Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from around the world are planning to fly into Tel Aviv's airport in hopes of traveling to the West Bank. Over 700 people have already scheduled flights and as many as 1,200 are expected to arrive at Ben-Gurion between Thursday and Friday. Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel's Public Security Minister, responded to the planned ‘aerial flotilla', saying:
"These hooligans who try to break our laws will not be allowed into the country and will be returned immediately to their home countries."
Five activists have already been arrested upon arrival. While airport security is on high alert, activists like Nicolas Sheshni say there is no plan to riot or cause disruption:
"We have no intention of staging a political protest inside Israeli territory. We only want to tour Palestine and show solidarity with the Palestinian people."
Sheshni and 300 other French activists hope to plant olive trees in Ramallah and tour the ancient city of Bethlehem. Travelers usually conceal their intent to travel to the West Bank for fear of facing immediate deportation. But in the next several days, many activists will declare Palestine as their final destination, protesting their lack of ability to visit Palestinian friends and family. Dozens of Israeli security forces are now stationed at Ben-Gurion. Friday flights from Europe will be directed to a separate terminal and passengers will undergo thorough immigration procedures.
Netanyahu defended Israel's plan to deport the activists:
"Every country has the right to prevent the entry of provocateurs and trouble-makers into its territory. That is how all countries behave and that is how Israel will act. We must prevent the disruption of normal life for Israeli citizens."
Maritime efforts of pro-Palestinian activists have been paralyzed in Greek ports, but who knows what the skies will hold in the coming days.
llee_wu via Flickr Creative Commons
If it hadn't been clear already, it should now be obvious that the military junta running Egypt -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces -- is doing a terrible job.
Once again, thousands of angry protesters have taken over the area in and around Tahrir Square, amid the worst scenes of violence in Cairo since the events of Jan. 25 and Jan. 28. Intense battles involving rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and massive amounts of tear gas are ongoing even now, nearly 24 hours after they began.
The details are sketchy, but from what I can piece together from online accounts, what happened was this: For the past few days, families of those killed during the revolution have been camped out in front of the state television building, demanding justice and accountablity for the deaths. Yesterday, some of them heard about a commemoration that was happening a few blocks south for families of martyrs, and wanted to attend. As it turned out, the event was to commemorate members of the police killed during the uprising, and the protesters weren't admitted. An ugly scuffle broke out, which you can see here:
Things quickly devolved from there, as the families and their supporters took their protest over to the Interior Ministry. Cairo's famous thugs -- some accounts say from the neighborhood' others suggest they were plainclothes police -- suddenly made an appearance, fighting broke out, and then the black-clad Central Security Forces drove the demonstrators back to Tahrir Square. A few thousand protesters arrived to bolster the protesters, and a nasty street battle has raged ever since (you can listen to the Guardian's Jack Shenker's account here) -- creeping ever closer back toward the hated Interior Ministry. This was what the scene looked like last night:
If the riot's origins are murky, so are its aims. What's clear is that the anger is mounting. Alaa Abd El Fattah, a well-known Egyptian activist, probably spoke for many when he tweeted, "dont ask me how it started, Ive no idea, most of us don't care, there is police and there is us, there is tear gas and there is rocks." The clashes have become a contest of wills between the street and the police, with neither side willing to back down. Dozens, if not hundreds, have been injured, ad hoc medical clinics have been set up, and the April 6 protest movement has called for a sit-in.
Here we go again?
There are mixed reports about the health of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- recovering in Saudi Arabia from an attack on his palace earlier this month -- and whether he's planning on returning home to his embattled country anytime soon.
Reuters quotes a Western diplomat saying, "We believe he was seriously injured.... He is not coming [home] in the coming days, he is not coming [home] anytime soon."
Last week, an aide to Saleh gave CNN a different take, saying the president would return soon, possibly even last Friday. Obviously, that didn't happen, but aides have told other news organizations that his health is improving and "he is receiving guests, giving instructions on day to day affairs in Yemen, including a power cut and fuel shortages."
Saleh is still signing official documents -- he sent a cable yesterday congratulating Djibouti on its national day -- and hasn't officially appointed his deputy as acting president. There have been no public reports of negotiations on a transition, and Saleh's party officials talk about punishing his attackers rather than ending his rule.
Bloomberg News spoke to advisors who have visited the president at the hospital in Saudi Arabia. They said he suffered burns to his face and underwent plastic surgery last week to repair the damage. He's lost weight and his voice is weak, but he is alert and is in physical therapy. He could return to Sanaa by early July, one Yemeni official said.
Ahmed al-Soufi, another Saleh advisor, told al-Arabiya that the president would make a media appearance within the next two days, his first time since the attack.
So is Saleh truly on the mend and planning his return to Yemen?
Don't count on it, says Bernard Haykel, a Yemen expert at Princeton University.
"Clearly he is in very bad shape or you would have heard him speak by now," Haykel said. "But he has a vested interest in showing he's still active."
And the close advisors that keep promising a Saleh return any day now?
"He has a group of people who depend on him for their own survival," Haykel said. "They have a vested interest as well in maintaining the fiction that everything is fine and he'll come back. I don't think we should take at face value what that machine is saying. They are making calculations about their own survival."
Yemeni prisons have been criticized as overcrowded and undermonitored radicalization factories where the government sometimes stuffs people it doesn't know what to do with -- at times without trial. And every few years, a spectacular mass escape makes headlines. The latest breakout came today in the southern city of al-Mukalla. Somewhere between 40 and 60 prisoners -- who reportedly had ties to al Qaeda -- attacked the guards and seized their arms from inside, while armed gunmen attacked from outside, according to news accounts. Al Jazeera reported that among the prisoners were convicted terrorists and men being held in protective custody pending trial.
Some of the escapees might have been militants who had returned from Iraq, according to Gregory D. Johnsen, an analyst at Princeton University and a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen.
"The fact that they have experience fighting in Iraq makes them particularly dangerous," Johnsen said. "Plus, they've been in a Yemeni prison for quite some time. People go into prison and come out much more radical. Many of the suicide bombers we've seen in Yemen in recent years have come out of prison."
"It goes to show the situation is deteriorating in the country," said Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program. "The U.S. has been concerned about the prison system in Yemen for a lot of reasons. They don't know who is there and how long they are being held for. The Yemeni prison system is not very transparent at all."
In fact the only time the outside world tends to get a glimpse of it is when militants are able to break out, which happens alarmingly frequently. Here are three of the biggest breaks in the past few years.
June 2010: Aden
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took credit for a jailbreak at the country's intelligence headquarters in the southern city of Aden. At least 11 people were killed during the raid that freed about 10 people.
The details were the most shocking: The armed gunmen were dressed in military uniforms and were able to storm the headquarters during the morning flag salute. The gun battle lasted for at least an hour.
Boucek and Johnsen said the names of the escapees weren't ever released. But the raid was an embarrassment for the government and showed AQAP's ability and daringness.
February 2006: Sanaa
In perhaps the most consequential moment in the evolution of AQAP into the potent force it is today -- Johnsen calls it the "genesis moment" for the group -- 23 prisoners escaped through a tunnel and into a nearby mosque. There were suggestions that they had help from the inside.
"Al Qaeda had been basically defeated before that," Johnsen said. "They didn't have the infrastructure in the country before. This was when the organization got its start."
In particular, two men who got out that day became integral leaders of the group -- Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi. Wihayshi, who once served as Osama bin Laden's secretary, merged the al Qaeda branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, creating what many U.S. officials believe is the biggest terrorist threat in the world today.
April 2003: Aden
This escape happened from the same building as the 2010 incident -- the intelligence headquarters in Aden. Abdul Rauf Nassib, an al Qaeda leader in Yemen, reportedly helped 10 militants -- who were suspected of taking part in the USS Cole attack -- escape.
One of the prisoners was Jamal al Badawi, who might be the most escapee person in Yemen. He was later recaptured, sentenced to death for his involvement in the Cole attack, and then escaped again in the 2006 breakout. In 2007, he turned himself in and was set free again by Yemeni authorities after pledging loyalty to the president and vowing not to carry out other attacks.
As the international community watches the Syrian crackdown in horror, Syrian security forces employ even more deadly means of intimidation and interrogation. Over ten thousand Syrian refugees are believed to be seeking refuge in Turkish refugee camps and border towns such as Jisr al-Shughur have become epicenters of mass graves, torture and now, rape.
Four teenage sisters from the Syrian-Turkish border town of Sumeriya are now among the growing number of rape victims in Syria. Though reportedly recovering in a Turkish hospital, the women could face a lifetime of shame in a country where honor killings have been reported to restore a family's honor.
When news spread of the sisters' plight, a group of men from a nearby town vowed to marry the women, defying tradition and more importantly, defying the string of mass rapes used by pro-government forces in desperate attempt to squelch the revolution. Horrifying stories are now emerging: soldiers kicking down the doors of sleeping women; young girls being forced to serve as sex slaves for the military. Musab Jani, a young man who supports the mission to marry victims of rape, stated that:
"Dignity and reputation are the most important things for Syrians. And women are a big part of this and the regime knows it. So for this reason, they do this to us as the opposition."
Rape has long been used as a weapon of war, decisively used to destroy the morale of a country and its people. But it seems there is a wave of hope on the horizon, led by activists like Mohammad Merhi, a makeshift refugee camp pharmacist, hopes that he too will marry one of the four sisters, even though he has never met them.
"I know that these girls suffered. They were taken against their will. I don't care what they look like, the point is to stand by them, and I do with all of my heart."
MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images
During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Arabs joked that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were following the same playbook -- which came to be known as the Arab Tyrant Manual. NPR described it as a three-step process, including "strengthening the security service," "promise political reform," and "buy off unrest."
But there's actually a lot more to the manual than that, and its application varies from place to place depending on circumstances -- though the overall failure of these tyrants to "get it" is remarkably consistent.
In March, at the height of the revolt in Libya, a few Twitter users, led by Iyad ElBaghdadi(@iyad_elbaghdadi) and Amira al-Husseini (@JustAmira), crowdsourced the rules of this manual and compiled them using the #ArabTyrantManual hashtag. A few of my favorites:
@iyad_elbaghdadi: Say that the protests started as a pure youth movement but were "hijacked" by a foreign agenda
@L_Auvergnate: Pretend you're open for dialogue and will do the necessary while killing protesters
@iyad_elbaghdadi: Say that you "got the message" and "will act on it soon". Don't mention what "soon" means.
@EG_Freedom: Shut down communications and kill businesses even tho protesters will publish videos anyway when the inet comes back up.
@studentIslam: You never wanted to be a dictator. Your service to the people proves that.
Compare to the Syrian state news agency's summary of Assad's speech today. Some choice excerpts:
Foreign conspiracies: "President al-Assad asserted that Syria, throughout all of its history has been facing conspiracies against it for several reasons, some of which are linked to Syria's important geographic and political status and others are linked to its political stances committed to its principles and interests.
Dialogue: "A committee on national dialogue was formed for the sake of launching a national dialogue which includes all social, intellectual and political segments in Syria in an institutional approach, the president added."
Vague promises of reform: "'The urgent demands of people have been implemented before the beginning of the dialogue...we lifted Emergency Law and abolished State Security Court; we issued an organizing law for the right to peaceful demonstration. A committee was formed to set the draft bill for the new election law as another committee was formed to set legislations and the necessary mechanisms to combat corruption,' said President al-Assad."
Failure to shut down communications: "‘What do we say about these political stances? What do we say about the media pressure and the advanced phones that we're finding in Syria in the hands of saboteurs? What do we say about the falsification that we all witnessed?' President al-Assad added."
Service to the people: "President al-Assad said ‘I met people from all the spectrums of the Syrian society, demonstrators and non-demonstrators and the truth is that I consider these meeting as the most important job I've ever had as a person in charge despite the frustration and pain in the general atmosphere yet I can say that the benefit was amazing. They showed great love and amity toward me I have never felt before.'"
That said, Assad is admittedly in a bit of a pickle here. Even if he did want to take serious steps to reform, in line with the demands of Turkey and the West, a few factors might be holding him back. One is that there are a lot of other people in Syria with a vested interest in the status quo, including but by no means limited to members of his own family. His brother, Maher, controls the most elite units of the military, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, controls the intelligence services. A bevy of cousins, notably Rami Makhlouf, control the economy. Members of Bashar's Alawite sect dominate the commanding heights of the security services. All of these people stand to lose if things change, and Assad likely feels he needs to protect the interests of this wider circle -- lest some of them decide to move against him.
Then there is Assad's patron, Iran, which has reportedly supplied help putting down the uprising and has little interest in seeing a process of political reform take root in Syria. And what about the Arab Gulf monarchies? A few of them have made official statements of support to the Syrian regime, and even though they have stayed most silent, their interest is in seeing Assad weakened but not overthrown altogether. They'd like to see him brought low so that he comes begging for cash, and they can peel him away from Iran. That seems unlikely -- why would he trust them? -- but that sort of thing has never stopped Arab regimes from pursuing a given strategy.
So he's stuck with the manual.
The first of several likely trials for former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali kicked off today in a Tunis criminal court. He's charged with embezzlement, money laundering, and drug trafficking (police allegedly found about 4.5 pounds of cannabis when they searched his palace). Ben Ali, the first leader to fall during the Arab Spring, fled with his family to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. He has not returned to Tunisia and is being tried in absentia on charges that could net him up to 20 years in prison. What have we learned today so far?
1. There's still plenty of anger, six months after the revolution.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse and disrupted the proceeding on several occasions, chanting, "How long will he be allowed to flee?" They want Ben Ali extradited from Saudi Arabia. And the AFP reports that one protester inside the courtroom was escorted out after an outburst. Tunisia's press has welcomed the trial. The Tunis-Hebdo newspaper said, "For the first time in our long history, a president-come bloody and predatory dictator will be judged."
2. The Tunisian press has blossomed since Ben Ali's ouster.
See the previous bit of writing. Needless to say, the press was kept on a much tighter leash under Ben Ali's reign. But now, the Interior Ministry is encouraging reporters to pursue factual journalism. And, according to the Africa Review magazine, more than 70 media companies have applied for licenses in the capital Tunis since the revolution.
3. The rules you help create can sometimes come back to bite you.
Ben Ali was being defended by a team of public defenders and not his French lawyer, Jean-Yves Le Borgne. Tunisian law prohibits a foreign lawyer from defending a client in absentia, Al Jazeera reports. His Tunisian legal team asked the judge for a postponement of the trial. They said they needed more time to prepare a defense.
4. We're learning more about how "The Family" really worked.
The Wall Street Journal examined the court papers filed against Ben Ali and interviewed a number of investigators working on the case. It found that the levels of corruption were far greater than thought. "Administrators who are freezing assets of more than 100 Ben Ali family members say they are uncovering an economic network so vast that untangling it too quickly could disrupt Tunisia further," according to the paper. "Instead of closing down businesses owned by Mr. Ben Ali's relatives, for example, authorities are in most cases allowing them to operate under court-appointed managers."
Meanwhile, the judge today detailed what investigators found when they searched the presidential palace and private residence. In addition to the illegal drugs, there was also 43 million Tunisian dinars ($31 million) in cash, as well as jewelry, arms, and archeological artifacts -- all obtained illegally, according to the judge.
5. Ben Ali thinks he's still president.
In a statement released today, Ben Ali gave his first account of the events that led him to flee. He said he only flew to Saudi Arabia after being persuaded by presidential security that his life and the lives of his family members were in danger, based on information about an assassination attempt supposedly passed along by "friendly" foreign intelligence services. His plan, he said, was to fly his wife and children to safety but then return immediately. The plane, however, returned to Tunisia without him, contrary to his orders, he said. "He did not leave his post as president of the republic and hasn't fled Tunisia as he was falsely accused of doing," the statement said.
It's been a tough couple of weeks for al Qaeda. Since the successful Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the terror network has suffered additional losses that analysts say are taking a heavy toll on the group.
Ilyas Kashmiri, al Qaeda's operational leader in Pakistan, was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone strike earlier this month (though al Qaeda hasn't confirmed his death, reports of which have been incorrect before). And last week, an al Qaeda leader in East Africa -- Fazul Abdullah Mohammed -- was killed by Somali forces in Mogadishu. Mohammed was the most wanted man in Africa.
Analysts and U.S. officials say the deaths have created a power vacuum.
"The organization is in a great deal of turmoil," a U.S. counterterrorism official told Foreign Policy. "It's trying to sort itself out with what's going on."
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, said Kashmiri and Mohammed were key operational figures, not easily replaced due to their long pedigrees of planning and executing attacks.
"They are especially important because they would have been looked on to plan and implement any acts of retribution [for bin Laden's death] from al Qaeda," he said. "Their killings knock them seriously off balance."
Of course, al Qaeda is well-known for its ability to replenish its ranks. Analysts like Hoffman and Evan Kohlmann, who has consulted with the U.S. government, see a few key names potentially emerging to fill the void.
1. Saif al-Adel
Born in Egypt in 1960 or 1963, according to the FBI. Currently believed to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal region.
Al-Adel was reportedly named the interim chief of Al Qaeda after bin Laden's death. After the 9/11 attacks, he fled to Iran, where he was eventually put under house arrest. In 2008, Iran swapped him for a diplomat taken captive by al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Signature attacks: Has played a hand in many al Qaeda attacks, allegedly dispatching Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, to meet Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; and aiding the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa.
Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images
A Bahraini security court sentenced 20-year-old student Ayat al-Qurmezi to one year in prison yesterday. The young woman, infamous for her February recitation of an anti-government poem in Pearl Square, has been found guilty of speaking out against the king and inciting hatred. Her poem has become an international symbol of the Bahraini opposition:
We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery
We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice
Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams
Down with Hamad
Al-Qurmezi has been in captivity since March. She was rumored to have been raped and tortured after an alleged phone call was made from doctors at an army hospital in April. Yesterday, a relative confirmed that her face had been shocked with an electrical cable, she was forced to clean the prison bathroom with her hands, and held in a near-freezing cell for days at a time. Ayat al-Ghermezi has incited a rally cry for free speech in Bahrain, where female students, doctors and professors have become targets of government crackdown on civil rights.
She is not the only poet to face such harsh punishments recently in the Middle East. Waleed Mohammad al Rumaishi had his tongue cut out after reciting poetry in support of embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2009, civil servant and poet Moneer Said Hanna wrote a five-lined satirical poem about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and is now serving a three year sentence, as well as paying a fine of over $16,000. Syrian poet, Faraj Bayrakdar, now fuels the revolution from Sweden after enduring over 13 years of torture in prison where he would carve pens from wood splinters and make ink from tea leaves in order to write poetry.
Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but for Ayat al-Qurmezi and her fellow dissident poets, the message is quite clear.
John Moore/Getty Images
On Sunday, for the first time since January 25, the Arab world's attention was riveted not on scenes of protesters castigating their own governments, but on much more familiar imagery: that of Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation.
For months, Palestinian and Arab activists had planned to mark May 15 -- Youm an-Nakba or "Day of the Catastrophe," which usually takes place the day after Israel's independence celebrations -- with a civilian march on the occupied territories. For Arabs, Nakba Day represents a day of mourning, a time to commemorate the expulsion during the 1948 war of Palestinians from their villages and homes, press for the right of refugees to return, and denounce the Jewish state.
In past years, Nakba Day has generally passed without much fanfare: demonstrations around the world and in Palestinian villages, occasional attempts to march on Israeli-held territory, met with force.
But this is 2011, and things were rather different on Sunday. In Lebanon, a group of hundreds of Palestinian refugees tried to stream across the border and were fired upon by both Israeli and Lebanese troops. Near the Erez crossing in Gaza, IDF soldiers fired on Palestinians seeking to cross into Israel. Near Ramallah in the West Bank, a large crowd battled tear-gas-wielding riot troops with rocks and Molotov cocktails. And in Syria, another large crowd swarmed over the fence along the disputed line that separates the two countries and made it into Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, before being rounded up by the IDF. (Jordan and Egypt prevented smaller crowds from reaching the border.) Altogether, more than a dozen Palestinians were killed and dozens more wounded by live fire, according to the New York Times.
Al Jazeera Arabic went large with its coverage, deploying a split screen to show the events live, while thousands more followed developments on Twitter using the #nakba tag. So did Syrian state television, happy to change the subject from the domestic demonstrations of the last few months. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hailed the protesters, addressing them directly: "You are adamant to liberate your land no matter how many sacrifices you make and the fate of this [Jewish] entity is to fade." Hamas declared the onset of a third intifada; its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, declared that changes sweeping the region would "lead to the collapse of the Zionist project in Palestine and victory for the program of the nation." Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a large crowd demonstrating in front of the Israeli Embassy, arresting a number of well-known revolutionary Twitterati.
Somewhere in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is smiling for the first time in weeks.
All of this sounds a bit like the old Middle East, doesn't it? Arabs raging impotently at the Jews instead of their own brutal rulers? And yet the narrative that the Arab revolutions were never about Israel has always been wrong, or at least incomplete. For Arabs living under authoritarian regimes, Israel (and America's support for Israel) has long been seen as an important reason for their subjugation. Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak bucked popular opinion by selling gas to Israel below market rates and enforced a widely reviled blockade of Gaza. In Tahrir Square, there were plenty of chants denouncing Mubarak as an Israeli and American agent, no matter what Thomas Friedman says.
Yet there is nothing impotent about Sunday's tactics, which put Israel and its American ally in an incredibly tough position. Whatever Assad's cynical motives for allowing and even encouraging the protesters to reach the Golan ("See, Bibi, you need me after all!"), Palestinians now have a powerful tool at their disposal, and there will no doubt be attempts to replicate the feat. As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn puts it, "The nightmare scenario Israel has feared since its inception became real -- that Palestinian refugees would simply start walking from their camps toward the border and would try to exercise their ‘right of return.'"
Even more awkward for the United States, Netanyahu is due to visit Washington in a few days in what will likely be one long exposition of the words, "I told you so." If he is smart, he will announce a serious plan for peace and get out ahead of the most serious threat to Israel's security since the 1973 war. If he is true to form, he will use the opportunity to double down on his argument for the status quo.
President Obama has planned two speeches for the coming week: one for Thursday, billed as a disquisition on the Arab Spring, and another an address at the AIPAC conference. With George Mitchell's resignation, the peace process is officially dead. The Arab street now understands its power -- people clearly aren't going to sit around quietly waiting until September for the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state. The BDS movement ("boycott, divestment, sanctions") is gaining steam internationally. There will be more marches, more flotillas, more escalation, more senseless deaths.
What is Obama going to say now?
Jalaa Marey/JINI/Getty Images
What does grief and courage sound like? It sounds a lot like the voice of Perditta Nabbous, the wife of Libyan citizen journalist Mohammed Nabbous, 27, who was shot and killed last Saturday by forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi. Mohammed was the charismatic voice and face of Libya al-Hurra, the online TV station he set up in the early days of the uprising. Mo, as his many fans and supporters around the world called him, was attacked while trying to record footage from Benghazi.
"He got so furious because nobody was taking pictures and videos," Perditta told me, after many Western journalists fled Benghazi ahead of a furious assault by Qaddafi's troops. Mo had been trying to reach the wreckage of a downed Libyan jet -- which later turned out to belong to the rebels -- when his car came under heavy fire. He died in the hospital several hours later. "He said, ‘I need to get proof of the plane so people will believe this,'" Perditta said.
She is 8 months pregnant. "I want Mohamed's child to live," she told me.
Her voice growing stronger, she called for the U.S.-led strikes on Qaddafi's air defenses and troops to continue. Here it is in her own words. I can't put it any more powerfully than this:
"We started this in a pure way, but he turned it bloody. Thousands of our men, women, and children have died.
We just wanted our freedom, that's all we wanted, we didn't want power. Before, we could not do a single thing if it was not the way he wanted it.
All we wanted was freedom. All we wanted was to be free. We have paid with our blood, with our families, with our men, and we're not going to give up.
We are still going to do that no matter what it takes, but we need help. We want to do this ourselves, but we don't have the weapons, the technology, the things we need. I don't want anyone to say that Libya got liberated by anybody else.
If NATO didn't start moving when they did, I assure you, I assure you, half of Benghazi if not more would have been killed. If they stop helping us, we are going to be all killed because he has no mercy anymore.
On Monday, a relief ship carrying medical supplies docked in Misrata, a town west of Benghazi that has been besieged for weeks by Qaddafi's tanks, snipers, and RPG-wielding troops. The ship, which included donations from the German aid organization Medeor, was arranged by Nabbous and his friends and supporters, who are vowing to keep the channel alive. Says Perditta, "We have to make what he started go on."
At the Al Jazeera Forum this weekend in Doha, where dozens of Arab political figures and activists of all persuasions gathered to discuss the dramatic events sweeping the Middle East, there was a lot of optimism in the air. One Egyptian organizer, YouTube starlet Asma Mahfouz, even expressed her hope that next year's forum would be titled "One Arab Nation With No Borders."
Pressed over lunch about the risks of it all turning sour, one Emirati political scientist told several of us, "Let them dream. These youth have never had the chance to dream before. It is good to have dreams."
But outside of Tunisia and Egypt, Arab dreams are fast becoming Arab nightmares. In Libya, a spontaneous popular uprising is turning into a civil war -- one that the rebels are rapidly losing. In Bahrain, protests that began as a call for civil rights and constitutional reform have devolved into ugly sectarian street battles; and as Saudi forces intervene to protect the ruling Sunni monarchy, the situation risks sparking a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is kicking out foreign journalists as tribes cowboy up and activists talk of an impending bloodbath. Iraq's hapless government is clamping down on political freedom. And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of rising oil prices, a hopelessly stalled Middle East peace process, and an epic natural disaster in the world's No. 3 economy.
There are some bright spots: Morocco's King Mohammed VI seems to understand at some level that he needs to embrace change lest he be swept up by it; Jordan has remained surprisingly calm even though its monarch, King Abdullah II, has thus far only pretended to get it; Kuwait already had a relatively vibrant political scene; and quiescent Qatar and the go-go United Arab Emirates don't seem at risk of any unrest whatsoever. But in general, the region's autocrats are responding as they always have to popular anger: with a combination of brute force, comically half-baked reforms, and economic bribes.
What will happen next is anybody's guess, but I find it hard to be optimistic in the short term. Much depends on how the democratic transitions in Tunisia and especially Egypt go, but it will be many months before the dust settles there. In the meantime, the rest of the region is ablaze. And as they did with Iraq, Arab leaders will now eagerly point to Libya and Bahrain as cautionary examples of what happens when citizens take to the streets.
Meanwhile, the region's two traditional problem children -- Lebanon and Palestine -- haven't even joined the fray yet. Burgeoning youth protest movements in both places are calling on their bickering, ineffective leaders to get their acts together in the name of national unity, but the forces of the status quo are far stronger. It's hard to imagine Hezbollah and Lebanon's March 14 movement in Lebanon, or Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, putting aside their differences and coming together for the common good. And Iran and its pal Syria haven't begun to make trouble yet. Now that Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet in Bahrain, the gloves may come off -- especially if the U.N. special tribunal ever gets around to indicting Hezbollah figures for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
None of this is to say that there is some magic formula that the United States could have employed to avoid this dangerous state of affairs. U.S. influence in the region is fast evaporating, as evidenced by the fact that its ostensible allies -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- are now flaunting their rejection of Washington's advice: Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly about to debut an absurdly disingenuous peace initiative, and Saudi troops just rolled into Bahrain a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates urged King Hamad to compromise and embrace political reform. The Pentagon didn't even get a courtesy call.
But what happens next will have huge repercussions for U.S. national security, and will present President Obama will terrible dilemmas in the region. If Saudi troops kill Shiites in Bahrain using American weapons, what will he say or do? Iran wasn't behind any of these uprisings, but if it starts creating mischief, how should he respond? What if Yemen turns into another Somalia? What if Palestinians rise up against Israel in a third intifada? If Egypt's transition goes badly? Right now, coming up with tough questions is a lot easier than providing answers.
When one woman made a mistake at work, her boss called her a "stupid fucking female" and spit in her face. She was later stalked, sexually harassed, and raped. Another woman got drunk with her coworker, who was her superior, when he raped her. She spent the next two years forced to continue working with him; her work assignments were downgraded because she took medication to cope with the trauma of the ordeal. A third woman was sexually harassed by a supervisor and raped by a coworker. When she sought help from her workplace's chaplain, she was told that "it must have been God's will for her to be raped" and was recommended to attend church more often.
Where do these women work?: The U.S. military.
These are the stories of some of the plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed in an Eastern Virginia federal court yesterday against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. The litigants are current and veteran service members, 15 women and two men, and they charge that, even twenty years after the landmark Tailhook case, the military has allowed a dangerous culture of rape and sexual abuse to proliferate. Specifically, Gates and Rumsfeld are charged with running "institutions in which perpetrators were promoted; ...in which Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subject to retaliation...and ordered to keep quiet."
Since 2005, when Congress mandated that the Defense Department create a task force on military sexual assault, other similar efforts have attempted to do something about this increasingly egregious problem. Last March, the Pentagon released the latest Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military which showed an 11 percent increase in reports of sexual assault in the military during fiscal year 2009 (equivalent to one-third of female service members reporting sexual violence). The Pentagon even says that reported incidents probably represent only 20 percent of those that actually occur.
While sexual assault in the military carries its own unique implications -- a particularly high-stress workplace environment, a traditionally male-dominated work culture, a strict mandate to follow superiors' orders, among much else -- the military is not the only workplace where women (and men) are assaulted. According to one statistic, one out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And, on average, 36,500 incidents of rape and sexual assault happen annually in the workplace.
This year, that number unfortunately includes Lara Logan. The CBS news correspondent is recovering in an American hospital after being sexually assaulted and beaten by a mob in Tahrir Square last Friday. The media firestorm surrounding Logan's ordeal ranges well into the vulgar. As Jezebel points out, "media outlets are clamoring to respond -- in the most offensive way possible" detailing Logan's looks, sex life, and past experience reporting from war zones and other dangerous places, implying that she had it coming.
Today, journalist Nir Rosen (who has written for FP) resigned from his fellowship position at New York University's Center on Law and Security after some heavy backlash to his critical tweets of Logan, including "Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger." On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Debbie Sclussel, an extreme right-wing commentator, wrote that Logan "should have known what Islam is all about."
Sadly, the "Muslims did it" argument has found its way into the mainstream. Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post noted that Egypt is a place where women "are not free to pass through the street without being groped and catcalled." The Daily Beast, today, ran a piece titled "Egypt: Unsafe for Women." Even film critic Roger Ebert joined the debate, tweeting: "The attack on Lara Logan brings Middle East attitudes toward women into sad focus."
While the statistics on women's experiences in Egypt are terrible and alarming -- 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women visitors have experienced harassment -- Egyptian culture is by no means the only one where rape, sexual assault, and harassment are embedded and pervasive.
Sadly, Logan's story is not an isolated event: Not isolated to an attractive foreign reporter pursuing a story, not isolated to those 18 days in Tahrir, not isolated to broader Egyptian culture, not isolated to the experience of women in every country around the world. Yet the way this incident has been explained in popular media -- as a result of Logan's looks, her job, and the unique cultural environment in which she was working -- reduces Logan's experience into a singular, rather than societal, problem.
Perhaps the most unique thing about these cases is that they are so public. As we can see in the cases of the 17 service members suing the Pentagon, and the countless others who remain silent, sexual violence in the workplace (and everywhere else) is notable not for its rarity but for the stigma and difficulties attached with reporting it.
Speaking by phone from Cairo, Human Rights Watch's Joe Stork told me that he is alarmed by the U.S. media coverage portraying the clashes on the streets as spats between "rival protesters" -- citizens who have two different visions of the future of Egypt:
"These are not rival factions. This is brown-shirt tactics. This is the government sending in people -- whether they are paid or not is a very subsidiary question -- sending in thugs armed with knives, stones, sticks, to attack the pro-democracy protesters, who were there in an entirely peaceful manner."
Asked how we can be sure that the pro-government crowds had been sent by the government, Stork cited several bits of evidence, having been in Tahrir Square when the fighting erupted this morning: People he spoke to there mentioned young men being paid as much as $500 to fight for the regime; others who were caught looting were later found to have IDs indicating that they were members of the Ministry of the Interior-controlled security service.
Were this a rival protest, they could easily have gone to one of the many other public squares in Egypt. Instead, the Army began "letting people in [to the square] today who had mayhem on their minds." "Any one of these things is circumstantial," he explained, "but altogether" the conclusion is clear.
The photos coming from Cairo and other parts of Egypt have many around the world glued to their computers, compulsively clicking through slideshows of the protests and brushing up on recent Egyptian history. On social networking sites and in the comments of various news sites (including this one), newbie Egyptologists have been asking: Where are Egypt's women?
Seeking to answer that question and helping to dismiss the idea that this is a boys-only revolution, a new Facebook album is making its way around the internet. Titled "Women of Egypt," it depicts women in both hijabs and jeans, with mouths open defiantly voicing protest. The Facebook user who created the album and compiled the photos said that the album is an "homage to all those women out there fighting, and whose voices and faces are hidden from the public eye!"
Perhaps one of the most provocative and moving of this photos is what's being referred to as "The Kiss Photo" which depicts an older Egyptian woman kissing a soldier on the cheek. According to The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta, this is "truly exceptional."
[The photo] was a powerful statement of national unity.
But it was also far more radical than that in a country in which men and women are barely tolerated holding hands in public in the most liberal precincts of comparatively Christian Alexandria, and where public displays of affections are frowned upon and likely to be met with cutting glances and vicious neighborhood gossip elsewhere...
In short, when it comes to women in public life, Egypt can be pretty conservative. It's not Saudi Arabia or Iran, but it's also not Lebanon."
Franke-Ruta noted that 90 percent of Egyptian women wear the hijab and even with a quota, only 1.8 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly are held by women.
In fact, many experts are saying that the number of women taking place in the anti-government protests is "unprecendented." Slate rounds up various estimates of women in the crowds:
Ghada Shahbandar, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, estimated the crowd downtown to be 20 percent female. Other estimates were as high as 50 percent. In past protests, the female presence would rarely rise to 10 percent. Protests have a reputation for being dangerous for Egyptian women, whose common struggle as objects of sexual harassment is exacerbated in the congested, male-dominated crowd.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
Reports are coming in that an Egyptian man has set himself on fire in front of the Parliament building in Cairo. According to AFP, citing a source in the legislature, he "stood outside the People's Assembly, poured fuel on himself and set himself on fire." (Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reports that the man first shouted, "Security service, my rights are lost in this country.")
Are we now seeing a trend? Tunisia's unrest was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate turned street vendor who burned himself to death after being harrassed and humiliated by local police. In recent days, as many as four Algerians have set themselves on fire to protest their country's economic conditions.
There is something horrifying and, in a way, moving about these suicide attempts. It's a shocking, desperate tactic that instantly attracts attention, revulsion, but also sympathy. Even Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the now ex-president of Tunisia, tried to show his concern by visiting Bouazazi in the hospital -- and directed the state press to release a photo of the encounter. (Obviously, it didn't earn him many points on the Tunisian street.)
Just yesterday, in an unfortunate turn of phrase, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit dismissed speculation that Tunisia-style protests would spread to Egypt. “Those who are promoting fantasies and trying to ignite the situation will not achieve their goals and will only harm themselves," he said.
UPDATE: Now we can add Mauritania to the list.
The L.A. Times' Babylon and Beyond blog reports that unlike in most of the world, the WikiLeaks dump of U.S. diplomatic cables isn't getting that much attention in the pan-Arab press:
Headlines in the heavily state-controlled Saudi media were dominated by news of King Abdullah's ongoing physiotherapy, while the top story in the Emirati newspaper, Al Bayan, centered on Prince Mohamad bin Rashid's praise for the country's progress toward "transparency." Most mentions of the WikiLeaks documents in official Arabic news outlets were scrubbed of any reference to the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, focusing instead on U.S. attempts to control the damage to its diplomatic relations.
Even the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, considered one of the most credible pan-Arab news outlets, tread lightly in its coverage and generally refrained from repeating the most incendiary quotes from the heads of neighboring states.
It's hardly surprising that state-controlled Arab media wouldn't report on the repeated requests by Arab heads of state for the United States to put a stop to Iran's nuclear program. Some Arab leaders have gone as far as supporting military strikes against Iran. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, called on the U.S. to "cut the head off" the Iranian snake.
These positions might make sense from the point of view of an Arab autocrat, but they remain deeply unpopular with the populations they rule over. A 2010 public opinion poll of the Arab world found that 57 percent of Arabs think that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be positive for the Middle East. (H/T Friday Lunch Club.)
Issandr El Amrani (a frequent Foreign Policy contributor) writes on his blog:
There is so much information flowing around about US policy - and often, a good deal of transparency - that a smart observer with good contacts can get a good idea of what's happening. Not so in the Arab world, and the contents of the conversations Arab leader are having with their patron state are not out in the Arab public domain or easily guessable, as anyone who reads the meaningless press statements of government press agencies will tell you. Cablegate is in important record from the Arab perspective, perhaps more than from the US one.
The leaked cables bring to light the behind-the-scenes positions of Arab politicians from Mubarak to Abdullah, but if that information doesn't make its way into the mainstream Arabic media, what kind of effect will it really have?
Egypt's parliamentary elections went off today basically as expected, with vote buying, voter intimidation and fraud the norm across the country despite protests. What will change in Egypt as a result of today's parliamentary election? Probably nothing, but the election hints at what we might be able to expect in the future from the regime in Cairo.
"I apologize if I gave some people the impression that these elections were elections, in any real sense of the word. They were not," wrote Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a blogger at Democracy Arsenal. They certainly weren't elections as an American would recognize them. To an Egyptian, though, they are all too familiar.
It will probably be a few days until the results are announced, but it's clear that President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party will take a majority of the votes and continue to control the parliament, as it has done for almost 30 years.
Over the course of the daythere were numerous reports of abuses: from democracy activists beaten in Nile Delta cities to repeated attacks on journalists by state security forces to candidates in Cairo slumspaying 100 Egyptian pounds (about $20) per vote, and much more.
"We all expected violence will be the name of the game today, but I think the level of violence that actually happened has surpassed some of our wildest expectations," Hossam el-Hamalawy, a blogger, activist and journalist told me in an online chat.
In the past weeks there was a discussion of whether or not to send monitors to the election in Arab world's most populous country. President Mubarak, naturally, opposed the idea and monitors weren't accredited. That didn't stop the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch from dispatching himself to a small city in the Nile Delta. He was subsequently detained by police.
The elections have been violent, and, at times, deadly. In Alexandria, rival members of the rulingparty battled in the streets. At least three people are confirmed dead by the government from election-related violence and there is speculation that the number could actually be closer to seven. The son of an opposition candidate was stabbed todeath the night before elections while putting up posters for his father.
Then again, police don't even need to directly intimidate voters. Police intimidation runs deep in Egypt, where police kill citizens with a startling regularity, as Jack Shenker reported in The Guardian.
Most reports of election-day irregularities came from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group. As Ashraf Khalil wrote for FP, the Brotherhood, which is officially banned, has been under tremendous pressure from the regime in the run up to the election. The group won an unprecedented number of seats in the last parliamentary election in 2005, an experience that the government doesn't seem eager to repeat.
Today's parliamentary elections are largely being viewed as a test run for next year's presidential election, when Egypt's octogenarian ruler will be up for another six-year term. There is widespread speculation that Hosni Mubarak intends to pass the presidency on to his son Gamal at some point, but the mechanism for such a transfer of power is unclear.
Today's events show that the regime is willing to use violence or outright fraud to maintain power. That's a lesson both Hosni Mubarak and his opponents will keep in mind next year.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Life in Iraq isn't easy (and hasn't been for a while), but it's still rare to find community leaders imploring Iraqis to leave their home country. But that's exactly what Archbishop Athanasios Dawood of the Syriac Orthodox Church is doing.
"I say clearly and now -- the Christian people should leave their beloved land of our ancestors and escape the premeditated ethnic cleansing," Dawood said in a prepared statement to CNN. "This is better than having them killed one by one." In other interviews, Dawood, who lives in London, evoked the word "genocide" to describe the treatment of Iraqi Christians.
Fifty-eight people were killed in an attack on an Iraqi church last Sunday.
With the exception of the massive exodus of Iraq's large Jewish minority after the creation of Israel in 1948, there was little sectarian violence in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
"You know, everybody hates the Christian. Yes, during Saddam Hussein, we were living in peace -- nobody attacked us. We had human rights, we had protection from the government but now nobody protects us," the archbishop told the BBC. "Since 2003, there has been no protection for Christians. We've lost many people and they've bombed our homes, our churches, monasteries."
Eden Naby and Jamsheed K. Chosky wrote in Foreign Policy last week that there may not be a Christian population left in Iraq by the end of the century. Iran, which also has a (shrinking) Christian minority, is suffering the same fate.
But it isn't only from those countries that Middle Eastern Christians are leaving. Long-time Middle East journalist Robert Fisk pointed out last month (before the massacre in Baghdad) that Christian populations are shrinking across the region, from Palestine to Lebanon to Egypt. "This is, however, not so much a flight of fear, more a chronicle of a death foretold," Fisk writes. "Christians are being outbred by the majority Muslim populations in their countries and they are almost hopelessly divided."
In Michigan, Iraqi Christians rallied today, calling on the United States to put a stop to violence against their coreligionists.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has affected every aspect of society in that country. As many people have written, the U.S. government seems to have been wholly unprepared for what lay ahead in Iraq. It's hard to imagine that George W. Bush, with his own deep Christian faith, expected the catastrophe in store for Iraqi Christians.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Looking for a pied-a-terre on the Persian Gulf? The owners of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, are getting desperate:
Rents for luxury apartments in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, have been slashed by as much as 40 percent after the owners failed to find tenants, according to a broker that’s marketing the homes.
The cost of renting a studio with floor-to-ceiling windows, marble and wooden floors has dropped to 6,666 dirhams ($1,815) a month, while a one-bedroom apartment is available for 10,000 dirhams, Better Homes said. Two-bedroom homes are going for 15,833 dirhams.
Nine months after Burj Khalifa was inaugurated with a water-and-firework display, about 825 of the tower’s 900 apartments remain unoccupied, said Laura Adams, a residential sales and leasing adviser at Dubai-based Better Homes.
Any takers? Some adventerous Passport reader out there must want to live 2,000 feet in the air with no neighbors.
JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt is infamous both for the sexual harassment women endure and the government's lackluster response to the problem. Now, a private venture called HarassMap will allow women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment through text messages. Victims will receive a reply offering support and practical advice, and reports will be compiled into a larger map of harassment hotspots. The project is set to launch next year, and utilizes open-source mapping technology, which was also used earlier this year to help relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake.
According to the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, 83 percent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment, including groping, lewd comments, and stalking. Almost half reported harassment on a daily basis. And belying popular belief, harassment incidents do not seem to be linked to revealing outfits -- three-quarters of victims were veiled at the time of incident. There are currently no laws prohibiting harassment. Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, has even said that the media exaggerates the threat posed by sexual harassment.
The most recent statistics available place Egyptian mobile phone users at around 40 percent of the population and the female literacy rate at about 60 percent. While HarassMap could be important on a practical level for those women able to access it, those working on the project think it could change societal norms.
Rebecca Chiao, one of the volunteers behind the project told Britain's Guardian.
"In the last couple of years there's been a debate in Egypt over whether harassment of women on the streets is a serious issue, or whether it's something women are making up. So HarassMap will have an impact on the ground by revealing the extent of this problem. It will also offer victims a practical way of responding, something to fight back with; as someone who has experienced sexual harassment personally on the streets of Cairo, I know that the most frustrating part of it was feeling like there was nothing I could do."
U.S. cities, including New York and Washington, and entire countries like Britain and Australia, already have similar maps where citizens can report incidents by e-mail. Hollaback, first started in New York, is also in the process of launching an iPhone app.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images
Is Nicolas Sarkozy's so-called burqa ban, as my FP colleague David Rothkopf writes, an expression of rising intolerance in France? Perhaps. Coupled with his expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma, it sure looks like le président is trying to use a cultural wedge to shore up his flagging popularity.
Still, I think the "burqa" issue (or, alternatively, the jilbab + niqab, or abaya issue) is more complicated than David allows. For one thing, France has a long and well-known convention of laïcité -- a far stricter notion of secularism, enforced by the state, than the American variety. Banning burqas falls well within that tradition.
Second, one has to admit that critics of full veiling have a point. From 2005 to 2006, I spent about a year and a half in Cairo, Egypt, where full veiling is relatively rare but hijabs -- headscarves -- are increasingly common. That was one thing, but I've just moved to Doha, Qatar, which is more culturally conservative and currently filled with women cloaked in black and covering their faces (many of them likely Saudis visiting for the summer or the holidays).
Although many women here personalize their abayas with elegant embroidery (and it seems that most Qatari women do not wear the full face veil), I find it disconcerting and dehumanizing not to be able to read people's emotions, to tell if they are frowning or smiling, or even know what they look like. Some Muslim women may find the anonymity liberating or believe that their religion commands it, but full veiling is one cultural practice that I would be more than happy to see killed by globalization.
(I find it particularly absurd when I see a man dressed in, say, an Armani Exchange T-shirt and Diesel jeans walking along with a fully veiled woman and several kids in tow. If you're going to make your wife wear a shroud, at least man up and throw on a thobe and ghutra.)
Having said all that, I don't like the notion of French gendarmes arresting or fining people on the street for what they wear. If the French government wants to prohibit state employees from veiling, or require people to uncover their faces when they drive or enter government buildings, fine. Private businesses, like banks, should be allowed to do the same. But we shouldn't pretend there are easy answers.
ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images
Love was momentarily in the air in Saudi Arabia -- until the cops showed up. AP reports this morning that a young Saudi man from Riyadh will face 90 lashes and four months in the slammer as punishment for "engaging in immoral movements" (read: kissing) at a local mall. The unnamed culprit and his female companions (who have yet to be sentenced) are the latest victims of Saudi Arabia's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice -- a moniker that seems best suited to the pages of an Orwellian novel, not the text of a modern legal system. And, unless he can prove royal lineage of some kind, he certainly doesn't have the clout to make his prosecutors backtrack -- a feat a Saudi tribesman managed last year after being beaten for smooching his wife in public.
The arrest is a telling indicator of the slow-pace of modernization in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has professed to support more lenient law enforcement, much to the chagrin of his hard-line cohorts. Short of throwing out ancient practice altogether (which, as Juan Cole explains, would flout a long history of Islamic tradition on the Peninsula), Saudis are looking for incremental ways to ease some of the kingdom's most stringent guidelines.
Just this week, two prominent clerics proposed an innovative -- and downright bizarre -- strategy for loosening the prohibition against gender mixing among unrelated men and women. In a newly released fatwa, they urged Saudi women to distribute their breast milk to adult males. That's right: for drinking. According to Islamic law, women can mix unveiled in the presence of men they have breast-fed (because nursing precludes future sexual relations). By donating their milk, women in essence "adopt" their male acquaintances, opening the door for greater, not to mention more modern, interaction.
Regardless of whether or not Saudi men and women embrace the edict, I see a great new "got milk?" ad somewhere down the road...
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
Helene Cooper has an interesting take on the Gaza boat affair in this weekend's Times, but I think she goes astray here:
Some foreign policy experts say the new willingness to suggest that the Israeli government’s actions may become an American national security liability marks a backlash against the Bush-era neoconservative agenda, which posited that America and Israel were fighting together to promote democracy in an unstable region.
Some American neoconservatives may have thought this, but few Israelis did. With the notable exception of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, leading Israelis generally scoffed at the notion that the United States would succeed in promoting democracy in the Arab world -- and to some extent, the record vindicates their skepticism.
I'd divide the thinking into two main camps: those who thought Arab states couldn't become real democracies, whether for cultural or socioeconomic reasons, and those who recognized that free and fair elections in the Arab world would likely see Islamist groups with deep antipathy toward Israel come to power. The second group saw its fears realized in 2005 and 2006, when elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories saw the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas make big gains at the polls. One could also point to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the AK Party in Turkey, and Nuri al-Maliki's coalition in Iraq as examples of Islamist groups of various stripes benefitting from democracy.
Even Sharansky wasn't necessarily a genuine advocate of democracy in the Arab world. Some would say, given his hard-line positions on settlements and peace negotiations, that his real aim was to add a new condition -- democratic governance -- to the long list of things the Palestinians must achieve to be considered a viable partner for peace.
As for the flotilla incident, Turkey's reaction to it will likely only strengthen the conviction in Israel that it's much easier to deal with autocrats like Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak than it is with elected governments. After all, you don't hear either of those two guys threatening to break off relations with Israel, and Mubarak has been awfully silent about his own role in enforcing the Gaza blockade.
Yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq reported about 23 million dollars worth of property -- including 563 DVD players, 631 televisions, 159 vehicles, and 614 mattresses -- had gone missing. Perplexing as it is that the embassy was somehow able to lose track of all that junk, it is more perplexing that it was owned (or hoarded?) in the first place in a region ravaged by war.
If the Embassy is this much of a mess in Baghdad, then we'd hate to see the kind of money that's wasted in the embassy at the epicenter of the war in Afghanistan. Someone may want to check the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for a couple hundred iPads, maybe a stockpile or two of toaster ovens... although if that embassy is anything like its counterpart in Iraq, those have probably gone "missing" by now.
Hadi Mizban-Pool/Getty Images
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