POLITICO: The Revolutionary Police State

(Originally published in Politico)

Time was, American presidents had Egyptian leaders at their beck and call. Hosni Mubarak was once obliged to get up at the crack of dawn for a photo op with President Bill Clinton, scheduled with U.S. prime-time TV in mind. But if there’s one thing the “Arab Spring”—if we can still use that term with a straight face—has proved, it’s that those days are gone. Ever since Feb. 2, 2011, when President Obama pulled the plug on Mubarak in a hasty speech calling on the longtime Egyptian strongman to leave “now,” the United States has gone from bankrolling a friendly dictator to bankrolling an unfriendly dictatorship—while fast estranging itself from all sides of the political spectrum. Continue reading POLITICO: The Revolutionary Police State

Street politics and manipulation in Egypt

Street politics is an inherently unstable and risky affair. Bypassing normal rules of political engagement, it can bring great dividends and or it can be an arena for sinister manipulation. Fortunately nothing has emerged from the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011 to suggest there was any of the kind of foul play involved in the street protests of 1953 in Iran against elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, now widely regarded as part of a CIA-orchestrated coup. Continue reading Street politics and manipulation in Egypt

The Iran nuclear debate: preserving regimes vs. destroying peoples

Debate has raged in recent days over an article in Foreign Affairs in which Matthew Kroenig of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the United States should not flinch from launching a military operation, and soon, to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran achieves nuclear weapons capability. In “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option”, Kroenig writes that: “…skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease – that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.” Continue reading The Iran nuclear debate: preserving regimes vs. destroying peoples

The Obama speech: Why did he bother?

The Big Speech was rather a non-event from the perspective of most people in the region, I reckon. Obama and his administration were behind the curve when the uprisings broke out. The uprisings were troubling for them because 1. (like the Iranian Revolution in 1979) they didn’t see it coming 2. the uprisings were an entirely local affair, trumping the assumption for years that democracy would only come from outside via war (like Iraq) or US pressure (post-Iraq war Bush years until Hamas won Palestinian elections) 3. as such, the uprisings have been outside US control and have the potential produce outcomes that challenge US policy in the region. That policy is pretty straightforward in its general outlines: make the Arabs and Iran accept Israel and peace with Israel on Israeli terms, challenge Iran and other forces opposed to the terms of the Pax Americana, and ensure that oil fields in Iraq and the Gulf stay in friendly hands. Continue reading The Obama speech: Why did he bother?

Arabs see Obama speech as late, not enough

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Fri May 20, 2011 2:59am IST

(Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech on uprisings sweeping the Arab world show Washington is struggling to guide democratic movements that took it by surprise, Arab analysts said, threatening U.S. regional allies.

Obama went to Cairo University to address the Muslim world in a landmark speech in 2009 that promised support for democracy that Washington assumed would come thanks to outside pressure on entrenched rulers in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

But on Thursday he stood at a State Department podium in Washington to discuss protest movements that have been mainly peaceful and driven by ordinary Arabs, removing autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt but so far failing to bring change in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria or Libya.

The stark contrast in settings said much about a confused U.S. reaction to Arab revolts where it has appeared to be irrelevant, and its challenge now in nudging them towards conclusions compatible with U.S. foreign policy goals.

Those include isolating Iran, ensuring continued Gulf Arab oil supplies and promoting Arab ties with Israel. Obama’s failure to end Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians seek statehood, has done much to quash the hope many Arabs had in him two years ago.

Reflecting that disillusion, Egyptian activist Hossam El-Hamalawy wrote on social media site Twitter: “Obama gave a speech? Really? As if I care”.

Arab analysts said Obama’s words were impressive but came largely too late and reflected U.S. fears of the consequences of uprisings without guidance from the West.

He talked of universal values of self-determination, democracy and individual rights that the United States would actively support but also of the need for “responsible regional leadership” from Egypt and Tunisia.

Emad Gad, analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said activists had a negative view of Obama because of Washington’s long support for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, toppled by unrest in February.

“Washington took a position against the Egyptian revolution and supported Mubarak until his final days in office. Security of Israel was the important issue,” he said, adding that the speech would do nothing to change that prevalent view.

Obama appointed a special envoy to Egypt during the unrest whose public comments suggested his remit was to save Mubarak, not meet popular demands that a dictator of 30 years must fall. Activists say massive U.S. financial aid only boosted Mubarak’s domination and stunted grassroots pressure for democracy.


Activists in other countries have been hoping for more support from Washington.

Obama made a point on Thursday of criticising Gulf Arab ally Bahrain, host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and seen as a bulwark against Iran, for cracking down on protests led by its majority Shi’ite population.

“We have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahraini citizens,” Obama said, although he added that Iran had tried to take advantage of the turmoil.

A Bahraini writer who did not wish to be named for fear of arrest praised Obama for speaking out on Bahrain, where hundreds of democracy activists have been arrested and some have died in detention.

“For the first time the United States is prepared to speak out on principles and values rather than short term interests only,” he said.

But Obama made no mention of Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain to help quell protests there, and gave $36 billion in aid to Saudi police, military, administrators and clerics as a reward for not supporting protest calls.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy which tolerates no dissent, has been a lynchpin of U.S. policy in the region for decades and analysts say its rulers were shocked by Obama’s last-minute ditching of Mubarak.

“Maybe there is no uprising there but it doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t talk about democracy in these countries,” said Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian political scientist.

Obama talked of women’s rights, in apparent reference to Saudi Arabia, but said democracy did not have to resemble the system in the United States, an apparent concession to Saudi arguments that it is an Islamic state ruling by sharia law.

On Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Washington are working behind the scenes to ensure a dignified exit for veteran autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, Obama said Saleh “needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power”.


Washington’s Gulf Arab allies fret about policy shifts in Egypt since Mubarak left office, as Cairo has opened contacts with Iran, eased the closure of its border to Hamas-ruled Gaza and backed a Palestinian unity government between the Islamist Hamas and Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama promised debt reduction to Egypt and other aid for fledgling Egyptian and Tunisian democracies, while dampening talk of a Palestinian declaration of independence in occupied territories in September.

He went beyond his Cairo speech in 2009 by talking of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. But he reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security in borders that guarantee its future as a Jewish democratic state, a recognition Israel is demanding from Palestinians in any final peace deal.

Analysts suggested U.S. aid will have strings attached on foreign policy. “What Obama didn’t talk about today: aid conditionality,” wrote Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Centre in Qatar on Twitter.

“My prediction on Obama’s speech: Arab leaders won’t like it much. Arab reformers won’t like it much,” Hamid said. “This is the Obama style: Try to appeal to everyone and end up disappointing everyone.”