ARAB SPRING: HEADED FOR A BLOODY FALL?

ARAB SPRING DRIFTS INTO SUMMER STALEMATES
Brian Murphy & Barbara Surk

Huffington Post, July 14, 2011

 

Among the protest banners in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was a hand-drawn map of the Arab Spring with black target symbols covering each country hit by anti-government uprisings since the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt were ousted earlier this year.

But the bull’s-eyes could easily be replaced with question marks as the groundswell for change has splintered into scattered and indecisive conflicts that have left thousands dead and Western policymakers juggling roles from NATO airstrikes in Libya to worried bystanders in Syria and Yemen.

The stalemates could shift into a deeper holding pattern in August during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when the pace of daily life traditionally slows as the Islamic world observes a dawn-to-dusk fast and other customs such as temporary truces.

It’s a huge and traumatic undertaking to shove aside regimes with decades in power—and sway over nearly every decision down to who gets hired as street sweeper. Iran did it with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein cleaned the slate for Iraq and ushered in years of near civil war.

But no such wholesale change appears in the pipeline with the present revolts. That has raised concern that even if the leaders fall, the pillars of the regimes could survive, as happened when military rulers took temporary control after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

“Half revolution doesn’t work,” a headline last week in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Al-Massai newspaper said after demonstrators returned to Tahrir Square to press for swifter political reforms and bolder legal action against officials from Mubarak’s regime who were accused of corruption and killing protesters.

But even a halfway mark appears farther along than most of the rebellions against the Mideast’s old guard.

Cores of loyal security forces in Yemen and Syria keep the regimes hanging on despite relentless protests. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi could face a moment of truth as rebels press closer to the capital Tripoli and NATO warplanes hammer military sites, yet the anti-Gadhafi militias have no clear leader to prevent possible power grabs to control the country’s oil riches if he is ousted.

The country where the Arab Spring began, Tunisia, has been shaken by unrest—including a rise in ultraconservative Islamists—ahead of planned elections in October to elect an assembly that will write a new constitution. Some political groups are urging further delays in the election to give new parties a chance to organize.

Egypt, meanwhile, is questioning when—or if—the ruling military council will surrender power. The caretaker rulers [have] effectively announced a delay of the elections.…

In tiny Bahrain authorities apparently tipped the scales clearly in their favor. Security forces—aided by Saudi-led reinforcements—smothered an uprising by the kingdom’s majority Shiites seeking greater rights from the Sunni rulers. A so-called “national dialogue” began this month, but it’s unlikely that the 200-year-old ruling dynasty will give up any significant hold on power and may need a heavy hand to keep Shiite-led protests from reigniting.

“It’s not over, but we are in an ugly situation now,” said Christopher Davidson, a lecturer on Middle East and Gulf affairs at Britain’s Durham University. That’s why the definition of the Arab Spring is increasingly being stretched.…

 

BALLOTS, BULLETS AND OBAMA’S ROLE
IN RENASCENT MUSLIM WORLD
Raphael Israeli

Jerusalem Magazine, July 13, 2011

 

A plethora of self-righteous rhetoric has been wasted on the Arab Spring with the attending dominance of ballots over bullets, although until now there have scarcely been signs of a spring per se.

Initially, there were high hopes for democracy to triumph in places where non-authoritarian forms of government have hitherto never existed. Instead however, in one case after another, hopes have been shattered with the primacy of bullets overwhelming any attempts for new democracies to emerge. And due to his nonsensical policies, [U.S.] President Barack Obama—apparent leader of the free world—is inadvertently supporting the supremacy of bullets.

Democracy is not only about elections and voting rights. In some countries, including Iraq and Lebanon, elections have been known to give rise to massacres. But even in cases where votes are not rigged and elections are conducted peacefully, various political struggles still arise. Take Turkey for example, where elections invariably hail a string of arrests—particularly of journalists—and a denial of civil rights coupled with McCarthy-esque stifling of the opposition or imposed Islamization. Ironically, such acts often appeal to the most uneducated strata of these societies, which subsequently constitute the base of political parties in the main—as is the case of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party.

In 2008 in Lebanon, Hezbollah, the proxy of Iran and Syria, took over Beirut and its communication centers by force and then imposed its minority vote on the cabinet by threatening the use of more force. This was an attempt to scuttle any moves to arrest the Hezbollah-protected murderers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the leader that came closest to forming a democratically-elected majority government.

Paradoxically, more than any other country, the US—which ostensibly claims to democratize those countries by ballots—has contributed to spreading the use of bullets instead. Take Syria and Libya as examples. Prior to President Obama’s non-policy of engagement in the Middle East, the tough and demanding policy of the Bush administration was paying off: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been under siege; forced out of Lebanon, he was isolated both politically and economically, and under pressure to retreat from his axis with Iran.

But then Obama began courting Muslims with sycophantic gestures of friendship, including reinstating his ambassador in Damascus, prostrating before the Saudi king—the most reactionary monarch in the Middle East—and finally allowing the Turks to sacrifice Israel—their democratic ally in the region—for the prize of acquiring new authoritarian allies in Iran and Syria.

As a result, Arab and Muslim dictators got the impression that since America was now their friend they could do as they jolly well pleased.…

As for Assad, well he began to massacre his own people at will, and when this began to become a sticky issue he sent Palestinians to challenge Israel’s borders as a deflection. Reinforced by US consent—implicit in its silence—King Abdullah and other leaders in Gulf States are dispatching their troops to quell protestors in Bahrain. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah effectively have carte blanche to reverse anything achieved by the Bush administration.…

The Obama administration—which no longer dares to call a spade a spade and dissimulates the mounting Islamic violence as “a minority of extremists,” is getting further and further away from the previous administration’s mission; the current administration has unwittingly shrunk the lexicon of viable terminology for terrorists—thereby changing the face of Bush’s “war on terror.”

This has allowed the Muslim world to once again slide into the familiar game of bullet-policy.

 

WILL TURMOIL DRAG LIBYA’S REBELS UNDER?
Jackson Diehl

Washington Post, July 31, 2011

 

Until last Thursday, Libya was beginning to look like the relative good news in the troubled summer that has followed the Arab Spring. The United States and more than 30 other governments had recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC), based in the rebel capital of Benghazi, as Libya’s legitimate government. Its military forces appeared to be slowly gaining ground against those of Moammar Gaddafi, who was isolated in Tripoli.

Two senior members of the TNC touring Washington last week talked cheerily about their plans to stabilize the country after Gaddafi’s departure and quickly install a liberal democracy. “Libya is actually the easy case,” one veteran Washington democracy expert enthused to me after hearing them speak.

Then came the sudden killing on Thursday of Abdul Fatah Younis, the TNC’s senior military commander, under still-unexplained—and very troubling—circumstances. The murder plunged the new government and its capital into turmoil, and raised urgent questions in NATO capitals about whether the TNC or its ragtag army were in danger of crumbling.

It also illustrated one of the enduring themes of the uprisings across the Middle East: the constant tension between the yearning for modernism—for democracy and personal freedom—that is driving a huge rising generation into the streets, and the atavistic forces of tribalism, sectarianism, corruption and autocracy that keep threatening to drag the revolutions under.

Younis, the Libyan rebel commander, appears to be a victim of what might be called the Old Middle East undertow. It’s not yet known exactly who killed him or why, but we do know that he had been called to Benghazi by elements of the rebel leadership to answer unspecified questions about his behavior and was murdered by fighters escorting him. Angry demonstrations by members of Younis’s Obeidi tribe hinted at the internecine conflict that some experts believe may be the most serious threat to a post-Gaddafi Libya.…

The Old Middle East has pulled [the TNC’s] military commander under. In Libya, as in so much of the region this summer, it’s an open question whether a new Arab order can survive that undertow.

 

CAUTION: STORM APPROACHING
Caroline B. Glick

Jerusalem Post, July 15, 2011

It was seven months ago that Mohammed Bouazizi, a vegetable peddler in Tunisia, set himself and the Arab world on fire. The 26- year-old staged his suicidal protest on the steps of the local city hall after a municipal inspector took away his unlicensed vegetable cart, thus denying him the ability to feed his family of eight.

Most depictions of the Arab revolutions that followed his act have cast them as struggles for freedom and good government. These depictions miss the main cause of these political upheavals. No doubt millions of Arabs are upset about the freedom deficit in Arab lands. But the fact is that economics has played a decisive role in all of them.

In Bouazizi’s case, his self-immolation was provoked by financial desperation. And if current trends continue, the revolutionary ferment we have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg.

Moreover, the political whirlwind will not be contained in the Middle East.

Most of the news coming out about Egypt today emanates from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. There the protesters continue to demand ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s head on a platter alongside the skulls of his sons, business associates, advisors and everyone else who prospered under his rule. While the supposedly liberal democratic protesters’ swift descent into bloodlust is no doubt worth noting, the main reason these protesters continue to gain so much international attention is because they are easy to find. A reporter looking for a story’s failsafe option is to mosey on over to the square and put a microphone into the crowd.

But while easily accessible, the action at Tahrir Square is not Egypt’s most important story. The most important, strategically consequential story is that Egypt is rapidly going broke. By the end of the year, the military dictatorship will likely not only default on Egypt’s loans; Field Marshal Tantawi and his deputies will almost certainly be unable to feed the Egyptian people.

Some raw statistics are in order here.

Among Egypt’s population of 80 million, some 32 million are illiterate. They engage in subsistence farming that is too inefficient to support them. Egypt needs to import half of its food.

As David Goldman, (aka Spengler), reported in Asia Times Online, in May the International Monetary Fund warned of the impending economic collapse of non-oil exporting Arab countries saying, “In the current baseline scenario the external financing needs of the region’s oil importers is projected to exceed $160 billion during 2011-13.” Goldman noted, “That’s almost three years’ worth of Egypt’s total annual imports as of 2010.”

Since Mubarak was overthrown in February, Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have plummeted from $36b. to $25b.-28b.… As Goldman explained, the problem is capital flight. Due in no small part to the protesters in Tahrir Square calling for the arrest of all those who did business with the former regime, Egypt’s wealthy and foreign investors are taking their money out of the country.

At the Arab Banking Summit in Rome last month, Jordan’s Finance Minister Mohammed Abu Hammour warned, “There is capital flight and $500 million a week is leaving the Arab world.” According to Goldman, “Although Hammour did not mention countries in his talk…most of the capital flight is coming from Egypt, and at an annual rate roughly equal to Egypt’s remaining reserves.”

What this means is that in a few short months, Egypt will be unable to pay for its imports. And consequently, it will be unable to feed its people.

Egypt is far from alone. Take Syria. There, too, capital is fleeing the country as the government rushes to quell the mass anti-regime protests.

Just as Egyptian and Tunisian protesters hoped that a new regime would bring them more freedom, so the mass protests sweeping Syria are in part due to politics. But like in Egypt and Tunisia, Syria’s economic woes are dictating much of what is happening on the ground and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Last month, Syrian President Bashar Assad gave a speech warning of “weakness or collapse of the Syrian economy.” As a report last month by Reuters explained, the immediate impact of Assad’s speech was capital flight and the devaluation of the Syrian pound by 8 percent.

For the past decade, Assad has been trying to liberalize the Syrian economy. He enacted some free market reforms, opened a stock exchange and attempted to draw foreign investment to the country. While largely unsuccessful in alleviating Syria’s massive poverty, these reforms did enable the country a modest growth rate of around 2.5% per year.

In response to the mass protests threatening his regime, Assad has effectively ended his experiment with the free market. He fired his government minister in charge of the economic reforms and put all the projects on hold. Instead, according to a report this week in Syria Today, the government has steeply increased public sector wages and offered 100,000 temporary workers full-time contracts. The Syrian government also announced a 25% cut in the price of diesel fuel, at a cost to the government of $527m. per year.… As Reuters reported, the government has been forced to spend $70m.-$80m. a week to buck up the local currency. So between protecting the Syrian pound and paying for political loyalty, the Assad regime is quickly drying up Syria’s treasury.

In the event the regime is overthrown, a successor regime will face the sure prospect of economic collapse, much as the Egyptian regime does. And in the event that Assad remains in power, he will continue to reap the economic whirlwind of what he has sown in the form of political instability and violence.

What this means is that we can expect continued political turmoil in both countries as they are consumed by debt and tens of millions of people face the prospect of starvation. This political turmoil can be expected to give rise to dangerous if unknowable military developments.

Poor Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria are far from the only ones facing economic disaster. The $3b. loan the IMF offered Egypt may be among the last loans of that magnitude the IMF is able to offer because quite simply, European lenders are themselves staring into the economic abyss.

Greece’s debt crisis is not a local problem. It now appears increasingly likely that the EU is going to have to accept Greece defaulting on at least part of its debt.… Worse still, the banking crisis will only intensify in the wake of a Greek default. Debt pressure on Italy, Ireland, Spain and Portugal, which are all also on the brink of defaulting on their debts, will grow. Italy is Europe’s fourth largest economy. Its debt is about the size of Germany’s.

If Italy goes into default, the implications for the European and US banking systems—and for their economies generally—will be devastating.

The current debt-ceiling negotiations between US President Barack Obama and the Republican congressional leadership have made it apparent that Obama is ideologically committed to increasing government spending and taxes in the face of a weak economy. If Obama is reelected next year, the dire implications of four more years of his economic policies for the US and global economies cannot be overstated.

Due to the economic policies implemented by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu since his first tenure as prime minister in 1996-99, in the face of this economic disaster, Israel is likely to find itself in the unlikely position of standing along China and India as among the only stable, growing economies in the world. Israel’s banking sector is largely unexposed to European debt. Israel’s gross external debt is 44% of GDP. This compares well not only to European debt levels of well over 100% of GDP but to the US debt level, which stands at 98% of GDP.…

Israel’s economy is likely to remain one of the country’s most valuable strategic assets. Just as economic prosperity allowed Israel to absorb the cost of the Second Lebanon War with barely a hiccup, so continued economic growth will play a key role in protecting it from the economically induced political upheavals likely to ensue throughout much of the Arab world and Europe.

Aside from remaining economically responsible, as Israel approaches the coming storms it is important for it to act with utmost caution politically. It must adopt policies that provide it with the most maneuver room and the greatest deterrent force.

First and foremost, this means that it is imperative that Israel not commit itself to any agreements with any Arab regime. In 1977, the Camp David Agreement with then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, in which Israel surrendered the strategically invaluable Sinai for a peace treaty, seemed like a reasonable gamble. In 2011, a similar agreement with Assad or with the Palestinian Authority, (whose budget is largely financed from international aid), would be the height of strategic insanity.

Beyond that, with the rising double specter of Egyptian economic collapse and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Israel must prepare for the prospect of war with Egypt. Recently it was reported that IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz has opted to spread over several years Israel’s military preparations for a return to hostilities with Egypt. Gantz’s decision reportedly is due to his desire to avoid provoking Egypt with a rapid expansion of the IDF’s order of battle.

Gantz’s caution is understandable. But it is unacceptable. Given the escalating threats emanating from Egypt—not the least of which is the expanding security vacuum in Sinai—Israel must prepare for war now.

So, too, with the US’s weak economy, Obama’s Muslim Brotherhood-friendly foreign policy, and Europe’s history of responding to economic hardship with xenophobia, Israel’s need to develop the means of militarily defending itself from a cascade of emerging threats becomes all the more apparent.

The economic storms may pass by Israel. But the political tempests they unleash will reach us.

To emerge safely from what is coming, Israel needs to hunker down and prepare for the worst.