Sunday, July 31, 2005

Preparing for a Shipwreck in the Middle East

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR newspaper in Beirut.

By Michael Young

Several months ago, when interviewing Walid Jumblatt, I was struck by how the Druze leader perused the news like a lookout on the Titanic. It was not long after elections in Iraq, and Jumblatt was carefully weighing whether Ahmad Chalabi would become defense minister. He worried that Chalabi's appointment would enhance Iraqi federalism, which could deeply affect communal relations in Lebanon.

I pictured Jumblatt anxiously scouring the horizon daily for infinite calamitous icebergs.If so, we should all engage in that exercise, as the Middle East has moved closer to the abyss than at any time since the end of the second Gulf war in 1991.

The American adventure in Iraq - creative, bold and potentially revolutionary - threatens to sink under the weight of a Sunni insurgency that has fed off the Bush administration's frequent incompetence in prosecuting postwar stabilization and rehabilitation. In the Palestinian areas, the Palestinian Authority is more than ever looking like a futile, corrupt artifact in front of Islamist parties that promise only violence and the suffocation of tolerant politics. In Syria, the kleptocratic regime of Bashar Assad is disintegrating, but its death may linger in the absence of alternatives. And in Iran, the situation has been complicated by the election as president of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delaying the expansion of liberty in the society, even as the regime must shift its attention to Ahmadinejad's poor electorate - conservative by nature but potentially violent if its expectations are not met.

Gliding above this is the apocalyptic specter of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, whose latest exploits in London and Sharm al-Sheikh brought standard condemnations from representative institutions in the Arab and Muslim worlds, usually blended in with standard condemnations of Western behavior toward Arabs and Muslims. The effect was a cowardly canceling out of meaning; nonetheless, pro forma expressions of remorse often came across, intentionally or not, as precisely the opposite.

In truth, when it comes to fighting terrorism and expanding democracy in the Middle East, a global dialogue of the deaf prevails. The Arab world in particular hardly ever transcends its songs of lament to consider just how much it would suffer from the continuation of Al-Qaeda's attacks, Iraq's descent into civil war, the persistence of despotic and selfish regimes that endure solely because of a fear of chaos if they are removed, and the advances of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who feed off a shortsighted belief that armed resistance can bring victory and salvation.

There will be those protesting that one cannot speak of the "Arab world" or the "Muslim world" in such sweeping terms. They might add, maybe with justification, that one cannot consider half the problem, namely the maladies of the Arabs, without mentioning the other half: how the West, and particularly the United States, has exacerbated them. The reality is, however, that the Arab world usually speaks with a single, undiscerning voice of the West; rare are those avoiding the ritualistic dilution of indigenous Arab evils by casting them as foreign-imposed.

Yet it's the Arabs who will alone confront the impending hopelessness. In thriving for intellectual evenhandedness in the blame game, they miss an essential point: What the region faces in the near term is not intellectual; it is real, and it is deeply troubling.

At the heart of the breakdown is Iraq. Even the war's supporters (this writer included) cannot honestly say that the postwar plan, if indeed there was one, was commensurate with the profound importance of the project. From the moment of Baghdad's fall, the Bush administration made error after error, steadily diminishing prospects for success in its transformation of Iraq into a pluralistic society.

Success is still possible, thanks largely to the Iraqis, but hope is evaporating. The question is whether the U.S. still believes in Iraqi democracy, and the answer may be less and less.

Thinking is shifting toward such schemes as partition or loose confederalism, which are expedient but also potentially disastrous.

One wagers that many in the Arab world would be delighted with an American admission of failure. The more sensible would merely maintain: "I told you so"; countless others would say: "Good, it will teach Washington a lesson." But such reactions would only confirm the Arab world's predisposition toward self-marginalization. By accepting decade after decade of stultifying political, economic and cultural stalemate; by offering no alternatives to Saddam Hussein; by applauding him even as he perpetuated his most bestial crimes; by displaying considerable indifference toward the mass graves found after the overthrow of the Baath regime, many Arabs implicitly justified, even invited, outside interference in their affairs. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. However, when American involvement came (and, let's recall that it is still consistently demanded to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), there was no effort to exploit it for domestic reasons. Instead of seeing how they could benefit at home from sovereignty and democracy in Iraq, even if that meant pragmatically and momentarily buttressing American efforts there, a great many Arabs - Islamists, nationalists, liberals, and permutations thereof - fell back on a threadbare argument that the failure of the American venture would represent a defeat for arrogant pro-Israeli "neo-imperialism." Though the fallout of such "freedom" is likely to be carnage, it doesn't matter: the Americans will take the blame.

Only rarely does the Arab world offer a fresh narrative to confront its shortcomings. The 2002 Beirut Arab League declaration on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict was certainly an example, and was shot down by Israeli intransigence. However, such proactiveness is a rarity, and today, as Israel disengages from Gaza, all that Arab societies, and intellectuals, can do is recap that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan is designed to avoid final-status talks. It is, but it also represents an Israeli withdrawal from Arab land, and the only ones exploiting that fact are Islamists seeking to portray it as a military victory.

Politically, most other Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority are utterly unprepared for the aftermath. In fact the Arab world is utterly unprepared for all that lies ahead. It is unprepared to deal with a possible collapse in Iraq - though Arab states like Syria and Saudi Arabia continue to play sorcerer's apprentice there, as do Iran and Turkey.

The Arab world is unprepared to deal creatively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to take advantage of the Gaza pullout. It is unprepared to deal with alternatives to dictatorship and regime corruption, or to deal with economic development and the myriad other requirements made routine in a world demanding more openness.

In Lebanon, we will acutely feel the repercussions of our surroundings. We will pay a price for breakdown in Iraq, as we will for Assad's efforts to cling to power and to punish us for our independence. We will pay for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' limitations, and for the Palestinians' desire to retain their weapons in Lebanon (didn't Sultan Abu al-Aynain, the Palestinian delegate to the Lebanese, say days ago that disarming the Palestinians meant disarming a "resistance," placing himself in the same trench as Hizbullah?). We will pay the price for Ahmadinejad's victory in Iran. We will pay the price for the compulsive distress of a Middle East that has become a headache to the world, because all it seems to generate with any consistency are angry young men and an uncanny resistance to amelioration.

Many of us will continue to dream of a liberal Arab world, because that's the only exit from a nightmare that has lasted for far too long. Iraq was to be the first step. But the plot is apparently much more complicated than anyone imagined, and the characters involved too mediocre. The region is heading toward a shipwreck: too few lookouts, too many icebergs.

We Must Not Take The Bait

Rami G. Khouri is editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.

By Rami G. Khouri

Following the two consecutive transit system attacks in London earlier this month, the deadly bombings in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on Saturday represent a particularly dangerous turn in what has become a global terror scourge. They must spark a qualitatively different, and more effective, political and police response than the ne that has prevailed to date in recent years.

It would be irresponsible, incompetent and morally vacuous leadership, verging on criminal negligence, for Egyptian, British, American or any other national leaders simply to say that security will be ensured, the terrorists will be beaten, we will go on with our lives and we will preserve our values.

Someone should tell the emperors that they are collectively wearing no clothes, and that continuing their policies will only perpetuate and exacerbate the global terror problem, rather than defeat it.

The Sharm el-Sheik bombings are particularly troubling, and politically significant, for several reasons. The most important one is that they affirm the depth, resiliency and determination of those terrorists who practice such savagery in the face of a very powerful and even more fierce and determined Arab state. The political iconography here is profound.

The Egyptian state has fought a ferocious battle against Islamist militants and terrorists since the early 1990s, and by the late 1990s had largely defeated them—but at a very high price. Thousands of suspects have been put in jail and remain there, and the fragile security achieved has brought with it the militarization of the state and its institutions. The almost absolute control of state and society has required the banning, neutralization or humiliating marginalization of all other possible civil political forces that could peacefully politically contest the ruling power of the combine of the armed forces and President Husni Mubarak's eternally incumbent National Democratic Party.

So now the ruling Egyptian elite is challenged by two home-grown forces at once. It is challenged peacefully by its own civil society and political opposition that have launched a growing campaign to retire Mubarak after his 24 years of rule. It is also challenged violently by a brazen, self-assertive new generation of Egyptian terrorists allied to Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, who now attack the symbols of the Egyptian state head-on. This is in-your-face terrorism, by small groups of men who are not afraid of one of the mightiest Arab states that has been unable to respond to the challenge through any means other than police force—which only generates more angry, humiliated young men who become terrorists.

Sharm el-Sheik is not just a sparkling Red Sea tourist resort. It is the icon of everything Egypt wants to be in the region and the world. Sharm el-Sheik is where Egypt routinely hosts Arab-Arab and Arab-Israeli summits, global anti-terror summits with American presidents and other Western leaders, and other emergency gatherings of very important people. It is the showcase of Egyptian modernity, foreign investment, tourism expansion, foreign currency earnings, sound planning, and, above all, strict security ensured by the state and its hundreds of thousands of armed soldiers and police.

The Taba bombings some months ago in the northern part of the same Sinai Peninsula triggered a significant increase in security in all Sinai, along with the jailing of hundreds of suspects. Yet the terrorists Saturday still challenged the Egyptian state in its crown jewel, and bombed it almost at will. Someone should please tell the great leaders of the mighty Arabs and the Free World that the moral depravity and criminality of this terror deed is fully matched by its political audacity and symbolism; to condemn the crime without grasping its political implications, and underlying causes, would be the height of amateurism by any political leader.

But this is what Blair, Bush, Mubarak and most other leaders seem to be doing, stressing motives of religious extremism, distorted education, social alienation, poverty, historical yearnings, psychological traumas, mystical impulses and cultural angst as the primary causal detonators of suicide ombers. The leaders do not sufficiently acknowledge the complex, cumulative political processes and legacies that drive ordinary young men to become suicidal terrorists. The path from common citizen to criminal bomber is paved primarily with the consequences of the policies of many Arab, Western, Israeli and other governments, and not primarily the frailties or inclinations of individual human beings.

The combination of the London and Sharm el-Sheik bombings in such close proximity to one another also highlights the dangerous new trend of terror groups and movements decentralizing and localizing all over the world, while simultaneously using more lethal techniques and materials. Harder to track down and eliminate, these neighborhood killers also are not afraid to directly challenge the great and powerful states that are their nemeses, such as the United States, England and Egypt, among others.

Sharm el-Sheik highlights all this in a frightening way.Gravely, we have probably now passed the tipping point in the business of producing or deterring terrorists: the policies of the United States, Britain and most Arab governments now are promoting and fostering more terrorists than they are killing, capturing or deterring. The American- and British-led global war on terror, with its purported fulcrum in Iraq, may have started to produce a new generation of skilled, wily and localized killers operating throughout the world. Including Saturday in Sharm el-Sheik.

Delayed Justice

Following is an editorial from the Jordan Times in Amman.

Fortunately the eight-day hunger strike by 10 inmates at Swaqa prison ended rather peacefully and just one day after 10 other inmates at the Qafqafa correctional and rehabilitation centre halted their 12-day strike.

The detainees at both prisons were protesting the unusual delay in their trials or the severity of their sentences. Some were convicted of state security-related crimes but their appeals remain pending, which means their convictions are not yet final.

There is a well-established legal principle accepted across the globe that justice delayed is justice denied. The National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR) has repeatedly protested this delay in the legal proceedings and reiterated this complaint in its recent annual report.

There is no denying that persons who threaten the security of the country and commit or plan to commit crimes against the state must be apprehended and brought to justice. Likewise for persons who commit common crimes. But detentions pending a court process cannot be indefinite.

The issue here therefore is not about taking state security seriously or taking certain administrative measures to prevent the commission of common crimes, but rather the speed with which the judicial process is being conducted and to what extent such detentions are made subject to judicial reviews.

Previous reports issued by the NCHR and other human rights monitoring groups operating in the Kingdom have consistently found many detainees kept in prisons for extended periods without ever being taken to court for trial according to the due process of the law. The incidence of administrative detention is frequent and this system of detention is not subject to judicial scrutiny. The government has acted in part against this form of detention in the past and called on governors to resort to this form of detention conservatively.

Under the Crime Prevention legislation, Ministry of Interior officials can detain people for an extended period of time for fear that a crime would be committed if they are set free.

While comprehending and appreciating the reasons behind administrative detentions, the detentions should be subject to judicial review and not left to local governors alone to set the standards for their application. Caseloads on the courts are on the rise. With that in mind the judicial reform process slated for the country may benefit from a system of differentiated case management, where each case is processed not on a first- come first-serve basis but rather in accordance with the timeframe and judicial system resources required. The system means cases are moved more expeditiously and court resources, including personnel, are utilised more efficiently.