Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mideast Media Sampler 4/10/2013: Arab Spring A Disaster For US in Egypt and Syria

by David Gerstman, contributing blogger at Legal Insurrection

1) Egyptian plagues

Last week Zvi Mazel wrote in the Jerusalem Post (h/t Leslie Eastman)
In a remarkable and enduring show of unity, non-Islamic opposition parties under the banner of the National Salvation Front are boycotting the regime until their demands – canceling the Islamic constitution and setting up a consensus government until new elections are held – are met. 
The Muslim Brotherhood who had won a sweeping victory in the first free parliamentary elections and got their candidate elected president have bitterly disappointed the people who had put their faith in them.
Nothing has been done to improve their lot. Upon taking office Morsi had promised – and failed – to take care of five burning issues within a hundred days: growing insecurity, monster traffic jams in the capital, lack of fuel and cooking gas, lack of subsidized bread, and the mounting piles of refuse in the streets.
In The Pharoh weeps, Judith Miller cataloged some of the economic problems facing Egypt:
While Cairo may still be safer than Chicago, or even New York, Egyptian women, for the first time in memory, fear shopping or taking cabs at night. Cairo’s police, blamed for the deaths of protestors and unhappy with their pay, working conditions, and lack of respect, sit in their precinct houses, refusing to provide security that Egyptians once took for granted. Tourists have vanished, depriving Egypt of a vital source of jobs and hard currency. Unemployment has risen from 9.8 percent in 2010 to 13 percent today. Inflation is officially 8.7 percent, though more like 9.5 percent, or even higher, for food and basic commodities, say economists. Even these figures are misleading, since an estimated 40 percent of Egypt’s economy is “black” or informal, unregulated by and unreported to the government, according to Hazem el-Beblawi, an economist who served as deputy prime minister under the army’s unpopular transition government in 2011. Beblawi, a strong advocate of free-market liberalism who resigned his post that year, accusing the army of taking Egypt in the “wrong direction,” says youth unemployment probably tops 19 percent. Egypt, he estimates, has less than its officially claimed $13.5 billion in hard-currency reserves (versus $36 billion before the revolution). “Egypt imports roughly $60 billion worth of goods and services,” he says. “It exports under $25 billion.” 
By summer, Beblawi predicts, the government will be unable to import the wheat that sustains the poor—Egypt imports 10 million tons of wheat per year, the most of any nation—or the diesel that fuels bread ovens and transports 99 percent of everything that moves in this country of more than 85 million. Egypt’s dilemma is this: it cannot politically afford to stop providing the costly subsidies to the poor that distort its economy. Poor Egyptians spend 70 percent of their income on food, versus 55 percent for Egyptians as a whole; Americans spend roughly 14 percent. But unless it reduces these subsidies and adopts a pro-growth budget, Egypt cannot secure the $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan it needs to unlock what Angus Blair, a Cairo-based former investment banker and founder of Signet Institute, an economic think tank, estimates could be $14 billion in aid and investment. Egypt spends about 20 percent of its budget on fuel subsidies alone. In other words, the government would be committing political suicide to do what economists say must be done to sustain the country’s economic viability. Only a government that enjoys public confidence can risk taking such steps. “Egypt’s economic crisis has political roots,” Beblawi says. “And a political solution is needed.” So far, he adds, none is in sight. 
With their legendary “sabr,” or patience, nearly exhausted, Egyptians blame the lack of growth, jobs, fuel, services, security, and stability on what many call the “incompetence” of President Mohammed Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood. And they blame the United States, too, for supporting Morsi, who eked out an election victory last year and took power last July thanks only to low voter turnout and a fractious, divided secular opposition. “People no longer trust Morsi,” Beblawi said, speaking for many among Cairo’s professional elite and middle classes.
Add to Morsi’s power grab and economic failures, the increasing violence against Copts. The New York Times reports Attack on Christians in Egypt Comes After a Pledge:
Clashes erupted immediately after the service between the emerging mourners and a crowd outside the cathedral. It was unclear who started the violence. But later dozens of riot police with armored vehicles and tear-gas canons appeared to enter the fray on the side of crowds of young Muslim men who were throwing rocks and fire bombs at the mourners. 
In what seemed like a siege of the cathedral, tear-gas canisters fell inside the walls of its compound, sending gas into the sanctuary and two nuns running for shelter in a nearby loading dock.

“The police are not trying to protect us or do anything to stop the violence,” said Wael Eskandar, a Coptic Christian activist. “On the contrary, they are actively aiding the people in civilian clothes” attacking the Christians, he said.
Jonathan Tobin concludes in The U.S. and the Murders at the Cathedral:
It does no good to pretend, as some claim, that Morsi can’t stop the attacks on Christians or that the forces pushing the country to the brink of religious war are unrelated to the Brotherhood and its supporters. While attacks on Christians were hardly unknown during the long reign of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, it isn’t possible to separate the heightened tension from the expectations of Islamists that they have the Christian minority on the run. The brazen manner with which these mobs have attacked a symbol of Christianity like the Cathedral with the assistance of the police is a signal that things are heading in the wrong direction. The spectacle of security forces with armored personnel carriers and tear gas canons joining the violence on the side of thugs throwing rocks and firebombs at Christian mourners leaving the cathedral makes it hard to argue that this is the work of extremists unconnected with the ruling party. 
That Muslims who are prepared to riot and murder at the merest hint of insult aimed at Islam taunted the Christians with what the Times called “lewd gestures involving the cross” in the presence of the police is itself appalling. But it is also indicative of a shift in the mood of the Middle East, in which it is clear that anything goes when it comes to religious conflict. Though the Brotherhood has promised gullible Westerners that it won’t impose its beliefs on non-Muslims or turn the country into a theocratic state, evidence is mounting that the Kulturkampf in Egypt is in full swing. 
If President Obama is serious about standing up for human rights, it is necessary for him to speak out publicly against what is going on in Egypt and to start using some of the leverage over its government that he was quick to employ when showing Mubarak the door or threatening the military to allow the Brotherhood to take office. If he fails to do so, the Muslim and Arab world won’t be slow to draw the same conclusions that Egyptians in the street are drawing from the role of the police in the assault on the cathedral. They will think that Obama is indifferent to the fate of the Copts or, even worse, that he has no problems with the Brotherhood’s push for power.
Yet in The Arab Quarter Century, Thomas Friedman insists that he was right all along:
Still, two things surprise me. The first is how incompetent the Muslim Brotherhood has been. In Egypt, the Brotherhood has presided over an economic death spiral and a judiciary caught up in idiocies like investigating the comedian Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart, for allegedly insulting President Mohamed Morsi. (See Stewart’s perfect takedown of Morsi.) Every time the Brotherhood had a choice of acting in an inclusive way or seizing more power, it seized more power, depriving it now of the broad base needed to make necessary but painful economic reforms. 
The second surprise? How weak the democratic opposition has been. The tragedy of the Arab center-left is a complicated story, notes Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University and the author of “The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East.” Many of the more secular, more pro-Western Egyptian political elites who could lead new center-left parties, he said, had been “co-opted by the old regime” for its own semiofficial parties and therefore “were widely discredited in the eyes of the public.” That left youngsters who had never organized a party, or a grab bag of expatriates, former regime officials, Nasserites and liberal Islamists, whose only shared idea was that the old regime must go.
And how would the Muslim Brotherhood have proven its “competence?” Surely there’s been incompetence in the way Morsi and company have ruled, but to attribute their governing failure to “incompetence,” ignores the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. What Friedman attributes to incompetence masks his own ignorance. He assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood was interested in governing, not in accruing power to itself.
In his analyses of Egypt over the past two years Friedman ignored the totalitarian nature of Islamists. Sure, Friedman is correct now to argue that the United States needs to use its leverage to effect change in Egypt (or at least attempt to) but he’s been a cheerleader for the Muslim Brotherhood until recently. That is not due to his expertise, but to his ignorance, something he refuses to own up to.
MT “@shadihamid: New #Egypt poll: 37% of Egyptians would vote for Morsi again; Sabahi 3%; Baradei 1%; Amr Moussa 1%
— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 8, 2013
Endowments Ministry bans political sermons, suspends popular sheikh Mazhar Shaheen –… #Egypt
— Bassem Sabry باسم (@Bassem_Sabry) April 10, 2013
Brave, astonishing ToI op-ed on why Arab Spring failed, by ex-Iranian foreign ministry employee via @timesofisrael
— David Horovitz (@davidhorovitz) April 10, 2013

2) The Syria Debacle

Once upon a time, President Obama’s top policy advisers recommended that he aid the Syria rebels. That time has long passed. While the Obama administration initially saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a bulwark against Al Qaeda, but that strategy hasn’t been working out very well.
In an audio statement released online yesterday, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), announced that his organization shall henceforth be known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” The new name reflects AQI’s unchecked growth, primarily into neighboring Syria, since the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. 
Since late 2011, the Al Nusrah Front has greatly expanded its operations. The organization has become one of the most effective fighting forces in the war against Bashar al Assad’s crumbling regime. 
Al Nusrah is better known in the West by its true name: al Qaeda.
Michael Rubin adds:
That should put Washington in a diplomatic quandary. Qatari and Turkish support for the Nusra Front is now effectively aiding an al-Qaeda affiliate sworn not only to kill Bashar al-Assad but also Americans. If Gulf analysts in Bahrain and Kuwait are to be believed, Qatar is mucking about with such groups not simply out of religious solidarity, but also because the emir of Qatar is high on the notion that tiny Qatar can afford to muck about and be a player on the international stage. Turkey would rather pump money to an al-Qaeda affiliate than recognize the rights of Syrian Kurds who will not pay fealty to Turkey’s leader, like the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which now controls most Kurdish areas in Syria. 
A no-fly zone, such as that Max Boot advocates, would have once helped ordinary Syrians protect themselves against the excesses of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. And it still may not be such a bad idea, so long as it simply does not do the Nusra Front’s work for it. Nor is simply funding the Syrian opposition wise since neither the State Department nor Central Intelligence Agency is skilled at separating the wheat from the chaff among Syrian opposition groups. Liberals will not rise to the top in any safe-haven when faced with a group bent on their repression at any cost. Whether we like it or not, any strategy for Syria must now prioritize crushing the Nusra Front. Defeating Assad and hoping for the best is not a strategy that will bolster U.S. interests.
And Barry Rubin reminds what weapons these rebels may well get access to. (To be clear, Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood affiliated rebels have these weapons; Al Qaeda affiliated groups don’t appear to have them, yet.)
Briefly, the story is this: The weapons are generically known as MANPAD for Man Portable Air Defense Missile. The equipment captured in Libya and from the Syrian army in Syria or obtained by other means consists of four types. The SA16 is a short-range version which has been captured by the rebels, specifically when they took the giant Syrian army base in Aleppo. 
The only weapon from Libya is the older SA7, since the Libyans didn’t have more advanced versions. It has been reported –though all such figures are not necessarily reliable — that about 5000 SA7 missiles were destroyed by the U.S. and other forces but that about 15,000 remained missing. The missiles are not usable forever, and some of those in the Libyan arsenal were very old, but apparently many of them would still work. Here’s an example of a reasonably reliable report saying that a large number of SA7s were delivered to Syrian rebels through Turkey last September. 
Then there’s the Chinese FN-6 , standard for the Chinese air force, which was used to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter at Menagh Air Base near Aleppo. How did that one get there, through the U.S.-Turkish-Saudi-Qatari arms supply program or another way? It is claimed that Syrian rebels shot down two military helicopters with this weapon.
And this brings us to the best of all, the SA24. While some have been misidentified, they were obtained from the 46th Syrian regiment base west of Aleppo.
For all the hope the Arab Spring originally engendered, it is increasingly looking like a disaster for American interests. This isn’t just a policy failure of the administration. It is a failure of information, in which the media, instead of informing the public about what was really going on, was cheerleading for change, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

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