Monday, February 21, 2011

Arab Regimes Tottering Variously

Arab Regimes Tottering Variously
Saeed Naqvi

Winds of change across the Arab world have been carried on the wing of Al Jazeera, Twitter, Facebook and, then by the mainstream global media. Even the Indian media made an appearance in Tahrir Square.

Changes have taken place in Tunisia, Egypt and run into artillery fire in Bahrain, but Bush era analysts like Prof. Fouad Ajami have their fixations. Ajami places Saddam Hussain, Hafez Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, Mubarak, Bin Ali side by side.

He would have us believe that Saddam and Mubarak are on the same side of the Arab street. They are not.

Yes, they were both ruthless dictators but Saddam was not overthrown by his own people as Mubarak was. His regime was dismantled by American military might. Unlike Tahrir Square, celebrations in Baghdad had to be contrived.

Remember how Dick Cheney, fearful of losing face, choreographed that theatre in Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Worried that “shock and awe” had not brought celebrating Iraqis out on the streets to greet US troops, messages went out to Shia leaders Ayatullah Baqar ul Hakim in Najaf and Moqtada Sadr in Kufa to initiate some “celebrations” at Saddam’s fall.

To coincide with the Shia crowds from Sadr city, beating Saddam posters with sandals, Marines were invited to help pull down Saddam Hussain’s statue in slow motion in front of Palestine hotel. Interspersed were shots of Cheney delivering a victory speech in which he thanked the “religious leaders”.

Ofcourse, emergence of Shia power strengthened contiguous Iran where, in another era, Ayatullahs had been installed as an anti Soviet force, just as the Mujahideen were manufactured in Afghanistan later.

In 1979, Ayatullah Khomeini was flown in from Paris. The simmering again the Shah was allowed to froth over. First, the Ayatullahs proceeded to eliminate the Tudeh (Iranian Communists). Then, Marxists with an Islamic tinge, Mujahideen-e-Khalq were pushed out to Iraq and the Ayatullahs have since been in power in Teheran.

To the chagrin of US’s Saudi partners, the ultimate guidance on policy matters to the new Shia dominated Baghdad comes from Grand Ayatullah Sistani in Najaf. Even Iyad Allawi, US-Saudi candidate opposed to Nuri al Maliki during the nine month stand off on Prime Ministership, paid visits to Najaf.

As it turns out Baghdad may be something of a model for Teheran of the future. One of the debates in the Shia University at QOM is whether the “Islamic Revolution” should be “administered” or only “guided” by the clergy. Surely guide-the-revolution model should be preferable.

I have meandered a bit. Let me revert to Ajami comparing Saddam Hussain with Mubarak. The two stood on opposite platforms on the central issue agitating the Arab streets and basements – the Israeli/Palestinian process. Mubarak’s dictatorship stifled the street to support the broad US-Israeli stand. Saddam was implacably opposed to what he called “Israeli intransigence”. Why, during Operation Desert Storm, Yasser Arafat, was Saddam’s guest in Baghdad!

There are some common elements unsettling the Arab dictators. One is just this – dictatorship. Another is the “youth bulge”, half the 350 million Arabs are under 30, in search of employment in a shrunken, corrupt, nepotism ridden job market. Sheer economic want would be more pronounced in Yemen, Egypt and Jordan, for example, but clearly not in the Gulf States. Algeria’s volatile history cannot be suppressed. Morocco is an enigma – Sephardic jews have not forgotten Morroccan hospitality after the 15th century Spanish inquisitions. But how do the Palestinians regard Rabat?

Regimes sympathic to the Palestinian plight would, to that extent, be insulted from peoples’ wrath in Syria and Libya, for instance. Demonstrations in Iran and Libya are part of the internal turmoil in these countries, unrelated to the Palestinian issue.

A majority Shia population in Bahrain opposed to the Sunni ruler makes it unique as does the fact that it is an important western base. A combination of Shia (Huthi) in the north and socialists in South with anti Americanism knitting both is a lethal mix besieging Sanaa. Bahrain, Yemen and Iraq all with their Shia ferment must create acute anxieties for the Saudis who have borders with all three. Moreover, even their own Wahabi clergy cannot be sanguine with Al Quds once again swimming into focus. Surely they cannot allow the Quds issue to be an Iranian monopoly.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Faiz, The Exile From Islamabad to Beirut

Faiz, The Exile From Islamabad to Beirut
Saeed Naqvi

On Sunday, February, 13, 2011, one of the most remarkable men born on this sub continent, the great Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, would have been 100 years old – his first birth centenary.

Faiz was not just admired but adored, as much in India as in Pakistan. Indeed there were large circles of his admirers in various parts of the world.

He was not an inveterate traveler like Tagore who traveled to 32 (thirty two) countries, ranging from Argentina to Iran in the 20s and 30s when travel was not easy. Allama Iqbal too traveled but not as much. Faiz’s journeys were not journeys of choice. In most instances his were journeys of an exile, mostly from Zia ul Haq’s Pakistan. Poetry of exile is a strong strand in his verse.

Faiz derived greatly from classical poets like Sauda, Mushafi and, particularly Ghalib. It was from him – and varied sources of Sufis and Marxists – that Faiz derived the art of handling adversity with balance and dignity.

Another kind of exile Faiz experienced was in the 50s, his five years in jail for trumped up charges in what is known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case.

It was this jail experience that became the source for an extraordinary mix of revolution and lyric, dressing up traditional symbols of Urdu poetry in contemporary garb:
Mataa-e-lauho-qalam chin gayee
to kya gham hai
Ki khoon-e-dil mein dubo li hain
unglian maine
Zubaan pe mohar lagee hai to kya
ki rakh di hai
har ek halqa e zanjir pe zubaan
(They have taken away the pen and ink
So I have dipped my fingers in the blood of my heart.
Doesn’t matter if they have sealed my lips;
I have given voice to every link in the chain that shackles us)

Is Faiz the greatest poet of the modern era? In the popularity stakes, he will win by several lengths. But scholars will toss up some other names – Josh Malihabadi, Yaas Yagana Changezi, Firaq Gorakhpuri among others.

Josh’s mastery of diction is like a river in torrent; lightening thunder, a pageantry of words to the accompaniment of a full 100 piece orchestra. But he is not just a wordsmith. He remains unmatched in the range of thought in his “Rubayat”, or quatrains in a specific meter. Faiz doesn’t even claim to be a poet of rubayi.

By universal acclaim, both Firaq and Yagana would be superior poets of ghazal, Firaq for his delicacy of thought and sensuousness, Yagana for his freshness and inventiveness. Some critics would even consider Majrooh Sultanpuri as a more chiseled ghazal writer. Majaz, too, would be in contention but his body of work is thin because he died at 46.

What then in so special about Faiz? Well, he is the most modern of all Urdu poets in every sense of the term. He wrote excellent ghazals but they do not place him with the best.

Where he remains unsurpassed is in free verse. While all the poets listed above were wedded to traditional formats, Faiz got out of the structural constraints which even Ghalib had complained about:
“Kuch aur chaahiye wusat
mere bayan ke liye!”
(I need much more space for my theme)

In this genre too there will be awkward critics who will urge you not to ignore N.M. Rashid!

Josh, Firaq, Yagana even Majaz and Majrooh were intellectually cosmopolitan but were all confined to the decaying feudal ambience of Avadh.

Faiz was conditioned by the virility and intellectual vigour of Lahore. Even though he had early training in Arabic from Maulvis he crossed over to the Government College Lahore, the country’s premiere college where he did his Masters in English literature.

The great Marxist historian, Victor Kiernan taught at Lahore’s Aitchison College at about the same time. This probably explains Kiernan’s translation of Faiz’s poetry.

During his exiles he got acquainted with Edward Said in Beirut and Louis MacNiece in London. These were some of the associations which made Faiz into something of a global citizen – the only Urdu poet to break out of the small town stereotype.

Faiz died in 1984. In his last two years he nursed a deep hurt that Beirut, his favourite rendezvous (when in exile) was occupied by Israel in 1982. How thrilled would he have been at the winds of change sweeping the Arab world. Equally, he would have been shattered at the bizarre spectacle of rose petals being showered on the murderer of his nephew Salman Taseer.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Egypt: Israeli Interests

Egypt: Israeli Interests
Saeed Naqvi

The Economist, which knows what goes one inside the heads in Washington and Jerusalem, had on its cover of the issue ending January 7, the following headline: The threat of war in the Middle East. That was three weeks ago. Protestors at Tahrir Square were not in the world’s focus. Nor had the Tunisian President fled.

The Economist’s case was built around the failure of President Obama’s Christmas initiative at Arab-Israeli peacemaking. “There is reason to believe that unless remedial action is taken, 2011 might see the most destructive such war for many years.” Iran’s nuclear ambition; Israel’s implacable opposition to it. The fear that should “a balance-tipping new weapon” be added by Iran and Syria to Hezbollah’s rocket inventory of 50,000, Israel would take military action.

Do the events in Egypt alter these calculations? Only the most reckless would calculate that since the Arab world is preoccupied with its own problems, this may be the moment to settle issues with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

Generally wars stoke nationalism which causes people to rally around their leaders. The paradox of the Arab world is that any war involving Israel sends the dictators who form a ring-around Israel scurrying for cover. Their plight would be even more pitiable now when their people are already rising against them for a whole range of reasons. Such is the perversity in the region that Arab dictatorships spell Israeli security – obverse of Wilsonian Liberalism. So, no war now.

What stares Israel in the face is an existential issue: the future of the Peace Treaties with Egypt and Jordan. The existence of these treaties on the other hand further fuels Arab street anger, although foreign policy at the moment appears to have been superceded by issues of freedom and bread.

Israeli and Egyptian intelligence communities and the armed forces have worked closely over the past 30 years, overseen by their common benefactor, the US.

In the current crisis the benefactor seems to have lost its centrality in the process. Hosni Mubarak refused to see President Obama’s personal envoy, Frank Wisner when he sought a second meeting after having delivered a “tough” first massage. The former US ambassador to Egypt evidently suggested a speedier transition than appears to be emerging.

For the time being, the Israeli-Egyptian duet appears to be on the same wavelength, scripting the transition.

Vice President and former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, Defence Minister Marshal Tantawi and Armed Forces Chief, Gen. Sami Annan are the sorts of faces that will ensure continuity in Foreign Policy, Israel’s main concern. But what coalition do they represent? And are they in a position to calm the protesters in Tahrir Square by announcing an early date for Mubarak to give up the “gaddi”?

The September deadline preferred by Mubarak will be seen by the people to be a ruse: it makes Mubarak a self confessed lame duck, which Egypt cannot afford, or someone buying time.

In this context Israeli concession to Egypt that it can position 1,000 troops at Sharm el-Sheikh, is interesting. Apparently, Mubarak has a house there. But even if he were to occupy this house, he cannot move in tomorrow or the day after because packers have to identify items that have to be transported from the presidential palace.

When I called the Indian Ambassador in Cairo he came on the line but seemed preoccupied with urgent business at hand – the safety of 3000 Indians in Egypt. I could not have discussed politics with him on an open line but I doubt if there is any substance in the bilateral relationship that exercises our embassies in any of the Arab countries, except the Gulf States.

Time was when a visit to the imposing India House on the Nile was a treat. The Ambassador would take you on a tour. “That is the sofa occupied by Nehru and Nasser”. No leader of that elevation has occupied the sofa since.

Why this loss of interest in the Arab world? I suppose the end of the cold war made non alignment irrelevant. It turns out that New Delhi’s engagement of the Arab world was part of the non aligned outreach. The deep civilizational links we talk about is a lot of hypocrisy.

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Arab World at the Precipice

Arab World at the Precipice
Saeed Naqvi

The two million protestors at Tahrir Square have triggered memories of my other visits to Cairo.

The interview with Hosni Mubarak is preceded by an elaborate drill through the Ministry of Information – filling a form here, submitting an outline of the questions there.

Here I am, about to interview Egypt’s President, but this fact does not seem to place me on any pedestal with the otherwise disinterested officials. What does bring a smile to their eyes is the place of my origin.

“Sahafi al Hindi?” (Journalist from India?) This leads to handshakes and greetings. Suddenly, they all turn their heads towards the TV screen. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, British Commander of UN forces in Bosnia is holding one of his briefings in Sarajevo. Some more bodies of Muslims have been found in villages along the Drina river.

“Slowly, they will finish us all” Exclaims one, holding his worry beads in both his hands. There is despair, anger, rage, not targeted at anyone object of hate. It is a sort of ranting, an expression of helplessness. Hosni Mubarak in their circumstance had become the symbol of their distress.

All Muslim distress anywhere was available on TV (global TV having been born since Operation Desert Storm). As happens when fleeting images determine the national mood, all anger was focused on Mubarak, collaborator with “our enemies” and oppressor-in-chief at home. And now when I see millions in Tahrir I ask myself: why did such an uprising not take place decades ago, when I witnessed the anger of those officials? Would it not have been tidier then?

Yes, it would have been tidier, but it would not have been possible. Those officials were past their middle age. Today, almost half of the 350 million Arabs are in their 20s – Youth bulge, is the catch phrase. Over 85 percent of those in the shrunken job market hold university degrees or diplomas. Prices have skyrocketed, and economies have stagnated.

When I met Mubarak, 9/11 had not happened. In fact he was complaining how US policies in Afghanistan had bred “Islamic fundamentalism” which, after expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan was “plaguing you in Kashmir and us in Egypt, in Algeria”.

He was dissembling when he bracketed Algeria with Egypt. In my view, the Algerian experience in the 90s deserves to be examined separately to understand the present anger in the Arab world. I have some sense of it because I had accompanied Rajiv Gandhi to Algeria where, at President Chadli Benjadid’s prodding, he somewhat impulsively recognized Polisario, the Soviet supported movement which claimed Spanish Sahara, vacated by Spain soon after Franco’s death. The territory was hotly disputed by Morocco, on the other side of the cold war. After a fashion, Islam had been introduced into the intra-Arab quarrel.

The reason I believe Hosni Mubarak was less than honest on Algeria was because he had endorsed Western plans to set aside the results of the Algerian elections in 1991. What had happened was this.

During the first Algerian Legislative election in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front won over a two-thirds majority. The military’s fear was that with that size of majority, the Salvation Front could change the constitution and “democratically” impose an Islamic State.

Since the Salvation Front had direct links with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the ascendance of Islamists in Algeria would automatically spread the contagion throughout. Little wonder, Hosni Mubarak endorsed the US and European decision to support the Algerian army in setting aside democratic results. Algerian Civil war followed.

Just imagine, a Civil War was preferred to an Islamic formation. Who knows power may have moderated this formation. Moderation, not extremism, may well have radiated from Algeria. What the West (and Israel) prefers not to understand is a simple fact: in dictatorships, supported by the West, the only political ventilation is provided by the mosque.

Far from learning this lesson, the West took its eye off this issue in the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Instead of employing America’s unprecedented power towards an architecture of moderation in West Asia and beyond, George W Bush, embarked on a project of “full spectrum dominance” – and fell flat on his face.

This garish celebration of Capitalism’s victory did bring out in relief an apparent ideological vacuum – Socialism and Communism on the Left and Fascism and its variants on the right had suddenly became insubstantial.

The mosque, always the congregational space in Muslim societies, also became the space for an ideology of discontent. There was no other coherent system of beliefs. So anti-Americanism became a powerful belief system. History’s most powerful country became an enemy figure because its extraordinary power was seen to be at the disposal of Israel which, after a brief demonstration of reasonableness following the Oslo process, turned to unprecedented hawkishness on the Palestinian case. Moreover, in the guise of fighting terrorism, it was, in Arab eyes, targeting Muslims.

Hosni Mubarak becomes a hate figure in the Arab street because he has been an inseparable part of the Western-Israeli concert, which, in addition to its other perceived sins, has brutalized Palestinians. Had the Israelis pushed for peace with Palestinians, the ground beneath Mubarak’s feet may not have slipped so irretrievably.

And now that he is poised precariously on the precipice, there is acute anxiety in Jerusalem and Washington on one issue: what will his successor look like. Does someone like Mohamed Elbaradei, former IAEA Director General, have it in him to rally the opposition against Mubarak? This is one of the questions Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to Egypt (and India) will ask in Cairo where he is now parked on a “special mission” from President Obama.

Back channel Israeli diplomacy must be working overtime to forestall any outcome which leaves any levers with the Muslim Brotherhood. The irony is that no alternative to Mubarak is possible without the Brotherhood having a say in it. In 30 years of Mubarak’s repression – torture, police brutalities, packed prisons, penetration of “Mukhabirat” (secret service) in every walk, have enabled the Muslim Brotherhood almost as a reflex to expand as the only organized political force waiting for exactly the opportunity which has opened up with the Egyptian protests. Mubarak’s chant to the Americans, “If I go, they come” today rings hollow.

The West, in serious decline since 2008, has been too preoccupied with its own problems. It may well have taken its eyes off the subterranean shifts in the Arab world, inducing a sort of stupor in aging dictators like Zine El Abidine Bin Ali in Tunis and Mubarak in Cairo.

The world was taken by surprise with the rapidity of Bin Ali’s collapse and Mubarak’s impending fall. Now, juxtapose the rejoicing in Arab streets to the grim mood in Israel.

Listen to Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
“… few Israelis believe in-a-hopeful outcome. Instead, the grim assumption is that it is just a matter of time before the only real opposition group in Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, takes power. Israelis fear that Egypt will go the way of Iran or Turkey, with Islamists gaining control through violence or gradual co-optations.”

This is a very real fear. But this need not be the only way the scenario unfolds. The biggest obstacle to a harmonious future is a mind-set which recoils on the term “Islamic”, almost habitually mixing up Islam with terrorism.

Shimon Peres once told me: “Look, we have to live in this region, with our Arab neighbours”. He added: “if trust comes, love will follow”. Peres does have a way with words, but that exactly is the route to follow. What we are witnessing may well be a moment as historic as the fall of the Berlin wall. The stakes are so high that there can always be a twist in the tale.

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Arab World: Old Order Changeth!

Arab World: Old Order Changeth!
Saeed Naqvi

Some issues have already been settled. For example, President Hosni Mubarak’s son will not succeed him. This takes the future away from Mubarak’s grasp.

There is now a recognition across the Arab world that Al Jazeera news channel, headquartered in Qatar, became the credible carrier of news and images from Tunis to Cairo. BBC and CNN scrambled to catch up. For once they were second or third best.

Al Jazeera is now compulsory watching for anyone trying to follow the West Asian world. For years New Delhi dragged its feet, resisting a full fledged Al Jazeera coverage from India. Some months ago all documentation were cleared. Indeed, a launch party was held, Ministry of External Affairs officials in due attendance. But after all this why are the historic events in West Asia not being televised in India?

Happily Indian journalists, both TV and print, have turned up in Cairo to give us, by way of relief, an Indian perspective on the unfolding events. And they are on their own unlike in 2003 when a bevy of them cheerfully allowed themselves to be “embedded” in Kuwait to cover American “victory” in Iraq.

Just imagine, if the Indian media were to turn up in Cairo in full force, this could well be a defining moment, the Indian global media which would then liven up the foreign office and be seen worldwide.

Tanks, torture, brutal police force, prisons packed like sardines and the frightful “mukhabirat” or secret service are the stilts that keep dictatorships steady. Straightforward information, modern communications, Twitter, Facebook are anathema to such regimes. Little wonder these lines of communication were snapped. Why have Al Jazeera offices in Cairo been shut down but not others? BBC and CNN, for instance. Can they be managed more effectively without the competition from Al Jazeera showing them up?

If you visit the magnificent India House on he Nile, the ambassador in earlier years would have taken you on a tour charged with nostalgia: “There in that sofa sat Nasser and Nehru”.

Nasser died in September 1970 and Anwar Sadat succeeded him in October of that year. Having something of the Muslim Brotherhood in his background, he did not have to grapple with his conscience to abandon Nasser’s Arab Socialism and join the American camp when the cold war was at its most intense. Indeed, in 1979 he signed the peace treaty with Israel for which he paid with his life. He was assassinated in 1981, clearing the way for Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship which has lasted 30 years.

In a bipolar world, non alignment, which Nehru and Nasser had nurtured, seemed relevant. But when Egypt, under Sadat, crossed over to the other side, he had abandoned the Nehru-Nasser idea of non alignment too.

If New Delhi’s relations with Egypt dwindled because of Cairo switching sides during the cold war, it logically follows that there should have been a repair in these relations after the Soviet collapse which caused New Delhi to lurch towards the US and Israel the way Sadat had done. Hosni Mubarak, after all, sat squarely on the Israeli-American lap.

This did not happen. In fact, foreign policy towards the Arab world since the 1990s revealed a different reality. New Delhi’s engagement of the Arab world was only part of its outreach as leader of the Non Aligned. With non alignment having lost relevance, India quite incredibly lost interest in the Arab world – a complete departure from Nehru’s vision. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were exceptions largely because of substantial remittances and oil supplies.

An exponential growth in high tech arms supplies from Israel could have been cited as one of the reasons for tactical Indian distancing from the Arab world. But this did not make sense because most of the Arab states (except Syria and Lebanon) were western puppets.

And now that the democratic urge is ascendant in Tunisia and Egypt, will the world’s new “risen power”, aspiring for a Permanent seat at the Security Council, step out of its diplomatic “purdah” in the Arab world?

For proper perspective of current developments, one has to place the region against the events of past 60 years. In 1951, Britain and the US snuffed out democracy in Iran by removing the elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh because he nationalized Western oil interests. From that day Western strategy in the region has been conditioned by the twin interests of oil and Israeli security.

At the other end of the spectrum, Nasser was stoking political Islam quite unintentionally by keeping in jail for ten long years, Saiyyid Qutub, who spelt out a plan to recreate the Muslim world on Quranic grounds. His book, Milestones, advises Muslims to prepare themselves for “a life until death in poverty, difficulty, frustration, torment and sacrifice”. Qutub recommends “offensive Jehad to carry Islam throughout the earth to the whole of mankind”. Somewhere here are the ideas perfected by Al Qaeda.

It is generally believed that the manufacture of radical Islam in Afghanistan to evict the Soviets eventually boomeranged on the twin towers in New York on 9/11. A key detail in the narrative is missed out. The military in Algeria, with support from the US and Europe, set aside the elections of 1991 in which the Islamic Salvation Front swept to victory with a two-thirds majority. This sent shock waves across Arab populations.

Brazen western insensitivity to peoples’ will in the Middle East is part of the reason for acute anti Americanism in the region. Lip service to electoral democracy but an acceptance only of pro-West outcomes! Hamas’ electoral victory is a case in point. Let us wait for the outcome in Lebanon. When Arab regimes are seen to be obsequiously supportive of such gross injustice, popular anger against these dictatorships is immeasurably higher.

Anger which simmers below the surface for long years begins to look like a condition of normalcy. Quite as imperceptible are demographic changes leading to phenomena encapsulated in catch-phrases like “youth bulge”. This means that more than half the population in the Arab world is under 25! Over 80 percent of those in the shrunken job market have university degrees or diplomas. Add to this the rising prices, growing unemployment and ageing dictatorships becoming ever more brutal and you have a recipe for all that is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and to a more manageable extent, in Jordan.

If God came riding a thunderbolt and all the ills listed above were miraculously removed, there will still remain one which will rile Arab populations until a solution is found: the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the mindless building of settlements by Israel.

Will Mubarak be able to ride over this crisis? Will the Army step in? To save an ailing, 82 year old dictator? I doubt it.

In some obscure resort, Americans, Israelis, Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptian (minus Mubarak) must be deliberating the transition, looking over their shoulders, making sure that no paper or computer trail is left behind for an outfit smarter than Wikileaks.

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