Sunday, January 01, 2006

A mixed year for a valiant Arab people

By Rami G. Khouri

A look back at eventful 2005 in the Middle East shows three broad and significant developments in historical terms, related to the citizen, the state and the foreign powers that intervened in the region. Important changes are underway at all three of these levels of identity discernable today, though we need not predict where they will lead.

The most positive development has seen the citizen in many Arab countries start to rebel against the many indignities and inequities that he or she has endured in silence for decades - mostly variations of abuse of power by unelected, unaccountable elites from their own country or abroad. In Lebanon and Palestine, large-scale popular resistance and opposition were expressed, respectively, to Syrian domination and Israeli occupation.The citizenry's rebellion in other Arab lands primarily took the form of small vanguard groups of democratic activists who openly but peacefully challenged the state's monopoly on power (in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Morocco), or mainstream Islamist parties that challenged the ruling elite through democratic elections to Parliament or to local councils (in Palestine, Egypt, or Lebanon).

Changes at the level of states were largely negative this year, the most troubling one being the continued fragmentation of 20th-century sovereign Arab states into much more brittle collections of ethnic, religious and tribal groups. The most common new trend I encountered throughout the 12 different Arab countries I visited this year - without exception - was the tendency to analyze each country in tribal rather than national terms. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and most other Arab lands are now routinely seen through the prism of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Alawites, Druze, Palestinians, Darfurians, Turkmen, and assorted Christian groups such as Maronites, Copts or Greek Orthodox.

The Arab state is in the midst of being fractured, retribalized and redefined into much smaller configurations. Three principal causes of this process would seem to be: the largely incompetent, often brutal rule practiced by the reining Sunni Arab-dominated power elites during the past half century, a clear Israeli penchant for weakening Arab states and promoting the emergence of smaller, weaker minorities with whom it can engage to its advantage (as it has done for years with Kurds in Iraq and some right-wing groups in Lebanon), and, the current American formalization of ethnic politics in Iraq as a possible model for the entire region.

This leads to the third important trend that has defined the Middle East this year, but without clear indications of whether the end results will be positive or negative for the people of the region. This is the stepped up international direct engagement in the internal affairs of countries, including Arab states, Iran and Turkey. (Sorry, a small but necessary aside: peculiarly, and running against the dominant trend, foreign intervention tends to vanish when it comes to intervening in the policies and conduct of the Israeli government, even when Israeli actions are explicitly and repeatedly condemned by the international community through respectable institutions such as the World Court and the United Nations Security Council. A thought for the cold months of early 2006: if freedom and democracy are universal values, and should be spread around the world by diplomatic muscle and occasional force, if necessary, does the same apply to the rule of law, and the state of Israel?).

The enduring exception of Israel aside, the international community's intervention inside the Middle East this year has been striking for its audacity, but imprecise in its legitimacy and consequences. I would identify four dominant patterns of such intervention.

The first was the essentially unilateral American brute use of force, with window-dressing hangers-on, as happened in Iraq. We will need more time to discover if this epic intervention proves to be valiant or catastrophic for the people of Iraq and the region. The second was the multilateral, diplomatic, patient, focused, consensus-driven UN Security Council-based approach used in Lebanon to pressure Syria after the murder of Rafik Hariri last February. A variation on this deliberate approach is also being used to engage Iran on its nuclear plans.

The third form of foreign intervention was the painstaking, step-by-step prodding of domestic institutional and legal reforms of Arab societies championed by the European Union since 1995, and more recently in a slightly more inept form by the U.S.-dominated G-8 group of industrial nations. Gains have been thin to date. The fourth, and most intriguing, intervention technique, also dominated by the U.S., was the pressure exerted on individual countries over specific issues, using a combination of public statements by American senior officials and private warnings and cajoling. The best examples of this were the quests to push forward electoral reform and expanded voting in Egypt and Kuwait. Activists in both countries say privately that Washington's pressure played an important role in pushing these two Arab systems to evolve somewhat.

The cumulative lesson from this year's three political trends, it seems, is that under certain conditions there is indeed a middle ground where Arabs and Westerners can meet and work together for common political goals. Indigenous Arab

activists and those behind external diplomatic efforts can fortify each other if they jointly define a common set of goals that respond to reasonable demands on both sides; and if they anchor the entire process of change in legal and political legitimacy, whether in the UN, in international law, or in negotiated accords.

My hunch is that the good trends of the past year, including citizen activism and small steps to democracy, tend to result from sensible cooperation between Arabs and Westerners; conversely, the bad news from Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and aspects of the Lebanese situation usually reflects the consequences of unilateralism, gangsterism, and militarism. Why Israel consistently gets a free ride from all this remains more than intriguing; it often also drives some of the resentment that translates into extremism and violence throughout this region. Some grad student in Belgium should look into this for us this year.

Happy New Year to all, especially to my fellow average Arab citizens, whose stoicism, heroism and impregnable humanity remain the defining characteristic of these troubled but valiant lands.

This aticle appeared in the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is reprinted with permission. Rami Khouri's work is distributed by Agence Global.


By William Fisher

Amidst undenied charges that the Pentagon is paying Iraqi journalists to write “good news” stories about the country’s progress, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has announced a new international exchange program for journalists named for famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and emphasizing “the democratic principles that guided Mr. Murrow's practice of his craft: integrity and ethics and courage and social responsibility”.

Rice added, “We all know that the bedrock pillar of a free society is a free press and that it is crucial for the foundation of any democracy.”

The new initiative -- The Edward R. Murrow Journalism Program -- is a partnership of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the non-partisan Aspen Institute, and the journalism schools of six American universities. It will invite up to 100 international media professionals to visit leading journalism schools in the U.S., “honing their skills, sharing ideas, and gaining first-hand understanding of American society and democratic institutions,” the Institute said.

The goal, it said, “is not only to inform the journalists about the United States, but also to promote journalistic freedom and excellence around the world.”

Edward R. Murrow is best known for his radio reporting from London during World War Two, and later for exposing on television the demagoguery of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose communist-hunting in the 1950s led to his censure by the senate.

Unveiling the program, Secretary Rice said, “The Department of State is determined to forge partnerships with our private sector so that Americans of all stripes, all traditions, all ethnic groups and also all walks of life might be able to help to carry the story of democratic progress and the progress of liberty.”

Announcement of the new program was strangely juxtaposed with the furor surrounding recent disclosures that the Pentagon hired a contractor, a PR firm called The Lincoln Group, to pay Iraqi journalists to publish articles written by the U.S. military that put a positive spin on developments in Iraq. The published articles do not identify the U.S. military as the source.

Earlier this week, The Washington Post newspaper reported that U.S. Marines, frustrated by the coverage they were receiving from the mainstream news media, had invited a retired soldier who writes a weblog, or blog, about the military to travel to Iraq to cover the war from the front lines.

The blogger, Bill Roggio, a computer technician from New Jersey, raised more than $30,000 from his online readers to pay for airfare, technical equipment and body armor. A few weeks later, he was posting dispatches from a remote outpost in western Anbar province, a hotbed of Iraq's insurgency.

Roggio told the Washington Post in an email, "I was disenchanted with the
reporting on the war in Iraq and the greater war on terror and felt there
was much to the conflict that was missed." Roggio, who is currently stationed
with Marines along the Syrian border, said, “What is often seen as an attempt at balanced reporting results in underreporting of the military's success and strategy and an overemphasis on the strategically minor success of the jihadists
or insurgents."

After military officials in Baghdad said Roggio could not be issued media credentials unless he was affiliated with an organization, the American
Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization in
Washington, offered him an affiliation. His weblog is called "The Fourth Rail" (

At the same time, The Post disclosed that the U.S. military has paid to place favorable coverage on television stations in three Iraqi cities, according to an Army spokesman.

The military, he told the newspaper, has given one of the stations about $35,000 in equipment, is building a new facility for $300,000 and pays $600 a week for a weekly program that focuses positively on U.S. efforts in Iraq.

The Post said a local U.S. Army National Guard commander “acknowledged that his officers ‘suggest’ stories to the station and review the content of the program in a weekly meeting before it is aired. Though the commander, a lieutenant colonel whose name is being withheld because he is based in the same area, denied that payments were made to the station, the Iraqi television producer said his staff got $1,000 a month from the military. It does not disclose any financial
relationship to viewers.” There was no explanation of the discrepancy between
that amount and the figure of $600 per week, the Post added.

The State Department’s new international journalism program may have to confront the same issue. Geoffrey Cowan of the University of Southern California (USC) said, “Democracy cannot work without the free flow of information and ideas that is made possible through an independent and effective press.” He said, “All of our schools expect the international journalists to learn from our courses — and we all expect our students to learn from our visitors.”

In addition to USC, the journalism schools involved in the new program are the University of Kentucky, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Texas at Austin.

As part of the Murrow program, the Institute is planning a major symposium in April featuring prominent working reporters, commentators, editors and columnists discussing practical and ethical issues inherent in the journalistic process. It will also include key government spokespeople, who will discuss the relationship between media and government. Among the themes of the symposium will be the importance of diversity of opinion, an informed public, and challenges facing journalists around the world.

But one observer sees the Iraq “payola” issue and the new Murrow program as “an example of the difference between democracy in theory and practice.” Prof. Beau Grosscup of the University of California at Chico, told IPS, “The same people who set up a program to promote 'independent journalism' are the same folks who defend funding public relations firms, conservative think tank connected jingoist individuals and embedded journalists as 'independent' media. It's all about public relations and media control. Joesph Goebbels would be proud.”

Numerous opinion polls in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East have reported that people are skeptical of U.S. motives and tactics because of what they perceive is a discrepancy between what America says and what it does. The juxtaposition of Pentagon payola and journalism training in ethics and freedom of expression is likely only to muddy the water further.