Islamists ‘not our friends’: Brotherhood ‘a continuum, not corrective’ to ISIS

islamists nyt

NYTimes

“The institutions of civil society were too weak; the political culture of winner-take-all too strong; sectarian differences too powerful; and a belief in pluralism too inchoate,” notes Dennis B. Ross, a counselor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Instead, the awakening produced political vacuums and a struggle over identity.”

A new fault line has emerged in Middle Eastern politics, one that will have profound implications for America’s foreign policy in the region, he writes for the New York Times:

On one side are the Islamists — both Sunni and Shiite. the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Muslim Brotherhood represent the Sunni end of the spectrum, while the Islamic Republic of Iran and its militias, including Hezbollah (in Lebanon and Syria) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (in Iraq), constitute the other. Many of these Islamists are at war with one other, but they are also engaged in a bitter struggle with non-Islamists to define the fundamental identity of the region and its states. What the Islamists all have in common is that they subordinate national identities to an Islamic identity.

The non-Islamists include the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments in Egypt and Algeria, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared. They do not include Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria; he is completely dependent on Iran and Hezbollah and cannot make decisions without them.

“The Obama administration worries about the consequences of excluding all Islamists. It worries, too, about appearing to give a blank check to authoritarian regimes, when it believes there need to be limits and that these regimes are likely to prove unstable over time,” Ross writes. “But as Egypt and the U.A.E. showed with the airstrikes on Islamists in Libya, some of America’s traditional partners are ready to act without us, convinced that the administration does not see all Islamists as a threat — and that America sees its interests as different from theirs. That is a problem.”

Observers who suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a moderate alternative to violent Islamists like ISIS are mistaken,  says Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine. The Brotherhood’s Islamism “is a continuum, not a corrective” to the more extreme and violent versions embodied by ISIL:

ISIL is among the most violent groups in the world, and while many Brotherhood-aligned parties have turned away from violence as a primary strategy or publicly-acknowledged policy, it doesn’t have a doctrinal prohibition on violence…. Brotherhood groups have used it in the past, and always made an exception when it comes to the Palestinians – and this long before the advent of Hamas. Both groups also publicly espouse the virtue and necessity of “jihad”….There are just too many common origins for Brotherhood-style Islamism to serve as a plausible corrective to ISIL-style more extreme Islamism.  It’s no coincidence or surprise that it was Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb who did more to inspire the takfiri and Salafist-jihadist movements than any other modern figure. The non-Islamists are America’s natural partners in the region, argues Ross, a special assistant to President Obama for the Middle East and South Asia from 2009 to 2011. The Obama administration needs to follow three principles in these partnerships, he contends:

First, focus on security and stability. Nothing, including tolerant, pluralist societies, is possible without it.

Second, do not reach out to Islamists; their creed is not compatible with pluralism or democracy. In Tunisia, the Ennahda party surrendered power only when it realized its policies had produced such a backlash that the party’s very survival was threatened. Islamists, even apparent moderates like those of Ennahda, must be left with no choice but coexistence….

Third, America’s support for non-Islamist partners does not require surrendering our voice or supporting every domestic policy. We should press them on pluralism, minority rights and the rule of law.

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On-line dissidents innovate as repressive regimes deploy ‘digital weapons’

While China’s Internet branch is exploding beyond the domestic market, Beijing is tightening the rules for online communication, Deutsche Welle reports:

In early August, the State Internet Information Office issued new regulations for chat services. It stipulated that only media organizations registered in China are allowed to disseminate instant messages. Additionally, private users are required to register their accounts using their real names and will be subject to a verification process. 

According to The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, CloudShield Technologies, a California defense contractor, is selling lucrative spyware tools to foreign security services, some of them with records of human rights abuse:

CloudShield’s central role in Gamma’s controversial work — fraught with legal risk under U.S. export restrictions — was first uncovered by Morgan Marquis-Boire, author of a new report released Friday by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He shared advance drafts with The Post, which conducted its own month-long investigation.  

The prototype that CloudShield built was never brought to market, and the company parted ways with Gamma in 2010. But Marquis-Boire said CloudShield’s work helped pioneer a new generation of “network injection appliances” sold by Gamma and its Italian rival, Hacking Team. Those devices harness malicious software to specialized equipment attached directly to the central switching points of a foreign government’s national Internet grid.

The result: Merely by playing a YouTube video or visiting a Microsoft Live service page, for instance, an unknown number of computers around the world have been implanted with Trojan horses by government security services that siphon their communications and files. Google, which owns YouTube, and Microsoft are racing to close the vulnerability.

Citizen Lab’s report, based on leaked technical documents, is the first to document that commercial spyware companies are making active use of this technology. Network injection allows products built by Gamma and Hacking Team to insert themselves into an Internet data flow and change it undetectably in transit. ….

Security researchers have documented clandestine sales of Gamma and Hacking Team products to “some of the world’s most notorious abusers of human rights,” said Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, a list that includes Turkmenistan, Egypt, Bahrain and Ethiopia.

But dissidents and activists are becoming more sophisticated and resourceful in using the internet to promote democracy and human rights, and circumventing censorship and to groups like Movements.Org, as demonstrated by the following sample cases:

  • A Syrian activist and university student seeking asylum in the United States posted an urgent request for help and representation, as his life would be in grave jeopardy should he return to his native country. A professor at The John Marshall Law School, based in Chicago, took on the case, and is helping the activist attain asylum.
  • A famed former Iranian political prisoner who spent tens of years in jail asked for help saving a radio station he runs which broadcasts into Iran.  A senior American official saw the post and reached out to the dissident.
  • A North Korean defector asked for helping getting information in and out of their dictatorial regime.  Radio, satellite and computer experts connected with the defector to talk about new technologies to help make this possible.
  • A Cuban blogger hoping to circumvent censorship in her home country and Ecuador posted a request for technological help getting around firewalls.  She was contacted by several computer programmers and security experts who offered to walk her through the process of protecting her information.
  • Activists requested a  song be written to honor the late Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was was arrested and tortured after exposing corruption of the Putin regime.  Magnitsky died in prison. A songwriter in NYC saw the request on Movements.org, and wrote a catchy song to commemorate his life (see below).  The song was featured on Al Jazeera and in The Wall Street Journal.
  • A request written on behalf of a famed Syrian dissident who spent a decade in prison under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, asked to publish an op-ed in a major American publication about how to bring peace to Syria.  A short time later, the article was published in The Daily Beast.
  • A Saudi expert on combatting state-sponsored incitement in textbooks posted a request to speak with members of the German government due to their strict anti-hate-speech laws.  A former German foundation executive saw the post and is now connecting the Saudi activist with senior members of the German government.
  • A secular Syrian group posted a request for PR aid to explain to Americans that the opposition is not comprised solely of radical elements.  The founder of a strategic communication firm based in Los Angeles responded and offered help.
  • An editor from a major American paper posted a request for human rights stories that often are not told. He was contacted by a liberal activist from Iraq whose family and friends were killed by al-Qaeda.

Advancing Human Rights has launched Movements.org, an online platform where dissidents in closed societies can connect to the legal, media, public relations, and technological expertise of open societies. A dissident seeking asylum in a closed society can connect with an asylum lawyer abroad who can provide pro bono legal assistance. A journalist dedicated to unearthing the secrets of dictators can connect with local dissidents to piece together the story. By leveraging democratic tools to assist activists achieve freedom, activists can challenge authorities with a new, clear voice.

Egypt leaves democracy advocate in legal limbo

egypt ngo trial fhIn Egypt last month, three journalists were found guilty of doing their jobs and given seven- and 10-year jail terms. Apparently, little has changed, notes a prominent democracy assistance official.

A little more than a year earlier, I and 42 other employees of international human rights groups were similarly convicted at a Cairo trial that the U.S. and European governments have condemned as politically motivated,” says Sam LaHood, the director for the International Republican Institute in Egypt from 2010 to 2012 and currently a program officer with the organization.

“I was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor after being found guilty in absentia of a trumped-up felony,” he writes for the Washington Post:  

In my case, appointees held over from the regime of Hosni Mubarak used repressive laws to target our groups for providing democracy assistance, manipulating the bureaucratic machinery for their own ends. Many more of these officials, who constitute Egypt’s entrenched security apparatus and bureaucracy, or “deep state,” have since returned to power after being out in the cold during the truncated presidential term of Mohamed Morsi. This deep state, led by individuals at the Ministry of Interior, state security and other large bureaucratic entities, is intent on exerting control over civil society, politics and the media through intimidation and repression.

RTWT

The end of pluralism: violence trumps politics in Middle East?

TEMPTATIONS ISLAMISTIf the second phase of the “Arab Spring” is really about anything, it is about a collective loss of faith in politics, according to Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center.

We might not like to admit it, but violence can, and often does, “work” in today’s Middle East, he writes for The Atlantic:

This is not just a reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also to less extreme militant groups that control territory throughout Syria, providing security and social services to local populations. From Libya to Palestine to parts of the Egyptian Sinai, armed—and increasingly hard-line—Islamist groups are making significant inroads. This is the Arab world’s Salafi-Jihadi moment. It may not last, but its impact is already impossible to dismiss, to say nothing of the long-term consequences. In Libya and Syria, even non-Salafi groups like the Brotherhood are adapting to the new world of anti-politics, allying themselves with local armed groups or working to form their own militias.

A movement meant to demonstrate that peaceful protest could work ultimately demonstrated the opposite, notes Hamid, the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East:

This is one of the great tragedies of the past few years—that a movement meant to demonstrate that peaceful protest could work ultimately demonstrated the opposite. According to former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, the Arab Spring shattered the myth that “peaceful change in this region is not possible.” Indeed, it did. But then the violence raged on in Syria and Libya. Leaders in these countries saw their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts as weak and feckless, as conceding too much to their opponents and emboldening them in the process. In .the case of the Egyptian coup in 2013, the most populous Arab country, long a bellwether for the region, willfully aborted its own democratic process. The worst mass killing in the country’s modern history soon followed.

That this violence is, in some way, tied to religion makes it more difficult for outsiders to parse. As the military historian Andrew Bacevich writes, “No single explanation exists for why the War for the Greater Middle East began and why it persists. But religion figures as a central element. Secularized American elites either cannot grasp or are unwilling to accept this.” Indeed, the divide between Islamists and what we might call “anti-Islamists” cannot be reduced to the single-minded pursuit of power. As I argue in my new book, it is just as much about real ideological divides over the role of religion in public life and the nature, meaning, and purpose of the nation-state.

Not too much intervention, too little

The Middle East, as a region, is more unstable, divided, and rife with extremism today than it has been at any other point in recent decades, Hamid observes:

It would make little sense to blame these developments on American military intervention. The past six years have been characterized not by the use of force, but by a very concerted desire on the part of the Obama administration to reduce our regional engagement, in general, and our military footprint in particular.

The presumption was that with the withdrawal from Iraq, a key Arab grievance would be addressed. The Obama administration could, then, re-establish a relationship with the Arab world based on “mutual respect,” leading to a “new beginning.” It wasn’t unreasonable to think this. After all, it was precisely our over-engagement, and the waging of two costly, tragic wars, that appeared to provoke such anger toward the United States. Yet disengagement and detachment haven’t helped matters. Anti-Americanism persists at strikingly high levels and, in a number of countries, attitudes toward the U.S. are more negative under Obama than they were during Bush’s final years.

“The two most destructive conflicts in the Middle East today are in Syria and Iraq, two countries that have imploded not because of too much intervention, but because of too little,” he suggests.

RTWT

The new Thirty Years’ War?

middle_east-450x320Today’s Middle East risks incurring something akin to Europe’s seventeenth century Thirty Years’ War, the most violent and destructive episode in European history until the two world wars of the twentieth century, says a leading foreign policy expert.

Three and a half years after the dawn of the “Arab Spring,” there is a real possibility that we are witnessing the early phase of a prolonged, costly, and deadly struggle; as bad as things are, they could well become worse, says Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The region is ripe for unrest. Most of its people are politically impotent and poor in terms of both wealth and prospects. Islam never experienced something akin to the Reformation in Europe; the lines between the sacred and the secular are unclear and contested,” he writes for Project Syndicate:

Moreover, national identities often compete with – and are increasingly overwhelmed by – those stemming from religion, sect, and tribe. Civil society is weak. In some countries, the presence of oil and gas discourages the emergence of a diversified economy and, with it, a middle class. Education emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. In many cases, authoritarian rulers lack legitimacy.

Democracy promotion in Turkey and Egypt should focus on strengthening civil society and creating robust constitutions that diffuse power,” Haass suggests. But….

There is no room for illusions. Regime change is no panacea; it can be difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to consolidate. Negotiations cannot resolve all or even most conflicts….

Policymakers must recognize their limits. For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.

RTWT