Bob Schwartz

Tag: Egypt

The Promise of and Lessons from the Hong Kong Protests

Albert Einstein Institute

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests appear to be over—for now. The protest leaders have surrendered, and the official plan to have Beijing approve candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office remains in place. The result is disappointing but not surprising. Facing off against the world’s biggest and most powerful non-democracy is by definition quixotic.

Yet for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who admire the thousands who engaged in this nonviolent movement, there are lessons to be learned and practiced. As pointed out here before, thinkers such as Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institution have spent lifetimes mapping the path to nonviolent change. Here are a few of the lessons:

Be organized and disciplined. If you watched the news coverage of the Hong Kong events, you got to see an orderly and colorful tent city that served as a base, along with protestors carrying the symbolic (and also colorful) umbrellas, which served double-duty as a shield against police force.

Be specific. Movement goals can range in size and scope, from the ouster of a president to, as in Hong Kong, the right to select candidates for an election, as promised in an agreement. In the U.S., both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War movement had such specific goals. In civil rights, it was piece by piece in a bigger picture: desegregation of public transport, desegregation of restaurants, voting rights, etc. Vietnam was specific and absolute: get out. The recent Occupy movements in the U.S., on the other hand, seemed to be all over the map, even when their complaints were justified. We are now seeing a bit of that in the Ferguson movement. The general discontent over the treatment of black citizens by police and justice is justified, but the power of the protests is diluted by uncertainty about what is being requested. (Possible answer: The St. Louis county prosecutor, having made an unprecedented mess of the criminal charging and grand jury process, can convene another grand jury and do it properly the next time. That’s probably as unlikely as Beijing giving in, but it would be something specific to ask for.)

Be informed. One of the other things you might notice about the Hong Kong protest is that protestors could speak knowledgeably about why they were protesting and what they wanted. Not to keep picking on our Occupy movement, but if you asked a hundred protestors about what it is they wanted, you might well have gotten a hundred different answers.

Be patient. Perseverance furthers. The U.S. civil rights movement took decades to achieve its goals, though some would argue that in fact the spirit of those goals is still far from being reached. Globally, movements for change are like the tides, in and out, high and low. Just this week, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek was cleared of criminal charges in the deaths of protestors at Tahrir Square four years ago. Today, in terms of democracy, Egypt looks different than but the same as it did then. Perseverance can further, but it is no guarantee. Even without certainty, though, organized, disciplined, specific, informed, patient nonviolence remains the best that can be done.

Obama Speech: Is It ISIS, ISIL or IS, and What is a True Religion?

Obama ISIS Speech

This is not a comprehensive review of last night’s speech by President Obama about ISIS/ISIL/IS. But if you asked me to join the millions of reviewers, descriptors that come to mind are lukewarm, vague, uninspiring, insufficiently informative, tactical (the speech, not the plan), and blah-blah-blah.

Here is one paragraph that stuck out, because it reflects two issues that may not get enough attention:

And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

What Is the Name of This Enterprise That We Are at War Against?

Is it ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State? This is much more significant than whether the English transliteration of the name of the Egyptian President was Morsy, Morsi, or Mursi or the Libyan dictator was Gadhafi, Qaddafi, Kadafi, Gaddafi, or Gadafy. This is our new mortal enemy, and besides, all these IS names are in English.

Different nations and different news media have different approaches to this. The BBC, for example, has settled on Islamic State, apparently opting for whatever the organization chooses to call itself. What is totally strange about the “official” U.S. nomenclature is that at the highest levels, there is no consistency. The President prefers ISIL, while those in his cabinet regularly use ISIS.

One small matter about ISIL does deserve note. The full name is the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant. I challenge many in the administration, and many in Congress, and many in the media, to explain—without Google or cheat sheet—what the Levant is. For five hundred years or so it has described the land of the eastern Mediterranean, now roughly comprising Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and contiguous countries. The word comes from the French word for “rising”, as in the east where the sun rises. It isn’t much in use any more, outside of scholarly circles and, of course, in our latest war.

So please, President Obama, if you are gathering the support of dozens of nations and hundreds of millions of Americans, let’s all decide on what to call this organization that, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, we will pursue to the Gates of Hell.

What is a True Religion?

“No religion condones the killing of innocents,” the President said. Without going into historic and contemporary detail, this is patently false. I believe the President knows better, but he didn’t want to get into a deep discussion, and instead just wanted to make a rhetorical flourish. If he doesn’t know, there are thousands of histories he can read and scholars he can consult, or even easier, news reports from the past few weeks, months, and years he can read.

If, however, he really did mean it, he has disqualified the majority of world religions from being classified as such. Which, by the way, plenty of critics of religion would applaud.

The President doesn’t have to be the Teacher in Chief, the Scholar in Chief, the Explainer in Chief, etc. Being Communicator in Chief is enough of a job, but if he just wants to say stuff for effect, without regard to its making sense or being true, we’ve already had plenty of that in years past, from those less smart or thoughtful than you. We get enough nonsense from many in Congress. Speak as if some of us are actually thinking about what you say. Because some of us are.

Syria and Foreign Incoherence

Red Line
America may not have had a coherent foreign policy since the end of World War II. And the beat goes on.

Incoherence doesn’t mean that there haven’t been successes. It doesn’t mean that other countries have done better in that time. And it doesn’t mean that the era has been an easy one: the world is more complex and diffracted than ever.

Coherence means an open, intelligent discussion about principles, followed by an open, intelligent discussion about taking action or withholding, and about the consequences and aims of the paths we choose or avoid.

Our policy seems to be driven by overwhelming ideology, good intentions and self-interest—none of which are exceptional or indictable, but all of which should be expressed in a much bigger and more sensible and realistic context. We ought to know what we’re about and candidly tell our citizens what we’re about. And when we don’t know what we’re doing—hard as that is to admit—we ought to say so.

Harry Truman was the last President to have a foreign policy named after him, in that case the Truman Doctrine. In 1947 he warned that the U.S. and the free world could not stand for Greece and Turkey falling into Communist hands (though he never used the word Communism):

It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East….

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.

Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.

March 12, 1947

(A digression: The reason Greece was considered vulnerable to insidious forces in 1947 is that it was broke and falling apart. Presumably, without a Communist threat looming, Greece 2013 is no longer considered as significant.)

That black-and-white view was in some ways a vestige of the black-and-white war we had just finished—and won. But soon after that speech, global gray was the new black-and-white. Empires were crumbling, new nations were being made. In the year of the Truman Doctrine alone, two of the world’s most populous nations changed course: India became independent, Mao won a revolution in China—events representing more than a third of the world population. The following year, the Middle East (and history) came unglued forever with the creation of Israel. We could pretend that all this was part of some simple monolithic history, but that really made no sense.

And yet we proceeded with a dyadic us-versus-them model for decades, mostly inexplicably and unquestioningly. Korea was supposed to stop the Communism; the military result was a bloody stalemate and status quo, the economic result a Chinese hegemon. Vietnam was supposed to stop Communism; we lost the war, and Southeast Asia is a geopolitical hodgepodge. Soviet Communism crumbled, partly because of a changing world and culture, partly because being a Russian non-Communist economic and political oligarch is much more lucrative than being a party apparatchik.

When we were attacked by the Muslim Middle East, our policy was to strike back, just as we had after Pearl Harbor. Never mind that the policy was sixty years old, and that the complexities of the world could not possibly be much affected by those approaches. Sadaam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is descending at some speed into chaos. Afghanistan is or soon will be about where we found it. Osama Bin Laden is dead, but just as with the Taliban, even if Al Qaeda is diminishing, movements with other names are already rising up to take its place.

All that is preface to our incoherence in Syria.

It is easy to see why the chemical weapon “red line” matters and why proving that it has been crossed matters.

The brutality of World War I made us rethink just far we would go and where as a ‘civilized” world we would draw the line. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibits their use. The community of nations has, more or less, stood behind this and its successors.

(Another digression: If the world had considered the real possibility of atomic weapons in this period between the wars, would these also have been put in the same prohibited category as chemical and biological weaons?)

The reason for taking such care about making sure the line is actually crossed of course goes back to Iraq. Having cried wolf so recently, the U.S. could not stand having its credibility questioned, internally or externally, on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

But as the drumbeat for “doing something” gets louder in the wake of the U.S. now being completely confident that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime, so many questions are not being asked, and if asked, not discussed or answered.

If we are already confident that thousands are killed, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of thousands displaced, and a nation is being destroyed from inside, why was the imperative waiting for this line at all? There is a global political answer, of course, which is that chemical weapons are a bigger and less assailable common ground upon which most or all can agree. That is indeed a pragmatic strategy, but we also have to talk about moral imperatives, no matter which way the discussion goes.

What exactly can and should we do? And if we do act, what do we expect and hope will be the result? And if we do act, what are the potential consequences?

Our leaders can talk about the red line in Syria, but they should stop pretending that this amounts to coherent and deep consideration. The three questions of actions, expectations and consequences should be the topic that consumes us. If we have principles and doctrines, let’s put them on the table and inspect them and see how aspirational and practical they are. If we believe in sovereignty in some cases but not others, let’s make sure that we know what the cases are and why the distinctions matter. If we do or don’t intervene in foreign political matters or insurrections or civil wars, let’s talk about it and how we act or react.

Instead, what we get are red lines and, in the case of Egypt, the sight of the U.S. being unwilling to call a coup a coup, and otherwise being paralyzed in figuring out what to do or say, so that “subtle” back channel goings on can go on.

Subtle goings on or silence can also may mean that you don’t know what to do or say, or that you don’t want the greater citizenry to hear what you are actually thinking. Maybe our leaders really aren’t very good at being statesmen. Maybe that citizenry isn’t up to the task of having discussions about what we believe, what we can accomplish and what we can’t. The only way to know this is to have it out in the open.

We seem to be more comfortable in the black and white and red line world of the Truman Doctrine. That wasn’t even a true picture of the world seventy years ago, and it definitely isn’t today. Can we talk, without slogans, without the fairy tale that the world of 2013 is a place that will resolve to our political and moral satisfaction soon—or ever? Before we make one more mistake, we have to find out.

Analogies to Egypt

Rosetta Stone

Who doesn’t love analytical analogies—situations past that bear a resemblance to current circumstances and might offer at least a little usable insight.

The current state of Egypt, like many situations in the new global age, is a bit sui generis—a unique thing of its own that we neither know how to classify or handle. For some, it is like going to watch a sports competition where you don’t exactly understand the game, don’t know nearly enough about the teams, and yet are being expected to choose sides—to root for somebody.

Here are a few of what we might call impressionistic analogies: examples from recent history that won’t withstand close scrutiny as directly related scenarios, but do have a certain similarity that at least gives us food for thought.

Iran – The impending release of Mubarek by the military government—ostensibly because the fraud case leading to his arrest would not hold up—brings to mind Iran and the last Shah. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the Shah and ended the West-friendly dynasty that the U.S. had long supported. One of the small but historically high-profile early incidents was President Jimmy Carter allowing the very ill Shah to seek medical help here in 1980—a factor in the subsequent hostage-taking, that in turn was (just one) of the reasons that Carter was not re-elected.

The U.S. is not alone in having to bet on somebody in turbulent times. Leaders are both real and symbolic in these contests. In Iran, our betting on the Shah—who was like us, who we understood, and who wss not like “them”—has proven disastrous. In the case of Mubarek in Egypt, what we wanted with him all those years was stability and moderation, but when it became apparent during the Arab Spring that we were looking decidedly anti-democratic, we opted to cut him loose and hope for democracy to follow. When that democracy started looking theocratic, possibly militantly so (Muslim Brotherhood), we were very confused and concerned—and so were the remnants of Mubarekism still in or near power. Military and stability or democracy and “adventure”. The Egyptian military made their decision, but we seem unable to decide. Will the military try to re-install Mubarek, or just leave him as a symbol of better days. Do we wish that we had handled Iran better, maybe helping to ease out the Shah and autocratic rule? It probably would not have prevented theocracy, but we didn’t try.

Iraq – Iraq, like Egypt, is another example of wanting to act strategically, while looking like the “good guy” and trying to figure out what a good guy looks like or acts like in these times. We supported Saddam Hussein, we refused to topple him, we toppled him, we executed him. All hell broke loose, and that fire may burn for generations. Whatever our skill at playing a real-world version of Risk globally, our track record in the Middle East is atrocious. At this point, we may want to consider where we stand relative to the historic record of the British and the French. (Note: We seem to have a bizarre predilection for following in their footsteps with little more, or even less, success than they had. See, e.g, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.)

Latin America – Our experiences in Latin America may serve as the most interesting of these tenuous analogies. The policy and history is easy to understand. We feared (still do) the incursion of Communism into the continent. We would support just about anybody who promised to keep the threat of socialism/Communism down. This put us in bed with a very bad lot, alliances that have had two lasting impacts. American fingerprints are all over the legacy of some despicable regimes. And now that many of those regimes are in the dustbin of history, residual anti-Americanism lingers on.

None of these alone, or even taken together, may offer much guidance in figuring out what to do in Egypt. Maybe a general lesson is that being powerful is not the same as being smart or being right. Maybe it’s that America is not as powerful as it thinks—back then, or even more so now—in a world it does not fully understand (again, ask the British and the French).

Egypt today is not that different from Egypt two years ago, or Syria now, or Iran or Iraq or Latin America. America has to expressly define and transparently decide how to stack our values and principles. Do we want American-style democracy or are we willing to settle for one of its other versions? Do we want democracy no matter what the results, or are we willing to trade democracy for authoritarian rule? Is authoritarian rule better than democratic or quasi-democratic Islamism, socialism or Communism? What is regional or global stability worth? What is peace worth? What is a Syrian or Egyptian or American life worth? Could billions in Egyptian aid, aside from whether or not we continue or suspend it, be better used to help Americans in an age of sequestration and austerity?

Grown up questions for grownups at the table.

Have Morsy Morsi Mursi


It is Gadhafi, Qaddafi, Kadafi, Gaddafi, Gadafy all over again. Except that the former Prime Minister of Libya is dead, while the President of neighboring Egypt is very much alive and at the center of global affairs.

The English version of the official Egyptian information website lists the President as Mohammad Mohamed Morsy al-Ayat. That is the way they are writing the name in the Latin alphabet. And therein lies a problem.

Egypt, Libya and most other countries in the region are Arabic-speaking and Arabic-writing. As with Hebrew—another important language in the region, though with far fewer speakers—transliterating the words into English spelling and vocalization is an adventure, and sometimes a pretty imprecise task.

News organizations seem to have settled on a consensus for the spelling of his first name as Mohamed—though as one of the most popular names in the world, it has naturally led to variants including Mohammad, Muhammad, Muhamme, Mohamed, Mohammed.

(For language junkies, other common Arabic names share the three-consonant root of  H-M-D, meaning “praise.” This is at the base of many commonly-heard names beside Mohamed, including Hamid, Ahmed, Mahmud, and others that are often in the news.)

What news organizations can’t seem to agree on is how to spell the President’s last name. As mentioned, the official Egyptian site says “Morsy,” so CNN, Time and a few others are going that way. The BBC and Reuters have decided on “Mursi” (it must be a Brit thing, some special privilege left over from colonial days, though the BBC has taken the extra step of adding an “m” to his first name: Mohammed).

By and large though, according to the New York Times and most others, the President of Egypt is Mohamed Morsi.

Does it matter? How we deal with him and his country matters much more in this dynamic time than how we spell his name in English, just as it is more important to act wisely than to spell correctly when dealing with China or any of the other countries that don’t speak English and don’t even bother to use our alphabet. It’s just a nice lesson in globalism, about how what we know is small compared to what we have to learn.