Thursday, January 31, 2013

Secularist reasons for supporting Morsi

Secularists who want change in Egypt might have good reason to support Morsi - even if he is determined to implement an Islamist agenda.

Though the opposition quite naturally wants to counter Morsi's electoral victories by portraying him as a Mubarak-style dictator, this conceals not only the realities but the opportunities - and indeed the dangers.

Morsi is anything but a dictator.

He does not have control of the most even basic and primitive tool of sovereignty, the power to impose his will by force.  He does not control the army.  He does not control the police.   He cannot rely on any military or paramilitary or police institution to obey him.

Just as Morsi does not possess the force essential to a government or state, he does not have any of the tools supposed to give a state legitimacy.   He has, by majority rule, a claim to these tools, but they elude him.   He does not have a constitution accepted by his sizeable opposition.   He does not have a recognized legislature.   He does not even have laws.  Every institution of the former government obeys him more or less at the good pleasure of its functionaries.

Just as he does not possess the tools of force or legitimacy, he does not have the resources to shape them, even on an interim basis.  That's because he not only lacks control over the judiciary, he and the country don't even have a politically legitimate judiciary.   All he and the country have are people posing a judges on the basis of a thoroughly discredited, destroyed régime.

It follows, unavoidably, that Morsi has little but words.  It's hardly coherent to speak of what he ought or ought not to do.   Since responsibilities imply the means to fulfill them he has, to put it bluntly, no responsibilities.   Even if he makes dictatorial-sounding pronouncements, it's just childish to call him dictatorial or to compare him with Mubarak   Mubarak had a state, and power.   Morsi - since apparently this bears repetition - does not.

If Morsi has only the semblance of power, but is judged as if he had its substance, he is easily perceived as a failure.   Opposition violence, even if justifiable, invites the idea that Egypt is sinking into chaos.   If it is, the opposition - again, however justifiably - contributes to the situation.   But is this a recipe for change?

Inevitably and predictably, the army is hinting ever louder that, if reconciliation fails and society slides into chaos, it might 'have to' intervene.   And both reality and perception give some support to the idea that chaos is on the horizon.   Meanwhile the NSF shows itself receptive to the army's role as arbiter, and on the street we hear again that the people and the army are 'one hand'.   Suppose the army does intervene?

The army will then take over when elections are seen to have failed, when the Brotherhood is seen as incapable of governance, and when the opposition is seen as a politically bankrupt enemy of stability.   Meanwhile the NDP and feloul have been, to a certain extent, rehabilitated - after all, they too oppose Morsi's 'dictatorship'.   It is hard to resist the conclusion that, should the army intervene against Morsi, it will be the same old, same old:  a thinly veiled military dictatorship, perhaps not even in new dress.  Indeed it is hard to imagine how anything but an Islamist-secularist alliance could challenge the army's entrenched supremacy.  Certainly any fractious, probably unstable 'unity government' (as mooted by Nour and NSF) would be unlikely to do so.

That's not all.   If anything is going to radicalize Islamists, it would be their forcible ejection after electoral victory.   Everyone can conjure up their own dark scenarios, but no one can imagine that secularists and Islamists will find peace and serenity if Morsi is deposed.

But suppose the opposition lets Morsi form a real government.   If recent events show anything, they show that Morsi is  extremely vulnerable to political pressure.   With real government would come real responsibility for its failures - and a much more promising basis for secularist organizing than the army's return to power.   With Morsi, there can be change.   Without him, change seems unlikely in the extreme.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dogmatic Support, Critical Support - and Real Support?

Darth Nader, an astute and exceptionally well-informed commentator on Syrian revolution,  has provided a catalogue of  "the categories that...  make up the Syrian opposition".  It explores, not a spectrum of factions, but a range of attitudes.  There are, he suggests, (1) the pacifists, (2) those for whom the FSA can do no wrong, and (3)  'Everyone Else', including himself.  He thereby ranks himself with many conscientious FSA supporters, but there may be reason to suppose them  a bit too conscientious.
Sometimes, perhaps, people are prisoners of viewpoints formed in normal times, and don't adapt their thinking to extreme situations.  Nader's classifications seem in places ill-adapted to what he knows very well is a true struggle for survival.
The first category consists of the pacifists, and Nader's description of them makes good sense.  He rejects their views, though almost deferentially.
I'm less comfortable with the second category - The FSA-Are-Always-Right-And-Can-Do-No-Wrong Crowd.  It's worth quoting Nader in full here:
This crowd is the exact opposite of the previous crowd. They refuse to acknowledge any fault, any excess, or any wrongdoing committed by any member of a group engaged in armed struggle against the regime. This group tends to be dominated by Islamists, although there are some notable secular figures who also belong to it. They brush off any accusations of sectarianism. Anytime a minority is targeted in Syria, they declare either that the event did not happen and was regime propaganda, or that the people targeted were “probably shabiha” and “got what they deserved.” Anytime any pro-revolution activist complains about excesses by the rebels, the response of this crowd is usually the same: “Rouh sawee katibe ou sammeeha Guevara” (“If you don’t like it, go form your own brigade and call it Guevara”). Basically, this sums up the reasoning of their position: If you are not fighting on the ground, you cannot complain. The only role of civilians and non-combatants in the revolution is unconditional support and solidarity with all fighters and all the actions they commit, no matter what.
I see two quite different problems with this.

For a start, the category almost seems to involve some artistic licence.   It's unclear where Nader is going to find its members.    Such people, after all,  would have a difficult time of it.  If there are dogmatists who think the FSA can do no wrong, they don't seem to belong to the FSA,  whose self-criticism is something between regular and unrelenting.   So where would anyone else find a basis for uncritical FSA-worship?
Second,  the imputation of dogmatism may come a bit too quickly.   There is a difference  between supporting the FSA %100 and holding that the FSA can do no wrong.

Nader's quite right:  many ardent FSA supporters are sceptical about every report of sectarian violence and excesses, including corruption.   But, they might reply, there is good reason for this.  As everyone knows, information about Syria does tend to be unreliable -as is to be expected in wartime. and we know there is a lot of deliberate falsification.   Besides, even when reliable, it is incomplete, lacking context.

More blind FSA apologetics?  Not at all, and this is where Nader may oversimplify.   You can be sceptical about EVERY report of FSA wrongdoing, yet absolutely certain that just such wrongdoing occurs.  Take reports of looting, for instance.   Perhaps these are to be doubted, because those who report it may have been hostile to the FSA to start with.   But at the same time - to revisit a 'good' fight -  it's worth recalling the words of a British officer about the behaviour of Allied troops in World War II:   "they looted just as much as the Nazis.   The only difference was, they didn't keep records of it."  And so it was with every war crime imaginable, even among the Allies.   Somehow there's arisen, between then and now, a childish idea of what is the best that can be expected in all-out, prolonged warfare.   Of course some FSA units, not just bogus ones, loot.   Of course prisoners are executed.   Of course shabiha are tortured and executed, as well as some wrongly accused of being shabiha.   Of course  FSA units and soldiers don't only attack Alawites and Shiites when militarily necessary, but also out of blanket hatred.  And of course this is serious wrongdoing.  So the idea that those who support the FSA 100% are in denial is plausible only if they're thought to have a childish idea of the fighting, which by now seems a bit unlikely.

This in turn raises questions about the third category, Everyone Else.   No doubt those who meticulously record every plausible but unverifiable instance of looting, summary executions, corruption and sectarianism believe themselves to be the standard bearers of fairness and morality.  Let the chips fall where they may, perhaps.   But this is not genuine fairness, nor is it morally defensible.  'Everyone else'  is thoroughly aware just how much is at stake.   They know what will happen if the FSA loses, and how badly it needs whole-hearted support.  Yet Nader says that some of them can only "begrudgingly accept the new dominance of armed partisans as the only alternative".   Others actually want the FSA to scale down its operations.
Well, then, is there anyone left in this category whose support is less grudging?  Nader suggests as much when describing his preferred subgroup of  Everyone Else:

Others are totally in favor of armed resistance and do not have any fantasies about return to nonviolent tactics, yet also insist on being critical of the armed resistance so as not to simply replace one oppressive military dictatorship with another. The key in the last one is not cautious support of the FSA, but rather, to be a strong supporter while also remaining vigilant and not being scared to speak up against misconduct.   
Unfortunately this description is not entirely reassuring.   Is it really so important to 'remain vigilant and speak up against misconduct'?   (We're not talking here about criticism coming from, and remaining within, FSA ranks.)  On what basis would anyone expect these non-combatant protestations to be any more effective than, say, the scolding of the UN and Human Rights Watch?    What is the real-world payout of 'insisting' on anything?   Why would one even suggest, at this point, that there is some prospect of replacing one military dictatorship with another?   And even if there were some prospect, the phrase  'military dictatorship' already indicates how an insistence on righteousness can lose focus.   Does 'military dictatorship'  even begin to describe what the FSA is fighting?   Is the Assad régime comparable to, say, Nasser's pre-1961 government?

Yes, if the FSA's crimes seemed to approach Assad's, 'insistence' might make sense.  We'd reach this point if  there were steady, more or less reliable reports of the FSA massacring hundreds of civilians, or torturing thousands of prisoners.  (Certainly, by now, there has been ample opportunity for that to occur.)   But until there are crimes of this magnitude, it's not clear what is accomplished by bold attention to the normal level of war crimes that any struggle, no matter how noble, will generate.

Propaganda units highlight the misconduct of the enemy for a reason:  it hurts the enemy.    It will not do to pretend, in the name of moral purity, that Syria poses an exception to this rule.   This unappetizing but unavoidable truth is not brutal realism.   It is common sense.
Note that Nader's preferred group, is 'totally in favor of armed resistance', but not of the FSA.   He speaks of  'strong support', but that rather begs the question of what sort of support should count as strong.

In really desperate struggles - and Syria's couldn't be more desperate - not only the expedient but the rational and moral stance is to subordinate everything barring the most enormous atrocities to victory.   In the 1970s, when Central American peasants rose up against sadistic oppression, or when resistance groups fought back against Pinochet's horrors, you didn't hear a lot of strident 'vigilance' against rebel excesses.  You didn't hear much when conquered populations resisted the Nazis.  Vigilance isn't a high priority today, when India's poor take up arms against their smug and feckless rulers.   Do Syrians deserve less than this?   At other times and places, people have had a different idea of what it is to take sides.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Jabhat al-Nusra

A lot of people are worried about Jabhat al-Nusra, a large, effective,  avowedly and deeply Islamist fighting unit in Syria.   It's not clear exactly why.

It's clear a lot of people don't like Islamists and don't want Islamists to get ahead.   So it's clear a lot of people don't like what seems to be happening.   What's unclear is why this this dislike transmutes into worry.   I mean, I dislike beets, but I don't worry about them.  I wouldn't even worry if more and more people loved them.

The current activities of JAN and other Islamists fighters aren't distinctively worrisome, at least not more than the activities of other fighting forces.   Like other fighting forces, JAN sometimes abuses and executes prisoners.   There is no evidence this happens on a large scale, let alone the spectacular scale of Assad's forces.   And the worry here, properly speaking, should attach to war in general.    If you don't think that even your favorite armies - maybe the Allies in World War II - did the same sort of things, you live in a fantasy.

People worry that JAN has used bombs, and suicide bombers.  I suspect this isn't really about worry, but about a vague unease, because these tactics are associated with 9-11 and Americans getting their ass kicked in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Amid all Syria's horrors, it's amazing that vaguely unsettling tactics should occupy any large swath of anyone's attention.

It's true that JAN sometimes empties out liquor bottles onto the ground.  This is cause for regret, but I don't know about worry.

It's also true that JAN is sectarian in some sense.  It's not for Shia or Alawi or Jews or Christians.   Many fighting units in Syria have are sectarian in this sense and,  it's not clear why JAN appearance should be treated as the emergence of some more serious type of sectarianism, something leading to sectarian violence.   After all, people were getting hysterical about this prospect long before there was talk of 'jihadis' in Syria.   Ordinary Syrians were judged quite capable of sectarian strife.

This suggests a weighty reason not to worry about JAN.   If there's going to be sectarian warfare or a radical Islamist state, that will require the sustained efforts of a great many Syrians - after all, Syria also has fiercely secularist elements.   Can anyone seriously believe that some radical Islamist militias are going to make the difference?   Do the Syrians strike you as a people who would bow to a few well-armed fighters?  It is one thing to say you don't like what JAN seems to have in mind for the future; it is quite another to find it 'alarming'.   If Syria goes for radical Islam, it will be because a majority of the population wants it that way, not because some 'foreign fighters' impose it.

But JAN suppose does set up an Islamic state, and suppose it's pure Al Qaeda like, I don't know, at times parts of Somalia?  Why would that be a concern?

Not, presumably, for any effect it would have on the majority of Syrians.  They are being slaughtered daily, and the world just tut-tuts - why should the prospect of them living in an Islamic state suddenly be so wrenching?  So the effect on Syrians can't matter unless the world really does feel more deeply for Assad's murderers - JAN's target - than it does for his  victims.  Let's not suppose the world entertains a sentiment so psychotically perverse.

So concern about a JAN-run state, or an Al Qaeda-run state, must have to do with some threat to the rest of the world. This is rarely said clearly.   It is said with manly-sounding babble about 'jihadis growing strong in Syria', often by allegedly grizzled journalists, diplomats, and worldly-wise professors of politics.  No surprise there, because to say it clearly would instantly reveal the childishness of this pretence at realism.

Consider the situation of a JAN state in Syria.  It would, of course, be surrounded entirely by hostile states - 'of course' because every state in the world, with the partial exceptions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are hostile to Al Qaeda.  The nations which support Assad -  China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela - would be as deeply opposed to JAN as the nations which now oppose him.   One neighbor, Israel, is practically dedicated to countering any possible threat from Syria.   In Turkey, both the government and its very capable insurgents, the Kurds, would oppose the state.  JAN would be equipped with no armaments capable of doing serious damage to any nearby nation, with the possible exception of chemical weapons that the US and Israel would neutralize on the slightest whim. And though neither Israel nor Jordan deserve our concern,even Jordan says it can 'handle any chemical threat', so presumably Israel can do the same.  So I suppose all that remains is the good old Arab-with-a-suitcase-fulla-bad-stuff spectre:  but this spectre can just as well be located anywhere in the world, probably with more plausibility than in such an isolated state.  JAN's possible supremacy in Syria is a shabby excuse masquerading as a 'credible threat'.

Finally, there is no reason to worry about JAN because it is far too late for that.   In the sober words of The 47th, a highly respected and impressively well-informed Syria analyst on twitter:  'USA designated Jabhat Al Nusra as a "terrorist group". In an immediate reaction, 700 Nusra members died from laughter.'

This doesn't just go for the USA; it goes for all the Very Serious People* worrying about 'jihadis'.   It is not as if some sort of distant,  impotent vigilance is going to change anything.    The 'jihadis' are not like unexploded ordnance;  drawing up warning leaflets and encouraging Syrians to beware of the dangers won't work.   When concern gets so utterly pointless, it becomes indecent.  Those who are vigilant should also consider what's full in their faces:  that JAN doesn't take innocent lives but protects them.

Indeed  JAN could legitimately claim to occupy a higher moral plateau than all the Very Serious People put together.   The VSP's, after all, have not, at enormous personal risk, saved many thousands of civilians from Assad, or brought material relief to many Syrians in the most desperate need.   And JAN is reputed particularly free from corruption and predatory behavior.

So why worry?  Better to focus on  what more you can do to support the FSA.


*  Paul Krugman's phrase for commentators who make a show of deep thinking.