Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Syria: The Use of Fear and Hope

What is keeping Syrian president Bashar al Assad in power? Why is it that Mubarak could go in 18 days, Ben Ali in 29, yet six months on, Assad junior is able to continue a brutal onslaught against his own people? As the streets of Libyan cities fill with jubilant crowds, celebrating the beginning of the end of Gaddafi, Syrians must be asking themselves: why won’t Damascus fall like Tripoli?

Answers lie in a number of areas. Much has been made of the Alawi power elite, which is keen to preserve its gains at all costs. Worried about the backlash from a brutal rule of over forty years, the very concentrated and powerful Alawi community could become an obvious target for revenge attacks. The wealthy Damascene merchant classes are also understood to prop up the government’s ‘coalition of the wealthy’; as long as they keep quiet, Assad can hold on. Finally, the divided and fragmented opposition – a product of what Joshua Landis has called a civil society ‘wasteland’ – is finding it hard to keep up the pressure. All these factors make a quick exit for Assad rather unlikely.

But fear of the regime still grips the nation. It’s this fear that plays a major role in preventing change.

In 1999, American academic Lisa Wedeen published an ethnographic study of Hafez al Assad’s Syria. ‘Ambiguities of Domination’ provided a superb insight into the mechanisms of Assad power consolidation and the family’s pervasive leadership cult. As Assad was seemingly adored as ‘The Father,’ ‘the Last Combatant’ or even ‘Salah al Din of Our Modern Time,’ (!) and pictures of Assad family members adorned every street wall, shop window and car bonnet, Syrians had to make a choice: refuse to comply with the farce, or face the consequences. Confronted with the absurdity of the leadership’s efforts at garnering support, many of the Syrians Wedeen met responded positively to the stories and propaganda despite their probable scepticism, because it made them feel safe. ‘The system of fear that fascism creates, means that people will act loyally, even if they do not feel loyal.’ She called it a system of acting ‘as if.’

12 years on, and that fear is ever-present; a part of daily life enforced and re-enforced by the all-seeing eye doctor and his family. A fear fed by one of the most extensive and pervasive security forces in the region that creeps into every part of society, making people wary of even mentioning the Assad name in their own homes, let alone making the kind of jokes frequently heard in Egyptian taxis or grocers about Mubarak. Informants lurk in every corner in every town, ready to feed information to the authorities either for the money that can sustain their families, or the reprieve their cooperation earns them. Assad has also been able to legitimize his rule through the threat of sectarian war. Whilst the US has expressed its fear of starting such a conflict, it is nothing compared to the anxiety felt in Damascus – Syrians saw first hand what happened in Lebanon. They don’t want it to happen again. Whilst of course other regimes are known for their brutality and subterfuge, Assad’s true colours are evident in the lengths he is taking to stay in power – the shocking naval strike on Latakia one such example. Gaddafi started his onslaught after NATO arrived, whilst Mubarak and Ben Ali’s armies switched loyalties almost immediately. Indeed, all these leaders faced significant desertions and defections from their own militaries. Not Syria. The sense of fear in the country is also heightened by a feeling of isolation and vulnerability – ‘we can do it on our own’ has slowly turned into ‘we need Turkey and Saudi,’ as the reality of this revolution starts to hit home.

But this fear is combined with a faint hope in Bashar himself – and that is what’s really holding back a major uprising. Average Syrians – not the brave men and women in hiding who are orchestrating this movement – but average citizens, are suspended in a curious balancing act of fear of the regime, and hope in Bashar. Assad is genuinely thought different to the rest of the regime, and capable of great things. A young leader, seeking to enact reforms but hindered by meddling western nations who sponsor ‘terrorists, drug dealers and saboteurs,’ many – particularly in Damascus and Aleppo – still think he has what it takes to steer the country to peace and prosperity. The Assads have built a Syria proud of its anti-western stance, and so the west’s condemnation of Bashar has fallen on many deaf ears. Indeed it simply feeds their conception of a president battling against all odds against powerful imperialist nations.

It is a hope on which the regime has capitalised for its survival. Whilst Hafez was framed in the Cold War image of a warrior president, his son has become the typical ‘refurbished’ autocrat, as Landis puts it, with his soft manner, calm demeanor and pretty, popular wife Asma. As Bashar’s early reforms either didn’t materialise or were immediately repealed, the regime was able to maintain the sense of hope artificially. Now as it faces a major uprising, the propaganda machine has been in over-drive and Bashar has been paraded on public outings with Asma, providing an image of a young couple in touch with the people – not like the decrepit Mubarak or the madman Gaddafi. Whilst his speeches and promises are seen as empty and futile to the west, it is important to remember that they are not written for us – the regime knows what hopes and fears it can play on, and uses them to its advantage. Indeed, it’s probably Assad’s public popularity that has stopped other regime members from taking the reigns so far.

The regime’s days may be numbered, and this hope may recede as the brutality of the government’s response becomes clearer. It is difficult to see how Assad can come back from this. But fear of reprisal without foreign support still obstructs a massive public upsurge, whilst at the same time hope that Bashar can restore peace keeps others in league with the regime. For many Syrians, the response – however brutal – is legitimized by a faint hope in a president they see as having fought for Syria against western powers; the only lion in a region full of sheep. Support for the protests is broad and strong, but as long as the right people support the wrong man, the battle to take down the president will rage for some time yet.


Filed under: Middle East

Why Revolution is Coming to Syria

My first posting on this blog back in March explained why a revolution wasn’t likely in Syria. I’d spoken with many Syrian friends, followed the politics of the country closely and had myself lived in the country to witness both the apparent loyalty to the President and the tremendous fear of his security apparatus among the people. I was, like many Syrians themselves perhaps, convinced Syria would avoid the turmoil other countries have seen.

Five months later, and after having visited the country again this month to meet with opposition members, my conceptions were radically altered. I had given three reasons why revolution was not possible in Syria: the comparative lack of severe poverty, which for example affects Egyptians and fed their grievances against the government, Bashar al Assad’s anti-western rhetoric which endears him to the people and unites a multi-ethnic country, and his own personal popularity and perceived sensitivities in comparison with other members of his family. Aspects of these variables all remain true, but the façade is slowly being peeled away.

Whilst it is true that Syrians do not face the same daily material hardships as Egyptians do, their grievances are fed in other respects. Most importantly, they are fed by the savage and brutal crackdown on the people. Around 800 people are said to have died over the 18 days it took to oust Mubarak, but we are 5 months into the movement in Syria, and over 2000 are said to have died there (a very conservative estimate), with another probable 15,000 in prisons around the country. Football stadiums and schools are also being used to hold people, as capacity has been reached in most facilities. Whilst Egypt’s security forces are also notorious for their brutality, Syria’s security apparatus operates on another level of cruelty. Death is not all that awaits those who oppose the Syrian regime – or even those implicated in opposition by the many regime informants. Severe torture, electrocution, rape, solitary confinement and ritual humiliation are the brutal tools of repression being used. Everyday I was shown evidence of this on the bodies of members of the resistance groups I met. As more people face this severe response – and as we approach the holiest month of the year in Ramadan – public opinion of the government is quickly souring. The emergence of more and more men from prison – gaunt, pale and with burns on their bodies – simply generates more support for the opposition, and legitimizes their cause. Members of their families, once too scared to say anything, seek out opposition organisers to take part in the next protests. In the town of Madaya a handful of people had gone out onto the streets in the first few weeks of the protests. Last week, over 2000 hit the street. This is just one small example but it is being replicated in towns and villages all over the country. Protests also take many forms, and even in downtown Damascus, I saw many shop owners with their TVs on facing the street, blaring out al-Jazeera – the channel the government accuses of inspiring radicalism. This is just one subtle way a citizen who may not be able to protest can show his stance in public

Interestingly also, although much of the security apparatus is led by members of the ruling Alawi elite, their numbers are not high enough to fill every position. Those sent out onto the streets to shoot at protestors on a Friday for 1000 Syrian Pounds (about £13.00) may well have family members in other parts of the country who have themselves been targeted by security forces. The government will also be unable to keep paying these sums given the growing economic crisis. The response is therefore entirely unsustainable and alienating the public more and more each day.

Assad’s rhetoric – once believed to lend him the legitimacy other Arab leaders did not have – has also been exposed as entirely transparent. To the west (and to Syrian non-Muslims) he complains of Islamic fundamentalists and Salafi extremists causing havoc, whilst to his own people he describes the ‘western agents’ and drug dealers who destroy towns and villages. Visiting a Christian friend on my first day in the capital, I was amazed at just how many excuses he had totally bought into. The government feeds upon his own insecurities about fundamentalist Islamic opposition, and makes him sure that everyone who has died so far was an Islamic militant seeking to kill every non-Muslim. A while later, and I was speaking to a pro-government Sunni. No no, he said. It wasn’t Islamists, it was Israel and France – they were the ones causing all the problems. This confused and concocted reasoning continues to swirl around the Damascene population. Fear of reprisal still grips the people of Damascus and as such, it seemed to me they were willing to buy any excuse in order to remain safe. However, protests are getting closer and closer to the capital, and making it easier for its citizens to join in. Christians enjoy their relative autonomy in secular Syria, but once they see this would not necessarily be threatened by a new government, they may change their tune. And given wealthier Sunnis (who form an integral part of the government’s alliance) will start to lose faith in a system which is starting to see them lose money, they too may have reason to abandon the regime.

Given the conflicting reports, the government’s decision to allow foreign journalists inside Syria (only on a heavily restricted official basis), seemed strange as efforts by different ministers and spokesmen to explain these claims appeared empty and non-sensical. The division at the top of the government is therefore clearer to see – as one faction clearly wants to maintain a semblance of normality, whilst another continues its brutal onslaught.

As common as (mostly regime organised) pro-Assad rallies are in Damascus, they vanish as soon as you leave the city. Heading into the Damascene countryside, support for the opposition is palpable and as I drove with wanted members of the local branch of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union through the town of Zabadani, many nodded their appreciation or touched their hearts in greeting as we passed, signalling their solidarity with the movement. What is also clear, is that people from all walks of life are taking part in the protests, many from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. The large majority of protestors are working class Sunni, but this is normal given their higher numbers in population, and their worsening socio-economic situation. Their cause is not a sectarian one – and they were keen to make that point known. It is a dangerous myth to assume the regime is keeping sectarian tensions at bay. It is doing exactly the opposite.

Finally, Bashar himself has been exposed as far weaker than previously thought. His English-educated wife and the time he himself spent in the UK lent him a sensitive, less dictator like air. But his perceived unassuming image and sensitive temperament are now understood as signs of weakness. Those in opposition call him ‘the duck’ – referring to his faint lisp, which leaves him unable to pronounce certain letters in Arabic. His talk of reform and the inaction that follows consolidates his image as a powerless President. One opposition member put it to me like this: “Just because you think someone is nice, does not mean they should be President. People in this country are made to believe that Bashar is a good man and that he cares. This may be the case – although I doubt it. But it doesn’t matter if he is good or not – I quite like my uncle but I don’t think he should be President!”

The long-term image of the father-like President is one many leaders in the region have nurtured; convincing the people that they love their people like a father loves his children. But that image is starting to crack in Syria, as the younger generation is better equipped to make better judgements to find better leaders. Many more people are starting to realise that they don’t ‘need’ Bashar, and their resilience in the face of severe repression is growing stronger every day. A change is coming in Syria – whether it is a full-scale social revolution in the true meaning of the phrase is another matter, but over 3 million people took to the streets around the country last week – a much higher proportion of the population than was evident in Egypt. And they were united in their call for the fall of the regime. It may take far longer than elsewhere, and – as was suggested by an opposition member – it may result in a breakdown in order for a period of time. But there is no coming back for this President now.

Filed under: Middle East

Syria: Interview with Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union leader in Qabon

Interviewed 7/7/2011 in Qabon, Syria

Aired on National Public Radio in the US, using my alias Hussayn al Haqq

Qabon is a town of around 30,000, 5 km from Damascus. 11 people have died here since the beginning of the protests. To date, the people of this town have protested everyday for the last 44 days.

HH: Tell me about yourself and the organization you represent here in Qabon.

OK: I am the leader of SRCU in Qabon. I’m 29ys old and I come from an average family. My parents are government workers and I am an English literature graduate. I’ve lived here all my life. The revolution started here on the 18th March, just as it did all over Syria. We feel we have a major chance to do something and we can’t let that chance go.

HH: How does the SCRU function on a local level?

OK: We form around Facebook groups. There are 5 people in the administration of our Qabon group. One person sorts videos, another for news, another for technical support and so on. We also have many people working in the organisation of the protests as well – around 150 people throughout the town.

HH: Why did you decide personally to get involved in the opposition?

OK: After 30 years of Hafez al Assad, and 11 years of Bashar, we believe it’s enough. After the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and the efforts in Libya and Yemen, we saw what we had to do. We were inspired by the protests throughout the region. The events in Dar’aa were part of it, but mostly we saw what people were doing elsewhere in the region. My family is very scared for me, and I know they wish I was doing something else or ignoring the situation. But I can’t – too many people have died for me to give up. I’ve seen people die in front of me – one man bled to death from a gunshot wound to the leg because we couldn’t get him to a hospital. This is an important cause and we won’t give up.

HH: There have been reports of Islamists operating in Syria, working to overthrow the regime. Can you explain why that might be?

OK: The Assad regime is trying to give Europe and the US the impression that an Islamic empire is being built up in Syria, which would be dangerous for Israel. Bashar likes to market himself in Europe as someone who can protect the west from Islamic fundamentalism. But there are no Islamic groups like this in Qabon at all. In the protests you see Muslims, Christians, and many other people with different ethnic backgrounds – it’s not about religion. This is the same all over the country. This government has two arguments – to the people of Syria they say Israelis and foreigners are starting the troubles. And to the west, they say its Islamists – its obviously all just empty excuses. When you see people coming out from the mosques, you can see them shout ‘Allahu Akbar!’ But this is just a rallying cry – it unites people. At the beginning it was also safer to say this than anything too explicit against the government. This is not about religion for us. None of the Imams have spoken out against the regime here – and we don’t need them. People don’t get their legitimacy from the mosques; we get it from each other. Its people power.

HH: You mentioned Facebook before. How important have the Internet, and applications like Skype and Facebook been to your efforts in connecting your different networks?

OK: The Internet is vital. We can’t move around at all in the streets, as the security forces are everywhere. It is very difficult to trust anyone. The “internet allows us contact with all the other coordinators around Syria, like in Hamah and Homs for example.

HH: How do you explain the pro-Bashar demonstrations? Why are people still supporting the President?

OK: I will give you an example. In Damascus University, after students complete their exams, the security forces load them into buses. They then take them to the pro-Bashar demonstrations. Those who don’t go, fail their exams. The regime forces or bribes many people to assist in the pro-regime rallies. It is true that some of their marches are genuine. 5 or 10 % believe in Bashar I’d say. But this is only because their businesses are linked to the regime and need the money to keep going. Its not necessarily because they feel he is the right man for the job, or that he is even a good man.

HH: Would the SRCU ever talk to the government?

OK: We don’t trust this government. There are tanks all over the country killing people. We cannot talk to a government that continues to kill people. Our strategy is to make as many protests as possible, all around Syria, from the country to the cities. And it is working so far. In Qabon for example, we have continued demonstrations everyday for 44 days. (We go that evening to the candle-lit vigil in front of the town’s main mosque. From 10.30pm, the electricity is cut. Nevertheless, 2,000 congregate in the darkness.). In the first month of the revolution, people only demonstrated on the Friday. Now we go out every night. And we reached 20,000 demonstrators here last Friday. That’s half the population of the city – virtually every man in Qabon.

HH: What do you think will happen during Ramadan?

OK: No one can predict what will happen here. This regime is crazy – we don’t expect anything. But Ramadan is the most important month of the year. If people see the government killing people during such a holy time, we will gain much more support. Ramadan is an important time economically also. So the SRCU have also been organizing economic boycotts all around Syria. We boycott certain products from businesses that support the government.

HH: Is there a structured leadership waiting to take over after Bashar?

OK: This is something we are talking about now. Bashar will definitely go. In either 5 or 6 days, or 4 or 5 months. He has to realize he is not wanted. So we have started making plans for a future without him. We want to bring all the right people into Syria to discuss the future and will bring people from all the different sects. We are already talking with people all over the country in order to form an opposition. But no one from the SCRU is going to be a political leader after this. We are organizing protests, and are trying to make them understand what might happen next, but no one from the union wants to work in politics. The average person here, to be honest, has no idea what will happen after a regime change. They hope things will be easier for them but they don’t really know how. So that is our job in the SCRU, to educate people about what might happen, and warn them against violence. Maybe there could be violence; there could be sectarian war. But we are working everyday to make sure these things don’t happen.

HH: Who inspires you?

OK: Omar al Mukhtar in Libya (the anti-colonial revolutionary who was hanged in 1931 by the Italians) – he was a poor person who believed in something and he tried to make it real. No surrender. In Syria, we had Faris al Khoury – who was Christian. (Khoury the famous Syrian Christian Prime Minister of the 40s and 50s.).  And Saleh al Ali who was Alawi. The people who inspire me come from many different sects but they all had clear goals.

HH: What does democracy mean for you?

OK: Democracy means that when I see something wrong, I can say something. For me, for my group and for my people also. We want to be able to speak out and say what we feel. I hope that one day we will be able to live in freedom.

Filed under: Middle East

Syria: In Hiding with the Real Opposition

The following is a personal account of the three days I spent in the mountains around Damascus with opposition members. A different version of this account appeared in The Times on Monday 4th June 2011

‘We want what you have – freedom.’ Four months ago, Ali Jaber Abu Hamze was a farmer in the small town of Madaya, in the Damascene countryside. Now he is Madaya’s head of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union. He is in his mid thirties, with a thick black beard and a probing glare. As we take our seats in a large lemon grove, which adjoins the disused farmhouse where he hides, he explains his journey. Over the next hour two things become very clear: This man and his followers are – despite the best efforts of the Syrian government to publicise otherwise – neither Islamists nor violent extremists. And this – not the LCC – is the real opposition to the Syrian government. He says he is so dedicated to the cause, that he allows the use of his real name.

Ali Jaber has spent a year in a Syrian prison, and explains the brutality that made him even more convinced of his government’s illegitimacy. ‘Because it is difficult to find work, people earn money as informants. This country runs on informants. Someone told the government I spoke against the President.’ Crushed into a 5 by 5 metre space, groups of 40-50 men are stripped, covered in water and electrocuted with cattle prods. Forced rape, torture and beatings are common. He continues for a few minutes in far more gruesome detail until he pauses, and says ‘you must understand. We are not terrorists, nor Salafiya militants, nor Islamists. We are just regular Syrian people calling for the end to this regime. We are not using violence, we are responding to their violence.’ He goes onto explain his pre-revolutionary life as a farmer in the Damascene countryside. I am introduced to others who also led similarly unremarkable lives before protests began – mechanics, teachers, engineers and students, all of them from ordinary backgrounds wishing to do extraordinary things. Ali Jaber goes onto explain how immediately after the first protests in Dar’aa, virtually every young man in Syria was pulled into a local jail for questioning. ‘This is what made people join the protests. And when you see women and children dying at the hands of your government, you must act.’ He explains how the government pays 1000 Syrian Pounds on a Friday to any thug willing to beat or shoot protestors. ‘They are the violent ones.’

It is these men’s comparative normality that makes their cause all the more special, particularly given the extremely well-developed network they have managed to build. This becomes clearer as we head to another town, Zabadani. As we emerge from the compound in Madaya more men appear, and jump onto their motorbikes – they act as scouts for the 30 minute journey between the two towns, racing ahead to check for security forces. As we speed through the olive groves along dirt tracks in the middle of the night, the driver is alerted to another car following us. He takes a handgun from the glove compartment. ‘We have to protect ourselves,’ insists Ali Jaber, seeing my startled look. ‘You will see at the protests, we are not violent.’ We stop in a lay-by and wait for the car to pass, before continuing our journey. Syrian security is incredibly well-developed, with 17 separate branches. These men know to look for the black Peugeots of the internal security, or the larger people carriers of military intelligence.

A very basic three-room farm building, set on a small hill overlooking the apricot and cherry groves that carpet this Syrian-Lebanese border region, forms the base of Zabadani operations. Many more young men are there – all wanted by the authorities. Some of the men continue their regular jobs – as farmers or labourers – and use their wages to pay the way of the others who are unable to return to work. 7 men are on guard at all times, each with a walkie-talkie to avoid cellular tracing. Around 20 men spend their time between the street and this small farmhouse, where they eat, sleep and watch the news. At various intervals over the next three days the atmosphere darkens, as reports come in about security forces nearby. As each threat subsides, the mood lightens slightly, and jokes about the President’s appearance abound over a meal made in the house’s small kitchen. This has now become the reality of life for these men, and people like them all over Syria, separated from their families and living as fugitives. The regional leader in Zabadani, himself yet another former prisoner, shows me his mangled foot, on which guards repeatedly stamped when he was in jail, the fingers from which his nails were pulled, and the scars from repeated beatings on his back. Another man with diabetes explains how guards ignored his pleas for insulin when he was arrested, and allowed him to faint in his cramped jail cell before sending him to a military hospital, where a doctor broke a needle off in his arm. ‘They treat us like we are nothing. But now we are going to make something of this country.’

I ask about the organisation, and how it is structured. ‘From the street up!’ is the reply, ‘the LCC is hijacking our cause – men like us arranged the protests around the country.’ The others all signal their agreement. These men believe their real leaders are the ones still in prison, such as political activist Kamal Lubwani. Mohammad Ali (not his real name), is a young student who was made to fail his exams because he went to protest. He should have graduated this year. ‘I have not been arrested but I am afraid for my family. We have heard stories about how they rape women. He starts to cry as he explains, ‘if my sister is raped in front of me, I don’t know what I would do. People are losing their fear and getting angry.’

The following day his comments ring true as the biggest protests Syria has seen so far erupt all around the country. ‘We could not do this without the Internet or Facebook, Muhammad Ali explains as we look on at Zabadani’s protest from a nearby roof. ‘Are you not scared?’ I ask, ‘No. I am more scared of a future with Bashar al Assad as President. We are doing this for our children.’

Filed under: Middle East

New College of the Humanities: A Biased ‘Dream School’ for Oxbridge Rejects

I have to admit, when I heard about AC Grayling’s new private university initiative, I was immediately intrigued. The New College of the Humanities has a kind of spellbinding magic about it; my head filled with fantastical images of a kind of modern Hogwarts, where the world’s greatest wizards assemble to lecture young minds – cosmology from the castle turrets, philosophy in the grand library, logic, classics and literacy from specially designed rooms bursting with bewitched and enchanted trinkets and gadgets. Each wizard would occupy his own wing, and in his chamber he’d be surrounded by strange and wonderful contraptions that pop, fizz and purr softly as he conducts his lessons, whilst great sage-like wizards of bygone ages look on from their faded canvases.

But then I came back to reality (and realised I’d read a little too much Harry Potter.). It’s a little less Hogwarts, and a little more Jamie Oliver’s Dream School. Many have already quite rightly pointed out the faults with this school – that £18,000 is a vastly inflated sum that perhaps only matches the egos of those teaching; that this goes against every principle those self-professed leftist academics purport to represent; and that whilst it might be billed as a response to the government’s cuts in Humanities funding, making education more expensive doesn’t actually help anyone – other than the board of the university.

Jamie’s Dream School was a one-off event. It was a great initiative – to highlight the benefits of learning to kids on whom some had given up. And it was a fun idea. But it was made for TV, and was not exactly long-term. David Starkey was hardly going to spend 40 hours a week making lewd double entendres about Henry VIII’s codpiece to Leondre and Chantelle from Dagenham. Alistair Campbell wasn’t going to give up lucrative speaking engagements to explain the art of political spin to a class of 12 year olds. And Cherie Blair can’t waste that great legal mind on school kids – she’s got money to make on Ebay.

In much the same way, Dawkins and the like are not going to be able to devote the time they should to their students. During my masters at LSE – for which a similar fee is payable – quite a few of my ‘star lecturers’ had all sorts of other commitments. With their own work to complete, or special government assignments to take care of, or perhaps most importantly for them, appearing on Sky News every thirty seconds, teaching could at times take a back seat.

But more importantly, I went to LSE in the hope of getting a subjective-free education, where facts were presented and I was left to make up my own mind. This has mostly been the case. I don’t see Dawkins making objectivity a priority, or many of the other names that have circulated. It’s also a very narrow selection of academics – not one from outside Europe or America. I had people from all over the world teach me. Oxbridge has a similar international setup. It is anything but a superior balanced education if you are being fed the ideas of an opinionated few.

It’s too expensive, it’s not international, and its teachers will be in class about 20% of the time. Wealthy Oxbridge rejects might be tempted, but then the degree will be synonymous with second class-scholarship. Perhaps its a bit like Hogwarts without the magic – essentially a drafty old castle where you’re taught by a bunch of old white men who have their faces in the paper a little too much. And who’d want to go there?

Frankly, I’d pay £18,000 to not be taught by Richard bloody Dawkins.

Filed under: British Politics

Middle East Peace: The Man in the Way

I went to a discussion last night with David Trimble and Jonathan Powell on the lessons the Good Friday Agreement may have for Middle Eastern Peace. Whilst there were many interesting debates, which you will soon be able to find here, there was one comment about Dennis Ross that got me thinking.

Dennis Ross has been advising the US government on Middle Eastern Policy for years. His advice on the wording of negotiation, and the details of concessions has been central to US policy since Reagan. Last night, Lord Trimble said that Obama should have listened more closely to Ross before he made the ‘unwise’ decision to announce his support for the 67 borders. Trimble is an inspiration for many many reasons, but he is totally wrong on this one.

No administration since Reagan has made much headway on finding a solution to the Palestinian issue, and Ross has been the common denominator in every single one. He has been able to weave his way through successive Democratic and Republican administrations, by being himself a Democrat who appeals to libertarian sentiment in the Republican camp. But make no mistake, he is very definitely a pro-Israeli Conservative – with a big C – when it comes to the Middle East, as his work with AIPAC and PNAC shows. This is a man who signed a letter supporting war in Iraq with men like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. He ensured the Palestinians were the ones to make every concession at Camp David and now he doesn’t want the President to say what we all know is true. How can his judgement be counted upon?

The ultimate proof that this man is standing in the way of peace is George J Mitchell’s resignation. Mitchell is one of the most inspirational men in US politics and was pivotal to the brokering of peace in Northern Ireland. He resigned last week as Mid East Envoy – it is widely assumed – because of Dennis Ross. Political appointments in every country are made to appease certain factions, and Ross’ constant presence in all these administrations is the product of a very powerful Jewish Lobby. Mitchell was a wonderful appointment, but his effective deputy undermined everything he did.

‘There is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just that there’s no tunnel.’

This is what Shimon Peres said when asked about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. It was quoted last night. Everyone knows the 67 borders is that light. But we all know too that there needs to be the political willpower and leadership to build the tunnel. Palestine’s divided leadership has made that impossible, as has Israel’s intransigence since 2009. It was right that Obama used his own instincts when writing that speech, because the President’s words – rather than those of an envoy or secretary of state – lend a lot more weight to an argument most people on earth know is right, but for a certain powerful few. Ross should have resigned, not Mitchell.

Filed under: Middle East

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Territories

The story of the Palestinian living in Syria who hitchhiked across Israel to find his home is sure to have Hollywood buzzing. A romantic comedy maybe? The Palestinian could be in the image of Shirley ‘finding-herself-in-the-Mediterranean’ Valentine: buses trundling along panoramic coastline roads, sunsets over rolling hills, a plucky local discovering the world, talking with strangers and over-coming personal hardships, all to the theme of obscure indie folk music and local pan piped melodies. He could even make friends with a stray dog? Or it could be an action film. Part of the Bourne series, perhaps? It would certainly give a new meaning to The Bourne Identity. Or maybe a new one. Bourne: The Right to Return. I could go on….

But this incredible story of a man who made his way over 130km from his Syrian refugee camp to a Tel Aviv neighbourhood, is inspiring for many reasons.
And in the context of the recent uprisings, two distinct elements come to mind. Firstly on a practical level, it is indicative of the remarkable breakdown in security in Syria, as the regime focuses on clamping down on continuing dissent within its own parameters. The regime has long meddled in the affairs of its neighbours, seeking to destabilise and corrupt their domestic situations. Now the attention is on its own security, and it must now worry about its own leaky borders, as operatives seem now to be able to come and go with increasing frequency.
But more importantly, this man’s journey reflects a change in the state of mind of not just Palestinians, but Arabs all over the region. As the legitimacy of their leaders is questioned, so too is the legitimacy of the already contested borders that separate their countries. As questions of legitimacy and freedom abound, this man’s hike demonstrates how desperation, misery and dispossession have finally come to outweigh fear of reprisals from the authorities.
In one respect, with calls for freedom and democracy in his ears, this was one man’s own private protest. With no Tahrir to call his own, he made his way back ‘home’ as an act of defiance and self-determination, claiming his identity just as millions of Cairenes and Tunisians were able to do. Just as the Tunisian grocer’s self immolation was his own private, singular act of despair, what followed was a very public, mass display of emotion, communal solidarity and hope. This man’s trek will not trigger a mass infitada against Israel as some have indicated, but it should provoke a similar compassionate response by all those who recognize his cause.
This man’s journey demonstrates the real awakening going on in the Middle East. Maybe by the time Hollywood gets round to making this film, it might have a happy ending too.

Jordan: 2,004,795; Lebanon: 427,057; Syria: 477,700; West Bank: 788,108; Gaza Strip: 1,122,569. That’s 4,820,229 registered Palestinian refugees living in 58 refugee camps

Filed under: Middle East

They Knew He Was There

Is it just me, or is it blindingly obvious that Pakistan knew where Osama was? In case you’re reading this President Zardari – HE WAS IN THE MASSIVE HOUSE NEAR THE ARMY BASE! You know the one, with the huge orchard outside and loads of scary looking men running in and out at night?

If not the highest-ranking officials, then middle to low ranking agents in the ISI knew very well. Recruited from towns and villages along the famously porous AfPak borders, ISI operatives and Pakistani officials come from the very same region from which the Taliban started recruiting 40 years ago. These links are old, filial, and strong – much stronger than any sense of loyalty to the ISI. As a result, the organisation has been undermining US operations in Afghanistan for years, feeding information to the Taliban about coalition forces, and sending the latter on wild goose chases. And why have senior officials done nothing to plug the leak?

Pakistan needs to keep the simmering threat of terror alive. For three reasons:

First, the Saudi – Afghan – Pakistani Sunni triangle is an allegiance that goes back to the Soviet Afghan war of the 70s. When Reagan called the Mujahedeen ‘the equivalent to our founding fathers,’ and when the threat of the Cold War and Shi’a Iran were omnipresent. That latter threat is still there, and as present as ever. The Sunni pact – so strong that the Saudis paid for a literal ‘wall’ of Sunni mosques along the Pakistan border with Iran – remains to this day, and whilst American funding for the Taliban has long since dried up ($500m a year at one point), these three keep the money flowing.

Second: Pakistan has its own domestic and regional issues with India, in which it is one of a number of players provoking tensions between Hindus and Muslims no end. Kashmir is another region set in its Islamic sights. Tapping into the resources and tactical know-how of these shady characters serves Pakistan well.

The third and perhaps most important reason – to keep the US in the region. As long as the shadow of terror remains, US money, investment and aid will pour in, not to mention turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, and its brutal domestic security policies.

Whilst the government looks to the US for support, it can conveniently plead innocence whilst individuals lower down can stoke the very fires the US is paying to put out. The head doesn’t know what the feet are doing, and it has suited them so far.

I don’t think we’ll ever know the full details of what went on in this remarkably convenient and swift execution. Obama it seems has lost the innocence and piousness that he brought with him to office, choosing a clandestine operation to murder a man, rather than bring him to the real ‘justice’ he used to lecture about at Chicago Law School. It’s amazing how an election changes a man. But whatever the truth of his end, Bin Laden’s discovery just clears up what we all knew for so long about our ‘ally’ in Pakistan. Maybe now something might change.

Filed under: Middle East

Why Monarchy is Democratic

Tanya Brown’s article on our ‘puddle of feudal nostalgia’ was a very funny read. The Archbishop’s Easter message on social obligations was among the subjects of her amusing rant, mocking his suggestion that government figures should take some time out and see how ‘real people live’ by doing a bit of volunteer work. I loved for instance her image of Ken Clarke ‘burning turkey twizzlers at some luckless primary school,’ as she put it.

But her misguided ramblings about the ‘ghastly’ royal wedding, and her out-dated moaning about the government being a ‘pile of old Etonians,’ took the shine off somewhat. Yet again, a royal event has brought the class warriors out in full, banging their drums louder and harder than anyone else, seeking to drown out the very reasoned debate they claim they want.

We all know the royal family is slightly strange – a borderline racist grandfather, a tight-lipped frosty granny, a bonkers and estranged daughter in law, a party loving younger brother and an uncle who just won’t admit he’s gay – Why ridicule the ridiculous?

Indeed many of the elements above (if not all?) remind us of our own families in some way. But their importance goes deeper than this. Tanya Brown sees – quite wrongly – our monarchy as feudalistic. Although journalistically  it serves a purpose to blend the two, she has conflated the two rather drastically.

Feudal monarchies of old used systems of patronage and privilege to consolidate power. Those in the Middle East still function as such. But those systems are long gone in Europe, and in fact I would say we are now surrounded by feudal republics and democratic monarchies. Just look around – over the past decade, Democracy Index has consistently placed western European democracies as 7 of the top 10 most democratic nations on earth – three of those with our queen as head of state. And then look to the bottom of the list – all republics. You may say these countries outside Europe have suffered for different reasons, and you may be right. Then look closer to home – at Russia, Italy, France, Greece – corruption levels are far higher in these countries than here in the UK. Talk about a system of feudalistic patronage!

And why is this? Because a family at the top breeds an atmosphere of personal and not just official accountability. Only the most ruthless and calculating individuals will achieve power in a democracy – a monarch however must work constantly to legitimize the position he has inherited. Politicians are self-serving and short-termist, looking for policies that will best serve their interests for the next election. The monarchy seeks to consolidate its position for the long-term, and as such must find ways to make its positive presence in society felt. Monarchy remains steadfast whilst politicians are transient, and the former creates an atmosphere of duty and accountability in public office from which the latter can learn.

I’ll be watching the wedding tomorrow. Not in either a puddle of feudal nostalgia or, like Tanya perhaps, in jealous contempt of privilege. But surrounded by family and friends, thinking about the parties going on around the world, and listening out as royal trumpets drown out the class warrior’s drum, as they salute the arrival of a new princess, and a new stage in British history.

Filed under: British Politics

The View from Beirut

‘The Doctor needs to go. When the Assads leave, Lebanon will be free.’ So said my driver in clouds of cigarette smoke as we sped from the airport into downtown Beirut. I met a lot of people with the same sentiment: a weaker Syria means a stronger Lebanon.

This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because no matter what side they’re on, the Lebanese regard a Syria without Assad as a weaker Syria. And they’d be right. I’m no apologist. What Assad’s security forces are doing is unforgivable – and he’s squandering the one chance Mubarak and the like didn’t have. But the Alawis have made it their mission to divide Syria over the past forty years in what is basically a coalition of the wealthy – Shi’a, Christian and Sunni elites all in a shaky partnership of economic convenience. And Assad is at the head. If he goes, that partnership breaks down. Whilst I certainly don’t agree that a heterogeneous country needs an autocrat to rule it, sectarian politics die hard.

Second, although that taxi driver may be keen to see the back of a regime which has caused chaos in his country, instability in Syria will further weaken already contested borders. The Sunni working class – which has formed the backbone of these protests – may see a similarly under-represented ally in the Lebanese Sunni. Indeed Lebanon in its entirety will be left even more exposed to Syrian claims at re-establishing ‘Greater Syria.’ It won’t do an already unstable Lebanon any favours to have a leaderless country with a political landscape so deeply entrenched along sectarian lines on its somewhat porous border. A weaker Syria will mean a weaker Lebanon.

No one is sure what is going to happen. Beiruties are for their part just soaking up the sun in their usual fashion. The bars and pools of the capital seemed a world away from the dramas unfolding so close by. Generally the Lebanese would love to see Assad fall. But not all ‘rebels’ are the same. They should be careful what they wish for.

Filed under: Middle East

Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo