Letter of Support by Colleagues and Personal Friends of Emad Shahin
For those familiar with even the barest facts of the case, the provisional sentence of Emad al-Din Shahin to death seems appalling. Professor Shahin is a widely respected and accomplished academic who has taught at Notre Dame, Harvard, Georgetown, the American University in Cairo and George Washington University. He has no record of organized political activity. The list of the other alleged participants—a group that resembles a list of political opponents and associates and technocratic aides of ousted President Muhammad Mursi far more than it does a real set of plotters—makes the charges seem even more improbable.
We, the undersigned colleagues and personal friends of Professor Shahin, wish to add our voices to those who have expressed deep concern over the provisional sentence of death. But we do more: Based on our personal knowledge of Professor Shahin’s character, activities and scholarship, we state that the charges are so utterly alien to his character as to lack any credibility whatsoever. Professor Shahin is a figure known for his integrity and dedication to his work. Like many of us, he is not afraid to draw on his expertise to speak on public issues. He was also clearly distressed by the polarization that took place in Egypt and shared the aspirations of millions of Egyptians for a more democratic and accountable political order. These are not crimes by any stretch of the imagination.
Espionage and treason—the sorts of vague allegations included in the indictment of Professor Shahin—should not be associated with his name.
We provide this information to Egyptian judicial, security and political authorities in order to clear Professor Shahin’s name. We call on governments throughout the world to speak out and communicate their concern to their Egyptian counterparts and to rebuff any efforts to restrict Professor Shahin’s movements, speech and activities.
(Names in alphabetical order, titles and institutions for identification purposes only)
Osama Abi-Mershed, Director, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies
Abdullah Al-Arian, Georgetown University
Walter Armbrust, Associate Professor, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford and Albert Hourani Fellow of Modern Middle Eastern Studies, St. Antony's College
Holger Albrecht, American University in Cairo
Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Stanford University
Eva Bellin, Myra and Robert Kraft Professor of Arab Politics, Brandeis University
Jonathan A. C. Brown, Georgetown University
Nathan J. Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University
Jason Brownlee, Professor of Government and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin
Sheila Carapico, Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond and formerly of the American University in Cairo
Elliott Colla, Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Georgetown University
Christian Davenport, Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate with Center for Political Studies, University of Michigan
Rochelle Davis, Georgetown University
Larry Diamond, Director, Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Stanford University
Michele Dunne, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
John P. Entelis, Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science and Director, Middle East Studies Program, Fordham University; President, American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS)
John L. Esposito, University Professor & Founding Director, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University
Dalia Fahmy, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Long Island University
Khaled Fahmy, Professor of History, American University in Cairo
Ellis Goldberg, Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
Joel Gordon, Professor of History and Director, King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies, University of Arkansas
Nader Hashemi, University of Denver
Clement M. Henry, Visiting Research Professor, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore
Amaney Jamal, Associate Professor of Politics, Princeton University
Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Egypt
Mark LeVine, Professor of Middle Eastern History, University of California-Irvine
Abdel-Fattah Mady, Alexandria University
Radwan A. Masmoudi, President, Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy
Michael McFaul, Director, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, and Professor, Department of Political Science, Stanford University
Roger Owen, Harvard University
James Piscatori, Professor of International Relations, Durham University
William B. Quandt, Professor Emeritus, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Andrea Rugh Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
Ambassador (retired) William A. Rugh
Hesham Sallam, Stanford University
Samer Shehata, University of Oklahoma
Robert Springborg, Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School (retired)
Joshua Stacher, Associate Professor of Political Science, Kent State University
Alfred Stepan, Wallace Sayre Professor of Government, Columbia University
Judith E. Tucker, Professor of History, Georgetown University
John Voll, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History, Georgetown University
Michael J. Willis, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
I. William Zartman, Professor Emeritus, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University
Jordan's Longest War
More than any other Arab country, Jordan was linked to nearly every major twentieth-century war in the Middle East. War in the Arabian Peninsula propelled the kingdom’s future rulers, the Hashemites, to come to British-controlled Transjordan in the 1920s. The Palestinian Arab revolt in the 1930s and then World War II helped to solidify the nascent state east of the Jordan River. Jordan was an active combatant in the Arab-Israeli wars, which brought waves of Palestinian refugees and lasting change to Jordanian society. The country was rocked by a brief but bloody civil war in 1970 and belatedly entered the 1973 Arab-Israeli war as well.
In the four decades since, the Jordanian military has had no overt or sustained engagement in regional wars, meaning that Jordan is often portrayed as the only stable patch in a chaotic Levant. Thus, the country’s announced participation in the bombing of ISIS in Syria appeared to mark an historical turning point. But war is more than what the US military refers to as “kinetic action” or “steel on steel.” In fact, the bombing campaign is but a flashpoint in Jordan’s longest war, inaugurated by the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980.
That invasion set Jordan on the path on which it continues today. Spared involvement in the battles but not the consequences, the Jordanian state served as Iraq’s most important trading partner throughout the fighting. The war economy provided crucial support to the Hashemite political coalition in the lean 1980s: Urban merchants feasted on re-exports to Iraq while labor in the south, particularly the chronically restive town of Maan, took up trucking at a time when public-sector employment began to stagnate. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and King Hussein’s initial stance against the US-led liberation marked the last time a Hashemite voiced real opposition to the policies of his patrons in Washington. The term “client state” is not quite sufficient to capture Jordan’s international position since that time.
With the new status came increased external funding, which invigorated the ruling elite and its clients. The notorious US-led sanctions of the 1990s decimated Iraqi society but also deepened the socio-economic ties with Jordan that lay outside state supervision. And even while official Jordan was wary of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, important segments of Jordanian business welcomed the “opening” of the Iraqi market. More than a decade later, Iraq burns and Jordan smolders.
The effects of the short-term boost in exports to Iraq, followed by Iraqi capital flight into Jordan’s banking and real estate sectors, have gradually passed. The vital truck route from Maan through the Anbar province to the Iraqi river valleys fell prey to organized militias. While US forces battled the militias, Jordanian truckers paid those same bandit-insurgents to get through to Baghdad. Today, not much has changed. Trucking industry sources claim that while the Iraqi government mans the official border crossing, just beyond lurk ISIS fighters, who charge $200-300 per truck for passage. And ISIS is not alone. Other, lower-profile gangs along the roads extract their own duties and frequently redirect trucks to their preferred destinations.
The ebb and flow of war finance has only aggravated Jordan’s socio-economic decline. Massive public debt and declining public revenue increase the government’s dependence on Gulf and American capital. In return, Jordan is drawn farther into war, hosting more and more US soldiers and equipment. As the Jordanian state sinks deeper into financial crisis, military and civil service pensions, already stretched thin, hardly make up for the stress on a dwindling middle class. Along with unemployment, educational inequality affects nearly every Jordanian family. And corruption—well, that is perhaps the most dynamic sector in the country. The combined political effect is to hollow out the monarchy’s coalition of urban merchants and rural labor. The kingdom’s latest political intrigue concerns the sacking of the interior minister, Husayn al-Majali, over murky events in Maan. While local observers link the Majali firing to elite factionalization, it rests on a foundation of profound structural problems.
There is no easy way out of the Middle Eastern wars of the twenty-first century. Jordan’s divided opposition came too late to the 2011 uprisings. At the recent World Economic Forum, the monarchy and its ministers rolled out warmed-over 1980s rhetoric about increasing employment, engaging the private sector and educating youth for the future. Meanwhile, the best and the brightest flee to the Gulf, provided that the host governments there remain pleased with Jordanian policy. Jordan’s longest war looks far from over.
Breaking Even, Breaking Down or Going for Broke?
As of mid-May 2015, crude oil prices had fallen to the lowest level in recent years, under $60 a barrel for US domestic benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and about $66 a barrel for the international Brent benchmark. These market prices are compared to several types of “break-even” prices and affect decision-making by oil producers at several levels: whether price covers just production costs or incorporates a satisfactory level of profit, whether budgets balance and whether long-term capital investment is attractive. At today’s prices, fewer producers are breaking even, OPEC’s ability to act as a cartel is breaking down and some higher-cost operators in North America are closing down as they go broke while producers in Russia and Venezuela go into debt.
In the most basic meaning of “break-even,” WTI and Brent crude oil prices indicate whether companies (privately or nationally owned) are covering their actual costs of production, including exploration, development, extraction, transportation and administrative expenses. That is, these prices are the minimum needed for revenues to equal costs, to “break even” without making a profit. This calculation affects decisions about how much product to bring to market in the short term, given existing productive capacity. When prices are low, only the oil that is cheapest to produce will be marketed while more costly operations are idled or shut down. A second meaning of “break-even” is when prices are high enough to both cover costs and provide enough profit to satisfy investors. For private corporations, the higher the potential profit, the greater the drive for new drilling and new technology.
As of 2009, onshore Middle Eastern producers using mainly traditional well technology were estimated to have had the lowest average cost of production in the world, at $27 per barrel, while onshore production in Russia and elsewhere in the world averaged around $50 per barrel. Deepwater and ultra-deepwater production (e.g., in the Gulf of Mexico) was somewhat more costly, between $52 and $56 per barrel, while costs of production from newer sources were much higher: $65 for North American fracked shale oil, $70 for extraction from oil sands and $75 in the Arctic.
Market prices for oil ride the rollercoaster of the business cycle and so fell steeply during the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession to lows of around $40 a barrel for WTI crude and somewhat higher for Brent. At that time, Middle Eastern producers suffered from lower revenues that depleted their foreign reserves and led them to curtail big investment projects, but they were, on average, still able to cover their production costs, while other producers, such as in Russia, operated at a loss if they did not halt production altogether.
With the recovery in global economic growth after 2010, especially in large “emerging” markets like China and India, prices rose again, peaking in mid-July 2014 at about $105 per barrel for WTI and $114 per barrel for Brent crude. This long rise had made new exploration and increased extraction from shale, oil sands and exotic locales like the Arctic more attractive. Rising prices also induced more investment in innovation for non-traditional processes like slant and horizontal drilling and for more sophisticated fracking techniques. But as this new oil, especially from North America—the US in particular—flooded into the markets, with increases in supply outpacing the growth of demand, prices began to fall again, landing in March-April 2015 at a little more than half their peak.
Another version of the second type of “break-even” price is the “fiscal break-even price,” which incorporates “profit” that accrues to public entities rather than private corporations, in particular nations that depend mainly on hydrocarbon exports to fund their governments and balance their annual budgets. For the major Middle Eastern OPEC producers, including Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, hydrocarbon products (including crude oil, natural gas and their derivatives) account for between 25 and 50 percent of GDP, 50 to 95 percent of export revenues, and 50 to 95 percent of government revenues. When oil revenues are high and rising for a number of years, as they were from 2005 to 2008 and then again from 2010 to 2014, the surplus inflows can be used by governments not only to pay the bills but also to build up foreign reserves and invest in both domestic development and overseas portfolios. Hence the third type of “break-even price,” the one that covers production costs, balances budgets, and finances big projects and long-term investments.
Among the Arab Gulf exporters, according to Deutsche Bank estimates, the 2015 “fiscal break-even price” of oil was lowest for Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE ($77, 78 and 80, respectively), but above $100 for Saudi Arabia ($104), Oman ($110) and Bahrain ($138). The per-barrel Brent prices of the first quarter 2015 were sufficient to cover their production costs but insufficient to cover their fiscal needs, affecting not only public spending but also private economic activity, as shown for example in the sharply declining liquidity of local financial markets as private-sector confidence waned.
Gulf news sources report that, while Qatar and Kuwait sustained their high level of project development in the first quarter of 2015, the pace of project development slowed in the UAE, especially in real estate, and dropped by over 40 percent in Oman. Local analysts in Kuwait are predicting a budget deficit for fiscal 2015/2016, and describe this financial situation as “dangerous” in so far as the government is determined to press ahead with both its investment and economic reform plans. Following International Monetary Fund advice, the Kuwaiti government has raised some domestic fuel prices, ironic as that may seem given falling world prices, and may even impose a corporate income tax on domestic private companies in order to diversify its sources of revenue and reduce dependence on income from hydrocarbon exports.
Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are fighting the flooded oil market with more floods. The UAE announced plans to invest $25 billion over five years to enhance offshore oil production, aiming to increase its total output from the current 2.8 million barrels per day (bpd) to 3.5 million in 2017/2018, and it will be drawing down on its foreign reserves to do so, even borrowing on international markets if necessary. The Saudis, meanwhile, increased oil production to a record 10.3 million bpd in March and April “in response to global demand,” with the aim of defending market share in the face of US surplus output. In order to increase public-sector wages and pensions in celebration of King Salman’s ascendance to the throne, and to cover its commitments to social and infrastructure spending, not to mention its record military spending as the biggest global buyer in 2014, the Saudis are allowing the budget deficit to widen dramatically, from 1.9 percent of GDP in 2014 to 14.5 percent in 2015 and covering it by drawing down on their accumulated foreign reserves.
Bahrain and Oman, the weakest of the Gulf producers, have no choice but to follow Saudi leadership, but have much less financial room to maneuver. With small foreign reserves, they will have to cut expenses sharply or finance their budget deficits by borrowing. Other members of OPEC, such as Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria, actively argued for cutting production to restore prices, but the Saudis refused. While OPEC’s ability to cooperate as a group has been eroding for many years, its cartel power seems to be breaking down entirely in this situation. The Saudis reasoned that higher-cost producers, especially the US, should be willing to cooperate to stabilize supply and prices. If not, the Saudis figure that they can just wait it out as many North American operators suspend operations or close up shop, a process they expect will stabilize supply by mid-2015 and enable prices to rise again as demand increases this year and beyond.
While some US-based analysts agree, not everyone is so sanguine about this calculation. According to the Economist in April, only small non-conventional producers in the US are going bankrupt. The big players—Chevron, Shell, BP, Exxon—are idling older and less productive rigs and have laid off thousands of workers, but they are busy consolidating by buying up smaller firms and vertically integrating their control over production, refining and distribution in the North American market in anticipation of better conditions by year’s end. Due to steady innovation that is raising productivity from those shale and sands operations still underway in North America—including by big foreign operators like the Norwegian company Statoil and the French-owned Total—the costs of production of oil there are falling, while the costs to traditional non-innovating Middle Eastern producers rise. The US Energy Information Agency predicts that, due to falling costs and ample supply, prices will recover to no more than 70 percent of the peak 2014 price in the foreseeable future. The agency estimates that US oil will account for 12 million bpd by 2017, 15 percent of global output, and that the US will take over from OPEC as the preeminent power in the world oil market.
The Moral Economy of Distance in the Yemeni Crisis
In discussions of the ongoing war in Yemen, Yemeni activists, aid organizations and human rights groups are struggling to push the dire humanitarian situation and Yemen’s increasing isolation to the fore. Yet most of the establishment in Washington and London continues to treat the spiraling conflict in southwest Arabia as a disembodied “thing”—a situation to be managed, a territory to be protected in a proxy war, a threat to be contained—rather than an acute crisis affecting close to 26 million people. When attention is directed toward the citizens of Yemen at all, these people are portrayed as another problem to be solved. How to address the susceptibility of Yemenis to Islamist extremism? How to quell their support for heavily armed tribes? How to limit the risk that a massive exodus from Yemen might pose to Europe and other locales, as “boatloads of desperate migrants” land on distant shores? The fact that oil prices surged after Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen underlines the broad perception that what really matters is stability within Saudi Arabia and the maintenance of a key transit route and not what happens to Yemenis. The problem must be contained.
As political scientists, we’ve been taught to think in terms of “problems.” Yet there is a politics to problem solving that begins (but certainly does not end) with the analytic process of making people into problems. The politics of problem solving relies on a moral economy of distance that systematically denies the human equality of categories of people, regardless of the de jure rights that people have as members of a particular legal order.
Sociologist Margaret Somers illustrates this process at work in the crisis following Hurricane Katrina, when a large group of American citizens—having just lost their homes, life’s possessions and even family members—were effectively denied their standing as rights-bearing citizens on the basis of moral distancing. Recall that as portions of New Orleans were evacuated safely, residents of some of the poorest (and blackest) neighborhoods were denied access to a bridge to safety, herded into a stadium, and relocated sometimes hundreds of miles away without any say in the destination—all to avoid bringing them into closer proximity to wealthy, white neighborhoods whose property needed to be protected. Treated more as animals than as humans, impoverished black survivors of this “natural” disaster now had to be treated with caution, as false rumors circulated in the media of theft, rape and murder, threats that would certainly spread if the displaced residents were allowed to disperse freely. Denied in practice their status as citizens, as members of a national community deserving of care, the survivors then suffered a final indignity as refugees in their own country.
How are such injustices made possible? Even as the US media was commenting on the ineptitude of the government response to Katrina, nothing changed on the ground. Watching the coverage in Sanaa at the time of the hurricane, it was striking that Yemenis were immediately attuned to the racialized inequalities that characterized policy responses to the crisis. The reality was that a largely black, impoverished population was depicted, as Somers argues, as “the ‘underclass’…a term that explicitly conjures up an image of those who are ‘under,’ thus less than, the rest of the ‘regular’ population, marking them as clearly excluded from membership in the mainstream society.” As Yemenis discussed and debated Katrina, they interpreted it through the lens of their own experiences of moral distance, both international and local.
Over the course of many years, we have each had occasion to discuss our research in Yemen with friends, colleagues and acquaintances in other parts of the Middle East. We’ve routinely encountered people who view (and openly describe) Yemenis as backward, traditional or ignorant. Yemenis are the butt of jokes and the object of caricature, and rarely, if ever, are they seen as rights-bearing citizens, or as moral equals in an international community. Such characterizations are not lost on Yemenis, even as their leaders have helped to perpetuate this view in support of particular constellations of power. Yemen’s former president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, stood before the public and described his countrymen as mutakhallafin—backward or “retarded”—helping to reproduce the same hierarchies that undergird the systematic disregard for civilian lives that we see in the current Saudi-led war. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, current Foreign Minister Riyad Yasin justified the aerial assault on and blockade of his country’s citizens by explaining that Yemenis—like the many other “others” who are objectified by similar moral economies of distance—are “used to living in bad conditions.”
Of course, we should not be entirely surprised that the US government cares about Yemen only because it is now home to some of the most active franchises of al-Qaeda. In the early 1990s, Washington was not merely indifferent toward Yemen’s precarious but very real democratic opening. The George H. W. Bush administration was hostile, cutting aid to the newly unified Yemen after the latter used its seat on the UN Security Council to vote against the US-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Rather than support the only real democratic opening on the Arabian Peninsula, the US punished Yemen for calling instead for an Arab solution to the problem of Kuwait. When faced with a popular uprising against Salih in 2011, the Obama administration supported a transitional framework that preserved privileges for established political and military elements of the old regime, rather than respond to the groundswell of genuine support—no, demand—for political pluralism and a civil state.
For Washington, the current concern, as with these previous examples, is to support a key ally, Saudi Arabia, and to crush al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen thus remains a problem to be dealt with, particularly the threats “it” poses to other nations: the threat of spreading Iranian power; the threat of the so-called Shi‘i crescent; the threat of Sunni jihadis, whether ISIS or al-Qaeda, who threaten our moral vision. Yemen is a poor country, but few care about that as such. The lack of water, education and infrastructure only make the “problem” of the people worse. Yemen has no burgeoning neoliberal cityscape, no safe enclaves, no foreign direct investment, no Starbucks. Why? It is not safe. What makes a place unsafe? The people—backward, ignorant Yemenis. This view continues to be naturalized by Yemen’s own leadership, beholden to Saudi Arabia. It is reflected in US material, tactical and, we would argue, moral support for the war.
This framing also encourages Americans to adopt an indifference toward Yemenis that is built on moral distance. It interpellates “us” by constructing our moral opposite, and even well-intentioned efforts to draw attention to the war advance this view. The beauties of Yemen—the romantic villages perched on mountain peaks, the gorgeous old city of Sanaa with its ginger-bread architecture, the mud-brick skyscrapers of the city of Shibam—these “historic” wonders worth saving are rendered inaccessible to us because the current-but-somehow-not-modern people, the Yemeni people, are too backward, too radical, too ignorant, for Western tourists to travel among them safely. The notion that Yemen’s most valuable assets are its historic treasures rather than its people is reproduced by the viral circulation of images of Yemeni architecture and heritage sites, perhaps a sympathetic image of Yemeni children. It is as though there is no innocent adult civilian—let alone “rights-bearing citizen”—to visualize.
It is painful to watch a disaster unfold from afar, feeling helpless as well as shocked by the decisions that produce great injustices and human suffering. But it is not too late to reject our interpellation, to refocus the “what to do with Yemen” question around the Yemeni people on the basis of moral equality. Reject the narrative that the conflict in Yemen is “about” Iran and Saudi Arabia, or about sectarianism, or about jihadi recruitment. It is not even about alliances between the United States and some of the most repressive regimes in the region. Explanations of “aboutness” are ways of foreclosing alternatives. The question of what to do with Yemen needs, at a minimum, to shift toward what we can do for Yemenis (not Yemen). But even more, we ought to ask what we can do alongside Yemenis. We can recognize Yemenis’ moral equality first and foremost by acknowledging their agency—asking about and recognizing what people are already doing on the ground. As we engage US policy, we can challenge our leaders to close the moral distance, and to avoid the abstraction and indifference that currently supports such human suffering.
Repression and Remembering in Kent and Cairo
Yesterday was the forty-fifth anniversary of the day when Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds of live ammunition into a crowd of peaceful protesters at Kent State University. The crime took 13 seconds. The tragedy endures.
As usual, the campus I call home closed for half of Remembrance Day. Many separate remembrances take place each May 4, as well as in the days leading up to it. Student organizations, such as the May 4 Task Force, remain vigilant and active even if the student body’s politics have quieted and atomized since 1970.
The remembering is national in scope. Rick Perlstein has argued that the shootings at Kent State were the hinge on which America turned toward being “Nixonland,” a place where the mass solidarity of the New Deal era steadily broke down. There is a racial component to the widespread memorialization of the Kent events: The four students murdered by the guardsmen on May 4, 1970, and the nine they wounded, were all white. Eleven days later, police killed two black students and injured many others at Jackson State College (now University) in Mississippi. These students were also protesting the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, but they are rarely mentioned alongside the four dead in Ohio.
I have lost count of the number of people I have taken to Blanket Hill, where the students initially gathered and were tear-gassed, or the nearby rise where the pagoda sits and from which the guardsmen fired, or the four spots where the victims died. Since the first-rate visitors’ center opened in 2012, I have led a parade of family, friends and colleagues through it. Going there over and over makes me think about Kent State, but now it also makes me think of every place where armed police or soldiers have confronted civilian protesters. I can pinpoint when that mental shift took place.
No visit to the Kent State sites stands out in my memory like that when I went with Sharif Abdel Kouddous in November 2013. Sharif had traveled to Cleveland to speak about Egypt for the Northeast Ohio Consortium on Middle East Studies directed by Pete Moore and me. At the visitors’ center, we walked through the context of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia and the movements against the fighting. We stopped at one wall, where a map of the United States is dotted with markers of the campus protests over President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia in late April 1970. “Look,” said Sharif. “It was a national uprising.” I realized he was thinking of Egypt—the upheaval that toppled Husni Mubarak, the ensuing optimism, then the counter-revolution and coup. In Egypt and in the middle of Ohio, the state had visited violence upon mobilized citizens we know or might have known had we been alive.
We watched the video accompanying the Kent exhibits and discussed how no court ever found anyone guilty of anything. Gov. Jim Rhodes signed a letter of apology, along with other complicit state agents. Eventually, after it was clear that no one would go to prison, there was a civil settlement and the families of the dead and wounded received a total of $675,000. Sharif and I were floored—relooking at the events with shared eyes, we saw America’s failure all over again in Egypt, but repeatedly and on a far more lethal scale.
Finally, Sharif broke the silence (and I am paraphrasing): “All this over four killed. You cannot go from one part of Cairo to another without seeing a place and saying, ‘Three killed here, 27 killed at Maspero, 45 murdered at Muhammad Mahmoud Street, 12 murdered in ‘Abbasiyya, 15 killed at Parliament.’ They are everywhere, but they don’t get remembered. The entire city is an unmarked memorial site.”
The movements in Kent and Cairo were obviously different. And the four lives at Kent State were neither more valuable than those of the martyred Egyptians nor any cheaper to the state that murdered them as they pushed for change. But yesterday when we remembered Kent State, I also remembered Egypt and Ferguson and Cleveland and Baltimore.
One of the culminating moments on May 4, 1970 came when a geology professor named Glenn Frank pleaded with the students to leave the common after the 13 seconds of shooting. Some of the students were milling about, angrily contemplating a charge at the guardsmen. Frank, who died in 1993, rightly feared the worst. He said, “I don’t care whether you’ve never listened to anyone before in your lives. I am begging you right now. If you don’t disperse right now, they’re going to move in and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don’t want to a part of this.”
At that moment, as Frank said, there could only have been more bloodshed. After such grim moments of state violence, citizens have to live to fight another day. That’s the rub: No one wants to be a victim of state violence because they disagree with a state’s policies or trajectory. But those who are vocal and persistent in their dissent always run that risk. And some citizens continue to remember and act even when it looks like society is depoliticized and apathetic, or the situation fills many with despair. And therein lies the hope.
Fear Makes Everything Possible
It is a time in Egypt when it is not welcome to write something serious that addresses serious issues. Everything borders on the ridiculous. Rhetoric has shifted to a medieval or primal state where basic values are being revisited. Is it OK to discard human rights because of the violence of non-state actors? Is it OK for the police to kill innocent civilians in the supposed act of protecting these same people from terrorism? Is it OK that we have a country without fair trials? Most of the time, in the state media, the answer is yes.
There is little public discussion permissible. The majority has made its voice heard: The mass of Egyptians trusts whatever the government does politically, but will continue to ask for economic reform. It’s a little strange that things such as murder, torture and fair trials have become something “political” that only concern the elite. As if it’s forgivable, in the eyes of the masses, that such actions occur in the name of the greater good. What greater good is there other than giving the poor their rights and holding those in power accountable, rather than targeting the innocent?
The argument is that terrorism forces us to take exceptional measures. In reality it’s fear.
The amazing thing about fear is that it makes everything possible. All of a sudden it’s possible to cure AIDS and hepatitis C without scientific research. It’s possible to grow as a nation and be respected without the government respecting democracy or its citizens. It’s possible to condemn some inhumane acts of terror, such as the slaughter of 21 Copts by ISIS in Libya, but not the murder of a thousand people in Rabaa.
It is unreasonable to ask those who are afraid to overcome their fear. How would they do that, in an Egypt that is ready to punish the weak for demanding their rights, a nation where there is no protection from rabid security forces driven by revenge? How can people overcome fear when the international community has opted to pursue interests at the expense of rights they had once agreed should be universal?
Today’s Egypt is a land of possibilities, mostly horrific. There are no means of petitioning the government. There is no elected body to attempt, even symbolically, to temper the dictatorial powers of the president and the army. I would go so far as to say there are no ministries, since state security officers can override the decisions of any minister or government official in the name of national security.
The result is the Egypt we see today, one that is trying to enforce the view that it is a democratic country with violence and intimidation, as well as lots of money invested in propaganda and Western public relations firms. We see an Egypt unwilling to represent the interests of its people, but willing to safeguard personal interests, whether in the form of military economic empire or civilian crony oligarchy. Both of these sets of interests are happy to engage in an unadvertised cold war over the country’s resources.
In 2011 many Egyptians defied tyranny out of courage. Today many are defying human decency out of fear. Fear is here to stay because there are no saviors in this world. There are oppressors painted as saviors and heroes painted as villains. The saddest part of this dark, ugly picture is that it was made possible by the blessing of the people, who were willing to justify the theft of rights. In a way fear kills dreams, but in another way, it makes other improbable things possible.
Urgent Need for Humanitarian Corridor in Yemen
The humanitarian emergency in Yemen continues to worsen.
In Aden, the southern port city where local fighters are trying to fend off a Houthi takeover, several neighborhoods have no water or power. Hospitals are begging for basics like antibiotics and bandages. There is no sign of a pause in the combat, with the Houthis’ leader vowing not to back down. The Saudi-led bombardment of the country, which has closed all sea and airports, is into its twenty-sixth day.
In the northern highlands province of Sa‘ada from whence the Houthis came, an airstrike hit an Oxfam warehouse full of aid supplies. A spokeswoman for the charity called the strike “an absolute outrage” given that the Saudi-led coalition that is dropping the bombs has the coordinates of all Oxfam facilities. Oxfam’s work in the area is centered around the provision of clean water. Yemen is a severely water-stressed country.
The International Organization for Migration has been able to arrange evacuation by air for only a few hundred of the estimated 13,000 “third-country nationals” in Yemen. Some 79 percent of these people are Egyptian or Sudanese. Egypt and Sudan are two of the countries in the Saudi-led coalition. Others have fled Yemen by boat for the Horn of Africa.
But the biggest problem for foreigners seeking to leave the Yemeni war zone—not to speak of Yemenis—is that land crossings into Saudi Arabia or Oman are closed. It is urgent for the belligerents to cease fire so as to allow civilians to escape the fighting through a humanitarian corridor.
Two Resolutions, a Draft Constitution and Late Developments
On April 14, three weeks into the Saudi-led air campaign called Operation Decisive Storm, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 2216. This legally binding resolution, put forward by Jordan, Council president for April, imposed an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels and former Yemeni president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and his son. There are also provisions freezing individual assets and banning their travel. Russia abstained. It seemed fully to endorse both the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, brokered by UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar, and Operation Decisive Storm.
As the purported legal basis for UNSC 2216, Jordan’s proposal cited “a letter from the president of Yemen,” who has fled his country for Riyadh, requesting from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the League of Arab States immediate “support, by all necessary means and measures, including military intervention, to protect Yemen and its people from the continuing aggression by the Houthis.”
The April 14 resolution reads as if Saudi Arabia is an impartial arbitrator, rather than a party to an escalating conflict, and as if the GCC offers a “peaceful, inclusive, orderly and Yemeni-led political transition process that meets the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Yemeni people, including women.” This is unmitigated nonsense. And it is contradicted by the testimony of rules-of-war monitors.
The Security Council expressed “grave alarm at the significant and rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation.” But it conspicuously neglected to demand a humanitarian ceasefire to halt the Saudi-led bombing campaign, even briefly to allow essential medicines and food to reach Aden and other cities whose populations face death, destruction and devastation.
It is a particularly caustic omission. Only the day before Ivan Simonovic, the UN’s deputy secretary-general for human rights, said that the majority of the 600 people killed since the start of the Saudi assault are civilians. Both the Saudis and the Houthis are to blame, he explained. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, noted rules-of-war violations by both sides. The World Health Organization recorded 736 deaths and 2,719 wounded since the onset of Decisive Storm. As Human Rights Watch put it on April 13, “The [Saudi-led] coalition and the US should investigate alleged laws-of-war violations by coalition forces and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to populations at risk.”
By contrast, UNSC 2216 implies that only the Houthis are committing war crimes. Invoking Chapter VII of the UN charter as if circuitously and ex post facto to authorize Operation Decisive Storm, it demands that “all Yemeni parties, in particular the Houthis, fully implement resolution 2201 (2015),” “refrain from further unilateral actions,” and “unconditionally…end the use of violence.” No mention of non-Yemeni parties.
Instead of condemning war crimes on both sides, or calling forcefully for a negotiated ceasefire, UNSC 2216 implicitly condones the Saudi-led, US-backed escalation. An indistinct nod toward diplomacy “welcomes” the GCC’s restatement of a March 10 invitation to convene a “conference” in Riyadh. This proposal was disingenuous then, since the Saudis would hardly be neutral arbiters between a transitional regime they installed and a group they label “terrorists.”
Praising the resolution, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, known for her past advocacy of humanitarian intervention, declared that “a legitimate transition in Yemen can only be achieved through political negotiations and a consensus agreement among all political parties based on the GCC initiative and the outcomes of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference.”
The Jordanian-sponsored resolution gives the impression that these (unmentioned) actions support rather than defy international law. In nine separate paragraphs and clauses, UNSC 2216 lauds the GCC initiative, including its outcomes: the National Dialogue Conference and, thereby, and the draft constitution also facilitated by Benomar. It reaffirms “the legitimacy of the president of Yemen, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.” Moreover it condemns “any actions that undermine the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen.”
UNSC 2216 and Power’s remarks in mid-April follow up on a measure passed by the Security Council two months earlier on February 15. Then, as the United States, other NATO powers and Gulf nations shut down their embassies in Sanaa and evacuated their diplomats, the world body unanimously voted for Resolution 2201, calling on the Houthis to surrender their military gains and all Yemenis to get behind the GCC initiative and the draft constitution produced with the assistance of the special envoy, Benomar, in the name of the National Dialogue Conference.
This first resolution reflected Gulf and great power anxieties about minority guerrillas capturing the capital, Sanaa, overthrowing the remnants of the central government, sowing chaos, and inadvertently leaving opportunities for Ansar al-Shar‘ia (a local ally of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP) to make even more mischief. Domestically, it appealed to some, especially in the governorates that made up independent South Yemen until unification in 1990, who prefer the interim government of Hadi to the Houthis, but who also aspire to independence rather than unity.
In February, as in April, the “international community” praised the GCC initiative and its outcomes as the only solution to Yemen’s woes, Hadi as the rightful leader and the draft constitution as a road map for the future. Actually, all three had already failed to deliver tranquility, social justice or a way forward.
The GCC initiative was hardly a blueprint for social justice in Yemen, and the draft constitution sold popular aspirations short. A refresher on the GCC initiative: In 2011 there was a mass non-violent uprising against Salih. It remained mostly peaceful, although security troops were regularly sent to shoot demonstrators and more than 50 demonstrators were killed on one day in March and Salih himself was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in June. While Salih was convalescing in Saudi Arabia, leaders who had tried to bridge the impasse between north and south in 1994 relaunched their National Dialogue. This project was commandeered by the GCC, who cut a deal with Salih, signed in Riyadh in late 2011, whereby he handed over presidential power to his handpicked vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution for misdeeds in office, while remaining the head of the ruling General People’s Congress, which in turn technically retained a majority of 301 district-based parliamentary seats (although legislative terms had already expired). A hastily arranged one-candidate election in 2012 installed Hadi for a two-year term as transitional president. The revolutionary “peaceful youth” who had camped out in city squares for months on end in 2011 were mostly wary of this plan for limited regime change, and skeptical about GCC agendas. Also, note that Hadi’s term has run out.
In and of itself, the ensuing National Dialogue Conference was a sound idea, grounded in Yemeni precedents. It did help to tamp down tensions in 2012 and part of 2013. Some of its committees made real progress, thanks to some young and/or female intellectuals and technocrats. There were working groups on a range of issues—ranging from economic development to the Houthi and southern questions, respectively. But in the end the Conference did not produce the desired results. Most of the 565 delegates were aging politicians, veterans of past conflicts and corruption rackets. The dissident Houthis, the Southern Movement or hirak, and advocates of genuine change were under-represented.
The National Dialogue, moreover, became a donor-dominated “transitology” project. Delegates earned generous per diems to meet in the five-star Mövenpick Hotel in Sanaa with foreign “experts” on subjects like federalism. This last item was not on the Conference agenda or part of its mission statement or committee structure—but nevertheless a federalism proposal was a major outcome of the Conference, and a central feature of the proposed constitution. Still, the federal map produced by the Conference was dismissed in popular responses as inadequate to address the real need for a regime change or to end to power struggle in Sanaa. It was, moreover, the imposition of the division into six regions that prompted the Houthis to deploy so as to stop that division. The hirak also rejected this redesign.
The draft constitution overvalued in UNSC 2216 is premised on a “federal” solution to Yemen’s problems. There’s no doubt that the majority of Yemenis prefer decentralized local governance over one-man autocracy. Nor can anyone object to the numerous platitudes including promises to respect rights to asylum, health care and more. But the draft constitution, a product of the GCC initiative and foreign consultations, was not the answer to Yemen’s problems it was made out to be. It seemed bizarrely derivative of the flawed American-backed constitution foisted on Iraq in 2005, or the similar failed arrangements introduced in Afghanistan.
The envisioned government structure is not fully federal if that term means regional autonomy. The text specifies that the new House of Representatives shall consist of 260 members elected through a general, free, secret, direct and equal vote under the closed proportional list system. That is national constituency representation, whereby parliamentary representatives are elected from the whole country, not localities or provinces, as in the American or German federal systems. Yemen’s draft constitution would marginalize regional forces, notably the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah), based in the Sa‘ada governorate in the far north.
Moreover, oddly, the draft constitution stipulated that the south (the newly designated but ill-defined regions of Aden and Hadramawt) shall be represented in the House of Representatives based on “the land and population formula” at a share of 40 percent. This formula would give the south more seats than they had in the current (although legally defunct) 301-member legislature, or than they would earn based purely on population. It looked like a bid to win the support of southerners. At the same time, contrarily, the proposed national charter divided the south into two large regions in the “federal” system, a notion that is anathema to many hirak activists, whose demands are for the restoration of independent southern sovereignty.
The draft constitution also created a new upper house of Parliament called the Federal Council, comprised of 84 members—12 from each of six newly created regions, six from the city of Sanaa and six from the city of Aden. This apportionment is cockeyed because the ostensible equality of representation from each of the six purportedly federal regions is skewed toward the former capitals of North and South Yemen, respectively. Other large metropolitan areas, notably Ta‘izz, but also Hudayda—situated geographically, politically and metaphorically between Sanaa and Aden—were relatively under-represented.
Finally, the draft constitution specified that the president and vice president shall be elected together on a single ticket, provided that they are not from the same region. And yet the national constituency vote virtually guarantees a majority of conservative, status quo politicians from the more populous former North Yemen.
None of these provisions satisfied popular aspirations.
Under the leadership of the new Saudi King Salman, the members of the GCC (except Oman) pulled together a war coalition including Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, backed by the United States and Great Britain. They rammed a flawed, legally questionable, unbalanced resolution through the Security Council that seemed to authorize a military operation that has closed all of Yemen’s air and sea ports, caused a nationwide power outage, killed hundreds, wounded thousands, displaced tens of thousands, incapacitated emergency and medical facilities, halted food imports and terrorized millions.
When I began this essay my conclusion was to be that it is the responsibility of the Security Council, the Obama administration, other world powers, and American, British or European scholars familiar with the many intricacies of this conflict to call unequivocally on all parties to stop fighting, bombing and rearming: to give diplomacy a chance, halt the bloodletting, show empathy for innocents caught in the crossfire. I honestly don’t know what is going on inside the UN. But I hope the secretary-general and others are about to embrace the #KefayaWar hashtag. And that the US policy establishment will pay heed. And that otherwise a community of concerned scholars will speak out.
Image: Samer al-Shameri
Open Letter from Yemen Scholars Protesting War
We write as scholars concerned with Yemen and as residents/nationals of the United Kingdom and the United States. The military attack by Saudi Arabia, backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council states (but not Oman), Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the UK and above all the US, is into its third week of bombing and blockading Yemen. This military campaign is illegal under international law: None of these states has a case for self-defense. The targets of the campaign include schools, homes, refugee camps, water systems, grain stores and food industries. This has the potential for appalling harm to ordinary Yemenis as almost no food or medicine can enter. Yemen is the poorest country of the Arab world in per capita income, yet rich in cultural plurality and democratic tradition. Rather than contributing to the destruction of the country, the US and UK should support a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate, unconditional ceasefire and use their diplomatic influence to strengthen the sovereignty and self-government of Yemen. As specialists we are more than aware of internal divisions within Yemeni society, but we consider that it is for the Yemenis themselves to be allowed to negotiate a political settlement.
Robert Burrowes, University of Washington
Steve Caton, Harvard University
Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond
Paul Dresch, University of Oxford
Najam Haidar, Barnard College
Anne Meneley, Trent University
Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
Flagg Miller, University of California-Davis
Martha Mundy, London School of Economics
Thanos Petouris, SOAS-University of London
Lucine Taminian, The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq
Gabriele vom Bruck, SOAS-University of London
Janet Watson, University of Leeds
Lisa Wedeen, University of Chicago
John Willis, University of Colorado
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck College, London
Not Running on Empty: Democratic Activism Against Israeli Gas in Jordan
A grassroots movement has been growing in Jordan, aimed at putting a stop to a major gas deal between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom. In the wake of the Israeli elections, which returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power, this movement can be expected to get larger still.
On March 6, at least a thousand protesters marched in Jordan against a proposed transaction by which the kingdom would purchase most of its natural gas from Israel. Jordan remains an energy-dependent country, so Jordan’s government hoped that the deal would shore up the kingdom’s energy supply, and reduce the previous reliance on Egypt and its frequently sabotaged pipeline running across the Sinai Peninsula. The bargain now faces multiple obstacles, including Israel’s own anti-trust authorities, which are concerned to prevent energy monopolies. But within Jordan, there seem to be two key stories: one, the depth of resistance to the deal itself, and two, the reemergence of a broad, democratic opposition coalition for the first time since the early days of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Jordan has seen other issue-specific grassroots activism recently, especially with regard to other energy-related controversies such as plans to build nuclear power plants. But the coalition against the gas deal appears to be both broader and deeper, ranging from ordinary citizens to members of Parliament.
Supporters of the gas deal include many officials in the Jordanian, Israeli and US governments, who see it as part of a strategy linking Israel, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan together via energy interdependence. This economic vision is meant to bring political stability to the region as well, but what wealthy and powerful states view as interdependence others often see simply as dependence. Still, Jordanian proponents of the compact argue that Jordan has few real alternatives. They are correct that Jordan is in desperate need of stable and reliable sources of energy to meet the needs of the population. But it is the identity of the proposed supplier that is most troublesome to opponents of the project.
Jordan’s grassroots opposition activism against the deal is rooted in part in the national, regional and global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, but it is also more than that. BDS only emerged in Jordan in 2014, and its backers compose just one of about 30 groups in the coalition. Some of these groups have been part of the “anti-normalization” campaign for decades. “Israel is determined to use the need for natural resources as a gateway to a region that does not desire normalized relations,” noted Mary Nazzal-Batayneh, a spokesperson for the Jordan BDS movement. Especially in the aftermath of the 2014 Gaza war, and the terrible death toll among Palestinians in Gaza, many in Jordan argue that gas purchases from Israel are tantamount to support for bombardment and occupation. Certainly, these latter points have been the main themes of slogans and signs at the various protests against the gas deal over the last several months.
The pressure was great enough that Parliament held sessions on the gas issue, with activists in attendance. On December 10, 2014, Jordan’s lower house of Parliament voted 107 to 13 (in a non-binding resolution) to urge the government to scrap the gas deal entirely. For the activists, it was an enormous victory. “I really think this kind of call for accountability from a grassroots secular campaign is unprecedented in recent years,” said Nazzal-Batayneh. “If it weren’t for us, Parliament wouldn’t have deliberated the issue to the same extent.”
Yet Parliament remains weak relative to executive authority in Jordan, so the bigger decisions will ultimately be made within the cabinet and inside the royal palace. With that in mind, activists have kept the campaign going, urging policymakers not only to abandon the prospective bargain with Israel, but also to pursue alternative gas supplies (such as from Cyprus) and alternative energy sources, including shale within Jordan itself.
Jordanian activism on this issue may represent an even bigger story than the gas deal itself, however, because the coalition is so broad. As uprisings toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Jordanian protesters, too, took their political dissent to the streets. Popular movements collectively known as the hirak appeared in virtually every city, town and village in the country, urging change. Jordanian protests focused mainly on reform, not revolution, but they began to dissipate in 2012. The regime, in the meantime, pursued a set of top-down reform initiatives in an effort to respond to the popular political energies.
Regime supporters point to a long list of reforms to explain why street protest disappeared, but the disillusionment of opposition forces was also a factor. The tumult of regional politics dampened enthusiasm considerably. The civil war in Syria served as a wedge dividing the Jordanian opposition, with some secular and leftist elements supporting the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and the Muslim Brothers supporting Islamist rebels, but most liberals and progressives supporting neither. The rise and fall of the Muslim Brothers’ regime in Egypt only deepened the distrust within and among Jordan’s diverse opposition forces.
That is why the current coalition against the gas deal is so compelling. To some extent, this coalition has revived a focused kind of street activism. Since the signing of the 1994 Wadi ‘Araba peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, an “anti-normalization” movement has ensured that the peace remains a cold one between regimes, but not really between societies. That movement now seems to be rejuvenated. “Normalization has been between political elites and has not taken on a wider economic dimension, but this deal aims to change all that,” said activist Thoraya al-Rayyes. “Perhaps the Jordanian and Israeli regimes thought that the current weakness of the opposition presented a window of opportunity to pursue the kind of far-reaching normalization initiative they have not been able to pursue before. But the backlash has been strong and the campaign has united groups from across the political spectrum.”
The anti-gas deal coalition has also revived cooperation across ideological lines. The demonstrations include Islamists, but also leftist and pan-Arab nationalist political parties, trade unions, professional associations, women’s rights organizations, hirak groups and youth organizations, and even the influential association for retired military officers. Most of the organizers and leaders are not remotely sympathetic to the Islamist movement. The coalition is diverse, drawing on people of different ages, classes, religions (Muslims and Christians), and ethnic backgrounds (East Jordanian, tribal, Palestinian or Circassian origins). “This is the first unified campaign since the Arab spring broke up the ranks of unified work on major issues like normalization,” said Hisham Bustani, the coordinator of the national coalition. Similarly, Abdullah Shami, another activist, saw in the movement a broader significance for democratic participation and reform activism: “Things are picking up.… I think there is a small opening within the public sphere, for the traditional opposition among leftist parties and professional unions, and their traditional causes to create some sort of dynamic, in partnership with various hiraks around the country.”
The nascent movement may succeed in its immediate goal of shifting Jordan’s energy policies away from Israel and toward alternative sources of supply and development, but it may also create more space for citizen activism and effective democratic participation in Jordanian political life.