Did Russian Intervention Break the Syrian Stalemate?

by Samer Abboud | published March 15, 2016 - 3:01pm

It is now a cliché to say that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and has multiple regional and international drivers.

For some time, all of these complications were adduced to answer the question: “Why is there a military and political stalemate in Syria?” Beginning in September 2015, however, Russian intervention on the side of the regime of Bashar al-Asad dramatically altered the dynamics that gave rise to the deadlock. Now that Russian bombing has been suspended, many hope a political process can bring an end to the war. Instead, the conflict is likely to continue, but on a very different trajectory.

The concept of networks of violence is very useful—not for figuring out who is fighting whom at any given moment, for that is impossible, but in tracing how the stalemate emerged. Networks of violence have formed throughout the country and are a key feature of both regime- and rebel-aligned forces. There are three basic structures that serve as the nodes of the violent networks and which contribute to the non-hierarchical, fragmented nature of violence. The first node is that of the battalion or company. These battalions are typically made up of a small number of fighters who are concentrated in specific areas. An excellent example is the shabbiha groups that eventually evolved into the core of the National Defense Forces (NDF), a regime-aligned militia.

Brigades, the second node in the network, are conglomerations of battalions under a central command. These units have a much wider geographic range than battalions and are active in larger parts of cities and provinces.

A larger, non-hierarchical form of coordination is the front, the third node in the networks of violence. Fronts are amalgamations of brigades that serve more as military alliances than as chains of command. The fronts usually form in situations of battlefield necessity, and are typically composed of dozens of brigades, with a small number of powerful brigades that dominate. Loyalty is often very weak with different brigades pledging and withdrawing allegiance with alarming frequency.

The Army of Conquest, a front formed in March 2015, contained three of the more powerful rebel-aligned brigades in the northern provinces, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as four smaller brigades. Upon its formation, the Army of Conquest made military advances in Idlib and Hama provinces. These advances were halted by regime-aligned forces, as well as the defection of Jund al-Aqsa over administrative disputes. The defection of this powerful brigade emasculated the front’s capacity and led to the eventual departure of Sham Legion, one of the smaller brigades. While still operating in the northern areas, the Front’s advances have subsequently been limited.

A second example is that of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, started in 2014 as a conglomeration of northern-based brigades to coordinate military activities against the Islamic Front and other rebel brigades. Quick defeats on the battlefield led to the defection of some of the Free Syrian Army affiliates backed by the West, who formed a new coalition with Harakat Hazm and other Islamist-oriented groups called the Revolutionary Front. Within less than a year, that front, too, had been gutted by defections, including of Harakat Hazm, which dissolved into another grouping called the Levant Front. Such examples abound. As such, these networks are defined by their fluidity.

In Syria, the structure of the armed groups aligned with both regime and rebel forces is what Paul Staniland calls “fragmented,” based on their weak social and political entrenchment in the conflict landscape. The possible exception is the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units. But neither the Free Syrian Army brigades nor the NDF militias that have terrorized civilians under the pretext of security provision are deeply rooted. This lack of entrenchment is the outcome of many factors, including: the lack of political parties and associations from which to mobilize the population; the atomization of the uprising; material drivers of the conflict; and competing social bases linked to different authorities that change over time. The lack of entrenchment reveals itself in the constantly changing administrations and armed groups present in different areas. In turn, the absence of solid social bases forces different armed groups into cooperative networks that enhance their geographic reach, contribute to resource distribution and ensure their survival. In short, these groups enter into cooperative agreements for material, political or military reasons, and not necessarily ideological ones. Cooperation occurs out of necessity.

The military and political stalemate emerged because these networks are strong enough to continue fighting yet not strong enough to overtake and control territory. Regional rivalries, such as between the Saudis and Qataris on the rebel side, further ensured that resources were directed toward different networks to help maintain the stalemate. Such balances on the battlefield were reflected in the political arena, where major actors, including those inside of Syria, remained intent on a military solution to the conflict rather than a political one. A military stalemate never made political concessions attractive.

This fluid and unstable, yet proliferating, organizational structure of violence in Syria was the immediate backdrop to the Russian intervention.

One of the central questions facing armed groups in conflict is their ability to reproduce, socially, militarily and economically. They need to get recruits, find weapons and make money to finance their operations. The Russian intervention squeezed the ability of these groups to reproduce, thus altering the material and geographic conditions under which the networks of violence form. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, not to mention the suffocation of supply routes, reduced and degraded the capacity of many armed groups to the breaking point.

The disruption of the stalemate resulted in an agreement on a ceasefire, which took effect on February 27. Paradoxically, Russia’s intervention has made politics possible. But the particular kind of politics prefigured by Russia’s intervention is not one in which violence and conflict are discouraged or one in which any meaningful political demands, such as a serious, substantive political transition, may emerge.

The networks of violence have little interest in engaging in a political process that offers no tangible material benefit to them. After five years of conflict, and the development of robust war economies throughout the country, these networks in fact have a larger stake in continuing violence. In the absence of a unified rebel vision and continued infighting and fluidity between networks, there is no reason to believe that a Russian-brokered peace process would help to dissolve the networks.

When the history of the Syrian conflict is told, it will be disaggregated into various stages and periods. The transition from the period of stalemate to the period after the Russian intervention will be seen as a key turning point in the trajectory of the conflict. It will also help give insight into the different forms of authority included or excluded in future political arrangements, and the continuity of different, although no less disturbing, forms of violence in Syria.

Filed under:

Notes on Low Oil Prices and Their Implications

by Miriam R. Lowi | published February 24, 2016 - 9:50am

After about three years of hovering around $110 per barrel, with highs of $125 and lows of $90, oil prices began a precipitous decline in the summer of 2014, reaching a low of $48 per barrel in mid-August 2015 before plummeting to just under $30 per barrel five months later. While investors are no doubt reeling from the impact of this price decline on their portfolios and ventures, it’s well worth pondering how the Middle East and its geopolitics are likely to be affected.

But how to explain this downward spiral in the first place? By all accounts, reasons abound.

Among them: The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) chose to drive down the price of oil so as to encourage demand for oil from its member states relative to that from non-OPEC producers. Toward the end of 2014, OPEC took the decision to work to maintain its market share rather than cut production in response to falling demand. This focus on its own share of the oil market is fairly new; previously, OPEC seemed especially concerned to maintain the price of oil within a particular range. (And with that stance as “policy,” Saudi Arabia assumed the role of “swing producer,” tasked with raising or reducing production to maintain the price range.) No doubt, Saudi Arabia was at the forefront of OPEC’s new direction: It is anxious to regain domination of the oil market. And to this end, the kingdom has been keen to push Russia, which is not a member of OPEC, to pump less oil as well.

Be that as it may, analysts insist that another reason is that the supply of oil in recent years has exceeded expectations, due, in part, to the growth in supply of non-conventional oil (from such sources as shale and biofuels), while demand for oil, in an environment of relatively weak global economic growth, has been lower than expected. They add that increased energy efficiency and the declining oil intensity of energy consumption have contributed to the lower demand.

As for the latest fall in prices, some argue that it was prompted by concerns that while the market was already saturated with oil from Saudi Arabia and Russia, it would receive additional supplies from the lifting of sanctions on Iran and the end of the ban on that country’s exports. Needless to say, Iran is unwilling, at this time, to cap its production, having just returned to the global oil market. And despite last week’s agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia to cut their production, in response to international pressures, nothing really compels them to comply; besides, without the inclusion of Iran and Iraq such an agreement is reduced in efficacy.

Furthermore, the appreciation of the US dollar since 2014 has also pushed down the price of oil. Countries that have experienced an erosion of the purchasing power of their currencies as a result of the strong dollar may respond by curtailing demand.

What about the impact of low and falling oil prices on the Middle East, its international relations and domestic politics? There are likely to be both direct and indirect effects, but much will depend on the duration of the new lows.

Having said that, it is clear that China’s economic growth stands to benefit tremendously from low oil prices. And given that China is the largest importer of oil in the world, it is likely that the ties between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and East Asian countries, and between Saudi Arabia and China especially, will increase and deepen. Indeed, the Gulf’s eastward turn has been underway for some time, and long-term contracts are bound to grow in number and intensity.

Insofar as regional relations are concerned, no doubt the lifting of sanctions on Iran means that as Iranian oil enters the market, Iran will have the means to be more assertive in the region—precisely what gives Saudi Arabia the jitters. Nonetheless, if low oil prices persist, the growth of Iran’s refinery capacity, and therefore of its exports of refined petroleum, will be constrained somewhat.

For those oil-exporting states engaged in war, persistent low prices are potentially deeply consequential. Yet for Russia (in Syria) and Saudi Arabia (in Yemen) today, they do not yet appear sufficiently consequential.

Both countries built up large currency reserves during periods of high oil prices; both are now drawing down those reserves to sustain spending, fight wars and finance a budget deficit. It was suggested that Russia was approaching the limits of its reserves even before the intensification of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015. In October, the Russian finance minister told the parliament in Moscow that at current rates of spending, reserves could be exhausted by the close of 2016. As for Saudi Arabia, its reserves remain substantial. While one analyst, Jean Francois Seznec, has suggested that in February 2015 the kingdom had access to reserves from several different sources amounting to a whopping $1 trillion for a total population—citizens and imported labor—of about 30 million, most sources refer to cash reserves of $750 billion. Ten months later, however, reserves had declined to $600 billion. At this rate of spending (and with access to the reserves of a few domestic funds), Saudi Arabia could manage for a few more years, at least. Indeed, the monarchy has shown no disposition to retreat from its devastating war footing in Yemen.

What about the budgetary implications of low oil prices on government spending more broadly? For one, foreign assistance from GCC states to other Arab countries will likely be reduced. But while the relatively poor, non-oil exporting states of the region are bound to suffer, those to whom assistance is closely linked to political expediency will suffer somewhat less than others. (In this regard, it would be interesting to examine changes to the aid package to Egypt from Saudi Arabia and the UAE since the beginning of the presidency of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.) At home, ongoing budgetary constraints mean that government spending will have to be reduced. No doubt, austerity is far riskier in Algeria than in (most) GCC states since the per capita cushion of cash reserves is not as generous, while the provision of welfare and social services has been wanting, and popular grievances are manifest. There, the resurgence of relative scarcity and rising frustrations in an impoverished political environment could encourage, as in the past, the mobilization of social forces.

If the price of oil continues to fall and/or remains low, the creation of job opportunities (for the growing numbers of unemployed) will be even more difficult (in the short term, at least) than it has been, while subsidies extended to citizens will have to be reduced, to varying degrees. The GCC has already publicized the decision to introduce, for the first time, a value-added tax, to become operational within the next few years. Were low prices to persist, if not continue to fall over the longer term, domestic politics could be affected insofar as the distribution of oil rents functions as a powerful instrument of social control. Recall that in the early days of the 2011 Arab uprisings, fearing contagion, the Algerian regime, as well as each of the GCC states increased allocations from their burgeoning revenues to their citizens (in the hopes that this would keep them happy and off the streets).

But much depends on whether oil prices continue to fall and how long this period of low oil prices lasts. Given these uncertainties, it would be foolhardy to predict revolution in the Gulf monarchies, to say nothing of an imminent end to the Saudi aggression in Yemen.

Filed under:

Defending Academic Freedom

by Laurie A. Brand | published February 23, 2016 - 10:56am

Constraints on academic freedom or violations of it are not new in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, while there is certainly variation among the countries of the region, regime attempts to control what is studied, how it is studied, and what faculty and students may do and say both on and off campus have a long history.

While the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) was founded in 1966, its Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) was not established until 1989. CAF’s mandate is to monitor violations of academic freedom and, where necessary, to write letters of protest to the relevant authorities, both as a means of publicizing the violations and in hopes of generating some pressure for their redress. In its first decade, the committee’s interventions were limited, in part as a function of the size of the body, but also of the sources of information available.

As use of the Internet increased, however, and through it access to a range of official and non-official news sources, so did CAF members’—indeed, everyone’s—access to information about violations. The explosion in the use of social media in the mid-2000s has also enabled committee members to obtain information from the region and our contacts there much more easily than before. Closer to home, the impact of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the scholarly community’s reaction to it put increasing numbers of US (based) scholars into the sights of a terrorism-focused security state and its fellow travelers. Indeed, by 2007 the need to write regarding academic freedom violations in the US and Canada while maintaining our efforts vis-à-vis Middle Eastern cases led CAF to establish two wings—one covering the Middle East and the other North America. Concomitantly, the MESA board approved increasing the number of committee members. A review of CAF’s work reveals a jump from five or fewer letters annually before 2004 to an average of 20 letters per year in the period 2007-2015.

Many of the letters written about Middle Eastern cases in the last few years are directly related to the security deterioration and violence that has come to plague a growing number of countries since 2011. The scale of the destruction in the educational sector—as an integral part of broader society—has been all too clear, from Iraq to Syria and Yemen. In these cases, where documenting individual abuses is beyond the capability of the committee given the extent of the devastation, CAF has written several broad statements deploring the violence in the educational sector and its future implications.

As some Middle East Report readers who are also members of MESA know, in the first two months of 2016 CAF has already produced an unprecedented 16 letters, and others are on the horizon, including what may well be a series of interventions regarding US state lawmakers’ attempts to curb free speech regarding the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, directed at Israel.

The majority of our 2016 letters have so far been addressed to two countries. The first is Egypt, where the continuing uncertainty of the political transition in the context of a brutal military-security regime has produced a dangerous academic and research terrain in which former red lines are shifting or have blurred. The second, and the one that has triggered the unprecedented number of letters, is Turkey, where against the backdrop of an already clear authoritarian turn, the government has launched a wave of administrative, judicial and security assaults in the wake of the publication of the now famous Peace Petition regarding the escalating violence in the country’s southeast. The criminalization of all 1,128 academic signatories of this Petition, and the arrests, dismissals and threats to which the signers have been subjected, represents, at least in CAF’s experience, the broadest targeted assault against academics that we have ever seen.

There is no question that the increased access to information afforded us by various electronic media has played a role in driving the number of letters. There is also the human factor, however. CAF members are volunteers, all giving to this endeavor hours and hours of research and writing that could otherwise be spent on scholarship to advance their careers. CAF’s mission in the past and today attracts members who, for reasons of professional concern, personal commitment and deep moral outrage, have literally thrown themselves into the work of documenting what are increasingly broad and alarming threats, not just to academic freedom, but to personal freedom and, as we saw recently in Egypt, human life itself. The committee’s work is only as strong as the diligence and concern of its members, and in my experience over the past ten years as chair, its successive iterations have continued to grow in depth of commitment.

So, if it is to the tyrants of the region that we look as the source of our work, it is to committed academics like those currently serving on this committee who have embraced the growing need to defend colleagues, contacts and friends abroad that we can look for examples of some of the highest forms of professional and personal integrity that the academy can claim.

Filed under:

From the Archive: Egypt

by The Editors | published February 17, 2016 - 7:24pm

Last week marked the passage of five years since Husni Mubarak was compelled to resign as president of Egypt by the enormous uprising centered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Around the anniversary, we asked some friends and colleagues who have written on Egypt to list their favorite MERIP articles about that country. Not surprisingly, the lists are skewed toward coverage from 2011 to the present, but there are some older items as well. We offer these samples from our archive in hopes of shedding light on the historical roots of the uprising, the subsequent retrenchment of the authoritarian state and the popular struggles for “bread, freedom and social justice” that continue to this day.

Joel Beinin

Tim Mitchell, “America’s Egypt: Discourse of the Development Industry” (1991)
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament” (2006)
Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher, “Egypt's Generals and Transnational Capital” (2012)
Issandr El Amrani, “Sightings of the Egyptian Deep State” (2012)
Hesham Sallam, “Striking Back at Egyptian Workers” (2011)

Steven Brooke

Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
Marie-Christine Aulas, “Sadat’s Egypt: A Balance Sheet” (1982)  
Joel Beinin and Hossam El-Hamalawy, “Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity” (2007)
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament” (2006)
Sami Zubaida, “Islam, the State and Democracy: Contrasting Conceptions of Society in Egypt” (1992)

Issandr El Amrani

Joshua Stacher, “Damanhour by Hook and by Crook” (2006)
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament” (2006)
Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Liquidation of Egypt’s Illiberal Experiment” (2010)
Mona El-Ghobashy, “Antinomies of the Saad Eddin Ibrahim Case” (2002)

Mona El-Ghobashy

Erika Post, “Egypt’s Elections” (1987)
Joshua Stacher, “Damanhour by Hook and by Crook” (2006)
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament” (2006)
Joel Beinin, “The Militancy of Mahalla al-Kubra” (2007)
Jeannie Sowers and Sharif Elmusa, “Damietta Mobilizes for Its Environment” (2009)

Vickie Langohr

Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament” (2006)
Elliott Colla, “The People Want” (2012)
Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
Vickie Langohr, “‘This Is Our Square’: Fighting Sexual Assault at Cairo Protests" (2014)

Shana Minkin

Joel Beinin and Hossam El-Hamalawy, “Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity” (2007)
Mariz Tadros, “Sectarianism and Its Discontents in Post-Mubarak Egypt” (2011)
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “Boxing In the Brothers” (2007)
Heba Morayef, “Reexamining Human Rights Change in Egypt” (2015)
Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)

Sumita Pahwa

Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament” (2006)
Joel Beinin and Hossam El-Hamalawy, “Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity” (2007)

Nancy Reynolds

Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing, eds., The Journey to Tahrir (2012)
Joel Beinin, “The Militancy of Mahalla al-Kubra” (2007)
Elliott Colla, “The People Want” (2012)
Issandr El Amrani, “Sightings of the Egyptian Deep State” (2012)
Judith Gran, “Impact of the World Market on Egyptian Women” (1977)

Hesham Sallam

Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
Timothy Mitchell, “Dreamland: The Neoliberalism of Your Desires” (1999)
Marsha Pripstein Posusney, “Egyptian Privatization: New Challenges for the Left” (1999)
Joel Beinin and Hossam El-Hamalawy, “Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity” (2007)
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament” (2006)

Paul Sedra

Elliott Colla, “The People Want” (2012)
Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher, “Egypt’s Generals and Transnational Capital” (2012)
Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
Jessica Winegar, “Taking Out the Trash: Youth Clean Up Egypt After Mubarak” (2011)
Omnia Khalil, “The Everyday in Ramlat Bulaq” (2015)

Jack Shenker

Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
The Editors, “Red-White-and-Black Valentine” (2011)
Norma Claire Moruzzi, “Gender and the Revolutions” (2014)
Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher, “Egypt's Generals and Transnational Capital” (2012)
Elliott Colla, “The People Want” (2012)

Erin Snider

Timothy Mitchell, “America’s Egypt: Discourse of the Development Industry” (1991)
Joel Beinin and Hossam El-Hamalawy, “Egyptian Textile Workers Confront the New Economic Order” (2007)
Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “Boxing In the Brothers” (2007)
Ahmad Shokr, “The 18 Days of Tahrir” (2011)

Jeannie Sowers

Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
Ahmad Shokr, “The 18 Days of Tahrir” (2011)
Joel Beinin, “Formation of the Egyptian Working Class” (1981)
Timothy Mitchell, “America’s Egypt: Discourse of the Development Industry” (1991)
Mona El-Ghobashy, “Egypt’s Paradoxical Elections” (2006)

Joshua Stacher

Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (2011)
Timothy Mitchell, “America’s Egypt: Discourse of the Development Industry” (1991)
Joel Beinin and Hossam El-Hamalawy, “Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity” (2007)
Jessica Winegar, “Taking Out the Trash: Youth Clean Up Egypt After Mubarak” (2011)
Hesham Sallam, “Striking Back at Egypt’s Workers” (2011)
Robert Springborg, “The President and the Field Marshal: Civil-Military Relations in Egypt Today” (1986)

Andrea Teti

Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher, “Egypt’s Generals and Transnational Capital” (2012)
Hesham Sallam, “Striking Back at Egyptian Workers” (2011)
Joel Beinin, “The Militancy of Mahalla al-Kubra” (2007)
Asya el-Meehy, “Egypt’s Popular Committees: From Moments of Madness to NGO Dilemmas” (2012)
Jean Lachapelle, “Lessons from Egypt's Tax Collectors” (2012)

Filed under:

The Palestine Exception to Free Speech in America

by Joshua Stacher | published February 17, 2016 - 5:51pm

Omar Shakir and Megan Marzec came to northeastern Ohio last week to discuss the constraints on speech about research and activism with regard to Palestinian rights. Their host was the Northeast Ohio Consortium on Middle East Studies (NOCMES).

Shakir is the Bertha Fellow at the Center of Constitutional Rights and a lead author of the report The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US, published jointly by CCR and Palestine Legal. Shakir was also a lawyer for Steven Salaita in his successful suit against the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. That institution infamously revoked Salaita’s hiring as a tenured professor following his tweets critical of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014.

Marzec is a graduate of Ohio University, where she served as Student Senate President in 2014-2015. Her outspoken opposition to the 2014 assault on Gaza brought hateful attacks on her, replete with misogyny and racism, emanating from Athens, Ohio and around the world.

Shakir’s visit included a lecture for NOCMES at Cleveland State University in addition to events at Kent State that included a Know Your Rights workshop and the discussion with Marzec.

At the Kent State discussion, Shakir and Marzec covered everything from general trends and organizing strategies to personal experiences. Video of the discussion is here.

Two MERIP editors, Pete Moore and Joshua Stacher, founded NOCMES in 2010 to bring the best of Middle East studies to Cleveland and environs. The consortium now includes six universities, with about a dozen civic partners including the City Club of Cleveland and the Cleveland Council of World Affairs. NOCMES has invited over 35 speakers on such topics as the Arab uprisings, oil and Saudi Arabia, women and religion, ISIS, the global war on terror and policing in the US, the Iranian revolution, public opinion and comic books. Lectures are held at Cleveland-area universities, Islamic centers, churches, high schools, public libraries and bars, as well as prestigious venues such as the City Club. Previous speakers include Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Jillian Schwedler, Laleh Khalili, Arang Keshavarizian, Joel Beinin, Noura Erakat and Toby Jones. For more information and video of many previous events, see the NOCMES website.

Filed under:

Letter to Bernie, II

by Joel Beinin | published February 15, 2016 - 11:13am

Dear Sen. Sanders,

I’m a contributor to your campaign and enthusiastically support your bold, relentless critique of the billionaire class that is undermining democracy and making a decent life impossible for millions of people. I’d like you to speak more about how big money has been a destructive force in shaping our foreign policy as much, if not more, than our domestic policies. Perhaps no issue exemplifies this problem like Israel-Palestine.

Consider the shameful spectacle of the Republican presidential candidates traipsing to Las Vegas to compete in the “Sheldon Adelson primary.” Adelson, whose $25 billion fortune makes him the thirteenth richest person in the country according to Forbes, is one of the most prominent members of the “billionaire class” you have been righteously attacking. But Adelson’s interests are not primarily in domestic politics. As one confidant quipped, “Sheldon is all about Israel….”

The free Hebrew- and English-language daily established and funded by Adelson, Israel Today, is such an ostentatious promoter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally and the settlement enterprise in the West Bank more broadly that Israelis popularly refer to it as the “Bibi paper” (Bibiton). So the Republican hopefuls seeking campaign contributions had to swear fealty to Adelson’s super-hawkish views, even though pursuing his desired policies would guarantee that the Palestine-Israel conflict would remain unresolved.

It’s not only the Republicans whose policy on Israel-Palestine is unduly shaped by campaign contributions. Haim Saban, whose net worth of merely $3.5 billion makes him only the 171st richest American according to Forbes is one of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s largest campaign contributors. Over the years, Saban has contributed an estimated $30 million to the campaigns of both your primary opponent and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Saban has promised to “spend whatever it takes” to make Hillary Clinton president.

Like Adelson, Saban admits that his main political commitment is to Israel: “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” You strongly supported the Iran nuclear agreement. Saban urged Prime Minister Netanyahu, if he found the deal unacceptable, to “bomb the living daylights out of these sons of bitches.” Do we want our future president to be taking advice on Middle East policy from the likes of Haim Saban?

Saban has also advocated constraining the civil liberties of Americans and refugees seeking asylum in our country. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Saban opined that things that “are unacceptable in times of peace—such as profiling, listening in on anyone and everybody who looks suspicious, or interviewing Muslims in a more intense way than interviewing Christian refugees—is all acceptable.”

Unlike Adelson, Saban nominally supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But his notion of a two-state solution, which he shares with many Democratic and Republican party leaders, is hedged with concessions to Israeli settlers, an overly expansive notion of Israel’s security needs and insistence that Jerusalem is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people.” Moreover, Saban supports Adelson’s view that the Palestinians are an “invented people.” At the summit they convened to battle the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), Saban announced, “When it comes to Israel, we are absolutely on the same page.” The Adelson-Saban partnership has since run on the rocks.

In her July 2, 2015 letter to Saban affirming her opposition to the BDS campaign and seeking his advice on how to combat it, Hillary Clinton wrote that, while she supports a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “that outcome…cannot be imposed from outside or by uniltateral actions.” As Peter Beinart wrote, “This is nonsense. An outcome is being imposed, every day, by Israel’s unilateral expropriation of land in the West Bank, much of it owned by individual Palestinians, which Israel then doles out to Jewish settlers, thus making a viable Palestinian state harder and harder to achieve.”

My own view is that when there is such a broad consensus across the political elite to align with Israel and defend it in international forums against all criticism despite the obvious disastrous results of that alliance for the Palestinian people, for the peace of the region and for the majority of the people of Israel itself, much more is at play than campaign contributions from people like Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban and a host of other mere millionaires. That alliance is a central component of the policy of perpetual war in the Middle East. In its post-September 11, 2001 phase, that policy was the brainchild of the administration of President George W. Bush.

You have rightly opposed much of that policy. I ask you to broaden your opposition. The United States should join the international community in demanding that Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and effectively, the Gaza Strip, forthwith. If it continues to refuse to do so, Israel should be made to pay a price. Our government should speak out forthrightly against Israel’s repeated egregious violations of Palestinian human rights, including its three major assaults on the Gaza Strip since 2008. We should unequivocally condemn the Israeli government’s intensifying attacks on democratic values and its structural discrimination against the Palestinian Arab population of Israel, who comprise 20 percent of the state’s citizens.

“Realists” among your advisers will undoubtedly tell you that embracing these positions is one of those proverbial third rails of politics. They are wrong. You haven’t gotten as far as you have by being “realistic.” You’ve done it by inspiring and mobilizing people around the belief that things can be different in this country. Things can be different in the Middle East as well.

An increasing number of Americans, especially youth, people of color and even younger Jews, no longer support Israel uncritically and are repelled by its denial of Palestinian rights. Many of them are among your supporters. We will thank you for speaking out on these issues and redouble our efforts on your behalf. 

Thomas Friedman’s announcement of the death of the two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, even though other journalists who know the issues better than he does would say that he is late to the game, heralds the possibility of new terms of discussion on Israel-Palestine among the chattering classes. I urge you to be a leader in this discussion. Speak out for equality and justice in Israel-Palestine as you have on domestic issues.


Joel Beinin
Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History
Professor of Middle East History
Stanford University

Filed under:

Letter to Bernie

by The Editors | published February 11, 2016 - 2:49pm

Dear Sen. Sanders,

Congratulations on your strong showing in Iowa and your victory in New Hampshire.

It’s exciting to see Democratic primary voters—especially younger ones—choosing your program of social democracy over the unfettered liberal capitalism to which they’ve always been told there’s no alternative. They’re making that choice even though you call yourself a “socialist” and refuse to disavow the label amid the corporate media’s sneers. Imagine that—voters think they should decide who’s electable.

It’s obvious why your plain-speaking left-wing populist campaign has caught fire. Americans across the political spectrum think the system is broken. You’ve got the ear of the many alienated voters who blame the powerful, rather than the powerless, for the country’s problems. That’s true whether we’re talking about big banks or the “perpetual war” you are concerned about in the Middle East.

In fact, given the enthusiasm you’ve generated with your broadsides against Wall Street, we wish you would talk a lot more about another wasteful, wanton white elephant on a rampage—what President Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.”

You’ve made repeated reference to Ike’s famous line in Congress, and Peace Action finds you’ve got a pretty good record speaking out against the “bloated military budget.” But you’ve kept relatively mum about this topic on the presidential campaign trail, as you have about foreign policy in general.

You could distinguish yourself even further from your primary opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton—she voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you voted against it—by taking on the permanent war economy backed by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment.

Under the Obama administration, we have seen lurid illustrations of how much of US Middle East policy is based on the export of lethal weaponry. In 2010, the White House notified Congress of a record $60 billion in planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including 84 F-15 fighter jets (made by McDonnell Douglas) and a cornucopia of high explosives. Those transfers have continued even as the Saudis use these very armaments to commit war crimes in Yemen. In March of last year, the US resumed selling weapons to Egypt, despite a military coup against a democratically elected president and the massacre of hundreds who protested it. Two months later, the US approved $1.9 billion in arms sales to Israel, including 3,000 Hellfire missiles (made by Lockheed Martin), 250 air-to-air missiles (made by Raytheon) and 50 BLU-113 “bunker buster” bombs (made by Lockheed Martin). In the summer of 2014, Israel expended untold numbers of US-manufactured munitions in bombardment of Gaza so intense that artillery experts in the Pentagon were shocked. “The only possible reason” for firing as many shells as Israel did at one Gaza neighborhood, said a US officer, “is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible.”

The deals with Israel and Saudi Arabia were cut to maintain these two “special relationships” as the Obama administration wrapped up the nuclear negotiations with Iran (which you wisely endorse). But traffic in the machinery of death is business as usual: Since 2007, for example, Israel has received $3.1 billion per year in military aid from Washington. Most of that money is Foreign Military Financing—by US law, Israel must spend 78 percent of its annual haul on purchases from US arms dealers. (Other countries have to spend 100 percent.) How’s that for corporate welfare?

And then there’s the massive US military presence in the Persian Gulf and around the world. By the count of anthropologist David Vine, who just published a sobering study entitled Base Nation, the Pentagon has some 800 installations overseas occupied by hundreds of thousands of “forward-deployed” personnel. Vine found that the Pentagon doesn’t really know how much these bases cost. He did some calculations of his own and came up with a total bill of $168,769,714,522 for fiscal year 2012. Who gets this boodle? A lot of it goes to salaries and benefits for the troops, of course, but much of it also goes to private contractors like KBR, which by Vine’s accounting collected $44.4 billion in Pentagon contracts abroad from 2001-2013. The only bigger beneficiary of contracts during this period was “miscellaneous foreign contractors”—that’s right, a category of companies that the Pentagon does not identify publicly.

Most important, all these installations allow the bipartisan foreign policy establishment to conceive and carry out an imperial geostrategy. The US couldn’t even contemplate such a policy without the pre-positioned assets of the Pentagon and the pork-barrel politics of the big arms manufacturers. This critique has to come from someone like you who relies on small donors: Lockheed Martin and its ilk spread the campaign cash around so as to have plenty of friends on both sides of the aisle.

Big banks that exist to maximize returns to shareholders will despoil the fortunes of everyone else to fulfill their purpose. By the same logic, an industry that builds things meant to blow up will do its damnedest to make sure they blow up—so as to build more and more. And the revolving door between the weapons firms and the Pentagon guarantees that people in government will always be looking for proving grounds.

Please, Sen. Sanders, connect your own dots—your supporters want to hear you do it, and it’s the right thing to do.

UPDATE: As a mayor and senator, you, too, have been susceptible to the blandishments of big weapons dealers because you’ve wanted to create jobs for your constituents. Now that you’re running for national office, you don’t have to play that particular game.

Filed under:

China’s Stance on East Jerusalem

by Mohammed al-Sudairi | published January 28, 2016 - 9:58am

For those accustomed to the themes of Sino-Arab diplomacy, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on January 21 was predictable enough. It might not have attracted much attention at all if not for Xi’s statement that “China firmly supports the Middle East peace process and supports the establishment of a State of Palestine enjoying full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

This unequivocal position on East Jerusalem—at odds with the Israeli government’s insistence that Jerusalem is the “eternal and undivided” capital of Israel and with the US willingness to put Jerusalem’s status up for negotiation—was accorded considerable coverage in the Israeli press. In Arab social media, meanwhile, President Xi’s words met with some surprise as they appeared to indicate a shift in China’s position toward avid support for Palestine. Few noted, however, that the Chinese stance on this issue had already been spelled out in the “Arab white paper” issued on January 13, a week before Xi left on the tour of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran during which he gave his speech.

Unacknowledged, moreover, is the fact that this posture has been the de facto official position of the Chinese government for the last two decades or so, although it has only become truly evident over the last few years. Arguably, the emergence of this view can be traced to changes in the conceptualization of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as early as the 1970s. During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing supported Palestinian independence in all of historical Palestine. An interesting piece of propaganda from 1971, entitled “The Palestinian People Must Triumph,” captures this sentiment, depicting Israel as a “dagger” thrust into the heart of the Arab nation. This revolutionary Maoist solidarity was gradually shelved in favor of a discourse of peaceful resolution of the conflict that would accommodate some Israeli demands. This development was largely informed by China’s détente with the United States and the West after 1971, which included burgeoning, if covert, arms deals with Israel, as well as the perceived need for a peaceful international environment for the purpose of Chinese economic development.

This shift did not mean that the Palestinians were left by the wayside. The PLO continued to be identified in the Chinese political lexicon as “old friends” (lao pengyou), and its political initiatives regularly gained support from Beijing, as the prompt Chinese recognition of Palestinian statehood following the PLO’s declaration of same in 1988 suggests. Underlying this support was a lingering solidarity with the Palestinians (which continues to manifest itself in some circles of the Chinese political establishment), as well as more instrumental calculations that saw Chinese backing for Palestine as necessary for the maintenance of strong ties with the Arab world. Indeed, up to the present, China continues to leverage its legacy of support for the Palestinian struggle (balesitan douzheng) in its diplomatic engagement with the region. Every November, for instance, a reception for the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People is held in Beijing. During the 2014 iteration, President Xi “sent a congratulations letter…a rare show of China’s increased attention to the Palestinian cause,” and as Chen Yiyi notes, “a sign no Arab country in the Middle East would miss.”

The trend toward Beijing’s embrace of the emerging global consensus behind a two-state solution continued with the establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992 and the 1993 Oslo accords (pursued by the “old friends” themselves). In official pronouncements, the Chinese government emphasized that Jerusalem’s status was one issue among others to be resolved by talks between the two sides. The 2000s saw the evolution of a more pronounced Chinese support for East Jerusalem’s designation as the Palestinian capital. Such a view, from the Chinese perspective, was embedded in the “land for peace” principles drawing upon UN Resolution 242, the Arab peace plan announced in 2002 and reiterated in 2007, and the “road map” to a two-state solution proposed by President George W. Bush in 2002.

More critical to the evolution, however, has been China’s declining ability to maintain its traditional ambiguity regarding the specifics of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved. The changing discourse about China’s global role, as well its increasing trade with the Arab world ($132 billion by 2010) and tighter relationship with Israel, were suggestive of various tensions and contradictions that at some point would force China’s hand.

These tensions became obvious during the Fourth Ministerial China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held in Tianjin, China in 2010. A disagreement erupted between Arab and Chinese officials over a resolution affirming East Jerusalem’s status as the capital of Palestine. At the last minute, the Chinese side resisted signing the statement—and it is unclear why. Some speculated that the move was driven by a preoccupation with Iran in Sino-Arab discussions over the preceding years that had effectively sidelined the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This interpretation is unlikely: China has appointed three successive “special peace envoys”—Wang Shijie (2002-2006), Sun Bigan (2006-2009) and Wu Sike (2009-present), and been vocal in its support for the peace process sponsored by the Quartet of the US, UN, European Union and Russia. Rather, it is probable that China’s stronger ties with Israel, and sustained pro-Israel advocacy targeting Chinese academic and policymaking circles, were the important factors.

Over the last decade, as the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has grown in the West, both the Israeli government and Jewish American advocacy groups have devoted more attention to capturing the narrative in China (deemed to be largely pro-Palestinian) and pursuing what can be understood as an “Asian option.” As a result, there is now perhaps greater sensitivity in Beijing to the Israeli stance that “Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel,” evincing the desire characteristic of Chinese diplomacy not to antagonize anyone. It is worth noting that in 2014 the Chinese Foreign Ministry published an official translation of The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West and the Future of the Holy City, by Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN and an adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, which argues for the above position. Interestingly, one source of mine, a Chinese scholar, suggests that recent complaints lodged by Arab officials have led to the suspension of this project.

Nonetheless, the collective Arab dismay at China’s refusal to sign the 2010 resolution highlighted to the Chinese government that it would need to articulate its policy on East Jerusalem to avoid hurting its political and economic projects in the Middle East. The calculus became clearer still with the ascension of Xi Jinping to the presidency in 2012. Xi has since made the One Road One Belt project—a complex of railways, pipelines, trade pacts and other links stretching from Southeast Asia to Europe through the Middle East—the centerpiece of his economic and geopolitical strategy. The economic schemes have their own rationale—independent of other aspects of Sino-Arab relations—but China recognizes that its soft power in the Middle East has suffered following the 2009 riots in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province, where Muslim Uighurs are a substantial part of the population. Beijing probably felt, moreover, that asserting East Jerusalem’s status as future capital of Palestine did not constitute a major departure for Chinese diplomacy and its call for an equitable solution—it was already embedded in the various principles laid out above. Moreover, it would not hurt Sino-Israeli relations substantially (which, in any case, were held together by strong investment and technological linkages).

It is unclear whether the Chinese government eventually signed the resolution floated at the 2010 forum (its publication online suggests the answer is yes), but in any case the Fifth and Sixth Ministerials in 2012 and 2014 issued far more forceful resolutions asserting East Jerusalem’s status as the future capital of Palestine. At the latter meeting, in fact, President Xi previewed his comments at the Arab League, stating, “China supports an independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital on the basis of the 1967 border, and China hopes it enjoys full rights as a sovereign state.” The question of East Jerusalem has also become part of the Chinese peacemaking formula, as Xi’s “four-point plan,” revealed in 2013, indicates. Beijing has even criticized foreign political figures—such as Mitt Romney, during his presidential bid in 2012—who opted to ignore Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.

In that sense, the stance outlined in the January 13 “Arab white paper” is nothing new, but rather a reflection of China’s more pronounced subscription to the global consensus on how to resolve the conflict, on the one hand, and its cost-benefit analysis of how to balance its relations with the various parties of the Middle East, on the other. China’s embrace of this particular stance on East Jerusalem was a product of a gradual—and, in some respects, inevitable—process spanning well over two decades where several factors have come to play. If anything, its late adoption in Chinese diplomatic language—and only within the framework of the global consensus and the principles accepted and voiced by the “moderate” Arab camp—is indicative of the country’s essentially conservative disposition when it comes to resolving sensitive and divisive international questions such as that of East Jerusalem’s status.

Filed under:

Some Thoughts on November 13 and After

by Azadeh Kian | published November 20, 2015 - 1:29pm

My son and I were both so excited. It was my first time attending a soccer game at a stadium. And it was a momentous match, pitting the French national team against their counterparts from Germany. The Stade de France just outside Paris was full of almost 80,000 spectators of different social groups, ethnicities, ages and genders. Watching a match at a stadium, I realized, is very different from watching it on television. I was thinking about my Iranian sisters who cannot enter a stadium in Tehran as I can in Europe.

Then we heard the first blast. The whole stadium shook, but the match went on. Some said the noise was just a firecracker as is very common at these events. Then came a second bang. The players looked puzzled, but nonetheless the game continued again. We had already begun to feel uneasy, but we still had no clue as to what was happening outside.

Later, our phones buzzed with calls and messages from family and friends, who told us that bombs had gone off outside the stadium and that people had been massacred at the Bataclan concert hall and cafés in the city. We tried hard not to panic, and in fact remained seated until the end of the game, when some in the crowd started to run, screaming that terrorists had entered the stadium with guns.

At that moment I felt powerless, unable to protect my 17-year old son and lacking control over my own life as well. I had participated in the 1978-1979 Iranian revolution. Every morning when I left home headed for a strike or a demonstration I was conscious of taking the risk of being shot. But I was an agent—I was taking responsibility for my life, striking for my dignity, fighting for utopia.

But on November 13, 2015 I had no subjectivity, no agency, nothing but vulnerability. Our lives were in the hands of terrorists or the security forces deployed against them.

On that horrible evening 129 people, most of them young, were killed in attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The French president, François Hollande, stated that the attacks were “an act of war” and that France would hit back hard both at home and in Syria. He pressed the United States and other allies to do the same. Parliament answered his request to extend the 12-day state of emergency to three months. But Hollande went even further and demanded that the constitution be revised to make extraordinary presidential powers permanent. Taking a turn that left the French right with little to say, Hollande ordered house arrest for persons deemed possibly dangerous, brought in 1,500 soldiers to join the 10,000 patrolling the capital since the January shootings at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, and announced the hiring of 5,000 additional police.

So, though France is officially at war, Hollande wants us all to feel secure and breathe a sigh of relief. But did everyone live in peace before ISIS waged war? The number of innocent people killed on November 13 is precisely the number of women who are killed each year in France by their husbands or partners. And no war has been declared against those men. Some argue that ISIS attacked us because France is a secular society that values life, freedom and gender equality. Streets and public transport are now considered unsafe because ISIS militants might intrude with bombs or guns. But these public spaces have never been safe for women, many of whom have been raped there, sometimes even before passive fellow travelers. If a woman wants to be safe, some said when confronted with these facts, she should stay at home. And were Muslim migrant youth who live in poor suburbs really safe when their mere presence in Parisian neighborhoods is considered suspicious and they endure regular racial profiling and police harassment, even in their own neighborhoods?

By the constitutional amendments that Hollande has proposed, people with dual nationality can be stripped of their French citizenship if they act against the national interest. But it is unclear what is meant by that last term. The rule change would create two categories of citizens—those born in France to French parents and those born in a foreign country or born in France to parents of foreign origin. French citizens would thus be differentiated as “good” or “bad” according to their national or foreign backgrounds. The amendment does not clearly state what is meant by “foreign,” but as Emmanuelle Cosse, national secretary of the French Green Party, argues: “This will encourage xenophobia and stigmatization, especially vis-à-vis Muslims. This is precisely what Daesh [ISIS] wants.”

Once again, the practice of Islam is being stigmatized. But mosques in France have been under surveillance for years. As several investigations have demonstrated, the majority of “jihadis” in France were not “radicalized” by Islam. Only 10 percent are attracted to such groups for religious reasons, said one such study, and 90 percent had been common delinquents. The author of that study is Pierre Conesa, a former senior official at the Ministry of Defense who is now a professor at Science Po, Paris. He recently contended that 80 percent of those who have gone to Syria from France have been neither in prison nor in a mosque.

Do the militarization, hypermasculinity and nationalistic sentiment that have become predominant in the public sphere and the media really secure peace? Or are they rather used to justify wars that France has already waged itself in Libya, northern Mali, Iraq and Syria—and that have in turn increased violence in France?

Two weeks prior to the November 13 attacks, I attended a conference in Paris organized on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the October 27, 2005 riots in the city’s poor suburbs. On that day, three teenagers fled the sound of police sirens in the heavily immigrant and working-class suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Two of them died trying to hide at an electrical substation. Word of the deaths spread quickly, and for the next two weeks there were confrontations between youths and riot police in Paris and cities across France, like today prompting Parliament to extend a state of emergency from 12 days to three months.

At the conference, activists who are second- or third-generation immigrants explained that back in the 1980s they took the initiative to get involved in national politics to secure a better life for themselves and millions of French citizens from migrant families. They organized nationwide marches to demand equality, but the Socialist Party then in power hijacked their autonomous initiative. They activists continued that they were effectively excluded from the national political community and full citizenship rights. Some were coopted, but many others refused such individual opportunities. The speakers talked about blocked horizons, a long series of denials of rights, and the patent failure of the men in power.

The neoliberal economic policies of today’s Socialist government are likely to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, the whites and the rest, and women and men, but also among women themselves. Ten percent of working-age women belong to the upper and upper middle classes and identify with upper-class males, while more than a third of working-age women are employed in low-paid, part-time jobs. These women, many of whom are Muslim migrants and wear a headscarf, make up the majority of the working poor. They are major targets of the radical laïcité, or state secularism, that has effectively become a racist ideology against the Muslim minority. The slogan that gender equality is a French national value sounds hollow indeed.

Security can never exist for all without social, racial and gender justice. “Equality, fraternity and liberty” are empty words in a class society where poor Muslim migrants are being ghettoized and branded as threats with no positive outlook for the future. Unless public policy is aimed at narrowing inequalities of class, race and gender, unless social justice truly becomes a French value, more youth, including women, are likely to be attracted to ISIS or its ilk, groups that offer them a territorial home as well a sense of power and “national belonging.”

Filed under:

Scholars of Egypt Protest Crackdown on Freedom of Expression

published November 18, 2015 - 2:45pm
November 18, 2015
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Arab Republic of Egypt
Ahmed al-Zind
Minister of Justice, Arab Republic of Egypt
Sedky Sobhy
Minister of Defense, Arab Republic of Egypt
Yasser Reda
Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the United States
John Kerry
Secretary of State, United States of America
Dear sirs, 
We, the undersigned North America-based scholars of Egypt, write to register our deep concern about the deterioration of the right to freedom of expression in Egypt and the continued referral of civilians to military courts for trial. The arrest on November 8, 2015 of journalist and human rights activist Hossam Bahgat is only the most recent example of the consistent violation of the right to freedom of the press enshrined in Egypt’s 2014 constitution. Many Egyptian citizens are jailed or facing criminal prosecution for other forms of expression, from participation in peaceful protests to Facebook and Twitter posts expressing even the mildest criticism of government figures, policies or state institutions. More than 3,700 Egyptians have been tried in military courts since October 2014. These government policies only harm and weaken Egypt’s international reputation.
Articles 70 and 71 of the Egyptian constitution of 2014 guarantee freedom of the press, with Article 71 stipulating, “No freedom restricting penalty shall be imposed for publication or publicity crimes.” During his September 2015 visit to New York to speak before the UN General Assembly, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told CNN that there is “unprecedented freedom of expression in Egypt. No one in Egypt can bar anyone working in media or journalism or on TV from expressing their views.” This assertion is at odds with the finding of the Committee to Protect Journalists that at least 19 journalists are in jail for activities directly related to their reporting.  
Some of these journalists were imprisoned for covering crucial events in Egyptian politics. Mahmoud Abou Zeid was arrested while photographing the dispersal of the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya in August 2013 for the well-known agency Demotix. Abou Zeid, also known as Showkan, has now endured more than 800 days of pre-trial detention, during which time he has contracted hepatitis C and become anemic. Videographer Saeed Abuhaj, who covers issues in the Sinai ranging from fuel shortages to conflicts between citizens and the police, is also nearing two years of pre-trial detention since his imprisonment on November 17, 2013. Other journalists have been given lengthy jail sentences in what appear to be nothing more than fits of government pique at the exposure of human rights abuses. Omar Abdel Maksoud was first taken into police custody in February 2014 when he reported on a celebration organized by activists for Dahab Hamdy, who was imprisoned for participating in an anti-government protest, and was forced to give birth to her daughter, Hurriya, while handcuffed in jail. After being detained for a month, Maksoud and his two brothers were charged with setting fire to cars during President Sisi’s campaign for office and with belonging to the Society of Muslim Brothers, and sentenced to life in prison. 
The most recent egregious violation of Egyptians’ constitutionally protected right to freedom of the press was the imprisonment of Hossam Bahgat for three days beginning on November 8, 2015. Bahgat is an internationally renowned human rights activist who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and won Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award in 2011. Bahgat was first summoned to military intelligence headquarters and then taken to the offices of the North Cairo Military Prosecution. He reports that his interrogation by military officials was based solely on his article “A Coup Busted,” an examination of the trial of 26 officers on charges of attempting to overthrow the regime, which was published at the independent news website Mada Masr on October 13. Bahgat was charged with violating Articles 102 and 188 of the Penal Code, which forbid the deliberate broadcast of false news or the spread of information that harms the public interest. While he was released after three days, likely as a result of international pressure including criticism of his arrest by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, it is unclear whether he continues to face criminal charges. Any such charges would clearly violate the right to freedom of the press guaranteed in the constitution. Bahgat reports that his interrogators repeatedly told him that he did not enjoy the normal protections afforded to journalists because he is not a member of the Journalists Syndicate. We note that an attempt to deny citizens the right to freely express themselves in the media on the grounds that they are not journalists violates Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory. Article 19 says that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to …impart information and ideas of all kinds...either orally, in writing or in print.” This right has been denied in the past week to Amr Hamzawy, an academic and former member of Parliament, when the newspaper al-Shorouq was ordered not to print his article on the failure of the autocratic regime. Hamzawy also continues to be threatened with jail time for expressing his views, as he is charged with “insulting the judiciary” for a June 2013 tweet criticizing a court verdict.
Government attempts to stifle citizens’ freedom of expression have increasingly occurred outside the realm of the media as well. Participants in peaceful protests have repeatedly been imprisoned, as in the case of Mahienour al-Massry, who is serving a two-year sentence for her participation in a peaceful sit-in at a police station in Alexandria. The sit-in was called in response to reports that lawyers attending the interrogation of activists in the station had been beaten. Similarly, Alaa Abd el Fattah is serving a five-year prison sentence for participating in a November 2013 demonstration in front of the Shura Council in opposition to the protest law and to proposed articles in the constitution allowing military trials of civilians. Serving five years with Abd el Fattah is Ahmed Abd el Rahman, who was charged, in part, with “thuggery” after defending women protesters at the Shura Council protest who were sexually assaulted by men widely believed to be plainclothes police. 
As the cases of Ahmed Abd el Rahman, Hossam Bahgat and others cited here suggest, these crackdowns on freedom of expression are more often motivated by a desire to protect the government’s image than to protect the “public interest.” Sending civilians to trial in military courts, where they enjoy fewer legal protections than in civilian courts, allows such assaults on citizens’ rights to be more easily covered up. Article 204 of the 2014 constitution says, in part, that “no civilian shall face trial before the Military Court, except for crimes that constitute a direct assault against military facilities or camps….against military zones…against the Armed Forces’ equipment, vehicles, weapons…military secrets, or its public funds.” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, testified earlier this month that 3,700 civilians have been sentenced before military courts since October 2014 alone. One of the consistent demands made by citizens since 2011 has been to abolish military trials for civilians. 
Egypt faces a set of daunting challenges, from building a political system in which citizens feel invested to generating employment to ending violent attacks in Sinai, Cairo and elsewhere. The undersigned scholars have lived, studied, worked and conducted research in Egypt, and published on various aspects of the country’s history, politics, society, economy, literature and arts. Many of us have done so for decades. We want the best for the country and its citizens, who continue to labor for a better, more just future. Along with many Egyptians, we delighted in the promise of social justice and political freedom brought by the 2011 revolution. Egypt can only conquer the grave challenges it faces by allowing citizens the right to free expression about the solutions to these problems, and by ensuring that civilians are tried in civilian, not military courts. We call on the Egyptian authorities to respect citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and the right of civilians not to be tried in military courts, as well as for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience swept up in the ongoing crackdown. 
Joel Beinin, Stanford University
Laurie Brand, University of Southern California 
Nathan Brown, George Washington University 
Jason Brownlee, University of Texas, Austin
Elliott Colla, Georgetown University
Khaled Fahmy, Harvard University 
James Gelvin, University of California, Los Angeles 
Ellis Goldberg, University of Washington
Vickie Langohr, College of the Holy Cross
Zachary Lockman, New York University
Shana Minkin, Sewanee University
Yasmin Moll, University of Michigan
Tamir Moustafa, Simon Fraser University
Sonali Pahwa, University of Minnesota 
Sumita Pahwa, Scripps College
Mark Peterson, Miami University of Ohio
Lisa Pollard, University of North Carolina, Wilmington
Nancy Reynolds, Washington University in St. Louis
Mona Russell, East Carolina University
Bruce Rutherford, Colgate University 
Hesham Sallam, Stanford University
Paul Sedra, Simon Fraser University
Jeannie Sowers, University of New Hampshire 
Joshua Stacher, Kent State University 
Christopher Stone, Hunter College
Ted Swedenburg, University of Arkansas
Chris Toensing, Middle East Research and Information Project
Judith Tucker, Georgetown University
Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University
Filed under: