Friday, July 28, 2006

Why Do They Support The Terrorists?

Analysis and Comments

Browsing through the internet, reading and watching the media, and talking to people, it is clear where the hearts of most Arab peoples are in the current situation in the Middle East: they are not with their own governments.It is also clear to me why this is so.

Why do the majority of Arabs on the street support, sympathize with, admire, and root for one group or another of what we call 'terrorists'? Why does the average Arab today go against the wishes of his unsavory rulers and supports unsavory organizations like Hizballah and Hamas, two groups that recently crossed international borders and kidnapped Israeli soldiers, thus bringing punishment raining on their own supporters?

In order to understand all this, let us start by looking at what they do not support:

Did you know that in the Persian Gulf monarchies the most important half of all cabinet positions are occupied by members of the ruling families? The government roster reads like a list of who’s who of Al-Something-or-the-other. The Arab on the street knows that.

Did you know that President Assad of Syria inherited the office from his father, who ruled for 25 years? Or that our ally President Saleh in Yemen, in power for 28 years, has just ‘consented’ to run again at the 'urging' of his people? And that he is assured to win? Did you know that our ally President Bin Ali of Tunisia has been in power for 20 years, ever since overthrowing his predecessor, with no end in sight? Did you know that our ally President Bouteflika of Algeria recently appointed a new prime minister whose plans for reform include allowing the president to run for an unlimited number of terms? The Arab on the street knows that.

Did you know that our ally President Mubarak of Egypt has been in power for 25 years? And that he refuses to appoint, or allow the election of, a vice president in case something happens to him (he is 78 years)? Or that the only man ever to run against him in an election is now in prison? Or that most Egyptians believe he is setting up his own son to inherit the presidency in the ensuing chaos? The Egyptian on the street knows all that.

Did you know that even in westernized Lebanon parties and political movements are inherited, where a Jumblatt has inherited the Druze Party and a Gemayel inherited the Falange Party, and a Hariri is seeking to inherit his father's supporters? Even the average poor Shi’a in Southern Beirut knows that.

Did you also know that Hizballah and Hamas, no matter how abhorrent some of their actions and absurd their goals, are organizations based on a system of meritocracy and not on a system of birthrights? That even in hostile and flawed and theocratic Iran, the main supporter of Hizballah and Hamas, the head of state is elected every four years and cannot serve more than two terms? The Arab on the street knows that too.

Did you know that Hamas rose in the shadow of a corrupt PLO elite that could not grow beyond their own rhetoric of the 1970s but plundered the foreign aid given to the Palestinian people, and that Hamas provided the basic services for the people in Gaza that the Arafat government would not? The average Palestinian knew that when he voted in Hamas.

Did you know that Hizballah grew popular in Lebanon not just because it successfully opposed the Israeli presence in the South, but mainly because it provided the needed health, education, and welfare services to the poor Shi'as- services that the government of elites in Beirut failed to provide?

Did you know that no Arab army or armed group in half a century has ever held Israel to a near-stalemate the way Hizballah seems to be doing up to now? Did you know that after spending hundreds of billions of dollars on arms purchases, and the consequent exorbitant commissions paid to members of the ruling families, not a single Arab government today is in a position to defend its territory against an external threat? The Arab on the street knows that.

Did you know that the average Arab is smart enough to know that his rulers are now mere helpless spectators, at best cheerleaders without the pompoms, to events forming the fate of the Middle East, his fate and that of his children? Did you know that the abilities of these Arab rulers to shape or influence regional events are taken much more seriously in Washington than by people in their own capitals? The average Arab also knows that Israeli leaders are elected and un-elected every few years, and he knows that the average Israeli Jew, and Israeli Arab, can speak his mind without fear?
Is it any wonder that the average Arab, the proverbial man on the street, feels contempt for his rulers and desperately looks toward these violent groups for something different, perhaps something that he can admire, at least something he cannot feel ashamed of?


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Selections from Arab Media Humor


Embarrassing But Telling:

A columnist on the Alarabiya TV website (July 27) suggested that Secretary of State Condi Rice could mellow her views toward the Middle East and Arabs if she fell in love with some country macho-type Arab, such as a fellah from Upper Egypt or a Syrian peasant. This column elicited a stream of comments in the Alarabiya forum, most of it of the racist type. Hopefully most 'thinking' Arabs do not participate in the forum.

On a similar level, well perhaps on a much lower level, a Fouad Al-Hashim, a portly columnist on the last page of the Kuwaiti conservative daily Al-Watan (July 28) commented on a picture of Secretary Rice standing next to the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzivi Lipni. He made a comparison between Condi Rice and the Israeli Foreign Minister, who is blonde and blue-eyed. He said that Secretary Rice looked like one of the Sri-Lankan (Ceylanese) indentured maids, ubiquitous in the Persian Gulf States, while the Israeli Minister looked like her mistress. The fact is, and to stoop close to his intellectual level, in most cases in the Gulf States it is hard to tell the maid from the mistress by complexion alone. I am not so certain about a comparison by intellect either in this case.

So much for the great intellectual minds that populate the Arab media. It is a good thing our leaders do not write newspaper columns.


Al-Qaida Upstaged in Lebanon, Inter-Arab Battle for Hearts and Minds

Middle East News Analysis

It looks like the Israeli soldier held in Gaza might be released soon, according to Abu Mazen, the PA president. Now if Hizballah sees the light and releases the two soldiers it holds, perhaps this will be a first step toward a settlement for the more complicated situation in Lebanon.

Now al-Qaida is feeling left out, the limelight stolen by Hizballah in Lebanon. So, out comes al-Zawahiri with a new tape vaguely urging solidarity with 'Moslems' in Lebanon and Palestine. That could mean anything, perhaps even fighting against Hizballah. Most likely, though, it only means that the organization felt left out lately. Rush Limbough had a funny interpretation (voice-over) of the Zawahiri tape on his radio show today.

According to Aljazeera TV, several Saudi wahhabi religious figures have issued fatwas banning any kind of material and moral support for Hizballah. This was not based on the any actions of Hizballah but, as stated by some, because it is a Shi'a organization. The Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, the largest Sunni political organization in the area, has rejected these fatwas.

Inter-Arab media war is raging over Lebanon, with Saudi-owned and Gulf states newspapers escalating their attacks against Hizballah. The most virulent anti-Hizballah press has been those from Saudi Arabia and, by extension Kuwait. There is more emphasis now on the role of Iran and hints of the ancient Persian-Arab divide. This has not been seen since 1980, when the same press was urging Saddam Hussein to start his first regional war against the Mullahs in Tehran. One right-wing Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Siyyassah, formerly strongly pro-Saddam, and closely tied to the ruling circles, has even called Hizballah an agent of the 'Forrs', using the Baathists' favorite old term for Iranians. The name evokes strong emotions toward the ancient Persian enemy among some Persian Gulf Arabs. Emotions of the kind that the term 'Juden' evoked in a mad Germany after 1933.

What is interesting is that the longer this war goes on, the harsher the Arab media attacks on Hizballah become. The harder the Israeli task in Lebanon looks, the more virulent the attacks become. The press in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-owned newspapers in London like al-Hayat and Asharq Alawsat, and some of the Kuwaiti press lead the way. Perhaps this is because the longest the war goes on, the more damage is done to the infrastructure of Lebanon. The other explanation is that the harder the Hizballah resistance, the more support it gets among the populations of Arab countries. People tend to forget the sectarian identity of Hizballah and its ties to the Mullahs in Iran. This comes at a time when the Arab power structure is frantically playing up the role of Iran in the whole affair, even as its own impotence in influencing events is becoming clearer by the day. Perhaps this is a natural result of legitimate worries about Iranian intentions, especially given the erratic statements of President AhmadiNejad.

Still, it looks like Hizballah will end up giving up its hold on the border area, perhaps with a potent multi-national force replacing it. Hizballah itself will remain strong, perhaps stronger than ever further north, closer to the capital Beirut. This will make the other warlords nervous, and it may not bode well for the Lebanese economy.


Monday, July 24, 2006

Are Lebanon and Iraq Related? Is Arab Political Reform as Dead Now As It Was Before Iraq?

News Analysis

What Links Iraq and Lebanon:
Positions on Lebanon and Iraq are beginning to converge somewhat. It is likely that the surprising reactions of some Arab governments to events in Lebanon is a price for changes in United States policy within Iraq. There is now a noticeable shift in neo-con’s positions on Iraq, as expressed by their pundits throughout the media, with more calls for accommodating the Sunnis. This used to be the position of prominent Democrats, deemed soft enough to be mushy by the same pundits only a few months ago. Meanwhile, the pattern of Sunni terror attacks and Shi’a retaliation is escalating in Baghdad and elsewhere, quite a shift for the worse from only a few weeks ago.

Is this a prelude to a rescue operation taking over in Baghdad, with new elections to be promised under new rules? With the blessings of the regional moneybags? There are interesting possibilities.

The Iraq War and the new war in Lebanon have killed the idea of a homogenous Arab Political System, a British creation to start with. This was long overdue. The system has been exposed to be as much of a fraud as the claims of Arab rulers to be representative. Yet this has now placed most of the Arab World clearly under the umbrella of a prospective Pax Americana as much as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been since 1991, which may in fact be more efficient than the old system. The cost, however, may be paid by the new and messy Iraqi democracy.

Arab Media War:
There is a propaganda war among some Arab countries and their media outlets now. While the pro-Hizballah press claims that Saudi Arabia is supplying Israel with fuel for its warplanes (e.g Alquds Alarabi), the Saudi-owned Alarabiya TV retaliates that American materiel is being flown to Israel from rival Qatar, home of the very popular Aljazeera TV as well as the U.S. Central Command in the region.

On the other hand, tensions in Lebanon had been festering even without the recent Israeli entry into the fray, ever since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s main man in Beirut. His son is working diligently to replace his late father, in true Arab and Lebanese fashion. He has been visiting the Persian Gulf region, and even got an audience at the White House.

The Lebanon War:
A long-frustrated Israel is now forced into playing the sectarian inter-Arab and inter-Lebanese card for all its worth. With the exception of parts of the public infrastructure that were hit early, the brunt of the bombings are being aimed at the Shi'a districts of Southern Beirut. This seems to have general acceptance from most Arab governments, especially the Persian Gulf states with large Shi'a populations. Many rival Lebanese factions will also gratefully accept this Israeli gift that might weaken a strong rival, even as they make loud protestations.

It still looks like an air and artillery war by the IDF will not achieve what Israel and her allies in the region want, elimination of Hizballah as a military force. This is why a massive land crossing is still a good bet. Unless there are unexpected huge changes in the political situation in Syria. Perhaps this is a possibility now, given the understandable reluctance of the Israeli army to enter Lebanon in depth and for a sustained period of time. Last time it did that, it ended up retreating unconditionally, under fire from the same Hizballah. This is why I think there must be a new factor, a surprise that would alter the old equation and make it unnecessary to enter Lebanon for an extended period of occupation. Something may be in the works, and I doubt that it has anything to do with the new/old position of the Cairo-Riyadh Axis.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Al-Qaida as Israel's Ally in Lebanon? New Arab Anti-Shi'a Alignment

Middle East News Analysis

Arab Realignment:
Reactions to the Lebanon Crisis indicate how much political developments in Iraq have started a strange realignment in the Middle East. It is essentially a realignment of governments, not necessarily of peoples. President Bush's Iraq 'experimment', or blunder as many outside the United States call it, has had the surprising effect of bringing many Arab regimes and Israel together. This process itself was probably inevitable, given the futility and failures of the successive Arab wars with Israel, and the increasingly stale flavor acquired by the old official argument that Arabs cannot have democracy until after the Palestine issue is resolved. This last argument is being dusted up again and recycled now by many Arab rulers as they bide their time and await the end of the Bush presidency and the possible ascendance of a more mellow Democratic administration. There seems to be no fear on that score, for the Bush administration itself now seems to have been worn out by the political wars of attrition waged by its major Arab allies against its now seemingly-abandoned calls for democracy.

The results of the Iraq elections, and the coming to power of the Shi'a (Shiite to some of you foreign ajnabis) majority have disturbed the power structure in the Arab Middle East. For the first time in modern history Shi'as have gained control of a major Arab country, and what makes it even mor ominous as well as painful for the power structure, they have done it through free elections of the kind never seen in the Arab World. Underscoring the unease is the worry that the parties in power in Iraq have good relations with Iran. That is of course true, if only because until recently Iran was the only regional destination that welcomed exiles from the Baathist gulag, while most Arab governments and their media at the time were hailing Saddam as the new Saladin- ironically, the original Saladin himself was a Kurd.

Which brings us to the current situation in Lebanon. Hizballah's blunder- it seems like a blunder as of this moment, unless Israel commits an even bigger blunder, something that it has done in Lebanon in the past- has given the Arab governments the excuse, the casus belli, if you will, they had been waiting for for the past year or two. It has divided the Arabs into two camps again, just like Saddam's invasion of Kuwait did in 1990/91. At that time the leaders were divided, with some supporting Saddam's position (such as Jordan, PLO, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria, Tunis) and the rest against it. This time most major Arab leaders are aligned against Hizballah and tacitly on the side of Israel. There is the probability of a rift appearing between some Arab populations and their governments, especially if the war continues beyond next week. And especially if Israel undertakes what look inevitable now, another land invasion of Lebanon.

The Saudi press, and the press in the Persian Gulf region, have gradually and gleefully escalated their criticism of Hizballah, and the organization is quite openly and almost exclusively blamed these days in these newspapers and in Saudi-owned satellite television stations and Saudi papers published in London like alHayat and Asharq Alawsat.

Where is Usama?
Conspicuously absent and silent is al-Qaeda, which clearly cannot bring itself to side with Hizballah, because it is a Shi'a organization. Tacitly and hopefully, al-Qaida is waiting for Israel to annihilate Hizballah. The hope is that al-Qaida can then step in to fill the void, especially among Lebanon's Sunni minority. In this, al-Qaida is on the same side as the governments of the Arab countries that are still its chief sources of finance and men. For once, it also has the same goal as these governments and Israel. Very interesting.

Funny Remark of the Week:
The Saudi Foreign Minister , Prince Saud al-Faisal, may have made an uncharacteristic faux pas when he recently criticized foreign interfernce and influences in Arab affairs. Do you suppose he meant all foreign influences and interference in all Arab countries?


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Arab Paralysis on Lebanon, Humor In Arab Politics, Hizballah Again

Middle East News Analysis

Saddam does Comedy Central

Arab-Jewish Humor:
On another light note, and I think we need some humor these days, the Saudi daily al-Riyadh, claims (July 18) that the Rabbinical Council (Council of Rabbis?) in the occupied West Bank has asked the Israeli government to allow the ‘killing of civilians, including children and women’. The Saudi newspaper claims that the Torah permits such killings during war. The paper reports that some organization or another of Moslem scholars has dutifully, perhaps gleefully, condemned all this.

Hizballah, Sunnis, and Joe Biden:
Mainstream Arab media, mostly state-0wned or controlled, are these days emphasizimg the fact that Hizballah is a Shi'a (Shiite) organization, with close ties to the mullahs in Iran, which is true. And all this time we thought it was just a regional branch of the DAR!
Some claim that it is an outright agent of Iran, which is perhaps an exaggeration. However, before this summer Hizballah was glorified in the Arab press, and always referred to as 'the Lebanese resistance', with no mention of the organization's name or its sectarian affiliations. Or its role as an agent of the mullahs. This new emphasis on sectarianism is probably part of a media war being waged for the minds and hearts of the Arab peoples (mostly Sunnis) between the moderate Arab regimes and the Iranian regime.

Some U.S. politicians have also put in their two cents in encouraging this dangerous sectarian divide. Senator Joe Biden, normally a level-headed man, yesterday openly stressed the need to get the "Sunni Arabs" to oppose Shi'a movements. The problem with this approach, besides the obvious, is that Arab regimes are helpless to do anything beyond issuing statements. They have all been suffering from the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome for years now, and they seem to like it that way.

In a noticeable shift, Sunni fundamentalist writers are now increasingly taking a pro-Hizballah stance, while Sunni secularist writers-there are a few of those- have criticized the foolishness of the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers.
Some have even strongly criticized the timing of the incident during the peak tourist season in Lebanon. So tell me again, when did you say it was okay to cross the border and kidnap two Israeli teenagers?

Egypt, Again:
Egypt's Mubarak repeated during a press interview that he has never chosen a Vice President because he does not want to impose a VP on the Egyptian people. Come again? What about imposing yourself for twenty five years and counting? Clearly he wants mayhem after he goes- if he intends to go wherever it is that Arab leaders and potentates go when they finally ride into the sunset. Most Arab leaders do not ride into the sunset. They do not ride anywhere- they usually have to be carried out of office, feet first. (I wonder if dyed hair changes color after.....after one is gone, I mean really gone). Most likely Old Husni (78 years) has a sneaky plan that the docile ruling party will choose his son as president.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Saddam as the new Arab spokesman? His take on the Lebanon War- Beirut Redux

Middle East News Analysis

Saddam Revived:

He is back with a new line!!! But what is his angle?
Saddam is now in the same boat as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states- and Israel!! And he speaks for all of the above. Saddam has stated to the Saudi-owned and London-based daily Ashaq Alawsat, through his lawyer, if the lawyer can be believed, that Syria should break up its alliance with Iran, that Iran is the enemy of Arabs and seeks to destroy them. Saddam also said, as qouted in Alarabiya yesterday, that, get this, Tehran is to blame for the current violence in the Middle East. He actually regrets all the violence, much of which he helped unleash over the years, with the Arab regimes cheering in the galleries!

For the first time since the good old days when the Persian Gulf States and Jordan were supporting him wholeheartedly in the war against Iran and in his domestic genocide, in the days just before he turned his unwanted attentions south, Saddam has now found common ground with their governments.

Perhaps he sees himself as a palatable alternative to the elected Iraqi government- he is known to have had a few delusions in the past. But then so had others in his region, and many of them fed his delusions in the past.
Perhaps it is a defense ploy. He is, after all, under the threat of a death sentence and execution by a government composed of his former Shi'a and Kurdish victims.

Lebanon: a flawed strategy?

Events in Lebanon have clearly split the Arab world again. I mean the people on the street, not the Arab governments. To the extent that Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi-owned), which usually has lively forums for comments on news items and the views expressed, yesterday sharply curtailed the forums, in some cases stopping them completely.

There is one serious problem now with the Israeli strategy in Lebanon. It clearly hopes to continue the fighting in order to severely weaken Hizballah and destroy its arsenal, and many Western and Arab governments clearly hope so as well. And, oddly, so does Saddam Hussein now (who would have thunk it). History, of course, tells us that a war cannot be won by airpower and offshore bombing alone. Besides, even a severely weakened Hizballah will probably remain the strongest military force in Lebanon. Unless amnesia sets in and substantial foreign forces are reintroduced, and that would probably be a foolish thing to do.

The problem with the current Israeli strategy is that it cannot last, for it could backfire if the war lasts too long, perhaps beyond the next two weeks. In that case, even supportive Arab governments (Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf States) will be forced by shifting public opinion to change their stands. There are already murmurs of discontent in some of the media, especially in the Gulf. New voices are being raised, some of them Islamist Fundamentalists, not all of them Shi'as, challenging the initial reactions. If we already hear these voices of dissent in a media largely controlled by the Arab regimes and their elite supporters, what is it really like on the streets of Arabia?

Of course, in the end it does not really matter what these states think. It makes no difference where it matters, on the ground. There are three real players in the Middle East now: America, Israel, and Iran, not necessarily in that order. Unfortunately most Arab rulers are usually mere observers to events in their own region- but they can make the appropriate noises.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Hizballah, Iraq, and The Shia Issue

Middle East News Analysis

Events in Lebanon have replaced Iraq on the front pages of the Middle East. While Arab opinion seemed almost unified about the initial crisis between Hamas and Israel, it is split on the Lebanese crisis and the Hizballah issue.

However, one must remember that the two issues, Iraq and Lebanon, are connected in many Arab minds, especially those in the Persian Gulf region, because both involve a Shi'a movement which could be labeled as either ascendant, assertive or aggressive, depending on one's point of view. The sectarian Shi'a-Sunni issue is not important outside the Gulf region, and most other Arabs, e.g. in the Palestinian areas and North/East Africa look at the broader Arab or Islamic identity of the combatants more than anything else. However, issues involving Shi'as are always considered in light of some domestic status quo in the Gulf region, and the political structure of the region is fragile enough to be affected by regional shifts. The issue of the governance of Iraq, and Iran and its perceived asspirations for hegemony, are also tied in many minds to the domestic sectarian issue (remember President Mubarak's ill-advised comments on the Shia's a few weeks ago?)

The battle around Gaza is looked on as part of an overall Palestinian-Israeli struggle, and many consider that as long as that issue was unresolved then, well, perhaps anything goes on that front. Lebanon has no territorial issues with Israel, not according to the United Nations. As important, at least, is that Lebanon has had another thing going for it: it was becoming prime real estate again to some Arabs, especially Gulf Arab investors. Many have been investing heavily in Lebanon, and it was returning as one favorite vacation spot away from the puritan and dry mores of the Peninsula. They would have been quite happy to let Hizballah have free rein down south, a state within a state, as long as the investment projects, vacation homes, and night spots around Beirut were left alone. The recent violence must have produced, in addition to frustrated and frightened tourists, some disappointed and worried investors. Worst, of course, is the fact that the violence has produced many Lebanese dead and wounded, as well as massive unemployment. It most likely has shattered investor confidence for the foreseeable future.

Hizballah certainly did itself some long-term harm by crossing international borders and kidnapping the Israeli soldiers. Whatever happens now, the previous status quo along the border will be unacceptable to the major powers. This means that at some point after the dust of battle settles Hizballah may lose its military supremacy in the South in one form or another. That has always been one goal of the Israeli strategists.

On the other hand, Hizballah is an indigenous and genuinely popular Lebanese movement. Unlike the PLO of the 1980s it cannot be uprooted from its Shi'a base in southern Lebanon and Beirut. In fact, removing its militias from the south will push them closer to the capital, and that prospect makes the other Lebanese warlords quite nervous because it will threaten to undo the balance of political power that has existed since the end of the civil war. I suspect that many influential politicians would have preferred for Hizballah to remain far away in the south, so long as it did not provoke the Israelis to the serious extent that it has recently.

Still, if Secretary Rice goes to the Middle East, then the region expects some results. The Arabs on the street, and many Arabs off-the-street- i.e. those who should know better- are schizophrenic when it comes to the United States. On the one hand many think it is helplessly stuck and being bloodied in Iraq, and Afghanistan, yet on the other hand, they think it has the power to stop any war in the region. If the Secretary goes to the region soon, she will face the challenge of producing at least a cease fire. Perhaps not too soon, but at some point before returning to Washington.

As for the President's open-mike comment to Tony Yea-Blair in St Petersburg, so what, as Madeline Albright wisely said yesterday: IT happens.

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