* Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post: What’s sensational about the leaked documents is the way they are being marketed by Al-Jazeera and The Guardian, and these news organizations’ “gross distortions” of the truth. The leak of the documents seems motivated by a desire to bury the already moribund peace process.
* Now, thanks to Al-Jazeera and The Guardian, Palestinian leaders will have to retreat even further from compromise.
* Aaron David Miller: Can the Mideast peace process survive the release of secret Palestinian papers?
* Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, has suggested that Jan. 23, 2011, be marked as the day “the two-state solution died.”
* Elliott Abrams: As events in Lebanon and elsewhere show, the influence of the United States in the Middle East is declining while that of Iran is rising.
* David Pryce-Jones: “Tunisia is a copybook example of the structural fault of dictatorships, namely that change is impossible without violence. The system of one-man rule has a horrible self-perpetuating vitality, and whoever can devise a peaceful way to be rid of it deserves the Nobel Prize.”
* Lee Smith: “There is a reason why a famous Arab dictum has it that 100 years of tyranny is preferable to one day of chaos. It is meant to remind us of the nature of man, the political animal, who cannot foresee the consequences of his actions.”
1. In a land of conspiracy theories, it’s the perception that counts
2. A day in the life of The Guardian
3. “The selling of the ‘Palestine Papers’” (By Jackson Diehl, Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2011)
4. “Death by a thousand leaks” (By Aaron David Miller, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 2011)
5. “Will leaks end Mideast peace process?” (By David Frum, CNN, Jan. 24, 2011)
6. “The ‘Resistance’ in Lebanon” (By Elliott Abrams, Pressure Points, Jan. 25, 2011)
7. “Tunisia, put in perspective” (By David Pryce-Jones, National Review, Jan. 19, 2011)
8. “False Accounting” (By Lee Smith, Tablet magazine, Jan 19, 2011)
IN A LAND OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES, IT’S THE PERCEPTION THAT COUNTS
[Note by Tom Gross]
I attach six articles dealing with ongoing events in the Middle East, namely the release of the so-called “Palestine papers,” the revolution in Tunisia, and current unrest in Egypt and Lebanon.
It should be noted that many respected Mideast experts have serious doubts about the authenticity of The Guardian and Al-Jazeera’s leaked “Palestine papers”, and some have suggested that the media may be being fooled in the same way they were in various notorious cases in the past. For example, Prof. Barry Rubin says it reminds him of the way major news media were taken in by the forged Hitler Diaries in the 1980s. He points out that people should bear in mind that Palestinian propagandists have fooled the Western media many times in the past (the Jenin massacre, the Gaza beach massacre that wasn’t, the case of Muhammad al-Dura, and so on).
But even if the “Palestine Papers” are in whole or part a forgery, it may not matter. What matters on the so-called “Arab street” are perceptions of truth, and it seems many believe these documents to be authentic.
Some may find amusing Al-Jazeera’s video reenactment of the negotiations, using actors to play Palestinians and Israelis, including former Israeli foreign minister (and now opposition leader) Tzipi Livni:
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE GUARDIAN
Yesterday, The Guardian (international edition) devoted 80 percent of its front page and ALL of pages 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 to the “Palestine Papers”. This was then followed by a comment piece on the subject which dominated Page 24, a cartoon mocking Palestinian moderate leaders which took up almost half of Page 25, a top-of-the page editorial (for the second day in a row) critiquing Israel and moderate Palestinians on Page 26, and letters on the subject taking up almost half the letters page on Page 27.
The articles were full of spin and misinformation of every kind (and were accompanied by huge out-of-date photos completely distorting what Palestinian life is like today). No doubt all this will give solace to Hamas and other opponents of a two-state solution and of Middle East peace. (Guardian readers yesterday would hardly have known that there had been a huge suicide bomb attack in Moscow airport the day before in which a British man was among the 34 dead.)
While The Guardian may not be everyone’s first morning read in Britain, it is overwhelmingly the paper of choice for educators and BBC news staff. It therefore has influence far beyond its immediate readership, since academics and BBC News correspondents and anchors often gullibly repeat The Guardian’s spin.
Even a leading Washington Post editor yesterday noted The Guardian’s “gross distortions” of the truth.
Today, The Guardian gives a prominent platform on its comment page to a representative of Hamas – the militant, suicide bomb-supporting organization whose charter incorporates the anti-Semitic lies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and which aims to roll back any advances for women, and to do away with homosexuals, Jews and Palestinian Christians.
All the writers of the six pieces below – Washington Post deputy comment editor Jackson Diehl, former Clinton and Bush administration Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, CNN contributor and former U.S. presidential speechwriter David Frum, former Deputy U.S. National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, leading British author and Mideast expert David Pryce-Jones, and American writer Lee Smith – are subscribers to this email list.
-- Tom Gross
NOW, THANKS TO AL JAZEERA AND THE GUARDIAN, PALESTINIAN LEADERS WILL HAVE TO RETREAT EVEN FURTHER FROM COMPROMISE
The selling of the ‘Palestine Papers’
By Jackson Diehl
The Washington Post
January 25, 2011
Anyone familiar with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the last decade will find nothing surprising about the supposed revelations in the “Palestine papers” published this week by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Since at least the time of the 2000 Camp David talks brokered by President Bill Clinton, Palestinian leaders have accepted that Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will be annexed by Israel in a two-state settlement, and that only a handful of Palestinian refugees will “return” to the Jewish state – the leading “news” reported so far.
What’s sensational about the leaked documents, which appear to come from advisors to the Palestinian negotiating team, is the way they are being marketed by the two news organizations – and how Palestinians are reacting to them. According to Al Jazeera, the negotiating positions on Jerusalem and refugees are shocking betrayals of the Palestinian cause, if not the Arab world as a whole. For the Guardian, they demonstrate the intransigence and the perfidy of Israel and the United States – for supposedly failing to embrace such far-reaching concessions.
“PA selling short the refugees,” Al Jazeera announced Tuesday on its English-language website, referring to the Palestinian authority of Mahmoud Abbas. “Barack Obama lifts then crushes Palestinian peace hopes,” proclaimed The Guardian.
These are gross distortions. Not only have the reported Palestinian compromise positions been widely (if quietly) accepted by Arab governments, they were broadcast years ago in the Geneva Accord, a model agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that was endorsed by Abbas, among others. Israel, for its part, responded with far-reaching compromises of its own: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a Palestinian state with sovereignty over Jerusalem and all but six percent of The West Bank. It was Abbas, not Olmert, who refused to go forward during those 2008 talks.
The leak of the documents seems motivated by a desire to bury the already moribund peace process. “Al Jazeera is trying to destroy Abbas, and the Guardian wants to get Netanyahu,” an Israeli official observes. They may well succeed, at least in the case of the aging and weak Palestinian president. Palestinian negotiators have felt obliged to deny and repudiate the reported concessions, even as they are denounced by their hard-line rivals in the Hamas movement.
Of course, the Palestinians helped to create their predicament. For years they have systematically failed to prepare their public opinion for the concessions that will have to be part of any two-state settlement. Is it really conceivable that Israel would or could tear down East Jerusalem neighborhoods where 190,000 of its citizens now live, or allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to move inside its pre-1967 borders? No one seriously engaged in Middle East diplomacy – American, Arab or European – thinks so. But that has never been explained to most Palestinians.
In fact, Abbas and his Palestinian team are currently refusing to negotiate with Netanyahu in part because he has refused to freeze construction in East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods – the same neighborhoods that the Palestinians have agreed that Israel will keep.
The sad irony is that if the Palestinian papers reveal anything, it is the yawning gap that continues to exist between the most generous Israeli and Palestinian offers. While accepting the inevitability of Israeli annexation in Jerusalem, the Palestinians are shown to reject the transfer to Israel of several of the largest West Bank settlements – including Maale Adumin, a development that Abbas conceded to Israel in the Geneva Initiative. As a simple matter of practicality, it’s difficult to imagine Israel evacuating a town that lies just outside Jerusalem and contains 35,000 people.
Abbas’s number for returning refugees – 100,000 over ten years – was ten times higher than that of Olmert. Meanwhile both Netanyahu and principal Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni oppose any return of refugees.
Now, thanks to Al Jazeera and the Guardian, Palestinians are retreating even from their not-good-enough ideas. Far from coming under pressure to make new concessions, Netanyahu and his right-wing government can relax in the knowledge that the peace process is going backward. Leaks of documents are supposed to provide clarity. The Palestine papers have merely muddied the diplomatic waters.
“SOMEBODY UP THERE MUST REALLY HATE THE ARAB-ISRAELI PEACE PROCESS”
Death by a thousand leaks
Can the Mideast peace process survive the release of secret Palestinian papers?
By Aaron David Miller
Los Angeles Times (Op-Ed page)
January 26, 2011
Somebody up there must really hate the Arab-Israeli peace process. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, that the odds against serious negotiations couldn’t get any longer and the hope for a two-state solution couldn’t be more forlorn, we now have the Palestinian version of WikiLeaks.
The documents obtained and released this week by Al Jazeera – assuming their authenticity – don’t mean the end of the peace process (that never ends). But the revelations are deeply embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority and will put a chill on pragmatism and creativity for a while. More important, the episode reflects some serious underlying problems with the negotiating process, which will make quick or easy progress unlikely anytime soon.
First, a little reality therapy. Anyone who has seriously followed the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for at least the last decade would not have been surprised by the positions ascribed to the Palestinians: willingness to recognize Israeli sovereignty over disputed neighborhoods/settlements in East Jerusalem; territorial swaps; limits on the number of returning refugees. They have been in the public domain in one form or another since the Camp David summit of July 2000.
Revealing them in “official documents” clearly puts them in a different light. But anybody who has been really paying attention would never conclude that the Palestinian Authority’s negotiators suddenly decided to sell out the Palestinian patrimony or betray Palestinian national aspirations. The Palestinian positions contained in these documents constitute the public parameters within which mainstream Israelis, Palestinians and American negotiators have been operating.
Then there is the question of what these positions really represent. At no point in the last 10 years have Israelis and Palestinians been close to an agreement. The documents reflect a particularly fertile period of exchanges between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But no agreement was reached, nor were any authoritative conclusions that bound either Israel or the Palestinian Authority, or for that matter the United States.
Indeed, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators live and die by the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” rule. That enables a negotiator to probe, offer up all kinds of positions and trial balloons, and to look for flexibility by demonstrating your own. All of this can occur without committing yourself to positions locked into concrete. Nobody was selling the farm or giving away the store. They were negotiating.
The timing of the leaks also has to be considered in judging the reaction to them. Had these leaks occurred when the situation was more hopeful, it would have been much less of a story. If Israelis and Palestinians were closer to announcing agreement that East Jerusalem would be the capital of the new Palestinian state, for example, the fact that Palestinians had agreed to allow the Israelis sovereignty over certain areas would have been far less controversial. Despair and hopelessness fills the air these days, and the leakers took advantage of that.
Unfortunately, we live in a world – and not just in the dysfunctional Middle East – in which perception is reality. These documents – and any that follow, particularly if they highlight anything that looks like collusion between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – will damage Abbas’ credibility and buck up his internal opposition and Hamas.
The leaks also point out several serious problems in the negotiations.
First, there’s no doubt that the gap is large between what Palestinian Authority negotiators purportedly were offering and what is acceptable on the Palestinian street and according to its narrative. The differences are not only between Israel and the Palestinian Authority but among Palestinians. The fact that the Palestinians today are like Noah’s Ark, with two of everything – two polities (Gaza and the West Bank), two security services, two sets of funders – is part of the problem. But the main issue is that neither the Palestinian Authority nor the government of Israel has done nearly enough to condition their respective publics about the tough choices that need to be made if an agreement is to be reached.
Second, this isn’t just a Palestinian story. The documents don’t really reveal much about the Israeli positions on core issues. We know that Olmert was prepared to go further than any of his predecessors on all of these issues. But the storyline that is left is that the Israelis offered nothing in return on the key issues. And the logic of the moment would seem to argue: If the Palestinians were so flexible, why didn’t you grab the deal? You really do have a Palestinian partner. As harmful as these leaks are to Palestinians, the Israelis don’t look very good either.
Finally, these revelations are bound to have a chilling effect on a process already in the deep freeze. Palestinians will be looking over their shoulder before they risk additional creative, clever or pragmatic compromises. And the Obama administration is going to have an even tougher time extracting much flexibility from either side.
An Israeli negotiator once told me that you could be dead, or dead and buried. The peace process is just dead. It will be back with another life, but the complications in the wake of these leaks don’t suggest a lot of confidence that that life will be a long or robust one.
FROM THE OUTSIDE, THIS PALESTINIAN BEHAVIOR LOOKS UTTERLY IRRATIONAL
Will leaks end Mideast peace process?
By David Frum, CNN Contributor
January 24, 2011
Washington (CNN) -- It’s being called a Palestinian Wikileaks: a dump of 1,600 Palestinian Authority documents to Al-Jazeera and the British newspaper The Guardian.
The first releases reveal Palestinian negotiating concessions. Later releases will (the Guardian claims) detail the extent of Israeli-Palestinian Authority security cooperation.
In the words of a Guardian columnist today:
“Who will be most damaged by this extraordinary glimpse into the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Perhaps the first casualty will be Palestinian national pride, their collective sense of dignity in adversity badly wounded by the papers revealed today.
“Many on the Palestinian streets will recoil to read not just the concessions offered by their representatives – starting with the yielding of those parts of East Jerusalem settled by Israeli Jews – but the language in which those concessions were made.”
More bluntly, Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, has suggested that January 23, 2011, be marked as the day “the two-state solution died.”
Yet very arguably, the real news about the documents is that there is no news.
Former Palestinian Liberation Organization representative Karma Nabulsi writes on the Guardian’s website, “had such deals eventually come to light, Palestinians would have rejected them comprehensively.” Nabulsi is almost certainly correct, and that is the tragedy of the story.
When American officials think about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, they see a simple solution:
Divide the country along the 1967 armistice lines. The Palestinians get the West Bank and Gaza. Israel gets Israel. Jerusalem is shared somehow. The Palestinian state is disarmed, so that Israel gets security. The international community is mobilized, so that the Palestinians get money.
That rough sketch leaves aside many important technical details – water rights, for example – but basically, it’s the answer that every American president since Jimmy Carter has carried in his head.
This answer seems so compelling to Americans that you’ll often hear U.S. experts on the issue say, “Everybody knows what the answer has to be.”
“Everybody knows”? Not so fast.
The Palestinian leaks show the Palestinian Authority leadership trying to work their way to the answer that “everybody knows.”
But the secrecy surrounding the documents – and the reaction to the leak – confirms the Israelis’ worst fear: The Palestinian population does not, in fact, “know” what “everybody knows.” And a Palestinian leadership that did “know” what “everybody knows” is now being reviled by its own population as traitors and sell-outs.
What, after all, are the big, shameful concessions contained in the documents? Where are the wounds to Palestinian national pride?
• The documents as reported demand Palestinian sovereignty over almost all of historic Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.
• The documents demand Palestinian control of lands equal in territory to the 1967 lands. Any border adjustment to reflect Israeli settlement activity would have to be balanced by an equivalent surrender of Israeli land to the new Palestinian state.
• Even after the Palestinians get their state on the other side of the 1967 line, the documents demand some kind of recognition of a Palestinian right to “return” to the Israeli side of the line. At one point, the documents suggest that the Israelis be required to resettle 100,000 Palestinians inside Israel.
If these ideas had been accepted as the basis of a final treaty between Israel and Palestine, every Middle East expert in Washington would have agreed that the Palestinians had done very, very, very well for themselves.
And yet, it never happened. It did not happen in very large part for exactly the reason now confessed by angry Palestinians themselves: because the actual demands of the Palestinian population are so much greater than any diplomat can gain.
Americans tend not to take very seriously the idea of a Palestinian “right of return”: a right to move back to Israel even after the creation of a Palestinian state. Americans think, once you have your own state, how are you entitled to the other guy’s state, too?
Yet it turns out that this claim that seems so outrageous to many Americans is indispensable to Palestinians and their supporters in the Middle East.
Likewise, Americans tend to assume that any deal should include Jewish sovereignty over the Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem. Yet this too seems radically unacceptable to Palestinians and their supporters, who envision Palestinian control over almost all of historic and spiritual Jerusalem.
The leaked documents take large steps toward recognizing reality as Americans see it. Yet these steps had to remain a desperately guarded secret for exactly the reason we are seeing now: If a Palestinian leadership publicly admits what “everybody admits,” that Palestinian leadership will be discredited and repudiated.
Yasser Arafat believed that his people would not accept peace on such terms, which is why Arafat refused to sign a similar peace in 2000: He said it would be signing his death warrant. That refusal triggered another war, the Second Intifada of 2000-03, which ended in disastrous Palestinian defeat.
Yet even after that loss, dissident politicians within the Palestinian leadership believe that their people still will not accept peace on the terms “everybody knows,” which is why one of those politicians leaked these documents. That politician expects that disclosure will destroy the current Palestinian leadership and open the way for new leaders who will continue the long war for the old hopeless goals.
From the outside, this Palestinian behavior looks utterly irrational. You can’t always get the deal you want. Still, some deal is better – you’d think – than no deal at all. And there is no deal that will give the Palestinians the things their leaders promise them. Palestinians will not be returning to Israel. Palestinians will not be getting the Western Wall. The suburbs built around Jerusalem will not be unbuilt. The deal on offer in 2020 will be worse than the deal on offer in 2010. Why not end the conflict today?
There are deep and long answers to that question. But there is also a short and simple answer, in which we are all implicated:
The conflict is not being ended because the outside world supports and subsidizes the conflict. Palestinians who have lived in Lebanon since 1949 are not Lebanese. Ditto Palestinians who have lived in Syria or Jordan. They receive international aid on the condition that they remain refugees forever. They command attention only to the extent that they do not relinquish their grievances. Everywhere else on the planet, the world community insists that wars must end. This one war is the war that the international community pays to continue.
And when – at long last! – some Palestinian leaders take the tentative steps toward peace on more realistic terms, they must do so in desperate secret. They know what would happen if the deal ever emerged into view. They’d lose their public. As has happened.
When people say that the Middle East peace process is all process, no peace, here is why: because it is only so long that the process reaches no result that the people in charge of the process on the Palestinian side can remain in charge.
(CNN disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.)
SWORD & CRESCENT UP, STARS & STRIPES DOWN
The “Resistance” in Lebanon
The influence of the United States in the Middle East is declining while that of Iran is rising.
By Elliott Abrams
Pressure Points Blog (Council on Foreign Relations)
January 25, 2011
The influence of the United States in the Middle East is declining while that of Iran is rising. That’s the meaning of events in Lebanon, where Hizbullah has in essence thrown Prime Minister Saad Hariri from office and is about to choose his successor. Under Lebanon’s constitution, the prime minister must be a Sunni. But Najib Mikati, the Hizbullah designee, is a Sunni who will owe his office not to support in the Sunni community but to Hizbullah’s decision to make him PM. Hizbullah now has the votes in parliament to put him in, and of course to throw him out should he cross them.
Mikati will be a competent official; he’s a talented man and a hugely successful businessman. That’s not the point. He has close ties to Syria and Hizbullah, and it is clear which side is in power in Lebanon.
One can argue that this outcome has been inevitable since May 2008, when Hizbullah sent its forces into the streets of Beirut to show that it could and would use its army against non-Shiite Lebanese–and the United States, France, the Saudis and other supporters of an independent Lebanon did nothing. But that’s three years ago and only now has Hizbullah defied the rest of the Lebanese population and demanded that it name the Sunni who will lead the government. This reflects the continuing reduction in American sway in the region, and especially the “engagement” with Syria. The last straw may have been the decision to send an ambassador to Syria by recess appointment despite the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm the Administration’s candidate. That foolish gesture must have indicated to the Syrians and to Hizbullah that the Administration had learned nothing from two years of insults and rebuffs by Damascus.
What now? Beyond the speeches, two issues arise. The first is how Lebanon’s Christians and Sunnis will conduct themselves (the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has thrown in with Hizbullah). Will they keep up a political resistance to Hizbullah and to its hand-picked prime minister, with votes in parliament, demonstrations, and requests for international support? Will they, for example, ask the Obama Administration and the Government of France, and indeed the Arab League, to refuse to receive Mikati, and try to make it impossible for him to keep his poisoned office? Second, will the United States make it clear that a Hizbullah-governed Lebanon cannot be our partner?
Hizbullah’s power grab is a consequential event for the Middle East. Hizbullah claims that it is the “Resistance” but that mantle now moves to the other side, the March 14 movement that has won Lebanon’s recent elections. The key questions now are whether they will resist, and whether we will back them.
TUNISIA, THE FIRST ARAB COUNTRY WITH CONSTITUTIONAL RULE
Tunisia, Put in Perspective
By David Pryce-Jones
The National Review
January 19, 2011
The Tunisian revolution has raised expectations throughout the Arab and Muslim world. It takes courage to come out in those police states and welcome the demonstrations that have overthrown the Tunisian ex-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Commentators in the media are expressing hopes that other Arab and Muslim countries will follow this example, and democracy will be the happy outcome. A sense of déjà vu, however, is in order.
To start with a historical footnote: As far back as 1860, a remarkable man, Khayr Ed-Din, tried to make Tunisia the first Arab country with constitutional rule. Perceived as transplanting alien and unwanted European ideas into a Muslim society, he was removed from power and went into exile. His experimental modernizing left no trace and might as well not have happened.
Dictatorship imposes narrow patterns of behavior. Ben Ali had no inclination for European ideas. Tunisia was there for him and his family to control and plunder. Prisons were full. Hundreds of thousands of the best educated Tunisians were in exile. When protesters finally could endure no more and took to the streets, he had a simple choice: either to order his security forces to start a massacre as Saddam Hussein had done with the Shia after the first Gulf War; or go into exile like the Shah of Iran. Had he been younger than 74, Ben Ali might well have decided to shoot it out, but he had got what he wanted out of life and in any case sweetened exile by stealing a ton and a half of gold. Saddam had stolen on a similarly extravagant scale, and trucks filled with dollars were intercepted on Iraqi roads.
After the downfall of the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini remade the state of Iran to suit himself, and in the traditional fashion he and his successors have shown themselves willing and indeed eager to kill all who might be in their way. After the downfall of Saddam, a whole lot of ambitious men jostled for power in Iraq, and only the presence of large American forces ensured that some sort of orderly political process with vaguely Western political features was introduced rather than another Arab-style dictatorship. Now in Tunisia another whole lot of ambitious men are jostling for power. Mostly they are old, and compromised by years of toadying to Ben Ali. What they are calling a government of national unity is really only an elitist clique whose members are competing to replace each other. The purging of Ben Ali’s single party is the local version of de-Baathification in Iraq. And this time there are no American forces supervising the introduction of a political process for which there is no precedent. Instead a nephew of Ben Ali’s has been murdered, and there is looting of the villas and shops of the rich, incineration of cars, vigilantes, and random firing from unidentified snipers.
One of the ambitious men is Rashid Ghannouci, the head of An-Nahda, the Tunisian Islamist party. He is returning to Tunis after years in exile in London. Elie Kedourie once showed me an essay Ghannouci had written about the British in the Middle East, a compendium of errors, mistaken names, and conspiracy theory. It is a short step from ignorance like that to willingness to kill opponents in the style of the ayatollahs.
Perhaps civil society will manage to come together out of these disparate and selfish elements. Perhaps the security forces, the old Ben Ali party men, the Islamists, and the angry rioters will evolve due processes to mediate their interests and differences. But in the century and a half from Khayr Ed-Din to Ben Ali, the traditional Arab and Muslim order has been repeating and renewing itself with an energy that keeps Western ideas about democracy at bay.
What’s happening in Tunisia is a copybook example of the structural fault of dictatorships, namely that change is impossible without violence. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has ruled that country since 1987, and was set to go on ruling it indefinitely. He had of course made sure to have no successor; that is standard procedure. After all, Ben Ali came to power through just such a coup against his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, who had declared himself President-for-Life. It is also standard procedure that Ben Ali had an aircraft standing by so he and his family could fly out – with probably as much of the treasury as could safely be loaded in the hold.
Hundreds of dissidents – some of them democrats, but others Muslim extremists – have been jailed or are in exile. The secret police and the army kept Ben Ali safe from assassination, so there was nothing for it except a popular uprising like this. We do not know the true number of those shot and killed on the streets, and probably never will. Riots and corpses are to states like these what elections are to democracy.
Someone will emerge to take power – he will declare that he expresses the will of the people, pay whatever price is necessary to obtain the loyalty of the secret police and the army, and set about eliminating opposition – and the whole nightmare cycle of dictatorship will begin once more.
In neighboring Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has been in power for over thirty years, and nobody can predict how or when he will go or who will succeed him. Once again, dissidents and Muslim extremists are in prison or in exile. Same in Libya, where Mu’ammer Gaddhafi has been in power for forty years. Same in Saudi Arabia where the king and the crown prince are both over eighty and succession is uncertain; some are predicting violence there. Same in Syria, where the elder Assad pushed his son into power. In Iraq it took a military campaign and 150,000 American soldiers to break one-man rule, but even that show of superior strength may not be enough to do the trick. The system of one-man rule has a horrible self-perpetuating vitality, and whoever can devise a peaceful way to be rid of it deserves the Nobel Prize.
REALITY OVER RHETORIC
Hillary Clinton told Arab leaders to clean house last week, encouraging an age of accountability. But until the Arab world has democratic institutions and an engaged populace, her words may be meaningless.
By Lee Smith
January 19, 2011
In the Middle East, reality always overtakes rhetoric in the end – whether that rhetoric comes from an Arab president on the official government TV station, a preacher in the pulpit, or an American diplomat with a microphone. Take, for instance, last week, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood up in Doha, Qatar, and told the Arab leaders gathered for a conference on democracy that they need to get their house in order. “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order,” Clinton said. “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever.”
If it weren’t for the historic events in Tunisia–where for the first time in Arab history a people rose up to send their ruler packing–people in Rabat, Morocco, where I’m traveling for the next week, and throughout the region would still be talking about Clinton’s speech. What made it surprisingly welcome is that, up until last Thursday, the Obama Administration had been putting as much distance as possible between itself and President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.” It wasn’t clear whether President Barack Obama believes that democracy promotion is likely to destabilize the repressive and volatile political systems of the Arab world–and that the survival of those regimes would be in America’s best interest–or if he was just following an anything-but-Bush handbook.
But Clinton picked up the gauntlet and laid it at the feet of Arab regimes, timed perfectly to herald an age of Arab accountability: Right after the Tunisians deposed their president-for-life, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, sealed indictments were handed down in the United Nations investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and while the names are yet to be revealed, the indictments are expected to identify Hezbollah members as well as government officials of its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.
Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution is the culmination of demonstrations that started with the self-immolation of a produce vendor in Sidi Bouzid after his goods were confiscated. Other suicides followed, accompanied by widespread protests against the lack of jobs, housing, freedom of speech, and food price inflation and corruption. Police and security forces shot and killed demonstrators, but when the army refused to turn on their countrymen, Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia last Friday, leaving Tunisia without a government and Tunisians elated with the rarest of achievements: vanquishing an Arab strongman.
In the days following Ben Ali’s exit, the Tunisian army skirmished with security forces still loyal to the ousted president. One hopes the military can now serve as the guarantor of a more or less peaceful transition as Tunisia takes its first steps toward a more democratic political culture. The more pessimistic interpretation is that the stark image of city streets vacant of any human beings except those who are armed to the teeth is a living tableau of Middle Eastern political culture. Here the masses are merely props to be chewed up and tossed away, and the real action is nothing but security chiefs and generals in a fight to the death.
That is to say, as thrilling as it is to see a people take its own destiny in its hands, there is reason to be concerned – for Tunisians and for the rest of the region, where protests seem to be gathering momentum. Algeria, Egypt, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania have already reported cases of self-immolation–an ostensibly selfless and heroic gesture that is unfortunately reminiscent of one of the Middle East’s more popular forms of political expression: the suicide bombing. Something is happening in the region – in fact, has been happening for some time–that is simply not going to be solved with the downfall of one dictator.
Which is why it’s not surprising that the Moroccans I’ve met here, on a trip sponsored by the Moroccan American Center for Policy, do not share the excitement with which the Jasmine Revolution has been received in many corners of the U.S. policy establishment. Some of the Moroccan diplomats, human rights activists, and parliamentarians I’ve spoken to even believe that Obama’s carefully modulated statement on Tunisia was too enthusiastic, given that no one has any idea yet whether democrats or Islamists or the army will wind up in power, and what the consequences will be.
Because many of these Moroccan officials are close in one way or another to the ruling regime, it is reasonable to interpret their vivid worries about “security” – all couched in terms articulating brotherly concerns and hopes for the citizens of another Maghreb state–as the fears of a ruling order imagining a bad end for itself. However, while it is important to understand the worries of any elite class in terms of its own self-interest, it is also foolish to discount the misgivings of those who actually have experience in Arab politics and governing Arab people.
From here in the region, it is perhaps easier to see the fundamental problems with Clinton’s welcome brand of Western-style honesty. For instance, what she calls “corruption” is just one family or tribe advancing the interests of its own clique while shutting out the others. Corruption as such is standard operating procedure in the Middle East. Only a lunatic, or an American public official, would give money to an armed gang with uncertain loyalties.
In Doha, Clinton argued that “[i]t is important to demonstrate that there is rule of law, good governance, and respect for contracts to create an investment climate that attracts businesses and keeps them there.” The problem here is that this isn’t necessarily true–a fact borne out by Ben Ali’s Tunisia. The regime was corrupt to the core–Ben Ali’s wife’s family had a hand in virtually every business venture in the country–but the country’s pro-business climate and liberalized economy won praises from all corners, including the IMF. Good governance then had nothing to do with building Tunisia’s economy or creating the country’s middle class, for it was all crafted by the heavy hand of a dictator.
“If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum”– namely, “extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey off desperation and poverty,” Clinton warned. Visitors to the police state that Ben Ali ruled admired the country’s relatively open atmosphere–open, except for political dissent – but its secularism, educational system, and the relative freedom of women, had very little to do with a positive vision. Rather, it was all engendered by the single-minded obsession of a tyrant who perceived, perhaps rightly, that the country’s Islamist movement constituted his most serious and best-organized opposition. It is the fact that Ben Ali thoroughly repressed the Islamists and eradicated any evidence of their potent symbols and discourse that gave Tunisia’s its left-bank flair. Alas, this isn’t true either.
What is more depressing is that while we believe poverty, hopelessness, and despair may pave the way for extremist elements and terrorist groups, we know that democracy has empowered them where repression sidelines them. Even avid Bush partisans cannot ignore the fact that the gospel of democratization propagated by Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, during the president’s second term helped bring Hamas to power in Gaza and strengthened Hezbollah’s hand in Lebanon.
There is a reason why a famous Arab dictum has it that 100 years of tyranny is preferable to one day of chaos. It is meant to remind us of the nature of man, the political animal, who cannot foresee the consequences of his actions. The Arabs’ ancients would have been right to fear how an uprising that began in a suicide might end. If this saying is frequently held up as an example of Arab timidity, the same might be said of any society, and the fact is that the Arabs have stood up before and will invariably do so again. Still, it is unlikely that the uprising in Tunisia will serve as a model for the rest of the region. The Tunisian middle class succeeded where, for example, the Iranians failed in June 2009 only because the divisions in Ben Ali’s security apparatus were decisive. Presumably, rulers around their region right now are worried less about crowds in the street than about whether their intelligence officials are happy with their latest paycheck.
Moreover, it is unseemly for Americans to gloat about the fate of Arab regimes when the real issue is Arab people, like those getting shot in the streets of Tunisian cities or setting themselves on fire in Cairo. Their problems are not going to be solved with the exit of one Arab dictator – or even the whole pack of them, from Riyadh to Algiers. What’s wrong with Arab reform is that in most cases the institutions that need to be fixed do not yet exist – a fact that makes the content, though perhaps not the rhetoric, of Clinton’s speech no less irrelevant to Arab reality than the high-flown language of democracy favored by Condoleezza Rice. If there is a formula to fix what’s wrong with the region, no one has it.