Seven Questions for Ammar Basha
Ammar Basha is a Yemeni filmmaker. His documentary films include Breaking the Silence, about the discrimination faced by working women of African descent in Yemen, and a series called Days in the Heart of the Revolution, about the 2011 Yemeni uprising. Breaking the Silence took second prize at the Women Voices Now film festival in Los Angeles in 2010. The latter series was screened at the International Yemeni Film and Arts Festival in Berkeley, Washington, London and Sanaa. Basha also makes feature films. His short The Last Hour (for which he was also sound designer) won awards from Zayid University in Abu Dhabi and at the Tehran International Short Film Festival. He also runs the YouTube channel “Thawrat Shabab,” where the Days series can be found.
What is your background?
I am one of the luckiest filmmakers in Yemen, being a graduate of the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, which was founded by King ‘Abdallah of Jordan and Steven Spielberg himself, with professors from the University of Southern California. At this institute in ‘Aqaba, my eyes were opened to a larger world of filmmaking, cinematic arts and industry. With that came big dreams, like starting a film industry here in Yemen.
I admit that I am living two lives. One is in that dream of entering world cinema; the other is the life of the activist, in the midst of important historical events, who is good only with a camera. I believe my films are my contribution as a Yemeni to the revolution. It feels like a duty.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the documentary format in conveying “the truth” about major historical events?
Can showing 10 percent of the truth be “the truth”? I realize that I am hiding and cutting footage, sometimes of shocking stories and facts, more than I am showing or publishing. After growing in understanding the complexity of the changes in the Yemeni regime, I believe I am better able to help the poor, broken citizens who appear in front of my camera. I need to be quiet with the films’ message. Rather than pointing fingers at villains and corrupt persons, which seems to be the style of many television networks, I seek to call on what is left of the goodness in people to help those in need.
For me, it is like recording these moments or events will tell parts of “the truth” to a new generation looking back many years from now. My last film in the series, “Sixth Day,” was completed three months ago. It takes me four to six months to recover from the trauma each film causes me. I am hoping to keep producing these shorts, though. Maybe if each film contains 10 percent of “the truth,” a dozen of them could be the truth. Maybe.
You’ve also worked on animated and live-action feature films. Is such entertainment also a way of “giving voice” or conveying humanitarian “truth”?
Fiction is more challenging than the documentary format. But it also gives you more control over how you set up and tell a story. That means you have power. Only ethics and a small budget can stop the fictionalized format from becoming a destructive tool. And when it comes to “the truth,” again the question of how much truth you are willing to show pops up. There is more to fiction than showing the truth, though, because you can paint the future, share a few better ideas for building a civilized world. Fiction can be a painkiller for people who are running out of imagination or hope.
There must be many challenges to cinematography in Yemen these days. Can you explain some of the challenges involved in making and releasing even short films?
You mean the challenges involved in producing a film? Because running around with a handheld D60 Canon camera shooting with a stupid 18 to 200mm lens -- I wouldn’t call that cinematography, if you know what I mean.
There is a long list of obstacles in front of making films in Yemen, but the real challenge is the eternal fight between institutionalized media organizations and independent filmmakers. Since the start of the revolution in Yemen, almost ten new TV channels have opened shop. Each is owned by a different political party, which uses its channel to outrage public opinion about the actions of another party or key international players. They have the money and power to do whatever they please.
Independent filmmakers, meanwhile, face many difficulties. Unless they are hired for jobs by NGOs, independents are by themselves in a society that does not understand the value of filmmaking and what it can do. It is very important that we have more balance between the contenders. New laws, professional training, public awareness campaigns, planning and serious fundraising are all needed to help make meaningful films. But remaining independent is a challenge in and of itself.
For example, whenever I start to create a Day in the Heart of the Revolution short, in which I try show the concerns of ordinary Yemenis (the thing that the institutionalized media is “ashamed” to broadcast), it is a challenge to raise funds, to convince another filmmaker to help for free, and to find honest, independent local guides (when I visit different cities) who don’t bring partisan agendas to the table and don’t falsify information. It takes a mix of focus and luck.
You’ve taken your camera from Change Square in Sanaa at the height of the 2011 peaceful youth uprising to several relatively remote, impoverished communities. How do you choose the main characters through which your films tell their story?
Days in the Heart of the Revolution is a special case. I confess that I have broken all the laws of filmmaking in making this series. I decided to film “revolutionary” squares in different cities. In the squares, people frequently approached me wanting to tell their stories -- we hadn’t heard or known about the stories in advance. The time for editing the footage is what filmmakers call “killing a baby,” because we often have to cut scenes that are very dear to us.
But before all that, I decide which part of Yemen needs discovering, then make phone calls to get locals to guide me to the places they think I should see. It is mostly me who does the work and prays to God that it will go well. And with a little help and contributions from family and friends these films come to life. My next goal for the series is “Seventh Day in the Heart of the Revolution: Black Gold,” which will be shot in Hadramawt, an oil-producing region in the far southeast of Yemen. More than a thousand days have passed since the revolution started in 2011. With my basic resources I have only been able to capture six of them.
How do fishermen, farmers and others beyond the main protest venues react to your questions and the camera? Do they relate completely to the issues raised by youth protesters in cities?
Some of them are eager to speak -- even to shout out loud. Others are tired and have given up speaking about their problems in front of the camera. They have stood in front of many cameras, and nothing has changed in their lives. Some people, in fact, live in fear of the camera because unprofessional TV networks exposed them to their enemies or to those in power who can harm them. But once they learn the nature of my films they let go of their fear. After making six films, in fact, I can state with confidence that the revolution should have started long ago, even if all that ordinary people seek is a normal, peaceful life. The youth revolution was the spark that will grow to end the darkness in Yemen.
In 2014 Yemeni politics are in a state of flux. The dramatic “days of revolution” seem like a long time ago. Is there room for activist filmmaking now? How can video convey a sense of unfolding events that lack a central stage like Change Square?
The kids -- the 75 percent of the protesters under the age of 25 -- all knew one thing at the start of the revolution. All were driven by anger and frustration over corruption and the absence of justice. The young generation camped in the squares for over two years, and many souls were killed. They kicked out ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, and then they went home, leaving the same parties in control of Yemen’s future. But I don’t think it is over yet. The new generation is too smart to fall for the tricks of the political parties and the international players. And they learn very quickly. The old people in power will run out of tricks sooner or later. The youth will have grown older, and if nothing has changed or improved, there you go, another revolution in the coming ten years. So yes, there is a place for activist filmmakers to play an important role, to keep making films that will serve as a guide to what went wrong and what was important to focus on. I am betting on that.
Jordan, Morocco and an Expanded GCC
A recent report suggests that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may be looking to expand…again. The report says that, during a March summit, the group of six Arab petro-princedoms extended invitations to both Jordan and Morocco to join a pan-monarchical military alliance. And there is a chance, at least, that the GCC states would include a nominal republic, Egypt, in a broader regional military and defense pact (although it is not clear if Jordan, Morocco and Egypt would need to join the GCC or the military bloc would be a separate entity).
This report comes at a time when the GCC is attempting to move beyond being a loose economic and political grouping to form its own joint military command. The GCC monarchies may feel that they have survived the first wave of the Arab uprisings, but clearly feelings of regime insecurity remain. Several issues underlie these feelings, but among them are external and internal security threats, or at least the perception thereof. Many GCC states see the rising power of Iran as a direct threat, and they point further to Iranian influence in an axis, of sorts, extending from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The GCC monarchies are also concerned with domestic challenges, including that said to emanate from the Society of Muslim Brothers. Yet these overarching concerns, often represented as pan-GCC threats, seem most deeply rooted in one country, Saudi Arabia.
So will the GCC expand in membership, and also deepen military cooperation, to meet these threats real and perceived? Even without expanding to eight or nine states, the original six have had plenty of trouble maintaining cordial relations among themselves, much less working together in a joint military command structure. Both Oman and Qatar have long pursued foreign policies distinctly independent of the GCC, and especially of Saudi Arabia, including warmer relations with Iran, even as Saudi Arabia seems determined to forge an anti-Iranian (and, in sectarian terms, anti-Shi‘i) coalition.
In March, three GCC states -- Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates -- withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, charging that Qatar was undermining Gulf security through its media (read, Al Jazeera) and support for Islamist movements (read, the Muslim Brothers). Qatar, however, insists that its policies are sovereign, and not to be determined by the collective wisdom of GCC regimes. The same three states -- Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE -- followed the lead of Egypt and outlawed the Muslim Brothers. So far, however, Kuwait has not followed suit. Nor has GCC aspirant Jordan, which has a very large domestic Islamist movement, rooted in large part in the Brothers. (In addition, Jordan has a rising movement of Islamic centrists or Wasatiyya activists, salafis and independent Islamists.)
Yet the GCC remains on course to establish a joint military command, to pursue more collective defense policies, and to start receiving US arms and materiel as a group. This step would be new for the United States, too: providing military aid and selling arms not just to individual states, but also to the GCC as a bloc. So will this bloc not only hold together, but expand?
The GCC has issued similar invitations before. At the outset of the regional turmoil in 2011, the GCC invited Jordan and Morocco to join the organization, and extended further economic aid to help their fellow Arab and Sunni Muslim monarchies through the challenges of the new era. States like Qatar seemed lukewarm to the idea, at best, and indeed it seems that the initial invitation, as is true of so many GCC initiatives, really came from Saudi Arabia. But once the monarchies seemed more stable, and had at least survived the first wave of change, the GCC noticeably cooled on its own offer. Meanwhile, the regime in Morocco seemed marginally interested, at best, whereas the Hashemite regime in Jordan pursued the offer with enthusiasm.
Around the region and beyond, critics see the GCC as a country club of oil sheikhs, and an expanded GCC might seem like little more than a Sunni Arab monarchy mutual aid society. But Jordan, unlike Morocco, borders Saudi Arabia. Jordan is also deeply dependent on external aid to keep the economy afloat. GCC membership offers potentially extensive aid and more: trade, investment and oil, perhaps at concessionary prices like those the kingdom enjoyed from neighboring Iraq during the sanctions years. And what could Jordan offer in return? Jordan’s comparative advantage is security support. It is no military juggernaut, to be sure. But Jordan already has extensive military, police and intelligence ties to the GCC states and others across the region. GCC membership, the Jordanians argue, would simply make official a relationship that is already there. So the relationship is perhaps not as one-sided as it might otherwise appear.
Yet questions remain. If Jordan and Morocco were to join an expanded GCC, even without the addition of Egypt, would this imply pressure on the new states to ban the Muslim Brothers? Neither has done so, and while the opposition in both countries argues that regime-initiated reforms have been superficial only, Islamist movements remain legal and active. In Jordan in particular, the Muslim Brothers are a group as old as the state itself. And while the Brothers are part of the opposition to the regime, they remain part of the legal opposition and hence part of the Jordanian public sphere.
The GCC move seems to echo a still earlier initiative, in 1991, heralded at the time as the “Damascus Declaration” alliance. After the 1990-1991 Gulf war, a “6+2” arrangement was formed at a summit in the Syrian capital, bringing the GCC states together with Egypt and Syria. That declaration, however, despite much fanfare, never amounted to more than a piece of paper. It is clear that the GCC amounts to more than that. It is not at all clear, however, that the GCC can or will make the shift to a genuine military alliance, or that it will expand beyond the original six members, and beyond the Gulf itself.
Death and Taxes
Last year 27 cents of every income tax dollar in the United States went to the military. Even so, that proportion has not generated enough revenue to pay for the military’s operations over the last 13 years, which, in a historic departure, have been funded largely by borrowing.
According to data compiled by the National Priorities Project, US taxpayers spend $10.54 million every hour to pay for the “overseas contingency operations” -- military-speak for undeclared wars -- in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 96 percent of this figure can be attributed to Afghanistan alone. And these mind-boggling amounts do not include the costs of unofficial undeclared wars, such as the drone strike campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The official cost calculations also ignore the ripple effect of 13 years of war on spending by the military, the intelligence services and the Department of Homeland Security. Projections based on federal appropriations before September 2001 suggest that the base budget of the Department of Defense -- the operating costs aside from war -- has ballooned by over $700 billion since the declaration of the war on terror.
Even if the wars were to end tomorrow, the cost of caring for veterans, a segment of discretionary spending separate from other military appropriations, will not peak until at least 30 years from now. In 2010, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the cost of care for veterans of current wars would total $40 billion by 2020, at the low end. The CBO’s cost scenario assumed that the US would reduce the number of troops deployed for war to 30,000 by 2013. More than 39,000 troops are still stationed in southwest Asia and Korea, and it is still unclear whether (or how many) troops will leave Afghanistan before the end of the year. There are already more than 600,000 permanently disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns who receive medical care and disability payments.
Tallying the costs of war for US taxpayers -- even tracing the effects of war and deficit spending on mortgage interest rates, lost investment in infrastructure and future interest payments -- offers only a partial and hazy view of the larger picture. The human cost for veterans and their families; for the millions of Afghans and Iraqis either displaced or trying to rebuild their broken, poisoned countries; for a world subject to an ever-expanding regime of overt and covert surveillance -- these costs resist being fit onto a balance sheet.
Accounting for war is a near impossible task. Much more difficult, it seems, than paying for it.
Syria's Drought and the Rise of a War Economy
The grinding war in Syria brings new horrors with every passing week. The death toll and the number of displaced people continue to soar, as more areas of the country are reduced to rubble. This month, two additional issues with dire long-term consequences have been gaining attention: the possible drought affecting the northwest and the entrenchment of a war economy.
The World Food Programme (WFP) warns that this year’s rainfall is less than half the annual average. The resulting drought -- particularly in the northwest of the country -- could place about 2.3 million Syrians in need of emergency food aid. That number would be in addition to the 4.2 million already dependent on aid, for a total of 6.5 million.
Syria already experienced a severe drought from 2006 to 2010, leading some to make a link between climate change, water shortages, and the uprisings there and elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet others, such as Francesca de Châtel, argue that these discussions distract from the long-term mismanagement and overexploitation of the region’s water resources, particularly since the 1990s.
Either way, the food security policy that was a hallmark of the Syrian regime is unlikely to survive the war. After being the only country in the region that was self-sufficient in food production, the state is now a net importer of wheat. Before the uprising Syria had a “strategic reserve” of wheat estimated at around 3.5 million tons, roughly equivalent to one year’s consumption, and mostly stored in areas now outside regime control. In 2013, the government is reported to have imported about 2.4 million tons of wheat. These changes imply a bleak future for the Syrian countryside and suggest that the millions who have been displaced from the rural areas may never return there.
The entrenchment of the war economy, including competition over smuggled goods and black markets, control over natural energy resources (such as oil fields in the northeast) and foreign funding flows, has been equally devastating. As journalist Jihad Yazigi argues in a policy brief for the European Council for Foreign Relations, the collapse of public regulation and the emergence of new local actors with a material stake in continuing the conflict will only further delay a meaningful political settlement. Interestingly, while the rise of this warlordism exists mainly within rebel groups, it also occurs in regime-controlled areas.
Both the Syrian government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) are attempting to retain and project their economic authority over areas nominally under their control, albeit with differing results. In most areas under regime control, basic goods are available and the government’s institutions have shown remarkable resilience. Even state employees in many areas outside government control receive their salaries (albeit greatly devalued as a result of currency depreciation). No doubt the regime has received external financial support and is likely to have depleted its foreign exchange reserves or incurred large debts, but it has also proactively slashed investment spending and raised tariffs on some luxury goods. So far it has managed the economic crisis skillfully, as demonstrated by its ability to secure the large wheat imports mentioned earlier. For its part, the SNC’s recent efforts include printing half a million schoolbooks and declaring all fired Syrian state workers as employees in the Interim Syrian Government. Its actual presence and authority in areas outside Syrian government control is almost non-existent, however, and remains largely an aspiration rather than a reality -- especially as local groups assert more control.
Of course, for the many millions of displaced Syrians completely dependent on relief, the scorecard of who “controls” which area no longer matters. Their actions are directed toward ensuring their survival and that of their families, and most of their thoughts are occupied by the question of when, if ever, their nightmare will end.
Three Updates on Palestinian Political Prisoners
Update 1 on prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the halls of the State Department: Last week, the United States considered releasing Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of espionage on behalf of Israel, in exchange for Israel doing, as political analyst Yousef Munayyer put it, “several things it already should have done long ago,” including releasing both short- and long-term Palestinian prisoners. The media attention to the Pollard case is just another distraction from the wider issue of Palestinian political prisoners, whose incarceration affects thousands of families every day.
Update 2 on prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the occupied Palestinian territories: Last week, Israel reneged on its commitment to release the remaining 26 Palestinian political prisoners who have been in Israeli jails since before the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.
Update 3 on prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem, the occupied Palestinian territories, as reported from Aida: On the afternoon of March 23, the Israeli army detained seven members of the Abu ‘Akr family for periods between a few hours and a day and a half in order to interrogate them about the moderate injury of an Israeli soldier during the course of protests against the separation wall that surrounds the camp. On the night of March 24, Israeli special forces -- called musta‘arabin -- chased, beat and arrested Mu‘tasim al-Sarifi, 21. Moments after his arrest, soldiers told al-Sarifi’s mother that he might have stolen concrete being used to repair damage done by protesters to the separation wall. On March 26, Israeli soldiers arrested Muhammad al-Azraq, 27, a local elected leader of the Fatah party, from his home at five o’clock in the morning and sent him to the notorious al-Jalama interrogation center for an initial period of 15 days. On March 29, the Abu Surour family had its hopes dashed again that Nasir and Mahmoud Abu Surour would be released after over two decades in Israeli prisons. (The men are two of the 26 who were supposed to be let go as part of Israel’s commitment prior to the rumored Pollard deal.) On the afternoon of April 1, Israeli soldiers arrested ‘Abdallah Hammad, 14, as he was looking on at demonstrations in protest of the separation wall. That night, soldiers also detained his father until two o’clock in the morning at the military base adjacent to the refugee camp.
As of January 31, the human rights organization B’Tselem counted a total of 4,881 Palestinians in Israeli prison facilities, of whom 63 percent (3,095) are serving sentences. One hundred seventy-five of the 4,881 are detained without charge as administrative detainees under a holdover provision from a British colonial law, and most of the remaining prisoners are in custody awaiting trial. Twenty of the prisoners are between the ages of 14 and 16, and another 163 are between the ages of 16 and 18. Each year, about 700 children under the age of 18 are prosecuted through Israeli courts after being arrested, interrogated and detained. According to the prisoners’ rights organization Addameer, youth are often arrested first in mass arrest campaigns because their arrest can pressure leaders to back away from social mobilization and because children and youth can be more easily recruited as informers for the Israeli military.
Israel’s system of political imprisonment criminalizes Palestinian political action on several scales. In 2009, one third of all Palestinian legislators were held in Israeli detention. As of December 1, 2013, 14 were still in prison, including ten being held without charge as administrative detainees. A wide range of civic activities is criminalized by Israeli military Order 101, including any assembly, procession or publication about “a political matter or one liable to be interpreted as political.” In 2011, Addameer documented cases of at least 295 human rights defenders in Israeli custody for protesting against the wall and land annexations. In Aida refugee camp, over 60 activists have been arrested since the beginning of 2013, almost all in relation to protests against the wall.
Israel’s system of political imprisonment criminalizes everyday life, as well. A total of 1,415 (29 percent) of Palestinians in Israeli prisons today lost their (already limited) freedom because they violated Israel’s permit restrictions by being in Israel illegally. Almost all of these people were attempting only to escape high unemployment in the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas by working in Israel. The arrest or detention of 11 people from Aida refugee camp over a ten-day period meant that approximately one out of every 250 boys and men in the camp experienced arrest in this short period of time. This ratio does not account for the dozens already in prison.
Conditions of Israeli arrest and imprisonment violate international law. Torture and ill treatment are widespread. Israel uses long-term sleep deprivation, binding in stress positions, beatings, exposure to extreme heat and cold, detention in infested and dirty cells, and solitary confinement (during interrogation, as punishment and as a method of long-term separation). According to Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be absolutely prohibited because it causes lasting mental damage. Due process is severely compromised for Palestinian prisoners. Interrogation, the site of much but not all of the torture and ill treatment, can go on for up to 90 days, and prisoners can be denied visits from lawyers for up to 60 days. Of the Palestinians charged under Israeli military law, more than 99 percent are convicted.
In Aida, as in dozens of other Palestinian communities, the suffering from political imprisonment continues. Fourteen-year-old ‘Abdallah Hammad turned 15 in prison and then he was released after three days, having paid a 1,000 shekel ($287) fine. He has a court date in July. He can only hope that none of his friends are forced into making confessions against him in the meantime, whether or not these confessions are true. Mu‘tasim al-Sarifi was released after six days with a 500 shekel fine and his own July court date, but he was unable to return to his work in a bakery because he is still tending to injuries to his head, eye, spine and legs. Muhammad al-Azraq is still in interrogation, and his loved ones cannot expect word either on his wellbeing or on the charges against him before April 14, by which point he will have been in detention for over two weeks -- and they may need to wait much longer. The Abu Surour family still hopes for the relief of their two sons’ release, after over two decades.
Palestinian political prisoners and their families pay the price of Israel’s arbitrary and violent military rule, and Israel instrumentalizes their suffering to derail Palestinian political progress. In Aida refugee camp, Marwan Fararja, 27, and Muhammad Abu ‘Akr, 20, were arrested from their homes in the early hours of April 7. The struggle against the wall, the occupation and dispossession continues, but every resident, young and old, goes to sleep wondering who might be arrested before the sun rises.
Editors’ Note: For more on Palestinian child prisoners, visit Defense for Children International. The documentary Just a Child addresses the plight of a young prisoner from Bethlehem. The documentary Degrees of Incarceration shows the toll that political imprisonment takes on the families and community of Aida refugee camp. See also Catherine Cook, Adam Hanieh and Adah Kay, Stolen Youth: The Politics of Israel’s Detention of Palestinian Children (Pluto, 2004).
Preening Like a State
On Tuesday, Mahmoud ‘Abbas surprised peace processers by making use of Palestine’s recently upgraded status as a UN-recognized “state” to sign 15 international agreements, mostly concerning human rights, humanitarian law and diplomatic protocol. The move was announced at a hastily convened meeting of the PLO executive committee, but appears to have been carefully crafted to support extending the US-sponsored negotiations that have dragged on haplessly over the past nine months. Its connection to any strategy of national liberation is far less clear, lending support to the critique of the international law approach to the question of Palestine advanced by Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie in Jacobin.
The immediate calculations are relatively straightforward: Israel reneged yet again on the promised release of prisoners (Yousef Munayyer artfully retraces this chapter in the farcical history of the “peace process”). This backsliding presented a major crisis to a Palestinian leadership desperately invested in maintaining the appearance of diplomatic progress. Tuesday’s accessions allow the Palestinian leadership to show a little backbone by defying US-Israeli diktats against “internationalizing” the question of Palestine. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership demonstrates to the world its eminent reasonableness: Israel demands that Washington release the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard while the Palestinians are blamed for voluntarily shouldering obligations to respect human rights and the laws of war.
At the same time, the choice of agreements signed indicated a desire to ruffle feathers but go no further. Notably, ‘Abbas did not sign the Rome Convention of the International Criminal Court, which would have exposed Israeli officials to the possibility (however remote) of prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Moreover, he declined to set into motion membership applications to any of the UN’s various specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization or Food and Agriculture Organization. Such a move would have triggered provisions under US law that automatically cut American funding to those bodies, as occurred when Palestine joined the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2011.
Reasonableness and moderation, however, do not by themselves constitute a strategy.
Historically, national liberation movements have engaged international law and legal institutions in a variety of ways: to achieve symbolic gains, to gain access to institutional platforms, to win allies and build coalitions. They seek to reap the benefits of “acting as if” they are states. Perhaps the best-known example involves the laws of war, which rebels of all kinds have long sought to join as a way of seeking formal parity with their state adversaries (although bringing revolutionary violence into the ambit of law also carries political costs, as Samera Esmeir has argued). Fionnuala Ní Aoláin reminds us that the PLO had already tried to accede to the Geneva Conventions and its First Additional Protocol (core instruments of the laws of war) in 1989 and that Tuesday’s move effectively renews that attempt. Indeed, the PLO, ANC, SWAPO and other liberation movements were non-voting participants in the drafting of the Protocol, which enshrined many of rules of war that are now considered basic, such as the obligation not to target civilians. The Protocol conferred limited legitimacy upon anti-colonial movements, prompting the US and Israel to refuse to sign on. In other words, non-state actors not only won a symbolic “seat at the table,” but they were also able to polarize the process in a way that isolated their adversaries.
Tuesday’s accessions also carry potential downsides for Palestinian legal strategy. Take, for example, the decision to join the major international rights agreements. At first blush, this decision is obviously a good thing, in that it extends the reach of international human rights obligations to more actors. Yet it also introduces the possibility of considerable confusion.
Many of the human rights agreements ‘Abbas signed have monitoring mechanisms whereby committees of experts monitor state compliance through periodically holding hearings and issuing reports. The expert committees provide some limited value by conferring official recognition of Israeli abuses and shaping the evolution of legal norms. For example, in 2001 an expert body found that punitive house demolitions weren’t simply a violation of property rights or the laws of occupation, but could also be considered “cruel, inhuman or degrading” punishment under the Torture Convention. These findings can then feed into other litigation and advocacy efforts.
‘Abbas has now agreed to expose Palestine to scrutiny as if it were a state, when the Palestinian Authority remains legally and effectively subordinated to the Israeli occupying power. When PA security forces torture political opponents in “coordination” with Israel, which state should be held responsible in these international bodies? How can the PA’s performance in ensuring the right to housing be evaluated when Israel controls the import of all building materials? Are the Hamas authorities in Gaza to be included in such evaluations without having signed on? Moreover, Zionist organizations seeking to coopt the language of human rights are likely to embrace this process with fervor. While none of these problems is by itself insurmountable or disastrous, it is not at all clear that they are worth the perceived benefits of accession. After all, joining the human rights agreements as a state party does not give the Palestinians an additional platform within the UN for pursuing their cause (at most, it allows Palestine to participate in voting on the appointment of experts).
The problem is not criticizing the PA’s long and ample record of human rights abuses. It’s that doing so in a forum designed for states carries the risk of artificially separating the very real conjoined collaboration between Israel and certain Palestinian elites and, worse, doing so in a manner that implies that they are equals. Sometimes the appearance of parity with one’s adversaries is useful; other times it decidedly is not, especially at the risk of obscuring the reality of occupation and colonization.
According to Palestinian negotiators, the accessions will “protect and promote basic rights of the Palestinian people and will enable the State of Palestine to be a responsible actor on the international stage.” The tension between these two goals, however, has not been addressed or even properly acknowledged. Edward Said’s famous warning that the Oslo process would increase Palestinian obligations without safeguarding Palestinian rights remains as prescient as ever.
President Barack Obama capped his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Saturday by presenting the International Women of Courage award to Maha al-Muneef, a pediatrician and executive director of the anti-domestic violence National Family Safety Program (NFSP). We are “very, very proud of you and grateful for all the work you’re doing here,” Obama told her in a brief ceremony at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton. “I’m looking forward to seeing you do even more wonderful things in the future.”
The annual award bestows official American recognition upon several women in different countries for leadership and courage “in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.” Since creating the award in 2007, the United States has honored 78 women, including two others from Saudi Arabia. The First Lady usually presents the award, but since al-Muneef was not able to attend the March 4 ceremony for this year’s honorees, the president gave her a special private ceremony during his stopover in Riyadh.
Al-Muneef can be both a leader in her milieu and a very safe choice for Washington. Under the circumstances, recognizing her accomplishments afforded the president an opportunity to mention women’s rights during his visit without ruffling any royal feathers. As Al-Muneef emphasized to al-Sharq al-Awsat, the organization she heads is a governmental and government-funded body. The NFSP’s literature confirms that “the National Family Safety Program was established by a Royal Decree (No. 11471/MB) on 16 Shawal 1426, the correspondent of November 18, 2005, as a national program that is administratively linked to the National Guard Health Affairs.” Its vision: “To be a leading force in fostering family safety, security, and unity.” While Obama’s commendation emphasized preventing family violence in the context of gender, NFSP’s activities focus particularly on child abuse.
Protection of children and families is a serious feminist and humanitarian cause in the US and around the world. But it is not the same as “advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.” Upon further inspection, the National Family Safety Program might as easily be construed as a vehicle for limited women’s empowerment within the kingdom’s misogynist gendered hierarchy, using the regime’s favored language about morality and family values.
Gendered, feminist and women’s activism can assume diverse forms in different contexts. Nowhere are the challenges facing women more complicated than in the Saudi kingdom, where so many commonplace liberties in a mostly affluent society -- driving, testifying in court, checking in at an airport or to a hotel -- are denied to half the population. The US endorsement of women’s activism is considerably less nuanced. Parse the paternalism in the president’s speech. Is Obama talking to his adolescent daughters or a high-achieving professional? Is the US applauding conformity rather than resistance?
Stuck (or Not) in a "Special Relationship"
Officials say no, of course. But beneath the surface, the relationship is indeed marked by uncertainty. The rulers in Riyadh have come to question Washington’s commitment to the kingdom’s security, to Saudi primacy in the Gulf and to what has been one of the region’s most durable (and profitable) alliances.
Saudi trepidation is not entirely unfounded. Over the last three years, the two states have at least appeared to be at odds, with regard to the Arab uprisings and the resulting popular empowerment, intervention in Syria and how aggressively to crack down on Islamists, especially the Society of Muslim Brothers. Given the Saudis’ thin base of support at home and their need to oppress their way to survival, it is hardly surprising that Riyadh that has led the counterrevolutionary charge in the Arab world since 2011.
Most importantly, the Saudis fear that the United States, in negotiating with Iran over the future of its nuclear research program, is cozying up to their most powerful regional rival. For years, Saudi Arabia has made Iran the target of the worst kind of sectarian opprobrium, treating the Islamic Republic as a bogeyman to be exploited in the interest of keeping American leaders sympathetic. It hasn’t hurt the Saudi case that its most devoted supporters in the US are also closest to Israel, which shares a venomous view of Tehran. While it is unclear whether US-Iranian negotiations will yield anything meaningful, that the two are talking at all has shaken the kingdom.
Quietly, US officials have begun to wonder about the same things. Is the US-Saudi relationship one that should remain unchanged? These Americans understand that the Saudis have set a dangerous regional course, one that has bought only temporary favor for a military regime in Cairo, won precarious “victories” in Bahrain and Yemen, and left a trail of human rights abuses and political malfeasance. There is a belief in Washington that Saudi Arabia remains at least somewhat cooperative in matters of counter-terrorism. But Saudi Arabia’s aggressive expansion of the politics of irhab and its sudden acceleration of attacks on the Muslim Brothers is understood as double-edged -- likely to deliver positive results in the short term but with catastrophic potential over time. After all, Saudi Arabia has been here before.
While American leaders ponder the reimagination of the “special relationship” in the distant future, the White House’s default position is to double down on the status quo, reassuring Riyadh that nothing has changed and supporting the regime by standard means -- looking the other way while the regime terrorizes Saudi Arabian citizens, backs reactionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain, and abets violence in Syria. And, of course, avaricious arms merchants, with support from the Pentagon, continue to sell Riyadh billions of dollars in weapons.
Outside the circles of hawks and realists who are untroubled by Saudi Arabia’s bad behavior, more reasonable officials run up against a political inertia that claims the kingdom is the least bad Gulf partner in challenging times, and that even while Iran sits at the negotiating table, the Islamic Republic is doing more harm than good.
Meanwhile, US and Saudi leaders have long shared antagonism toward, or at least skepticism about, the democratic potential of Saudi Arabia itself. James Schlesinger, a secretary of defense under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford who passed away today, put it this way: “Do we seriously want to change the institutions of Saudi Arabia? The brief answer is no; over the years we have sought to preserve these institutions, sometimes in preference to more democratic forces coursing throughout the region. [The former] King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia] has stated quite unequivocally that democratic institutions are not appropriate for this society. What is interesting is that we do not seem to disagree.” While US officials are likely more open to the possibility today, there is so far little political will to encourage change in any meaningful way, and certainly not in public. The desire for autocratic stability in Arabia, embraced by old hands like Dennis Ross, has been replaced by the inertia mentioned above. Today, however, the stakes are higher, as a simultaneously emboldened and embattled Riyadh seeks to mold reactionary outcomes across the region, helping to push countries like Syria and Bahrain in terrible directions. While many observers would argue that supporting tyranny was never politically prudent for citizens in Arabia or for America, it is even more clearly the case today that the Saudis are the worst of the worst.
Among the cool heads in Washington, the prevailing view is that the United States is stuck, bound by President Obama’s minimalist approach to the region and the practical limits of American power. This is all true, of course. But these facts do not and should not mean that the US has to remain dedicated to its historical alliance with Riyadh, particularly as the Saudis and their proxies continue to poison regional politics.
Romancing the Throne
President Barack Obama plans an overnight stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on March 28-29 for a rendezvous with King ‘Abdallah. The enduring but always strange bedfellows have been quarreling of late over Saudi Arabia’s belligerent relations with neighbors Iran and Syria. Both sides hope during this visit to kiss and make up.
It’s a titillating occasion for the Saudi lobby, including the Saudi-US Information Service that churns out good news from the happy kingdom. The Service’s website filled a “special section” with feel-good links for the occasion. Johann Schmonsees, spokesman for the US Embassy in Riyadh, likewise trilled that the presidential visit “will be an opportunity to reinforce one of our closest relationships in the region and build on the strong US-Saudi military, security and economic ties that have been a hallmark of our bilateral relationship.” And erstwhile Israel-Palestine negotiator and diplomat extraordinaire Dennis Ross weighed in with an op-ed entitled “Soothing the Saudis,” advising the president to appreciate the fragile feelings and physical vulnerabilities of the royal family.
Following in the steps of predecessors from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, President Obama will ceremoniously re-consummate Uncle Sam’s semi-clandestine bilateral romance with one of the most intolerant, sadistic partners on the planet. As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International and Security Studies recently observed in an essay on The Need for a New “Realism” in the US-Saudi Alliance, it is a liaison based on some common angst but few shared values. It’s an illicit affair conducted mostly behind closed doors.
As Schmonsees, Cordesman, Ross and others see it, American and Saudi concerns converge in worries about the terrorist threat to their conjoint military entanglements. The long backstory to this cooperation ranges from Saudi support for the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan (Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters”) that spawned al-Qaeda to the prominent roles of Saudi Arabian citizens, including Osama bin Laden, in the September 11, 2001 attacks to ongoing real-time joint operations in Yemen.
Whether for internal political reasons or in anticipation of the Obama visit, in the past couple of months Saudi Arabia has expanded its definition of irhab, or terrorism, beyond the post-September 11 hysteria in the American press as encouraged by the Bush administration, beyond the Egyptian criminalization of the Society of Muslim Brothers under Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and al-Sisi, and beyond even Riyadh’s own past crackdowns on dissident liberals and Islamists.
How has the kingdom tightened the vise? Umm al-Qura, the official Saudi gazette, published a new Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and Its Financing on January 31, 2014, effective as of the following day. “Irhab” is now a sweeping term that covers not only violent attacks but also “any act” that would “insult” the reputation of the state, “harm public order,” espouse “atheism,” shake the “stability of society” or advocate any form of dissent, according to Human Rights Watch.
Going further, on March 7, the Interior Ministry issued a list of “terrorist organizations.” The criminalization of association with the Muslim Brothers rightly attracted the most attention because the Brothers are a legitimate (though illegal) political party in Egypt, and under other different names in other Arab countries, and because the Saudi ban on the Brothers features in the kingdom’s spat with the spunky micro-petro-kingdom of Qatar and its media arm Al Jazeera, both accused of favoring the Egyptian branch of the Brothers.
But the Interior Ministry named not only the Society of Muslim Brothers, which is not as such an armed group, but also other guerrilla groups, some of them already on the US terrorist list, and two heretofore undesignated Yemeni entities. Several militant groups outlawed (in some cases not for the first time) were predictable enough, namely al-Qaeda and its eponymous offshoots in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and Iraq. Two radical paramilitaries fighting in Syria, Da‘ish (also known in English as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, or ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, which not long ago looked like Saudi proxies, were also designated. All of these are Islamist militias of a Sunni salafi persuasion. Ideologically, they are distinguishable from the ruling Wahhabi doctrine in Saudi Arabia mainly by their opposition to dynastic rule. A little-known entity presumably named after the Lebanese Shi‘i militia called Hizballah in the Hijaz was also declared to be a terrorist organization.
Finally, the new Saudi list named two Yemeni groups that have been engaged in mortal combat with one another for several years. Al-Shabab al-Mu’minin (Believing Youth) is a Zaydi Shi‘i revivalist movement with a militant wing known as the Houthis who have held their own against Saudi forces, Wahhabi salafi evangelists and the Yemeni army along the Saudi-Yemeni frontier for the past decade. The Believing Youth’s nemesis the Reform Congregation (known as Islah) is a right-wing political alliance of Sunni salafis, Muslim Brothers, tribal leaders (especially from the preeminent family of the Hashid confederation, Bayt al-Ahmar) and a segment of the Yemeni business community that for two decades received financial and moral support from Riyadh. Many Yemenis were surprised to see Islah, a legal political party represented in the Yemeni parliament, on the list.
The broad set of criminalized activities under the Saudi Interior Ministry’s new rules include but are not limited to membership in, meeting or corresponding with, sympathy for, or circulating the slogans or symbols of any of these groups.
Obama’s conversations with King ‘Abdallah and ruling family scions will not address human rights, women’s rights, democratization or social justice. The American embrace of Saudi Arabia is carnal and/or crassly materialist, not principled. Don’t expect a replay of Obama’s supposedly inspirational 2009 speech to Muslims and Arabs in Cairo, or an adversarial press conference. The White House would rather not draw attention to its dalliance with the misogynist Saudi gerontocracy. Press coverage of the visit is likely to be scant.
The two leaders are likely to discuss arms sales, the linchpin of the bilateral relationship. Ambassador-designate Joseph Westphal reiterated this realist perspective in his Senate hearing statement on March 24 about a mutually fulfilling relationship servicing both Saudi survival instincts and the American military-industrial complex. ”We also have a critical security partnership,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is our largest Foreign Military Sales customer, with 338 active and open cases valued at $96.8 billion, all supporting American skilled manufacturing jobs, while increasing inter-operability between our forces for training and any potential operations.”
In addition, Obama and ‘Abdallah will almost certainly affirm American and/or joint operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, operations which continued in a series of deadly drone strikes against targets in Yemen in early March. The king may be upset that the US has not taken military action in Syria or Iran, but he will almost certainly take comfort from American promises to defend the House of Saud against the most proximate threat to its security and wellbeing.
In-Laws and Outlaws
A jury today convicted on all counts Sulayman Abu Ghayth, a Kuwaiti preacher who made televised statements in support of al-Qaeda shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. As expected, war-on-terror liberals are seizing upon the outcome as proof that civilian courts are a superior alternative to military tribunals at Guantánamo. On Friday I blogged about some of the legal issues raised by the case and how it fits into broader US detention policies. Civilian trials are undoubtedly preferable to kangaroo courts at Guantánamo in principle and one hopes that the administration uses this verdict to finally close the prison in Cuba. But uncritical celebration of civilian courts is also a problem -- and especially unseemly when tied to a kind of liberal machismo about who is “toughest on terror.”
For example, the conspiracy charges for which Abu Ghayth was convicted today encompassed all al-Qaeda attacks in which Americans were killed from 1998 to 2013, even though the government did not allege any affiliation with the group prior to 2001 and it is undisputed that he was in detention in Iran from 2003 until shortly before his arrest. A life sentence at this point is almost certain.
Aside from the legal issues, the story of the man invariably described in media accounts as the “son-in-law of Osama bin Laden” sheds some light on the broader story of al-Qaeda, the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iran’s reaction to both.
Emphasizing Abu Ghayth’s marriage to bin Laden’s daughter Fatima implies an alliance between the two men through the gifting of a woman (the jury was, properly, not given this prejudicial information). Bin Laden and one of his late associates, the late Muhammad ‘Atif (Abu Hafs al-Misri), were related by marriage through their children; and the urban legend persists that bin Laden betrothed one of his daughters to the Taliban leader Muhammad ‘Umar. The circumstances of Abu Ghayth’s marriage to Fatima bin Laden, however, were very different: The two were married around 2008 while imprisoned in Iran and apparently cut off from the outside world. It’s not clear at all if bin Laden consented to or was even aware of the union.
This detail emerged earlier this month, when Abu Ghayth’s attorneys took the unusual step of releasing in open court the report from his FBI interrogation on a government-chartered flight from Jordan to the United States. The document is an FD-302, a form typically used to memorialize interviews. It’s not a verbatim statement, but rather one reconstructed from notes taken by agents (the FBI does not electronically record interrogations as a matter of policy) so it must be treated with due skepticism. Nevertheless, the report is fascinating, even if it raises as many questions as it answers, especially in the crucial matter of Arab families caught up in the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Thirteen years on, there is still no thorough accounting of the invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath, including possible war crimes committed by the US and its allies and proxies. In the panic surrounding the fall of the Taliban, foreign Muslims (especially Arabs) were often indiscriminately targeted by the US and Northern Alliance as potential members of al-Qaeda. These men were a mix of fighters, aid workers, preachers, tourists and drifters. Bounty hunters on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border sold Arabs to the Americans, who subsequently sent them to Bagram, Guantánamo or elsewhere. Pakistan’s then-president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, boasted about the bounties in his memoirs, only to excise the reference in the subsequent Urdu translation.
According to the interrogation report, Abu Ghayth somehow managed to avoid the dragnet and sneak westward across the border into Iran. Although the details of his crossing and initial months underground are extremely vague, Abu Ghayth claims that he, along with several senior al-Qaeda members, was captured by Iranian authorities at the same time in 2003. Abu Ghayth claimed that “he did not know why he was arrested, never received any trial and was never formally sentenced.” Nor was he interrogated or tortured (as one of his fellow prisoners, former senior al-Qaeda member Abu Hafs al-Mauritani confirmed in an interview with Al Jazeera upon his return home). Instead, the men appear to have been kept as bargaining chips.
Abu Ghayth’s statement to the FBI reads in parts like a first draft of a prison memoir. There are stories of resistance to their captors, violent altercations and small victories preciously fought for, especially the right to receive outside news or communicate with relatives. Needless to say, journalists covering Abu Ghayth’s trial reported that the prosecution strenuously objected to mentions of his time in Iranian custody while on the stand, lest they evoke some sympathy from the jury.
For the better part of a decade -- while their counterparts languished in Guantánamo or the dungeons of American client states -- these “guests” of Iran came to form a kind of community behind walls, cut off from the outside world but kept together and even managing to raise families. After nearly two years, they were moved from to a specially segregated military compound within which they could circulate and where they had individual apartments. According to Abu Ghayth, the wives of the other men (who had until this point been imprisoned separately) organized protests and demanded to be with their husbands, forcing the Iranian authorities to relent. The families were eventually given simple flats in the same compound, at which point one of bin Laden’s wives and several of his children also arrived.
The details about families in the report, while few and far between, are especially striking. While we know something about the targeting of Arab men during the US invasion of Afghanistan, their wives and children have largely disappeared from view; many of the dossiers of Guantánamo detainees released by Wikileaks make only passing mention of families separated in that time. Rumors spread online about Arab women and children being ransomed by tribes in the border areas. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad’s children, who were captured along with him in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, were reportedly tortured and remain accounted for.
Unlike the other men, Abu Ghayth was not detained with his family, as he had sent his wife home for medical treatment shortly before the invasion of Afghanistan. Instead, he had to go on a three-week hunger strike to win a phone call home in 2004 or 2005, only to learn that his wife had divorced him in his absence (Kuwaiti media reported that she had been suffering severe psychological and economic distress in the years of separation). The FBI noted that “he was devastated by the news that his wife had been granted a divorce from him and that it remains a painful subject to this day.”
Cut off from his family for the foreseeable future, Abu Ghayth decided to start a new one. He married an Egyptian woman (presumably a daughter of one of the other detainees) and around 2008 also married Fatima bin Laden. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t tell us anything about how these marriages came about. It only notes that he had two children with each of these women.
Eventually each of the families had its own house within the compound. The FBI report mentions that Abu Ghayth “focused on his family/children” for the three and a half years he lived in that home. “Amongst some of his fellow detainees and their families there was a lot of chaos,” however, and some of them clashed with their Iranian captors over allowing the children to leave the compound to attend school.
The only other clue about Abu Ghayth’s family life concerns not his wife Fatima, but Fatima’s sister, Iman. While detained, Abu Ghayth penned a text, Twenty Precepts Concerning the Path of Jihad, widely seen as an implicit attack on al-Qaeda’s tactics as well as of sectarian killings pursued by the group’s affiliates such as Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq (for those concerned about searching for suspicious texts on the Internet, you can download a copy from a “terrorology” website here). Vahid Brown, a former US government analyst and one of the few with substantive knowledge on the topic, went as far as to call Abu Ghayth part of “al-Qaeda’s dissident faction in Iran.”
According to the FBI report, Abu Ghayth gave a copy of the book to Iman bin Laden and believes that she was the one who got it published after her own escape from Iran. Whether or not this was actually the case (and for reasons we don’t have time for here, I am skeptical), Abu Ghayth’s belief that Iman ensured the publication of a book criticizing al-Qaeda reminds us that the bin Laden daughters are more than property to be used in shoring up political alliances.
The details of Abu Ghayth’s release remain unclear. At some point, Iranian officials encouraged him to contact his family in Kuwait and explore the possibility of his going home (Kuwait had stripped him of citizenship and refused earlier opportunities for extradition from Iran). Abu Ghayth managed to get the word out in Kuwait of his desire to return, sparking a lively debate in which some parliamentarians called upon the government to allow it, even if only to convene a trial.
According to the FBI report, Iranian officials handed Abu Ghayth and his family over to smugglers who took them to Turkey, apparently in January 2013 (the Egyptian wife drops out of the narrative by this point without explanation). Abu Ghayth took Fatima to the Saudi embassy to arrange for her return home, only to be arrested a few hours later, once again separated from his family. Apparently his plan had been to seek asylum in Turkey or somehow get to Saudi Arabia and perhaps one day to Kuwait -- completing a roughly circular, 13-year journey from the Gulf to south and central Asia and back. It wasn’t to be.
While Fatima returned to Saudi Arabia, Turkish authorities reportedly deemed Abu Ghayth’s presence in the country illegal but also rejected the idea of handing him over to the US, at least directly. Abu Ghayth spent the next month in Turkey, likely while some kind of deal over his fate was worked out. On February 28, Abu Ghayth got on a plane to Kuwait via Jordan. This sequence of events has all the markings of a setup, since Kuwait had never signaled its willingness to accept him and there are plenty of direct flights between Turkey and Kuwait. Jordan -- whose intelligence service is the CIA’s most eager ally in the region -- was intended as a stopover not to Kuwait, but to New York. Jordanian and American agents were waiting for him at the airport.
Editors’ Note: On the events that led to Abu Ghayth’s flight to Iran, see Darryl Li, “‘Afghan Arabs,’ Real and Imagined,” Middle East Report 260 (Fall 2011) and Anthony Shadid, “Victims of Circumstance,” Middle East Report 222 (Spring 2002).