Some Thoughts on Egypt

from David Zlutnick

Fireworks over Tahrir Square

My two cents on Egypt right now (for whatever its worth…)

A military in charge of any government is not good and like many I’m concerned about what will come next. But the military coup took place after massive massive mobilization by the people of Egypt, and — despite their intentions and their hopes of where this will lead — the military was forced to act by the demonstrations because it was clear the Morsi government had lost control. Whether it’s good or bad, the people spoke and the military acted.

I just heard an interesting interview with a young Egyptian where he made an excellent point: He responded to a comment about democratically-elected governments ideally being removed only through elections. He said that in the US — and many other “democratic” states — presidents can be removed without elections through impeachment. In Egypt the Brotherhood wrote no impeachment provisions into the constitution as one mechanism to assist their hold on power, so what took place in Egypt yesterday was a “de facto impeachment.” I like that. The people of Egypt took it upon themselves to impeach Morsi because their was no legal mechanism to do so.

People are rightfully concerned about the Egyptian military being in charge, at least for the moment. When the SCAF led Egypt there were a lot of abuses of power, persecution of activists, etc., not to mention little-to-no democratic mechanisms of rule. But when Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 and the military took power, many said that while there was much anxiety over who would assume power in Egypt and what that would look like, the Egyptian people — and whatever group would lead the government — knew that if the leadership did not demonstrate the popular will, whoever came to power could be removed. They had demonstrated that to themselves. And so that proved to be right, and that spirit of rebellion and the revolution itself continues as Egyptians tirelessly work toward their new society.

Goodbye, Morsi. Hello future.


Mubarak’s phantom presidency

As the world watches Egyptian society transform, various interest groups jockey for position in the new political order.

by Paul Amar

This was originally published on the Jadaliyya Ezine. Click here for the link.

The “March of Millions” in Cairo marks the spectacular emergence of a new political society in Egypt. This uprising brings together a new coalition of forces, uniting reconfigured elements of the security state with prominent business people, internationalist leaders, and relatively new (or newly reconfigured) mass movements of youth, labour, women’s and religious groups. President Hosni Mubarak lost his political power on Friday, January 28.

On that night the Egyptian military let Mubarak’s ruling party headquarters burn down and ordered the police brigades attacking protesters to return to their barracks. When the evening call to prayer rang out and no one heeded Mubarak’s curfew order, it was clear that the old president been reduced to a phantom authority. In order to understand where Egypt is going, and what shape democracy might take there, we need to set the extraordinarily successful popular mobilisations into their military, economic and social context. What other forces were behind this sudden fall of Mubarak from power? And how will this transitional military-centred government get along with this millions-strong protest movement?

Many international media commentators – and some academic and political analysts – are having a hard time understanding the complexity of forces driving and responding to these momentous events. This confusion is driven by the binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses most used to view this uprising. Such perspectives obscure more than they illuminate.

There are three prominent binary models out there and each one carries its own baggage: (1) People versus Dictatorship, a perspective that leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising; (2) Seculars versus Islamists, a model that leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street”; or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth, a lens which imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

To map out a more comprehensive view, it may be helpful to identify the moving parts within the military and police institutions of the security state and how clashes within and between these coercive institutions relate to shifting class hierarchies and capital formations. I will also weigh these factors in relation to the breadth of new non-religious social movements and the internationalist or humanitarian identity of certain figures emerging at the centre of the new opposition coalition.

Picking a paradigm

Western commentators, whether liberal, left or conservative, tend to see all forces of coercion in non-democratic states as the hammers of “dictatorship” or as expressions of the will of an authoritarian leader. But each police, military and security institution has its own history, culture, class-allegiances, and, often its own autonomous sources of revenue and support as well. It would take many books to lay this all out in detail; but let me make a brief attempt here. In Egypt, the police forces (al-shurta) are run by the Interior Ministry, which was very close to Mubarak and the Presidency and had become politically co-dependent on him.

But police stations gained relative autonomy during the past decades. In certain police stations this autonomy took the form of the adoption of a militant ideology or moral mission; or some Vice Police stations have taken up drug running; or some ran protection rackets that squeezed local small businesses. The political dependability of the police, from a bottom-up perspective, is not high. Police grew to be quite self-interested and entrepreneurial on a station-by-station level.

In the 1980s, the police faced the growth of “gangs”, referred to in Egyptian Arabic as baltagiya. These street organisations had asserted self-rule over Cairo’s many informal settlements and slums. Foreigners and the Egyptian bourgeoisie assumed the baltagiya to be Islamists but they were mostly utterly unideological. In the early 1990s the Interior Ministry decided “if you can’t beat them, hire them”.

So the Interior Ministry and the Central Security Services started outsourcing coercion to these baltagiya, paying them well and training them to use sexualised brutality (from groping to rape) in order to punish and deter female protesters and male detainees alike. During this period, the Interior Ministry also turned the State Security Investigations (SSI – mabahith amn al-dawla) into a monstrous threat, detaining and torturing masses of domestic political dissidents.

Autonomous from the Interior Ministry we have the Central Security Services (Amn al-Markazi). These are the black uniformed, helmeted men that the media refer to as “the police”. Central Security was supposed to act as the private army of Mubarak. These are not revolutionary guards or morality brigades like the basiji who repressed the Green Movement protesters in Iran. By contrast, the Amn al-Markazi are low paid and non-ideological. Moreover, at crucial times, these Central Security brigades have risen up en masse against Mubarak himself to demand better wages and working conditions.

Perhaps if it weren’t for the sinister assistance of the brutal baltagiya, they would not be a very intimidating force. The look of unenthusiastic resignation in the eyes of Amn al-Markazi soldiers as they were kissed and lovingly disarmed by protesters has become one of the most iconic images, so far, of this revolution. The dispelling of Mubarak’s authority could be marked to precisely that moment when protesters kissed the cheeks of Markazi officers who promptly vanished into puffs of tear gas, never to return.

Evolving military power

The Armed Forces of the Arab Republic of Egypt are quite unrelated to the Markazi or police and see themselves as a distinct kind of state altogether. One could say that Egypt is still a “military dictatorship” (if one must use that term) since this is still the same regime that the Free Officers’ Revolution installed in the 1950s. But the military has been marginalised since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel and the United States. Since 1977, the military has not been allowed to fight anyone. Instead, the generals have been given huge aid payoffs by the US. They have been granted concessions to run shopping malls in Egypt, develop gated cities in the desert and beach resorts on the coasts. And they are encouraged to sit around in cheap social clubs.

These buy-offs have shaped them into an incredibly organised interest group of nationalist businessmen. They are attracted to foreign investment, but their loyalties are economically and symbolically embedded in national territory. As we can see when examining any other case in the region (Pakistan, Iraq, the Gulf), US military-aid money does not buy loyalty to America; it just buys resentment. In recent years, the Egyptian military has felt collectively a growing sense of national duty, and has developed a sense of embittered shame for what it considers its “neutered masculinity”: its sense that it was not standing up for the nation’s people.

The nationalistic Armed Forces want to restore their honour and they are disgusted by police corruption and baltagiya brutality. And it seems that the military, now as “national capitalists”, have seen themselves as the blood rivals of the neoliberal “crony capitalists” associated with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal who have privatised anything they can get their hands on and sold the country’s assets off to China, the US, and Persian Gulf capital.

Thus we can see why in the first stage of this revolution, on Friday January 28, we saw a very quick “coup” of the military against the police and Central Security, and disappearance of Gamal Mubarak (the son) and of the detested Interior Minister, Habib el-Adly. However, the military is also split by some internal contradictions. Within the Armed Forces there are two elite sub-branches, the Presidential Guard and the Air Force. These remained closer to Mubarak while the broader military turned against him.

This explains why you can had the contradictory display of the General Chief of the Armed Forces, Muhammad Tantawi, wading in among the protesters to show support on January 30, while at the same time, the chief of the Air Force was named Mubarak’s new Prime Minister and sent planes to strafe the same protesters. This also explains why the Presidential Guard protected the Radio/Television Building and fought against protesters on January 28 rather than siding with them.

The Vice President, Omar Soleiman, named on January 29, was formerly the head of the Intelligence Services (al-mukhabarat). This is also a branch of the military (not of the police). Intelligence is in charge of externally-oriented secret operations, detentions and interrogations (and, thus, torture and renditions of non-Egyptians). Although since Soleiman’s mukhabarat did not detain and torture as many Egyptian dissidents in the domestic context, they are less hated than the mubahith.

The Intelligence Services (mukhabarat) are in a particularly decisive position as a “swing vote”. As I understand it, the Intelligence Services loathed Gamal Mubarak and the “crony capitalist” faction, but are obsessed with stability and have long, intimate relationships with the CIA and the American military. The rise of the military, and within it, the Intelligence Services, explains why all of Gamal Mubarak’s business cronies were thrown out of the cabinet on Friday, January 28, and why Soleiman was made interim VP (and functions in fact as Acting President).

Cementing a new order

This revolution or regime change would be complete at the moment when anti-Mubarak tendencies in the military consolidate their position and reassure the Intelligence Services and the Air Force that they can confidently open up to the new popular movements and those parties coalesced around opposition leader ElBaradei. This is what an optimistic reader might judge to be what Obama and Clinton describe as an “orderly transition”.

On Monday, January 31, we saw Naguib Sawiris, perhaps Egypt’s richest businessman and the iconic leader of the developmentalist “nationalist capital” faction in Egypt, joining the protesters and demanding the exit of Mubarak. During the past decade, Sawiris and his allies had become threatened by Mubarak-and-son’s extreme neoliberalism and their favoring of Western, European and Chinese investors over national businessmen. Because their investments overlap with those of the military, these prominent Egyptian businessmen have interests literally embedded in the land, resources and development projects of the nation. They have become exasperated by the corruption of Mubarak’s inner circle.

Paralleling the return of organized national(ist) capital associated with the military and ranged against the police (a process that also occurred during the struggle with British colonialism in the 1930s-50s) there has been a return of very powerful and vastly organized labor movements, principally among youth. 2009 and 2010 were marked by mass national strikes, nationwide sit-ins, and visible labor protests often in the same locations that spawned this 2011 uprising. And the rural areas have been rising up against the government’s efforts to evict small farmers from their lands, opposing the regime’s attempts to re-create the vast landowner fiefdoms that defined the countryside during the Ottoman and British Colonial periods.

In 2008 we saw the 100,000 strong April 6 Youth Movement emerge, leading a national general strike. And in 2008 and just in December 2010 we saw the first independent public sector unions emerge. Then just on January 30, 2011, clusters of unions from most major industrial towns gathered to form an Independent Trade Union Federation. These movements are organized by new leftist political parties that have no relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, nor are they connected to the past generation of Nasserism.

They do not identify against Islam, of course, and do not make an issue of policing the secular-religious divide. Their interest in protecting national manufacturing and agricultural smallholdings, and in demanding public investment in national economic development dovetails with some of the interests of the new nationalist capital alliance.

Thus behind the scenes of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Facebook-driven protest waves, there are huge structural and economic forces and institutional realignments at work. Egypt’s population is officially recorded at 81 million but in reality goes well beyond 100 million since some parents do not register all their children to shield them from serving in the Amn Al-Markazi or army. With the burgeoning youth population now becoming well-organized, these social and internet-coordinated movements are becoming very important.

They can be grouped into three trends. One group of new movements are organized by and around international norms and organizations, and so may tend toward a secular, globalizing set of perspectives and discourses.

A second group is organized through the very active and assertive legal culture and independent judicial institutions in Egypt. This strong legal culture is certainly not a “Western human rights” import. Lawyers, judges and millions of litigants – men and women, working-class, farmers, and elite – have kept alive the judicial system and have a long unbroken history of resisting authoritarianism and staking rights claims of all sorts.

A third group of new social movements represents the intersection of internationalist NGOs, judicial-rights groups and the new leftist, feminist, rural and worker social movements. The latter group critiques the universalism of UN and NGO secular discourses, and draws upon the power of Egypt’s legal and labor activism, but also has its own innovative strategies and solutions – many of which have been on prominent display on the streets this week.

Eygptian internationalism

One final element to examine here is the critical, and often overlooked role that Egypt has played in United Nations and humanitarian organizations, and how this history is coming back to enliven domestic politics and offer legitimacy and leadership at this time. Muhammad ElBaradei, the former director of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, has emerged as the consensus choice of the United Democratic Front in Egypt, which is asking him to serve as interim president, and to preside over a national process of consensus building and constitution drafting. In the 2000s, ElBaradei bravely led the IAEA and was credited with confirming that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Iran was not developing a nuclear weapons program.

He won the Nobel Prize for upholding international law against a new wave of wars of aggression and for essentially stopping the momentum for war against Iran. He is no radical and not Egypt’s Gandhi; but he is no pushover or puppet of the US, either. For much of the week, standing at his side at the protests has been Egyptian actor Khaled Abou Naga, who has appeared in several Egyptian and American films, and who serves as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. This may be much more a UN-humanitarian led revolution than a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. This is a very twenty-first century regime change – simultaneously local and international.

It is a good time to remind ourselves that the first-ever United Nations military-humanitarian peacekeeping intervention, the UN Emergency Force, was created with the joint support of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower (both military men, of course) in 1960 to keep the peace in Gaza and to stop the former colonial powers and Israel from invading Egypt in order to retake the Suez Canal and resubordinate Egypt.

Then in the 1990s, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali served as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Boutros-Ghali articulated new UN doctrines of state-building and militarized humanitarian intervention. But he got fired for making the mistake of insisting that international human rights and humanitarian law needed to be applied neutrally and universally, rather than only at the convenience of the Security Council powers.

Yet Egypt’s relationship to the UN continues. Notably, ‘Aida Seif Ad-Dawla, one of the most articulate, brave and creative leaders of the new generation of Egyptian social movements and feminist NGOs, is a candidate for the high office of UN Rapporteur on Torture. Egyptians have a long history for investing in and supporting international law, humanitarian norms and human rights.

Egyptian internationalism insists on the equal application of human rights principles and humanitarian laws of war even in the face of superpower pressure. In this context, ElBaradei’s emergence as a leader makes perfect sense. Although this internationalist dimension of Egypt’s “local” uprising is utterly ignored by most self-conscious liberal commentators who assume that international means “the West” and that Egypt’s protesters are driven by the politics of the belly rather than matters of principle.

Mubarak is already out of power. The new cabinet is composed of chiefs of Intelligence, Air Force and the prison authority, as well as one International Labor Organization official. This group embodies a hard-core “stability coalition” that will work to bring together the interests of new military, national capital and labor, all the while reassuring the United States.

Yes, this is a reshuffling of the cabinet, but one which reflects a very significant change in political direction. But none of it will count as a democratic transition until the vast new coalition of local social movements and internationalist Egyptians break into this circle and insist on setting the terms and agenda for transition.

I would bet that even the hard-line leaders of the new cabinet will be unable to resist plugging into the willpower of these popular uprisings, one hundred million Egyptians strong.

Paul Amar is Associate Professor of Global & International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include: Cairo Cosmopolitan; The New Racial Missions of Policing; Global South to the Rescue; and the forthcoming Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics and the End of Neoliberalism.


Killing Reconciliation: Military Raids, Backing of Corrupt Government Undermining Stated U.S. Goals in Afghanistan

The Obama administration says it is backing a strategy of reconciliation with the Taliban. But just back from Afghanistan, unembedded investigative journalists Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley say night raids by US Special Operations are killing the reconciliation the administration claims to support.

This video was taken from Democracy Now! Click here for the link.





What America Left Behind in Iraq

It’s even uglier than you think.

by Nir Rosen

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy. Click here for the link.

Hundreds of cars waiting in the heat to slowly pass through one of the dozens of checkpoints and searches they must endure every day. The constant roar of generators. The smell of fuel, of sewage, of kabobs. Automatic weapons pointed at your head out of military vehicles, out of SUVs with tinted windows. Mountains of garbage. Rumors of the latest assassination or explosion. Welcome to the new Iraq, same as the old Iraq — even if Barack Obama has declared George W. Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom over and announced the beginning of his own Operation New Dawn, and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared Iraq sovereign and independent.

Iraq has had several declarations of sovereignty since the first one in June 2004. As with earlier milestones, it’s not clear what exactly this one means. Since the Americans have declared the end of combat operations, U.S. Stryker and MRAP vehicles can be seen conducting patrols without Iraqi escorts in parts of the country and the Americans continue to conduct unilateral military operations in Mosul and elsewhere, even if under the guise of “force protection” or “countering improvised explosive devices.” American military officers in Iraq told me they were irate with the politically driven announcement from the White House that combat troops had withdrawn. Those remaining still consider themselves combat troops, and commanders say there is little change in their rules of engagement — they will still respond to threats pre-emptively.

Iraq is still being held back from full independence — and not merely by the presence of 50,000 U.S. soldiers. The Status of Forces Agreement, which stipulates that U.S. forces will be totally out by 2011, deprives Iraq of full sovereignty. The U.N.’s Chapter 7 sanctions force Iraq to pay 5 percent of its oil revenues in reparations, mostly to the Kuwaitis, denying Iraqis full sovereignty and isolating them from the international financial community. Saudi and Iranian interference, both political and financial, has also limited Iraq’s scope for democracy and sovereignty. Throughout the occupation, major decisions concerning the shape of Iraq have been made by the Americans with no input or say by the Iraqis: the economic system, the political regime, the army and its loyalties, the control over airspace, and the formation of all kinds of militias and tribal military groups. The effects will linger for decades, regardless of any future milestones the United States might want to announce.

The Americans, meanwhile, worry about losing their leverage at a time when concerns still run high about a renewed insurgency, Shiite militias, and the explosion of the Arab-Kurdish powder keg everybody’s been talking about for the last seven years. Many in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wonder what Obama’s vision for Iraq is. By the summer of 2006, Bush woke up every day and wanted to know what was happening in Iraq. Obama is much more detached.

American diplomats also worry that they will soon lose their ability to understand and influence the country. In addition to Baghdad, there will soon be only four other posts. Much of the south will be without any U.S. presence: There will be no Americans between Basra and Baghdad, no Americans in Anbar or Salahuddin provinces. Some in the embassy fear they are abandoning the “Shiite heartland.” The diplomats still in the country will have less mobility and access, even if they are nominally taking the lead over the military, because it will be harder to find military escorts when they want to travel. “You can’t commute to a relationship,” I was told.

At best, unable to secure areas to visit by helicopter or communicate with Iraqis navigating the hassle of trying to get into the Green Zone, the diplomats in the four outposts will act as listening posts or trip wires. They hope to be viewed as the honest broker between Kurds and Arabs in northern Iraq, where the American focus has shifted as part of the consolidation of “strategic gain.”

But staffers complain that they lack the funding to do their job right, even though the four posts outside Baghdad are going to be very expensive. They say the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the war in Iraq but is now pinching its pennies over secretarial salaries.

One hope for change rested on this year’s national election, held on March 7, which ended in a virtual tie between former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya party and Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. The election nonetheless did represent a milestone in the country’s political evolution. Regardless of the outcome — Maliki contested but could not overturn the vote count — the elections will not precipitate a return to civil war. The state is strong, and the security forces take their work seriously — perhaps too seriously. The sectarian militias have been beaten and marginalized, and the Sunnis have accepted their loss in the civil war.

But the controversies surrounding the still-unresolved contest point to some serious long-term political rifts. The increased pace of the U.S. withdrawal coupled with the still-unresolved state of the political map and meddling by the United States, the Saudis, Iran, and even Turkey, has lead to a vicious zero-sum competition as Iraqi leaders jockey for power.

Maliki was a popular candidate, supported by Iraqis for having crushed both Sunni and Shiite armed groups, and he came in first as an individual politician, with Allawi a distant second. But Maliki’s candidates came a close second to Iraqiya — a surprise after Allawi’s dismal performance in 2005.

On the Allawi side are Sunnis, restless with perceived Iranian influence in the country. Opposition to Maliki often centers on his suspected ties to Iran — an allegation that echoes the tendentious Sunni notion that an Arab cannot have a strong Shiite identity without being pro-Iranian. And notwithstanding the Bush administration’s “80 percent” approach — focusing on the Shiites and Kurds and ignoring the Sunnis — the group’s frustration could lead to destabilization. Sunnis might not be able to overthrow the new Shiite sectarian order, but they can still mount a limited challenge to it. The Kurds, with only the mountains as their friends (to paraphrase a Kurdish proverb), were able to destabilize Iraq for 80 years. Sunni Arabs are present in much more of the country and have allies throughout the Arab world who can supply them well enough to destabilize Iraq more than the Kurds ever could.

The Americans want to keep Allawi around for exactly that reason: They see him as mollifying Sunni anger. “We would like to see an important role for Allawi,” U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey said in an August press conference, arguing that the Shiite ex-Baathist was able to organize a historic shift in the post-war political dynamic by coalescing Sunni and secular forces behind a new democratic process. U.S. diplomats in Baghdad tell me that outgoing U.S. commander Gen. Raymond Odierno is extremely worried about a renewed insurgency if Allawi’s Iraqiya list isn’t satisfied.

Allawi can’t simply be made prime minister, given that he doesn’t have support from across the political spectrum. Instead he may be given an enhanced presidency with increased powers, coupled with some checks — including term limits — on Prime Minister Maliki.

Shiites and members of Maliki’s cadre, meanwhile, are not at all pleased with the idea of a President Allawi. Oil Minister Hussein Shahrastani, who is close to Maliki, has warned the Americans that many in the Shiite elite would see a powerful Allawi presidency as a coup, overthrowing the new order and restoring the bad old Saddam days. Many in Maliki’s party are strongly anti-Sunni, just as many in Allawi’s party are strongly anti-Shiite, and they fear the repetition of history.

Maliki has told confidants that if he leaves office, everything he has worked for over the last four years will fall apart. He believes that he almost singlehandedly rebuilt the Iraqi state. Without him there is no State of Law party, since it was built around his reputation and Maliki is the individual candidate who won the most votes. The Sadrists would then become the most powerful Shiite bloc and the clock would turn back to the anarchy and misery of 2006.

It’s hard to disagree. The prime minister has amassed a vast and relatively stable infrastructure of power. Removing him and his advisors and security institutions at a time like this could be disastrous. Maliki has managed to win over skeptical Sunnis after his 2008 attack on Shiite militias and remake himself into a candidate perceived by many as a secular nationalist.

The Americans certainly believe there are no non-Maliki scenarios, given the risk of the Sadrists taking over. “We’ve done the math,” General Stephen Lanza, the outgoing U.S. military spokesman, said at an event in August.

“We have no real power or authority here,” U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey said. “We have no right to interject ourselves in any kind of threatening way. The only thing we have said that comes close to a rethink of our policies is if you had a government where the Sadrists played a critical role, we would really have to ask whether we can have much of a future in this country given their political position.” Beyond exiting the country, Jeffrey said, the United States might back off on its vigorous push to convince the United Nations to remove the Chapter 7 sanctions on Iraq, if the Sadrists were to take a dominant role in the government. “We probably wouldn’t be too enthused with that mission,” said Jeffrey, “and there are a thousand other examples like that.” For their part, the Sadrists refuse to meet with the Americans.

The Sadrists are, however, talking with Allawi, offering support in return for control over the Ministry of the Interior and the release of at least 2,000 of their men from Iraqi detention. Allawi has justified his flirtation with the violently anti-American Sadrists on the grounds that they are merely misguided and can be controlled.

It’s a move that could seriously backfire. Maliki says privately that the Sadrists are dangerous. He doesn’t believe that Allawi can control them, insisting that he comes from their world and he knows them. He insists that it’s not within his legal power to simply free their prisoners. And the Kurds have been dismayed by Allawi’s dalliance with the Sadrists; they don’t want the Sadrists to be the kingmakers. The Kurds also worry that many of the dominant Sunni politicians in Allawi’s list are hostile to their vision of the boundary dividing Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Because of this, the Kurds now oppose an Allawi premiership and have thrown their support behind Maliki.

Frustrated with his string of PR defeats, Allawi has taken refuge in confidence-boosting visits to Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait, and Syria. But none of that helps him much in Baghdad, where it matters, and it certainly doesn’t help him in Iran, where an Allawi premiership would be seen as a victory for Tehran’s regional rivals, the Saudis, not to mention a victory for the Baathists. Iran prefers Maliki, even if their relationship is not nearly as close as it’s been made out to be by the Sunnis.

In fact, Iraq’s powerful neighbor has failed to achieve many of its goals in Iraq. Iran has pawns in Iraq but not proxies. Even the Iran-formed Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq actually dislikes Iran. Its members, former Iraqi exiles who came together in Tehran during Saddam’s rule, remember the humiliation of being looked down upon by Iranians for being Arabs. Shiite parties have their own power base as well, and don’t need Iranian support. Still, the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad remains very active, and the Americans refuse to meet with him — a surprising change given the meetings that took place under the Bush administration.

As for the Turks, they want to turn the Kurdish regional government in the north into a Turkish vassal state. They are also deeply involved in Baghdad. Ambassador Jeffrey maintains that Turkey can live with a Maliki premiership, and this is true, although Turkey prefers Allawi; the Turkish ambassador dislikes Maliki and helped organize the Iraqiya list. (Maliki took this personally and temporarily stripped the Turkish ambassador of his access to the Green Zone.)

In a sad sense, none of this maneuvering actually matters all that much. Regardless of who becomes prime minister or president, Iraq is about to become increasingly authoritarian. Oil revenues will not kick in for several years, so services are not going to improve. Even when revenues reach Iraqi coffers, infrastructure costs will eat them up for the near future. The lack of services means the government will face street-level dissatisfaction and become harsher and more dictatorial in response — even if a democratic façade persists.

For Iraqis, then, there is no end in sight. Since the occupation began in 2003, more than 70,000 Iraqis have been killed. Many more have been injured. There are millions of new widows and orphans. Millions have fled their homes. Tens of thousands of Iraqi men have spent years in prisons. The new Iraqi state is among the most corrupt in the world. It is only effective at being brutal and providing a minimum level of security. It fails to provide adequate services to its people, millions of whom are barely able to survive. Iraqis are traumatized. Every day there are assassinations with silenced pistols and the small magnetic car bombs known as sticky bombs. In neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands of refugees languish in exile, sectarianism is on the upswing, and weapons, tactics, and veterans of the Iraqi jihad are spreading.

Seven years after the disastrous American invasion, the cruelest irony in Iraq is that, in a perverse way, the neoconservative dream of creating a moderate, democratic U.S. ally in the region to counterbalance Iran and Saudi Arabia has come to fruition. But even if violence in Iraq continues to decline and the government becomes a model of democracy, no one will look to Iraq as a leader. People in the region remember — even if the West has forgotten — the seven years of chaos, violence, and terror. To them, this is what Iraq symbolizes. Thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other failed U.S. policies in the broader Middle East, the United States has lost most of its influence on Arab people, even if it can still exert pressure on some Arab regimes.

Last week, the Western media descended upon Iraq for one last embed, for a look at the “legacy,” to ask Iraqis whether it was “worth it.” On the night of August 31st, I overheard one American TV producer trying to find an Iraqi family that would be watching Obama’s speech on Iraq live. Obama’s speech was aired at 3 a.m. in Baghdad. But Obama did not address Iraqis in his speech. And they weren’t interested, anyway. Most Iraqis were awake at that hour, but they were lying in bed sweltering, unable to sleep, waiting for the electricity to come back on so they could power their air conditioners.

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security and author of the forthcoming book Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World. Research for this article was supported by the Nation Institute.


Million Dollar Militia

by Big Noise Films

People & Power examines dangerous conflicts between the US and NATO strategies in the fight against the Taliban.

This video was originally broadcast by Al Jazeera English. Click here for the link.

Early this year, a rare bright spot emerged in the US’s longest war. The Shinwari tribe of eastern Afghanistan signed a treaty pledging to expel the Taliban from their territory and to end poppy cultivation and heroin production.

In return the US military pledged $1mn in aid to be paid directly to the Shinwari, bypassing the Afghan government in the process.

Comparisons were immediately drawn to the “Awakening Movement” in Iraq, where Sunni tribal militias were hired to fight the insurgency.

Others warn that bypassing the Afghan government in this way could undermine an already fragile state.

So who are the US’s new tribal allies? And can they really help bring lasting stability to Afghanistan?

Filmmakers Rick Rowley and Jason Motlagh went to find out.

Big Noise Films is a non-profit media collective dedicated to producing beautiful, politically and culturally challenging films.



by Amy Davidson

This article was originally published by The New Yorker. Click here for the link.

The Wall Street Journal, in a follow-up, described “a massive portfolio of off-the-books loans by the bank’s chairman to himself and to other politically connected Afghans.” The bank has also, according to the Journal, used hawala, a less-than-regulated money-exchange system, “to clandestinely transfer almost $1 billion out of Afghanistan in the past few years.” It was mixed up with New Ansari, a firm that, as the Journal put it, “allegedly helped Afghan politicians, drug barons and even the Taliban move billions of dollars out of the country.” (Karzai recently intervened to get one of his aides, who was accused of taking a bribe to stop an investigation of Al Ansari, out of jail.) The Times said that Kabul Bank and its chairman, Sherkhan Farnood, were “at the heart of the political and economic nexus that sustains—and is sustained by—the government of President Hamid Karzai” and “provided millions to Mr. Karzai’s campaign.” Then there are its business dealings:

First among the beneficiaries was Mr. Farnood himself, the officials said. He invested about $140 million of the bank’s money in the real estate market in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, said Mahmoud Karzai, the president’s brother and a Kabul Bank shareholder. Among those properties were more than a dozen multimillion-dollar villas in Mr. Farnood’s name, some of them on Palm Jumeria, an island off Dubai’s coast, Mr. Karzai said.

A lot of that value was lost when the Dubai real-estate market fell (assuming, of course, that the transactions were real). More from the Times:

It is not clear what Mr. Farnood did with all the properties he purchased, but he made at least some of them available to his friends and allies. One of them was Mahmoud Karzai, who owns about 7 percent of the bank. Speaking in an interview from Dubai, Mr. Karzai said he had rented one of Mr. Farnood’s villas for the past year and a half.Mr. Karzai said the bank’s troubles—and Mr. Farnood’s opaque dealings—had made him decide to vacate soon.

“I want to move to a different house,” Mr. Karzai said. “I want to cut this out.”

So President Karzai’s brother has been living in a villa in the Emirates that constitutes a questionable investment by the bank he partially owns; but he might move. The Wall Street Journal said that a U.S. official had tried to make the case that the removal of bank officials was “a sign” that Karzai was getting a little bit serious about corruption. But, the Journal noted,

An Afghan banker with knowledge of the situation offered a less optimistic view, saying the move may have more to do with shifting political and business alliances among the country’s small, clubby elite.Mahmood Karzai, for example, has recently forged stronger links with the owners of Afghan United Bank, a competitor of Kabul Bank. Afghan United Bank’s chairman owns a 20% stake in a housing development that Mahmood Karzai is building outside the southern city of Kandahar, where U.S. forces are making a major push against the Taliban.

So what is Mahmoud Karzai’s new preferred bank like?

Afghan United Bank is owned by the founders of New Ansari, the hawala that is being investigated. U.S. officials say the bank’s owners still control the hawala, although the bank’s owners say they have cut ties to the money-transfer business.

Moving the money from one bank to another, or the President’s dubiously wealthy brother moving himself from one villa to another, doesn’t really count as doing something about corruption. Or, if it does, then we have a long way to go in Afghanistan. It’s a bit like moving soldiers from one war to another, and calling it victory.

Amy Davidson is a senior editor at The New Yorker.


Terrorism suspect sings Avril Lavigne in Canadian Idol audition

This was originally distributed by the Associated Press (AP).

Watch the audition tape here:

TORONTO – A man who appeared on Canada’s version of “American Idol” was the third person arrested as part of an alleged plot against targets in Canada and abroad, police said Thursday.

The two other suspects made a brief appearance in court on Thursday on charges they had plans to make bombs and had plans to use them.

Police arrested Hiva Alizadeh and Misbahuddin Ahmed in Ottawa on Wednesday and Khurram Syed Sher in London, Ontario on Thursday. Alizadeh, 30, and Ahmed, 26, appeared in court Thursday. All three are Canadian.

Sher, 28, appeared on the reality show “Canadian Idol” in 2008 in which he sings a comical version of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” complete with dance moves that include a moonwalk. He told the judges he’s from Pakistan and likes hockey, music and acting.

Police allege the men had plans and schematics to make improvised explosive devices. Police seized 50 electronic circuit boards which they say could be used as remote-control triggers for bombs. They said one of the men was trained overseas to make explosive booby traps, but did not specify which one.

Police say they moved in on the men to prevent them from sending money to terror groups in Afghanistan.

“The arrests have prevented the gathering of bombs and the execution of one or many terrorist attacks,” RCMP Chief Supt. Serge Therriault said.

Therriault said details on the targets would be released in court. Police allege they conspired with an additional three named individuals to “knowingly facilitate terrorist activities” in Canada and abroad. Police say the plot ranged from Canada to Iran, Afghanistan, Dubai and Pakistan, but did not elaborate.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the arrests should remind Canadians that they are not immune to terrorism.

“The networks that threaten us are worldwide. They exist not only in remote countries but they have — through globalization and through the Internet — they have links through our country and all through the world,” Harper said.

A judge remanded Alizadeh and Ahmed in custody until they appear again, by video, next Wednesday.

Police said Sher is a doctor in St. Thomas, Ontario, and that Ahmed is an X-ray technician in Ottawa.

Ahmed’s lawyer, Ian Carter, said the charges are serious and his client, a husband and father, could be put away “for a long time.”

“He is in shock. That’s all I can say,” Carter said.

Police descended on a home in Canada’s national capital of Ottawa early Wednesday.

The arrests come four years after the apprehension of the so-called Toronto 18, suspects in a homegrown terror plot that involved the attempted setting off of truck bombs in front of Canada’s main stock exchange and two government buildings. The ringleaders and others have been convicted.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Dick Fadden alluded to the possibility of other homegrown terrorist cases in comments to a Parliament public safety committee last month.