It’s about democracy, not the Brotherhood

On Thursday, the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID) presented ‘The Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act? Implications for Egypt and the Region.” Ebrahim Rasool, former South African Ambassador to the US, Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, Neil Hicks, Director of Human Rights Promotion at Human Rights First, and Radwan Masmoudi, Founder and President of CSID, gave their thoughts on how this Congressional bill would affect Egypt and the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act passed the House Judiciary Committee on February 24. It calls on the State Department to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. If it does not do so, the State Department will need to provide sufficient evidence to indicate why it believes the Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization. This bill is intended to support Egyptian President Sisi, who ousted democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi and has tried to reimpose military order and autocracy.

Rasool believes that this bill will increase tensions in the Middle East. Quelling political dissent and labeling certain groups as terrorists will cause extremism to rise. The US needs to understand this and distinguish between Islamists and extremists.

Hashemi believes that the misguided bill is a gift to ISIS and Al Qaeda. It gives these groups the opportunity to exploit turmoil. The US may see a dictatorship as the lesser evil because it seems to provide stability. But if dictatorship had been stable, it would not have collapsed in the first place. Authoritarian regimes are so fragile that they collapse quickly when there are mass popular protests. A dictatorship only appears stable if it is able to ensure both prosperity and repression. Dictatorships merely create conditions for future, more intense chaos.

Hashemi further argued that Egypt is becoming another breeding ground for Islamic extremism. When the opposition to the Arab Spring came in full force, the promise of peaceful change ended and led to more extremism and violence in the region. Radical Islam thrives as a result of repressive regimes. In the 22 months since Sisi came to power, 700 terrorist attacks have been conducted. Only 90 attacks occurred in the 22 months prior to Sisi. Only two options exist in Egypt today, to be silent or join a revolutionary group that has a voice. Most young people in Egypt do not like ISIS, but they refuse to accept life under tyrants any longer.

Hicks agreed that the Muslim Brotherhood Act is misguided and contributes to more instability in the Middle East. Some Muslim Brotherhood members have been involved in violent activities, but others have participated in non-violent electoral processes. Tunisia exemplifies the non-violent faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hicks believes the US has clear interests in Islamists dedicated to nonviolent political activities. As human rights violations and poor governance under the Sisi administration continue, instability increases and harms the US and its allies.

Masmoudi said he disagrees with many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies, but that in no way justifies the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act. When a group makes mistakes, they should pay at the ballot box, not by taking away their human rights. His purpose in arguing against the US Congress decision to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group is to defend democracy, not the Muslim Brotherhood. Democracy must be inclusive, which involves the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation.

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Peace Picks March 21-25

  1. New Voices, New Visions: The Impact of the Arts in Saudi Arabia | Tuesday, March 22nd | 12:00-1:30 | Middle East Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Middle East Institute (MEI) in partnership with Art Jameel is pleased to host internationally acclaimed Saudi artist Ahmed Mater for a discussion about the impact of his art in presenting new perspectives of Saudi Arabia and its role in shaping fresh narratives reflecting the growing aspirations of the Kingdom’s youth. He will be joined in conversation by scholar Kristin Diwan, an expert on youth activism in the Gulf, and British artist Stephen Stapleton, director of the arts organization Culturunners, who founded the Saudi arts collective, Edge of Arabia, with Mater in 2003. The conversation will be moderated by MEI Senior Vice President Kate Seelye.
  2. Confronting Far-Right Extremism in Europe | Tuesday, March 22nd | 4:00-5:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | A wave of far-right populism is sweeping across Europe. Once on the fringes of politics, extremist parties are capitalizing on the refugee crisis and the financial meltdown of 2008 to gain at the polls. The re-emergence of anti-immigrant and isolationist groups and parties in Europe erodes the European Union’s ability to coordinate policies for solving Europe’s crises. Indeed, their growing popularity undermines the basic tenets of the European project. Taking advantage of Europe’s far-right turn, Russia has been aiding its far-right allies, which in turn publicly support Putin’s geopolitical interests and foreign policy agenda. Western policymakers have been slow to recognize the problem and to effectively respond. At a time when Europe faces some of its greatest challenges, we urgently need strategy-driven policies to strengthen the transatlantic relationship. Dr. Frances Burwell, Vice President of the Atlantic Council’s European Union and Special Initiative department, will offer welcome remarks. Susan Corke, Director of the Antisemitism and Extremism department at Human Rights First, Marlene Laurelle, Professor at George Washington University, and Alina Polyakova, Deputy Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, will offer their thoughts. Christian Caryl, Foreign Policy Magazine Editor, will moderate.
  3. The Changing Landscape of Environmental Public Participation and Protest in China | Wednesday, March 23rd | 9:00-10:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As the ‘war’ on pollution continues in China, the Chinese public and environmental NGOs have been taking advantage of more formal and informal channels to voice their concern about worsening air, water and soil quality. At this March 23rd CEF meeting, speakers will discuss China’s evolving space for public participation vis-a-vis environmental problems.  Wu Fengshi (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) will speak about the changing nature of public contention in China exemplified by recent large-scale anti-development and environmental protests. Drawing on the second edition of her highly acclaimed book—China’s Environmental Challenges—Judith Shapiro (American University) will highlight other ways that citizens and NGOs are responding to the intense pollution enveloping their country.
  4. Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation | Wednesday, March 23rd | 12:00-1:30 | Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Having historically been the only oil producer with sufficient spare capacity to shape the world economy, Saudi Arabia has held a critical position in 21st century geopolitics. Despite the increasingly robust role Saudi Arabia has been playing more recently on the regional scene, the kingdom has faced internal and external challenges that have kept it from fulfilling its vast potential. In Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation, Gulf expert Neil Partrick, and other regional analysts, address the kingdom’s relations in the Middle East and wider Islamic world, and its engagement with established and emergent global powers. AGSIW is pleased to host a discussion on Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation with Neil Partrick and a contributor to the book, Mark N. Katz, who will look at Russian relations with Saudi Arabia. They will be joined by Fahad Nazer, who will discuss the work and Saudi foreign policy, and AGSIW Senior Resident Scholar Hussein Ibish, who will moderate the panel.
  5. The emerging China-Russia axis: The return of geopolitics? | Thursday, March 24th | 9:00-11:00 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Over the past decade, Russia and China have come into closer alignment and their bilateral collaboration has grown. At the same time, Beijing and Moscow have each taken steps to alter the status quo in their respective peripheries (e.g. Russia in Ukraine and China in maritime East Asia). Warmer Sino-Russo relations elicit the question of whether the closer alignment of these two neighbors is somehow changing international politics to the disadvantage of the United States and its friends in Europe and Asia. On March 24, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings will hold a public forum that brings together experts from Japan and the United States to examine how recent actions by China and Russia have affected the global order. Additionally, panelists will analyze whether new geopolitical rivalries have returned both between and within the East and the West. After the panel discussion, the speakers will take audience questions. Panelists include Akihiro Iwashita, Professor at Hokkaido University, Thomas Wright, Director of the Project on International Order and Strategy, Chisako T. Masuo, Associate Professor at Kyushu University, and David Gordon, Senior Advisor of the Eurasia Group. Richard C. Bush III, Director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, will moderate.
  6. A Conversation with President of Kosovo H.E. Atifete Jahjaga | Wednesday, March 23rd | 4:00-5:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Seventeen years ago, NATO intervened in then-Yugoslavia in the mission known as Operation Allied Force. It was almost ten years later, in 2008, when Kosovo declared independence. Today, the country has made progress in its European integration, but ensuring regional security and political stability have remained significant challenges. Though Montenegro recently received an invitation to join the NATO Alliance, joining Albania and Croatia, it is unlikely that other Balkan countries will soon be brought into the NATO fold. Against the backdrop of a serious migration crisis and continuing uncertainty from Europe’s East, deep divisions threaten the stability of the region and endanger its collective security. As President of the Republic of Kosovo, H.E. Atifete Jahjaga has been a vocal proponent of the path for Kosovo toward membership in the EU and other institutions. In her final visit to Washington before concluding her mandate, President Jahjaga will provide an outlook on the progress Kosovo has made in the years since NATO’s intervention, as well as ways to address the contemporary security challenges faced by Kosovo and the wider region.
  7. Report Launch: Ilya Yashin on Ramzn Kadyrov | Thursday, March 24th | 12:00-1:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The harassment and sanctioned murder of opposition voices are no longer the exception in Russia; rather, they are part and parcel of President Vladimir Putin’s strategic intent to suppress those who challenge his government. Ramzan Kadyrov, Mr. Putin’s close ally and leader of Chechnya, is widely believed to be responsible for orchestrating the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February 2015. In recent months, Kadyrov and his supporters have systematically harassed and threatened Russian opposition politicians who bravely speak out against Putin’s regime. In his revealing report, A Threat to National Security, Ilya Yashin details the extent of Kadyrov’s criminal activities and unrestrained corruption. Kadyrov now exercises complete control over Chechnya with a private army of thirty thousand loyal only to him. Kadyrov’s increasingly brazen actions signal that the Kremlin may not have complete control over the Chechen leader.
  8. Running an Independent Russian Media Outlet | Friday, March 25th | 10:00-11:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Since its launch in October 2014, the independent, Riga-based media outlet Meduza has reached an audience of 4 million unique visitors per month, 70% of whom live in Russia. How does Meduza ensure comprehensive coverage of Russian news while being based outside the country? How have the Russian establishment and official media responded to Meduza’s rise? Publisher and journalist Ilya Krasilshchik shares the story of Meduza’s challenges and success. Ekaterina Krongauz, journalist and editor of Meduza, will also speak.
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A foreign diplomat from a friendly country said yesterday that if Trump is elected, foreign officials will refuse to see American ambassadors, non-Americans will see the choice as confirming the worst critiques of America as an insensitive and militaristic imperialist, and willingness abroad to cooperate with the United States will decline precipitously.

That is an understatement.

A lot of us have laughed at Trump’s bluster and lying. It is funny. He reminds me of the bullies we all learned to defy in childhood. Who can take someone seriously when he claims to own the largest vineyard on the East Coast and it turns out it is not the largest and he doesn’t own it? When he flogs Trump steaks that are no longer sold? When he not only says but repeats, repeatedly, that he is going to make the Mexicans, whom he has insulted unsparingly, pay for a wall on the border? When he vows to block Muslims from entering the US? You have to begin to take it all seriously because it gives extremists a rallying cry and endangers Americans both here and abroad.

I don’t really expect Trump supporters to care. They like him because he is one of them. Identity politics work here as well as in Bosnia. But everyone else should worry. Bluster and prevarication is common enough in diplomacy. President Putin does it regularly: his troops aren’t in Ukraine, he has no plans to deploy forces to Syria, he intends to keep them there until the Islamic State is defeated. He is a serial liar, like his American political doppelgänger. It is no surprise that Trump admires Putin, or that Putin thinks well of Trump. The question is whether we want our country to be in this company.

I’ve been through quite a few transitions from one US administration to another. Some were personally painful to me: a big program on renewable energy sources I had negotiated with Italy under Carter got canned when Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981. Others were painful in bigger ways: the hanging chads of the 2000 election will long be remembered. Re-election of George W. in 2004, after it had become clear the Iraq invasion was based on false premises, was a low point. But the election of Trump would trump them all.

It would tell me that I had misunderstood my fellow Americans profoundly. I’ve always known that there is a third of them who would never vote for Barack Hussein Obama, whom they regard as foreign because he is black. But they were outvoted, twice. The question now is whether I can be confident now that they will choose a woman who carries a lot of baggage over a guy who will do serious damage. Just imagine what a mass casualty terrorist attack between now and November would do to voter preferences.

I’m not moving to Canada. I didn’t do that during the Vietnam war and I won’t let anyone chase me out of the country now. Fact is, I’d gain with his fat tax cut. And it makes me proud that our democracy is open enough to allow dramatic differences of political perspective. Foreigners should not see that as a weakness, even if it makes us difficult to predict. But a guy who can’t even bring himself to tell his supporters to stop beating protesters doesn’t merit “Hail to the chief.” It would be more like hail to the thief. Which reminds me, when will he make his tax returns public? I’d like to see him lose 50 states, but I’ll settle for less. His defeat would send a clear and unequivocal message to the rest of the world that America can be relied on to know a charlatan when it sees one.

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Exploiting disorder

The International Crisis Group (ICG) takes appropriate transnational aim in its latest report at Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS), introduced Monday at Brookings by ICG President, Jean-Marie Guehenno. The main thesis is that success of the terrorist dual threat is the result of instability. No surprise there. Few of their supposed enemies in the Middle East and North Africa regard either Al Qaeda or the Islamic State as their top priority. Again no surprise. Neither is invincible, though AQ in Guehenno’s view is underrated at present. It is learning to apply a lighter, more gradual touch that has greater prospects of success than IS’s draconian approach.

It is when we get to the policy prescriptions that I start to part company, as usual with ICG reports. Guehenno and the report argue for containment, or perhaps marginalization, rather than outright victory, because we would not in any event know what to do if we win. It is already apparent in Iraq that the government lacks the means to govern effectively and inclusively in all the territory recaptured from IS. But nowhere does ICG advocate that we acquire the state-building capacities needed to eliminate the disorder in which the terrorists thrive or to repair the societies that they have broken. This is not only short-sighted; it is a formula for unending warfare. The very least ICG should have done is to point out the incapacity and put forward some sort of idea how it can be repaired.

The report argues for keeping open lines of communication, by talking with whomever will talk with us, apparently including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda provided they meet that condition. This includes “unofficial, discreet lines of communication, through community leaders, non-state mediators or others.” I like that, since official talking lends an air of legitimacy that many groups don’t merit. But the argument offered in favor is the US rejection of Taliban offers in 2001 as well as similar reluctance in Somalia, Mali, Libya and Nigeria. None of those examples pertain to the Islamic State or Al Qaeda per se, both of which are arguably an order of magnitude or two less acceptable than the people and groups specifically mentioned. My guess is that we are in communication, directly or indirectly, with many of the groups mentioned, if only to try to free American hostages. It is hard to see how to do that with either Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

Other recommendations get stronger grounding. Their suggestion for narrowing the countering violent extremism (CVE) agenda seems to me intellectually correct, even if the bureaucratic temptation to tie the development and peacebuilding agendas to the latest well-funded pet rock is irresistible. Respecting international humanitarian law, curbing targeted killings and investing in conflict prevention also make good sense to me. Neither the drone wars nor coddling of autocrats in the Middle East has served our strategic purposes well. Both have done more to spread the terrorist problem than defeat it.

In the end I thought Guehenno was correct in his talk at Brookings when he admired President Obama’s effort to keep the terrorist threat in perspective by noting its limited capacity to affect American national security. That effort Guehenno suggested was intellectually correct even if politically damaging. Unfortunately, the ICG report is less prudent:

World leaders’ concern is well-founded: IS’s attacks kill their citizens and threaten their societies’ cohesion.

It then urges us not to make mistakes that risk aggravating the situation, but it nowhere says what Guehenno did: the jihadists are not a threat on the order of the Soviet Union and should not arouse us politically in the way the nuclear threat once did.

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Last night Hillary Clinton made her nomination inevitable and Donald Trump made his all but certain, unless the Republican establishment wants a damaging fight at the convention. Most of Washington is staying home today because the region’s Metro trains are shut down for a safety inspection. We’ll have time to contemplate our presidential options and how wrong things have gone in a political system that has served so well for so long.

The Trump puzzle is easy to solve. Despite a sharp increase from the past, still few people are voting in these primaries: about 17% of eligible Republicans. has mobilized uneducated, lower income whites who have not seen an increase in their incomes for decades. His voters are also predominantly male. Trump’s barely coded racism, blatant lies and loud bragging mark him as one of them. Identity politics don’t only happen in other countries.Real household incomes

Hillary Clinton is the more conventional candidate. She is a relatively moderate democrat who has aligned herself with her former rival and boss Barack Obama, who can’t run again. She would serve his third term and perhaps even his fourth.

Misery Index (March was down again)
Misery Index (March was down again)

With the “misery index” declining sharply since 2008 and minority voters rising, she would be a shoe-in were it not for the baggage she carries: a vote in favor of George Bush’s mistaken Iraq war, support for trade deals she now questions, the Benghazi non-scandal and the continuing investigation of allegedly classified information found on her private email server.

President Obama today nominated middle-of-the-road, white, male Federal court judge Merrick Garland to right-wing Republican Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. This surprised me: I expected nomination of a minority, but the scuttlebutt says the President didn’t want to “burn” a strong minority candidate in a process likely to fail. Confirmation would tilt the balance of the Court towards the Democrats. Senate Republicans have vowed not even to consider the nomination. This sets it up as a campaign issue, one likely to bring out a few more Democrats, even as more moderate Republicans either stay at home or reluctantly mark ballots for Clinton.Minority voters in selected states

So this election is Clinton’s to lose, which she could still do. Trump is scrappy and energetic. He knows how to mobilize his constituency. He has gotten an enormous amount of free airtime on American media. Clinton is far less inspired in dealing with hers. She is not a natural campaigner, as she herself puts it. Overly wonkish, a bit strident and inclined to talk down to her supporters, she has so far failed to generate the youthful energy and enthusiasm that her rival Bernie Sanders has inspired. He will support her, I suppose, but by then the air will have gone out of his balloon.

The great virtue of American elections is that their outcome is truly unpredictable. We have no Council of Experts or Guardian Council to limit our choices. We unfortunately allow money and party organization do much of that. The uncertainty scares non-Americans. It makes our international behavior difficult to predict. But no one can complain this time around that the candidates and parties offer no real alternatives. They certainly do. One makes me wonder why she is the best on offer. The other makes me shudder.

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More gore than glory

Today marks five years since the start of the then peaceful Syrian uprising, which has covered no one in glory and many in gore: a quarter million dead, more than half the country chased from their homes, more than 4 million refugees and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and billions in lost economic production. Large parts of Syrian cities have been reduced to rubble. The Islamic State occupies a substantial slice of the country while somewhat less lethal extremists control other, smaller slices, all too often in league with people who might have preferred to be counted as moderates.

No one can be proud of what the past five years have wrought.

President Putin has however announced himself satisfied with what the Russians have achieved in the past six months. He has ordered the withdrawal of at least some forces from Syria, though he will keep the base they have operated from as well as the air defense system they installed. The Russians will be able to return in force quickly if need be.

Some Russian objectives have certainly been achieved. Moscow:

  • blocked opposition advances in Latakia that might soon have brought down Assad
  • stymied any American efforts to install a no-fly or “safe” zone
  • demonstrated that little can be decided in Syria without Russian cooperation
  • countered growing Iranian influence on the Assad regime
  • increased its own leverage on Assad.

The Russian withdrawal, even if only partial and reversible, is a strong signal to Assad that he needs to change tack and get serious at the negotiating table in Geneva, where proximity talks started yesterday.

But it would be a mistake to expect too much from the Russians.They cannot buy into creating what Vice President Biden calls “a credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian system, a new constitution and free and fair elections.” Doing so would guarantee installation of a Sunni-dominated regime that would quickly defenestrate the Russians at the first opportunity. The best that can be hoped from Moscow is that it will agree to some Alawaite general to replace Assad, thereby maintaining the autocracy as well as Russia’s interests and privileged position in Latakia and Tartous.

Washington, which clearly has hurt its own interests by failing to act earlier on Syria, has seemed for months to be backing off the demand that Assad must go, but the Syrian opposition remains committed to that goal and major parts of it will continue fighting until he does. The Geneva talks may somehow bridge the gap on the future of Assad, presumably by leaving him in place temporarily but insisting that he face a serious election in 18 months time, as the UN Security Council has mandated.

It is however hard for me to see him sitting still while a free and fair election is prepared, unless he can be certain that the opposition will go to the polls so divided that he can again win. More likely, he would just prepare the ballots and boxes carefully. Who is going to monitor an election in a Syria?

The only people courageous enough to do so are the intrepid folks who staff Syrian civil society organizations. They are reporting lots of ceasefire violations, but violence is down because the Russians and Iranians have stopped their massive offensive and are picking off the morsels they want piecemeal rather than wholesale. The Western press has focuseed on the relative calm, not the continuing advances. That is not surprising, since they haven’t got many journalists on the ground inside Syria.

What is the best we can hope for? It would certainly be good if De Mistura gets some sort of commitment to the UN plan, which calls for a transitional government, a new constitution and elections. That would be real progress, if only because it would set up benchmarks on a clear path forward. But I am not holding my breath. There may still be more gore than glory ahead.

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