, and efforts to change the way that symbols were used to heighten tensions. Researchers and peace advocates there recommended stringent regulation of flags and banners in public spaces, and the replacement of sectarian motifs with national, neutral, or intercommunal symbols.

Post-conflict reconciliation in places like Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and South Africa gave careful consideration to the creation of national symbols and efforts to deflate old sectarian or racial symbols. But Lebanon can only borrow a little from those other countries, because in Lebanon there hasn’t been any process to reconcile the civil war-era sectarian militias or to process the crimes of that era. Lebanon has enjoyed a sort of durable truce among sectarian factions since 1991, but nothing like an actual peace and reconciliation agreement that could lead to a nonsectarian order.

According to the Sunni and Shia politicians in Lebanon who agreed to take down the imagery, the move has two aims: The first goal is to make rival communities feel less threatened, and the second is to reduce the sense of urgency and mobilization that the ubiquitous signs provoke. Their experiment will ultimately show whether the simple act of removing some of those pointed symbols can slacken people’s thirst to fight.

Around Tripoli many of the most visible signs, banners, and photographs are gone.

Two black flags fly outside the Tripoli office of Bilal Doqmaq, a firebrand Sunni Salafi cleric who has been accused of rampant incitement and who was briefly detained this spring on charges of weapons trafficking. He likens the black flag to the cross over the Vatican or the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

“We lie to ourselves when we say the problem is gone when we remove these flags,” Doqmaq said. “That is the first step, when we need a million.”

This pessimism, however, belies Doqmaq’s true message. He is as responsible as any other militant for fanning the flames of violence. But what he is saying is that, to get groups like Hezbollah to moderate, symbols are a key part of the campaign. When the ubiquitous flags of war stop billowing, that will be a real first step to calming down the men and boys who do the shooting.

When diplomacy is most needed, America flees

Posted April 3rd, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Illustration: KIM MAXWELL VU/GLOBE STAFF

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section]

BEIRUT — On the day that Houthi rebels took over the capital of Yemen in February, US diplomats moved into high gear to do what they are increasingly tasked with doing when the countries they cover explode into crisis: Pack up and leave.

In the month that has followed, Yemen has erupted into one of the scariest hot spots in the world, hosting a high-stakes regional war entangling most of America’s allies and enemies on top of one of the busiest shipping lanes for the global oil supply. Additionally, there is the threat of terrorism: Yemen has produced some of the most significant Al Qaeda plots against American targets since 9/11, but counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering efforts have collapsed along with the US diplomatic exit.

With no diplomats, counter-terrorism operatives, or top-secret spies on the ground, the United States is left with less visibility than ever into a rapidly shifting conflict.

It’s not that foreign service officers suddenly lack the courage or desire to stay put when the countries where they’re stationed go haywire. Rather, a succession of United States administrations has increasingly decided that, in a post-9/11, post-Benghazi era, the stakes for putting civilian diplomats in harm’s way are too high. President Obama’s political wrangle with Congress in the aftermath of the 2012 murder of J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, made an already deteriorating situation even worse. Few, if any, US diplomats today are given the freedom to exercise their professional judgment of what risks are worth taking.

Throughout the combustible region stretching from Pakistan to Morocco, where America has expended most of its foreign policy energy in the last four decades, its diplomatic presence operates at a paralyzing remove, behind concrete as well as perceptual barriers. And intentionally or not, the result leaves the United States flying blind in places where information is the hardest to obtain and where diplomacy may be the most vital.

 

“WE ARE NOW too restrictive. We need a course correction,” said Ronald E. Neumann, who served as an American ambassador in volatile spots including Afghanistan and Algeria, before retiring in 2007.

Crafting foreign policy requires information and judgments that even the most skilled diplomats and observers can’t cull from afar, Neumann explained. In Yemen, for instance, with the well-connected ambassador now having to work remotely by phone and in meetings abroad, the United States is forced to rely much more on the biased analysis of allies like Saudi Arabia.

“If you’re going to avoid a civil war, it requires understanding what the parties want and being able to broker solutions,” Neumann said. “You can’t do this from a distance.”

But a great distance is exactly what separates American diplomats from flashpoints like Yemen, Syria, and Libya today. In other war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States retains an information network from its long periods of military occupation, but that too is shrinking. American understanding and insight into global conflicts are as limited as ever.

What is lost when diplomats must withdraw — or are forced to operate out of fortress embassies with elaborate security protocols restricting their ability to meet with the people who provide crucial analysis and avenues of influence? Can America even properly understand the places that top its list of threats?

THE DANGERS TO Americans serving the country’s interests abroad are very real and long-running.

“If you’re an American, you’ve got a bull’s-eye on you that others don’t,” said Ryan C. Crocker, who has served as ambassador in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait.

In 1979, Iranian radicals took over the US Embassy and held 52 hostages for more than a year; that crisis fatally hobbled Jimmy Carter’s presidency. In April 1983, a suicide bomber blew up the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 63. In 1998, massive bombs ravaged the American missions in Kenya and Tanzania. These attacks are only the most scarring of dozens of bombings, assassinations, and other assaults that have targeted US diplomats over the years — so many that the State Department collected them into a glossy brochure.

The consensus among career diplomats is that there’s a way to do an effective job despite threats — so long as they’re allowed to take some risks and keep missions open even in turbulent countries.

But at least two factors have conspired to dramatically reduce America’s diplomatic footprint. The first is the complexity of the threats and violence in trouble areas like Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

The United States shut down its embassy in Damascus in 2012 because of the risk of suicide car bomb attacks. As Libya melted down in the summer of 2014, diplomats were ordered to leave. The same thing happened when the war in Yemen spiraled this February. In three of the four war zones presently raging in the Arab world — all conflicts in which the United States is either directly involved or has close allies fighting for critical interests — the State Department has no eyes on the ground.

“You lose an enormous amount when you’re no longer in the country. You have a reduced ability to persuade and influence, and a reduced ability to understand,” said Robert Ford, who served as the last US ambassador to Syria.

When the uprising began in 2011, Ford was omnipresent, cutting an unusually visible profile for an American diplomat, even paying a surprise visit to antiregime protesters in the city of Hama in July that year. He reluctantly closed the Damascus embassy in early 2012 but continued the job for several years at a distance before retiring and becoming a critic of US policy on Syria from his perch at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

The second factor hampering diplomats is the political skittishness that followed the murder of Stevens and three other Americans at the hands of extremists in Benghazi in 2012.

The Benghazi killings have made it even harder for diplomats to take what they consider reasonable risks. Stevens dedicated his career to tireless outreach and interpersonal contact. Former colleagues, including Crocker, Neumann, and Ford, said it was ironic that the political fallout from Stevens’s murder had curtailed the very brand of diplomacy that Stevens championed.

As Crocker put it, “Chris Stevens would roll over in his grave if he knew how his death has been misused.”

VISITING US EMBASSIES these days can entail running a humiliating gauntlet of body searches, blast barriers, and walled holding areas. And if a US diplomat comes to you, it often means invasive searches beforehand with bomb-sniffing dogs and obtrusive security details. In places like Iraq, where meeting with Americans can put someone’s life in danger, potential interlocutors often prefer not to run the risk if it is overly complicated to talk.

In other words, American diplomacy is becoming increasingly fearful and hidebound. But what is the cost to our foreign policy? How much have we lost in actual influence and actual knowledge because of this bunker diplomacy?

We’re in the process of finding out. In Yemen, the United States is supporting a foreign war against a tough nation that has frustrated every previous foreign military intervention. America might be making decisions based on simplified assertions that its own diplomats contradict: for instance, the characterization of the Houthis as a simple Iranian proxy rather than as a formidable local alliance supported by Yemen’s former president (who is not a Houthi). Elsewhere, the United States seems fuzzy on the dynamics of tribes, of disenfranchised Sunnis, even on the breadth and depth of support for jihadist movements. It’ll be hard to contain ISIS, or prop up the Iraqi government, or limit the repercussion of the regional wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya if the United States is no longer sure of basic descriptive facts — who supports warring parties and powerful ideologies, what’s at stake in the tangled alliances, what complexities underlie the region’s sometimes simplistic sectarian rhetoric.

Mokhtar Lamani, an international diplomat from Morocco who ran an Arab League mission in Iraq at the height of the civil war and later worked for the United Nations in Syria, said he felt sorry for his American colleagues and their oppressive security protocols, which he believes lost them a wide array of contacts and insights.

In Baghdad in 2006, Lamani lived outside the Green Zone, where he regularly met with Iraqis who opposed the US occupation. Eventually he gave up hosting Americans at his mission because of the exhaustive advance searches that he feared would tip off extremists to his whereabouts. “It was easier for me to go see them in the Green Zone,” he said. “But life in the Green Zone had nothing in common with the rest of Iraq.”

One seasoned observer of Middle East diplomacy, the scholar Randa Slim, argues that the Americans relied too heavily on second-hand information from exiles like Ahmad Chalabi during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, resulting in major missteps, including the decisions to disband the military and to dismantle the Baath Party.

“The United States went into a country in which we have not had a diplomatic presence since 1991 and, as a result, had no active on-the-ground intelligence since that date,” Slim said.

Lamani noted that Americans often suffer analytical lapses because they don’t talk to politically unpalatable or contentious players. In Syria, American diplomats avoided meeting with extremists from the opposition even when they were the ones in control of the military uprising. In Iraq, many of the hostile factions and religious leaders refused to meet with Americans on principle, and the Americans didn’t always find ways to bring them to the table.

“In diplomacy, you have to be in contact with everybody,” Lamani said. “There are two kinds of rules that harm American diplomats: the physical rules that keep them from being on the ground, and the political isolation they have imposed on them.”

Even the Americans know from experience that there’s no substitute for being there. Neumann recalls that at the peak of the Algerian war in the 1990s against an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency, experts agreed that the fight was a stalemate and that eventually the secular government would have to reach a political settlement with the Islamists. Despite a very restrictive security environment, Neumann and his political staff spent a year interviewing Algerians, collecting all the information they could, and reached a surprising conclusion: The government was actually winning. Armed with this new analysis, the United States could update its own strategy.

“There’s a lot of things you can do if you’re not stupid,” says Neumann, clarifying that he means so long as diplomats take calculated risks rather than behaving recklessly.

Yet in Lebanon, seven years after the bombing, the United States reopened its embassy on a hilltop far north of Beirut, surrounded by an army of private mercenary guards. Even today, more than three decades after the 1983 attack, diplomats visit Beirut in convoys, with armed guards, sometimes clearing cafes of their patrons to hold meetings. In contrast, European diplomats work in the Beirut city center, traveling independently by taxis or driving their own cars, and they’re free to meet activists, dissidents, Hezbollah members — whoever will talk to them.

THE UNITED STATES now relies extensively on second-hand reports: from British diplomats, who are allowed to move around more; problematic allies like the Saudis; or local politicians, who also can’t be fully trusted. Other limitations are self-inflicted — the United States legally prohibits itself from talking to groups that it labels terrorists, making it harder to deal with critical players, especially foes such as the Taliban or Hezbollah. The United States has not had an embassy in Iran since 1979, making it harder to manage relations with perhaps the most important adversarial actor in the Middle East.

Diplomats, for their part, have tried to make up for the security mentality with creative workarounds. They call old contacts on the phone or on Skype and invite people they know from the past to meet them at the embassy or on neutral ground, like in a Baghdad hotel lobby or at the Kandahar Airport. Others elude threats — and tight budgets — by traveling incognito to meetings in beat-up old cars rather than in attention-grabbing convoys of SUVs with tinted windows.

Ford recalls as a political officer in Algeria, when it became too dangerous to move comfortably around the countryside, he lured reluctant guests to the embassy by inviting them for Lebanese takeout. Eventually he hosted hundreds of meetings that way.

Neumann suggests that the United States could mitigate some of its lost access by extending the length of diplomatic tours, keeping political officers and ambassadors in their posts for two or three years instead of one. Some regional actors like Iran keep their envoys on the same portfolios for a decade or more.

Crocker believes the damage is getting worse. Until now, the United States has been saved from falling totally out of touch by a generation of diplomats who had a chance 20 or 30 years ago to build contacts with whom they could communicate closely in the new era of fortress diplomacy. Despite their zeal, younger diplomats never got the chance to drive themselves around the countryside meeting the dissidents, intellectuals, business people, journalists, and regular people who become any diplomat’s most important informants.

“It’s our future that’s at peril more than our present,” Crocker says. “You cannot practice diplomacy with a zero-loss mentality.”

In Yemen, the United States has withdrawn all civilian, military, and intelligence personnel. That move likely relinquished its only opportunity to affect or even end the war. Instead, Saudi Arabia, which has a stake in pushing back the Iran-backed Houthis, is, more or less, dictating US policy.

“There’s no question that we don’t have as much information as we would like,” Ford said. “And we have less ability to persuade people to move in directions that might resolve the conflict.”

Why ISIS’ destruction of antiquities hurts so much

Posted March 11th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

SCREENGRAB

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

THE ISLAMIC STATE long ago pushed beyond society’s boundaries with its shocking acts of violence and repression. In choreographed, well-documented acts clearly intended to horrify people under its control and across the world, the militant group, also known as ISIS, has produced a parade of horrors: It has enslaved Yazidi women. It has murdered hundreds of defenseless people on camera after all manner of torture. It has thrown homosexuals to their death from towers.

And yet, when the movement’s brazen fundamentalists took sledgehammers and bulldozers to the remains of the ancient Assyrian civilization in Nineveh province at the end of February, the sense of outrage and loss that they provoked was astounding. Here was a totalitarian movement that had banned everything from smoking to the teaching of biology in the sprawling, nation-sized territory under its control, and which had produced so many televised murders that close observers had become inured. So what was it about the slow-motion video of glassy-eyed fundamentalists smashing statues to the ground that elicited such a pained reaction? Why did the attack on the Mosul Museum hit such a nerve?

On the day that the footage first began to circulate of the rampage in Mosul, I was with a Lebanese journalist who has spent more than four decades absorbed in war, either living through it or covering it obsessively. She has watched countless videos of murder, torture, and combat from the Syrian war as part of her job. Despite all that, the museum’s destruction was too much for her. Not a drop of blood had been spilled, but it opened in her the floodgates of hopelessness.

“That’s it, it’s gone. When they’re done, all our culture will be gone,” she said, in tears. “If I want to see the great history of my region, I’ll have to visit a museum in London.”

Her reaction wasn’t unique. The Islamic State’s acts of cultural destruction have prompted profound grief among people who already are deeply engaged with the loss of human life: humanitarians, activists, politicians, scholars, journalists — the small community that has continued to pay attention to the conflict even when most of the world hasn’t been interested.

Over and over, I encountered hardened observers of the Middle East who admitted to breaking into tears upon learning of the Mosul Museum’s fate. Iraqi-American constitutional scholar Feisal Istrabadi choked up, unable to speak for several minutes in recalling his reaction. “Why, when we’ve seen people burnt alive, murdered in ways that you wouldn’t butcher an animal, does this resonate to much?” he said finally. “I can’t explain it.”

Why does the nihilistic effort to wipe out an ancient civilization echo so strongly? For people in the region already reeling from the epic human cost in families divided, displaced, and grieving so many murdered, the answer begins with a senseless loss of life now accentuated by a crude erasing of the historical record.

“They are killing the diversity of this region,” says Hélène Sader, an archaeologist at the American University of Beirut who has spent her career studying the ancient Assyrian civilization whose most precious artifacts and sites might have been annihilated in the last few weeks. “This is ethnic cleansing. You throw the people out, erase their history, and you can claim they were never there.”

ACCORDING TO still-emerging reports from the ancient cities of Nimrod and Hatra, members of the Islamic State group have bulldozed some of the Middle East’s most impressively preserved excavation sites, including entire temples and some of the most familiar ancient symbols, like the winged-bull statues that stand at the gates of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II.

In the video circulated at the end of February, a deadpan Islamic State member intones what he claims is the religious obligation to destroy all false idols, a museum gallery in the background. “Since God commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey,” says the unnamed narrator of the video, which, like most ISIS propaganda offerings, is slickly produced.

Footage then shows a crew rampaging through the Mosul Museum with sledgehammers, knocking statues to the ground and pounding them into rubble, and tearing other artifacts from their wall mountings. Slow-motion replays show the artifacts shattering. The video ends with what appears to be a pair of ISIS members taking power tools to an enormous statue at the entrance to Nimrod, a sprawling ancient site outside Mosul.

This symbolic destruction goes hand in hand with a very tangible decimation of the minority communities of northern Iraq, including the Assyrian Christians who identify as direct descendants of the people who once occupied Hatra and Nimrod.

There were as many as 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Islamic extremists began targeting Christians for kidnapping, beheading, and assassination. Hundreds of thousands fled to Syria and the West. Today, an estimated 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq. ISIS militants have massacred another, smaller minority, the Yazidis. Any survivors have been enslaved.

The Islamic State has openly embraced an extreme project: to establish a fundamentalist realm unlike any ever before encountered in the history of Islam. Some minorities would be permitted to live in submission, but others, specifically members of religious sects considered deviant, would be wiped out, including Shiite Muslims or mainstream Sunnis who reject the vision of the Islamic State.

“It’s a remarkable form of monotheism,” Elliott Colla, a professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University who has written about conflicts over antiquities in the Arab world, said in an e-mail. “They attack any objects that people worship, be it tombs where Shiites venerate saints or temples where non-Muslims worship. In this context, it is natural that they would also target museums, since these also represent false forms of worship.”

The gleeful nature of the propaganda suggests that perhaps the Islamic State leaders know that the destruction of antiquities will provoke the kind of global outrage the organization seems to relish. Those who don’t fit — conservative Sunni tribesmen who refuse the authority of the ISIS “caliph,” smokers, alleged homosexuals, religious minorities, intellectuals — are gruesomely executed, often in videotaped ceremonies that are then widely broadcast to others.

Nuri Kino, an Assyrian now living in Sweden, founded the group A Demand for Actionto call attention to the plight of minorities in Syria and Iraq. Stretching back to the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians in 1915, Kino points to an unending cycle of attacks on Christians in the Middle East. The Islamic State, in his view, has just accelerated a dismal trend.

“We are fleeing from one place to the other. We have been doing it for 100 years,” Kino said. “Yes, Muslims are, of course, also heavily affected — and killed — in the war, but there is a difference: They want to erase us, our history, people, and religion.”

NATURALLY IT’S a shock to contemplate another unfolding genocide, especially for a generation raised with the slogan “never again” and a living memory of the Nazi Holocaust, which was followed for complex reasons by the departure of most Middle Eastern Jews from Arab countries.

And the loss of antiquities should pale in light of the human loss in the region. It would be easy, then, to dismiss the outpouring of concern as a kind of vanity, or worse, as inhumanity.

Countless Syrian activists have suggested as much, lamenting that some Westerners appear to care more about the smashing of a winged lion than about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings. “When did we start caring about history? Now we want to carve our new history, so we forgot our old one,” said an activist in Homs reached by Skype, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Yamen because he is still fighting the Syrian regime. “I don’t understand why the whole world feels sorry for the destruction of a couple of statues and not for the people who are being killed every day.”

But that doesn’t change the pain caused by the iconoclastic destruction of Hatra, Nimrod, and the Mosul Museum collection. Nor explain it.

One theory offered by several close observers has to do with the crime of erasing history. Murder, mayhem, and terror reverberate throughout the ages, says Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi, but attempts to purge a group and its memory entirely out of existence are relatively rare. Before the rash of genocides in the 20th century, he said, the next previous crime of equal magnitude might have been the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, when Hulagu Khan burnt the library, slaughtered so many people that the Tigris ran red with blood, and erected a pyramid of skulls to deter others who might resist him.

“The spectacle of destroying a 2,500-year-old statue is meant to telegraph naked power,” Khalidi said in an interview.

The Islamic State, he added, has invented an entirely new, ahistorical vision of society, misleadingly packaged as Islamic and which it is willing to go to any length to force into being.

Traditionally, conquerors in history absorb subjected populations, incorporating their architecture, culture, even some of their religious practices or deities. The Islamic State is bucking that path with its outright assault on the historical record. Murder and warfare are the organization’s central tools, but the willingness to transcend taboos respected for millennia adds another level of horror.

“They are postmodern authoritarians,” Khalidi explained. “These are people from the belly of the beast: a snuff movie, war game, YouTube, and Google beast. This is not a Middle Eastern beast.”

Then there’s also the rift between the Islamic State and the Muslims it purports to represent.

The Islamic State has undoubtedly found some support within the Sunni community, some of it from true believers and some from opportunists in Syria and Iraq who see the group as a convenient spearhead. It has taken advantage of that support to accumulate power and wealth, which it has used to trumpet a vision of a pure, monotheistic, and fiery society without any precedent Islamic history. The Prophet Mohammed shattered the pagan idols that were being worshiped in Mecca and which directly competed with his new monotheism — but the century of Islamic conquest that followed left intact the monuments and relics of other faiths. Only the 18th-century fundamentalist Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula went after symbols with similar zeal, but they weren’t operating in an area as packed with historical artifacts as northern Iraq.

There’s plenty of reason, too, for tolerant Middle Easterners to feel their identity is under assault from many directions. Sectarian militias dominate Iraq and Syria. Torrents of money from the Arabian Peninsula promote the intolerant strains of Wahhabi-inflected Salafi Islam, the progenitor of the Islamic State’s ideology. Secular and nationalist identities are in retreat, while narrow religious and sectarian ones are ascendant.

Salafi sheikhs in Egypt have suggested demolishing the pyramids and Sphinx, or covering the faces of “idolatrous” Pharaonic statues with wax, acts of iconoclasm endorsed in a 2012 fatwa. Mainstream religious scholars around the region have decried the destruction in Iraq and warn against its replication elsewhere.

In just one week of massive historical vandalism, the Islamic State has produced a stark coda to a century that has transformed the Middle East from one of the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan regions into a sterile, ethnically cleansed patchwork.

“It’s never about artifacts. It’s about people’s right to exist, their right to live in their homeland,” says Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University archaeologist who has worked as an antiquities adviser for the Iraqi government. “You destroy people’s history by destroying their monuments and artifacts. It’s similar to having the Athenian acropolis destroyed, or thugs going to Versailles and blowing up the whole palace.”

Bahrani was one of the first to sound the alarm about the importance of cultural objects in 2003, when the Baghdad Museum was looted during the US invasion. At the time Istrabadi, the constitutional scholar and her cousin, recalls telling Bahrani that the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein was worth the loss of some prized objects.

Bahrani got angry: “This is our entire historical identity,” she told him.

Now, more than a decade later, both cousins have left Iraq. Their extended family exemplified a mid-20th century ideal of cosmopolitan, secular Sunnis who felt at home throughout the Arab world and beyond, choosing their friends without regard to religion or nationality.

Istrabadi has come around to his cousin’s way of seeing things.

Iraq, the place that gave the world written language and the first code of law, today plays host to its most savage nihilists — and as much as he would like to think otherwise, Istrabadi believes that there is some constituency for the Islamic State’s program of destruction and cultural erasure.

“For those of us who hold a belief in the ascent of man, it refutes the idea that we’re heading to a better level of humanity,” he said. “It’s just incredible to watch. I feel helpless. ”

The statues, for Istrabadi, were the final straw. For everything else, he said, you can fool yourself “we can have a better tomorrow, we can turn back the sectarian tide,” he said. “Someone destroys a 3,000-year-old statue with a sledgehammer, there’s no bringing that back. There’s no fooling yourself. It’s proof that these people are not a transient phenomenon. They will be defeated, but they will leave a residue behind.”

A plan to rebuild Syria no matter who wins war

Posted February 22nd, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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The souk in Aleppo, before and after its destruction in 2012. LEFT: WIKICOMMONS; RIGHT: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT—The first year of Syria’s uprising, 2011, largely spared Aleppo, the country’s economic engine, largest city, and home of its most prized heritage sites. Fighting engulfed Aleppo in 2012 and has never let up since, making the city a symbol of the civil war’s grinding destruction. Rebels captured the eastern side of the city while the government held the west. The regime dropped conventional munitions and then barrel bombs on the rebels, who fought back with rockets and mortars. In 2012, the historical Ottoman covered souk was destroyed. In 2013, shelling destroyed the storied minaret of the 11th-century Ummayid Mosque. Apartment blocks were reduced to rubble. More than 3 million residents fled, out of a prewar population of 5 million. Today, residents say the city is virtually uninhabitable; most who remain have nowhere else to go.

In terms of sheer devastation, Syria today is worse off than Germany at the end of World War II. Bashar Assad’s regime and the original nationalist opposition are locked in combat with each other and also with a third axis, the powerful jihadist current led by the Islamic State. And yet, even as the fighting continues, a movement is brewing among planners, activists and bureaucrats—some still in Aleppo, others in Damascus, Turkey, and Lebanon—to prepare, right now, for the reconstruction effort that will come whenever peace finally arrives.

In downtown Beirut, a day’s drive from the worst of the war zone, a team of Syrians is undertaking an experiment without precedent. In a glass tower belonging to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, a project called the National Agenda for the Future of Syria has brought together teams of engineers, architects, water experts, conservationists, and development experts to grapple with seemingly impossible technical problems. How many years will it take to remove the unexploded bombs and rubble and then restore basic water, sewerage, and power? How many tons of cement and liters of water will be needed to replace destroyed infrastructure? How many cranes? Where could the 3 million displaced Aleppans be temporarily housed during the years or decades it might take to restore their city? And beneath all these technical questions they face a deeper one, as old as urban warfare itself: How do you bring a destroyed city back to life?

Critics dismiss the ongoing planning effort as a premature boondoggle, keeping technocrats busy creating blueprints that will have to be revised when fighting finally ebbs. But Thierry Grandin, a consultant for the World Monuments Fund who has worked and lived in Aleppo since the 1980s and is currently involved in reconstruction planning, disagrees. “It is good to do the planning now, because on day one we will be ready,” Grandin says. “It might come in a year, it might come in 20, but eventually there will be a day one. Our job is to prepare.”

The team planning the country’s future is a diverse one. Some are employed by the government of Syria, others by the rebels’ rival provisional government. Still others work for the UN, private construction companies, or nongovernmental organizations involved in conservation, like the World Monuments Fund. The Future of Syria project aims to serve as a clearinghouse, and to create a master menu of postwar planning options. As the group’s members outline a path toward renewal, they’re considering everything from corruption and constitutional reform to power grids, antiquities, and health care systems.

The task they have before them beggars comprehension. Across Syria, more than one-third of the population is displaced. Aleppo is in tatters, its center completely destroyed. The population exodus has claimed most of the city’s craftsmen, medical personnel, academics, and industrialists.

A modern country has been unmade during four years of conflict, and nowhere is the toll more apparent than in once-alluring Aleppo. But after horrifying conflict, countless places have found a way to return to functionality. What’s new in Syria is the attempt to come up with a neutral plan while the conflict is still in train. And Aleppo, the country’s historic urban jewel, will be the central test.

TO FIND A SIMILAR example of planning during wartime before the outcome was known, you have to go back to World War II. Allied forces spent years preparing for the physical, economic, and political reconstruction of Germany and Japan even before they could be sure who would win. Today, Americans tend mostly to recall the symbolic reconstruction after the war: the Nuremberg trials and the Marshall Plan, a colossal foreign aid program.

But undergirding those triumphs was the vast logistical operation of erecting new cities. It took decades to clear the moonscapes of rubble and to rebuild, in famous targets like Dresden and Hiroshima but in countless other places as well, from Coventry to Nanking. Some places never recovered their vitality.

Since then, a litany of divided and devastated cities has been left by other conflicts. Even those that eventually regained a sense of normalcy, like Beirut, Sarajevo, or Grozny, generally survived rather than thrived. Only a few countries—East Timor, Angola, Rwanda—offer what Syrian planners call “glimmers of hope,” as places that suffered terrible man-made disasters and then bounced back.

Of course, Syrian planners cannot help but pay attention to the model closest to home: Beirut, a city almost synonymous with civil war and flawed reconstruction. The planners and technocrats in the UN ESCWA tower overlook a gleamingly restored but vacant downtown from behind a veritable moat of blast barriers and sealed roads. Shell-pocked abandoned buildings stand as evidence of the tangled ownership disputes that have held back reconstruction a full quarter-century after the Lebanese civil war.

“We don’t want to end up like Beirut,” one of the Syrian planners says, referring to the physical problems but also to a postwar process in which militia leaders turned to corrupt reconstruction ventures as a new source of funds and power. He spoke anonymously; the Future of Syria team, which is led by a former Syrian deputy prime minister named Abdallah Al Dardari, doesn’t give on-the-record briefings. Since their top priority is to maintain buy-in from Syrians on all sides, they try to avoid naming names so as not to dissuade people they hope will use their plans when the war ends.

Syria’s national recovery will depend in large part on whether its industrial powerhouse Aleppo can bounce back. Until 2011, Aleppo had been celebrated for millenniums for its beauty and commerce. The citadel overlooking the center is a world heritage site. The old city and its covered market were vibrant, functioning exemplars of Islamic and Ottoman architecture, surrounded by the wide leafy avenues of the modern city. Aleppan traders plied their wares in Turkey, Iraq, the Levant, and all the way south to the Arabian peninsula. The city’s workshops, famed above all for their fine textiles, export millions of dollars’ worth of goods every week even now, and the economy has expanded to include modern industry as well.

Today, however, the city’s water and power supply are under the control of the Islamic State. Entire neighborhoods have collapsed under regime bombing and shelling: government buildings, hospitals, landmark hotels, schools, prisons. Aleppo is split between a regime side with vestiges of basic services, and a mostly depopulated rebel-controlled zone, into which the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front have made inroads over the last year. A river of rubble marks the no-man’s land separating the two sides. The only way to cross is to leave the city, follow a wide arc, and reenter from the far side.

For now, said an architect who works for the rebel government in Aleppo under the pseudonym Tamer el Halaby, today’s business is simply survival, like digging 20 makeshift wells that fulfill minimal water needs. (He prefers not to have his real name published for fear that the government might target relatives on the other side of Aleppo.) Parts of the old city won’t be inhabitable for years, he told me by Skype, because the ground has literally shifted as a result of bombing and shelling.

“It will take a long time and cost a lot of money for this city to work again,” he said.

CLOSE TO A THOUSAND Syrians have consulted on the Future of Syria project, which comprises at least two ambitious initiatives rolled into one. The first and more obvious is creating realistic options to fix the country after the war—in some cases literal plans for building infrastructure systems and positioning construction equipment, in other cases guidelines for shaping governance.

At the Future of Syria, hospital administrators, civil engineers, and traffic coordinators each work on their given fields. They’re familiar with global “best practices,” but also with how things work in Syria, so they’re not going to propose pie-in-the-sky ideas. These planners also understand that who wins the construction contracts will depend on who wins the war. If some version of the current regime remains in charge, it will probably direct massive contracts toward patrons in Russia, China, or Iran. The opposition, by contrast, would lean toward firms from the West, Turkey, and the Gulf.

“Who will have the influence in Syria after the conflict? That will dictate who is involved in redevelopment. It all depends on who ends up being in political control,” says Richard J. Cook, a longtime UN official who supervised postconflict construction in Palestinian refugee camps and now works for one of the Middle East’s largest construction conglomerates, Dar Al-Handasah Consultants (Shair and Partners). Along with other companies, Dar Al-Handasah has offered its lessons learned from Lebanon’s reconstruction process to Syrian planners, and plans to compete to work in postwar Syria.

That leads to the second, more subtle, innovation of the Future of Syria project. For its plans to matter, they need to be politically viable no matter who is governing. So the planners have worked hard to persuade experts from all factions to contribute to the 57 different sectoral studies, hoping to come up with feasible rebuilding options that would be considered by a future Syrian authority of any stripe. Today, nearly 200 experts work full time for the project.

At the current level of destruction, the project planners estimate the reconstruction will cost at least $100 billion. Regardless of how it’s financed—loans, foreign aid, bonds—that’s a financial bonanza for whoever controls the reconstruction process. Some would-be peacemakers have suggested that reconstruction plans could even be used as enticements. If opposition militants and regime constituents think they’ll make more money rebuilding than fighting, they might have a Machiavellian incentive to make peace.

Underlying the details—mapping destroyed blocks, surveying the condition of the citadel, studying sewers—are bigger philosophical questions. How can a destroyed city be rebuilt, when the combination of people, economy, and buildings can never be reconstituted? Can you use reconstruction to undo the human damage of sectarianism and conflict? Recently a panel of architects and heritage experts from Sweden, Bosnia, Syria, and Lebanon convened in Beirut to discuss lessons for Syria’s reconstruction—one of the many distinct initiatives parallel to the Future of Syria project.

“You should never rebuild the way it was,” said Arna Mackic, an architect from Mostar. That Bosnian city was divided during the 1990s civil war into Muslim and Catholic sides, destroying the city center and the famous Stari Most bridge over the Neretva River. “The war changes us. You should show that in rebuilding.”

In the case of Mostar, the UN agency UNESCO reconstructed the bridge and built a restored central zone where Muslims and Catholics were supposed to create a harmonious new postwar culture. Instead, Mackik says, the sectarian communities keep to their own enclaves. Bereft of any common symbols, the city took a poll to figure out what kind of statue to erect in the city center. All the local figures were too polarizing. In the end they settled on a gold-colored statue of the martial arts star Bruce Lee.

“It belongs to no one,” Mackic says. “What does Bruce Lee mean to me?”

Despite such pitfalls, one area of potential for the planning process—and eventually for the reconstruction of Aleppo—is that it could offer the city’s people a form of participatory democracy that has so far eluded the Syrian regime and sadly, the opposition as well. People consulted about the shape of their reconstituted neighborhoods or roads will have been offered a slice of citizenship alien to most top-down Syrian leadership.

“You are being democratic without the consequences of all the hullabaloo of formal democratization,” says one of the Syrian planners who has contributed to the Future of Syria project and spoke on condition of anonymity.

What is certain is that putting Syria back together again is likely to be as least as expensive as imploding it. A great deal of money has been invested in Syria’s destruction— by the regime, the local parties to the conflict, and many foreign powers. A great deal of money will be made in the aftermath, in a reconstruction project that stands to dwarf anything seen since after World War II.

How that recovery is designed will help determine whether Syria returns to business as usual, sowing the seeds for a reprise of the same conflict—or whether reconstruction allows the kind of lasting change that the resolution of war itself might not.

Foreign policy wins Obama still can pull off

Posted January 18th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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JACQUELYN MARTIN/AP;
GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.

LAST MONTH, in a pre-Christmas surprise, the White House announced a major foreign policy breakthrough on a front that almost nobody was watching: Cuba and the United States were ending nearly a half century of hostility, after secret negotiations authorized by the president and undertaken with help from the pope. Lately, America’s zigzagging on the grinding war in Syria and Iraq has attracted the most attention, but President Obama has punctuated his six years in power with a series of foreign policy flourishes, among them ending the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; launching an international military intervention in Libya; and a “reset” with Russia, which ultimately failed.

Time is running short. Obama has only two more years in office, and an oppositional Congress that will likely block any major domestic policy initiatives. But the president’s opening with Cuba raises a question. What other foreign-policy rabbits might this lame-duck president try to pull out of his hat?
Obama often talks about the arc of his history and his legacy. And we know from history that presidents in the sunset of their terms often turn their focus to foreign policy, where they have a freer hand. The presidential drift abroad has been even more pronounced in administrations that face an opposition Congress and limited support for any ambitious domestic agenda items.

Despite keeping his promises to end two wars and to reestablish America’s power to persuade, not just coerce, Obama has drawn some scorn as a foreign policy president. Poobahs across the spectrum from right to left have derided him for not having a policy (drifting on Syria, passively responding to the Arab Spring), for naively pursuing diplomacy (the reset with Russia, the pivot to Asia), for adopting his predecessor’s militarism (the surge in Afghanistan, the war on ISIS).

But, free from any future elections, the president may finally be at liberty to engineer bigger symbolic moves, like the recent rapprochement with Cuba. He can even try for politically unpopular policy realignments that would ultimately benefit his successor.

So what bold gambits might Obama reach for in his final two years? We’re talking here about unlikely developments, but ones that, with a push from a willing White House, could actually happen. Here’s a look at what might be on Obama’s wish list, and his real chances of grabbing any of these wonky Holy Grails.

A stand on torture

IN ITS WAR ON TERROR, America adopted a number of tactics that its leaders used to call un-American. Some of them appear here to stay, like remote-control bombing runs by robot planes (known by the anodyne moniker “drone strikes”), which have killed more than 2,400 people and have become the most common way Obama pursues suspected militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

But other tactics have lingered long after the White House has concluded they are counterproductive: most notably the use of torture, and the indefinite detention of enemies without charge or trial in the limbo prison at Guantanamo Bay. President George W. Bush, toward the end of his term, backtracked on both policies, quietly roping in the use of torture and exploring ways to shut down Gitmo. Obama has taken a more assertive moral stance on the issue, perhaps because he realized that America’s treatment of detainees delivered a propaganda boon to its enemies—and increased the risk of similar mistreatment for American detainees. But though he ended torture, he hasn’t settled the political debate, nor has he managed to close Guantanamo Bay.

This is one problem that Obama could resolve by fiat, if he were willing to deal with the inevitable political yelps. He could close Guantanamo Bay overnight, sending dangerous detainees to face trial in the United States, shipping others to allied states like Saudi Arabia, and releasing the rest (many of whom have spent more than a decade incarcerated). To those who would accuse him of putting America at risk by not detaining accused terrorists without charge forever, Obama could point to the US Constitution and shrug his shoulders. As for torture, some believe the best move would be to follow the South African model of a truth commission that airs all the grisly details, while granting immunity from prosecution to those who testify. Of course, critics of torture would decry the amnesty, and supporters would decry the release of narrative details.

Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt says to forget the truth commission. The simplest way for Obama to end one of the most contentious debates in America, he argues, is with a set of sweeping pardons for all those involved in torture. That could include officials from Bush on down, as well as leakers like Chelsea Manning. In an e-mail, Walt said such a move would be a “game changer,” although one with odds so long that he put it in the category of “foreign policy black swans.” “I regard it as very, very unlikely, but it would be a huge step,” he said.

Presidential pardons could make clear that torture and extrajudicial detention were illegal mistakes, while simultaneously freeing whistle-blowers and closing the books on the whole affair. Obama could even wait until after the 2016 presidential election has been decided, altogether eliminating political risk.

A détente with North Korea

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EPA/KCNA ; GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

NORTH KOREA entered the news recently because of its alleged role in the Sony hack over the silly film “The Interview.” But the hermit kingdom isn’t a problem because of its leader Kim Jong-un’s absurd cult of personality. No, North Korea poses a problem because it’s a belligerent, opaque, hyper-militarized state that stands outside the international system and is armed with serious rockets, nuclear warheads, and a powerful military.

One fraught area remains the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. About 30,000 American personnel are deployed there, and North Korea routinely provokes deadly clashes to remind the world of its resolve.

If Obama could finally end the Korean war—officially just in a cease-fire since 1953—he would resolve the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia and perhaps the world. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, has an almost mythic status among villainous world leaders. Millions have suffered in North Korea’s prison camps, and the militarized state maintains a hysterical level of propaganda that makes it stand out even among other “rogue” states. Even China, long the dynasty’s primary backer, has begun to express irritation with North Korean’s volatility.

But all this creates an opportunity, according to veteran Korea watchers. “There’s an opportunity, oddly enough,” says Barbara Demick, author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” “It would require a bold gesture on somebody’s part.”

Kim Jong-un, third in the family dynasty, has lived abroad and appears more open-minded than his father, Demick says. More importantly, despite the anti-American rhetoric, North Korea might want to end its comparatively young feud with the United States, which dates only to the 1950s, to better protect itself from the local threat from its millennial rival China.

Earlier efforts at reconciliation in the early 1990s foundered and collapsed after Kim Jong-il cheated on an agreement to freeze his nuclear weapons program. Demick and other experts are more hopeful that his son will be more interested in negotiating. Three years after taking over, Kim Jong-un seems to have consolidated power. He has relaxed some control over private trade, and he executed a senior member of his own regime who was considered China’s man in Pyongyang, asserting himself over rivals within his family and government.

“Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem to want to spend his whole life as the head of a pariah state,” Demick says.

It’s quite difficult to imagine North Korea doing an about face and becoming a friendly US ally in Asia, but surprising things have happened. Vietnam, just a few decades after its horrifying war with the United States, is now as warm to Washington as it is to Beijing. Obama could try to end one of the world’s longest lingering hot wars by forging a peace treaty with Pyongyang.

A grand bargain with Iran

AMERICA’S RELATIONSHIP with Iran never recovered from the trauma of the US embassy takeover and hostage crisis of 1980. Iran, flush with oil cash and the messianic fervor of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, has been at the center of regional events ever since. Iran has been perhaps the most influential force in the Arab world, helping to form Hezbollah, prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and foiling America’s plans in Iraq.

Of late, attention has focused on negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but that’s arguably not the most problematic aspect of Iran’s power in the region. A regional proxy war between two Islamic theocracies awash in petrodollars—Shia Iran and Sunni Iraq—has contaminated the entire Arab world. Resolving Iran’s major grievances and reintegrating it into the regional security architecture would reduce tensions in several ongoing hot wars and dramatically reduce risks across the board.

Obama could seek an overall deal with Iran, in which Tehran and its Arab rivals would agree to separate spheres of influence in the region and the United States could reopen its embassy. A Tehran-Riyadh-Washington accord could signal a major realignment in the region and a move toward a more stable state order, and is actually possible—not likely, but possible.

The big protagonists here, Iran and Saudi Arabia, lose a lot of money in their proxy fighting. It’s been 35 years since the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power, and both sides—Riyadh’s Sunni theocrats and Tehran’s Shia ones—have learned that no matter what human and financial resources they pour in, they can’t achieve regional hegemony. Eventually, they’re going to have to coexist. Israel, meanwhile, has maintained a fever pitch about Iran, and should welcome a calming shift.

The trick for today’s White House is what’s going on internally in Iran. “My sense is that if Obama and Kerry could push a button and normalize relations with Iran they’d do so in a heartbeat,” says Karim Sadjadpour, who studies Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The biggest obstacle to normalization is not in Washington, it’s in Tehran. When your official slogan for 35 years is ‘Death to America,’ it’s not easy to make such a fundamental shift.” But if Iran’s president can find a way to de-fang the hard-liners in his own country, Sadjadpour believes, there’d be a strong constituency among the political elites in Iran and the United States for a grand bargain.

A step back from Israel

PRESIDENT AFTER presidenthas poured time and energy into a Middle East peace process that never works. Failures have cost America political prestige around the world. As more governments lose patience with the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, America has found itself defending the Israeli government at the United Nations even as the same Israeli government openly mocks Washington’s agenda.

The bold move that the president could make—potentially changing the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—would be not to invest more in some new variant of the peace process, but simply to care less. Cooling our relations with the Israeli government could reestablish the strategic calculations at the core of the relationship and remove the distracting secondary issues that have accumulated around it. Israel is one of America’s closest military and economic allies, and the tightly woven relationship will survive a political shift. Obama could simply announce that the United States would no longer act as Israel’s main international political advocate, and that we would be happy to let other actors try to negotiate agreements, as the Norwegians did in the early 1990s.

Such a move would not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it would go a long way toward reducing costs for the United States. Washington doesn’t need to own the baggage of its close allies. It could treat Israel like it treats the United Kingdom: as a special ally with extra privileges, but one whose bilateral conflicts are its own business.

“I realize that a president’s hands are tied by Congress when it comes to Israel, but there is plenty that the president can do without congressional approval,” says Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. She said that Obama has plenty of options, from using his bully pulpit to condemn Israeli actions to not blocking Palestinian UN resolutions.

Duke political scientist Bruce Jentleson suggests another kind of US surprise: incorporating Hamas into peace talks. “A delicate dance no matter what,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But Middle East peace breakthroughs have usually been through the unexpected,” like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, or the secretly negotiated Oslo Accords.

What Jentleson says of Middle East breakthroughs may well be true of other ones as well. Global politics never loses its capacity to catch us off guard, regularly delivering events that experts say are impossible. Only an inveterate optimist would bet money on any of these slim possibilities coming to pass. But only a fool would be certain that they won’t.

Four years after Tahrir, what would make another uprising?

Posted January 16th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution

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An anti-Mubarak protester in Tahrir Square, in November 2014 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

[Published in The AtlanticArabic translation available at Sasa Post.]

CAIRO—Four years after the revolution he helped lead, Basem Kamel has noticeably scaled back his ambitions. The regime he and his friends thought they overthrew after storming Tahrir Square has returned. In the face of relentless pressure and violence from the authorities, most of the revolutionary movements have been sidelined or snuffed out.

Egypt’s new strongman, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has injected new zeal and energy into the military establishment. He has established his rule using unprecedented amounts of force, including mass arrests and death sentences, and the elimination of freedoms that existed even under previous dictatorships. But he has also won considerable popularity, leading Egypt’s revolutionaries to seek new routes to change.

“Maybe in 12 years we will be back in the game,” Kamel told me during the January Coptic Christmas holidays, wearing a sweatsuit as he shuttled his kids to after-school sports. After some thought, the 45-year-old architect, who lives in southern Cairo, added a caveat: “Unless Sisi changes the rules.”

There’s been a dramatic downsizing of expectations since Sisi came to power in a military coup in July 2013 (he retired from the military and was elected president without any meaningful challenger in May 2014). But if the mood is grim among the activists who so recently turned Egypt’s power structure on its head, historical trends suggest that the victorious military establishment has plenty to worry about as well.

Sisi is younger, sharper, and more vigorous than Hosni Mubarak, but he’s applying the same tools to the same problems. A small, insular group of men makes all important decisions, from drafting the country’s new parliamentary-election law to managing the economy to deciding how to prosecute political prisoners. Foreign aid is a key pillar of support for the government. The main difference is in the faces around the top. Whereas Mubarak’s cabal included some rich civilians, Sisi relies almost exclusively on military men.

The problems are daunting no matter who leads Egypt. Unemployment is endemic. The nation can’t grow enough crops to feed itself, is running low on foreign currency, and runs up hefty bills importing energy and grain that it sells at heavily subsidized prices. There is no longer a free media in Egypt, and a regressive new law makes it almost impossible for independent NGOs to do their work. Political parties that don’t pay fealty to Sisi’s order are hounded and persecuted. One result of this repression is that there is no scrutiny of government policy, no new sources of ideas, and not even symbolic accountability for corruption, incompetence, and bad government decisions.

Egypt’s new ruler has made some shrewd moves. He has tweaked the food-subsidy system to reduce waste and corruption in bakeries, introducing a card system with points that allows consumers to spend their allowance on a variety of goods rather than lining up for bread that they end up throwing away. He paid a Christmas visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, the first time any Egyptian leader has done so since Gamal Abdel Nasser, reassuring some Christians after decades of increased marginalization of and violence against the beleaguered minority.

But unless he miraculously resolves the country’s underlying economic plight—a product of the previous six decades of authoritarian rule, most of it dominated by the military—Egypt will snap again sooner or later.

“Six months ago there was huge popular happiness with Sisi’s performance. Now already it is less,” said Ahmed Imam, a spokesman for Strong Egypt, one of the few active political opposition parties left in the country. “I believe in another six months you will find rage, and the rage will become public.”

* * *

The simplest way to understand the January 25, 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s military rule is as a rejection of a government that was both abusive and incompetent. Since the military coup that ended the monarchy and brought Nasser to power in 1952, Egyptian authoritarians have fared well enough when they provided tangible quality-of-life improvements, or when they leavened the disappointment of growing poverty with an increased margin of freedom. But by the end of his three decades in power, Mubarak provided neither: His corrupt government gutted services and the treasury, while his unaccountable military and police establishment freely meted out torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.

According to his supporters and advisors, Sisi is gambling that he’ll pull off the kind of economic feats that characterized the apex periods of Egypt’s three major leaders in the modern era: Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, and Nasser.


Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square to celebrate former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s victory in the presidential election of 2014. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

So far, however, Sisi has needed to deploy draconian measures to keep control even at his moment of peak popularity. He has outlawed demonstrations. He has imprisoned tens of thousands, many for the simple offense of protesting. Old state security agents have returned to their old ways, humiliating dissidents by leaking their private phone calls to the media. Crackdowns target homosexuals, atheists, and blasphemers. Judges have sentenced to death hundreds of Muslim Brothers—until recently, members of an elected civilian ruling party—in shotgun trials that lasted a day or two and have made a mockery of Egypt’s once-respected judiciary. An activist from the secular April 6 Youth Movement recently had three years tacked on to his sentence because he dared ask about a Facebook page where the judge in his case had openly identified with Sisi’s regime and denigrated the revolutionaries, casting aside any pretense of judicial impartiality.

Such hardline tactics could reflect a military confidently in charge; many activists who subscribe to this view have chosen exile or a hiatus from public life. But the tactics also could reflect desperation: The old regime has won a reprieve, but it has to work much harder than before to keep a tenuous grip on power. In that case, the overwhelming chorus of support for Sisi could be just the prelude to another period of bitter disappointment and revolt.

Critical human-rights monitors continue to track government abuses, some from within Egypt despite the constant risk of arrest. A few youth and political movements continue to operate as well. The Revolutionary Socialists, the Youth Movement for Freedom and Justice, and April 6 all continue to organize, albeit on a modest scale; gone are the mass protests of 2011-2013. The Constitution Party, which includes some leading secular liberals, has been outspoken in its criticism of military rule. So has the Strong Egypt party, led by a former presidential contender and ex-Muslim Brother named Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has the distinction of having equally opposed abuses by Islamist and secular military regimes since Mubarak.

“Either the regime is reformed and resumes a democratic course, or its bad performance will provoke a revolution that will explode in its face,” Aboul Fotouh said in a recent interview in his home in a Cairo suburb. His party might run parliamentary candidates in the elections scheduled for March and April, but state security agents have made it impossible for the party to operate normally, canceling all 27 conference-room reservations it has made in the last three months—a favorite tactic resuscitated from Mubarak’s time.

* * *

Most of the leaders of the original uprising are in prison or exile. Some have been silenced, and some like, Kamel, seem willing to accept military repression as the necessary price for getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they considered the bigger threat. “Even knowing what I know today, I would say the Brotherhood is worse,” Kamel said.

Today, private and state media channels have become no-go zones for dissenting voices. Independent presenters like Yosri Fouda and comedian Bassem Youssef have gone off the air, and other one-time revolutionaries like Ibrahim Eissa have become shrill advocates for the regime.

In the four years that I’ve been reporting closely on Egypt’s transition from revolution to restoration, I’ve seen young activists go from stunned to euphoric to traumatized and sometimes defeated. I’ve seen stalwarts of the old regime go from arrogant and complacent to frightened and unsure to bullying and triumphalist. And yet, so far, the core grievances that drew frustrated Egyptians to Tahrir Square in the first place remain unaddressed. Police operate with complete impunity and disrespect for citizens, routinely using torture. Courts are whimsical, uneven, at times absurdly unjust and capricious. The military controls a state within a state, removed from any oversight or scrutiny, with authority over a vast portion of the national economy and Egypt’s public land. Poverty and unemployment continue to rise, while crises in housing, education, and health care have grown even worse than the most dire predictions of development experts. Corruption has largely gone unpunished, and Sisi has begun to roll back an initial wave of prosecutions against Mubarak, his sons, and his oligarchs.


Anti-government protesters carry celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square in 2011. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Kamel has abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric of 2011 for a more modest platform of reform, working within the system. He was one of just four revolutionary youth who made it into the short-lived revolutionary parliament of 2012, and he helped found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the most promising new political parties after the fall of Mubarak.

He expects to run for parliament again with his party, but the odds are longer and the stakes lower. The parliament will have hardly any power under Sisi’s setup. Most of the seats are slated for “independents,” which in practice means well-funded establishment candidates run by the former ruling party network. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group, is now illegal. Existing political parties can only compete for 20 percent of the seats, and most of them, like Kamel’s have dramatically tamed their criticisms.

“I think Sisi is in control of everything,” Kamel said. “Of course I am not with Sisi, but I am not against the state.”

That’s why he’s devoting his efforts to a training program for Social Democratic cadres, a sort of political science-and-organizing academy for activists and operatives that will take years to bear fruit. “It’s long-term work,” he said.

Still, something fundamental changed in January 2011, and no amount of state brutality can reverse it. Many people who before 2011 cowered or kept their ideas to themselves now feel unafraid.

“We want accountability, not miracles,” said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the Constitution Party. “We’re not asking for gay rights and legalized marijuana. We’re asking to stop torture in prisons.” Dawoud is a secular liberal activist who kept his integrity even during the period after Sisi’s coup when many of his peers cast their lot with the generals against the Islamists. He has been harassed by every faction, facing death threats and even a murder attempt by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In three years’ time, Egyptians took to the streets and saw three heads of state in a row flee from power: Mubarak, his successor Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and President Mohammed Morsi. The legacies of the revolution are hotly contested, but one is indisputable: Large numbers of Egyptians believe they’re entitled to political rights and power. That remains a potent idea even if revolutionary forces and their aspiration for a more just and equitable order seem beaten for now.

In the worst of times under Mubarak, and before him Sadat and Nasser, mass arrests, executions, and the banning of political life kept the country quiet. But as Egypt heads toward the fourth anniversary of the January 25th uprisings, things are anything but quiet, despite the best efforts of Sisi’s state. Dissidents are smuggling letters out of jail. Muslim Brothers protest weekly for the restoration of civilian rule. Secular activists are working on detailed plans so that next time around, they’ll be able to present an alternative to the status-quo power. No one believes that this means another revolution is imminent, but the percolating dissatisfaction, and the ongoing work of political resistance, suggest that it won’t wait 30 years either.

“That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” said Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the April 6 movement who still speaks openly even though his group is now banned. “At the end Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”

Wayback Machine: Designing a new Egypt

Posted January 5th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Khalil Hamra/AP photo

Back in the spring of 2011, the vistas of possibility lay wide open. What kind of new government would Egyptians decide after they shocked the body politic out of its stupor with their history-defying revolution?

Today’s post-Tahrir system hasn’t reinvented anything; it’s more like the old butcher shop with sharpened knives and a more expensive burglar alarm. But that moment isn’t that far distant when Egyptians were empowered to draw the blueprint of a completely new system. Remembering the ideas that percolated then reminds us that the prospect for something different has not been foreclosed, despite the status quo today.

For today’s installment of the Wayback Machine, I offer this story I filed almost four years ago and which I came across while organizing my files for New Year’s.

* * *

Now what?

The next version of Egypt could set an example for the Arab world. Inside the struggle to imagine a new state.

May 29, 2011

CAIRO — Traffic stopped in Tahrir Square during the revolution, but four months later, the torrent of marching humans that briefly made Cairo a world symbol of the thirst for justice has been replaced by the familiar, endless stream of grumbling cars.

The tricolor paint on the city’s trees, applied with gusto in the immediate weeks after President Hosni Mubarak resigned, has already begun to fade. As the wilting heat approaches its summertime averages in the 90s, vendors here do a brisk business selling “I [heart] Egypt” T-shirts, mock license plates commemorating the date of the uprising, and posters of the young martyrs to Mubarak’s security forces.

Schools have reopened; births and deaths are once again registered by Egypt’s ubiquitous bureaucracy; and the machinery of state continues to deliver the basic services that make this nation of 80 million function. The military junta that replaced Mubarak polices the streets and censors the media, though with a touch slightly lighter than Mubarak’s. There are still street demonstrations; on most Fridays, small factions chant in Tahrir Square and distribute leaflets demanding to put figures of the old regime on trial, fix the broken economy, or allow greater freedom to criticize the government.

Most of the nation’s energy, however, has shifted to a new debate: what should come next. Egyptians are realizing that they now face a challenge perhaps even more historic than its revolution. They need to design, nearly from scratch, a legitimate state to govern the most populous Arab nation in the world.

Egyptians are supposed to write a new constitution sometime this fall. And although no one is sure precisely how this will occur — the schedule is controlled by the military junta, which communicates chiefly through updates on its Facebook page — the public conversation has already metamorphosed into raging debate over what the government should look like. The outpouring of public frustration that reached a crescendo

in Tahrir Square on Feb. 11 has now moved onto a crowded lineup of television talk shows and the cafes. As youth activist Ahmed Maher put it over a demitasse at the Coffee Bean this week: “Before the revolution, everyone talked about soccer and drugs. Now they talk only about politics.”

Emboldened newspapers obstreperously editorialize about the path toward democratic elections. On TV, academics, activists, and cultural personalities wax about the best structure for a future Egyptian state. Once-submissive veteran politicians now rail in public meetings against “counter-revolutionary” officials sympathetic to the old regime.

The task they face is enormous. Like most of the Arab world, Egypt’s entire post-colonial experience of government has been authoritarian: first a monarchy, and then nearly 60 years of rule by three military dictators in a row. And there’s simply no road map available: no example of another government in the region that reflects the aspirations of its population and rules by consent rather than through a police state.

Over the last three months, the debate over Egypt’s future has taken shape as a tug-of-war among a few big visions. Should Egypt have a broad but weak state, one that touches people’s lives pervasively but with power diluted to prevent the rise of another strongman? Or should it deliberately rely on the country’s most powerful institution, the military, to guide the state, as Turkey did during its recent rise? A libertarian school seeks a minimalist constitution, more like America’s, and a vastly downsized state that rethinks the old corporatist model; and a cohort of nationalists want to start revitalizing Egypt by turning outward, forging partnerships with Turkey and Iran to give Egypt a foundation in a new regional power structure.

In the last century, Egypt led the rest of the Arab world in throwing off colonialism, in embracing the excesses of Arab nationalism, and then to a cold peace with Israel and a long spell of provincial stagnation. Today, as Egypt struggles to formulate a vision for what will come next, its people are well aware that at stake is not only their own future, but also a potential new model for what an Arab state can be.

The question of what a new Egypt should be might seem impossibly large, but Egyptians agree on a few broad principles: a sovereign state, not dependent on foreign largesse, and not ruled by cult of personality. Whatever comes next might borrow from Western models, but primarily will draw on Arab views of justice, popular sovereignty, social harmony, and consensus. That starting point still leaves gaping room for uncertainty.

“This is like reinventing the wheel,” groused an elderly lawyer at an early national brainstorming session for a new constitution.

“It’s exactly what we should be doing,” snapped back Tahani El Gebali, the first woman judge on the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, and a prominent voice in the debate over Egypt’s future.

There aren’t many helpful examples. The modern Arab world has only seen glimmers of viable, democratically accountable states: Iraq, briefly in the 1970s before it became Saddam Hussein’s fiefdom; Egypt itself, in moments when its economy was growing and it could project military power in the region. For the most part, however, the region has been plagued by one-man misrule, historically propped up by Cold War-legacy superpower giveaways.

Most of the elites arguing over the smartest path to Egyptian democracy agree that first will come a parlous adjustment period. Gebali and other liberalizers talk a lot about “democratic literacy,” arguing that it will take years to teach the Egyptian public about its rights in a genuinely representative system. Authoritarians and others sympathetic to the status quo phrase it differently: They argue that Egyptians “aren’t ready” for an open political system and that representative democracy would yield only chaos.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Egypt’s recent history, the strongest group of democracy advocates is arguing for a system designed to have a weak president and multiple checks on state authority. By their logic, it’s less important to have a streamlined and highly effective state than it is to thwart the next aspiring Mubarak. Egypt, for all its problems, has the luxury of coherent, functional institutions — it’s neither a failed state nor a crumbling one. Therefore it can afford a transitional phase with a fractious government whose main purpose is to liberalize the state and instill the notion of popular sovereignty.

“We always have had one man ruling alone,” Gebali explained in an interview. “Now we need alternate centers of power.”

Egypt has a well-developed liberal intelligentsia, and some of its most established legal scholars have embraced this approach. Their notion, broadly speaking, is to build on the ideas of revolutionary America and France, but to separate powers even further — by their reckoning, a US-style presidential system is also vulnerable to dictatorial impulses. Their proposals incorporate many ideas unique to Egypt and which speak to the Arab Spring’s particular blend of concerns — not just for democracy, but for social justice, transparency, and economic progress led by the state, rather than by free markets. So they don’t talk of abolishing the considerable and costly subsidies that keep food and fuel affordable to Egyptians, nearly a quarter of whom live below the poverty line. The education and health care systems are rife with failure, but the consensus holds that the central government should be responsible for fixing them. And though the economy is moribund, virtually all Egyptian political players support a heavy state role in setting wages and employment terms.

Within the wider liberal community runs a small strain of what might be called libertarian minimalism: thinkers who share the same views about rights and civil authority, but who want to see Egypt’s vast state seriously downsized. Many economists and government technocrats see their bloated state policies as costly and unsustainable, but are loath to say so in public. (Understandably so: The vast majority of Egyptians like these state subsidies and entitlements.) They want to undo the philosophical and legal clutter caused by decades of inept governance.

“We need a very short constitution,” said Ibrahim Darwish, an American-trained expert in constitutional law. “The US Constitution has only seven articles and has lasted two and half centuries.” His position carries moral authority — Darwish helped draft Egypt’s 1971 constitution, and is currently advising the Turkish government on its new constitution — but he admits it is unlikely to get much of a hearing among Egyptians, even liberals, because of their deep attachment to complex state structures and legal regimes.

Another broad line of thinking in the debate, one associated with traditionalists rather than liberal modernizers, emphasizes Egypt’s existing strengths, its military establishment and historic regional clout.

A school that might be called neo-nationalists is pushing for Egypt to reform itself first by cultivating international power. In their view, Egypt has atrophied as a country because it has spent decades subserviently implementing the foreign policy agendas of the United States and Israel. The key to Egypt’s future, by this thinking, lies less in its form of government than in shoring up its position in the world.

The foreign policy school argues that Egypt can join Iran and Turkey to form a “triangle of power.” The Egyptian writer and analyst Fahmy Howeidy has even visited Tehran to promote the idea that a coordinated foreign policy by the three regional powers could change the balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians, and curtail American influence in the region.

For these thinkers, the past few months have been galvanizing: Egypt’s first post-revolution foreign minister, a career diplomat named Nabil Al-Araby, quickly shook up the Arab world’s arithmetic by brokering an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, signaling that Israel would get a more skeptical hearing in Cairo, and irritating the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf by vowing to “open a new page” of warm relations with Iran. Like many of the exponents of this school, Al-Araby comes from a ruling party background inspired by the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership and the ideology of Arab nationalism, which propelled Egypt onto the global stage from the 1950s until the 1970s.

The final important school of thought in Egypt’s state-building wars is the status quo militarists. In their view, Egypt has functioned as a security state for almost the entirety of its post-colonial history, and the military — as guardians of the state and of the people — is the only institution suited to transition Egypt into a new age. They point to the example of Turkey, where for most of the past 50 years the military has repeatedly checked what it saw as the excesses of elected governments by stepping in and temporarily taking power. Although it sounds like anathema in Western politics, Turkey has enjoyed a long-term stability rare in the region, culminating in a renaissance of civilian authority over the last decade.

In Egypt, it’s not only self-interested military officers who turn to the Turkish model. Many secular Egyptians, along with the country’s Christian minority, fear that electoral democracy would empower Islamic fundamentalists, and see the military as guarantor of a secular state. Even after the current junta yields to a new constitution, many of the military’s supporters would like to see a permanent role for it as a sort of trustee for the essence of Egypt.

Such trust in the military worries academics who’ve studied other nations making the transition from dictatorship to democracy; in places like Latin America and Asia, clear subordination of the military to civilian control has proved a necessary step to a stable modern state. But the popularity of this view in Egypt makes it a serious possibility.

For all the high philosophy at its heart, the constitutional debate in Egypt is unmistakably a proxy for the domestic power struggle afoot between the still-ruling military establishment and the liberals who want to build in Egypt, for the first time, a truly civilian state. Abstract terms like revolution and counter-revolution translate into very concrete positions — a military junta cut off at the knees, or a reconstituted deep state in which the military ultimately steers the government.

But in its sense of potential, the Egyptian conversation today also suggests a little bit of what it must have felt like in America in the age of the Federalist Papers. In revolutionary America, the founders self-consciously thought about the global implications of their effort to forge the first state built on Enlightenment ideals. Similarly, Egyptians are aware they have embarked on a project that could fashion a new social compact for the Arab world and beyond.

That ambition is evident in the small ideas also percolating through the society, as people reconsider issues from the role of religion in society and the philosophical origins of law, the rights of women and minorities, to uniquely Egyptian institutions like the half of all seats in parliament reserved for the peasantry.

On the current timetable, Egyptians are scheduled to vote for a new parliament in September, which will in turn choose the drafters of the next constitution. If all goes according to this plan, by the end of the year Egypt will have a new president and a new constitution. All this could change, of course, with a single pronouncement from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

At the Coffee Bean last week, members of Maher’s April 6 movement — one of the pivotal activist groups that sparked the January uprising — strategized for the year ahead. They argued about the right mix of presidential and parliamentary authority for Egypt, and how to market political engagement through the bread-and-butter questions of economic survival that most concern the average Egyptian. Dozens of similar meetings of every conceivable stripe, from reactionary monarchists to anarcho-syndicalist, take place every night across a country that finds itself at the exact midpoint between the opening act of its revolution and what might be the first truly fair elections in its history.

“The situation in our country is critical,” Maher said quietly. “This transition will take at least two or three years. It will be a long time before we will have a stable form of government that we can trust.”

In Beirut mansion, city’s culture is reborn

Posted December 21st, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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A terraced garden outside Mansion in Beirut. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The Boston Globe.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

BEIRUT — As a symbol of a lost era in a region full of them, Beirut stands apart. For generations it thrived as a center of culture, commerce, and education, until the 16-year Lebanese civil war fragmented the city’s diverse population and shelled its vitality into rubble.

The war ended in 1991, and today Beirut is mostly peaceful. Some of its glamour and wealth have started to return. Dazzlingly dressed Lebanese fill gallery openings; boutique wineries do a brisk business. Glass towers have sprung up around the new marina.

But in many ways, Beirut is still a failed city. Hobbled by ubiquitous corruption, rampant criminality, and the legacy of sectarian militias, Beirut still doesn’t have any of the basic amenities of urban life, like traffic police, a planning board, even a functioning sewer, water, or electrical system. It is no longer a business capital; the money on display here was mostly made somewhere else. The war-shattered UNESCO building squats in the heart of the city like a crash-landed spaceship. To the west, two shell-pocked skyscrapers mark the horizon, both them uninhabited since the civil war broke out in 1975.

Most obviously, Beirut needs to attract investment and solve its infrastructure problems. But to truly revitalize the region, it will need to do more than that: It will need to recapture the cultural energy that long marked Beirut as the intellectual capital of the Arab world. A small city that welcomed big thinkers, it was historically home to writers, philosophers, political dissidents, artists, and other creative types from around the region. That, more than any of the trappings of wealth and celebrity, made it a beacon.

This is where Ghassan Maasri comes in, or hopes to. Maasri is an architect who grew up amid the rubble piles, collapsing old houses, and construction sites of post-shelling Beirut. Today, he is two years into an experiment called “Mansion.”

Picturesque old family villas still dot the city, often in disrepair. More and more are being torn down to make way for profitable condos and office towers. Maasri convinced the owner of one to to let him create a nonprofit experimental collective there. His idea was to use it to foster a community of “Beirut city users,” ambitious professionals as well as creative artists, who would use the space to launch projects that make the city a better place to live.

“I want to be able to meet artists on the street,” Maasri says. “The process of producing art is very important for the modern city. Filmmakers, theater, fine artists, architects, designers—these are the things that make a city livable or interesting.”

Maasri’s Mansion collective has emerged as a nucleus for engaged Beirutis, and a fixture on the city’s cultural circuit. It’s too early to measure whether the initiative will help revive Beirut as an intellectual and cultural center, but Mansion is now part of a small ecosystem of institutions trying to redirect the way the city works. Nearby is another collective that’s trying to serve as incubator for Lebanese startups; other cultural organizations are trying to promote mainstream audiences for local filmmakers and artists. On the preservation front, a well-known painter has launched a campaign to save Rose House, an iconic mansion overlooking the sea from West Beirut’s bluffs.

Elsewhere in the world today it’s taken for granted that cities are engines for culture and growth, a place for creativity, money, and smarts to meet. Authoritarian rule has greatly diminished those expectations in the Middle East. If Mansion works, it will be a step toward restoring that spirit to a region where it’s been gutted by war and political stasis.

“I’m trying to find a way so that people can produce things inside the city,” Maasri says. “It’s an experiment. Let’s see how it goes.”

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Ghassan Maasari, an architect who grew up among the rubble of the city, convinced the home’s owner to to let him create a nonprofit experimental collective. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The Boston Globe.

IN ITS PRIME, Beirut was the kind of rich, important, stimulating place that today would be called a global city. The city supported daily newspapers in Arabic, French, and English. The most ambitious students in the region filled its universities. Its bankers were high-powered and urbane.

It was a city of beautiful alleys and an open waterfront, with an intimacy beloved by its admirers. The Rolling Stones liked to hang out here; an entire book was written about the writers, spies, and artists who orbited around one bar, in the St. George Hotel.

Money, not culture, has driven Beirut’s rebound since the end of the civil war. Political infighting has frozen the effort to fix the St. George, whose ruins blight the edge of the new marina, a soulless anyplace that’s hard to distinguish from Santa Monica. The old downtown, rebuilt by a politically connected developer, is an unused pedestrian area guarded by an army of private security officers. Martyr’s Square, the historic center, remains a sprawling unpaved parking lot because of a property standoff. The one major park that survived the war has been closed to the public ever since.

Warlords reached a compromise to end the war: Communities would coexist peacefully amid a low-grade simmering anarchy. As long as there was no national authority, no group could use it to dominate the others. As a result, Beirut is a city with few rules and no enforcement of building codes.

Maasri’s insight was to realize the anarchy might also have created a space to try something new. Now 42, he moved to Beirut as a child in the thick of the civil war; his family was fleeing the fighting in the nearby mountains. As the city came back to life in the 1990s, Maasri was horrified by the sheer waste. Artists were fleeing the city in search of affordable studio space, while thousands of buildings in prime locations sat empty and decaying.

Maasri first tried turning rental properties into communal studios, at cost, but found it too expensive. He won grant money to establish short-term artist-in-residence projects in abandoned properties in his hometown of Aley. With an eye to doing the same in Beirut, he wandered the city on foot, scoping out dozens of dilapidated Ottoman mansions that he thought would make an ideal space for a cultural collective. Every time he tried to contact an owner, he said, “I could never get past the lawyer.”

Finally in 2012 he got lucky. The owner of a grand three-story villa on Abdulkader Street was willing to meet Maasri directly, without any intermediaries. He had kept up his family’s 80-year-old Ottoman-style villa better than most; it was decrepit, but still had its doors, windows, and roof, which meant that unlike most of the similar homes around the city, it was inhabitable—if not comfortable. He was willing to loan it to Maasri for five years, free of charge.

The house couldn’t have been more centrally located: It was a few hundred yards from the Serail, the Ottoman barracks that now serve as the headquarters of the Lebanese government. Typically for modern Beirut, it is surrounded by four brand-new condo towers, an illegal squat, and a parking lot.

Maasri invited architects, artists, and people whom he loosely defined as urbanists to come populate it and fix it up. They cleared the vines and brush that had overrun the yard and were spilling into the street. They strung bare light bulbs from the ceiling, and turned the grand ground-floor entry hall into communal space that could host lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, and musical performances.

On a recent Saturday, a children’s event called “Mini Mansion” screened Charlie Chaplin movies. A party that evening promoted recycled glass. Earlier that week, Mansion had hosted a series of discussions about urban renewal, with panelists from Europe and the Middle East. There’s a design and architecture studio on the top floor, a silk-screen workshop, and a film archive. Upstairs, artists work on paintings and sculptures in their studios. A bike messaging startup called Deghri (Direct in Arabic) has its headquarters at Mansion, and is trying to establish bike repair clinics and a recycle-a-bike program for Beirut.

Residents pay a nominal rent to help cover water, electricity, food, and repairs. Most importantly, they are required to use their space, and ideally intended to bring even more people in. An urban gardening initiative was supposed to start a pilot program on Mansion’s roof, but never followed through; Maasri gave their spot to someone else.

Maasri himself lives in the crumbling but still grand three-story mansion. To make sure he isn’t breaking any occupancy rules, he has been officially designated the building’s doorman.

MANSION’S FOUNDER wants its spirit to spill beyond its walls. In January, Maasri is launching an “Inquisitive Citizens Urban Club” which will convene anyone interested in Beirut for a three-month study of public space in the city, with the ultimate goal of catalyzing urban activism. Other cities in Europe and United States have plenty of civic-minded urbanist groups. Here, however, it is groundbreaking.

The common theme running through Mansion’s projects is a hunger to reclaim public space. That’s a politically charged project in a city where big money drives the major development projects, and where the lack of public space is inextricably connected to the erosion of political and civic rights for citizens.

Beirut is the forefront of many interlocking debates about cities and the way people live in them. And that debate is critical right now in the Arab world. Increasingly, it has become a region of cities, as the population abandons the countryside in search of work and education. Yet the role of those cities is in flux.

Traditionally, Arab cities were cosmopolitan commercial and trading hubs, open zones with mixed populations. Today, the most dynamic examples of urban vitality in the region are the tightly controlled metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, wealthy cities with limited freedom and an economic model based on oil wealth, finance, and omnipotent royal families. A revitalized Beirut, with an openness to art, public initiatives, and intellectual culture, could be an alternative.

“If I have an idea, I don’t need money or approval to experiment,” says Ayssar Arida, an architect and urban designer who grew up in Lebanon and returned to Beirut two years ago after more than a decade in London and Paris. He was attracted to the freedom from authority. “Beirut is fantastic thinking matter,” he says. “It’s not totally gone to the dogs yet.”

His wife, French-Iraqi curator Sabine de Maussion, works out of a studio at Mansion, where the couple collaborated on their latest invention: a high-end construction toy called Urbacraft. Mansion is littered with conceptual models made from Urbacraft blocks (imagine an Erector set crossed with Lego, for design nerds).

Mansion can sound a little like a party for cool, arty elites. But that is not Maasri’s goal; he is wary of drawing shallow, trendy support. He wants people who are committed and willing to work to save a building, as a way of learning how to save the city around it. For now, Mansion is thriving, and it is his hope to leave the building and its neighborhood better off than he found them. Although he is hopeful that the owner will be impressed enough to extend the experiment, he won’t mind if three years from now he has to find a new home for Mansion.

To Maasri and his colleagues, it’s not buildings that make a city, but people who create things. They’re sad that so much of Beirut’s architectural heritage has been torn down in the rush to rebuild, but they have set their sights on something harder to define than preservation. If they can figure out how to keep creating in Beirut without depending on grant money or wealthy patrons, he believes they can bring back the best thing about Beirut—even if the glory days of its architecture have passed.

In Congo, Peacekeepers at War

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

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KENNY KATOMBE/REUTERS/CORBIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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KENNY KATOMBE/REUTERS/CORBIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to stop fearing OPEC?

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

[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]

 

THE INTERNATIONALIST

Why it’s time to stop fearing OPEC

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

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

US NATIONAL ARCHIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DAVID BUTLER/GLOBE STAFF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DAVID BUTLER/GLOBE STAFF

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

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

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

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

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