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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

‘God, Syria, Freedom’



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The Arab protest movement is spreading to Syria. The security forces are reported to have shot and killed 22 people in Deraa, the largest town on the Hauran in eastern Syria. They have also shelled the mosque. Reformist sources say that demonstrations have broken out in about 20 towns and villages. I have seen a video of a huge and angry crowd shouting “God, Syria, Freedom.”

This is potentially far more important than events in Libya or Yemen. A successful uprising in Syria would at last check Iran, whose imperialist expansion is threatening the whole the Middle East. Iran is reaching for power in Bahrain, Yemen, and Iraq. Simultaneously, Syria offers Iran access to Lebanon, Hezbollah and a foothold on the Mediterranean with an agreement for a naval base at Tartus. In the complexity of internal Arab politics, Syria has made headway by being intolerable, sponsoring terror, and blocking all peace initiatives, in the process becoming more a dependency of Iran than an ally. A national uprising in Syria could be the surest way to avoid the large-scale regional war that otherwise looms.

One of the impenetrable mysteries of the Obama foreign policy is the appeasement of Syria. Obama seems to believe that he can split Syria away from Iran imply by being nice and kind. But Syria and Iran are both spoilers as well as united by religious sectarianism. In Syria, the Alawis are a minority of not more than fifteen percent, the huge majority being Sunni. Half a century ago, the Alawis seized power when Hafiz Assad mounted a coup. He and his son Bashar have formed an Alawi dynasty ever since. They have kept control through a tried and tested blend of murder and ruthlessness, bribery and corruption. In 1982 Hafiz Assad ordered his artillery to flatten Hama where the Muslim Brothers were staging an uprising. At least 30,000 were killed. Great courage is needed to protest today. Alawis and Sunnis are well aware that any break in the policing is likely to end in mutual massacres.

The Syrian regime makes sure to keep all journalists under control, and there seem to only one or two Western reporters in the country. The Bashar regime attributes the demonstrations to armed gangs, which is a transparent lie. It is hard to follow events there, but the fall of the vile Assad regime really would be a step forward for everyone.

A Test of Character for Arab Despots



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Violence is spreading incrementally throughout the Arab world, with repercussions in Iran and Turkey. Plainly something big, something that could be historic, is at hand. The world, the “international community” that is such a figment in the speeches of President Obama, does not know how to interpret this violence, and even less how to react to it. Not so long ago Colonel Qaddafi was an honored guest in Western capitals, and Western air strikes on Libyan military installations were unimaginable.

The root of the trouble seems obvious enough, namely that every Arab state is a despotism. Arab kings and presidents are nowhere ruling with the consent of the ruled. All alike depend on their police and security apparatus. Fear and the absence of freedom stifle creativity and choke progress in every respect. People are frustrated enough to be permanently close to insurrection, and their rulers are likewise permanently prepared to oppress. Even quite small crises therefore have the seeds of violence.

The present unanimous demonstration of Arab unhappiness may have some copy-cat aspect, but it is impressive: All want their rulers out and a different life. Rulers have little leeway in responding. The Saudi king is attempting to buy his subjects off with handouts of billions of dollars. Less wealthy, the Algerian, Moroccan, and Jordanian rulers are offering subsidies for food and fuel. Since the people are asking for justice, money is here more of a placebo than a remedy. As the stakes rise, the ruler has to decide what degree of violence will preserve his rule. For every one of them, that is a test of character intimately connected to the reliability of the police and security apparatus. The systemic defect of despotism could hardly be clearer.

The ruler of Tunisia flunked. The ruler of Egypt tried to survive through cunning but his military colleagues wouldn’t let him get away with it. The rulers of Bahrain and Yemen are calibrating how much violence is needed to keep control; small numbers of the dead may be enough. The ruler of Syria began by bribing his people, but in the face of their desperation he is preparing for the bloodbath that may occur any day now. Carrying the logic of despotism to the bitter end, Qaddafi will either kill enough people to subdue the population and baffle the West, or be killed. We’ve been here before. Invading Iraq, President George W. Bush installed a rule that has the consent of the ruled. However long and difficult, that’s how to be rid of despotism. Reluctantly, almost accidentally, Obama could introduce in Libya the pluralism Bush deliberately gave Iraq. That’s marvelously ironic, or maybe the course of history is determined after all.

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Disappointed People



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“From Benghazi to Bahrain, Mr Obama is proving to be a brutal disappointment.” That is the concluding sentence of today’s editorial in the London Times. There it is — the editorial is reflecting a sea-change in public opinion. And it’s not just the persecuted inhabitants of contested Arab cities who feel this disappointment, but also people all over the world who not so long ago decided that Mr. Obama was hope personified.

Of course there is some humbug in the air as well. Those disappointed people have suddenly discovered that the United States is not going to be looking after them and they will be on their own. Europeans and Asians have devoted so many of their resources to creature comforts that they are not in a position to protect their peace and security. It’s a shock that Obama is the one leaving them to be self-sufficient, a condition to which so many have been unaccustomed for so long.

A White House deputy by the name of Ben Rhodes has explained that the Obama conception of the U.S. role in the world is “to work through multinational organizations and bilateral relationships to make sure that the steps we are taking are amplified.” (You don’t “amplify steps” unless you are trying to be misleading, but let that pass.) This multinational and bilateral stuff is just that — stuff — a recipe for inertia, arenas for self-important diplomats in which to generate hot air, to propose meetings and postpone them, to pass resolutions watered down until they are meaningless.

The Libyan tragedy illustrates this higher vacuity. Institutions designed for the multilateral and the bilateral, the Security Council, the European Union, the Arab League, daily prove that they serve no useful purpose. Worse, while they posture among themselves, Moammar Qaddafi and his thugs have been allowed to massacre those asking for their rights. That is the direct consequence of Obama’s decision that the United States no longer entertains an independent foreign policy but leaves everyone, including the likes of Qaddafi, to do as they please.

Shame is one aspect of it, and the surrender of the West is another. Qaddafi has a long record of terror. Once he has committed enough mass-murder to stay in power, he can take revenge by brandishing oil contracts as blackmail, restarting his nuclear program, joining forces with the al-Qaeda or other Islamists he pretends are his enemies, and much else. Obama’s refusal to commit the United States over Libya has given Qaddafi an international Get-Out-of-Jail card. First disappointment, then danger.

The Fruits of ‘Concern’



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President Obama’s responses to the Libyan crisis are deeply mysterious. What does he want, and how does he envisage the future of the Arab world and its relationship to the United States? The U.S., he says, “strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people.” But they have no rights at all, neither universal nor particular, and far from supporting the Libyan people in even their basic right to survival, Obama has apparently decided on a non-show. Then he has said he is “very concerned.” Is there any cliché more feeble in the entire political lexicon? “Very concerned” means, “I’m doing nothing, you may get on with your plans.”

Since he is limiting himself to “concern,” whatever was the purpose of saying that Moammar Qaddafi must go? Why should the brute go if all he faces is “concern”? Told to be gone but certain that Obama would do nothing to make him go, Qaddafi naturally went on the offensive. What will it do for the standing of the United States that its president has opened himself to ridicule in this way, broadcasting his impotence? And why should anyone trust the United States in the future? Facing even greater violence than the Libyans, the Green Movement in Iran can only conclude that the most to be expected from Obama is more “concern.”

In the event that Qaddafi’s forces retake Benghazi and crush the rebellion, there will be a horrific purge. Many will flee to Egypt though their reception there is most uncertain. Some will try to escape in small boats across the Mediterranean — Italy is already unable to cope with Tunisians in search of safety and a better life. Those who stay are at the mercy of the secret police, torturers, informers, and looters, all giving themselves license to do their worst. Qaddafi and his disgusting sons will have got the better of the United States while their victims will be cursing it. Can Obama really be happy to have helped bring about such an outcome? Is that to be his presidential legacy?

Built into the System



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Moammar Qaddafi’s forces are now pounding Libyan towns to pieces. Tanks have shelled Zawiya, for instance, destroying its center and knocking down mosques. Aircraft are bombing Ras Lanuf and other places in the eastern province of Libya. It is a peculiar horror to watch a ruler attacking his own country, but it is not a novelty in the Arab world. When Hafiz Assad, the Syrian president, faced a challenge from the Muslim Brothers, he turned his artillery on their stronghold of Hama, and flattened it. Nobody knows how many died — at least 20,000 and maybe 30,000. They were buried in the rubble of the main square, and the area was then cemented over. Similarly, when Saddam Hussein was challenged by the Kurds he had them gassed, and when challenged by the Shia he had them shot. Ahmad Chalabi speaks of 300,000 dead in Iraq in over 300 mass graves.

Qaddafi is already displaying this inexorable kind of dictatorship, with the deployment of force built into the system. The only way to deal with it is to mount superior force against it, but democracies rarely have the will for that, and so Arabs time and again are killed for no better reason than that they are protesting against insufferable injustice.

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Another Spectacular Blunder from the Foreign Office



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The British have just been caught out in an extraordinary story — no, outright fiasco. Some genius supervising the decline of this once great country had the notion of sending a seven-man team of Special Servicemen to Libya, accompanying an MI 6 agent — that is, someone in foreign intelligence. Unannounced, they flew into Libya by helicopter in civilian clothes and went to the rebels in Benghazi. When the rebels discovered that these fishes out of water were armed, they naturally took them into custody. The British ambassador to Libya had to telephone the rebels to plead that there had been a “misunderstanding.”

His pitiful euphemisms, his stuttering and lying, were recorded and have now been broadcast to the deep shame of every British person. After the boot-licking, the Libyan rebels were lordly enough to send home this sad team with their side-arms and civilian clothes.

Once I was asked by the Daily Telegraph to report on Libya. Qaddafi was still something of an unknown quantity. I arranged a meeting in the Libyan embassy with the official responsible for issuing my visa, and spent an afternoon drinking coffee with him and exchanging greetings of Ahlan wasahlan. I was instructed to return another day, and well understood that they were checking up in case I might describe Qaddafi as the repulsive murderer he is.

Alas, I happened to run into the only friend I had who worked in the Foreign Office, and alas again, I told him about my Libyan visa delay. He would have a word with the Middle East chaps, he said, and the thing would be a formality. So there I am drinking coffee and saying Ahlan wasahlan all over again in the Libyan embassy. Then the telephone rings. It is the Foreign Office, the Libyan official explains happily. Having staged this little scene, he invites me to listen in while the chap on the Middle East desk advises that I am unreliable, altogether on the wrong side, not to be trusted and therefore denied a visa. What can I do? said the Libyan official, even your own people think you should be kept out of our country.

So Libya is one of the two Arab countries I have never visited (the other being Saudi Arabia). But I have made sure ever since to avoid all contact with the Foreign Office. Year after year, generation after generation, the Middle East desk proves incapable of anything except getting it wrong.

Qaddafi Is Far from ‘Delusional’



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The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is on record saying that Moammar Qaddafi is “delusional” and “disconnected” from reality. One has to wonder whether this person knows much about the Arab world and whether she is fit to represent her country. Qaddafi has clearly been calculating only too rationally that the civil disturbances in Libya are not on a scale large enough to dispossess him, and he will be able to overcome them and stay in power.

His appearances on television and his speeches are calculated to show that he remains himself, doing exactly as he pleases, with flashes of anger interspersed with humor. His people could draw the conclusion that he was not giving up, but could deal out death all round. His son, Saif al-Islam, gave a long interview to Sky television yesterday. This too was cleverly calculated; he lied with a straight face that there was no uprising, just a few local grievances easily addressed. The Sky interviewer just nodded her head, asking anodyne questions that completely failed to pin down this false and slippery brute masquerading as a reformer and democrat.

Libyans can only conclude from the behavior of the Qaddafis that it is futile and dangerous to rebel. In an absolute society like Libya, a test of strength is the equivalent of a general election, and Libyans do not have the arms or the organization to win. Qaddafi has the planes and the tanks and the mercenaries, and a special militia under another of his repellent and murderous sons, and he will kill everyone who gets in his way. Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi politician, has just published an article with the reminder that Saddam Hussein killed over 300,000 of his people when he put down their insurrection, and over 300 mass graves have been found in Iraq. That’s how dictators like this do it.

And under the blather about Qaddafi’s delusion is the ease with which he bought the West. British politicians like Tony Blair and his sidekick Peter Mandelson hurried to befriend him and continue to try to put a brave face on it. Baroness Symons, a Labour peer and one time Foreign Office minister, only last month told the House of Lords that the Libyan people valued Qaddafi’s regime and his ideology was “sound.” The London School of Economics awarded a doctorate to Saif al-Islam and accepted £1.5 million from him. The LSE’s director, Sir Howard Davies, now admits to “embarrassment.” The board of the LSE Middle East Centre has two members, a Professor Martha Mundy and one John Chalcraft, whose initiative is not to criticize Libya but to support the boycotting of Israel. LSE invited Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of an Arabic paper, to speak on campus and he said he would dance in central London if Iran bombed Israel.

Plenty of other universities have sold themselves to oil-rich Arabs, of course. But LSE was first and foremost the greatest apologist for Soviet Communism; it was founded by the ludicrous fellow-travelling Sydney and Beatrice Webb and the even more abjectly Sovietized Harold Laski had a chair of politics there. This is where the moral rot is disseminated. Should Qaddafi win the test of strength and stay in power, it is a racing certainty that these creepy Middle East Centers will find excuses, invite Saif al-Islam and his like to make speeches about Libyan modernization and democracy, pocketing any envelope these types may care to leave while making no mention of the mass graves on which their power will then rest.

After Three Millennia, a Discovery



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Ancient sites offer enthralling glimpses of people who have gone before us, and what they made of the human situation. For a few months long ago, I thought I would become an archaeologist, and I have usually tried to keep up with major digs. In Israel that’s a popular pastime.

When Professor Benjamin Mazur was at work in the 1990s outside and under the walls of Jerusalem, he took me round the dig. Now his daughter Elath Mazur is at work a short distance away, at the top of the Valley of Kidron looking towards the village of Silwan. She has uncovered many layers, walls, stonework, ritual baths, pottery, artifacts, and coins. Most extraordinary are four seals with Hebrew names on them, every one of them an official named in the Bible.

A controversy arises. Is this site, 3,000 years old, the palace of King David? There is possible biblical concordance for this interpretation, to do with David’s war against the Jebusites. Or was it an administrative center? Surely four seals that have biblical counterparts is too many for a coincidence? The fine stonework buttressing the sloping side of the valley suggests a palace. A car park adjoins the excavation, and it is due to be dug up. Below it, a team is already at work, passing buckets hand to hand.

Silwan has houses crowded together on the valley’s far slope. It’s an Arab village, but at the top a couple of houses fly Israeli flags. As I understand it, Israelis have bought these houses legally, but the local Arabs see it as the thin edge of the wedge and throw stones at cars identifiably Israeli. My cab driver therefore takes a long way round. Three thousand years from now, will this dispute have left traces lasting as long as David’s conquest of the Jebusites?

Gaddafi Has Two Choices



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Put yourself in the position of Moammar Gaddafi. For years you have been enjoying doing whatever you like with the total wealth of the country, stashing it away by buying large share-holdings in Italian and German companies. Billions and billions more dollars are available in the oil reserves. Western oil companies queue up to give you this unearned wealth and the power to do mischief that goes with it. Meanwhile you have brought up your sons with the idea that they are going to succeed you, and founded a Gaddafi dynasty to enjoy this money. There is nobody and nothing that counts in the country except you and your sons. In fact it isn’t really a country at all, just a bunch of tribes that you have been careful to leave disorganized and stuck in the old ways.

You have interfered successfully abroad by supporting Irish terrorists, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and other African dictators — and killed Westerners by bombing planes and nightclubs. The United States has accepted blood money for American citizens you murdered. Sen. John McCain called you “an interesting man” and Tony Blair is happy to give you multiple embraces and photo-ops. The United Nations elected your Libya to the Human Rights Council. 

Whatever you do, then, has never had any bad consequences for you. The tiny number of men with the capacity and will to challenge you are dead or in exile. In 1996 you had the opposition cleared away by murdering about 1,200 political prisoners in Abu Salim prison. And now suddenly, all because of a lack of dictatorial discipline in Tunisia and Egypt, a bunch of people are out in your streets, shouting against you and wanting all the wonderful things you’ve reserved for yourself and your sons. In the same position, the feeble Ben Ali in Tunis and the sick Mubarak in Cairo threw their hand in. The alternative is to fly in African mercenaries (just in case the local security forces hesitate to obey your orders) and open fire on what you think is a rabble from tribes you have always despised anyhow.

Nobody knows how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, have already been gunned down in Libya, or how many more will be. Once you have shown that you are capable of killing 1,200 men in prison, you are a committed criminal and will certainly go as deep into further crime as you think fit.

Speaking for myself now, I think that addafi is unlikely to slip out of the country like other Arab dictators. It is a case of kill or be killed. Whatever happens, the harm he has done Libya will extend. Either he reasserts himself through superior violence and punishes everyone he suspects of being behind the uprising, or he is himself somehow left for dead. In the latter case, there is no successor, no institution to assume the role of governance, and the horrors of anarchy are the sole prospect.

Mubarak vs. Putin



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How great a fall it is to become an ex-dictator without benefit of the state’s apparatus for stealing under the protection of the secret police. Hosni Mubarak is now a plain Mister skulking away in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, not daring to show his face. The Swiss banking authorities freeze his assets, and the British banks say they are only waiting for instructions to do likewise. His past has caught up with him.

 

Compare this to Vladimir Putin’s continued run. The Daily Telegraph reports that in 2005 the Russian presidential property manager (now there’s a title!) signed a contract for the building of a palace for Putin on the Black Sea coast. This palace is a copy of one built for the tsars outside St. Petersburg. Someone by the name of Sergei Kolesnikov, reputedly a businessman involved in this project, has written a letter to a Russian newspaper denouncing Putin. He claims, “As things stand, the cost of the palace is $1 billion. The funds were mostly raised through a combination of corruption, bribery and theft.” Another Russian newspaper reports that Putin and his successor Dmitri Medvedev share between them “at least two dozen palaces, villas and mansions.”

 

Dictators evidently have characteristics in common, but then so do enraged crowds.

Now That the Generals Are in Charge . . .



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Communiqué Number Five is out in Cairo, as the new military junta gets going. The generals are in charge, and it so happens that they are lifelong colleagues and cronies of ex-president Mubarak. They have suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament. Military police have been using the usual strong-arm methods to clear protesters out of Tahrir Square, the main scene of protest. Road blocks have gone up here and there in the country, and the soldiers or police manning them are finding fault with identification papers if they can. It is not clear whether Mubarak really has landed up in Sharm el-Sheikh, or how safe he would be there. There seems to be trouble in the Sinai Peninsula where soldiers have been sent to stop the Bedouin from burning down police stations. The military junta assure all and sundry that they plan to introduce democracy but meanwhile are governing by decree and explaining the need to keep anarchy at bay, just like Mubarak before them. The more things change, as the famous French bon mot has it, the more they stay the same. Now why does that suddenly come to mind?

Which Drum?



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The situation in Egypt compels you to hold in your head contradictory things at the same time. Hosni Mubarak was a dictator. Although not a duplicate of Saddam Hussein, he ran a brutal regime and made others believe that this was the sole guarantee of stability. While he was in power, he blocked all prospect of progress, and his departure is timely. An inbuilt weakness of dictatorship is that the mistakes of dictators are irreparable. He took it for granted that he and his security forces were superior to any movement against them. He could not imagine that his colleagues and friends in the military elite would leave him to twist in the wind. As late as yesterday evening he was putting his trust in generals who were in fact abandoning him — traitors, as he would see it.

Amr ibn al-Aas, the conqueror who turned Egypt into a Muslim country in the seventh century, left a famous saying that all that was required for ruling Egyptians was a little drum.

To put that another way, are military communiqués from a committee of self-selected generals really going to persuade those hundreds of thousands to leave the streets and return to orderly life? The choice facing the army is whether to act in its own interest or submit to the crowds. Either course of action carries the risk of violence.

The Muslim Brothers are the people currently beating a very different little drum. The crowds can be heard shouting Allahu Akhbar, and they are waving Islamist banners. Hamas, the off-shoot of the Muslim Brothers in Gaza, is already boasting about the revolution and welcoming home men convicted of terrorism and now escaping from prison in Egypt. Mubarak feared and opposed Iran, whose leaders are rejoicing in the prospect of Egyptian Islamism. The Iranian regime runs a dictatorship at home, then, but enthuses over the fall of dictatorship in Egypt, in plain language encouraging confrontation. Muhammad El-Baradei aspires to speak for the crowd and become president, but in the absence of a real party or organization he looks set to facilitate the Muslim Brothers, playing the role of the Egyptian Kerensky. Throughout the 14 centuries since Amr ibn al-Aas, the alternative to dictatorship was fitna, which the dictionary defines as sedition, riot, discord, dissension, civil strife. Along with sharia and fatwa, this looks like another Arabic term that will be entering everyone’s vocabulary.

The Matter of Superior Force



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The test of strength in Egypt is unfolding on familiar lines. The protesters have been in Tahrir Square for 17 days now, and the only way they are going to get rid of President Mubarak is by raising the projected level of force. They seem to be about to win, as reports are coming in from the media that Mubarak will be resigning within a matter of hours. Should he not resign, then the protesters are threatening that after Friday prayers tomorrow even larger demonstrations will be mounted, and there will be attacks on state institutions such as Nile TV and maybe even the Parliament.

Mubarak was in the position of having to mobilize the counter-force that would have cleared the square. He had his chance a few days ago when his men took on the protesters. The clashes were violent, but not violent enough to give him victory. The army stood by, and that was the decisive factor that sealed Mubarak’s fate. Now he can no longer mount the superior force that alone could have kept him in office.

Power for the moment is lying in the streets, for someone to pick it up. It is unlikely that the protesters will succeed in doing so. Their program is to be rid of Mubarak, nothing more. It is all very well for them to talk about committees, constitutions, and free and fair elections, but this is in the abstract, as no practical means exist for fulfilling these desirable ends. In their hands, power would immediately dissolve into anarchy.

That leaves the final outcome of this confrontation in the hands of the army. The minister of defense, the chief of staff, and the general commanding Cairo are shrewd and experienced men. In all probability, they foresaw how these protests would unfold, and for all one knows they may have coordinated with Mubarak the transfer of power from him to themselves. They have shed no blood. They represent authority. They expect to be able to send the protesters home from the square without a shot being fired.

Military Communiqué Number One has already been issued to show that the army is in command. It would be a really dangerous gamble for the protesters to try to raise superior force. For the time being, in short, this looks like an exemplary military coup.

Skipping the Debate on the Lockerbie Bomber’s Release



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Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi inflicted real and lasting damage on Britain. He was found guilty of the Lockerbie bombing in which 270 Pan Am passengers were killed. But what happened after he was sentenced to prison increases the wound on the country. Inexplicably, the Labour government of Gordon Brown was afraid that Megrahi might one day die in prison, although that is supposed to be the fate of those serving long terms for murder. They tried to return him to his native Libya under a prisoner-transfer agreement. That did not work out. When Megrahi was diagnosed with a cancer that might kill him within three months, a government minister saw his chance and wrote to his Libyan counterpart advising him that this cancer diagnosis could secure Megrahi’s release from prison on compassionate grounds. And so it happened. Think of it: A British minister was helping to find a way round British justice. Now, a year and a half after his release, Megrahi is alive, and by all reports doing fine. In other words, the public and specially the families of the Lockerbie victims, have been manipulated and cheated and lied to.

David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, says that the release of Megrahi was “profoundly wrong.” It may be that the papers relevant to this fiasco will be published. Apparently Brown and others really were afraid of what Libya might do, in other words anticipating the usual irrational behavior on the part of the preposterous Muammar Gaddhafi, and they’d lose oil business. Money is shown to have mattered above all else. Yesterday Parliament debated this miserable story. Brown did not attend, nor did his then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. To have been kissing Gaddhafi’s sandals is about as far as national humiliation can go. And more than that — Eurabia looms.

All Eyes on Syria



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Many yesterday had their eyes on Syria. Supposedly there was to be a big demonstration in Damascus, the latest in the chain of protests against dictatorship in the Middle East. From outside Syria, it is hard to be quite sure what actually occurred, or why, as the media were among those who did not have their eyes on Syria and have reported virtually nothing. Seemingly, the demonstration was a total failure. But this non-event has as much to say about reality in the Middle East as the Cairo fracas.

The dictatorship in Syria is an insult to humanity. A perpetual spoiler, moreover, the regime for decades has done everything in its power to counteract and destroy American influence. An ideological ally of Iran, and therefore of Hizbollah, it makes no effort to conceal its preparations for war.

For almost half a century the country has been in the grip of the Assads, father Hafez and his son Bashar forming an unholy republican dynasty. They are Alawites, that is to say members of a Shia sect. Amounting to about 10 percent of a population that is otherwise Sunni, they maintain their grip through fear and police-state methods. Hafez simply turned heavy artillery on the Sunni Muslim Brothers in Hama, killing 20,000 or more according to some estimates. Bashar has ordered the killing of Kurds and recently the machine-gunning of prisoners in Saidnaya jail. Brazenly he encourages terrorist organizations to operate in Syria and he had some sort of input into political assassinations in Lebanon. His goons would certainly have beaten and arrested everyone in a small demonstration, and opened fire on a sizeable crowd. To protest in such circumstances is to dice with death.

President Mubarak has been an ideological ally of the United States and helped maintain peace, at considerable cost to himself. Yet President Obama is pressuring this friend to step down as soon as may be, while rewarding the odious and hostile Bashar Assad with the resumption of diplomatic relations and talk of a new relationship with Syria. More than a contradiction, this is incoherence, folly, a sure way to a foreign policy with no future in the region.

Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?



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The protesters and pro-Mubarak people have had a test of strength, but it has not thrown up a clear victor. Both sides are now obliged to see that to continue down that path is too costly and destructive, almost an embryo civil war.  So there is nothing for it except for the small number of contenders for powers to start bartering in private about who is going to get what. This process is too personal and intimate for the outside world to be informed about it. It is a safe guess, though, that while the media are in Tahrir Square boosting “revolution,” and commenting that nothing will ever be the same again, the future is being settled over their heads by the half dozen power brokers who count. The media always manage to select protesters who say in good English that they are staying in the square until they are victorious and Mubarak has gone. These interviews are really promotions of the reporter’s own political prejudices.  Remember the book by Ed Behr making a mockery of slanting the news in this sort of crisis with the title Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?

Outsiders are in no position to judge the significance of the resignation of the executive committee of Mubarak’s single party, the National Democratic Party. It may be a sign that he is weakening, or on the contrary that he can do without them, or maybe it is some sort of sop to the power brokers he’s in touch with. Ambassador Frank Wisner has seen Mubarak, who refused to give him a second meeting. Again, the reason for this is unknown: Either he did not like what he was being told or he wanted to hide up that the two of them shared the same view of what to do and he now wanted to conceal that fact by appearing to defy the United States. Wisner has put on record his opinion that it is “crucial” that Mubarak stay in power until the September elections, in order to supervise the change of regime. A man combining intelligence and experience, he speaks Egyptian Arabic and knows the country inside out. It is reasonable to conclude at least for the time being that Mubarak will indeed survive until September as the central figure on the stage, whereupon the curtains behind him will part and someone pretty much like him will emerge to take a bow.

The Dangers of Taking Events in Egypt at Face Value



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The rioting taking place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square has much to teach about politics in the Arab order. The crowds are not there by accident. For some past days the protesters appeared to have everything their own way. Actually President Mubarak was biding his time and weighing the balance of forces. He wins who mobilizes superior force. Opposition leaders including Mohamed El Baradei and the Muslim Brothers appeared to have mobilized that superior force. Capable operators, they also appeal unanimously to the Western media. Western reporters one and all interpret what they see in terms with which they are familiar at home. So anti-Mubarak good — pro-Mubarak bad, and besides, hasn’t a chance.

How taken aback the media are that Mubarak is mobilizing his defenders, and timing it to maximum effect. Thousands turn up to counter-balance the protesters. The consequent rioting looks frightening, but the arrival yesterday of the tourist camel from the pyramids and some tourist ponies gave away the element of theater. Nobody resorts to firearms that would clear the area immediately. The fact that dozens of tanks all around could have stopped the rioting, but do nothing, means that what is going on is the equivalent of a poll to determine who has the numbers. Somewhere in the background are the generals who can swing it, as they have been doing since the days of Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Free Officers in the 1950s. And the force is going to rise until it becomes clear who really does have the numbers. It looks a fair bet right now that Mubarak will stay in office until the September election, which gives him time to organize the succession for his new vice president and companion in arms Omar Suleiman and assure continuity.

When President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron and their spokesmen come out with denunciations of Mubarak, threaten to cut off aid, and speechify about “orderly transition” as though it were some Holy Grail, they are taking the events unfolding before them at face value. Their haste to jump to conclusions that don’t correspond to the situation is partly the fault of the Euro-centric perspectives that the media pump up, and partly stems from ignorance about the invisible springs of action in the authoritarian Arab state. These Western leaders look like earning the contempt of those in power and those seeking to wrest power. A remarkable achievement.

It is Plastic Hour in the Arab World



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There are moments in history when things could turn out in more ways than one, and the decisions of a very few people, perhaps just a king or a president or a revolutionary, settle the fate of millions for years to come. Karl Marx came up with the phrase “a plastic hour” for this uncomfortable moment when history hangs in the balance. We have a plastic hour right now in the Middle East.

Crowds all over the Arab world are protesting against the authority under which they live. Like the French before 1789 or Russians before 1917, they want to be rid of their rulers, knowing them to be brutal and corrupt, as indeed they are. Pretty well every Middle East expert and pundit, and certainly the man with the microphone in Tahrir Square in Cairo, supports the protesters without the least reservation. These Westerners all take it for granted that the protesters share their understanding of freedom and democracy, and once they are rid of the brutal and corrupt rulers all will be fine, and Arab societies will be just like ours.

This is evidently President Obama’s assumption. Famous as an anti-colonialist and openly contemptuous of the British for the way they used to order people about, he nonetheless sends an envoy to instruct President Mubarak peremptorily to leave office and start a process of “orderly transition.” He is taking it upon himself to arrange the government of another country. Never mind the hypocrisy, this is as imperious as anything the British ever did.

Mubarak has been a faithful ally of the United States these 30 years, and for all his faults has kept the peace.  His abrupt and unceremonious dumping signifies that no head of state anywhere can in future trust the United States. Here is a great power that has no qualms about punishing its friends when it is expedient to do so. “Orderly transition” is mere verbiage in the circumstances, displaying ignorance as well as imperialism. No mechanism exists to pass power from Mubarak to anyone else. The plastic hour fills with ambitious contenders: Omar Suleiman, Muhammad El-Baradei, the Muslim Brotherhood, and some likely generals who can command the army. It will be just good luck if the winner of this free-for-all is not brutal and corrupt, and now untrustworthy into the bargain. And in the event that this winner turns out bad, Obama has made sure that the United States gets the blame.

But are concepts of freedom and democracy understood in the same way in different cultures? Pew surveys last year showed Egyptians to be overwhelmingly Islamist. The journalists with the microphones are time and again recording young men saying they want freedom, because freedom means making war on Israel. “Orderly transition” is an invitation to the Muslim Brothers or the army, or most probably some combination, to arrange the next order of things, for instance the balance of power and issues of war and peace.  It is quite possible that when the plastic hour comes to an end and new men are installed in Arab presidential palaces everywhere, the United States will have neither friends nor influence in the region, maybe not even in a disappointed and embattled Israel.

‘The Egyptian Government Is Stable’?



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The spirit of revolution is shaking the whole Arab order. Egypt is the country to watch; it presents the Tunisian symptoms of distress writ large. Hosni Mubarak has been the president for over thirty years, longer even that Zine Ben Ali in Tunisia, who managed only 27 years as dictator. Presidential elections are due in Egypt in the summer. Eighty-two now and known to be in poor health, Mubarak may decide to fix proceedings as before and stay ruling by emergency decree. In which case, natural death or revolution are the only ways for Egyptians to be rid of him. Tunisians made the same calculus with the 74-year-old Ben Ali.

Egyptians are easy-going as a rule; they take life as it comes. Every so often, the injustices inflicted by their rulers are just too great to bear, and they demonstrate furiously in the streets. Mubarak came to office only because Islamists had shot and killed Anwar Sadat, his predecessor. Not a coward, he is a thug. He’s eliminated through death sentences and imprisonment a large number of Islamist opponents, and it is a safe bet that he’ll do the same now if demonstrators really threaten his position. So far, tear gas and water cannons are keeping crowd control, but if the situation deteriorates, the Egyptian army and police, in contrast to the Tunisians, are likely to obey orders to open fire on unarmed people. The outcome of such a test of strength is uncertain but probably an army officer would emerge, Nasser-like, to take power. There isn’t a viable democratic alternative, and the Islamists are probably good only for starting a civil war.

Mrs. Clinton tells us that the Obama administration’s assessment is that “the Egyptian government is stable.” There has been no pronouncement quite so fanciful as that since Jimmy Carter praised the Shah of Iran as a pillar of stability in the Middle East six short weeks before the Shah was run out of Iran. Along with the Arab order, American policy in the Middle East is also shaking.

Every Eight Hours



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Fifty-seven people have been executed already this year in Iran. That means the ayatollahs are hanging someone every eight hours. Last year they executed at least 180 people, a total they will surpass in a matter of weeks at the present rate. Most of the victims are hanged in public and there are sickening photographs of bodies on the gallows with a watchful crowd standing back a bit. The idea of course is to intimidate those bystanders, and it must work up to the point when they can take no more of it, and revolt. But what is this need to intimidate? That ghastly statistic of 57 hanged can only mean that the ayatollahs are terrified of a Tunisian-style uprising, an equivalent surge of popular rage which ends in regime change. The Tunisian dictator Zine Ben Ali is a Sunni and therefore welcome in Sunni Saudi Arabia, but the ayatollahs are Shia and there is no other Shia country to which they can flee. Repression is their last resort.

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