Posted: Sun Dec 09, 2007 7:16 am Post subject: THE MIDDLE EAST
December 9, 2007
Making Peace With Pieces
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
One of the most telling but little-noted ironies of the U.S.-sponsored peace summit in Annapolis, Md., was who on the Arab side didn’t attend. Syria, a country we barely talk to, was there. Saudi Arabia, which never meets with Israelis, was there. No, the two no-shows were the two Arab countries liberated by U.S. troops from the grip of Saddam Hussein: Iraq and Kuwait.
That’s right — Iraq and Kuwait, the two Arab countries hosting the most U.S. troops, and the two Arab countries with probably the most active elected Parliaments, were both absent. The Kuwaitis asked not to be invited, and the Iraqis were invited but declined to come.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Annapolis was useful. But when you toil for a year to throw a party and some of your worst enemies R.S.V.P., but the two people whose lives you’ve once saved don’t show up, it’s beyond rude. It’s interesting.
It actually reveals the core problem we’re facing in the Middle East: all of these countries are deeply internally divided, some with active civil wars — Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan — and some with latent ones. These divisions date from when these states were shaped by colonial pens, with boundaries that rarely reflected either shared ethnicity or a shared desire to live together. For decades, they were held together by colonial powers, the cold war, oil wealth or iron-fisted military dictators and monarchs.
But lately the lids have started to loosen, and in those places with real Parliaments — like the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait — they tend to expose the depth of lingering divisions rather than express, or forge, a new consensus. These are divisions about basics, like the line between religion and state, the rights of women and minorities, and the role of citizens.
Kuwait’s Parliament has a liberal minority and an Islamist majority, which does not like Israel (and doesn’t like Palestinians much either). The Lebanese and Palestinian Parliaments are both paralyzed by discord. And Iraq? Sitting down with Israelis was only one of many things Iraqis can’t agree on, which is why the U.S. military surge has not yet produced an upturn in national reconciliation.
On Thursday, The Associated Press reported that a shouting match erupted in the Iraqi Parliament when a top Shiite lawmaker, Bahaa al-Aaraji, said he had evidence that a leading Sunni politician, Adnan al-Dulaimi, had branded Shiites “heretics” and had called their murder legitimate. We’re not talking Democrats and Republicans here.
What we are trying to do in Iraq is unprecedented: we are hosting the first real horizontal dialogue in modern Arab history by the constituents of an Arab country — on the assumption that if Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds could actually write their own social contract, it would mean that something other than top-down, iron-fist politics was possible for this part of the world. It is hugely important — and next to impossible.
Each of the Arab countries and Israel has “its own Gaza,” said Mamoun Fandy, director of Middle East programs at London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies. “That is, an antipeace, fundamentalist, xenophobic faction, which wants to hold back any reconciliation. ... Until each country confronts its own Gaza, it will have problems.”
Including Iran. I’m in Bahrain, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, for the institute’s annual conference. A big Iranian delegation was scheduled to attend, alongside a big U.S. team. The Iranians canceled at the last minute. Internal fighting.
“All these countries are like unfinished novellas,” said Stephen P. Cohen, author of the upcoming “Beyond America’s Grasp,” a history of the modern Middle East. Indeed, if you looked at just the key players — Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — “their leaders who went to Annapolis were all embroiled in struggles with domestic opponents,” which limited their room to maneuver, he said. Each one, he added, has a “Party of God” back home “that believes it doesn’t have to pay attention to what the government says because it doesn’t recognize that government’s legitimacy to make big decisions.”
That’s why these days big decisions get made by iron fists or they don’t get made. Power has become too fragmented. So unless there is more reconciliation within these countries, it is hard to see how there will be more reconciliation between them.
Which is also why, I thought, that instead of Annapolis, the peace conference should have been held, symbolically, at Appomattox Court House, Va., where on Palm Sunday, 1865, Gen. R. E. Lee surrendered to Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant, ending the American Civil War and reunifying our country. Admission is only $4 — and President Bush probably could have gotten a group rate.
Canada pledges $300M to peace
Money part of $7.4B US sought for Palestinian aid
CanWest News Service
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
CREDIT: John Schults, Reuters
French President Nicolas Sarkozy embraces U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after Paris talks.
Canada pledged $300 million toward a $7.4-billion US aid package announced here Monday by dozens of international donors looking to inject momentum into negotiations aimed at creating a Palestinian state within a year.
Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier, calling the peace plan "ambitious but attainable," said the Canadian contribution over five years is conditional on successful negotiations and internal Palestinian democratic reforms.
"It's a great day, it's a big day for us as Canadians," Bernier told reporters.
The aid is intended to empower Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in their power struggle with Hamas Islamists, who now control the Gaza Strip.
"We see it as an important vote of confidence by the international community," Fayyad said at the conclusion of Monday's meeting.
Bernier, flanked by Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair, did not join some other western leaders who said Israel also has to alter its policies in several areas to ensure success.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed with U.S. President George W. Bush last month in Annapolis, Md., to begin political negotiations to create a Palestinian state. Talks, however, have been hampered by Israel's announced plans to build new homes for settlers near Jerusalem.
"Without this support, without the payment of aid that will allow the Palestinian treasury to fulfil its role, we will be facing a total catastrophe in the West Bank and Gaza," Abbas had earlier warned delegates.
Hamas, which was not invited to the Paris conference or the Annapolis meeting, labelled Monday's conference a "dangerous conspiracy" aimed at dividing the Palestinians.
"We support all forms of aid, financial or otherwise, to the Palestinian people. But the Paris conference is coating poison with honey and is a dangerous conspiracy," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said.
February 3, 2008
A Frail Economy Raises Pressure on Iran’s Rulers
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
TEHRAN — In one of the coldest winters Iranians have experienced in recent memory, the government is failing to provide natural gas to tens of thousands of people across the country, leaving some for days or even weeks with no heat at all. Here in the capital, rolling blackouts every night for a month have left people without electricity, and heat, for hours at a time.
The heating crisis in this oil-exporting nation is adding to Iranians’ increasing awareness of the contrast between their growing influence abroad and frailty at home, according to government officials, diplomats and political analysts interviewed here.
From fundamentalists to reformists, people here are talking more loudly about the need for a more pragmatic approach, one that tones down the anti-Western rhetoric, at least a bit, and focuses more on improving management of the country and restoring Iran’s economic health.
The mounting domestic challenges, the most serious of which is a grinding period of stagflation, with inflation growing and the economy weakening, have apparently deepened tensions between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the religious establishment he ultimately answers to. And they have helped spur a collective rethinking of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s stewardship as Iran prepares to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution this month and to hold parliamentary elections on March 14.
“I think the Islamic Revolution is going through an identity crisis, and is trying to mature,” said Nader Talebzadeh, a filmmaker who supports Mr. Ahmadinejad. “We are maturing, gradually.”
There are increasing signals, however, that the government is not interested in hearing other voices and is geared instead toward maintaining power by silencing critics. For the parliamentary elections, so far about 70 percent of all reform candidates have been disqualified.
While the president’s supporters say the rejections were based on legal standards, like a lack of loyalty to the Islamic system or the idea of having a supreme leader, reformists say the rejections are an effort to keep them out of power.
Last week, the government shut down Iran’s most important feminist magazine, which had been published for 16 years. The authorities also arrested a small group of students after a protest at Tehran University over poor conditions in their dormitory.
In the middle of a snowy, icy winter, women have been arrested for not wearing proper Islamic clothing. Hats over head scarves, boots over pants, can bring trouble.
“Their harsh reaction to everything shows they feel very vulnerable,” said Morad Saghafi, a philosopher and writer in Tehran. “They arrest 10 students because they think if they don’t, 100 will come. Yes, they feel vulnerable.”
In recent weeks, even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, changed his tone regarding the president, offering rare public criticism while reasserting his own standing as the steward of Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies.
“The present government, similar to any other government, has certain shortcomings which should be mentioned sympathetically,” Ayatollah Khamenei said recently before warning critics not to go overboard. “But some individuals attempt to criticize and insult every move by the government. The majority of these individuals are, however, negligent, that they are acting in line with the enemies’ propaganda.”
Sayeed Laylaz, an economist who was briefly a deputy minister in the former reform government, said: “The supreme leader realizes this economy, this country, doesn’t work anymore. He is trying to reconstruct it from within.”
An adviser to the supreme leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid a dispute with the president, added that “there is a consensus” on the need for better management.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s office refused requests to discuss events in Iran with the president or his advisers. The president’s new chief security adviser, Saeed Jalili, refused to be interviewed unless the entire content of the interview was printed in a question-and-answer format in the newspaper. Posting it on the Internet would not suffice, his office said.
But political analysts, politicians and supporters say that the president does not have to change as long as the mood for change stops with the political elite, and that the troubles so far have not undermined his support among the pious poor. He continues to be popular, they say, seen as a man of principle and good intention, though that may be wearing thin.
South of Tehran, near the Imam Khomeini International Airport, in a neighborhood called Robat Karim, people were without gas for days last month, and they continue to suffer cuts in power at midday and at night, residents said.
Iran’s natural gas shortage became a crisis when Turkmenistan, to the north, cut off supplies in December over a pricing dispute. Iran does not have the refining capacity to meet its own needs.
Robat Karim is a conservative neighborhood, wary of foreigners, and supportive of the president. But with streets that have not been cleared of snow, and the cold nights, nerves have frayed.
“I have a tenant in an apartment upstairs, and there was no gas for days,” said Nour Asadzade, 70, a shopkeeper in the neighborhood. “He asked me to help, but I said, What can I do, it’s in the hands of the government.”
Outside, a 52-year-old woman stepped carefully around the ice, the potholed road and the puddles. “I want to say, ‘No, they don’t pay attention to us.’ ” She said her name was Akram, then grew frightened and slipped into her house.
For years it seemed that Iran was evolving away from a state defined exclusively by revolutionary ideology. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, himself a father of the revolution, emphasized pragmatic economic ties. His successor, Mohammad Khatami, eased up on social restrictions and called for a “dialogue of civilizations.”
Then came Mr. Ahmadinejad, who rose from a new generation, a class of men who fought in the eight-year war with Iraq, and who have since moved to roll back Iran to a time when revolutionary ideology defined the state. For example, Kaveh Bayat, a historian, said the desire to export the revolution was back.
“The idea that you have to export the revolution or you will cease to exist is another deeply ingrained element — it was dormant during Rafsanjani and Khatami but it is awake again,” Mr. Bayat said. “We tried to forget it, but it is back.”
President Ahmadinejad so changed the direction of the state that it has led many to assert that three decades after the revolution, Iran remains a place defined by individuals, not institutions.
Nearly everyone seems to recognize that one of the biggest problems is the nature of the political system — divided as it is among multiple factions, each striving for access to power. It is not one devised to build compromise, and the internal fighting can send confused messages to the outside world. “It would make our job a lot easier, if only they could agree,” said a Western diplomat based in Tehran who spoke on the condition of anonymity, which is standard diplomatic protocol.
Another diplomat said, “I am stunned by their emotion and antagonism they demonstrate in their fighting with each other.”
At least two views exist about where this is leading. One view is that Mr. Ahmadinejad and his radical allies needed to come to power to see that ideology cannot be a successful guide to running a modern state like Iran. The economic hardships, according to this view, will ultimately moderate or marginalize them. “They come into the center of power and they realize running a country like Iran is difficult,” said a business consultant and political analyst in Tehran who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution.
“This specific topic, the management of gas resources, hits every home,” the consultant said. “I think with this, the system as a whole has reached a climax.”
Another view holds that Mr. Ahmadinejad and his ideologically driven allies will not give up power, and will not be driven from power. “From a social point of view, we have a social structure in place for the emergence of fascism,” Mr. Bayat, the historian, said. “Like Europe in the 1920s, we have a dissatisfied proletariat looking for radical and extreme solutions. Ahmadinejad is not imposed on us.”
February 17, 2008
Generation Faithful Dreams Stifled, Egypt’s Young Turn to Islamic Fervor
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — The concrete steps leading from Ahmed Muhammad Sayyid’s first-floor apartment sag in the middle, worn down over time, like Mr. Sayyid himself. Once, Mr. Sayyid had a decent job and a chance to marry. But his fiancée’s family canceled the engagement because after two years, he could not raise enough money to buy an apartment and furniture.
Mr. Sayyid spun into depression and lost nearly 40 pounds. For months, he sat at home and focused on one thing: reading the Koran. Now, at 28, with a diploma in tourism, he is living with his mother and working as a driver for less than $100 a month. With each of life’s disappointments and indignities, Mr. Sayyid has drawn religion closer.
Here in Egypt and across the Middle East, many young people are being forced to put off marriage, the gateway to independence, sexual activity and societal respect. Stymied by the government’s failure to provide adequate schooling and thwarted by an economy without jobs to match their abilities or aspirations, they are stuck in limbo between youth and adulthood.
“I can’t get a job, I have no money, I can’t get married, what can I say?” Mr. Sayyid said one day after becoming so overwhelmed that he refused to go to work, or to go home, and spent the day hiding at a friend’s apartment.
In their frustration, the young are turning to religion for solace and purpose, pulling their parents and their governments along with them.
With 60 percent of the region’s population under the age of 25, this youthful religious fervor has enormous implications for the Middle East. More than ever, Islam has become the cornerstone of identity, replacing other, failed ideologies: Arabism, socialism, nationalism.
The wave of religious identification has forced governments that are increasingly seen as corrupt or inept to seek their own public redemption through religion. In Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Morocco and Algeria, leaders who once headed secular states or played down religion have struggled to reposition themselves as the guardians of Islamic values. More and more parents are sending their children to religious schools, and some countries have infused more religious content into their state educational systems.
More young people are observing stricter separation between boys and girls, sociologists say, fueling sexual frustrations. The focus on Islam is also further alienating young people from the West and aggravating political grievances already stoked by Western foreign policies. The religious fervor among the young is swelling support for Islam to play a greater role in political life. That in turn has increased political repression, because many governments in the region see Islamic political movements as a threat to their own rule.
While there are few statistics tracking religious observance among the young, there is near-universal agreement that young people are propelling an Islamic revival, one that has been years in the making but is intensifying as the youth bulge in the population is peaking.
In Egypt, where the people have always been religious and conservative, young people are now far more observant and strict in their interpretation of their faith. A generation ago, for example, few young women covered their heads, and few Egyptian men made it a practice to go to the mosque for the five daily prayers. Now the hijab, a scarf that covers the hair and neck, is nearly universal, and mosques are filled throughout the day with young men, and often their fathers.
In 1986, there was one mosque for every 6,031 Egyptians, according to government statistics. By 2005, there was one mosque for every 745 people — and the population has nearly doubled.
Egypt has historically fought a harsh battle against religious extremism. But at the same time, its leaders have tried to use religion for their own political gains. The government of President Hosni Mubarak — whose wife, Suzanne, remains unveiled — has put more preachers on state television. Its courts have issued what amount to religious decrees, and Mr. Mubarak has infused his own speeches with more religious references.
“The whole country is taken by an extreme conservative attitude,” said Mohamed Sayed Said, deputy director of the government-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “The government cannot escape it and cannot loosen it.”
Anger and Shame
Depression and despair tormented dozens of men and women in their 20s interviewed across Egypt, from urban men like Mr. Sayyid to frustrated village residents like Walid Faragallah, who once hoped education would guarantee him social mobility. Their stifled dreams stoke anger toward the government.
“Nobody cares about the people,” Mr. Sayyid said, slapping his hands against the air, echoing sentiment repeated in many interviews with young people across Egypt. “Nobody cares. What is holding me back is the system. Find a general with children and he will have an apartment for each of them. My government is only close to those close to the government.”
Mr. Sayyid, like an increasing number of Egyptians, would like Islam to play a greater role in political life. He and many others said that the very government that claimed to elevate and emphasize their faith was insincere and hypocritical.
“Yes, I do think that Islam is the solution,” Mr. Sayyid said, quoting from the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated organization in Egypt that calls for imposing Shariah, or Islamic law, and wants a religious committee to oversee all matters of state. “These people, the Islamists, they would be better than the fake curtain, the illusion, in front of us now.”
Mr. Sayyid’s resigned demeanor masks an angry streak. He said he and his friends would sometimes enter a restaurant, order food, then refuse to pay. They threaten to break up the place if the police are called, intimidating the owners. He explains this as if to prove he is a victim. He tells these stories with anger, and shame, then explains that his prayers are intended as a way to offset his sins.
“Yeah, like thugs,” he said of himself and his friends. “When we were younger, we watched the older guys do this, and then we took over. We inherited it.”
Mr. Sayyid, however, is no Islamic radical, combing militant Web sites and preaching jihad.
He could walk unnoticed in the West. He has a gap-toothed smile, rounded shoulders and a head of black hair that often shines from gel. He likes to wear jeans, and sandals with white socks. He often has a touch of a goatee, and a light shadow of calloused skin — barely noticeable — runs from his hairline to the middle of his forehead. The shadow is his prayer mark, or zebibah, which he has earned from pressing his head into the ground each time he bows in prayer.
Like most religious young people, Mr. Sayyid is not an extremist. But with religious conservatism becoming the norm — the starting point — it is easier for extremists to entice young people over the line. There is simply a larger pool to recruit from and a shorter distance to go, especially when coupled with widespread hopelessness.
“There are lots of psychological repercussions and rejection from society,” said Hamdi Taha, a professor of communications at Al Azhar University who runs a government-aligned charity that stages mass weddings for older low-income couples. “This is actually one of the things that could lead one to terrorism. They despair. They think maybe they get nothing in this world, but they will get something in the other life.”
Obstacles to Marriage
In Egypt and in other countries, like Saudi Arabia, governments help finance mass weddings, because they are concerned about the destabilizing effect of so many men and women who can not afford to marry.
The mass weddings are hugely festive, with couples, many in their late 30s and 40s, allowed to invite dozens of family members and friends. Last year, Mr. Taha said, he had about 6,000 applications for help — and managed to aid 2,300 men and women. In Idku, a small city not far from Alexandria on Egypt’s north coast, Mr. Taha’s charity staged a wedding for more than 65 couples; 200 others received help but decided not to take part in the collective wedding late last year.
The couples were ferried to an open-air stadium in 75 cars donated by local people. They were greeted by a standing-room-only, roaring crowd, flashing neon lights, traditional music, the local governor and a television celebrity who served as the master of ceremonies for the event.
“They are encouraging the youth to settle down and preventing them for doing anything wrong,” said Mona Adam, 26, as she watched her younger sister, Omnia, marry. “Any young man or woman aspires to have a home and a family.”
Across the Middle East, marriage is not only the key to adulthood but also a religious obligation, which only adds to the pressure — and the guilt.
“Marriage and forming a family in Arab Muslim countries is a must,” said Azza Korayem, a sociologist with the National Center for Social and Criminal Studies. “Those who don’t get married, whether they are men or women, become sort of isolated.”
Marriage also plays on important financial role for families and the community. Often the only savings families acquire over a lifetime is the money for their children to marry, and handing it over amounts to an intergenerational transfer of wealth.
But marriage is so expensive now, the system is collapsing in many communities. Diane Singerman, a professor at American University, said that a 1999 survey found that marriage in Egypt cost about $6,000, 11 times annual household expenditures per capita. Five years later, a study found the price had jumped 25 percent more. In other words, a groom and his father in the poorest segment of society had to save their total income for eight years to afford a wedding, she reported.
The result is delayed marriages across the region. A generation ago, 63 percent of Middle Eastern men in their mid- to late 20s were married, according to recent study by the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution and the Dubai School of Government. That figure has dropped to nearly 50 percent across the region, among the lowest rates of marriage in the developing world, the report said. In Iran, for example, 38 percent of the 25- to 29-year-old men are not married, one of the largest pools of unattached males in Iranian history. In Egypt, the average age at which men now marry is 31.
And so, instead of marrying, people wait and seek outlets for their frustrations.
Mr. Sayyid lives with his mother, Sabah, who is 45, and who divorced shortly after he was born. He now spends most of his time behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Golf, listening to the Koran. At home, the radio is always on, always broadcasting the Koran. Two books are on a small white night table beside Mr. Sayyid’s bed, a large Koran and a small Koran.
As a young woman, Sabah, whose family did not want her last name used, never covered herself when she walked the streets of Sayeda Zeinab, the teeming, densely populated neighborhood known for its kebab and sweets. But now, she makes a pilgrimage each year to Mecca, wears loose fitting Islamic clothing that hides her figure, and she fasts twice a week.
“We pull each other,” said Sabah, who cannot read or write and so has learned about Islamic ideas from her son. She said that her son taught her that the Prophet Muhammad said that even if you could not read, looking at the Koran was like reading it.
So she does just that and flips the pages, admiring the artistry of Arabic script.
Mr. Sayyid’s path to stalemate began years ago, in school.
Like most Egyptians educated in public schools, his course of study was determined entirely by grades on standardized tests. He was not a serious student, often skipping school, but scored well enough to go on to an academy, something between high school and a university. He was put in a five-year program to study tourism and hotel operations.
His diploma qualified him for little but unemployment. Education experts say that while Egypt has lifted many citizens out of illiteracy, its education system does not prepare young people for work in the modern world. Nor, according to a recent Population Council report issued in Cairo, does its economy provide enough well-paying jobs to allow many young people to afford marriage.
Egypt’s education system was originally devised to produce government workers under a compact with society forged in the heady early days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s administration in the late 1950s and ’60s.
Every graduate was guaranteed a government job, and peasant families for the first time were offered the prospect of social mobility through education. Now children of illiterate peasant farmers have degrees in engineering, law or business. The dream of mobility survives, but there are not enough government jobs for the floods of graduates. And many are not qualified for the private sector jobs that do exist, government and business officials said, because of their poor schooling. Business students often never touch a computer, for example.
On average, it takes several years for graduates to find their first job, in part because they would rather remain unemployed than work in a blue-collar factory position. It is considered a blow to family honor for a college graduate to take a blue-collar job, leaving large numbers of young people with nothing to do.
“O.K., he’s a college graduate,” said Muhammad el-Seweedy, who runs a government council that has tried with television commercials to persuade college graduates to take factory jobs and has provided training to help improve their skills. “It’s done. Now forget it. This is a reality.”
But more widespread access to education has raised expectations. “Life was much more bearable for the poor when they did accept their social status,” said Galal Amin, an economist and the author of “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?” “But it is unimaginable when you have an education, to have this thought accepted. Frustration opens the door to religiosity.”
In many ways, that is true of Mr. Sayyid.
“What do you think? Of course I am bored,” Mr. Sayyid said, trying not to let go of the forced smile he always wears when he talks about his stalled life. “When I get closer to God, I feel things are good in my life.”
He insists that it did not bother him that he never found a job in a hotel. “No one who prays wants a corrupt job in a hotel,” he said, referring to the pork and alcohol served at such establishments but which are prohibited under Shariah. Later he admitted, “Yes, of course I wanted to work in tourism.”
Finding Solace in Religion
Zagazig is a medium-size city about an hour north of Cairo, surrounded by the farm land of the Nile Delta region. Laila Ashour works here as a volunteer in a clinic run by the Islamic Preaching Organization. Originally, it aimed to provide medical services to the poor, but it quickly expanded and also helps poor young couples start their lives together by providing furniture, appliances and kitchenware.
Ms. Ashour is 22 years old, a university graduate in communications. There was a time she dressed and acted like her friends, covering her head with a scarf but wearing blue jeans and bright shirts. She flirted with young men on the street, and dreamed of being a television producer.
Today, Ms. Ashour dresses in a loose black gown called an abaya, and covers her head, all but her eyes, with a black piece of clothing over her face called a niqab. When she goes outside she wears black gloves as well. Even in this conservative town, she looks like a religious fundamentalist.
What she is, is hurt.
“I realized that people don’t help you,” Ms. Ashour said. “It is only God that helps you.”
She was engaged to Mustafa, whose last name she will not disclose, for more than two years. The plan was for Mustafa and his family to take a year or two to construct and furnish an apartment. But Mustafa’s father had no money left after setting up two older sons, and the young man was unable to raise enough money to finish the construction. Ms. Ashour wanted to help, secretly, but she has been unable to find a paying job. When her mother told her to end the engagement, something snapped, and she sought solace in increasingly strict religious practice.
“Everything is God’s will,” she said, explaining why she decided to take on the niqab. “Everything is a test.”
The despair extends to rural Egypt, always a traditional, religious environment, but one that ambitious young people long to escape. In the village of Shamandeel, not far from Zagazig, it took Walid Faragallah six years after graduating with a degree in psychology to find a job in a factory, and his pay was less than $50 a month. That is an average period of waiting — and average pay — for new entries in the job market. Mr. Faragallah kept that job for a year, and recently found another factory job for $108 a month, two hours from his home.
“It brings us closer to God, in a sense,” Mr. Faragallah said, speaking of the despair he felt during the years he searched for work. “But sometimes, I can see how it does not make you closer to God, but pushes you toward terrorism. Practically, it killed my ambition. I can’t think of a future.”
His parents built him an apartment so that he would not have to wait to marry. The apartment has been empty for years, though now, at 28 and with his new job, he said he hoped he could support a wife.
“I tell them, my friends still in university, not to dream too much,” Mr. Faragallah said one day while sitting on the balcony of the empty apartment he hopes to one day share with a family.
Back in Cairo, every Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, Mr. Sayyid’s mother cooks him something special, so that when he returns from the mosque he has something to look forward to. “I am worried about him,” she said. “What can he do?”
There is a mosque a few steps from the front door of their house. But an Islamic tradition holds that the farther you walk to the mosque the more credit earned with God. So every Friday, Mr. Sayyid walks past the mosque by his home, and past a few more mosques, before he reaches the Sayeda Zeinab mosque.
“By being religious, God prevents you from doing wrong things,” Mr. Sayyid said, revealing his central fear and motivation, that time and boredom will lead him to sin. “This whole atmosphere we live in is wrong, wrong.”
March 4, 2008
Violence Leaves Young Iraqis Doubting Clerics
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
BAGHDAD — After almost five years of war, many young people in Iraq, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.
In two months of interviews with 40 young people in five Iraqi cities, a pattern of disenchantment emerged, in which young Iraqis, both poor and middle class, blamed clerics for the violence and the restrictions that have narrowed their lives.
“I hate Islam and all the clerics because they limit our freedom every day and their instruction became heavy over us,” said Sara, a high school student in Basra. “Most of the girls in my high school hate that Islamic people control the authority because they don’t deserve to be rulers.”
Atheer, a 19-year-old from a poor, heavily Shiite neighborhood in southern Baghdad, said: “The religion men are liars. Young people don’t believe them. Guys my age are not interested in religion anymore.”
The shift in Iraq runs counter to trends of rising religious practice among young people across much of the Middle East, where religion has replaced nationalism as a unifying ideology.
While religious extremists are admired by a number of young people in other parts of the Arab world, Iraq offers a test case of what could happen when extremist theories are applied. Fingers caught in the act of smoking were broken. Long hair was cut and force-fed to its wearer. In that laboratory, disillusionment with Islamic leaders took hold.
It is far from clear whether the shift means a wholesale turn away from religion. A tremendous piety still predominates in the private lives of young Iraqis, and religious leaders, despite the increased skepticism, still wield tremendous power. Measuring religious adherence, furthermore, is a tricky business in Iraq, where access to cities and towns far from Baghdad is limited.
But a shift seems to be registering, at least anecdotally, in the choices some young Iraqis are making.
Professors reported difficulty in recruiting graduate students for religion classes. Attendance at weekly prayers appears to be down, even in areas where the violence has largely subsided, according to worshipers and imams in Baghdad and Falluja. In two visits to the weekly prayer session in Baghdad of the followers of the militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr this fall, vastly smaller crowds attended than had in 2004 or 2005.
Such patterns, if lasting, could lead to a weakening of the political power of religious leaders in Iraq. In a nod to those changing tastes, political parties are dropping overt references to religion.
‘You Cost Us This’
“In the beginning, they gave their eyes and minds to the clerics; they trusted them,” said Abu Mahmoud, a moderate Sunni cleric in Baghdad, who now works deprogramming religious extremists in American detention. “It’s painful to admit, but it’s changed. People have lost too much. They say to the clerics and the parties: You cost us this.”
“When they behead someone, they say ‘Allahu akbar,’ they read Koranic verse,” said a moderate Shiite sheik from Baghdad, using the phrase for “God is great.”
“The young people, they think that is Islam,” he said. “So Islam is a failure, not only in the students’ minds, but also in the community.”
A professor at Baghdad University’s School of Law, who identified herself only as Bushra, said of her students: “They have changed their views about religion. They started to hate religious men. They make jokes about them because they feel disgusted by them.”
That was not always the case. Saddam Hussein encouraged religion in Iraqi society in his later years, building Sunni mosques and injecting more religion into the public school curriculum, but always made sure it served his authoritarian needs.
Shiites, considered to be an opposing political force and a threat to Mr. Hussein’s power, were kept under close watch. Young Shiites who worshiped were seen as political subversives and risked attracting the attention of the police.
For that reason, the American liberation tasted sweetest to the Shiites, who for the first time were able to worship freely. They soon became a potent political force, as religious political leaders appealed to their shared and painful past and their respect for the Shiite religious hierarchy.
“After 2003, you couldn’t put your foot into the husseiniya, it was so crowded with worshipers,” said Sayeed Sabah, a Shiite religious leader from Baghdad, referring to a Shiite place of prayer.
Religion had moved abruptly into the Shiite public space, but often in ways that made educated, religious Iraqis uncomfortable. Militias were offering Koran courses. Titles came cheaply. In Mr. Mahmoud’s neighborhood, a butcher with no knowledge of Islam became the leader of a mosque.
A moderate Shiite cleric, Sheik Qasim, recalled watching in amazement as a former student, who never earned more than mediocre marks, whizzed by stalled traffic in a long convoy of sport utility vehicles in central Baghdad. He had become a religious leader.
“I thought I would get out of the car, grab him and slap him!” said the sheik. “These people don’t deserve their positions.”
An official for the Ministry of Education in Baghdad, a secular Shiite, described the newfound faith like this: “It was like they wanted to put on a new, stylish outfit.”
Religious Sunnis, for their part, also experienced a heady swell in mosque attendance, but soon became the hosts for groups of religious extremists, foreign and Iraqi, who were preparing to fight the United States.
Zane Mohammed, a gangly 19-year-old with an earnest face, watched with curiosity as the first Islamists in his Baghdad neighborhood came to barbershops, tea parlors and carpentry stores before taking over the mosques. They were neither uneducated nor poor, he said, though they focused on those who were.
Then, one morning while waiting for a bus to school, he watched a man walk up to a neighbor, a college professor whose sect Mr. Mohammed did not know, shoot the neighbor at point blank range three times, and walk back to his car as calmly “as if he was leaving a grocery store.”
“Nobody is thinking,” Mr. Mohammed said in an interview in October. “We use our minds just to know what to eat. This is something I am very sad about. We hear things and just believe them.”
Weary of Bloodshed
By 2006, even those who had initially taken part in the violence were growing weary. Haidar, a grade-school dropout, was proud to tell his family he was following a Shiite cleric in a fight against American soldiers in the summer of 2004. Two years later, however, he found himself in the company of gangsters.
Young militia members were abusing drugs. Gift mopeds had become gift guns. In three years, Haidar saw five killings, mostly of Sunnis, including that of a Sunni cab driver shot for his car.
It was just as bad, if not worse, for young Sunnis. Rubbed raw by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown Sunni insurgent group that American intelligence says is led by foreigners, they found themselves stranded in neighborhoods that were governed by seventh-century rules. During an interview with a dozen Sunni teenage boys in a Baghdad detention facility on several sticky days in September, several of them expressed relief at being in jail, so they could wear shorts, a form of dress they would have been punished for in their neighborhoods.
Some Iraqis argue that the religious-based politics was much more about identity than faith. When Shiites voted for religious parties in large numbers in an election in 2005, it was more an effort to show their numbers, than a victory of the religious over the secular.
“It was a fight to prove our existence,” said a young Shiite journalist from Sadr City. “We were embracing our existence, not religion.”
The war dragged on, and young people from both the Shiite and Sunni sects became more broadly involved. Criminals had begun using teenagers and younger boys to carry out killings. The number of Iraqi juveniles in American detention was up more than sevenfold in November from April last year, and Iraq’s main prison for youth, situated in Baghdad, has triple the prewar population.
But while younger people were taking a more active role in the violence, their motivation was less likely than that of the adults to be religion-driven. Of the 900 juvenile detainees in American custody in November, fewer than 10 percent claimed to be fighting a holy war, according to the American military. About one-third of adults said they were.
A worker in the American detention system said that by her estimate, only about a third of the adult detainee population, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, prayed.
“As a group, they are not religious,” said Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, the head of detainee operations for the American military. “When we ask if they are doing it for jihad, the answer is no.”
Muath, a slender, 19-year-old Sunni with distant eyes and hollow cheeks, is typical. He was selling cellphone credits and plastic flowers, struggling to keep his mother and five young siblings afloat, when an insurgent recruiter in western Baghdad, a man in his 30s who is a regular customer, offered him cash last spring to be part of an insurgent group whose motivations were a mix of money and sect.
Muath, the only wage earner in his family, agreed. Suddenly his family could afford to eat meat again, he said in an interview last September.
Indeed, at least part of the religious violence in Baghdad had money at its heart. An officer at the Kadhimiya detention center, where Muath was being held last fall, said recordings of beheadings fetched much higher prices than those of shooting executions in the CD markets, which explains why even nonreligious kidnappers will behead hostages.
“The terrorist loves the money,” said Capt. Omar, a prison worker who did not want to be identified by his full name. “The money has big magic. I give him $10,000 to do small thing. You think he refuse?”
When Muath was arrested last year, the police found two hostages, Shiite brothers, in a safe house that Muath told them about. Photographs showed the men looking wide-eyed into the camera; dark welts covered their bodies.
Violent struggle against the United States was easy to romanticize at a distance.
“I used to love Osama bin Laden,” proclaimed a 24-year-old Iraqi college student. She was referring to how she felt before the war took hold in her native Baghdad. The Sept. 11, 2001, strike at American supremacy was satisfying, and the deaths abstract.
Now, the student recites the familiar complaints: Her college has segregated the security checks; guards told her to stop wearing a revealing skirt; she covers her head for safety.
“Now I hate Islam,” she said, sitting in her family’s unadorned living room in central Baghdad. “Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army are spreading hatred. People are being killed for nothing.”
Parents have taken new precautions to keep their children out of trouble. Abu Tahsin, a Shiite from northern Baghdad, said that when his extended family had built a Shiite mosque, they did not register it with the religious authorities, even though it would have brought privileges, because they did not want to become entangled with any of the main religious Shiite groups that control Baghdad.
In Falluja, a Sunni city west of Baghdad that had been overrun by Al Qaeda, Sheik Khalid al-Mahamedie, a moderate cleric, said fathers now came with their sons to mosques to meet the instructors of Koran courses. Families used to worry most about their daughters in adolescence, but now, the sheik said, they worry more about their sons.
“Before, parents warned their sons not to smoke or drink,” said Mohammed Ali al-Jumaili, a Falluja father with a 20-year-old son. “Now all their energy is concentrated on not letting them be involved with terrorism.”
Recruiters are relentless, and, as it turns out, clever, peddling things their young targets need. General Stone compares it to as a sales pitch a pimp gives to a prospective prostitute. American military officers at the American detention center said it was the Qaeda detainees who were best prepared for group sessions and asked the most questions.
A Qaeda recruiter approached Mr. Mohammed, the 19-year-old, on a college campus with the offer of English lessons. Though lessons had been a personal ambition of Mr. Mohammed’s for months, once he knew what the man was after, he politely avoided him.
“When you talk with them, you find them very modern, very smart,” said Mr. Mohammed, a non-religious Shiite, who recalled feigning disdain for his own sect to avoid suspicion.
The population they focused on, however, was poor and uneducated. About 60 percent of the American adult detainee population is illiterate, and is unable to even read the Koran that religious recruiters are preaching.
That leads to strange twists. One young detainee, a client of Abu Mahmoud, the moderate Sunni cleric, was convinced that he had to kill his parents when he was released, because they were married in an insufficiently Islamic way. General Stone is trying to rectify the problem by offering religion classes taught by moderates.
There is a new favorite game in the lively household of the young Baghdad journalist. When they see a man with a turban on television, they yell and crack jokes. In one joke, people are warned not to give their cellphone numbers to a religious man.
“If he knows the number, he’ll steal the phone’s credit,” the journalist said. “The sheiks are making a society of nonbelievers.”
Kareem Hilmi, Ahmad Fadam, and Qais Mizher contributed reporting.
April 7, 2008
In Egypt, Technology Helps Spread Discontent of Workers
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — What began as a widespread call for a general strike ended Sunday as the police cracked down across the nation, dispatching thousands of riot troops, arresting more than 200 demonstrators and fighting with protesters in the north.
While two schools were burned and more than 150 people were reported injured in the northern town of Mahalla al-Kobra, it was the eerie emptiness of the normally teeming streets of Cairo that signaled the depth of discontent with President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
The calls for a strike, which spread quickly across the country mostly by cellphone messages and word of mouth, underscored a new challenge to the government’s monopoly on power: rising public outrage and a growing willingness by workers and professionals to press their demands by striking.
In Cairo, many stores were closed and hundreds of students protested at three universities. Those who did go to work may have done so not to support the government but out of fear.
“Should we strike?” said Ibrahim el-Sayyid, a clerk in Cairo. “What if they strike us?”
Riot police officers massed in the central Tahrir Square and stood in formation outside the lawyers’, doctors’ and journalists’ syndicates. At the lawyers’ syndicate, a few hundred protesters stood on the roof and on a balcony chanting “Down, down, Hosni Mubarak.”
In Mahalla, the center of the nation’s textile industry, riot police fired tear gas at stone-throwing crowds. Angry demonstrators set fire to two schools, a tourism company and a truck carrying subsidized food, officials said.
“I am not about to claim that the Egyptian people are finally rebelling,” said Abdel Wahab el-Messery, an organizer with Kifaya, an opposition movement, who once served as the Arab League’s cultural attaché to the United Nations. “The element of fear is there. The people are afraid of the government, but the government is as afraid of the people.”
In an indication of how seriously the government took the threat, it issued a warning to potential strikers on Saturday, saying it would “take necessary and resolute measures toward any attempt to demonstrate, impede traffic, hamper work in public facilities or to incite any of this.”
State security agents visited government workers in advance and ordered them to attend work on Sunday, workers said.
The protesters’ main complaint was economic: rising prices, depressed salaries and what opposition leaders here said is an unprecedented gap between rich and the poor.
What may have most spooked officials was the way technology, especially cellphones, was used to spread the word, political analysts said. Mass messages circulated listing “demands” that included increased security, no more inflation, housing aid for young couples and an end to “torture in police stations.”
Under Mr. Mubarak and his governing National Democratic Party, officials have succeeded in stunting the growth and influence of political opposition.
The only opposition group with a broad network and a core constituency is the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist organization that has little ability to effect political change because its members are routinely arrested. Local elections are scheduled for Tuesday, and the government has arrested hundreds of the group’s members and supporters.
The Muslim Brotherhood, struggling to regain its footing after the intense and persistent police pressure, distanced itself from the call to strike, and said it would not participate.
The government has struggled since September to keep pace with the growing reliance on strikes as a tool to press worker demands. Textile workers, doctors, tax clerks, university professors, all have held strikes or threatened to strike.
Doctors have threatened to strike, complaining that those among them with 20 years’ experience, for example, often make no more than about $80 a month.
“What made us take more confrontational measures is that we saw other groups doing so and making their demands,” said Hamdy el-Sayyid, longtime chairman of the doctors’ syndicate.
But what has turned the demands of individual workers into a potential mass movement, officials and political analysts said, has been inflation of food prices, mostly bread and cooking oil. The rising cost of wheat, coupled with widespread corruption in the production and distribution of subsidized bread in Egypt, has prompted the president here to order the government to resolve the problem.
That, however, has done little to calm public outrage, or lower bread prices.
On Adly Street, a broad thoroughfare in downtown Cairo on Sunday, many more stores than usual were shuttered, according to street vendors and residents. A sandstorm and midday rain also may have contributed to keeping people off the streets.
“People are staying at home today,” said Ashraf, a clerk in a luggage store who was afraid to give his last name for fear of arrest. He said he kept his children home from school, and dressed in all black, as a sign of support for the protest. “Because of the prices, because we can’t get food,” he said explaining the reason for the strike.
Textile workers in Mahalla had said they would strike at 7 a.m., when workers changed shifts, to protest low wages. But state security forces arrived en masse, and workers said they grew intimidated and went to work.
However, the initial plan led other smaller groups to call for the day of protest as a general sign of discontent with the direction the country is headed.
Kifaya, which had been at the vanguard of opposition movements in 2005 until it failed to win a large public following, also joined the call.
Residents of Imbaba, a conservative, poor neighborhood inside Cairo, asked neighbors to stay home as a sign of protest.
Belal Fadl, a script writer and satirist in Cairo, said that Egypt was going through a very confusing time, and that the government could no longer rely on an politically apathetic population. The problems, he said, are now too widespread and too close to home, nearly everybody’s home.
“People in Egypt don’t care about democracy and the transfer of power,” he said. “They don’t believe in it because they didn’t grow up with it in the first place. This is unfortunately the case.
“Their problem is limited to their ability to survive, and if that is threatened then they will stand up.”
April 14, 2008
A City Where You Can’t Hear Yourself Scream
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — Egyptians in this capital city say it is harder and harder to be heard and to have a voice, but they are not talking politics. Well, not only politics.
What they are talking about, or rather yelling about, is noise, the incredible background noise of a city crammed with 18 million people, and millions of drivers who always have one hand on the horn and a rules-free way of thinking.
“Whenever I talk to people, they always say, ‘Why are you screaming?’ ” said Salah Abdul Hamid, 56, a barber whose two-chair shop is on the corner of a busy street on the north side.
Mr. Hamid was, of course, screaming.
It was 4 p.m. in Rhode al Farag, a typical Cairo neighborhood teeming with people and shops and cars and trucks and buses and horse-drawn carts. From his shop, the landscape of sound revealed a chorus of people struggling to make a living, trying to assert themselves in a city, and in a country, where they often feel invisible.
Noise — outrageous, unceasing, pounding noise — is the unnerving backdrop to a tense time in Egypt, as inflation and low wages have people worried about basic survival, prompting strikes and protests. We’re not just talking typical city noise, but what scientists here say is more like living inside a factory.
“It’s not enough to make you crazy, but it is very tiring,” said Essam Muhammad Hussein, as he sat in a cracked plastic chair outside the corner food shop his family has owned for 50 years. He was shouting as he talked about the noise, though he did not seem to realize it.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. “Where is the way out?”
This is not like London or New York, or even Tehran, another car-clogged Middle Eastern capital. It is literally like living day in and day out with a lawn mower running next to your head, according to scientists with the National Research Center. They spent five years studying noise levels across the city and concluded in a report issued this year that the average noise from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. is 85 decibels, a bit louder than a freight train 15 feet away, said Mustafa el Sayyid, an engineer who helped carry out the study.
But that 85 decibels, while “clearly unacceptable,” is only the average across the day and across the city. At other locations, it is far worse, he said. In Tahrir Square, or Ramsis Square, or the road leading to the pyramids, the noise often reaches 95 decibels, he said, which is only slightly quieter than standing next to a jackhammer.
“All of greater Cairo is in the range of unacceptable noise levels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” Mr. Sayyid said.
By comparison, normal conversation ranges from 45 to 60 decibels, a chain saw registers 100 decibels and a gunshot 140. Because the decibel scale is logarithmic, every 10 decibels equals a tenfold increase in intensity.
Noise at the levels commonly found in Cairo affects the body. It can cause elevated blood pressure and other stress-related diseases. It can interfere with sleep, which almost always makes people more irritable. “People need a chance to sleep, to have a chance to think, in quiet,” said Dr. Nagat Amer, a physician and researcher with the national center.
But quiet is in short supply, especially in densely packed neighborhoods like Rhode al Farag, where the streets are alive 24 hours a day with people struggling with one another to eke out a living. In the last six weeks, 11 people have been killed in fights in lines to buy some of the cheap subsidized bread many rely on to feed their families.
While noise is never cited as a reason for the spasms of violence, it is a silent enemy that makes the pressures of life that much harder to cope with, people on the streets here said.
“The noise bothers me and I know it bothers people,” said Abdel Khaleq, driver of a battered black and white taxi, as he paused from honking his horn to stop for passengers.
“So why do you do it?” he was asked.
“Well, to tell you I’m here,” he said. “There is no such thing as logic in this country.”
And then he drove off, honking.
In general terms, the noise is a symptom of an increasingly unmanageable city, crowded far beyond its original capacity, officials at the National Research Center said. The main culprit is the two million cars, and drivers who jam the city roads every day.
But Egyptians also like to live loud, preferring community to private space, mourning a death and celebrating a wedding with a good dose of noise. Muezzins’ calls to prayer wail from loudspeakers in the minarets of thousands of mosques in the city. The problem is there are more people now, more cars, more competition for a sale, more jockeying for a spot on the road. And with that much more, there is less consideration for the person behind or next door, social commentators said.
“We like to live our life with people around us — there is no privacy,” said Ahmed El-Kholei, a professor of urban planning at Monufiya University in the Nile Delta north of the city. “This is not a bad thing in itself, but the way it is expressed is wrong. Before, when someone held a funeral, the neighbors would postpone a wedding out of consideration. Today, you see the funeral and the wedding all howling in the microphones at the same time.”
Still, Egyptians do not, as a rule, complain about noise.
“What noise?” asked Madbouly Omran, who has run a small nut stand on Rhode al Farag Street since 1970.
The trucks rumbled by. A pickup truck hit its air horn. Taxis honked.
Moustafa Abdel Aleem, who works in the booth with Mr. Omran, said, “The noise is not something I want, but I can’t do anything about it; it’s forced on me.” So he turned on the radio in search of a song he liked, and of course, turned the volume up.
In a nation where about 40 percent of the population survives on about $2 a day, people understand the struggle to feed a family. In Rhode al Farag, men worked on cars in the street, butchered meat in the street, blasted radios and turned up television sets. Like shellshocked war veterans, residents sat out on the street, sipping tea, oblivious to the cacophony.
Even when it came to the shop run by Mahmoud Faheem, people did not complain. Mr. Faheem rents out concert-sized speakers, and he displayed his speakers on the street, offering the entire block a never ending thump-thump of dance music. “Let him eat bread,” said Atef Ali, 45, the owner of a food shop next door, using an Arabic phrase to explain why he did not complain, even while he detested the music.
And so the people shout, and shrug.
They shout to be heard, and shrug because they say there is nothing they can do but join in, honking, banging, screaming, whatever they need to do to make it through the day — or the intersection. The noise is the cause and the reaction, they say.
“Life is like this,” said Ahmed Muhammad, 23, who makes his living delivering metal tanks of propane to homes. He hangs four tanks off the back of a rusted bicycle, then rides with one hand on the handlebars, the other slamming a wrench into one of the tanks to announce his arrival to the neighborhood. “Making money is like this,” he said. “What am I going to do? This is how it is.”
April 22, 2008
A ‘Surge’ for Refugees
By MORTON ABRAMOWITZ, GEORGE RUPP, JOHN WHITEHEAD and JAMES WOLFENSOHN
IT is a grave humanitarian crisis: 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in deplorable and declining conditions in Syria and Jordan.
They are clustered not in camps but in overcrowded urban neighborhoods, crammed into dark, squalid apartments. Many have been traumatized by extreme violence. Their savings are dwindling; many cannot afford to pay for rent, heat and food; few have proper medical care.
After meeting with refugees, leaders in both Syria and Jordan and United Nations experts, we came to the inescapable conclusion that this crisis could endure for years and that much more help is needed now.
There is absolutely no denying that the United States has a special responsibility to help. The sectarian violence these Iraqi refugees have fled is a byproduct of the invasion and its chaotic aftermath — yet America has paradoxically done far less than its traditionally generous response.
But while the United States must lead, the scale of this humanitarian emergency and its uncertain duration require international contributions, including the active participation of European and Gulf Arab states.
The refugees face three alternatives: return, remain or resettle. None is a good option. It is too dangerous to go back, they will become increasingly destitute if they remain where they are, and yet only a few will be resettled in other countries.
The United States and the international community must therefore take three actions to ease the plight of displaced Iraqis until the day comes when they can safely return home.
First, these refugees simply need more aid. We estimate that to serve this population a minimum of $2 billion is needed annually for at least the next two to four years and it is fitting that the United States cover at least half of this cost.
Contributions from the international community have been woefully inadequate. So far this year the United States has given only $208 million in direct humanitarian assistance for displaced Iraqis. The gulf states have given $11 million since last October. And with its significant oil funds, the Iraqi government must do better in assisting its own uprooted citizens: the $25 million it has allocated in this year’s budget is grossly insufficient. Host countries must also allow nongovernmental organizations better access to Iraqi refugees and affected local communities.
Second, because a sizable population of Iraqis will not return home under any circumstances, more refugees must be resettled in more third countries. Unfortunately, many doors have closed or are being closed. Again, the United States must lead, and it is failing: our government has resettled fewer than 5,000 Iraqi refugees since the war began.
This year America should at a minimum meet its target of resettling 12,000 Iraqi refugees and fulfilling its commitment to admit 5,000 Iraqis (and their dependents) who have worked for the United States and are eligible for special immigrant visas.
In the years ahead, the United States can realistically admit at least 30,000 Iraqis annually. European countries — especially Britain, which, like America, bears a particular responsibility — should be taking in larger numbers of vulnerable Iraqis like single women with children and those who worked for the coalition.
Third, it is important to bring attention to the Iraq refugee problem. To this end, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, should organize a high-level conference of regional countries and interested donors.
The conference should examine the plight of Iraqi refugees and pledge concrete help. Because there is also an urgent need for actions that can improve conditions in Iraq and facilitate the safe, voluntary return of many refugees, the conference must include foreign ministers who can grapple with the diplomatic and political aspects of the crisis, not simply the humanitarian ones.
Discussions about Iraq both here and abroad inevitably focus on the surge and on timelines for troop withdrawal. Missing is any realistic assessment of the fate of Iraqi refugees, 1.5 million people who have a crucial role to play in ensuring the long-term stability of the region.
Morton Abramowitz is a former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. George Rupp is a former president of Columbia. John Whitehead is a former deputy secretary of state. James Wolfensohn is a former president of the World Bank. They are members of the International Rescue Committee’s board.
Hi, Karim Maherali YAM
Just to let you know that I am very much/extremely impressed by your knowledge about our Faith and I respect you for sharing that wonderful light with us.
I have been reading you for sometime and I can’t stop saying excellent, outstanding, superb and the way you explain is wonderful. Please accept my apology if I wrote any thing that is not appropriate for you.
Hi, Karim Maherali YAM
Just to let you know that I am very much/extremely impressed by your knowledge about our Faith and I respect you for sharing that wonderful light with us.
I have been reading you for sometime and I can’t stop saying excellent, outstanding, superb and the way you explain is wonderful. Please accept my apology if I wrote any thing that is not appropriate for you.
April 28, 2008
By JIMMY CARTER
A COUNTERPRODUCTIVE Washington policy in recent years has been to boycott and punish political factions or governments that refuse to accept United States mandates. This policy makes difficult the possibility that such leaders might moderate their policies.
Two notable examples are in Nepal and the Middle East. About 12 years ago, Maoist guerrillas took up arms in an effort to overthrow the monarchy and change the nation’s political and social life. Although the United States declared the revolutionaries to be terrorists, the Carter Center agreed to help mediate among the three major factions: the royal family, the old-line political parties and the Maoists.
In 2006, six months after the oppressive monarch was stripped of his powers, a cease-fire was signed. Maoist combatants laid down their arms and Nepalese troops agreed to remain in their barracks. Our center continued its involvement and nations — though not the United States — and international organizations began working with all parties to reconcile the dispute and organize elections.
The Maoists are succeeding in achieving their major goals: abolishing the monarchy, establishing a democratic republic and ending discrimination against untouchables and others whose citizenship rights were historically abridged. After a surprising victory in the April 10 election, Maoists will play a major role in writing a constitution and governing for about two years. To the United States, they are still terrorists.
On the way home from monitoring the Nepalese election, I, my wife and my son went to Israel. My goal was to learn as much as possible to assist in the faltering peace initiative endorsed by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Although I knew that official United States policy was to boycott the government of Syria and leaders of Hamas, I did not receive any negative or cautionary messages about the trip, except that it might be dangerous to visit Gaza.
The Carter Center had monitored three Palestinian elections, including one for parliamentary seats in January 2006. Hamas had prevailed in several municipal contests, gained a reputation for effective and honest administration and did surprisingly well in the legislative race, displacing the ruling party, Fatah. As victors, Hamas proposed a unity government with Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah as president and offered to give key ministries to Fatah, including that of foreign affairs and finance.
Hamas had been declared a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, and the elected Palestinian government was forced to dissolve. Eventually, Hamas gained control of Gaza, and Fatah is “governing” the Israeli-dominated West Bank. Opinion polls show Hamas steadily gaining popularity. Since there can be no peace with Palestinians divided, we at the Carter Center believed it important to explore conditions allowing Hamas to be brought peacefully back into the discussions. (A recent poll of Israelis, who are familiar with this history, showed 64 percent favored direct talks between Israel and Hamas.)
Similarly, Israel cannot gain peace with Syria unless the Golan Heights dispute is resolved. Here again, United States policy is to ostracize the Syrian government and prevent bilateral peace talks, contrary to the desire of high Israeli officials.
We met with Hamas leaders from Gaza, the West Bank and Syria, and after two days of intense discussions with one another they gave these official responses to our suggestions, intended to enhance prospects for peace:
Hamas will accept any agreement negotiated by Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel provided it is approved either in a Palestinian referendum or by an elected government. Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshal, has reconfirmed this, although some subordinates have denied it to the press.
When the time comes, Hamas will accept the possibility of forming a nonpartisan professional government of technocrats to govern until the next elections can be held.
Hamas will also disband its militia in Gaza if a nonpartisan professional security force can be formed.
Hamas will permit an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in 2006, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, to send a letter to his parents. If Israel agrees to a list of prisoners to be exchanged, and the first group is released, Corporal Shalit will be sent to Egypt, pending the final releases.
Hamas will accept a mutual cease-fire in Gaza, with the expectation (not requirement) that this would later include the West Bank.
Hamas will accept international control of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, provided the Egyptians and not the Israelis control closing the gates.
In addition, Syria’s president, Bashir al-Assad, has expressed eagerness to begin negotiations with Israel to end the impasse on the Golan Heights. He asks only that the United States be involved and that the peace talks be made public.
Through more official consultations with these outlawed leaders, it may yet be possible to revive and expedite the stalemated peace talks between Israel and its neighbors. In the Middle East, as in Nepal, the path to peace lies in negotiation, not in isolation.
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, is the founder of the Carter Center and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
Existence of Israel a miracle let alone that it's a democracy
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Years ago, the ambassador of Israel to Canada at the time said something that struck me as both illuminating and yet obvious.
"That Israel still exists is miracle enough," said Haim Divon, referring to the decades of war and conflict his tiny country has endured since its birth 60 years ago this past Thursday. "But what is really miraculous is that it has survived as a democracy. That is truly a miracle."
Divon made those comments back in March of 2002, when many of us in the West were still feeling pretty edgy following the brutality and impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.
As a result of that one day of terror on American soil, the U.S. government started rebalancing the need to beef up security and scale back some freedoms.
In some cases, it went too far, and so the balancing act continues. But Israel -- which has suffered from almost daily rocket attacks and numerous suicide bombings against Israelis carrying out such provocative activities as drinking coffee in a restaurant and taking the bus to school -- has not chipped away at the freedoms of those living within its often treacherous borders.
During times of war and unrest, most countries suspend elections, put limits on free speech, press freedom and other key rights most of us in democracies take for granted.
And yet, according to Freedom House -- an organization that monitors and measures freedom around the world -- Israel is the only country in the entire Middle East that is free. The Freedom House map shows Israel -- which covers just 0.6 per cent of the land mass of the region -- as just a tiny speck of green (which signifies free) amidst an almost entirely grey mass representing "not free" states, like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Kuwait, Iran and on and on it goes. Only Jordan and Lebanon are painted different colours -- in this case yellow -- for partly free.
The United States, meanwhile, after suffering just one day of attacks, established Guantanamo Bay prison for enemy combatants and allowed warrantless wiretapping against potential terrorists.
Earlier this month, Freedom House issued a new report entitled: Today's American: How Free? In short, the answer to that question still remains: very free, with some tweaking needed.
While Freedom House is critical of the high rates of incarceration in the United States and the issues already mentioned surrounding counter-terrorism, it points out that the U.S. system of checks and balances is not just remarkably resilient and strong, but self-healing. For instance, Congress has severely limited warrantless wiretapping brought in by the George W. Bush administration, and the Supreme Court has forced the government to ensure that prisoners in Guantanamo and other military jails be governed under the Geneva Convention.
Would the United States or any other country, however, maintain such a high level of freedom as Israel after so much hardship? It's not likely.
In every area of rights and freedoms measured by Freedom House, Israel gets almost as high marks as Canada and the U.S. One of the main criticisms of Israel by the mostly uninformed or outright anti-Semitic is how badly Israel treats Palestinians. There are numerous examples, however, of how much better Israel treats Palestinians than Palestinians expect to be treated by their own leaders and neighbours. A particularly striking one took place last June, when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip following deadly battles with its Fatah rivals. Fatah fighters, along with women and children, ran for their lives into the Erez Crossing tunnel in an effort to get to the West Bank through Israel rather than through Gaza.
Stop and think about that.
Those Palestinians recognized that the people they so often refer to as the brothers of monkeys and swine would treat them better than their fellow Palestinians. They knew there was no way the Israeli government or Israeli citizens would randomly murder them simply because of who they back politically or what they think.
Even after Hamas issued an amnesty for Fatah fighters and their families following its victory in Gaza, news agencies reported that the frightened Fatah civilians and soldiers didn't believe Hamas. Instead, they preferred to languish in that fetid tunnel hoping that their hated enemies -- the Israelis -- would let them into a country they don't even recognize as having the right to exist and that doesn't even appear on Hamas and Fatah maps. A very telling vignette.
For those who view Israel as the aggressor in the region -- despite its small numbers and small land size -- I often ask the following questions of the wilfully blind and naive: What do you think would happen to Israel if it declared it would lay down its arms and not raise them for any reason? Honest people acknowledge that Israel would cease to exist in very short order. What do you think would happen if the Palestinians laid down their arms? Again, the honest people admit that peace would break out.
Entire libraries are filled with tomes that go into great detail as to how peace can be made in the region. The above two questions point to the simple answer. Should it ever happen, it will be nothing short of a miracle. Then again, Israel is proof that miracles really do happen.
May 12, 2008
Generation Faithful Love’s Rules Vex and Entrance Young Saudis
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Nader al-Mutairi stiffened his shoulders, clenched his fists and said, “Let’s do our mission.” Then the young man stepped into the cool, empty lobby of a dental clinic, intent on getting the phone number of one of the young women working as a receptionist.
Asking a woman for her number can cause a young man anxiety anywhere. But in Saudi Arabia, getting caught with an unrelated woman can mean arrest, a possible flogging and dishonor, the worst penalty of all in a society where preserving a family’s reputation depends on faithful adherence to a strict code of separation between the sexes.
Above all, Nader feared that his cousin Enad al-Mutairi would find out that he was breaking the rules. Nader is engaged to Enad’s 17-year-old sister, Sarah. “Please don’t talk to Enad about this,” he said. “He will kill me.”
The sun was already low in the sky as Nader entered the clinic. Almost instantly, his resolve faded. His shoulders drooped, his hands unclenched and his voice began to quiver. “I am not lucky today; let’s leave,” he said.
It was a flash of rebellion, almost instantly quelled. In the West, youth is typically a time to challenge authority. But what stood out in dozens of interviews with young men and women here was how completely they have accepted the religious and cultural demands of the Muslim world’s most conservative society.
They may chafe against the rules, even at times try to evade them, but they can be merciless in their condemnation of those who flout them too brazenly. And they are committed to perpetuating the rules with their own children.
That suggests that Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam, largely uncontested at home by the next generation and spread abroad by Saudi money in a time of religious revival, will increasingly shape how Muslims around the world will live their faith. Young men like Nader and Enad are taught that they are the guardians of the family’s reputation, expected to shield their female relatives from shame and avoid dishonoring their families by their own behavior. It is a classic example of how the Saudis have melded their faith with their desert tribal traditions.
“One of the most important Arab traditions is honor,” Enad said. “If my sister goes in the street and someone assaults her, she won’t be able to protect herself. The nature of men is that men are more rational. Women are not rational. With one or two or three words, a man can get what he wants from a woman. If I call someone and a girl answers, I have to apologize. It’s a huge deal. It is a violation of the house.”
Enad is the alpha male, a 20-year-old police officer with an explosive temper and a fondness for teasing. Nader, 22, is soft-spoken, with a gentle smile and an inclination to follow rather than lead.
They are more than cousins; they are lifelong friends and confidants. That is often the case in Saudi Arabia, where families are frequently large and insular.
Enad and Nader are among several dozen Mutairi cousins who since childhood have spent virtually all their free time together: Boys learning to be boys, and now men, together.
They are average young Saudi men, not wealthy, not poor, not from the more liberal south or east, but residents of the nation’s conservative heartland, Riyadh. It is a flat, clean city of five million people that gleams with oil wealth, two glass skyscrapers and roads clogged with oversize S.U.V.’s. It offers young men very little in the way of entertainment, with no movie theaters and few sports facilities. If they are unmarried, they cannot even enter the malls where women shop.
Geography, like ideology, at play in Mideast conflict
Geography strongly conditions how countries behave towards one another
For The Calgary Herald
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
According to the secular (and the Christian) calendar, 60 years ago today, one day before the expiry of the British Mandate for Palestine, Israel declared its independence.
Much that has appeared in the media over the past week or so, following the Jewish calendar, has celebrated the anniversary.
A few laments recall the violence that attended the founding of the new state.
Many more celebrated the ability of the Israeli Defence Forces to win its many wars.
One way to see how this small state succeeded in maintaining itself is to imagine for a moment that the religious and ethnic differences between Israel and its neighbours did not exist.
Imagine that instead of the Jewish state of Israel, the independent state of Filistina, to use the old Ottoman administrative name for the area, stood in its place.
Now ask yourself: What would be different?
To answer, recall one of the principles by which we usually understand international politics -- that geography strongly conditions how countries behave towards one another. Thus Canada will always be anxious about the U.S., and France and Germany will always be concerned with each other.
The same principle applies to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, the Levant, and especially to the land of Filistina-Israel.
Geography was important when Joshua fought the battle of Jericho at the end of the Bronze Age and began the Israelite conquest of Canaan.
It was important as well 700 years later when the Persians defeated the Babylonians, ended the "Babylonian Captivity," and recreated the first of several vassal states that survived late into Roman times. Geography was important again when, with the decline of the British Empire, modern Israel came into existence.
Geography has conditioned two major factors in the foreign policy of Filistina-Israel. First, whatever its borders, Filistina and Israel have been intimately tied to imperial and great power politics.
Second, when the Assyrians or the Babylonians, the Romans, Ottomans or British became seriously interested in the Levant, there was not much the locals could do about it.
The opposite is also true. When big empires are unable to project power into the Levant, Filistina-Israel can take care of itself. Again, the reason is chiefly geographical.
To the southeast and southwest there are the deserts of Sinai and Arabia. To the east, across the Jordan River is yet another desert, and salt water lies to the west.
Only in the north is the country vulnerable, but even here, until very recently, the coastal communities of present-day Lebanon (or ancient Phoenicia) have been more interested in brokering trade from the east across the Mediterranean, not military adventures in the south. That leaves only Syria to the northeast.
Historically when Syria has had designs on Filistina-Israel, it has had only one way to attack, through a gap between Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee.
A successful invasion would entail coming down the Golan Heights and fighting a decisive battle on the plains near the site of the apocalyptic town of Armageddon.
Modern Israel has had to be concerned with simultaneous attacks on several fronts. The IDF has been able to deal with this threat largely because Egypt and Syria have had different and sometimes conflicting interests.
Worse, they have had to fight on widely separated fronts. In contrast, the IDF has been able to fight on interior lines and thus could move its troops quickly and easily and so engage its enemies sequentially.
In other words, the military success of modern Israel is not simply a result of the strategic acumen and armed strength of the IDF or the ability of religion, history or persecution to motivate Israeli citizen soldiers.
There are also geographical buffers everywhere but the northeast, and that vulnerability can be managed -- particularly when Filistina-Israel has secured the Golan, as at present.
Accordingly, regional threats from other states are not as menacing as they are often said to be.
There remains the long-term problem: Filistina-Israel inevitably attracts the attention of empires (along with their large armies and navies) from outside its immediate neighbourhood: Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, Rome, Turkey and Britain in the distant past, the Soviet Union and the U.S. more recently.
Against such forces, the inhabitants of Filistina-Israel are incapable of resistance.
Today, the religious and ideological differences among modern Israel, neighbouring Muslim states and its internal Palestinian population make matters more complex.
But the geostrategic concerns of an independent Muslim Filistina would not be all that different.
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary
May 25, 2008
Misreading the Arab Media
By LAWRENCE PINTAK, JEREMY GINGES and NICHOLAS FELTON
“ARABIC TV does not do our country justice,” President Bush complained in early 2006, calling it a purveyor of “propaganda” that “just isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it doesn’t give people the impression of what we’re about.”
The president’s statement, along with the decision by the New York Stock Exchange to ban Al Jazeera’s reporters in 2003, is a prime example of how the Arab news media have been demonized since the 9/11 attacks. As a result, America has failed to make use of what is potentially one of its most powerful weapons in the war of ideas against terrorism.
For proof, in the last year we surveyed 601 journalists in 13 Arab countries in North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. The results, to be published in The International Journal of Press/Politics in July, shatter many of the myths upon which American public diplomacy strategy has been based.
Rather than being the enemy, most Arab journalists are potential allies whose agenda broadly tracks the stated goals of United States Middle East policy and who can be a valuable conduit for explaining American policy to their audiences. Many see themselves as agents of political and social change who believe it is their mission to reform the antidemocratic regimes they live under. When asked to name the top 10 missions of Arab journalism, they cited political reform, human rights, poverty and education as the most important issues facing the region, trumping Palestinian statehood and the war in Iraq. Overwhelmingly, they wanted the clergy to stay out of politics. And, aside from the ever-present issue of Israel, they ranked “lack of political change” alongside American policy as the greatest threats to the Arab world.
Though many Arab journalists dislike the United States government, more than 60 percent say they have a favorable view of the American people. They just don’t believe the United States is sincere when it calls for Arab democratic reform or a Palestinian state, as President Bush did again this month in Egypt.
Make no mistake, the Arab press has many flaws, including being subject to state control; only 26 percent of our respondents said they felt their fellow Arab journalists “act professionally” and only 11 percent said they were truly independent in their work. Nevertheless, Arab news outlets are more powerful and free today than at any time in history. If the next administration is going to try to reach out to the Arab people, it won’t get far by blaming the messenger.
Lawrence Pintak is the director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo and the author of “Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas.” Jeremy Ginges is an assistant professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research. Nicholas Felton is a graphic designer in Brooklyn.
May 30, 2008
The Reality Situation
By DAVID BROOKS
Dear Senators Obama and McCain,
You are now engaged in a campaign debate over whether to talk with Iran. As I’m sure you both know, this is a political exercise that will have little relevance should you actually take office.
In the White House, you will find yourself spending more time on Iran than any other foreign policy issue. You’ll be reminded that the 1979 Iranian revolution is one of the signature events of modern history, akin to the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the U.S. has never figured out how to deal with it.
You’ll gather your intelligence experts to help you understand the Iranian threat. They will tell you what they have told the current administration: We don’t know much about how the Iranian regime operates. There are at least four internal factions that seem to regulate each other, but we have little idea how.
We don’t understand the Iranians because the Iranians don’t understand themselves. The regime isn’t sure whether it is an ideological movement championing global jihad or whether it is merely regional power seeking Middle East hegemony. Until the Iranians resolve this internal ambiguity, you can talk to them all you want, but they won’t be able to make a strategic shift or follow a more amenable path.
As you sit in the Oval Office contemplating how to engage Iran, you won’t be reliving the campaign debate about when to negotiate. You’ll be thinking about how to exert pressure.
You will develop newfound sympathy for your predecessors in the Bush administration. There are a hundred things they could have done differently, but the primary fault for the failure to contain Iran does not lie in Washington.
It lies first with the feckless international community. The United Nations has passed resolutions demanding an end to Iranian nuclear enrichment. Iran ignores them. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 forbids the rearmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran rearmed them without consequence. Fault also lies with the terrified but nearly immobile Sunni world. It lies, too, with the axis of the avaricious.
The U.S. and Europe try to organize economic sanctions against Iran, but the oil-rich Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was welcomed in Indonesia, and Iran signed a pipeline deal with India. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security group headed by Russia and China, granted Iran observer status, while denying the U.S. the same status in 2005.
This is the problem with multipolarity. When everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible. A rich rogue nation can flout the will of a disparate majority.
When you enter the Oval Office, Iran will still be on the march. Forget campaign declarations. You’ll try anything. If the Saudis want to launch talks with Tehran as they did in secret 18 months ago, you’ll quietly support them. If the Arab League wants to engage, you’ll spend weeks in the middle of it. If the Israelis think they can flip Syria away from Iran with new peace talks, you’ll accept their efforts. You won’t believe that any of it can work. But nobody knows what will.
You’ll spend most of your time not challenging Iran but merely trying to contain its arc of influence. You’ll spend hours, as the Bush administration has, wondering whether Syria’s Bashar al-Assad can be turned in a more Western direction. Nobody can make an educated guess about that because no outsider understands Assad’s mind.
You’ll enforce Executive Orders 13338 and 13441, which restrict the movement and financial transactions of top Syrian officials, but it’s not clear you can squeeze the Syrians more than the Iranians, who play a more violent game.
You’ll work ceaselessly, as the Bush administration has, to make sure the Lebanese government doesn’t dissolve. But Hezbollah’s military power is so formidable you won’t be able to negate its veto power over national policy.
You’ll find yourself consumed against your wishes by a multifront ideological war, with Iran pulling strings on one side and you scrambling to gather a moderate coalition on the other. You’ll feel constrained in every theater, and you’ll realize that you are not destined to play the victorious role.
Your job is to restrain Iran’s momentum until the fundamental correlation of forces can shift. For amid all the doleful news, there is a hopeful tide. Opinion is turning slowly against extremism. The über-analyst Dennis Ross says that he has noted it among the Palestinians. Michael Young writes that opinion is shifting against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Peter Bergen, Paul Cruickshank and Lawrence Wright have in their different ways written about the intellectual crisis afflicting Al Qaeda. It may not happen over the next four years, but as Ross has noted, where Islamists rule, they wear out their welcome.
Your job may be to wage rear-guard political battles until the ideological tide can turn. It’s not glamorous work, but governing isn’t campaigning. You volunteered for this.
June 8, 2008
People vs. Dinosaurs
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Tefen Industrial Park, Israel
Question: What do America’s premier investor, Warren Buffett, and Iran’s toxic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have in common? Answer: They’ve both made a bet about Israel’s future.
Ahmadinejad declared on Monday that Israel “has reached its final phase and will soon be wiped out from the geographic scene.”
By coincidence, I heard the Iranian leader’s statement on Israel Radio just as I was leaving the headquarters of Iscar, Israel’s famous precision tool company, headquartered in the Western Galilee, near the Lebanon border. Iscar is known for many things, most of all for being the first enterprise that Buffett bought overseas for his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway.
Buffett paid $4 billion for 80 percent of Iscar and the deal just happened to close a few days before Hezbollah, a key part of Iran’s holding company, attacked Israel in July 2006, triggering a monthlong war. I asked Iscar’s chairman, Eitan Wertheimer, what was Buffett’s reaction when he found out that he had just paid $4 billion for an Israeli company and a few days later Hezbollah rockets were landing outside its parking lot.
Buffett just brushed it off with a wave, recalled Wertheimer: “He said, ‘I’m not interested in the next quarter. I’m interested in the next 20 years.’ ” Wertheimer repaid that confidence by telling half his employees to stay home during the war and using the other half to keep the factory from not missing a day of work and setting a production record for the month. It helps when many of your “employees” are robots that move around the buildings, beeping humans out of the way.
So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I’d short Ahmadinejad and go long Warren Buffett.
Why? From outside, Israel looks as if it’s in turmoil, largely because the entire political leadership seems to be under investigation. But Israel is a weak state with a strong civil society. The economy is exploding from the bottom up. Israel’s currency, the shekel, has appreciated nearly 30 percent against the dollar since the start of 2007.
The reason? Israel is a country that is hard-wired to compete in a flat world. It has a population drawn from 100 different countries, speaking 100 different languages, with a business culture that strongly encourages individual imagination and adaptation and where being a nonconformist is the norm. While you were sleeping, Israel has gone from oranges to software, or as they say around here, from Jaffa to Java.
The day I visited the Iscar campus, one of its theaters was filled with industrialists from the Czech Republic, who were getting a lecture — in Czech — from Iscar experts. The Czechs came all the way to the Israel-Lebanon border region to learn about the latest innovations in precision tool-making. Wertheimer is famous for staying close to his customers and the latest technologies. “If you sleep on the floor,” he likes to say, “you never have to worry about falling out of bed.”
That kind of hunger explains why, in the first quarter of 2008, the top four economies after America in attracting venture capital for start-ups were: Europe $1.53 billion, China $719 million, Israel $572 million and India $99 million, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Israel, with 7 million people, attracted almost as much as China, with 1.3 billion.
Boaz Golany, who heads engineering at the Technion, Israel’s M.I.T., told me: “In the last eight months, we have had delegations from I.B.M., General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart visiting our campus. They are all looking to develop R & D centers in Israel.”
Ahmadinejad professes not to care about such things. He was — to put it in American baseball terms — born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Because oil prices have gone up to nearly $140 a barrel, he feels relaxed predicting that Israel will disappear, while Iran maintains a welfare state — with more than 10 percent unemployment.
Iran has invented nothing of importance since the Islamic Revolution, which is a shame. Historically, Iranians have been a dynamic and inventive people — one only need look at the richness of Persian civilization to see that. But the Islamic regime there today does not trust its people and will not empower them as individuals.
Of course, oil wealth can buy all the software and nuclear technology you want, or can’t develop yourself. This is not an argument that we shouldn’t worry about Iran. Ahmadinejad should, though.
Iran’s economic and military clout today is largely dependent on extracting oil from the ground. Israel’s economic and military power today is entirely dependent on extracting intelligence from its people. Israel’s economic power is endlessly renewable. Iran’s is a dwindling resource based on fossil fuels made from dead dinosaurs.
So who will be here in 20 years? I’m with Buffett: I’ll bet on the people who bet on their people — not the people who bet on dead dinosaurs.
June 15, 2008
Letter From Cairo
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The current global energy-food crisis is, understandably, a pocketbook issue in America. But when you come to Egypt, you see how, in a society where so many more people live close to the edge, food and fuel prices could become enormously destabilizing. If these prices keep soaring, food and fuel could reshape politics around the developing world as much as nationalism or Communism did in their days.
A few years ago, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, belatedly but clearly embarked on an economic reform path that has produced 7 percent annual growth in the last three years — and now all that growth is being devoured by food and fuel price increases, like a plague of locusts eating through the Nile Delta.
Let’s start the day here at Hussein el-Ashri’s poultry shop — in the lower-middle-class district of Shubra — a shop that gives new meaning to the term “fresh chicken.”
Customers arrive, select a live chicken out of a coop. It’s slaughtered and de-feathered while you wait and handed to you in a bag with all the parts. Business had grown steadily over the years at Ashri’s shop, as Egypt’s lower-middle classes could afford more meat. But in the past six months, the price of chicken has doubled. Ashri explained: “Everything has gone up — electricity, the price of feed, gasoline, labor, the price of medicine for the chickens. Everything.”
For Egypt’s poor, who make up 40 percent of the population, food makes up 60 percent of their household budget. When wheat prices double, because more U.S. farmers plant corn for biofuels, it is devastating for Egyptians, who depend on imported American wheat for their pita bread. Bread riots are now a daily occurrence here. As for chicken, all Ashri knows is that “there are fewer customers and less traffic now.” You need to give your kids meat, complains a lady in a veil, “but now you give them a little smaller piece.”
Next to Ashri, though, the man selling potatoes from a wooden cart is doing a brisk business. “We can’t go out anymore for entertainment,” says one lady, whose husband is on an army pension, as she flips through the potatoes. “But there are people a lot worse off. Some can’t afford food at all.”
Around the corner, at a state bakery selling subsidized bread, a small crowd has gathered, waiting for their daily ration. Someone else has collected a donkey cart full of pita scraps to be sold for animal feed. Nothing wasted.
A discussion breaks out between the potato man and his customers about who has “less of a conscience” — schoolteachers in the state school system who have to be paid to give after-school lessons because they have 80 kids in their classes and no one can learn there, or doctors in the state system who have to be bribed for decent care. It is not that they’re evil; they’re all being squeezed.
What’s happening is that the basic bargain between the Egyptian regime and its people — which said, “We will guarantee you cheap food, a job, education and health care, and you will stay out of politics” — is fraying. Even with the growth of the last three years, government subsidies and wages can’t keep up with today’s food and fuel price rises. The only part of the bargain that’s left is: “and you will stay out of politics.”
From Shubra we drive into the desert toward Alexandria. The highway is full of cars. How can all these Egyptians afford to be driving, I wonder? Answer: The government will spend almost $11 billion this year to subsidize gasoline and cooking fuel; gas here is only about $1.30 a gallon. Sounds like a good deal for the poor — only the poor have no cars, and the fuel subsidies mean less money for mass transit.
Think about these numbers: This year Egypt will spend $6 billion on education and $3 billion on health care, far less than the subsidies for fuel. This is a terrible trap. The subsidies should have been phased out when food and fuel prices were lower. Now that they have soared, the pain of removing the subsidies would be politically suicidal. So education and health care get killed instead.
But Egypt today is one country with two systems. Along the Alexandria highway, we pass one gated community filled with McMansions — with names like “Moon Valley,” “Hyde Park” and “Beverly Hills.” One has a 99-hole golf complex. They are populated by Egyptians who have worked hard and made money in the gulf or who are part of the globalized business class here. They are entitled to their McMansions as much as Americans. But the energy and water implications of all these new gated communities is also fueling the soaring global demand.
The good news: More Egyptians today can afford to live like Americans. The bad news: Even more Egyptians can’t even afford to live like Egyptians anymore. This is not good — not for them, not for us.
Friday, June 20, 2008
CAIRO: The McDonald's here has golden arches, the same golden arches as anywhere else in the world. The food is prepared the same assembly-line way, too. But there is an invisible, or more precisely, divine, element in bringing that burger to the plate that the uninitiated may not be prepared for.
"Inshallah," or "God willing," the counterman said as he walked off to see about a burger without onions at the McDonald's on the Alexandria Desert road, 30 miles from the center of Cairo.
Egyptians have always been religious, from Pharaonic times to the present. Any guidebook to Egypt alerts tourists to Egyptians' frequent use of inshallah in discussing future events, a signal of their deep faith and belief that all events occur, or don't occur, at God's will. "See you tomorrow," is almost always followed by a smile and, "inshallah."
But there has been inshallah creep, to the extreme. It is now attached to the answer for any question, past, present and future. What's your name, for example, might be answered, "Muhammad, inshallah."
"I say to them, 'You are already Muhammad or you are going to be Muhammad?' " said Attiat el-Abnoudy, a documentary filmmaker in Cairo.
Inshallah has become the linguistic equivalent of the head scarf on women and the prayer bump, the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during prayers, on men. It has become a public display of piety and fashion, a symbol of faith and the times. Inshallah has become a reflex, a bit of a linguistic tick that has attached itself to nearly every moment, every question, like the word "like" in English. But it is a powerful reference, intended or not.
Political and social commentators here say its frequent use reflects or fuels, or both, the increasing degree to which people have dressed the routine of daily life up with religious accessories. Will the taxi get me to my destination? Will my sandwich come without onions? What's my name? It's always, "God willing."
"Now inshallah is used in a much broader way than 20 years ago," said the Egyptian playwright Aly Salem. "We always used to say inshallah in relation to plans we were going to do in the future. Now it is part of the appearance of piety."
The starting point for inshallah is faith, but just like the increasing popularity of the head scarf and the prayer bump, its new off-the-rack status reflects the rising tide of religion around the region. Observance, if not necessarily piety, is on the rise, as Islam becomes — for many — the cornerstone of identity. That has put the symbols of Islam at the center of culture, and routine.
"Over the past three decades, the role of religion has been expanded in everything in our lives,"' said Ghada Shahbendar, a political activist who studied linguistics at American University in Cairo.
Deference to the divine has become a communal reflex, a compulsive habit, like the incessant honking of Egyptian cabdrivers — even when there are no other cars on the street.
Samer Fathi, 40, has a small kiosk that sells chips and cigarettes and phone cards downtown. He was asked for a 100-unit phone card and responded almost absent-mindedly "inshallah," as he flipped through the stack to find one.
At 19 Ismael Street the elevator door opened.
"Inshallah," a passenger replied.
As it has become routine, inshallah has also become a kind of convenience, a useful dodge, a bit of theological bobbing-and-weaving to avoid commitment. No need to say no. If it doesn't happen, well, God didn't mean it to happen. Nazly Shahbendar, Ghada's daughter, said for example if she was invited to a party she did not want to attend, she would never say no.
"I'd say inshallah," said Shahbendar who is 24 and anything but a picture of the new religiosity. She is not veiled or shy about talking to men; she smokes in front of her mother.
She also points out that inshallah is not the only religious term to infiltrate the lexicon of routine. The younger Shahbendar, like many people here, have taken to using the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of belief, as a routine greeting. So instead of "How are you? Fine, and you?" she will say to a friend "There is no God but God," to which the friend will complete the statement. "And Muhammad is his prophet."
People now answer the phone that way, too, skipping hello altogether. It would be something like Christians greeting each other with "Christ is risen!" followed by "Christ will come again." Not just on Sundays, but every day.
"We are a very religious people, Egyptians," said Mostafa Said, 25, as he told his friend he hoped, inshallah, to have his car turn indicator fixed by next week. "We believe God is responsible for what happens, even to the car."
But it is not just about faith in the celestial, that has people invoking God. It is also, at least for some, a lack of faith in the earthbound rulers who run the place. People here are tired — of the rising prices and the eroding wages, of the traffic, of the corruption, of the sense that it is every man for himself.
"In this place, when something works, or you want something to work, you thank God, because it's certainly not the government who is going to help you," said Sherif Issa, 48, a taxi driver in Cairo with a nicotine-stained mustache and a fair size belly. "It's because everything is going in the wrong direction — who can we look up to except God?"
That Issa is a Christian is evidence that the use of inshallah is not just a phenomenon of Egypt's Muslims.
"It doesn't matter whether you're a Christian or a Muslim," he said. "I'm going to take you to your house, arriving there in a decent amount of time is already a miracle. Of course I say inshallah!"
June 22, 2008
The Two Israels
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
HEBRON, West Bank
To travel through the West Bank and Gaza these days feels like traveling through Israeli colonies.
You whiz around the West Bank on new highways that in some cases are reserved for Israeli vehicles, catching glimpses of Palestinian vehicles lined up at checkpoints.
The security system that Israel is steadily establishing is nowhere more stifling than here in Hebron, the largest city in the southern part of the West Bank. In the heart of a city with 160,000 Palestinians, Israel maintains a Jewish settlement with 800 people. To protect them, the Israeli military has established a massive system of guard posts, checkpoints and road closures since 2001.
More than 1,800 Palestinian shops have closed, in some cases the doors welded shut, and several thousand people have been driven from their homes. The once flourishing gold market is now blocked with barbed wire and choked with weeds and garbage.
“For years, Israel has severely oppressed Palestinians living in the center of the city,” notes B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, in a recent report. The authorities, it adds, “have expropriated the city center from its Palestinian residents and destroyed it economically.”
Rima Abu Aisha, a housewife in Hebron, has the misfortune of living in an area near the settlers. When she went into labor, an ambulance could not get the appropriate permissions in time and the baby died, she said.
Even if the Hebron settlement were not illegal in the eyes of much of the world, it is utterly impractical. The financial cost is mind-boggling, and the diplomatic cost is greater.
Perhaps greatest of all is the cost for any hope of a peaceful settlement: the barriers and checkpoints have undermined Palestinian moderates like President Mahmoud Abbas and have empowered Hamas. Polls show that two-thirds of Palestinians now approve of terror attacks against civilians in Israel, up from 40 percent in 2005.
The Palestinians are committing national suicide as well. By turning toward the zealots of Hamas, and toward the short-term thrill of sending rockets into Israel, they are building a tombstone for their state before it is even born.
Americans who haven’t toured the West Bank or Gaza recently may not appreciate how the new security regime of the last few years is suffocating, impoverishing and antagonizing Palestinians.
In the village of Ein Bani Salim, a farmer named Khalifa Danna pointed to his field, separated from his house by a barbed-wire fence that Israel built in 2004. Since then, he has been unable to get to the fields. Mr. Danna shows photos he has taken of Israeli settlers on his land — even using it to throw stones at him.
B’Tselem is giving video cameras to Palestinians to document the attacks and abuses they suffer. Just this month, a Palestinian woman near Hebron used a camera to record a group of four settlers clubbing her family in a field; two settlers were later arrested.
The settlers see the issue very differently, emphasizing the continuing Palestinian attacks on them and noting that the security steps were put in place only in reaction to Palestinian terrorism during the second intifada a half-dozen years ago.
“If people are trying to actively wipe you out and kill your people, then you have to take security measures,” says David Wilder, a spokesman for the settlers in Hebron. “If that antagonizes them, they should stop trying to kill us.”
So the chasm grows wider and peace more distant.
It is here in the Palestinian territories that you see the worst side of Israel: Jewish settlers stealing land from Palestinians (almost one-third of settlement land is actually privately owned by Palestinians); Palestinian women giving birth at checkpoints because Israeli soldiers won’t let them through (four documented cases last year); the diversion of water from Palestinians. (Israelis get almost five times as much water per capita as Palestinians.)
Yet it is also here that you see the very best side of Israel. Israeli human rights groups relentlessly stand up for Palestinians. Israeli women volunteer at checkpoints to help Palestinians through. Israeli courts periodically rule in favor of Palestinians. Israeli scholars have published research that undermines their own nation’s mythologies. Many Israeli journalists have been fair-minded toward Palestinians in a way that Arab journalists have rarely reciprocated.
All told, the most persuasive indictments of Israeli actions come from Israelis themselves. This scrupulous honesty and fairness toward Israel’s historic enemies is a triumph of humanity.
In short, there are many Israels. When American presidential candidates compete this year to be “pro-Israeli,” let’s hope that they clarify that the one they support is not the oppressor that lets settlers steal land and club women but the one that is a paragon of justice, decency, fairness — and peace.
June 23, 2008
In Algeria, a Tug of War for Young Minds
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
ALGIERS — First, Abdel Malek Outas’s teachers taught him to write math equations in Arabic, and embrace Islam and the Arab world. Then they told him to write in Latin letters that are no longer branded unpatriotic, and open his mind to the West.
Malek is 19, and he is confused.
“When we were in middle school we studied only in Arabic,” he said. “When we went to high school, they changed the program, and a lot is in French. Sometimes, we don’t even understand what we are writing.”
The confusion has bled off the pages of his math book and deep into his life. One moment, he is rapping; another, he recounts how he flirted with terrorism, agreeing two years ago to go with a recruiter to kill apostates in the name of jihad.
At a time of religious revival across the Muslim world, Algeria’s youth are in play. The focus of this contest is the schools, where for decades Islamists controlled what children learned, and how they learned, officials and education experts here said.
Now the government is urgently trying to re-engineer Algerian identity, changing the curriculum to wrest momentum from the Islamists, provide its youth with more employable skills, and combat the terrorism it fears schools have inadvertently encouraged.
It appears to be the most ambitious attempt in the region to change a school system to make its students less vulnerable to religious extremism.
But many educators are resisting the changes, and many disenchanted young men are dropping out of schools. It is a tense time in Algiers, where city streets are crowded with police officers and security checkpoints and alive with fears that Algeria is facing a resurgence of Islamic terrorism. From 1991 to 2002, as many as 200,000 Algerians died in fighting between government forces and Islamic terrorists. Now one of the main terrorist groups, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or G.S.P.C., has affiliated with Al Qaeda, rebranding itself as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
There is a sense that this country could still go either way. Young people here in the capital appear extremely observant, filling mosques for the daily prayers, insisting that they have a place to pray in school. The strictest form of Islam, Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, has become the gold standard for the young.
And yet, the young in Algiers also appear far more socially liberal than their peers in places like Egypt and Jordan. Young veiled women walk hand in hand, or sit leg to leg, with young men, public flirtations unthinkable in most other Muslim countries.
June 26, 2008
Books, Not Bombs
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The dirty little secret of the Iraq war isn’t in Baghdad or Basra. Rather, it’s found in the squalid brothels of Damascus and the poorest neighborhoods of East Amman.
Some two million Iraqis have fled their homeland and are now sheltering in run-down neighborhoods in surrounding countries. These are the new Palestinians, the 21st-century Arab diaspora that threatens the region’s stability.
Many youngsters are getting no education, and some girls are pushed into prostitution, particularly in Damascus. Impoverished, angry, disenfranchised, unwanted, these Iraqis are a combustible new Middle Eastern element that no one wants to address or even think about.
American hawks prefer to address the region’s security challenges by devoting billions of dollars to permanent American military bases. A simpler way to fight extremism would be to pay school fees for refugee children to ensure that they at least get an education and don’t become forever marginalized and underemployed.
We broke Iraq, and we have a moral responsibility to those whose lives have been shattered by our actions. Helping them is also in our national interest, for we’ll regret our myopia if we allow young Iraqi refugees to grow up uneducated and unemployable, festering in their societies.
“My husband and I have decided to pull our three children out of school,” said Yussra Shaker, a college-educated English teacher who fled Iraq and went to Jordan when her 15-year-old son was shot in the leg in a kidnapping attempt. Ms. Yussra deeply believes in education, and her eyes welled with tears as she described the decision to withdraw her children because of school fees and beatings by Jordanian students.
“My children are very good students, and the teachers like them,” Ms. Yussra explained, “and so the local children beat them up even more.”
Ms. Yussra’s family is Christian, but most of those fleeing Iraq are Sunni Muslims — and some of them may have shot at Americans or brutalized Shiites in the ongoing sectarian conflict. One Sunni family I visited came from Falluja after their house was blown up, possibly by Americans, and they have decorated their leaking apartment with a huge poster of Saddam Hussein.
This family was composed of two wives of one man (who was back in Iraq, living in a tent) and their five children. The eldest son was a surly young man in his 20s who looked as if his preferred interaction with Americans might have involved an AK-47 in his arms.
Yet the family also has four small children and was nine months behind in its rent and in danger of being thrown out on to the street. I visited them at 2 p.m., and nobody in the house had eaten anything so far that day.
Iraqi refugees don’t get help in part because this is a problem that almost everybody wants to hide. Syria and Jordan worry that if the refugees get assistance, then they will stay indefinitely. The U.S. doesn’t want to talk about a crisis created by our war, and Iraq’s Shiite leaders don’t much care about Sunnis or Christians displaced by Shiite militias.
“It’s among the largest humanitarian crises in the world today,” said Michael Kocher, a refugee expert at the International Rescue Committee, which recently published a report on the crisis. “It’s getting very little attention from the Security Council on down, which we feel is scandalous and also bad strategy.”
It’s easy to blame the surrounding countries, such as Jordan and Syria, for not being more hospitable to Iraqis. But those countries have, however grudgingly, tolerated the influx despite the burden and political risk.
Iraqi refugees are hard to count but may now amount to 8 percent of Jordan’s population of six million. The average Jordanian family, which opposed the war in the first place, is now bearing a cost that may be as much as $1,000 per year for providing for the refugees.
In contrast, last year the United States took in only 1,608 Iraqis. European countries have done better, but they believe that America created the refugee crisis and should take the lead in resolving it.
“Apathy towards the crisis has been the overwhelming response,” Amnesty International said in a report last week.
We have already seen, in the case of Palestinians, how a refugee diaspora can destabilize a region for decades. If Jordan were to collapse in part from such pressures, that would be a catastrophe — and the best way to prevent that isn’t to give it Blackhawk helicopters, but help with school fees and school construction.
If we let the Iraqi refugee crisis drag on — and especially if we allow young refugees to miss an education so that they will never have a future — then we are sentencing ourselves to endure their wrath for decades to come. Educating Iraqis may not be as glamorous as bombing them, but it will do far more good.
July 9, 2008
Qatar, Playing All Sides, Is a Nonstop Mediator
By ROBERT F. WORTH
DOHA, Qatar — In the past month, after Qatari diplomats brokered a landmark peace deal for Lebanon in talks here, this tiny emirate on the Persian Gulf has enjoyed a brief moment of giddy celebrity.
Editorialists praised the Qatari emir as a modern-day Metternich. Huge billboards went up on the road to the Beirut airport, proclaiming, “We all say: Thank you Qatar.” An ice cream shop in downtown Beirut put out a sign offering a Doha Agreement Cone.
But the Qataris did not linger over their diplomatic triumph. They were too busy trying to solve every other conflict in the Middle East.
In the past year alone, the Qatari foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani (widely known as H.B.J.), has flown his jet — repeatedly — everywhere from Morocco to Libya to Yemen, using charm, guile and large amounts of money to mediate disputes, with varying success.
This work has not always earned him gratitude. In an increasingly divided Arab world, the Qataris have fashioned a reputation for themselves as independent-minded arbitrators who will cozy up to anyone — Iran, Israel, Chechen separatists — in pursuit of leverage at the bargaining table.
“We don’t have an agenda, and we don’t keep all our eggs in one basket,” said Hassan al-Ansari, the director of gulf studies at Qatar University.
That is putting it mildly. Qatar has close ties with Iran, yet it also is host to one of the world’s biggest American air bases. It is home both to Israeli officials and to hard-line Islamists who advocate Israel’s destruction; to Al Jazeera, the controversial satellite TV station; and (at least until recently) to Saddam Hussein’s widow. Saudi Arabia is a trusted ally, but so is Saudi Arabia’s nemesis Syria, whose president, Bashar al-Assad, received an Airbus as a personal gift from the Qatari emir this year.
“They really put all the contradictions of the Middle East in one box,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
The Qataris also back their diplomacy with some eclectic investments. Many Americans know about the emir’s gift of $100 million to help Hurricane Katrina victims, but Qatar is also building a $1.5 billion oil refinery in Zimbabwe, a huge residential complex in Sudan and a $350 million tourist project in Syria.
Some call Qatar’s policy deranged. The Qataris prefer to think of it as useful. Blessed with enormous oil and natural gas reserves, Qatar is surrounded by large and ambitious neighbors: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Diplomacy has become a way for Qatar to protect itself and its riches, by forming alliances and by trying to stabilize the region.
“The idea is to try to keep everybody happy — or if we can’t, to keep everybody reasonably unhappy,” said one former Qatari official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss foreign policy. “If that makes the Americans or the Russians a little cross, well, tough luck.”
It does make them cross. American officials have been quietly furious about Qatar’s assistance to Iran and Syria, which includes substantial financial investments as well as votes against sanctions on Iran during Qatar’s tenure on the United Nations Security Council. The Americans are also angry about Qatar’s hefty financial aid to the militant Palestinian group Hamas after it won elections in 2006.
“Their relationship with us has been complex, bordering on one of animosity,” said a high-level State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to give offense, adding that Qatar’s support for Hamas had been a “very vexatious problem.”
The Russians have complaints too. Qatar provided sanctuary to the Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev until two Russian secret agents killed him in 2004, detonating a bomb in his car as he left a mosque in Doha. The agents were captured by Qatari authorities and convicted of murder, but later extradited at Russia’s request.
Various Arab governments have also at times lost patience with Qatar, mainly because Al Jazeera, founded by the Qatari emir, broadcast criticisms of them. Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Qatar over this issue in 2002, and they were not restored until 2007, after Qatar promised to rein in coverage of the kingdom.
Some of Qatar’s recent diplomatic adventures — which include negotiations with rebels in Yemen and Morocco and help in freeing Bulgarian nurses accused of spreading AIDS in Libya — have backfired. In April, Ethiopia broke off relations, saying Qatar’s support for Eritrea had made it “a major source of instability in the Horn of Africa.”
There is also some anger among Arabs about the warm welcomes received by Israeli officials in Doha, where Israel also maintains a trade mission — located, as it happens, not far from a villa owned by Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas.
At times, Qatar’s multifaceted approach to the world has bordered on comedy. In March 2003, Qatar hosted a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference aimed at forestalling the American invasion of Iraq, even as preparations for that invasion were taking place nearby at the American military base. As the final communiqués were being read, military cargo planes could be heard soaring overhead.
Mr. bin Jaber, the foreign minister, who is also prime minister, has been coy about the details of Qatar’s unusual diplomacy. He has given some interviews in which he says Qatar wants “good relations with everyone” and defends his country’s relationship with Israel. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
Qatar’s policy was born in 1995, when the current emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, carried out a bloodless coup against his father, who was on vacation in Switzerland. The new emir instantly began transforming Qatar from a sleepy, inward-turned backwater into a dynamic new state. At home, he began an ambitious remodeling of the emirate’s education policies with the help of his wife, Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser al-Missned. Abroad, the emir and his cousin, Mr. Jaber, began building a bold new way to engage with the world while maintaining their country’s independence.
In some ways it makes perfect sense. A thumb-shaped peninsula just east of Saudi Arabia, Qatar is a natural intermediary precisely because it is so small and harmless, with just 200,000 citizens. (There are about three times as many foreigners in the country.)
“They are not a threat to anyone, and there is no strategic interest behind their diplomacy aside from the moral gain,” said Mr. Alani, the Dubai analyst.
Qatar also has an absolute monarchy and virtually no domestic dissent. It is therefore free, unlike almost every other country in the world, to pursue iconoclastic policies abroad without worrying about how they play at home. The fact that Qatar also has the world’s highest per capita gross domestic product, at more than $80,000, probably helps to keep things quiet.
Unlike some other countries in the region, Qatar has had only one terrorist attack, a suicide bombing in March 2005 in a Doha theater popular with Westerners. One British citizen was killed and a dozen other people were wounded.
Despite occasional diplomatic problems and frequent complaints, Qatar’s policy seems to have worked, catapulting the country to new levels of recognition around the globe.
The Qataris’ greatest success by far was the Lebanon agreement in May. Every major power with an interest in Lebanon had tried to resolve the country’s 18-month political crisis. All of them failed, in part because all were seen as favoring a particular group within Lebanon’s political mosaic. Qatar, with its policy of favoring everyone and no one, was the obvious choice for a mediator when violence worsened in May.
But Qatar did not succeed by default. Several Lebanese politicians who took part in the negotiations praised both the Qatari foreign minister and the emir for their skill.
“They made an interesting and subtle diplomacy,” said Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druse leader.
According to Mr. Jumblatt and others involved in the negotiations, the Qataris started out by letting the various Lebanese parties vent their grievances. Days later, when negotiations seemed at an impasse, the Qatari emir — who had sought and been given permission to speak on behalf of all the major regional powers with an interest in Lebanon — abruptly changed his tone.
He gathered the Lebanese leaders and issued a stark warning: This was the last chance. Everything else had been tried, and if the deal fell through, they might as well begin a civil war at once, because there was no other option.
That warning appears to have worked. It has also had a fringe benefit for the Qataris themselves, whose reputation has grown just a bit brighter.
“In the old days, nobody had really heard of Qatar,” said Abdel Aziz al-Mahmoud, the editor of Al Arab, a newspaper in Doha. “Now, once you say ‘I’m from Qatar,’ it’s, ‘Step right this way.’ ”
July 13, 2008
Drowning in Riches
By KENNETH M. POLLACK
YOU might think that $140 per barrel oil would be good for at least one part of the world, the Middle East. It’s too soon to tell for certain, but the region may well turn out to be the part of the world that suffers the most.
As painful as the current (or coming) oil-driven recession will be for Americans, it does seem to be convincing us to make the sacrifices necessary to diminish our reliance on oil. Over the long term, that could prove a huge boon for our economy, our environment and our national security.
In the Middle East, the situation may be reversed. Right now, the region is experiencing an economic boom, creating the opportunity to address the deep-seated political, economic and social problems that have spawned terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. That’s certainly what the people of the region hope.
The danger is that the way that the rising revenues are being spent will more likely worsen the region’s instability over time.
And that’s a problem, because problems in the Middle East have a bad habit of becoming big problems for the rest of the world. The Middle East isn’t Las Vegas: what happens there doesn’t stay there.
In the 1970s and ’80s, during the first great oil boom, the Middle Eastern producers largely squandered their wealth. Some did set up vast social-welfare networks that improved health care (an important reason for the explosive population growth of the past 30 years). But by and large they sent the money overseas, putting it in foreign real estate and Swiss bank accounts. This did nothing to develop (let alone diversify) their economies, and so when the boom turned to bust in the 1990s, economic problems mushroomed. With them came political discontent, terrorism and rebellion.
This time around, some Middle Eastern oil producers are trying to be smarter. They are investing billions of dollars at home, building industries, repairing roads and factories, and expanding social services. This has led regional elites and many in the international financial community to proclaim a new era in the Middle East — one in which the new oil revenues will diversify the region’s economies, create jobs for everyone, and make the Arab states the world’s economic superpower.
If this sounds unlikely, it’s because it almost certainly is. More oil money is being re-invested in the region, but it is not being spent where it is most needed. As a result, it is having little impact on what really matters, and is even creating problems.
The macroeconomics often do look great: gross domestic product, trade and foreign direct investment are all rising substantially. But unemployment and underemployment have declined very little and inflation is rising quickly. At a microeconomic level, critical problems belie the rosy picture painted by the superficial macro indicators.
In addition, much of the money is being re-invested in projects intended to produce quick profits for investors rather than long-term political and economic gains. A great deal of it is going into non-productive sectors like real estate and oil refining. Many of the factories being built with the new oil revenues will be heavily automated plants that will employ few people.
The industries that create lots of new jobs, like tourism, agriculture and construction, import workers from southern and southeastern Asia rather than hire locals. Similarly, the oil revenues are being used to expand educational systems but, with a few exceptions, not to reform them. Consequently, more students are being educated — and their expectations of a better life whetted — only to find out that they lack the skills to get the jobs they believe their schooling entitles them to. Across the region, youth unemployment averages at least 25 percent, close to double the global average.
Both the rise in energy prices and the flood of oil revenues have stoked inflation. Qatar’s current rate is 14 percent, up from 2.6 percent in the 2002-2004 period. As always, inflation hits the middle and lower classes hardest, and in many Arab states it is destroying the middle class, driving its members to the levels of the poor. That is pushing many into the arms of Islamist extremists seeking to overthrow the regimes.
The rise in global food prices has also hit the Middle East hard. Bread riots have convulsed Egypt and Yemen (not major oil producers, but two of the Arab world’s most populous states and cogs in the regional economy). In Saudi Arabia, fear of riots led the government to threaten to detain or confiscate the businesses of bakers and store owners who sell flour above the government-set subsidized price.
To combat the effects of inflation, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have raised government salaries by 15 percent to 70 percent. In the short run this could help civil servants, but it also further increases inflation and does nothing to deal with the structural economic problems.
The foreign workers whom Arab states increasingly rely on because they tend to be cheaper and more productive than their own citizens are also beginning to show signs of unhappiness with their shoddy treatment. Foreign workers, who make up 80 percent to 95 percent of the private sector work forces in the small Persian Gulf states, have gone on strike in recent months in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to protest inflation, which is eroding their earnings. With foreigners making up roughly 40 percent of the population of the Arabian Peninsula, such labor unrest is ominous.
Meanwhile, the region’s rich have grown obscenely more wealthy through their ability to tap into the windfall oil profits, both legally and illegally. The wealthiest measure their wealth in the billions, while the poorest are so poor that growing numbers cannot even afford to marry.
Money pouring in but not trickling down tends to create a dangerous social imbalance. People hope their country’s oil windfall will alleviate their own economic problems only to find that vast sums are being siphoned off into graft; redirected out of the country to private accounts; spent on luxury items, military hardware or “white elephant” projects; or simply wasted.
It is worth keeping in mind the worst case from the history of the first Middle Eastern oil boom. Under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran tried to use the influx of oil revenues after the 1973 oil-price increases to build new industries, eradicate unemployment, transform the economy and modernize society.
On paper, the shah’s efforts seemed superbly enlightened. As in the Arab states today, the macro indicators of Iranian progress — per capita gross domestic product, education expansion, foreign investment — seemed phenomenal. But the projects were mismanaged and riddled with graft. The royal cronies became fabulously wealthy while the plight of the average Iranian worsened because of protracted unemployment coupled with soaring inflation. Rather than solving Iran’s problems, the oil boom sparked the Iranian revolution.
A few in the region seem to be heeding that lesson. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia continues to demonstrate a keen grasp of what is in his country’s best long-term interests. He has poured money into economic cities that serve as “centers of excellence” to attract the kind of meaningful investment that, over time, could lift the Saudi labor force out of its dangerous doldrums. He is establishing the King Abdullah University, bringing in professors from all over the world to develop a curriculum emphasizing science, technology and innovation. But even here there is a dark lining: Abdullah is 83, and it is doubtful that his successors would continue such projects with the same progressive determination.
How can the region turn things around? For starters, those charged with managing its sovereign wealth funds and private investments need to shift from bankrolling capital-intensive industries that guarantee a high return for the investor to financing labor-intensive industries that could increase employment and develop a more capable work force.
At some level, this means thinking of regional investment as a form of deliberate wealth redistribution, social engineering and charity. It will certainly cut into the bottom lines during the short term, but if those who hold the purse strings are wise enough to do it, it should yield priceless political rewards in the years ahead — political rewards that are probably going to be necessary if they are to avoid being swept out of power by angry mobs.
Avoiding those kind of internal upheavals and eliminating much of the anger and despair upon which the terrorists and extremists prey would be a major boon to a world that is likely to remain addicted to Middle Eastern oil, and therefore vulnerable to its vicissitudes, for decades to come.
Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, is the author of the forthcoming book “A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.”
July 14, 2008
My Plan for Iraq
By BARACK OBAMA
CHICAGO — The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States.
The differences on Iraq in this campaign are deep. Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president. I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Since then, more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is overstretched. Nearly every threat we face — from Afghanistan to Al Qaeda to Iran — has grown.
In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge, our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence. New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda — greatly weakening its effectiveness.
But the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true. The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we’ve spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted. Iraq’s leaders have failed to invest tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues in rebuilding their own country, and they have not reached the political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the surge.
The good news is that Iraq’s leaders want to take responsibility for their country by negotiating a timetable for the removal of American troops. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the American officer in charge of training Iraq’s security forces, estimates that the Iraqi Army and police will be ready to assume responsibility for security in 2009.
Only by redeploying our troops can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis’ taking responsibility for the security and stability of their country. Instead of seizing the moment and encouraging Iraqis to step up, the Bush administration and Senator McCain are refusing to embrace this transition — despite their previous commitments to respect the will of Iraq’s sovereign government. They call any timetable for the removal of American troops “surrender,” even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government.
But this is not a strategy for success — it is a strategy for staying that runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, the American people and the security interests of the United States. That is why, on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war.
As I’ve said many times, we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 — two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, a residual force in Iraq would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces. That would not be a precipitous withdrawal.
In carrying out this strategy, we would inevitably need to make tactical adjustments. As I have often said, I would consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government to ensure that our troops were redeployed safely, and our interests protected. We would move them from secure areas first and volatile areas later. We would pursue a diplomatic offensive with every nation in the region on behalf of Iraq’s stability, and commit $2 billion to a new international effort to support Iraq’s refugees.
Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda has a safe haven. Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been. As Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently pointed out, we won’t have sufficient resources to finish the job in Afghanistan until we reduce our commitment to Iraq.
As president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan. We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there. I would not hold our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.
In this campaign, there are honest differences over Iraq, and we should discuss them with the thoroughness they deserve. Unlike Senator McCain, I would make it absolutely clear that we seek no presence in Iraq similar to our permanent bases in South Korea, and would redeploy our troops out of Iraq and focus on the broader security challenges that we face. But for far too long, those responsible for the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy have ignored useful debate in favor of making false charges about flip-flops and surrender.
It’s not going to work this time. It’s time to end this war.
Barack Obama, a United States senator from Illinois, is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
July 18, 2008
Talks Signal Mideast Shift
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
BEIRUT, Lebanon — After years of escalating tensions and bloodshed, the talk in the Middle East is suddenly about talking. The shift is still relatively subtle, but hints of a new approach in the waning months of the Bush administration are fueling hopes of at least short-term stability for the first time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Much is happening, adding up not to any great diplomatic breakthrough, but to a distinct change in direction. Syria is being welcomed out of isolation by Europe and is holding indirect talks with Israel. Lebanon has formed a new government. Israel has cut deals with Hamas (a cease-fire) and Hezbollah (a prisoner exchange).
On Wednesday, the United States agreed to send a high-ranking diplomat to attend talks with Iran over its nuclear program, and was considering establishing a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time since the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis.
“The overall picture is moving in the direction of cooling the political atmosphere,” said Muhammad al-Rumaihi, a former government adviser in Kuwait and the editor of Awan, an independent daily newspaper there.
Many underlying problems, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are not on the verge of resolution. Afghanistan has recently seen a sharp spike in violence. In the Middle East, optimism can fill the void left by even a temporary lull in violence, like the recent — and still fragile — stability gains in Iraq. Nevertheless, not long ago, the fear was that Lebanon would descend into civil war and that either Israel or the United States, or both, would attack Iran. That seems less likely at the moment.
The United States, Israel and some of their European allies have begun to recognize that their policy of trying to defeat their enemies by isolating and vilifying them has failed.
The West’s opponents — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas — also appear to recognize that the cost of ratcheting up tensions may be too high. Syria and Iran are suffering serious economic problems and could benefit from better relations with the United States and Europe. “We are seeing the outlines of a general thaw in the region,” said Osama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut.
This is not necessarily good news for Washington’s traditional Arab allies, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Leaders there were content to have the United States keep pressure on Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, which threaten their own power.
But it represents a pragmatic recognition among Western nations, analysts said, that those deemed rogues in the West have often generated popular support in the region. Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have repeatedly shown nimble political instincts that have allowed them to exploit democratic openings urged by Washington to enhance their influence.
There is also recognition that the players who can deliver in hot spots like Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza are the same ones that Washington had shunned — Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
“You may have to deal with governments on political issues, but when it comes to security, they have to deal with nonstate actors like Hezbollah and Hamas,” Mr. Safa said.
Simon Karam, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington, said Hezbollah and Hamas also seemed to have followed the path taken by Yasir Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, which was also condemned as a terrorist group before it found its place at the negotiating table.
“I witnessed a similar process with regard to P.L.O., Fatah and Arafat,” Mr. Karam said. “Both Americans and Israelis are more inclined to accept the status quo.”
Not long ago, for example, when Fatah leaders negotiated a cease-fire with Israel, it was Hamas that had to be pressed to abide by the truce. Now Hamas, having negotiated a cease-fire with Israel in Gaza, has tried to rein in groups like Islamic Jihad.
The United States and Israel may have failed to dislodge Hamas from Gaza, weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, stop Iran’s nuclear program or force any pronounced change of behavior in Syria. Yet, each of those players has now seen it is in its interests to deal, too. The process of talks confers on them new diplomatic and political status, but maintaining that status requires some moderation in their policies.
The emerging phase in Middle Eastern dynamics was on display on Wednesday. Emotions ran high when Israel and Hezbollah completed the deal to trade five Lebanese prisoners for two coffins with the remains of the Israeli soldiers captured two years ago. It was a clear Hezbollah victory, yet it was also seen in Lebanon as a deal to reduce the chances of a fresh cross-border conflict, analysts said.
On the same day, the United States announced that it would send William J. Burns, the under secretary for political affairs at the State Department, to attend talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The White House said there would be no negotiating. But that did little to mask the new approach, and was undermined by the talk of establishing limited diplomatic ties with Tehran.
“The presence of the representative is a move towards calm between Iran and the United States, especially within the Iraqi context,” said Mr. Rumaihi, the former Kuwaiti government adviser. “The Iraqi scene is also witnessing a political cooling through the announcement made by the Emirates, Bahrain and finally Kuwait about sending ambassadors to Iraq.”
Events in this part of the world can change quickly. Lebanon could erupt next spring, when parliamentary elections are scheduled. If diplomatic overtures to Iran fail to dissuade it from pursuing what the West fears is a nuclear weapons program, military options could again take center stage.
Some analysts suspect that Israel and the United States may be trying to placate their other enemies in advance of a military strike on Iran that they consider all but inevitable. But these days, for everyone who sees diplomacy as a cover for military action, someone else sees saber rattling as a cover for compromise.
“The Arab side is unable to grasp the speed with which the change is happening,” said Salama Ahmed Salama, a daily columnist in Al Ahram, Egypt’s largest state-controlled newspaper. “Newspapers in Egypt and Saudi are all talking about the coming war between the United States and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other. They can’t understand that a compromise can happen at any time.”
July 21, 2008
The Food Chain
Mideast Facing Choice Between Crops and Water
By ANDREW MARTIN
CAIRO — Global food shortages have placed the Middle East and North Africa in a quandary, as they are forced to choose between growing more crops to feed an expanding population or preserving their already scant supply of water.
For decades nations in this region have drained aquifers, sucked the salt from seawater and diverted the mighty Nile to make the deserts bloom. But those projects were so costly and used so much water that it remained far more practical to import food than to produce it. Today, some countries import 90 percent or more of their staples.
Now, the worldwide food crisis is making many countries in this politically volatile region rethink that math.
The population of the region has more than quadrupled since 1950, to 364 million, and is expected to reach nearly 600 million by 2050. By that time, the amount of fresh water available for each person, already scarce, will be cut in half, and declining resources could inflame political tensions further.
“The countries of the region are caught between the hammer of rising food prices and the anvil of steadily declining water availability per capita,” Alan R. Richards, a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said via e-mail. “There is no simple solution.”
Losing confidence in world markets, these nations are turning anew to expensive schemes to maintain their food supply.
Djibouti is growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses, fed by groundwater and cooled with seawater, in a project that produces what the World Bank economist Ruslan Yemtsov calls “probably the most expensive rice on earth.”
Several oil-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia, have started searching for farmland in fertile but politically unstable countries like Pakistan and Sudan, with the goal of growing crops to be shipped home.
“These countries have the land and the water,” said Hassan S. Sharaf Al Hussaini, an official in Bahrain’s agriculture ministry. “We have the money.”
In Egypt, where a shortage of subsidized bread led to rioting in April, government officials say they are looking into growing wheat on two million acres straddling the border with Sudan.
Economists and development experts say that nutritional self-sufficiency in this part of the world presents challenges that are not easily overcome. Saudi Arabia tapped aquifers to become self-sufficient in wheat production in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the kingdom had become a major exporter. This year, however, the Saudis said they would phase out the program because it used too much water.
“You can bring in money and water and you can make the desert green until either the water runs out or the money,” said Elie Elhadj, a Syrian-born author who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the topic.
Egypt, too, has for decades dreamed of converting huge swaths of desert into lush farmland. The most ambitious of these projects is in Toshka, a Sahara Desert oasis in a scorched lunar landscape of sand and rock outcroppings.
When the Toshka farm was started in 1997, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, compared its ambitions to building the pyramids, involving roughly 500,000 acres of farmland and tens of thousands of residents. But no one has moved there, and only 30,000 acres or so have been planted.
The farm’s manager, Mohamed Nagi Mohamed, says the Sahara is perfect for farming, as long as there is plenty of fertilizer and water. For one thing, the bugs cannot handle the summer heat, so pesticides are not needed.
“You can grow anything on this land,” he said, showing off fields of alfalfa and rows of tomatoes and grapes, shielded from the sun by gauzy white netting. “It’s a very nice project, but it needs a lot of money.”
Mr. Mubarak calls his country’s growing population an “urgent” problem that has exacerbated the food crisis. The population grows about 1.7 percent annually, considerably slower than a generation ago but still fast enough that it is on pace to double by 2050.
Adding 1.3 million Egyptians each year to the 77 million squeezed into an inhabited area roughly the size of Taiwan is a daunting prospect for a country in which 20 percent of citizens already live in poverty.
One recent morning in the Cairo slum of Imbaba, people crammed in front of a weathered green bakery shack for their daily rations of subsidized bread, a pita-like loaf called baladi that sells for less than a penny, so cheap that some Egyptians feed it to their livestock.
The bakery shares the end of a dead-end street with a mountain of garbage, 25 feet by 5 feet, that looks as if it is moving because so many flies swarm over it.
“Most people are really suffering, but what can they do?” asked Mohamed Faruk, a 38-year-old grocery worker who moonlights as a bus inspector, as he carried nine loaves of baladi in newspaper.
Awatef Mahmud, a 53-year-old mother of five who sat on a nearby stoop waiting for her bread to cool, said higher prices had led to dietary changes for her family. “Instead of buying one kilo of meat every week, we buy a half a kilo,” she said. “People used to buy pasta to make for their kids. But now that it’s four and a half pounds,” she said, referring to the currency, “they give them bread instead.”
Economists say that rather than seeking to become self-sufficient with food, countries in this region should grow crops for which they have a competitive advantage, like produce or flowers, which do not require much water and can be exported for top dollar.
For example, Doron Ovits, a confident 39-year-old with sunglasses pushed over his forehead and a deep tan, runs a 150-acre tomato and pepper empire in the Negev Desert of Israel. His plants, grown in greenhouses with elaborate trellises and then exported to Europe, are irrigated with treated sewer water that he says is so pure he has to add minerals back. The water is pumped through drip irrigation lines covered tightly with black plastic to prevent evaporation.
A pumping station outside each greenhouse is equipped with a computer that tracks how much water and fertilizer is used; Mr. Ovits keeps tabs from his desktop computer.
“With drip irrigation, you save money. It’s more precise,” he said. “You can’t run it like a peasant, a farmer. You have to run it like a businessman.”
Israel is as obsessed with water as Mr. Ovits is. It was there, in the 1950s, that an engineer invented modern drip irrigation, which saves water and fertilizer by feeding it, drop by drop, to a plant’s roots. Since then, Israel has become the world’s leader in maximizing agricultural output per drop of water, and many believe that it serves as a viable model for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Already, Tunisia has reinvigorated its agriculture sector by adopting some of the desert farming advances pioneered in Israel, and Egypt’s new desert farms now grow mostly water-sipping plants with drip irrigation.
The Israeli government strictly regulates how much water farmers can use and requires many of them to irrigate with treated sewer water, pumped to farms in purple pipes. It has also begun using a desalination plant to cleanse brackish water for irrigation.
“In the future, another 200 million cubic meters of marginal water are to be recycled, in addition to promoting the establishment of desalination plants,” Shalom Simhon, Israel’s agriculture minister, wrote via e-mail.
Still, four years of drought have created what Mr. Simhon calls “a deep water crisis,” forcing the country to cut farmers’ quotas.
Egypt, at least, has the Nile. Under a 1959 treaty, the country is entitled to a disproportionate share of the river’s water, a point that rankles some of its neighbors. It has built canals to bring Nile water to the Sinai Desert, to desert lands between Cairo and Alexandria and to the vast emptiness of Toshka.
For Saad Nassar, a top adviser in Egypt’s ministry of agriculture and land reclamation, the country has little choice but to try to make the desert bloom, even in unlikely places like Toshka, which it says will eventually succeed: all of Egypt’s farms and population are now crowded onto just 4 percent of its land.
“We don’t have the luxury of choosing this or that,” he said. “We have to work on every acre that is cultivatable.”
Egypt is establishing an estimated 200,000 acres of farmland in the desert each year, even as it loses 60,000 acres of its best farmland to urbanization, said Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo. “It’s sand,” he said, referring to the reclaimed desert land. “It’s not the world’s most fertile soil.”
As Cairo’s population has grown — to an estimated 12 million today — hastily constructed apartment buildings have sprouted among the fields. “They sow apartment buildings instead of wheat,” said Gideon Kruseman, a Dutch agriculture economist working with the government to improve farming there.
For more than 5,000 years, farmers have worked the land along the Nile and in the Nile Delta, the lotus-shaped plain north of Cairo where centuries of accumulated silt have produced a deep, rich layer of topsoil. They have endured drought, flood, locust and pestilence.
Now the scourge is development. For farmers like Magdy Abdel-Rahman, the new buildings not only ruin the rural tranquillity of his ancient fields, with the constant hammering and commotion, but they also reduce his yields.
“The shade is not good for the plants,” said Mr. Abdel-Rahman, who farms corn and clover on a half-acre lot 20 miles from downtown Cairo.
Five miles farther out, Talaat Mohamed’s three acres of sweet potatoes are squeezed between four-, five- and seven-story apartment buildings like a jigsaw puzzle. A building recently went up a dozen feet from his field, with steel bars jutting from the foundation and piles of gravel alongside.
Mr. Mohamed, 60, routinely turns down eager land speculators because, he says, he loves working outdoors. But he complains about all the time spent removing urban detritus from his field, which on this day included a maroon brassiere, soda cans, food wrappers, wads of indistinguishable plastic, a Signal toothpaste box and a black flip-flop.
“The Egyptians invented farming,” he said, peering despairingly at a landscape of electric wires and buildings, traffic and trash. “And this is what it has become.”
July 23, 2008
All Hail ‘McBama’
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
John McCain needs to wake up and smell the Arabic coffee.
I know this is not an easy time for him. When you have been beaten up for four years because of your support for the Iraq war, and then you get something big right — your support for the surge — you want to be able to savor that for a while. You want to make your rightness on that issue the issue of this election.
McCain was right about the surge. It has helped to stabilize Iraq and create a better chance there for political reconciliation. But Iraq has always been a story full of surprises. And one of the most important political surprises is how quickly the surge has made Iraq safe for Barack Obama’s foreign policy — and for the election policy of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
Do not believe for a second that there was any mistranslation when Maliki blurted out to the German magazine Der Spiegel recently that Obama’s withdrawal timetable for U.S. combat troops from Iraq — 16 months after the next U.S. president is sworn in — “could be suitable.” Maliki was quite specific: “Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”
He was speaking a deep truth: the modicum of stability produced by the surge has changed the political dynamics of the Iraq story — not irreversibly yet, not as much as necessary yet, but enough to have important ramifications. U.S. officials in Iraq tell me that the success of the Sunni tribes in beating back Al Qaeda in their regions and the success of the mainstream Shiites in beating back Moktada al-Sadr’s militia and other pro-Iranian elements in Baghdad and Basra has Iraqis looking at themselves differently and therefore at America’s presence in Iraq differently.
More and more mainstream Iraqi politicians believe they are able to run their own affairs, and fewer and fewer mainstream Americans believe we are able to devote another presidency to Iraq.
“Americans are looking forward to the post-Iraq phase of U.S. politics, and Iraqis are now looking forward to the post-American phase of Iraqi politics,” said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins University. That is the reality of post-surge Iraq and post-subprime America — and any leader in either country who ignores that reality does so at his or her peril.
Forget about our narrative on this war — how we “liberated Iraq.” Think about the Iraqi narrative. No one likes to be liberated or occupied by someone else. It is humiliating. France still hasn’t gotten over the fact that it had to be liberated by the Allies. What is important is how, with the help of the surge, Iraqis have finally started to liberate themselves — the Sunnis from their extremists and the Shiites from their extremists. The question in Iraq is: Can these parallel liberation movements actually merge into a single national liberation/unity movement? I don’t know.
But I do know this: While we would like an Iraqi national movement — binding Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis — to coalesce, we don’t want it coalescing in opposition to us. Running against the continued U.S. presence in Iraq will be a very tempting campaign theme for Iraqi politicians — in both the upcoming Iraqi provincial and parliamentary elections — if Iraq continues to stabilize.
So Prime Minister Maliki was actually sending us two important messages via Der Spiegel: He was telling us that to the extent that the Iraqi Army and state continue to get on their feet, the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq is going to become an issue in Iraqi politics and no politician — particularly Maliki — is going to let himself be outdone by rivals in calling for the Americans to go. And he was also telling us to remember something: Iraq is an Arab country. It is the heart of the Arab world. It is not Germany. It is not Japan. To the extent that it comes together as a country, it will not tolerate a prolonged, highly visible U.S. military presence.
So McCain, who called the surge right, may get little credit, because the story now is about post-surge Iraq. McCain’s post-surge view — which also may be right — is that Iraqis still do not have the military force capable of protecting their homeland and need more U.S. help in nation-building. Meanwhile, Obama, who was not a surge supporter and simply stuck to his 16-month withdrawal timetable, finds himself — by luck or smarts — in perfect harmony with the post-surge mood in Iraq. His timetable may be too short, but Obama can worry about that later.
All of which suggests that the right position on Iraq today is probably “McBama” — stick to a clear withdrawal timetable because post-surge Iraqi and American politics will tolerate nothing else — but leave yourself some wiggle room if things keep getting better, but not exactly on schedule. Always remember: the more Iraq is seen as succeeding on its own, without U.S. scaffolding, the more positive impact it will have on the neighborhood.
August 2, 2008
As Tensions Rise for Egypt’s Christians, Officials Call Clashes Secular
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — A monastery was ransacked in January. In May, monks there were kidnapped, whipped and beaten and ordered to spit on the cross. Christian-owned jewelry stores were robbed over the summer. The rash of violence was so bad that one prominent Egyptian writer worried it had become “open season” on the nation’s Christians.
Does Egypt face a sectarian problem?
Not according to its security officials, who insist that each dispute represents a “singular incident” tied to something other than faith. In the case of the monastery and the monks, officials said the conflict was essentially a land dispute between the church and local residents.
“Every incident has to be seen within its proper framework; you study an incident as an incident,” said an Interior Ministry spokesman who grew furious at the suggestion that Egyptians were in conflict because of their differing faiths. It is customary for security officials not to have their names revealed publicly.
“An incident is an incident, and a crime is a crime,” he said.
But the Egyptian security apparatus is increasingly alone in its insistence.
As more and more conflicts pile up and as the tensions of daily life increase, many people in Egypt and around the region said the problem of sectarian clashes had become more urgent. They said that ordinary conflicts had become more bitterly sectarian as religious identity had become more prominent among Muslims and Christians alike.
“It is as if there is a struggle — each against the other — and it creates a sectarian atmosphere,” said Gamal Assaad, a former member of Parliament who is a Coptic intellectual and a writer. “This tense atmosphere makes people ready to explode at any point if they are subjected to any amount of instigation or incitement.”
Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with about 80 million people. About 10 percent are Coptic Christian.
For most of Egypt’s Coptics, the major flare-ups — the attack on the Abu Fana Monastery or riots in 2005 in Alexandria — are faraway episodes that serve only to confirm a growing alienation from larger society. For most, the tension is more personal, a fear that a son or daughter will fall in love with a Muslim or of being derided as “coftes,” which means “fifth column.”
“We keep to ourselves,” said Kamel Nadi, 24, a Coptic who runs a small shop in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo. “Muslims can’t say it, but it’s clear they don’t accept us. Here no one can speak the truth on this issue, so everybody’s feelings are kept inside.”
Christian Arabs have increasingly complained of being marginalized in the Middle East, with large numbers leaving over the decades. Now it appears that pressure on these communities is spiking, whether in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or the West Bank. In each, Christians speak of specific national behavior that has made them feel less welcome. While governments are generally regarded as more accommodating than they used to be, the overall environment is seen as less hospitable.
“Yes, we are feeling marginalized,” said Dr. Audeh Quawas, a surgeon in Amman, Jordan, who serves on the central committee of the World Council of Churches, a Geneva-based group. He rattled off a list of grievances, from the refusal of the state to acknowledge Easter as a national holiday to the insistence that Christians abide by Islamic law regarding inheritance.
For Egypt, sectarian tensions are complicated because they are connected to many other challenges burdening the nation, including crushing inflation and high unemployment among the young.
Many Egyptians around Cairo and in the south said that conflicts often arose over everyday matters — a dispute between farmers, an argument between students — but that once sparked, they deteriorated into sectarian name-calling, sometimes worse. That is partly because religious identity is paramount now, more important than a common citizenship, Mr. Assaad said.
“When something happens, it always comes back to Muslim and Christian,” said Tharwat Taki Faris, 45, a subsistence farmer in Mansafees, a village of about 33,000 people five hours south of Cairo.
The village is poor, its unpaved and uneven roads filled with barefoot children in tattered clothing. There are two churches, each guarded by men with shotguns. There are also two mosques, where security men are posted outside on Fridays, just in case the faithful become overwrought during prayer, people here said.
It was midday, and villagers back from working their small plots of land began to gather to discuss relations with their Muslim neighbors. Any conflict between Muslim and Christian is a “singular incident,” they all said, using the same phrase. Villagers said that the government was adamant about keeping things “singular,” so whenever a Muslim and a Christian had a problem, they knew to go to the police before the matter escalated.
“If someone can’t resolve it, they go to the police station,” said John Riyad, 23. “Trust me, the police will make him resolve it.”
The crowd quickly swelled as men and women and children joined the conversation, which almost imperceptibly began to shift toward grievances: There are no Christian officers in the police force. The villagers cannot get permission to build another church. There are no high-ranking Christian officials in their governate. And of course, if their daughters married Muslims, they would kill them.
Then, just as suddenly, the crowd thinned. The reason: state security was on the way. A village informant had already reported the conversation.
“The police know you are here now,” said Mr. Taki Faris, before he, too, made himself scarce. “They are very anxious these days.”
Egypt is an authoritarian state held in line by a vast internal security force, about twice the size of the army. Certain topics are out of bounds. People know it is taboo to say openly that a sectarian problem exists. So they are cautious.
“We feel pressure, maybe not all the time, but we do,” said Ashraf Halim, 45, a grocery store owner in the Shubra neighborhood in Cairo. “We have liberty of speech, and religion, but it’s as if somebody was telling us at the same time, ‘Don’t speak and don’t practice your religion.’ ”
Mr. Halim’s grocery is next to a hair salon with the word “Allah” atop the storefront in large Arabic letters. He responds in his own small way, with a picture of St. George on his dairy cooler.
“Me, I try to keep a certain distance from Muslims,” said Mr. Halim. “We have simple relations: I give you this, you give me this. That’s it. They don’t want more than that, either.”
The underlying tension in Egypt flares periodically around the country. There were riots when word spread of a Coptic play supposedly denigrating the Prophet Muhammad and again over plans to expand a church. The state treated each case as a security problem.
But the violence at the ancient Abu Fana Monastery in May elevated events to a new level. In a follow-up report issued last month, the National Council for Human Rights described the atmosphere in Egypt as an “overcharged sectarian environment” and chided the state, saying it “turns a blind eye to such incidents” and was “only content to send security forces after clashes catch fire.”
Frustrated by the official posture of denial, a small group of Egyptian bloggers decided in January 2007 to try to bring Muslims and Christians together to talk. The group, which calls itself Together Before God, began with about 20 members of both faiths.
They posted an Internet survey to gauge Muslims’ and Christians’ ideas about each other and received about 5,000 responses. Two-thirds were from Muslims, the rest from Christians.
The survey showed profound misunderstanding on both sides, said Sherif Abdel Aziz, 36, a co-founder of the group. Some Muslims declared that Coptic priests wore black to mourn the Arab invasion of Egypt in the seventh century. Some Christians believed that the Koran ordered Muslims to kill all Christians.
Did the group discover a sectarian problem? Absolutely, and it was compounded by the lack of frank public discussion, Mr. Abdel Aziz said.
“The religious discourse has to change from both sides because it incites hatred, even if it does so indirectly, increasing fanaticism from both sides,” Mr. Abdel Aziz said.
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo and Upper Egypt, and Nadim Audi from Cairo.
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