Archive for May 2006

The Egyptian Conundrum

May 31, 2006

Egypt has been a pillar of America's Middle East policy since the late 1970s and President Carter's brokering of the Camp David Accord. The rather frosty peace between Israel and Egypt that Camp David birthed has proven surprisingly resilient – surviving the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the dissolution of the Oslo Accords, the second Intifada. Or, perhaps we should not be so surprised, as the deal is cemented with American largesse, an allocation that last year sent $1.7-billion dollars in aid to Cairo.

President Hosni Mubarak, our man in Cairo, is making several people in Washington uncomfortable about our long-standing ties to his regime. One such man is David Obey, a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, who earlier this month proposed withholding a fraction of the annual aid allotment to Egypt in order to express American displeasure at Mubarak's relentless stifling of pro-democratic dissent. The Obey proposal was killed by the House Appropriations Committee, in part because Secretary of State Rice warned that any cuts would damage a "strategic partnership" that is "a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East."

This saga is outlined in a recent column by Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal who is plainly dismayed by the Bush administration's acquiesence to the thuggish rule of Mubarak – who appears to be grooming his son Gamal to take over the family business. Recent months have seen the imprisonment, torture, and sodomizing of pro-reform activists in Egypt. The accounts have been staggering, for regular coverage visit the terrific blog The Arabist.

The hypocrisy is obvious. After all, it is President Bush who boldly declared in his second inaugural address: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country."

But the solutions are not simple. The situation in Egypt represents a long-standing, central conundrum of American foreign policy: how hard do we prudently push for democracy and liberalization when it often comes at the cost of stability? We need look no further than right over the border in the Palestinian territories where what was by all accounts a free and fair election brought to power the deeply anti-liberal, staunchly terrorist and rejectionist Hamas. Similarly, Mubarak sells his regime to Washington as a bulwark against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

These questions do not lend themselves to easy answers. I would suggest that the beginning of wisdom is to say that America must not be willing to consent itself to a stable authoritarian order. Such a politcy is not only obscenely immoral and baldly cynical, it is detrimental to American security. By shoring up authoritarian regimes the United States is guaranteed to make enemies out of local nationalists across the developing world. This is one of the central lessons of the Cold War, during which short-sighted engagement of this kind constituted, in the words of Tufts University scholar Tony Smith, a form of "anti-imperialist imperialism." It is a policy that has been terribly damaging and alienating to thos suffering under authoritarian governments supported by Washington.

The challenges are indeed immense…



Iraqi Civil Society and Gay Rights

May 31, 2006

(What's This All About?…Introducing small-d)

A recent New York Times article on civil society groups in Iraq is a little short on detail, doing a better job of highlighting the poverty and despair in Iraq than hope for the future. But it is heartening to learn that "Since 2003 the government has registered 5,000 private organizations, including charities, human rights groups, medical assistance agencies and literacy projects. Officials estimate that an additional 7,000 groups are working unofficially." Some of these groups are, however, fronts for Shiite and Sunni extremists. The author also doesn't mention the Bush administration's decision to drastically cut aid for Iraqi civil society and democracy building through the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy. (I guess Iraqis will have to make do with rhetoric.)

More encouraging, and frankly awe-inspiring, are the efforts of a "clandestine network" of Iraqi gay and lesbian activists to turn back the anti-gay pogrom that has accompanied the militant Shiite ascendancy in Iraq. In April of last year Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – the most revered Shiite leader in Iraq and an important political power-broker on whom the coalition forces have relied to maintain calm – declared a fatwa on his website calling for all homosexuals to be killed in the "worst, most severe way." Since that declaration, The Independent reports "mounting evidence that fundamentalists have infiltrated government security forces to commit homophobic murders while wearing police uniforms." According to gay rights activists, the Shiite fundamentalist death squads have even in some cases used Internet chat rooms created by gay Iraqis to arrange to meet gays in Baghdad and other cities, then abducted and shot them.

But on May 10th the fatwa was removed from Sistani's site. The London office of the Iraqi LGBT – an Iraqi gay rights organization that represents "a clandestine network of lesbian and gay activists inside Iraq's major cities" – claims credit for the reversal after protesting the fatwa directly to Sistani. Then again, though the fatwa calling for death to gays in Iraq was removed, a fatwa calling for lesbians to be punished remains. Still, it's difficult to imagine anything more ballsy than being a gay rights activist in Iraq. The back story according to the London office of Iraqi LGBT is also intriguing: they claim that Sistani got in touch with them first, demanding that they remove the criticisms from their English-language site immediately. Instead, they demanded that Sistani remove the fatwa. "After two weeks of sometimes tense negotiations, Sistani's representatives in London and Najaf agreed to drop the homophobic fatwa from his website – except for the section calling for the punishment of lesbianism," says Iraqi LGBT. Check out their site for more info and this interview with their London representative.