Monday, March 21, 2011

Middle East on Fire: March 21, 2011

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By Barry Rubin

Events are happening so fast that I can only summarize, trying to add some analytical depth to each development. So here goes….


The referendum resulted in a 77 percent “yes” vote on constitutional amendments to reduce the powers of the president and ensure fair elections. The changes were reasonable ones.

BUT the two leading presidential candidates Amr Moussa (nationalist) and Muhammad ElBaradei (democrat) opposed the referendum. They claimed that the changes would help the Muslim Brotherhood take power. This means the result is a defeat for them both.

The army, which currently rules Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood supported the amendments. So does this mean that the “yes” vote is a victory for the Brotherhood? Yes, in part.

There are three reasons people voted “yes”:

--The amendments are good ones.

--People want to move forward, have elections, and get things back toward a more normal situation.

--They want to show support either for the army or the Brotherhood. Some think this is also a victory for the old regime as well, the former ruling National Democratic Party, though I’m not sure on this last point.

Yet there is no way to avoid seeing this as a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood which, a growing number of pro-democratic people in Egypt worry, has support within the army. That's why the National Democratic Party's resurgence is an idea that's popping up: because people want to believe there is some organized force other than the Brotherhood!

What is important here is that the political forces that seemed to be emerging have undermined their own popularity and shown how few people they can actually mobilize. Remember also the fact that the Brotherhood isn’t going to run a candidate for president and has now fallen out with ElBaradei.

So will Moussa or ElBaradei be president? Who will the Brotherhood support? Where do Egypt’s people stand? Can the nationalists and democrats organize? These are the questions to be determined.


The United States and other countries are now at war with Libya, now engaged in a third war in a Muslim-majority country (Afghanistan and Iraq)! President Barack Obama has said Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi must go.

But what is the commitment—justified by a UN resolution but not a congressional one!—on this issue?

If it is just a campaign to wipe out Libya's air defenses and stop the regime from using planes in its war effort, why have some Libyan ground forces been attacked? If it is limited to a bombing campaign, that won't bring the rebels a victory or stop Qadhafi from winning the war.

In short, is this a limited but meaningless public relations' oriented feel-good operation to declare "victory" by having a "no-fly" zone that changes little or nothing on the ground?

And is this policy a good thing or a bad thing?

I’m quite sympathetic with the idea of overthrowing Qadhafi but this is precisely the kind of operation that everyone always says should be avoided: no clear objective, no apparent strategy, an open-ended commitment, no serious thought about what happens if “we” win.

Not to mention the fact that deciding on when the United States makes war now seems a function of the UN and not the U.S. Congress. Imagine if President George W. Bush launched a war without even asking for a congressional resolution!

Oh, and guess what! After supposedly endorsing Western intervention the Arab League (predictably!) has condemned it. And who did the condemning? Why none other than the League's leader Amr Moussa, who may become Egypt's president in a few months, a position he will use to bash the United States on a daily basis. It might not be long before Arab media, regimes, nationalists, and Islamists will be condemning "Western imperialist aggression" against Libya.

And the total mess in the decision-making process leading to the war, indecision, and internal conflicts are all readily apparent, too. The situation screams out: this will not end well.

Finally, who the heck is the Libyan opposition? At least in Egypt the administration could pretend to answer the question of to whom it was turning over power, nice Facebook-using equivalents of the Founding Fathers. The U.S. government cannot answer the question about who it is at war to put into power in Libya!

The opposition seems to be a combination of factors: those who (understandably) hate Qadhafi, young people who want to emulate Egypt’s revolution, tribal forces from eastern Libya (for much of history a separate country) that view the regime as an alien presence in their region, and Islamists of various types. 

In contrast to the (anti-Islamist, though being a club for dictators) Arab League, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the leading Muslim Brotherhood cleric, has actually supported the Western offensive against Qadhafi! One should not assume that this is an Islamist-led revolt by any means, but who knows? That’s the kind of thing you’d like to understand before launching a war to bring victory to this side, right?

In other words, Obama has just launched a possibly open-ended war to overthrow a dictator and bring democracy to an Arab country, albeit by using the minimal amount of troops. Doesn’t this seem just a bit like his predecessor’s war in Iraq but less planned, less based on U.S. strategic interests, and with less understanding of the country and the forces being supported there?

Even if the goal of overthrowing Qadhafi and to keep him from massacring thousands of people is a good one in principle, the procedure is dangerously inept.


Despite ferocious repression, the anti-regime demonstrations in Syria have gained momentum. I doubt that they are going to cause the regime serious problems in the end but it is encouraging to see that a lot of the Syrian people are fed up.

Particularly significant is the opposition in the long-discontented Kurdish region, where an ethnic-nationalist impulse joins other factors in prompting opposition. Meanwhile, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of the leading exile opposition group, has shaken up its leadership, perhaps believing it must prepare for new opportunities to challenge the Assad dictatorship.

U.S. policymakers have not—and will not—say one word in support of Syria’s opposition, which is a scandalous omission.


And speaking of scandalous omissions, you can read President Barack Obama’s Iranian New Year’s statement and note how careful he is to avoid giving support to the Iranian opposition. The administration has clearly decided (this has been clear for a long time) that backing Iran’s dissidents will discredit them in the eyes of the masses (funny, it doesn’t take this into account in every other country—as in Egypt--where it is more likely to be true!)

“The United States,” Obama says, “does not meddle in Iran’s internal affairs,” but merely stands up for “rights that should be universal to all human beings.” What happened to multiculturalism?

Some in the West may misinterpret Obama's message as support for the Iranian opposition but I'm certain no one in Iran will look at it this way. Saying that the Iranian regime is repressive and the United States likes human rights and democracy is hardly backing the regime's overthrow and helping the opposition. On the contrary, it is in line with the policy articulated by Undersecretary of State Burns and which I'd summarize like this:

The United States will help bring down "pro-Western" Arab regimes in order to prevent them from being even more unpopular or overthrown by radical Islamists. They will then become good democracies, in part by integrating most of the Islamists who will become moderate. As good democracies they will then furnish a good example to people living under radical regimes (Iran) who will then overturn their rulers without the United States doing anything.

I'm not satirizing, I'm summarizing.

Compare the Obama and Bush policies:

Obama: Help overthrow "pro-American" Arab regimes (and now, also Libya's dictatorship for humanitarian reasons). Avoid exercising American leadership in the region.

Buth: Help overthrow "anti-American" Arab regimes and Iran.  Exercise American leadership in the region.

While both strategies have their flaws, how the heck can Obama say that Mubarak must go and Qadhafi must go but not dare say that the Iranian Islamist regime must go? Mubarak was, after all, a U.S. ally, and Qadhafi was a terrorist troublemaker but who has not bothered the United States much in recent years.

In contrast, Iran is sponsoring anti-American terrorism; killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan; harboring al-Qaida; calling for genocide in Israel; and seeking to overthrow every government friendly to America in the Middle East.

How can anyone dare say that the Obama Administration makes sense, at least in a good way?

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, a study of Arab reform movements (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: His blog, Rubin Reports,

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