Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Juan Cole on Fox News (Radio)

So, asking John Bolton to keep up with Juan Cole in a debate on Gaza is a bit like inviting a 12th Century English peasant on Jeopardy, but Cole manages to make some good points despite the absence of a worth adversary.

Syria Edges Closer to Europe

From the Institute for War and Peace Reporting


Officials from the Syrian government and the European Union took a step closer to signing a partnership agreement when they met in Damascus at the weekend, but analysts say more reforms – political as well as economic – will be needed to clinch the deal.

On December 14, the two sides initialed a revised version of the original partnership agreement that dates from 2004 but has remained unsigned because of political differences, such as allegations that Damascus was implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs Abdullah al-Dardari insisted the prospective deal would not entail Damascus making concessions on points of principle.

“We would never sacrifice any of our interests for an agreement,” he told the pro-government website Syria News on December 15.

The meeting was a sign of just how far Syria’s relationship with European states, France in particular, has warmed in recent months. French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing head of the EU, has praised recent Syrian actions such as opening diplomatic relations with Lebanon and engaging in indirect peace talks with Israel.

“Syria regards the latest step [initialing of agreement] as a political victory,” said a Damascus-based political analyst who asked to remain anonymous. “After several years’ isolation, it’s very important for Syria to become a normal partner in the international and regional community.”

The analyst warned that the final agreement, which is now expected to be signed in the first half of 2009, could be derailed because there were still many conditions that needed to be met.

The agreement is mainly about trade and economic cooperation, but it comes with certain conditions, principally progress in the area of economic reform. The analyst said it was unlikely that the EU would sign the final agreement unless reforms on the table.

“For now, Syria has done nothing obvious to make it deserving of such a deal, since it hasn’t entirely stopped intervening in Lebanese affairs, nor has it made other concessions to the international community,” said the political analyst. “But the European Union would not have taken this step unless it expected that Syria was going to make certain reforms.”

The analyst said he doubted the regime would give any ground when it came to political changes, but predicted that the EU might not press as hard on this issue.

“Europeans fear any political reform in our region, maybe more than the regimes themselves,” he said. “They believe in guaranteed stability more than the less certain results of democratic reform”.

However, an economic analyst also based in Damascus said economic reform could not take place without political changes as well.

“To apply the agreement, comprehensive economic reform is needed at all levels, but that can’t happen without political reform,” he said. “The Syrian regime has lost the last four years, perhaps not deliberately, but because it tried to pursue economic reforms without instituting political reform, in an effort to protect special interests.”

These “special interests”, he explained, were those of the lucky few who had benefited from being on the inside track of privatisation as Syria tried to shift from socialism to market economics.

“Our economy used to be monopolised by the government,” he said. “When the regime started to liberate the market, the economy became monopolised by a handful of wealthy and powerful figures. This has prevented a wider swathe of society from enjoying the benefits of a more open economy”.

Even the purely economic reforms are going to be hard to manage. The limited economic opening that has taken place so far has led to a flood of imported goods, rising inflation and falling real incomes, and mounting unemployment.

After the document was initialed, al-Dardari warned that its terms could prove a threat to some industries in Syria and weaken others, although he insisted it would lead to the creation of new industries as well.

The agreement envisages a range of measures to open up the Syrian economy, for example by lifting custom tariffs on agricultural products and creating a free trade relationship with EU member states. The economic analyst said it was hard to imagine the government doing so, and that it would be unwise to abandon protectionist measures all of a sudden.

“The European Union is a market of 430 million people and our goods have to be not only keenly priced but also of a higher quality to be able to penetrate it,” said the economist. “Many Syrians could be hurt by increased competition, and the government needs to put in place some safeguards for the Syrian people before the full agreement takes effect.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

The Upside of Living in the Woods

The upside of the fact that my mother lives in the woods is that she cannot get cable, which means she also can't get Fox News, which ergo means I don't have to be subjected to that drivvle (although she did admit - only to me - that she voted for Obama). My friend sent me a post from some bloggers who "Watch Fox News So You Don't Have To" which is possibly the greatest service to mankind since Prometheus.

They have some nice highlights of John Bolton's appearance on Hannity and Colmes. This man talks about major war with such flippancy that you'd think he actually seen combat himself at some point in his life. Predictably (the biggest war mongers are always the ones who sat on their asses in the National Guard during Vietnam). Bolton famously commented, "I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy." A stupid statement that would come back to haunt him as hopefully every stupid comment he has made to date will do as well.

Here's the highlights:

"I don't think there's anything at this point standing between Iran and nuclear weapons other than the possibility of the use of military force, possibly by the United States, possibly by Israel. I don't see the Bush administration doing it. So it could well come down to Israel.”

"I would use military force against Iran's nuclear program because I think that the world gets a lot more dangerous once Iran has nuclear weapons."

On Fox News radio he also calls the latest Israeli attack on Gaza (which has killed over 350 and wounded nearly 1,400) "a good start."


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Friday, December 26, 2008

Haaretz analysis of Assad

Haaretz correspondent Aluf Benn has written an analysis of the international community's recent warming to Bashar Al-Assad. Of course it's standard fare for Israeli and American journalists to point out the recalcitrance of Arab governments without a thought toward the baselessness of the actions of their own governments, and Benn offers just another example. He writes:

"Olmert depicts revival of the Syrian track as a courageous diplomatic move. It can also be seen differently: In a combination of bullying moves, cautious diplomacy and military restraint, the cunning Assad has driven a wedge between Israel and the U.S., and is being welcomed in Europe without making even one small gesture toward Israel or the U.S. The arms are continuing to flow to Hezbollah, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad command centers in Damascus are thriving."

I think the fact that Assad has pursued diplomatic channels in response to both the Israeli attack on an alleged nuclear facility, and more notably, the US bombing of Syrian territory that killed 8 people, are both major "gestures" toward both Israel and the US.

Is there a bureaucrat anywhere without blood on his hands?

In October I thought the Republicans would either assassinate Obama or rig all the Deibold voting machines to ensure a GOP victory. Then, after the Obama appointments starting rolling out, I realized they didn't have to do either. Any Republican would be happy with the figures he has named to top posts (and indeed, most Republicans are issuing statements to this effect), including the recent appointment of Admiral Dennis C. Blair as new Director of National Intelligence. Bradly Simpson (a Professor at Princeton) wrote this excellent book on the US adventure in Indonesia based on declassified government documents, in which Blair was a key figure. The book is great (I actually found it discarded in the hallway at Maryland when one of my professors was cleaning out his office) and details, among other things, the complicity of academia in the US foray into Indonesian politics and the Chilean-esque role of economists in dictating US foreign policies. Here's a brief memo he writes on Blair's appointment.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Syria doesn't appear in the City Paper too often, but when it does, you know it's gonna be good

This appeared in the "News of the Weird" section:

"Also in July, a Syrian truck driver hauling a 32-ton load from Turkey across Europe and using GPS to get him to Gibraltar, at the Southern tip of Spain, missed his destination by about 1,600 miles; he wound up at Gibraltar Point in Skegness, a bird-watching outpost in the British Isles."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Some things never change

"Though the American media occupy themselves with Assad's current shift toward moderation—Syria's participation in the peace talks, its more civilized attitude toward Syrian Jews, and its seeming abstinence from anti-Western terrorism—the question remains: Given Syria's history up to this moment, do any of these policy changes really matter?"

And the best part: this is from an article published in the Atlantic in 1993!! Could've been written yesterday.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I love jokes that trivialize international conflict - cause if we didn't laugh about it we'd all end up crying

"The Syrians and the Iranians will never give up the resistance - they will continue fighting down to the very last Lebanese."

It's not verbatim, but it's the overall gist. Heard it from the head of a think tank based here in Beirut.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Indiana may have went blue - but too many people in the American South are still red-blooded racists

This is quite possibly the most disturbing article I have read in a long time. And best part is, it's not about the Middle East, it's about the American South. Glad I'm in Syria and Lebanon, where people aren't so racist . . . .

I'll cut and past the entire article because it's that shocking:

Election spurs 'hundreds' of race threats, crimes
Nov 15, 05:18 PM EST
By JESSE WASHINGTON - AP National Writer

Cross burnings. Schoolchildren chanting "Assassinate Obama." Black figures hung from nooses. Racial epithets scrawled on homes and cars.

Incidents around the country referring to President-elect Barack Obama are dampening the postelection glow of racial progress and harmony, highlighting the stubborn racism that remains in America.

From California to Maine, police have documented a range of alleged crimes, from vandalism and vague threats to at least one physical attack. Insults and taunts have been delivered by adults, college students and second-graders.

There have been "hundreds" of incidents since the election, many more than usual, said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes.

One was in Snellville, Ga., where Denene Millner said a boy on the school bus told her 9-year-old daughter the day after the election: "I hope Obama gets assassinated." That night, someone trashed her sister-in-law's front lawn, mangled the Obama lawn signs, and left two pizza boxes filled with human feces outside the front door, Millner said.

She described her emotions as a combination of anger and fear.

"I can't say that every white person in Snellville is evil and anti-Obama and willing to desecrate my property because one or two idiots did it," said Millner, who is black. "But it definitely makes you look a little different at the people who you live with, and makes you wonder what they're capable of and what they're really thinking."

Potok, who is white, said he believes there is "a large subset of white people in this country who feel that they are losing everything they know, that the country their forefathers built has somehow been stolen from them."

Grant Griffin, a 46-year-old white Georgia native, expressed similar sentiments: "I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change.

"If you had real change it would involve all the members of (Obama's) church being deported," he said.

Change in whatever form does not come easy, and a black president is "the most profound change in the field of race this country has experienced since the Civil War," said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. "It's shaking the foundations on which the country has existed for centuries."

"Someone once said racism is like cancer," Ferris said. "It's never totally wiped out, it's in remission."

If so, America's remission lasted until the morning of Nov. 5.

The day after the vote hailed as a sign of a nation changed, black high school student Barbara Tyler of Marietta, Ga., said she heard hateful Obama comments from white students, and that teachers cut off discussion about Obama's victory.

Tyler spoke at a press conference by the Georgia chapter of the NAACP calling for a town hall meeting to address complaints from across the state about hostility and resentment. Another student, from a Covington middle school, said he was suspended for wearing an Obama shirt to school Nov. 5 after the principal told students not to wear political paraphernalia.

The student's mother, Eshe Riviears, said the principal told her: "Whether you like it or not, we're in the South, and there are a lot of people who are not happy with this decision."

Other incidents include:

-Four North Carolina State University students admitted writing anti-Obama comments in a tunnel designated for free speech expression, including one that said: "Let's shoot that (N-word) in the head." Obama has received more threats than any other president-elect, authorities say.

-At Standish, Maine, a sign inside the Oak Hill General Store read: "Osama Obama Shotgun Pool." Customers could sign up to bet $1 on a date when Obama would be killed. "Stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count," the sign said. At the bottom of the marker board was written "Let's hope someone wins."

-Racist graffiti was found in places including New York's Long Island, where two dozen cars were spray-painted; Kilgore, Texas, where the local high school and skate park were defaced; and the Los Angeles area, where swastikas, racial slurs and "Go Back To Africa" were spray painted on sidewalks, houses and cars.

-Second- and third-grade students on a school bus in Rexburg, Idaho, chanted "assassinate Obama," a district official said.

-University of Alabama professor Marsha L. Houston said a poster of the Obama family was ripped off her office door. A replacement poster was defaced with a death threat and a racial slur. "It seems the election brought the racist rats out of the woodwork," Houston said.

-Black figures were hanged by nooses from trees on Mount Desert Island, Maine, the Bangor Daily News reported. The president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas said a rope found hanging from a campus tree was apparently an abandoned swing and not a noose.

-Crosses were burned in yards of Obama supporters in Hardwick, N.J., and Apolacan Township, Pa.

-A black teenager in New York City said he was attacked with a bat on election night by four white men who shouted 'Obama.'

-In the Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills, a black man said he found a note with a racial slur on his car windshield, saying "now that you voted for Obama, just watch out for your house."

Emotions are often raw after a hard-fought political campaign, but now those on the losing side have an easy target for their anger.

"The principle is very simple," said BJ Gallagher, a sociologist and co-author of the diversity book "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins." "If I can't hurt the person I'm angry at, then I'll vent my anger on a substitute, i.e., someone of the same race."

"We saw the same thing happen after the 9-11 attacks, as a wave of anti-Muslim violence swept the country. We saw it happen after the Rodney King verdict, when Los Angeles blacks erupted in rage at the injustice perpetrated by 'the white man.'"

"It's as stupid and ineffectual as kicking your dog when you've had a bad day at the office," Gallagher said. "But it happens a lot."


Associated Press writers Errin Haines, Jerry Harkavy, Jay Reeves, Johnny Taylor and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Spoke too soon - some decent coverage in the Lebanese Daily Star

In an article from November 8th, The Daily star reports that Hariri’s Future Parliamentary Bloc/March 14th movement supported by the West (and opposed to Syrian interference) has denied any links with the 10 men and 1 woman of Fatah Al-Islam that carried out the car-bombing that killed 17 on the outskirts of Damascus in early September. Spokesmen for the movement claimed that the truth of the confessions was questionable, and that it was a strategic move by Syria to shift pressure away from the Assad regime in the lead up to the release of findings from a continuing UN investigation into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, expected December 10th. Spokesmen for the March 14th movement also claimed that the more likely explanation is that there are connections between Fatah Al-Islam and Syrian intelligence. Fatah Al-Islam gained notice during 2007, when it fought a deadly 15-week battle with the Lebanese military in the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon. The bombings in Tripoli are also believed to have been planned and carried out by Palestinians living in Lebanon’s refugee camps.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Coverage of Suspects Confession in Damascus Car-Bombing

Unfortunately, the only decent media report I can find on the suspects arrested in the Damascus car-bombing is from an Israeli newspaper. Makes you wonder why there's no decent coverage from the Arab papers.

Lebanon cementing ties with Russia

Lebanon just asked the Russians for help to liberate the occupied Shebaa Farms area (the deal for buying Russian tanks is already in the pipeline); and now Saad Hariri has stated he wants to establish relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Interesting to see how this plays out in US policy circles.

Update on September car-bombing in Damascus

A new wave of arrests have been made in Lebanon in connection to the car bombing in Damascus this past September. About one week ago, the Syrian state television aired the confessions of 10 individuals (including one woman) who claimed responsibility on behalf of Fatah Al-Islam. Among them were Palestinians, Syrians and I believe some Iraqis as well. Syrians I spoke to are skeptical and don’t buy the government’s story, but some important figures (including Sami Moubayed) believe it to be mostly true. The Syrian state news also claimed that the woman admitted to having (at least financial) ties with the Hariri group (supporters of the March 14th movement and it’s current heir Saad Hariri). Lebanese claims of Syrian ‘terror’ within their borders are ubiquitous – so any claims the Syrians could make against the Lebanese would be political heroin. The Lebanese have now arrested suspects they found in Tripoli (where a recent bombing targeted the Lebanese armed forces) and a nearby Palestinian refugee camp.

The Rumor Mill . . .

Heard a scary story yesterday. Apparently, a (Jewish) American has gone missing in Syria. This is the story I heard, and I have no way of corroborating it. When he arrived in Damascus he phoned up his best friend – a Syrian also living in Damascus. Unfortunately, his friend happened to be the individual who sold the car and the two cells phones to the group that assassinated Imad Mughniyeh in Kefr Sousa (a group the Syrian government believes has ties to the Mossad). Since he had ‘ties’ with the group anyone associated with him is tainted as well. Apparently his wife has been searching for him, and is getting the runaround from the authorities. If anyone has heard anything about this let me know!

Damascus Film Festival

Despite the proliferation of high-end shopping centers and restaurants in Damascus movie theatres are still absent. The only cinema in town (by Sham Palace) rarely gets Western movies, and usually shows ones from Egypt or Turkey. However, in the past 3 years or so, there has been the Damascus Film Festival – this year held for a week in November, that shows Western films (from the US and Europe) several times a day at several different outlets. It’s really a grab bag of genres, from independent Italian films to movies like “What Happens in Vegas.” Could be a prelude to finally allowing the importation of Western cinema on a regular basis – which would make sense given the increasingly visible presence of every other form of imperialist vice.

Everybody loves dictator jokes . . . .

One day, a Syrian lawyer decides he is fed up with the human rights situation in his country. Having had enough, he takes to the street. He carries a wooden crate to the city square, stands on top of it and begins to shout:
“Where are our civil rights?”
“Where is our freedom?
“Where is our free press?”
“Where are the schools and hospitals we were promised?”
“Where are our free and fair elections?”
“Where are you taking me? Wait, wait, where are you taking me?”

A joke about Simba (this is the code my friends use to talk about the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad because the name Al-Assad means “The Lion” and Bashar is the son of the original lion, the late Hafez Al-Assad).

So, in Syria, they practice military conscription – and it’s difficult to get out of. Those privileged enough to be members of the Alawi sect (the President’s sect) get to serve their military terms in Damascus, but almost as a rule, Damascenes who must serve in the army are sent into the hinterlands – the equivalent of sending someone from New York to live in Bangladesh for 2 years.

So – for quite some time there’s been an influx of people from the reef (the countryside) moving to Damascus after they serve their terms in the military – because for these people the military is often a source of social mobility. Well, Bashar Al Assad has a strange characteristic – the back of his head is completely flat. So those Syrians who are not lucky enough to be members of the Alawi sect say that this happens to all Alawites because their mothers hit them on the back of the head with a frying pan and say, “Get your ass to Damascus.”

I guess everyone's father is an embarrassment sometime . . .

The appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff for Obama has gotten a lot of coverage in the Arab press because of his Israeli ancestry, his father’s membership in the Irgun (an Israeli terrorist organization that launched attacks against British troops during the mandate period) and of course since that isn’t enough his father (Benjamin Emanuel) also took the liberty of characterizing all Arabs as manual laborers. The exact quote is: “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.” Nice asshole –really nice.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The American Elections in Arab Eyes

Excitement over Barak Obama's presidency is almost a foregone conclusion in the Arab World. Naturally, a candidate that has expressed a desire to reach out to the Syrian and Iranian regimes, after the disastrous isolation pursued by the Bush Administration, would elicit approval and hope among Arab citizens. The excitement of a highly-contested election is also predictable, since most elections in the Arab world are pre-determined by a complex network of bureaucratic and legal maneuvers that ensure the continuation of incumbent regimes. The highly criticized constitutional amendments in Egypt in 2007 were just such an example of a ruling party orchestrating election laws to ensure their own success in future contests. Add this to the notorious examples of elections with 99% approval ratings for the ruling parties in other Arab states, and the possibility of an unknowable election in a country whose policies impact the region perhaps more than their own domestic elections is predictable.
However, after decades of being disappointed by promises of engagement and holding despots to account, many of the region’s citizens are rightly disillusioned with any candidate for the US presidency. One of the dominant narratives in the region regarding Senator Barak Obama’s presidency is that his connections with Islam (his father is a Muslim) and the color of his skin will drive him to ‘prove’ himself – that is, to be even more zealous in his pursuit of the US national interest than McCain would have been. Because he is black – and he has ancestral ties to the Muslim religion, he will have to demonstrate to the American public that he is as “American” – that is, as white and as Christian – as they are. This was visible in the early Summer and Fall months of the campaign, as Obama was forced to reiterate his Christian faith in the face of comments made by his former preacher that blamed US foreign policy for the September 11th attacks. The famous statement about the “chickens coming home to roost” played right into fears about Obama’s belief in the superiority of the American cause. Arab citizens here closely followed the campaign – and didn’t miss the potential ramifications of attacks like these - most visible in Obama’s rhetoric toward Israel – a painful reminder to Arabs that the prospects for peace are constrained by the necessity of the US maintaining close ties with the Jewish state. Any time to argue that Obama will ‘moderate’ his views on the Palestinian issue now that he has secured the presidency are met with the example of Jimmy Carter – who has been incredibly vocal on behalf of Palestinian rights . . . . now that he’s no longer president .
Other Arabs I have spoke with (particularly older individuals) fear that Obama is too inexperienced, although it is difficult to say whether they truly believe this is the case or are merely reiterating what seems like a cogent qualification that other critics have leveled against Obama. The old adage that “All these people, ie: Arabs, understand is force” – is sadly reinforced by observations like these. Despite all our railing against Arab regimes that pursue stability over democracy and civil rights, there is a surprising number of Arab citizens that echo the preference for security over liberty. Obama simultaneously represents both: the potential to engage with Arab regimes and push for meaningful reforms but also the possibility of acting as a destabilizing force whose naïve belief in the goodness of humanity could be worse than Bush’s maniacal pursuit of a “New Middle East.”

Thousands of Syrian Cab Drivers Breathe Easier

Syrian singer George Wassouf was released from a Swedish prison today after being found with cocaine last week and missing a concert date. Had they kept him in prison I think the demonstrations in front of the Swedish embassy would have made last week's protest against the US-bombing raid pale in comparison . . . . and they probably wouldn't have been organized by the Syrian government either.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Lebanon's very own George W. Bush

Beyond the immediate similarities between Saad Hariri and George W. Bush (the fathers of both formerly held the highest political office in their respective countries) - they also share an affinity for uttering incredibly ignorant statements. Although I'm no apologist for the Syrian regime, they have made some reasonable moves in the past. But in Friday's Daily Star (the Lebanese daily) Hariri remarked that Syria should take the high road regarding US and Israeli aggression (with respect to last week's raid on the Iraqi border by US troops and the Israeli bombing of the supposed nuclear facility last September, respectively) and file complaints with the UN. Of course, Syria did file complaints with the UN over both incidents. Guess the US isn't the only place blessed with leaders who somehow manage to avoid even the most obvious and mundane realities.

Members of Syrian Political Opposition Sentenced to Prison

Below article is from Human Rights Watch:
Syria: Harsh Sentences for Democratic Opposition
Damascus Declaration Trial a Transparent Bid to Silence Critics

(Damascus, October 30, 2008) – Syria’s sentencing of a dozen leading democracy advocates to more than two years in prison is the latest evidence of Syria’s repression of opposition groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The democracy activists, including doctors, lawyers, writers, and an artist, were sentenced on October 29, 2008 to 30 months in prison on politically motivated charges.

Human Rights Watch attended the sentencing session and called for President Bashar al-Assad to immediately quash the convictions and order the prisoners’ release.

In a sentencing session that barely lasted 20 minutes, the First Damascus Criminal Court, presided over by Muhieldeen Hallaq, convicted the 12 activists on vaguely defined charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” The authorities had detained the democracy activists, including former member of parliament Riad Seif, after they participated in a meeting last December of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, an umbrella group of opposition and pro-democracy groups.

Founded in 2005, the Damascus Declaration is a coalition of political parties and independent activists whose stated goal is to build internal support for peaceful democratic change in Syria.

“In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The trial was a mere cover to legitimize the government’s repression of opposition groups and peaceful critics.”

Human Rights Watch said that the detention and trial of the activists was marred from the beginning. Syrian security forces held the activists initially for up to 40 days in incommunicado detention. Eight of the 12 detainees told the investigative judge that State Security officials beat them during their interrogation and forced them to sign false statements “confessing” that they planned to take money from foreign countries in order to divide the country by giving the Kurds a separate state. One of the detainees, `Ali al-Abdullah, suffered injury to his ear as a result of the beating he endured. The court did not order any independent investigation regarding the allegations of ill-treatment.

During the trial, the activists confirmed their involvement in the Damascus Declaration, but pleaded not guilty and denied the charges against them. In their defense session on September 24, the defendants expressed doubts about the trial since it was their “freedom of expression that was on trial.” Another detainee, Walid al-Bunni, a physician, told the court during his defense that “getting into the details of my defense is useless, but I will ask: what is the basis of the accusations?”

One of the defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the defense team will likely appeal the sentence within the required 30 days. He summarized the judgment by saying “membership in the Damascus Declaration is now criminalized.” The wife of one of the sentenced detainees who had been jailed in the past for his activism expressed her disgust at the trial. “We don’t know what to feel anymore. I don’t care if the sentence is for 2.5 years or 10 years. My husband should not be in jail in the first place.”

Syria has a long record of prosecuting political activists who peacefully express their opinions. On May 13, 2007, the Second Damascus Criminal Court sentenced four prominent activists, including prominent writer Michel Kilo and political activist Mahmud `Issa, to periods varying from three to 10 years in prison for “weakening national sentiment” after they signed a declaration calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations.

Syrian security services have a significant influence in the trials of political activists, whether before the criminal courts or exceptional courts. While they often exercise such influence behind closed doors, in some instances evidence has emerged in public, as in the 2007 trial of Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering. In that trial, the head of National Security sent a letter to the Minister of Justice asking him to charge Labwani with “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” even though the prosecutor had not initially included such a charge. The court ended up sentencing Labwani to 12 years in jail under a charge that was added at the request of National Security.

Background on the ‘Damascus Declaration’ and Syria’s crackdown on critics

The Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (“Damascus Declaration”) is a coalition of political parties and independent Syrian activists created in October 2005. It consists of individuals and groups from different political backgrounds (Arab Nationalists, Kurds, liberals, leftists, Islamists) who issued a statement of principles, including the establishment of democracy in Syria, lifting of the state of emergency, protection of minority rights, release of all political prisoners, abolition of Law No. 49 (which makes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death), and upholding of international human rights standards.

The National Council was established as a follow-up body for the Damascus Declaration. On December 1, 2007, more than 163 activists from the Damascus Declaration held a meeting to elect the leadership of the National Council. They elected as president Dr. Feda’ al-Hurani, a physician and daughter of Akram al-Hurani, a prominent Syrian politician who was highly influential in Syrian politics from the beginning of the 1940s until his exile in 1963.

Starting on December 9, 2007, Syrian security services began a crackdown on individuals who attended the meeting, arresting more than 40. While they released most without charge within a few days, they kept 12 members in detention and referred them to trial. These 12 are:

1. Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician;
2. Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet;
3. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician;
4. Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer;
5. Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist;
6. Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher;
7. `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer;
8. Fayez Sarah, 58, writer and journalist;
9. Muhammad Hajji Darwish, 48, businessman;
10. Marwan al-`Ush, 52, engineer;
11. Riad Seif, 61, former member of parliament; and,
12. Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor

Article 38 of Syria’s Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to “freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression.” As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Syria has an international obligation to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly as well as the right to a fair trial.

Quotes from the defendants during their September 24 defense session

“I am not optimistic for the judgment … as I think that we are not being tried by this court, but from a power that relies on the state of emergency and the security services.”
– Riad Seif, 61, former member of parliament

“To end the state of emergency and the martial courts and to improve public freedoms – especially freedom of expression – are necessary conditions to improve the living situation of the Syrian citizen.”
– Dr. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician

“I was tried for political reasons before. But this trial is different, because it is a trial of individuals who wanted to exercise their right to express their mind.”
– Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer

“Our arrest and trial is the best indication of the authorities’ refusal of any peaceful and gradual reforms required to resolve Syria’s problems.”
– `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer

“The right to freedom of expression is a sacred right, and to give it up is to give up one’s humanity, and I defend my right and the right of any Syrian citizen in his freedom of expression.”
– Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet

“The heart of this case is whether the authorities will accept the culture of dialogue and recognize different opinions.”
– Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher

“It is difficult today to judge someone for his thoughts after democracy has become the way to determine people’s opinions and ideas.”
– Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist

“Getting into the details of my defense is useless, but I will ask: what is the basis of the accusations?”
– Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician

“This is a trial of thoughts and concepts more than a trial of individuals. I don’t see that this court is trying me – rather it is trying every free mind in this country.”
– Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor

“Even though I know that the court is not neutral, I say: any judgment is akin to a medal on my chest that I gift to my sons. Therefore I do not ask for clemency but for justice.”
– Muhammad Hajji Darwish, 48, businessman

Possible Coordination between CIA and Syrian Intelligence in Bombing Raid

Although I haven't heard this anywhere else, Professor Moshe Moaz suggests possible collaboration between CIA and Syrian Intelligence in the raid that killed 8 Syrians in the Syrian-Iraqi border town last week. Short story here in the Jerusalem Post (which is blocked in Syria - but accessible from Beirut). The reasoning is that there was no Syrian military response to the raid - which would probably have triggered at least some sort of skirmish had the Syrian regime not pre-approved the operation. So far the only response to the killings have been a mass demonstration (tens of thousands of protesters) and the closing of the American School and American Cultural Center until further notice. The embassy also closed for one day due to increased security concerns. Most of my Syrian friends believe the protest was orchestrated by the government. This is quite commonplace, government officials pass out signs and pictures to protesters, who are mainly gathered from among employees of public sector factories, civil servants and students at the state-run universities.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Department of the Interior Employees Exploring the Privates of their Private Sector Counterparts

So, in addition to windfall profits, government subsidies and shady tax write-offs, oil company employees are also into hookers and blow. Nice.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dictator Jokes

I love dictator jokes - and although I'm not creative or thoughtful enough to weave them into an amazing text on seditious politics I can record them here so we can all get a laugh.

Joke #1

So, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak (the first two make a posthumous appearance but after all it's a joke) are all in a cab together headed to a conference on the future of Egyptian reform. They come to a fork in the road and the cab driver asks which way to go. Nasser says "left," Sadat says "right," and Mubarak says, "no just stop here."

Joke #2

The Yemeni ambassador travels to the villa of his Italian counterpart for a diplomatic visit. The Yemeni ambassador is impressed with the opulence of the Italian's residence and asks him how he managed to build such a place on a diplomat's salary. The Italian responds, "Look out the window. See that bridge over there? Well, I skimmed a little off the budget for that bridge and built myself this house." The Yemeni ambassador nods in approval. A few months later the Italian ambassador pays a visit to his Yemeni colleague. He's surprised to find him living in a palatial mansion. "How did you afford such a place?" the Italian ambassador asks. "See that bridge over there?" the Yemeni ambassador asks pointing out the window. "I don't see any bridge," the Italian responds. "Of course not" the Yemeni says, "if I had built the bridge I never would have been able to afford this house."

That's all my tired mind can come up with right now - but I'll post them as them come flooding back . . . .

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Roots of 'Foreign Subversion' Conspiracies in the Middle East? - Actual Foreign Subversion

"Foreign Subversion" is probably the first English phrase any Arab politician learns, and is the explanation for everything from peasant resistance to childhood vaccines (they obviously cause sterility) to curbing media freedom (Israel will infiltrate Syrian Facebook groups). Next to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it's the number two reason Arab regimes give for maintaining archaic restraints on human freedom. "Irrational appeals to conspiracy theories" could just be another footnote in some Orientalist publication on the Arab Mind, but turns out, they're not so irrational after all.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Statistics Don't Lie But Corporate Interests Groups Do

I am SO sick of business interest groups running these ridiculous commercials that criticize the US for supposedly having "the highest corporate tax rates among OECD countries." Everyone knows (including the jerks who are running these advertisements) that loopholes in the US tax laws in fact result in much lower tax rates for corporations in the US than in European countries and Japan. Most corporations don't even pay income taxes (the result of a perverse interpretation of the 14th amendment that allows corporations to be granted rights as 'individuals' under US law). What taxes they do pay comes from the paychecks of their employees (and I think we've all seen in the last few years that the more money executives make the more they can pay their accountants to hide it in offshore accounts). It disgusts me that these groups can run these commercials that are in essence lying to the public (especially to the public that hasn't had the fortune of a higher education in economics). Here's a link that explains in detail why US corporate tax rates are NOT in fact higher than those elsewhere in the developed world.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

When it's good to just keep your trap shut

A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry warned that, "Europe should be very careful in its relationship with Syria." Sounds a lot like the British foreign ministry in the 50s convincing the US government not to negotiate with Mossadegh - and we all know how well that turned out . . . .

Despite the fact that the article is about French-Syrian talks, you can read all about the Israeli government's constructive input here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

NYTimes: Israeli Settlements Grow at Double the Rate of Last Year

When US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice found out that Israelis are constructing illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank at twice the rate they were last year (not only in violation of EVERY peace accord ever negotiated but also in violation of the US plan for peace), she said this 'did not advance the cause of peace' and 'ought to be avoided.' That's like telling Robert Mugabe that 'we'd appreciate it if you didn't send death squads into the street to murder supporters of the political opposition' or saying to Bashir (Sudan) 'it would be nice if you would stop ordering your paramilitary troops to plunder, rape and pillage the black Africans in the South.' How about Condi grows a pair of stones and demands that the settlement construction be stopped or we won't send all those new missiles and sensitive technologies to Israel that we just agreed to (which is probably responsible for sparking the Syrian purchase of new, more advanced missiles from Russia). If our leaders won't even stand on the side of justice when an ally abrogates every peace agreement they ever signed, then it's time for new leaders.

Here's the full article

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Big Brother gets in on the Telecom Game

If you've traveled before and bought a SIM card for your international phone (since the US refuses to join the GSM revolution and provide customers with phones that can be used elsewhere) you probably had to give them a photocopy of your passport. Well, now Egyptians have to provide identification to use their phones as well.

"The National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority requested that mobile phone operators block service to anonymous subscribers as a public security measure. Vodafone, Mobinil and Itisalat have reportedly started disabling text-messaging capabilities for anonymous subscribers. The measure has affected several hundred thousand customers who did not register their names and addresses when they bought phone lines."

Critics claim this is to monitor political opposition - so phones used to send mass SMS messages to organize protests/strikes, etc. can be monitored. Regimes are always a little behind politically motivated youth in discovering technologically sophisticated ways to engage in political opposition - looks like they're finally catching up.

Buried in the back pages of the NYTimes - this is why peace is elusive

"Israel announced plans to build 1,300 more houses in East Jerusalem, angering Palestinians who warned that such plans threatened chances for a peace accord by the end of the year. The announcement brought to more than 3,000 the number of houses that Israel has approved for construction since the renewal of the peace talks on land that Palestinians think should be part of a Palestinian state. Palestinian negotiators condemned the latest plan, while Israeli officials said that most of the proposed housing would be on land that Israel has already annexed."

Yes, East Jerusalem is supposed to be Palestinian Jerusalem (the other half of Jerusalem for the Jewish population). This in addition to the leaked White House memo that gave Olmert the go-ahead to build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

I visited the Israeli Embassy about one month ago (shortly before I left for Egypt). The meeting was meant to be a briefing of the political situation in Jerusalem for the undergraduate students with whom I was traveling as a teaching assistant. Instead of a briefing we got an introductory class in propaganda (which was either extremely insulting: ie, the Israeli diplomat thought we were all so ignorant of Middle East politics as to believe the BS he was spouting, or extremely flattering: ie, the same diplomat thought some of us had some connections with the foreign policy establishment that would merit him taking the time to try to indoctrinate us). Either way, the theme of the talk was that the conflict with the Palestinians was a tertiary matter and that Ahmadinijad's Iran was a modern day incarnation of Nazi Germany (and yes, he did make this explicit comparison). He basically said that if we don't get off our pacifist-Middle class-social justice-seeking petards and bomb Iran the whole world will soon be in flames. Where do they find these people?

Fixing Egypt's Educational System

One of the legacies of Nasser's social policies was a state-funded educational system that is free to all those who achieve qualifying scores (which makes the dreaded secondary school exams in Egypt the biggest event in many students' lives). Their scores on these exams determine which school they attend (Cairo University being generally considered the best of the public schools) and which faculties they will be placed in (Engineering, Computer Science being the most coveted, Law and Education being closer to the bottom). The upside is that education is free for all (in contrast to the US system where higher education costs are skyrocketing). The downside is that the schools are overcrowded (about a quarter of a million students in each of the major state universities); the faculty are severely underpaid (which either means they can't get good faculty or they have to moonlight with menial jobs to make ends meet). When I recently visited some of Egypt's universities during exam time even the hallways of the universities were filled with desks to accommodate students.

Another result of the overstretched state education system is that students have to supplement their public education with extra fee-based courses (like computer certification programs run by private businesses) in order to set them apart from their colleagues. There is also a recent proliferation of for-profit private universities being established by wealthy entrepreneurs to serve Egypt's upper class. I visited one of these universities recently (Future University: pictured here) and it had state-of-the-art equipment for its medical and engineering schools and very nice lecture halls with stadium seating. Of course these schools are only available for the uber-wealthy - with tuition being around $5,000/year, much more than most Egyptians take home in a year.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dumbing Down Democracy

I've seen a couple of condemnations of this NYTimes article floating around the blogosphere. The primary criticism is that it seems to suggest that Egyptians harbor some nationalist pride that is hurt when foreign leaders criticize their own government. My estimation is that this is incorrect - it isn't that Bush criticized some beloved figure in Hosni Mubarak - it was that Bush deigned to criticize the Egyptian government for actions the US is also guilty of (human rights abuses in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, supporting Israel's blockade of Gaza, funding corrupt Arab regimes, financing secret prisons in Eastern European countries, etc.) I have spoken with a few government officials and numerous academics: the bottom line is that Bush's remarks are condescending (his speeches are littered with words like "teaching," "tutoring," "nurturing," and "fostering)." If the Bush administration is setting any example at all it is to flout international law and consensus and pursue unilateral foreign policy without regard to international norms. One government official said Bush: “spoke as a professor trying to give lessons.” And this was directly after leaving Israel to celebrate its 60th Birthday (at a time when Egyptian support for Israel's blockade of Gaza is a particularly contentious subject in the domestic political scene).

Strikes in Egypt - Gaining Ground or Losing Out?

There seems to be two distinct views of the recent waves of strikes in Egypt. One side cites the relatively low turnout of the planned strikes that took place several weeks ago. This side also points to the decline of the public sector (where most union activity historically took place) and the resentment of the official state-sponsored labor unions run by discredited regime touts. The private sector, so goes the reasoning, is much less amenable to unionization not only because it can be grounds for dismissal, but also because these factories are often isolated (far away from city centers where political activity is at its highest) and smaller than their public sector predecessors. They also claim that the government has given in to public sector strikers (usually for an increase in wages) in attempts to mollify the workers before the plant is privatized - thus paving the way for the disappearance of the unions altogether.

The alternative view is that the wave of strikes is something new (not seen since the middle of the century) and combined with the bread riots and the skyrocketing cost of living, presents a generally new direction in state-labor relations. The decline in standards of living, combined with the increasing poverty level (from 16% in 2000 to almost 20% in 2005), the police presence and repression of political dissent, and the regime's unpopular policy to police the border with Gaza (to buttress the Israeli regimes blockade of Palestinians) seems enough to spark major social unrest, whether in the form of labor strikes or protests with the main political opposition, the Muslim Brothers.

Gender in the Middle East

Gender in the Middle East is a perennial hot topic, and there's a few topics that come up again and again (women in the workplace, family planning, women in Islam, etc.) But one strange policy I've noticed is that groups of young men are not allowed into certain establishments unless they bring an equal number of young women with them. I first encountered this in Lebanon in Monoe (sp?) where groups of foreign men from AUB would ask us (the girls) to go with them to neighborhood bars so they could get in. I noticed it again when I booked a reservation at a jazz club in Cairo - the reservation system said "couples only" - and explained that too much testosterone ruins any party (which I wholeheartedly agree with).

But this policy does belie a more systemic problem: too many unemployed or underemployed young males with too much time on their hands. The higher education system in Egypt (although free to all those who achieve qualifying grades on their secondary school exams) is very poor, and the job market is too small even to accommodate those who graduate with the necessary skills. The result is large roving bands of shabab getting in street fights and otherwise causing trouble. I have noticed an inordinately large number of sports clubs (gyms) - maybe this is an effort to deal with the problem?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Police

The police are everywhere! We've been to five universities since we've arrived, and armed personnel and paddy wagons (anywhere from 1-3 vehicles) have been stationed at the main gates to all the public universities (higher education in Egypt is free – with the exception of AUC – where I saw the most guards). The one exception was the Future University – a for-profit private school established to serve the wealthy families of the New Cairo Developments. In contrast to the public universities, with their aging infrastructure, inadequate facilities and low-paid faculty (some universities have around ¼ million students) – the new private universities look like space age monstrosities: the one I visited was built in the shape of the Roman Coliseum, but with silver steel accents and blue tinted windows. In addition to the campus installations, there's lookout towers everywhere (although the windows are so dirty I don't see how they do much looking). There's also guards stationed along the expressways, up on perches that make them level with the road (they're in little white cubbies that remind me of something you'd find in the children's reading room at a library).

Every time . . . .

Every time I travel in the Middle East I make so many female friends . . . and I learn to dislike men even more. I know that it's a function of under-education, poverty and joblessness, but women (even their own women) are treated as sex objects. I always expect to be jeered at, and to be forced to change my behavior (like cross the street, or not sit down at a certain cafe) to avoid groups of males. But I was walking with one of my Egyptian female friends today (she was wearing hijab), and because we were walking on a highway (waiting for a taxi in front of my hotel) at least 5 cars beeped and pulled over all in a manner of minutes. She jerked me aside and told me to walk the other way. I didn't understand why, but she told me that any women walking on a street like this alone (even with a headscarf) is considered a prostitute. So - not only is reasonable behavior considered a sign of loose morals, but there's also an inordinate number of Egyptian men cruising for prostitutes at 2 in the afternoon. I know the matter is more complicated (we have parallels in our own society, etc.) but it just really pisses me off.

Egypt's Nouveau Riche

I was absolutely shocked when I saw the new real estate developments going up on the edges of Cairo (these developments have names like "New Cairo," "Hyde Park," "Fern Valley," "Palm Sands," etc. At first impression they look like an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or the Caribbean. There's a huge main gate (comparable in size to the façade of a large grocery store) with the name of the development complex usually in stand-alone letters (ala the Hollywood sign) surrounded by perfectly manicured landscapes. The homes themselves are almost unbelievable. These aren't McMansions – they're compounds (usually in Spanish-Mediterranean or French-Rococo styles – the more ostentatious the better). They have armed guards stationed at regular intervals, and many of the larger developments have their own private schools for the residents' children (these buildings rival some of the grandest mosques I've seen during my travels – particularly Shrouk Academy in the new Shrouk development).

From the looks of it many of the houses remain empty. This is in contrast to the rest of Cairo - where overcrowding and population concentration around the Nile have been perennial problems for the government since the 1960s. Of course these homes come with all the most modern amenities, again in contrast to the rest of Cairenes, many of whom still practice un-mechanized cultivation (you can see them bent over in the fields along the Nile delta from the main Cairo highway).

Construction and real estate are two of the biggest growth sectors in Egypt – both dominated by the military (it buys most of the land from the government at subsidized prices, develops it and resells it for huge profits and it dominates the building materials industry (cement, etc.) I did notice that some sort of military complex was adjacent to one of the largest new developments – there were training fields, barracks and lookout towers (another ubiquitous part of Cairo's architecture: the panopticon).

The Star City Shopping Center is another sign of the rising class of uber rich. The huge structure (financed by Saudi investors) covers a few city blocks and is flanked by tall Pharonic Statues and various manifestations of the Sphinx. It's also gated – and anyone who doesn't look the part of shopper is quickly ushered away by armed security personnel. Inside you're greeted by a huge incense burner that fills the foyer with (a bit too much) perfume. Inside you'll find all the stores you would find in any shopping center in the US (and many European chains you wouldn't find – like the French company Vero Moda, Mango, etc). I didn't get much chance to peruse, but there's also many upscale coffee shops, home décor stores, electronics stores, a Virgin Megastore, and of course a prayer room (conveniently located next to the bathrooms – where many women were doing their ablutions in the sinks).

Monday, April 28, 2008

Nuclear Deterrence Workshop Write-Up

One of the perks of being an underpaid graduate researcher is that you get to sit-in on events hosted by your professors (which usually involves free food). Last week I attended an all-day roundtable on nuclear deterrence, which included my professor Shibley Telhami, but also Thomas Schelling, John Mearscheimer, Stephen Walt, Stephen Van Evera, William Quandt, and lots of other amazing scholars. It was quite an experience to sit around the table with such big names and listen to their exchanges. The roundtable focused on: the credibility of US foreign policy and US deterrence, deterring non-state actors and nuclear proliferation among non-state actors, Iran's nuclear program, and the role of public opinion in deterrence. Most of the conference centered on deterring non-state actors, beginning from the assumption that, since non-state actors have no 'home base' to target in response to an attack they are more difficult to deter. I was pleased that, from the beginning the participants distinguished between Al Qaeda - which can easily be categorized as a terrorist organization, and groups like Hamas and Hizbullah, which not only have national territories that could be targeted in a policy of deterrence, but which are actually legitimate political representatives engaged in resistance operations (and occasionally use terror as a tactic).

Another topic touched on during the roundtable was the decay of the nuclear taboo. One participant pointed out that the rhetoric and weapons-systems projects (the missile defense system) of the Bush Administration has severely damaged the nuclear taboo, which of course affects not only state use of nuclear (or biological or chemical) weapons, but also their use by non-state actors. All states have an interest in maintaining the nuclear taboo - and we cannot condemn other nuclear programs in other states while we ourselves discuss their use in conventional battle-field scenarios and make them increasingly key in European balance of power politics. By contrast, some non-state actors, specifically the most radical groups who want to overhaul ALL of societies norms may be MORE likely to use nuclear weapons because they are outside the bounds of what is accepted by current social norms.

Comments on US credibility were perhaps the most depressing - one participant pointed out that US capacity to create carnage is still widely respected, but that US ability to rebuild or engage in more complex activities is pretty much non-existent. However another participant pointed out (presciently) that most of the actors we are concerned with (the Bin Ladens and opposition movements of the world) were well aware of the failures of empire long before we fudged ours - making reference to earlier comments made by Bin Laden in taped statements pointing out the follies of the Roman Empire, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the overthrow of colonial governments.

My favorite comment came from a controversial academic - and he basically said "Why the hell are we even talking about nuclear deterrence? What did we do wrong since the fall of the Soviet Union that we are STILL worrying about deterrence." IE - why does everyone want to nuke us? This was the point of the roundtable where everyone nodded their head and resigned themselves to the fact that successive US administrations have made such egregious and arrogant foreign policy decisions that we will most likely be holding this roundtables annually.

Friday, April 25, 2008

You know how everyone hates Congress but loves their own Congressperson?

I'm a crazy liberal - but I love my home-state senator Richard Lugar (with the exception of his position on farm subsidies - I even interned for him a few times) Obama likes him too!!

I don't know which is more shocking, the US condoning illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories or Bush writing a letter all by himself?

"A letter that President Bush personally delivered to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon four years ago . . . . gave the Jewish state permission to expand the West Bank settlements that it hopes to retain in a final peace deal, even though Bush's peace plan officially calls for a freeze of Israeli settlements across Palestinian territories on the West Bank." The WaPo article from yesterday is here.

Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks on the Horizon?

Although Dick Cheney would probably sacrifice himself on the altar of the DNC in order to keep this from happening - there is some movement on Syrian-Israeli peace (that is if the US manages to stay out of it)

You can read about the talks here.

The CIA or the Office of Strategic Plans? "CIA to describe North Korea-Syria Nuclear Ties"

I'm attending a conference today and a colleague joked about how the CIA knew that it was in fact North Koreans visiting the nuclear sites in Syria: "Easy - they were wearing Hard Rock Cafe Pyongyang t-shirts"
The consensus among those I know seems to be that this is a last-ditch attempt by administration hawks to ensure that talks with North Korea do not take place (and that Israeli-Syrian peace talks are also derailed)

CIA to describe North Korea-Syria nuclear ties

Officials will tell Congress members this week that North Korea was helping Syria build a reactor last year when it was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, a U.S. official says.

By Paul Richter and Greg Miller
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

April 23, 2008

WASHINGTON — CIA officials will tell Congress on Thursday that North Korea had been helping Syria build a plutonium-based nuclear reactor, a U.S. official said, a disclosure that could touch off new resistance to the administration's plan to ease sanctions on Pyongyang.

The CIA officials will tell lawmakers that they believe the reactor would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons but was destroyed before it could do so, the U.S. official said, apparently referring to a suspicious installation in Syria that was bombed last year by Israeli warplanes.

The CIA officials also will say that though U.S. officials have had concerns for years about ties between North Korea and Syria, it was not until last year that new intelligence convinced them that the suspicious facility under construction in a remote area of Syria was a nuclear reactor, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing plans for the briefing.

The administration is planning to ease sanctions on North Korea as part of talks aimed at removing Pyongyang's nuclear weapons. The six nations involved in the talks, which also include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, have been negotiating since 2003.

You can read the rest here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hillary: The Newest Neocon

I know that Hillary has to court the Israeli vote - but this is downright irresponsible. I wish I could sit her down and tell her that just because she has female reproductive organs doesn't mean she needs to mold herself into a 21st Century Attila the Hun . . . .

Clinton threatens to 'obliterate' Iran if Israel attacked

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton threatened to "obliterate" Iran if it launches a nuclear attack on Israel, in an interview broadcast Tuesday.

"I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran," Clinton told ABC News, asked what she would do as president were Iran to launch a nuclear attack on Israel.

"In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

The tough talk came just prior to Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, a key milestone in the marathon Democratic nominations race pitting Clinton against her rival Senator Barack Obama.

Clinton must win the Pennsylvania primary, but she needs to do more than simply scrape past Obama to rescue her trailing White House bid, pundits say.

Obama's camp Monday accused Clinton of trying to scare voters, as she rocked their White House race with a dark campaign ad featuring images of Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

The ad uses pictures of Pearl Harbor, bin Laden and the devastating 2005 hurricane that swamped New Orleans, mirroring the "3:00 am phone call" spot credited with helping Clinton to win in Texas and Ohio last month.

"You need to be ready for anything -- especially now, with two wars, oil prices skyrocketing and an economy in crisis," the male narrator intones. "Who do you think has what it takes?"

Both Democrats have vowed to defend Israel against any Iranian attack, but they differ on how to engage the Islamic republic over its nuclear ambitions.

Both call for diplomacy, but Obama has gone further, renewing a promise of "direct talks" at a leaders' level with Tehran and others the United States regards as foes, at a candidate debate here last week.

Iran should be presented with "carrots and sticks," the Illinois senator said, while stressing "they should also know that I will take no options off the table when it comes to preventing them from using nuclear weapons or obtaining nuclear weapons."

At the debate, he said: "An (Iranian) attack on Israel is an attack on our strongest ally in the region, one whose security we consider paramount."

"That would be an act of aggression that I would consider unacceptable, and the United States would take appropriate action."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Carter: Hamas will accept Israel

Carter: Hamas will accept Israel

Jimmy Carter describes his talks with Hamas

Former US President Jimmy Carter has said that Hamas is prepared to accept the right of Israel to "live as a neighbour next door in peace".

After meeting Hamas leaders last week in Syria, he said it was a problem that the US and Israel would not meet them.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has challenged Hamas to prove its goodwill by renouncing violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to see Mr Carter, who was ending his regional visit in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army has launched a formal investigation into the death of a Reuters cameraman killed in the Gaza Strip last week.

Two Palestinians died in Israeli air strikes in the territory on Monday: one person in the southern city of Rafah and a Hamas militant at Beit Hanoun, a border town from where rockets are often fired at Israel.


In a speech in Jerusalem, Mr Carter said Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking had "regressed" since the US hosted Middle East talks in November at Annapolis.

Hamas indicated... that if Israel is willing to have a mutual ceasefire... they will accept it
Jimmy Carter

He defended his talks in Damascus with exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal.

"The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with someone who must be involved," he told Israel's Council on Foreign Relations.

Hamas had reiterated its position that it could accept an Israeli state within its pre-1967 borders and live in peace with Israel, he said.

"Hamas indicated... that if Israel is willing to have a mutual ceasefire and a renunciation of violence in Gaza and in the West Bank, they will accept it, and as a first step they would even accept just limiting that to Gaza," he said, speaking to the BBC's Newsnight programme.

Israel, the US and the European Union regard Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, as a terrorist organisation.

Hamas is officially dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Call for proof

Mr Carter also said the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas and other militant groups during a raid into Israel two years ago, was being held up by the lack of direct communication between Israel and Hamas.

Mr Carter said the difficulty was in agreeing the identity of the Palestinian prisoners to be released in return.

He said Egyptian officials had told him that Israel had agreed to release 1,000 prisoners but accepted only 71 names on a list of hundreds of prisoners submitted by Hamas.

Speaking in Manama on a tour of the Middle East, Ms Rice said Hamas should show their willingness to make peace by releasing Corp Shalit and halting rocket attacks on Israel.

She also called on the group to recognise the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, whom they ousted from Gaza last summer.

Shell investigation

Israel has said it will investigate the death of Palestinian Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana, who died with several other civilians in Gaza last Wednesday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says it has evidence an Israeli tank team fired either recklessly or deliberately at Mr Shana.

The Israeli army denies deliberately targeting civilians.

Israeli Human rights group B'tselem has reported that Mr Shana was killed by a flechette shell, which rains down thousands of small metal darts.

The group called for use of the shell to cease immediately and for a criminal investigation of the event.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's Better than Asking Ahmed Chalabi!

My day job is working with Professor Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland, and we just received the most recent survey data from a survey he designs and contracts to Zogby International. The poll is conducted in the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, KSA, and the UAE) with a sample size of around 4,000 and deals with a range of issues, from religion and politics to views of the US. The results aren't surprising - but sometimes the obvious needs to be documented. And as Professor Telhami said (when asked by some guy from WINEP - "why do you conduct these polls?"), "It's better than asking Ahmed Chalabi!" You can find the results of the poll here.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Add it to the list: Another expert warning about an invasion of Iraq in 1999

The invasion and ensuing civil war in Iraq has been a windfall for journalists - the Bush war machine goes back so far it has provided fodder for an entire generation of aspiring Pulitzer prize winners. Below is just one more foreboding commentary from a regional government minister (this time, the Oil Minister in Kuwait). It came up on a google search I was doing for 'social welfare systems in the Middle East' - the fact that it barely mentions the terms 'social,' 'welfare' or 'Middle East' (excepting of course, talk of invading Iraq) is indicative of the absence of serious social provisions in all but the GCC states - and even then only for the 10% of the population that has citizenship. But, back to the point. This is an interview from the Middle East Forum - I only reproduce the really great parts here, but you can find the entire text here.

MEQ: Do you see an end to Saddam's pattern of breaking his word, then at the last minute backing down?

Al-Sabah: Iraq has been jerking around the Security Council, the United States, and the whole coalition. We saw this back in February, when it at the last moment backed down from a confrontation and signed an agreement with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, thus narrowly avoiding war. The Clinton administration indicates that it has no more patience with such behavior; if that's so, a serious confrontation appears likely.

MEQ: You have confidence in this administration?

Al-Sabah: Look, I have full confidence in it, as we had in the previous administrations. But that's not even the main issue now. It's not what the administration wishes; it is rather the whole United States of America, plus the coalition, our partners, and the Security Council.

We are on the right course. Iraq did back down in February and again this month. Saddam vowed UNSCOM would never return to Iraq and he had to go back on this; but they're back and they're in business.

MEQ: What's to stop this from happening all over again?

Al-Sabah: It will be a different ball game next time around. Just watch.

MEQ: You have said that a weak Saddam Husayn is less threatening to Kuwait than some other regime.1 Please explain what you mean.

Al-Sabah: We don't see a viable alternative to Saddam Husayn emerging, one that would fulfill our desires to have a democratic and peace-loving Iraq for a neighbor. Given this pessimism, Saddam Husayn is perhaps less threatening than the alternative, which I see mainly as a civil war that would consume Iraq. Once Saddam falls, I expect a major civil war would erupt in Iraq. The Kurds in the north, Shi‘a in the south, and anti-Saddam Sunnis in the middle of Iraq will be busy settling scores. I also fear that a massive civil war would go beyond the borders of Iraq and create chaos in the region, where all the neighboring countries would get involved in it, as they did in Lebanon. Civil war in Iraq would make civil war in Lebanon look like a stroll in the park. We are extremely concerned this civil war could also spill over into Kuwait.

MEQ: Would it be fair to say that the security of Kuwait ultimately depends on American public opinion?

Al-Sabah: It remains very important.

MEQ: Do you worry about a softening in American public opinion?

Al-Sabah: Not really. I was in Houston the other night having dinner with President Bush, Governor Bush, and others. The conversation turned to some people talking about the sufferings of the Iraqi people. I said fine, we all sympathize with the sufferings of the Iraqi people, but doesn't anyone really sympathize with the sufferings of the American people? I look at the sufferings of those tens of thousands of soldiers who have to be apart from their families during the holiday season. When you see those young men and women leaving their loved ones behind, crying and kissing, hugging each other, boarding military planes, going to fight a war—that's more suffering than anyone else experiences. Thanksgiving is coming up, then Christmas and New Year's, and they'll spend it in the front-lines, not knowing whether they'll be coming back or not. This is the suffering we should be talking about.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

New UN Report Released on Hariri Assassination

The new report (you can find the text here along with the BBC analysis) seems to suggest that the assassination was "criminally" rather than "politically" motivated - although that doesn't necessarily rule out Syrian involvement, it does suggest a much more nuanced and complex picture than the earlier UN reports. Syria is reported to provide "generally satisfactory cooperation" to the investigative authorities.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

40% of Afghan aid returns to donor countries, says report

The Guardian has a great article on the reconstruction in Afghanistan. I'm knee-deep in a paper right now on free-market reforms and contracting, so it caught my eye on the Angry Arab's blog. I reproduce the article in its entirety below:

Richard Norton-Taylor
March 25 2008.

Afghanistan is being deprived of $10bn (£5bn) of promised aid, and 40% of the money that has been delivered was spent on corporate profits and consultancy fees, according to a hard-hitting report by aid agencies released today.

The failure of western donors to keep their promises, compounded by corruption and inefficiency, is undermining the prospects for peace in Afghanistan, it warns.

Civil aid programmes are a fraction of what is spent by America, Britain and other countries on military operations there. Much of the money earmarked for aid is diverted to political or military purposes.

The report by Acbar, an alliance of international aid agencies working in the country, including Oxfam, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Save the Children, says the international community has pledged $25bn to Afghanistan since 2001 but only $15bn has been delivered.

The US is the biggest donor to Afghanistan but is also responsible for one of the biggest shortfalls. The US delivered only half of the $10.4bn it committed between 2002 and 2008, according to the Afghan government, today's report says.

Over the same period the European commission and Germany distributed less than two-thirds of their respective $1.7bn and $1.2bn commitments while the World Bank distributed just over half of the $1.6bn it committed. Britain pledged $1.45bn and distributed almost all, $1.3bn.

The report estimated that 40% of the aid money spent in Afghanistan has found its way back to rich donor countries such as the US through corporate profits, consultants' salaries and other costs, significantly inflating the cost of projects.

For example, a road between the centre of Kabul and the international airport cost over $2.3m per kilometre in US aid money, at least four times the average cost of building a road in Afghanistan, today's report says.

Afghanistan's biggest donor, USAid, allocates nearly half its funds to five big contractors. The US government has awarded major contracts, some worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to KBR, the Louis Berger group, Chemonics International, Bearing Point, and Dyncorp International, according to a study by the US-based Centre for Public Integrity quoted in today's report.

Most full-time expatriate consultants working for private companies in Afghanistan cost between $250,000 and $500,000 a year, including salary, allowances and associated costs, the report adds.

Some 90% of all public spending in Afghanistan comes from international aid. The huge shortfall hinders efforts to rebuild infrastructure damaged by over two decades of war, and the delivery of essential services such as education and health, the report says.

Matt Waldman, Oxfam's Afghanistan policy adviser and the report's author, said last night: "The reconstruction of Afghanistan requires a sustained and substantial commitment of aid - but donors have failed to meet their aid pledges to Afghanistan. Too much aid from rich countries is wasted, ineffective or uncoordinated.

"Spending on tackling poverty is a fraction of what is spent on military operations. While the US military is currently spending $100m a day in Afghanistan, aid spent by all donors since 2001 is on average less than a tenth of that - just $7m a day.

"Given the slow pace of progress in Afghanistan, and the links between poverty and conflict, the international community must urgently get its act together".

The report says some degree of donor under-spending could be expected because of the lack of government capacity, large-scale corruption, and difficult security conditions. But the size of the shortfall highlights the need for donors making better efforts to face up to the problem.

The report also shows that a disproportionate amount of aid follows the conflict and is being used for political and military objectives rather than reducing poverty.

"This is a short-sighted policy," said Waldman. "There must be strong support for development in the south but if other provinces are neglected then insecurity could spread."

The report says the volume of aid, particularly to rural areas, should be increased, aid donors should be more open about what they want to provide and cooperate better with the Afghan government.

There should be better ways to measure the impact, efficiency, and relevance of aid money, and an independent commission to monitor the appropriateness and effectiveness of donors' programmes, should be set up, it says.

The Red Menace: It's Communism . . . . for the banks!

A great article in Scotland's Sunday Herald about the recent collapse of large finance houses. Below are some excerpts:

"The irony, though, is that this time it isn't the working classes who are demanding that the state should take over, but the banks. The capitalists are throwing themselves on the mercy of government, demanding subsidies and protection from the capitalist market - it's socialism for the banks. Hedge fund managers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your bonuses.

"Instead of just propping up bankrupt banks, the governments should be democratising them - mobilising their assets to stimulate the productive economy, repairing infrastructure, researching and developing new markets, and refitting western economies to combat climate change. It needs a kind of green New Deal - an update on Roosevelt's imaginative policies of the 1930s fought tooth and nail by the banks.

"They want unlimited access to public money to save themselves from the consequences of their own actions; welfare for the wealthy. This is above all a political, not an economic problem. There needs to be a political mobilisation of public opinion to force the banks and the government to bring the people into the equation. Unfortunately, the party that used to perform this function, Labour, has largely been bought out by the banks. They have privatised the government, even as they have socialised the financial markets.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The US Origins of Palestinian Violence

"After failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current U.S. officials, David Rose reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever." Vanity Fair has the whole story.

NPR Series - Doing Business in the Middle East

Marketplace on NPR is doing a series on the Middle East - they cover everything from fair trade olive oil cooperatives in Palestine to migrant laborers in Dubai. Great stuff.

Friday, March 14, 2008

They found nukes in Iraq!!!

Okay, not really. But a young sheep herder did lead coalition forces to a weapons cache where they found: "9V GETTOP batteries, a box of latex gloves, washing machine timers, unknown documents, a Soviet striker release UZRGM and a cassette tape." "Significant caches found in Anbar" - really??

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Army of Shadows Sheds Light on early Israeli-Palestinian relations

The Nation has a great review of a new book Army of Shadows that uses archival material to paint a new picture of Israeli-Palestinian relations before and during the mandate period:

"In his groundbreaking book Army of Shadows, Hillel Cohen, a research fellow at Hebrew University's Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, exposes this particularly nefarious side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cohen has spent years in numerous Israeli and British archives gathering information that many would pre­fer to forget, and in Army of Shadows he sum­mons his findings to document the actions of a seemingly endless number of Palestinian mukhtars (village leaders), land merchants, in­­formers, weapons dealers, journalists, busi­nessmen, farmers and teachers who collaborated with the Jews between 1917 and 1948. By focusing on them, Army of Shadows chron­icles a tragic chapter in the people's history of Palestine, one that many Arab scholars have refrained from writing because it contradicts the dominant ethos of Palestinian national unity. Zionists have ab­­stained from recording it as well because it undermines their claim that the Palestinians were able to unify and fight against the es­tablishment of a Jewish state after the UN partition resolution of November 29, 1947. Cohen reveals that many Palestinians signed pacts with the Zionists during the 1948 war and that some even fought with the Jews against the Arab armies.

Collaboration is a very thorny issue, primarily because of its corrosive blend of betrayal, exploitation and deceit, so it's not surprising that Army of Shadows created a stir when the Hebrew edition was published in 2004. Both liberal Jews and Palestinians found the book difficult to digest because each group found its side portrayed in unflattering terms. Many Jewish readers were upset by Cohen's revelation that the prestate Zionist intelligence agency, Shai, and the Jewish Agency's Arab bureau exploited almost every honest Jewish and Palestinian relationship to advance narrow Zionist interests. There were, Cohen notes, many Jews who desired only friendship or good business relations with Palestinians but were eventually identified by the Shai, which used them to collect information and enlist Palestinian collaborators. The Jewish Agency even helped establish and finance Neighborly Relations Committees, which initiated mutual visits and Jewish-Palestinian projects, ranging from pest control to the sending of joint petitions to the Mandatory government. The rationale for the creation of these committees was not only to enhance coexistence but also to recruit informers.

Ezra Danin, head of the Shai's Arab department from 1940 to 1948, identified twenty-five occupations and institutions in which Jews and Palestinians mixed company, among them trucking, shipping, train and telecommunications systems, journalism, Jewish-Arab municipalities, prisons and the offices of the British Administration. He proposed that the Jews in these walks of life enlist Arab collaborators, adding that "such activity should be similar to the way the Nazis worked in Denmark, Norway, and Holland--touching on every area of life." Cohen explains that this approach was different from that of British intelligence, which allowed only political and military organizations and subversive bodies to be targeted as pools for potential informers. This revelation, besides shedding light on some of the ruthless tactics employed by the intelligence agencies, helps explain why, from Zionism's very beginnings, it was almost impossible for many Jews to develop loyal relationships with indigenous Palestinians.

Army of Shadows also disturbed Palestinian readers because it reveals for the first time the extent of Palestinian collaboration with the Jews during the Mandate period and the ensuing 1948 war. Some Palestinians were opportunists who collaborated with the Zionists to make money or advance their careers--these were primarily land brokers and people seeking administrative jobs. Others were mukhtars who wished to advance their regional or village interests or, in cases of internal competition, to solidify their leadership with the Zionists. Still others can be characterized as Palestinian patriots who simply disagreed with the dominant national leadership. Finally, there were those who had Jewish friends and did not view Zionist immigration as a catastrophe. The problem, though, as Cohen points out, is that regardless of the motivation, collaboration contributed to the fragmentation of Palestinian society at a time when its very fate was being determined.

Simultaneously, Cohen underscores the Palestinian leadership's failure to cultivate a unified national ethos. While disunity among a people is in no way unique, in this case, as Cohen shows, it was aggravated in two ways. First, a totally different and competing national movement was making claims on the same territory, and this movement knew how to profit from splits within Palestinian society in order to undermine national aspirations. Indeed, the Zionists exploited the fissures to recruit and deploy collaborators, and this ultimately served to deepen internal Palestinian discord and frustrate Palestinian nation building.

Second, and more disturbing for a Palestinian readership, Cohen stresses that instead of capitalizing on the fact that Palestinian Arabs shared a national consciousness and were divided mostly on pragmatic questions about how to achieve their goals, the dominant Palestinian group, led by Hajj Amin al-Husseini and loosely organized under the auspices of the Arab Party (established in 1935), defined all competing nationalist views and actions as treasonous. Collaborators, accordingly, were no longer just those who aided the Zionists' military efforts; they were local and regional leaders, merchants who traded with Jews, journalists who wrote in favor of the Zionist project and, most important, land dealers who helped Jewish institutions locate and purchase Palestinian land.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Myth of the Surge

Rolling Stone has a great piece on the details of the surge and the recent reduction in violence. This is one of the best examples of spurious causality I've seen outside a research methods textbook. A political scientist's dream. Here's an excerpt:

"We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority," says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. "Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future."

Read the whole article here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

That Damn Middle Class!

I came across an interesting piece in Foreign Policy a while back by Moises Naim titled "Can the World Afford a Middle Class?" it blamed a growing middle class for rising food prices. I'm not sure why the novelty of the theory also suffices for evidence in this case, but the argument can be summed up in the following excerpt:

"These protesters are the most vociferous manifestations of a global trend: We are all paying more for bread, milk, and chocolate, to name just a few items. The new consumers of the emerging global middle class are driving up food prices everywhere. The food-price index compiled by The Economist since 1845 is now at an all-time high; it increased 30 percent in 2007 alone. Milk prices were up more than 29 percent last year, while wheat and soybeans increased by almost 80 and 90 percent, respectively. Many other grains, like rice and maize, reached record highs. Prices are soaring not because there is less food (in 2007, the world produced more grains than ever before), but because some grains are now being used as fuel and because more people can afford to eat more."

Not ONCE in this article does Naim mention oil, which, because it is used in everything from the production of food to its transportation and storage, will cause food prices to increase when its own price increases. Also, as the international financial institutions try to 'restructure' developing economies they usually encourage (or force) the cultivation of cash crops over subsistence crops meaning that instead of growing their own food many people are now growing exotic flowers and other luxury crops to export to Europe and the US. They're paying more for their food (and rioting about it as the author alludes to above) because the food they now get is often nutritionally inferior to what they would have been growing themselves so now they have to buy more of it. (For an example of this read Tim Mitchell's book Rule of Experts which details this process in Egypt).

Then, I saw the front page of today's NYT, which reads: "Rising Inflation Creates Unease in Middle East" and contains the following evaluation of food prices:

"Even as it enriches Arab rulers, the recent oil-price boom is helping to fuel an extraordinary rise in the cost of food and other basic goods that is squeezing this region’s middle class and setting off strikes, demonstrations and occasional riots from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.

The inflation has many causes, from rising global demand for commodities (a nod here to Naim) to the monetary constraints of currencies pegged to the weakening American dollar. But one cause is the skyrocketing price of oil itself, which has quadrupled since 2002. It is helping push many ordinary people toward poverty even as it stimulates a new surge of economic growth in the gulf.

“Now we have to choose: we either eat or stay warm. We can’t do both,” said Abdul Rahman Abdul Raheem, who works at a clothing shop in a mall in Amman and once dreamed of sending his children to private school. “We’re not really middle class anymore; we’re at the poverty level.”

I'm also suspect of why an increase in the demand for soybeans means more people are middle class. Is the new definition of middle class "those not requiring food aid from Oxfam"? I would hardly consider someone who has to worry about the rising price of milk "middle class." Perhaps a better headline for Naim's article would be: "What if all these poor people start eating more food, becoming educated and demanding more rights from their sweatshop foremen?"