Posted by: sean | November 10, 2011

A visual representation of the UNESCO vote on Palestine

Ben Croker sent me this wonderful visual representation of the UNESCO vote (which I broke down for you here). It’s a much clearer and more visually striking way of looking at the vote. Click the image for a larger pic on Ben’s site:

Posted by: sean | October 31, 2011

UNESCO and Palestine

So the votes are in, and UNESCO has voted to accept Palestine as a full member. I have procured the full voting results, which to my knowledge, have not been made public yet. There were 14 “no” votes, 52 abstentions and 107 “yes” votes (there were also 20 21 Member States absent):

No: Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Palau, Panama, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sweden, United States of America, Vanuatu.

Abstentions: Albania, Andorra, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Colombia, Cook Islands, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Fiji, Georgia, Haiti, Hungary, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kiribati, Latvia, Liberia, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Switzerland, Thailand, Macedonia, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Zambia.

Yes: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Chad, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Cyprus, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Sant Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe.

Absent: Antigua and Barbuda, Central African Republic, Comoros, Dominica, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Madagascar, Maldives, Marshall Islands, ConFederated States of Micronesia, Mongolia, Niue, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Swaziland, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan.

Most of these are no surprise, although it is worth noting the division in Europe, with Spain, France, Ireland, Austria, Finland and Greece voting “yes,” Germany, Czech Republic and Sweden voting “no,” and the UK, Italy and Denmark abstaining.  It’s also probably worth noting that the US didn’t manage to get a “no” vote from such solid supporters as countries like Latvia (which voted “no” to bringing the motion to the General Assembly earlier this month but abstained today) and Tuvalu, Nauru and other island states that almost always support the US  in international forums. Another formerly stalwart US supporter who voted for Palestine is Iceland. I remember chatting with an Icelandic diplomat during the Bush administration who had told me that after one particularly egregious instance of Washington dictating terms on what should have been a bilateral decision between Reykjavik and DC the US could no longer count on their automatic support in international forums.

Note: I’ve transcribed these from documentation, so there may be some typos, but I think the numbers add up. Let me know in the comments if I’ve made a mistake.

Update: I’ve added the Member States that were absent. I don’t know if they were present for the General Assembly and just skipped this vote, but even if no one from the Member State came, to the best of my knowledge, with the exception of South Sudan, each has a permanent delegation at UNESCO, so that’s relevant information as well. As a friend just pointed out to me, being absent is “also a means of abstaining.”

Update II: I’ve just been told that if a Member State hasn’t paid its dues, it loses the right to vote, which might explain some (or all?) of the absent countries.

On top of being an imbecile, Michelle Bachmann is a horrible, horrible person. This interview she did on Face the Nation beggars belief. She is furious that the US is bringing troops back from Iraq after 8 years, and is offended that Iraqis have so little respect for, and fear of, the country that invaded it for no good reason, destroying its infrastructure and killing tens or even hundreds of thousands of its citizens.

Not only that, she believes that the Iraqi government should have to reimburse the US for what it has spent invading and then occupying Iraq:

The problem is we’ve put a lot of deposit into this situation with Iraq, and to think that we are so disrespected and they have so little fear of the United States that there would be nothing that we would gain from this — that’s why I called on President Obama to return to the negotiating table.

The Obama administration has said they got everything they wanted. They got exactly nothing.

I believe that Iraq should reimburse the United States fully for the amount of money that we have spent to liberate these people. They’re not a poor country; they’re a wealthy country.

Posted by: sean | October 12, 2011

Introductions, again

I started this blog over 6 years ago, back when I was still living in Paris. A year later, I moved to Beirut and took the blog with me. Since then, I’ve taken it with me on trips to Ethiopia, Yemen, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Rwanda the DRC and other varied places.

Readership has ebbed and flowed, depending on what’s happening in Lebanon or whether I’m being outed as “the White Man” by the Angry Arab. More than one reader has noticed the radio silence over the last few months (with a couple even accusing me, laughably, of not wanting to criticize Arab regimes). The truth of the matter is that I’ve kept my online output confined to Twitter for a much more mundane reason. Last year, I decided to leave Lebanon to go back to school in a different field, so I moved this August to Chicago, where I’m now doing a doctoral program in political science at Northwestern University.

Over the last 6 years or so, I’ve kept a half-hearted veil of anonymity that seems kind of pointless at this juncture, so let me finally introduce myself. My name is Sean Lee, and I grew up in Alabama, left the US 12 years ago to live, work and study in Paris, where I was until I moved to Beirut in 2006 just before the war. For the last 4 years, I taught full time at AUB, mostly in the English Department. I moved to this summer Chicago and am trying to regain my bearings in America after spending most of my adult life abroad. For reasons familial and academic, I’ll be maintaining strong ties to the Arab world, especially Lebanon and Palestine.

So where does this leave the blog? I thought long and hard about boarding up the windows and moving on to other things, but I’ve decided finally to try to balance my other commitments with the blog. Having moved from one side of the desk to the other, I find myself in the odd position of being a grown-ass man with math homework, and lots of it. Needless to say, the time commitment of a doctoral program is demanding, and I’m still trying to iron out a schedule that works for me. So while blogging will always come a very distant third to family and work, I’d really like to make this work again.

Substantively speaking, I’m going to try to keep this is as separate from my studies as possible. So don’t worry, I won’t be boring you readers (both of you!) with epistemological debates on causal inference or opinions on Perry Anderson’s view of the absolutist state. I do, however, hope to get back to some of my interests that I’ve neglected for a while (namely Central Africa), but for those of you who thrive on debates about Middle Eastern politics: don’t worry, there will be plenty of that too.

So with that, ahlan w sahlan. Let’s try to see more of each other from now on.

Posted by: sean | June 8, 2011

Kevin Drum’s history problem

I like Kevin Drum’s writing, and The Political Animal was one of the first blogs that I started reading on a daily basis, but reading over some of his recent comments on the Middle East, I’ve been more than a little troubled.

Drum was annoyed with the Israeli and American reaction (singular) to Obama’s speech and the manufactured controversy over Obama’s 1967-lines-with-swaps comment. He was also troubled with the sycophantic reaction Netanyahu received during his speech to Congress. I share both sentiments, but if Drum is looking for a reason as to why Congress (Democrats and Republicans) so often resorts to a Pavlovian defense of anything Israel says or does, he might want to take  look at his own writing.

For example, Drum gives this summary of the 1967 war: “Israel won a war started by the other side, it occupied some of their territory, and then it decided to take some of that territory forever.” For starters, that’s just patently false, and claims of “preemptive warfare” aside, any history of 1967 clearly shows that Israel fired the first shots of that war, thus the surprise attack that decimated Egypt’s air force.

Then he says, the Arabs have “started and lost three wars against Israel.” Aside from repeating his misunderstanding of 1967, here he’s repeating a simplistic (and incidentally false) narrative of 1948, that would have it that Israel declared independence and then was attacked by its Arab neighbors. This, of course, leaves out the inconvenient fact that Arab intervention in what was essentially a civil war that had begun in November 1947 came after Jewish militias had already made refugees of some 300,000-400,000 Palestinians. The massacre at Deir Yassin, for example, was on April 9, whereas the declaration of Israel’s independence wasn’t until May 14.  Furthermore, Arab intervention came not at the declaration of Israel’s independence as many would have it but at the expiration of the British mandate. This is a common trope that rewrite history to make Arabs look like violent aggressors against a peaceful, defenseless newborn Israel, when in fact the war of 1948 is much more complicated.

So of the three wars Drum claims Arabs started, 1 was a civil war in which Arab armies intervened (1947-48), another was begun by Israel (1967), and the third (1973) was a surprise attack initiated by Egypt and Syria to regain land that was occupied in the previous war.

This is without mentioning that “the Arabs” are not a monolith, and  even if Drum’s description were accurate (which it’s not), that still wouldn’t justify the dispossession of Palestinians under his explanation that Israel has only a “minority share” of the blame for a lack of peace.

But what does all this have to do with the current kerfuffle? Drum can’t understand why Republicans are engaging in “historical revisionism” as concerns Obama’s speech, all while simultaneously mouthing official Israeli nationalist historiography. Why should contemporary history be any different from modern history?

As Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim put it:

Simha Flapan set the agenda when he reduced the historiography on the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 to seven myths: That the Zionists accepted the UN partition resolution and planned for peace; that the Arabs rejected the partition and launched the war; that the Palestinians fled voluntarily intending reconquest; that the Arab states had united to expel the Jews from Palestine; that the Arab invasion made war inevitable; that a defenseless Israel faced destruction by the Arab Goliath; and that Israel subsequently sought peace but no Arab leader responded.

These nationalist myths have been debunked by the archival work of Israeli historians, such as Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and others.

Part of the problem in the US is that Americans have ironically clung even more tightly to Israeli nationalist historiography than many Israelis have. The result is a vague notion that Arabs are mostly to blame for the disposession of Palestinians and the continuing Israeli occupation and that Israel is and always has been a plucky David to the Arab Goliath. So if that’s the historical framework Americans are working from (added to which there is of course the diligent work of the pro-Israel lobby), is it any wonder that the US Congress would wear its palms out applauding Netanyahu as he spoon feeds them a narrative that fits perfectly with the regional history they’ve been taught?

So while Kevin Drum is obviously more critical of real-time history (that is to say, the news), he clearly subscribes  to official Israeli mythmaking  when it comes to 1948 and 1967.

Note: It should go without saying that Arab nationalist historiography clearly has its own myths that could use shattering, but no one in the American media or government that I’m aware of could be fairly accused of succumbing to, say, Syrian or Egyptian historical myths.

Posted by: sean | June 7, 2011

Amuse-gueules: Syria

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, mostly since my Twitter feed allows me to share links on a daily basis, but this one’s on Syria:

Note: I have heard and read conflicting reports about the violence in Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp in the Damascus area, but most reports agree that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC) shot protesters. I’ll try to post something once the picture becomes a little clearer, but here is an initial report from AJE.

Posted by: sean | May 16, 2011

Dead where it doesn’t count

Protesters climbing back up the summit from the border

Yesterday, I spent the day at Maroun al-Ras on the Lebanese border with Israel. Before I get to some of the reactions I’ve read about the event and some of the questions raised by it, I’d like to discuss the event itself.

Yesterday, Palestinians around the world commemorated the Nakba, which is the catastrophe of the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians upon the creation of Israel. I left from the Mar Elias camp in Beirut in a bus that had been rented by a young Palestinian activist who teaches physical education in a Palestinian camp. The passengers were Palestinians with a mixture of Lebanese, Bahraini and European companions. Everyone pitched in for the bus, and despite some organizational troubles, we set off on Sunday morning for the border.

Climbing up to Maroun al-Ras from Bint Jbeil

When we arrived, a bit late due to our late start, the roads had been closed, so we, along with all of the buses arriving with ours, had to stop at Bint Jbeil. We got out and walked up several kilometers of hills to get to Maroun al-Ras. There was a steady stream of people, mostly Palestinian, retracing in reverse the route that Palestinians had taken in 1948. There were old men and women, young children and whole families helping each other up the slippery slope to the peak of the hill through thorns and weeds, beating a path up to the border. At one point, I slowed down to help an old man who, with his family, had been forced to leave  his village in Galilee when he was 12 years old.  He was an old man now, helping his elderly wife climb upwards to steal a glimpse of their lost home.

At some places, old women would sit to rest before getting back up and resuming the journey. According to my map of Lebanon, the mostly uphill walk was about 6 or 7 kilometers to the summit overlooking the valley border. When we arrived at the top, the first thing we saw was a young man, probably about 16 or 17 years old, being rushed out on a stretcher. He wasn’t moving, and it seems that he was among the 10 killed yesterday.

Climbing up to Maroun al-Ras

At Maroun al-Ras, there is a summit overlooking a valley where the border lies. The Lebanese Army had set up a line to try to stop protesters from going all the way to the border fence, but many had slipped through and continued to do so bit by bit, forming two separate masses of people with the majority of the protesters looking on from the summit or settling in somewhere on the descent’s rocks and grass. At the crowded summit decorated with ubiquitous Palestinian flags, there were chairs, food stands, an ice cream truck and even a section for lost children. All in all, the top looked like a lively state fair with a political message: the people want to return to Palestine. This message, mirroring the chants in Tahrir Square and Tunis and translated into Hebrew as well, was printed on a giant banner at the top of the summit facing the border.

At the top of Maroun al-Ras

When we arrived, the youths, or shabaab, had already made it to the fence. Some were waving Palestinian flags, while others were throwing rocks over the fence. It should be noted here that the other side of the fence was empty except for a line of trees behind which the Israeli soldiers were stationed. The youths chanted their slogans, waved their flags and threw their stones. In response, the Israeli soldiers would periodically open fire. At no point were  the Lebanese youth on the Israeli side of the fence. It’s unclear to me what kind of ammunition the Israelis were firing, but the high death toll (reported at ten so far) leads me to believe that at least some of it was live ammunition, although rubber bullets have also been known to be fatal.

In the end, more Lebanese soldiers were called in, and by firing in the air managed to push the crowd back from the fence. On the long walk back, we saw the same mixture of families, elderly folks and groups of teenagers coming back, only this time, some of the teenage boys had blood on their clothes from helping others who’d been wounded or killed by Israeli fire.

In a nutshell, protesters amassed at the border armed with flags, slogans and rocks from the ground, and Israel responded by opening fire and killing nearly a dozen youths.

When I finally returned home to Beirut last night after a night ride along the border by the Gates of Fatima and the old crusader castle, Beaufort, I was disappointed to see the news that others had died in Syria and Gaza during similar protests. I was also really disappointed in the responses that I saw on twitter and online from American commentators.

One post that really rankled me was from my friend Andrew Exum:

The Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Palestinians and Israeli peoples are all getting played right now. If you’re a Palestinian marking the Nakba on the border with Israel right now, that’s all fine and well, but you should be aware of those actors for whom this distraction is most welcome and who have every interest in using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and your own suffering for their own cynical purposes right now.

This sentiment has also been voiced by the Israeli government, which has claimed that this has all been drummed up by Iran and Syria in order to move attention away from Syria’s brutal crackdown of domestic protests. There is no concrete evidence for this, of course, except what Andrew calls the one rule he follows for Levantine politics: “just be cynical about the motives and actions of everyone, and you will never go wrong.”

Without even getting into the fact that Levantine politicians hardly have a monopoly on cynical motives, this strikes me as more than a little hypocritical. That Arab states have capitalized on the Palestinian issue for domestic point-scoring is a truism, but that doesn’t make the issue any less salient for Arabs across the region, and to imply that such non-violent protests are just tools for Damascus, as opposed to genuine reflections of public feeling, is problematic for several reasons. Likewise, for the idea that protesters are “getting played.”

The valley and border

First, it mirrors the sclerotic official discourse seen in Cairo, Tunis, Damascus, Sana’a and Tripoli during the Arab Spring: “these protesters are either foreign provocateurs or are just being naively used by America and Israel to undermine Arab governments and take attention away from the occupations of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.” This, of course, is roundly and immediately dismissed as “conspiracy theory” by Western analysts, despite (for example) clear evidence that the US has been funding Syrian opposition groups. Does Andrew think this means that the Syrian protesters, whose brutal killings the Nakba protests were meant to distract media attention from, are just stooges of the CIA and US State Department? Of course not, but this is the exact same logic at play, ironically being voiced simultaneously by Damascus and Tel Aviv.

Second, while Damascus, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. may be happy to see such a successful turnout this year, they were far from the prime movers in the Lebanese protest. (I don’t know what happened at other protests, so I’ll limit my comments to the protest at Maroun al-Ras.) Every year, Hezbollah sponsors a protest at the border on Nakba Day, and maybe a thousand people show up to wave flags, chant some slogans and then leave.

This year was different. Hezbollah still supported the event, offering emergency paramedics, setting up a water buffalo and lawn chairs and even giving arriving buses boxes of snacks and juice boxes. But the independent actors, like the Palestinian activist who organized our bus, played a much larger role. An independent artists’ collective made up posters (much like they had done back in November last year, way before anyone thought there’d be protests in Syria, for  a meeting of the Right of Return Coalition). Sparked on by the Arab Spring, Palestinian NGOs and collectives helped spread the word and organize the event. From what I can tell, political parties (Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah) played a much smaller role than did grassroots associations from Palestinian and Lebanese civil society. One marker of this was the lack of political flags. With a couple of exceptions, the only flag being waved was the Palestinian one.

And finally, even if the event had been completely engineered by political parties, what would that prove? Isn’t the problem with these parties in the west that they are involved in armed resistance instead of non-violent protest?

Next comes Andrew’s defense of Israeli actions:

What were they supposed to do in the face of a breach of the border? And what did the protesters think would happen? (I know what Syria and some particularly cynical actors in Gaza and Lebanon probably hoped would happen: exactly what did happen.) But you can’t really fault a military for protecting the territorial integrity of its state by force.

I can honestly say that I didn’t hear anyone hoping that people would be hurt or killed. What I saw was families worried for their young sons and brothers but proud of their courage to stand unarmed against the most powerful military in the region to proclaim their right of return. Otherwise, this very same question (“what did they think would happen?”) could have been asked to young blacks lining up to not be served in Greensboro diners or that little girl going to the desegregated school in Little Rock. What did they expect would happen after such a provocation?

As for the protection of “territorial integrity,” there were no breaches of the border in Maroun al-Ras. There were kids throwing rocks over a fence at a tree line. This was a symbolic act, one born of  a lifetime of dispossession and frustration. If shooting these kids dead is the appropriate act, then I suppose Edward Said should have also been shot dead back in 2000. Had the Israeli soldiers done nothing, the protesters would have likely chanted slogans, waved flags, tossed rocks and then gone home.

This brings me to a twitter conversation with a friendly online acquaintance, Blake Hounshell, who was discussing the violence of stone throwing and suggested that Palestinians ought to “read Gandhi” to get a better reception in the US.

First of all, there is the embarrassing fact that Palestinian non-violent resistance not only exists, but is commonplace. Every Friday for years now, non-violent protesters have organized protests against the Israeli separation wall that was deemed illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court. Has that helped their standing in the US? Several protesters have been killed by the IDF, and the Bil’in organizer, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, was thrown in prison. While I’m sure Blake has heard of Abu Rahmah, how many American pundits who’d like to lecture on Palestinians on non-violence have?

And does non-violence make much of a difference when it comes to American public opinion, or more importantly, official policy making? What happened when a US citizen and 8 Turks were executed on board the  Gaza flotilla? A letter was sent by 87 US Senators supporting Israel’s “right to self-defense.” Violent or non-violent resistance, in the US, the game is clearly rigged when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

Finally, yesterday’s actions (and I include all of the protests here) were a far cry from the armed rebellion in Libya, which the US is currently supporting diplomatically and through military force. The protests were also a far cry from the events in Suez, when Egyptian protesters confronted the security forces, burning vehicles and generally fighting back. My point here is not to condemn the Libyans or Egyptians (whose revolutions I support, along with those in Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria), but to point out the double standard being applied. So armed resistance is acceptable in Benghazi and Misurata, but throwing rocks at Maroun al-Ras (or the West Bank) is somehow beyond the pale?

The fact of the matter is that all the hand wringing that’s going on about the shooting of unarmed Palestinian protesters would look a lot different had those protests been in Tripoli, Aleppo or Cairo, or had they been shot by anyone other than the IDF (the most moral military in the world, I’m told). But instead, like a ghetto murder in the Wire, these Palestinians are dead where it doesn’t count.

UPDATE: My friend George has much better pictures than I took. Check them out here.

Posted by: sean | April 26, 2011

Some Syrian reading

As I mentioned the other day, those of us paying attention to Syria are suffering from a dearth of reliable information. In my case, despite spending some time visiting Syria over the last 5 years, I also lack much in-depth information about the country more generally.

For example, who are the Alawites? Who are the Muslim Brotherhood? What’s the interplay between rural and metropolitan Syria, the coast and the plains?

In order to learn a bit more, I’ve been picking up some books that I’ve been meaning to read for a while and re-reading some helpful articles about Syria, some of which I can share here.

Here’s Anthony Shadid reporting on the Alawite community’s response to the death of Ghazi Kanaan back in 2005 and on some of the internal dynamics of the current regime. From the former:

For centuries, Alawites faced withering discrimination, in part over the suspicions generated by their secretive, loosely Shiite religious traditions. Their secluded mountain villages are a relic of that ostracism, and they were some of the poorest, least educated and most rural of Syria’s inhabitants. As with other religious minorities in the Middle East, many Alawites turned to the Baath Party, drawn to its pan-Arab, leftist and secular ideology, hoping it might dilute Syria’s Sunni dominance and provide a more inclusive notion of identity. To escape grinding poverty, they joined the military, soon filling the ranks of its senior officer corps. In modern Syria, those two institutions — party and military — have ruled for 35 years.

Assad is an Alawite, and during the presidency of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, the sect emerged from behind the scenes to command the government’s most sensitive positions in the military and security services. While the elder Assad was careful to give a Sunni face to portfolios such as the defense and foreign ministries and to forge alliances with other groups, his inner circle was drawn from his own community, often his own Qalbiyya tribe and family. In that sense, he was not only Syria’s strongman, but also the leader of his sect, responsible for its fortunes.

[...]The younger Assad is viewed as less ta’ifi , or sectarian. His outlook is ostensibly more modern, possibly reformist; bucking tradition, he took for his wife a Sunni, not an Alawite. But as he struggles to put a more contemporary veneer on his rule, he faces a society still suffering deep cleavages that reflect unresolved questions of identity. The Baath Party offered one answer: The country is Arab. But other identities still compete — Alawi, Sunni, Christian and so on — in a zero-sum game of communal survival.

And in that question of survival, villagers say, Alawites lost one of their last, most prominent defenders in [Ghazi] Kanaan. In his place, some Alawites say, is a government that cares about the military only to ensure it doesn’t rebel; a ruling family most worried about its survival; and a state that promotes not the sect’s interest, but networks bound by patronage and power that are growing richer. Even some Alawite intelligence officials are said to be disenchanted over the higher profile of Assad’s family at their expense.

[...]In Damascus and other Syrian cities, there is the perception that the Alawite roots of the Assad family have meant hamlets like Jobat Berghal have received favorable treatment. That view often inspires anger among the Alawite villagers here.

“The opposite! The opposite!” shouted Ahmed, the retired government employee, his face leathery from the sun.

“We’re all Alawites here and when you come here, you can’t find anything,” he said.

As Ahmed spoke, years of grievances poured out. He ignored the coded language often employed in Syria’s repressive climate. The courts? They are suffused with bribes and corruption, he said. The law? It protects the powerful and wealthy. He still pumps water into his home from a steel vat. He and other villagers have filed thousands of loan applications and still await an answer.

And on the subject of the Muslim Brotherhood, I turn  again to Hanna Batatu, who filed this piece for MERIP in 1982 after the Hama massacre (whose human cost, he seems to underestimate substantially), which seems equally relevant today even if there has been substantial changes in the Assad regime under Bashar:

But what above all incurred the hostility of the Muslim Brethren was the sharpened ‘Alawi bias of the regime and the deepening erosion of the status and power of the Sunni community. Two political orders, both headed by President Asad, had by now crystallized in the country and still function at the present time. In the first, which consists of a Council of Ministers, a People’s Assembly, the Ba’th Party Command, and their subordinate organs, the Sunnis play conspicuous roles. But all these bodies have merely an apparent or derivative authority. Real power lies on another, more fundamental level. It is held by Asad and the leaders of three intelligence apparatuses and of two crucial heavily armed units which underpin the whole structure.

In more concrete terms, the decisive figures are, in order of importance, Hafiz al-Asad; his brother Rif at, the chief of Saraya-d-Difa [Defence Units]; Muhammad al-Khawli, the chairman of the Presidential Intelligence Committee and Chief of Air Intelligence; ‘Ali Haydar, the commander of the Special Forces; ‘Ali Dubah, the head of Army Intelligence; and Ahmad Sa’id Saleh, the Chief of Internal Security. All these men are ‘Alawi, except perhaps for ‘Ali Haydar, who may be a Shi’i from Salamiyyah or an ‘Alawi from the tribe of al-Haddadin. Again, except for ‘Ali Haydar and possibly Ahmad Sa’id Saleh, all belong to the tribe of al- Matawirah, Asad’s tribe. More than that, all of them had been uninterruptedly at the head of their units since Asad took power or the units were formed. By contrast, the composition of the cabinet, the People’s Assembly, and the Ba’th Command underwent in the same period frequent and marked changes.

The Muslim Brethren began their offensive against this order of things in 1976, not long after the intervention of Syria’s armed forces in Lebanon. At first they confined themselves to persistent minor blows in the hope of provoking Syria’s rulers, involving them in repressive policies, and estranging them further from the people. They concentrated on hit-and-run killings of ‘Alawi functionaries, security agents, and professional men, focusing attention on their origins and the origins of Hafiz al-Asad outside the Sunni Muslim main current of Syria’s life.

In a second stage, they escalated their acts and widened their scope: they carried out attacks on government buildings, police stations, Ba’th party institutions, and army units. They provoked demonstrations and large-scale shutdowns of shops and schools as at Hamah and Aleppo on March 8-10, 1980, and at Hamah in February of this year. They also struck spectacular blows at the ruling power: in June 1979, with the help of a Ba’thi Sunni officer who had been won over to their cause, they assailed with grenades and machine-gun fire 200 or so ‘Alawi cadets of the Artillery Academy at Aleppo, killing 83 of them and wounding many others.

The violence produced an atmosphere of crisis and great danger. The Muslim Brethren’s defiance of the authorities also emboldened other opposition forces to follow along.

The militants who carried out these acts were men in their 20s or early 30s, ardently attached to their beliefs, daring to the point of recklessness. In large part, they were university students, schoolteachers, engineers, physicians, and the like. This is evident from the occupational distribution of the activists — mostly Muslim Brethren — who fell into the hands of the government between 1976 and May 1981. Out of a total of 1,384, no fewer than 27.7 percent were students, 7.9 percent schoolteachers, and 13.3 percent members of the professions, including 79 engineers, 57 physicians, 25 lawyers, and 10 pharmacists. The profiles of the leaders of the Military Sections of the Muslim Brethren point to the same conclusion. ‘Adnan ‘Uqlah, who led the latest rising at Hamah, is a civil engineer and the son of a baker. His predecessor, ‘Abd-us-Sattar az- Za’im was a dentist and the son of a tradesman. Husni Abbu, who was the chief of the Military Branch of the Aleppo region in 1979, was a teacher of French, the son of a well-to-do merchant, and the son-in-law of Shaikh Zayn-ud- Din Khayr-ul-Lah, the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Aleppo.

What have the Muslim Brethren achieved? They have succeeded in widening the distance between the government and the majority of the people, but not in destabilizing the regime. Instead of splitting the ‘Alawis and thus weakening their foothold in the army, they have, by their anti-‘Alawi practical line, frightened the ‘Alawi community into rallying behind Asad. They have also provoked a ferocious response on the part of the government. In June 1980, in putting down an attempted breakout by political prisoners at Palmyra, the security forces killed no fewer than 400 men. Last February, in order to suppress a rising by the Muslim Brethren at Hamah, the government went to the length of leveling whole sections of the northern and eastern parts of the city. In the process, they killed at least 5,000 people, according to Western diplomats. About 1,000 government troops are also said to have died in the fighting.

What is the outlook for the Muslim Brethren? In the past decade, the movement underwent acute shifts in its strength. For example, on the reckoning of its own leaders, its membership in the city of Aleppo did not exceed 800 in 1975, but had by 1978 swollen to an estimated maximum of 5,000 to 7,000. There is reason to believe that its numerical weight — but not moral sympathy for its cause — shrank noticeably after the passage of Law No. 49 of July 8,1980, which regarded adherence to the Muslim Brethren as “a crime” punishable by death. Its total strength at the beginning of 1982 probably did not surpass 5,000. At Hamah last February it suffered a deep wound from which it will not recover easily. Many of its natural supporters in Syria’s other cities may have come to entertain second thoughts about its tactics, which have no doubt been too costly in human lives and material possessions. However, so long as the present regime remains narrowly based and unrepresentative of the country’s majority, there is bound to be a revival of the spirit of revolt which no repression, however brutal, can extinguish.

-June 1982

Again, Batatu vastly underestimates the number of casualties in Hama, which are estimated to have been in the tens of thousands.

If anyone has any other suggestions for references on Syria that we should read, please leave them in the comment section.

UPDATE: If you read Arabic, I suggest this piece by Khaled Sayegh in Al-Akhbar.

Posted by: sean | April 25, 2011

Sectarianism and the Syrian uprising

Syrian tank entering Dara'a

Like many, I’ve been glued to the internet and television watching the degeneration of the situation in Syria. Since Friday, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and Reuters et al. have reported that somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 people have been killed by the regime and its loyalists throughout Syria. This morning, there were reports that Damascus sent the army (including tanks) to Dara’a, the town on the border with Jordan where the protests began last month.

One problem those following events have faced, similar to the situation during the post-election protests in Iran, is the lack of international media access to Syria. This, as Anthony Shadid recently noted from Beirut, has allowed exiled members of the protest movement to largely shape the coverage of the events. Supporters of the regime and others on the fence have argued that this smacks of manipulation:

The unprecedented power of the long-distance activists to shape the message troubled Camille Otrakji, a Damascus-born political blogger who lives in Montreal. Where others see coordination, he sees manipulation, arguing that the activists’ mastery of image belies a revolt more sectarian than national, and deaf to the fears of minorities. “I call it deception,” said Mr. Otrakji, a somewhat lonely voice in the Internet tumult. “It’s like putting something on the wrapping of a product which has nothing to do with what’s inside. This is all being manipulated.”

This sentiment jives somewhat with the official government line that there is some sort of outside manipulation of Syrians. Although Damascus is never really explicit about who’s supposedly pulling the strings, the idea is that Saudi Arabia, Israel and Lebanon (and/or America, al-Jazeera and the BBC) are somehow involved in stoking sectarian conflict to take down the Syrian regime.

All this brings up the question of sectarianism in Syria in general and more specifically, who the protesters actually are. Many supporters of the regime, and the regime itself, insist that the protesters are “Salafis” or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, implying that the movement is neither secular nor non-violent, as many activists claim it is. One example of this thinking can be seen in an article by Michel Aoun’s spokesperson, May Akl, who heavy handedly (and without any real evidence) stokes sectarian (and Western) fears of Islamism:

In the context of these leaderless revolutions that stemmed from rightful social, economic, and political demands, the only organized and well-structured group has been the Muslim Brotherhood. For 83 years now, the aim of this widespread movement has been to instill the Quran and Sunna as the sole reference for ordering the life of the Muslim family and state. Whether it will finally succeed in doing so by claiming to embrace the hopes and dreams of the Arab youth is not to be ruled out. As such, the real beneficiaries of Arab regime changes are yet to be discovered. While this theory has yet to be proven in Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen, it is easier to note in Syria, where the last Muslim Brotherhood uprising was brutally crushed by Hafez Assad in Hama in 1982. But the Brotherhood in Syria, under claims of demanding reforms, does aim at overthrowing the Syrian regime.

[...] Hopefully, [US policy] will also acknowledge the fact that democracy and people power can actually be used as a cover for extreme groups to access power. Indeed, extreme Islam does not always come with a turban; sometimes, it comes with a tie.

As my friend Elias has noted, this is kind of a flip-flop for Aoun.

There has been a lot written recently to frame the protest movement and the regime’s violent crackdown as a sectarian conflict between Alawites (the Assad family’s sect, which makes up around 12% of Syria’s population and dominates the military and intelligence services) and Arab Sunnis, who make up around 65% of the country’s population. There has also been a bit of talk about the situation of Christians in this situation.

May Akl’s sectarian defense of the regime in Damascus can be seen in the context of a split in Lebanese Christian sentiment.  As-Safir recently ran a piece about the division of Lebanese Christians on the matter:

Lebanese Christians who had transformed freedom into a special icon that sets them apart, are now afraid of what freedom will bring to the Arab populations in general and to the Syrian populations specifically, mainly [regarding] power and the authority. They are asking difficult and complicated questions, which is increasing their confusion.

They are split into two camps. On the one hand, the March 14 Christians are following up on the Syrian events with an implicit joy that they keep hidden…. On the other hand, the Christians close to Damascus are following up on the developments in a cautious manner. And after the confusion of the early days, they are now repeating slogans about the “immunity of the regime” and the “conspiracy targeting it.”

But the two teams are brought closer together, based on different calculations and backgrounds, by a major concern and fear…. The March 14 Christians believe that  “any change in Syria will reflect positively on the Lebanese reality. The Damascus Spring must reflect on the Lebanese Spring and the change of the regime in Syria will allow for the independence of Lebanon and for the establishment of a state in it….”

An official figure from the Free Patriotic Movement wondered if “the Damascus Spring aims at achieving the demand for the return of the Niqab-wearing women to the classroom….” But apart from sarcasm, this Christian group considers that “the Syrian regime is not the best. It does have its drawbacks. However, we cannot deny the fact that it is working hard to be secular and the situation of the Christians in Syria is very good…. A large number of Syrian intellectuals who have always objected [to the policies of the regime] do not want to overthrow it but rather to modernize and improve it….” This group also notes “a major concern in case some Lebanese have been reckless enough to contribute, one way or another, to the ongoing events in Damascus as this will negatively reflect on Lebanon in general and not just one side” (initial English translation by MidEast Wire).

As for the situation of Christians in Syria, the Washington Post recently reported that many Syrian Christians are eying the protests with suspicion:

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, have largely stayed out of the anti-government protests, fearing what change could bring. Many are wealthy and could have much to lose if the uprising succeeds. Christians also occupy a disproportionately high percentage of senior positions within the government and tend to work in the educated professions as doctors, dentists and engineers.

As protests have spread by demonstrators demanding Assad’s ouster and a chance for Syrians to choose their leader after decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his father, the government has claimed that it is being challenged by Islamic radicals. The demonstrators deny that, but many Christians appear to believe it.

Dozens of planned weddings in Christian villages across Damascus have been canceled for fear of attack by extremists. Christians are withdrawing funds from banks, keeping their children home from school and not venturing out to socialize.

[...]Many Christians interviewed said their biggest fear was the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Syria. About half as many worshipers as usual attended Good Friday church services this year because people are afraid to leave their homes.

That said, the plural of anecdotes is not data, so it’s unclear how widespread this sentiment is within the Syrian Christian community.

Again, this raises the question, then, of who the protesters are and how sectarian their movement actually is. There have been recent claims that the person behind the “Syrian Revolution 2011″ Facebook group is a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood living in Sweden. Others have claimed that some protesters’ slogans have had a distinctly sectarian ring to them: “Alawiyye bi eltabout…w masi7iey 3a Beirut” (Alawites in a coffin and Christians to  Beirut).

Not being in Syria and lacking media coverage of the events there, it would be an understatement to say that our understanding of what is happening is incomplete. That said, I do find a certain irony in the fact that regime and its supports are using the Islamist threat to attack the protesters, since Syrian foreign policy is largely organized around an alliance with Islamists (be they Sunni or Shi’a) in Lebanon, Iran, Palestine and Iraq. Many of those stirring up fear of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood were quick to point out Washington’s hypocrisy when democracy promotion took a back seat after the success of Hamas (the Palestinian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Palestinian elections. So assuming that the protesters are all Islamist (which clearly isn’t the case), would that mean that they would be ineligible to participate in a democratic system? If so, isn’t that a mirror image of the right-wing American rhetoric that supporters of Assad dislike so much?

Furthermore, even if the Syrian Ba’ath regime is ostensibly secular, doesn’t the fact that the security apparatus and military are dominated by Alawites mean that the regime is far from blameless in any subsequent sectarianism? Just as the Bahraini government has had a hand in fueling sectarian resentment there, isn’t the Assad regime guilty of doing the same thing in Syria?

Hanna Batatu once wrote of the Alawite tendency “in their political actions to adhere to or cooperate more markedly with kinsmen or members of their own clan or people from their own sect or region” as the resulting “logic of their fundamental structural situation” of a previously disadvantaged (and in this case, rural) group. Is it surprising, then, that this sectarian “narrow cliquishness,” as Batatu put it, might be met with an equally sectarian reaction?

Posted by: sean | April 8, 2011

I had no idea Sydney was so terrible

I know I’m a little late to the sensation that is the BBC’s Louis Theroux, but I just watched one of his documentaries for the first time. Although everyone seems to be talking about his recent work on religious fundamentalists in Florida, I decided to watch the one on Ultra Zionists.

Theroux (as he is apparently wont to do) lets himself be taken around with an air of straight-faced naïveté to visit various settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem by various Israelis who all agree on the idea that all land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River was given to Jews by God. The connector, though, is an Australian Israeli named Daniel Luria (pictured with Theroux above) who works for an organization, Ateret Cohanim, that uses foreign and Israeli money to buy up properties in Arab neighborhoods and villages in order to install Israeli Jews there. He also organizes tours of recently acquired East Jerusalem property (sometimes with Palestinians still living there) to prove that Jewish life unites  Jerusalem.

The Palestinians Daniel has doing construction at his home in the settlement of Ma’ale Adunim to prepare for the feast of the tabernacle are perplexing to Theroux, who comments, “in a sense, they’re building themselves out of existence.” Daniel disagrees with this, saying that Khamis, the Palestinian worker, “knows that life is good under the Jews.”

Daniel sees his work as a continuation of the war of 1948, “a war of survival for the Jewish people.” For him, it’s either continually settle the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or “pack our bags and go back to the ovens of Auschwitz, go back to the shores of Australia.”

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