27 March, 2007

I know all about Syria

Lately I have been reading a lot about Syria. As you know, Syria is a key country in an important region, and much is written about its relationships with its neighbours and with other countries around the world. My interest, though, is in Syrian domestic politics, and on this there is much less to read. In part this is because the Syrian regime is very repressive, making it difficult for researchers to cover what is going on there. I think, though, that Syria's importance as a player in international relations makes people concentrate on its external rather than internal affairs. I suppose this might be because the regime is far more focussed on foreign policy than most other Arab world regimes, in that it has long engaged in an attempt to achieve hegemony over one neighbour and is keen to recover territory by war or chit chat from another (and has a simmering boundary dispute with yet another, and is a player in the ongoing Kurdish conundrum). And unlike the rest of the Arab world, whatever else you might accuse the regime of, being lackeys of the West is not one of them. So, whereas with Egypt or Tunisia, say, discussion of the country is based on the regime's struggle against domestic opponents, in Syria people look at how the country plays the great game against Israel and its obstreperous neighbours in Lebanon, or whether Bush is going to invade it.

The general focus on Syrian foreign policy means that in attempting to research its domestic politics I read the same things over and over again. I will now state them, and then you will essentially know all about Syria's internal affairs.

1. Syria used to be very unstable with coups and counter-coups occurring with astonishing frequency. These coups often saw one wing of the Syrian Ba'ath party oust another.

2. Then in 1970, Hafez al-Assad, a military Ba'athist, staged a "corrective movement" (not a coup), remaining in power for the next thirty years. Assad accomplished this by crushing anyone who opposed him.

3. But Assad was a member of the Alawite sect, considered heretical by many orthodox Sunni Muslims. And his regime was actively secularist. In 1978, the Muslim Brotherhood began an insurrectionary campaign against the regime.

4. In 1982, sensing that their time had come, the Muslim Brotherhood took over the city of Hamah and declared a general uprising against the regime. But Assad reacted forcefully, deploying tanks and helicopter gunships, reducing the city to rubble. The Brothers were crushed.

5. After that nothing much happened for twenty years.

6. In June 2000, Hafez al-Assad died. His son, Bashar al-Assad, became president. Previously an ophthalmologist working in the UK, there were suggestions that Bashar intended to liberalise the regime. A "Damascus Spring" began in which Syria's intelligentsia began to engage in increasingly free-ranging discussion about the country's social and economic problems.

7. The regime decided that they weren't having that, and put a stop to it. Leading intellectuals were arrested and chucked in jail, sometimes following show trials.

And that's that. I hope my inquiries will discover more detailed information, or my next essay for Spy School could be a bit thin.

25 March, 2007

In war, there are no winners - only losers

However, according to something called the Human Security Report, there has been a marked decline in war over the last two decades, meaning there are a lot less losers out there. Apparently there are way fewer of both inter-state and civil wars than there used to be during the Cold War. The BBC have also ran an article about it.

[I wrote this over a year ago but saved it as a draft... maybe I had a reason for not publishing it then, but I will nevertheless make it available now]

22 March, 2007

À qui le Maroc?

I am reading about Morocco at the moment, to prepare for an assignment from Spy School. In particular, I have been reading about the Justice and Charity group, a political party blocked from taking part in the country's comedic electoral process. They are an Islamist group, led by the septuagenarian Sheikh Abd Assalam Yassine, a former Sufi mystic. He seems like an interesting fellow (and has a great beard). If you want to get a sense of his ideas, you could do worse than read his Memorandum to him who is concerned, an open letter issued in 1999 to the then newly enthroned King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

If you are reading Yassine's letter and are not too familiar with Moroccan affairs, here is some context:
1. The previous king, Hassan II, was an authoritarian cockfarmer (who had Yassine confined to a lunatic asylum for writing a similar letter to him in 1974).
2. The Makhzen referred to in the letter are the cronies of Hassan II - the regime's old guard.
3. Tazmamart was a horrific jail in the desert into which Hassan dumped his regime's enemies, leaving them to rot in spectacularly horrendous conditions.
4. The government of alternance referred to is a spectacular coup of Hassan - he managed to co-opt some hitherto oppositional forces and form them into a supposedly oppositional government, though of course the king retained the right to appoint and sack key ministers and control the broad directions of state policy. Under Mohammed VI the alternance has remained in place, conveniently attracting hostility that might otherwise go towards the king.

Back to the Memorandum. Yassine skilfully attempts a reverse cooption, saying to Mohammed "You seem like a nice fellow, unlike your late cockfather. Here is what you would do if you really are as nice a fellow as you seem". Like most open letters, it is intended for general consumption as much as reading by its addressee. The implicit message is that if the king does not act as outlined, then he is in fact no more than a creature of the Makhzen or a chip off Hassan II's block.

What Yassine actually requests of Mohammed VI is the usual - sacking the Makhzen, cleansing the regime of its corruption (identified by the sheikh as a major barrier to attracting foreign investment), and instituting serious democratic change. Yassine also contrasts the enormous foreign debt with the massive personal wealth of the king (Hassan had essentially set up the crown at the centre of the state's economy, sucking its proceeds into his private coffers in a weird parody of Arab socialism). Noting that the king's personal wealth is roughly equivalent to the foreign debt, Yassine hits on a handy solution to the problem - let the king pay the debt out of his own funds!

This is perhaps the most problematic part of Yassine's programme. The king's wealth is not in the form of gold bars or on deposit with the gnomes of Zurich, but instead exists as a business empire spanning Morocco. While this wealth belongs to the king rather than the people, in practice the king's investments are the equivalent of a series of state industries. And were these enterprises sold off to raise monies to pay the debt, Morocco would doubtless find that domestic savings were completely insufficient to purchase them. Instead, foreign investors would be the only people who could afford to buy them, even at the depressed prices this kind of fire sale would command. Yassine is basically offering international finance control of the Moroccan economy in return for immediate repayment of the debt.

That aside, Yassine comes across as a serious and thoughtful figure with a rather droll sense of humour. His views on the Western Sahara seem considerably more flexible than the Moroccan establishment's mainstream. Although he is implicitly in favour of that occupied country remaining part of a radically reformed Morocco, he can countenance their leaving should the corrupt ancien regime remain in place.

Yassine leads the largest party in Morocco, albeit one blocked from participation in the official political process. As Islamists, they are easily presented as The Enemy to the governments of Europe and North America, who have difficult understanding that not all Islamists like to fly planes into buildings. While it would be naïve to expect to much of the Americans, it is still shocking that the European Union is still unable to engage with parties like Yassine's which are almost always the most popular in their countries. There is of course some dialogue between the "think-tank community" and and North African Islamists, and a former EU commissioner last week talked of the need for constructive engagement with Hamas in Palestine, but official Europe is still not interested in official communication with the Islamists. Official Europe looks likely to continue to bolster authoritarian regimes rather than support democratic elections that would put Yassine and his analogues in power. In the long run, this is probably unwise. The current Arab regimes (monarchies and republics) are so lacking in legitimacy that their rotting from within and collapsing in a 1989 style disintegration has to be seen as likely, if not inevitable. Europe could help promote democracy among its southern neighbours. Or it could have a lot of explaining to do when the ancien regimes are swept away

One final fascinating fact that I have not been able to integrate into the preceding concerns Yassine's daughter, Nadia. She is seen as likely candidate to succeed him as the Justice & Charity group's leader when he dies or steps down. She was recently arrested under some weird Moroccan state security law after she suggested that maybe the country did not have to be a monarchy in the future.

19 March, 2007

Tanya Reinhart

You may not have heard of Tanya Reinhart. She was an academic linguist by profession, but probably better known as an internal critic of Israel's political establishment and its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Together with Ilan Pappe, she was one of the leading Israeli advocates of the boycott of Israeli academia (e.g. see 'Why The World Should Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions'). Ha'aretz reports that she died on saturday in New York.

I saw Reinhart speak twice in Dublin, a couple of years ago an then again late last year. I was struck on the most recent occasion by how much older she looked, and thought that it was the stress associated with her decision to leave Israel for good.

Jean Baudrillard

You may recall that I was working through the world of International Relations theories. This process is currently in hiatus, but eventually I hope to discuss what post-modernists have to say on the subject. Jean Baudrillard was one of the leading figures in this area, and you may have noticed that he died recently. Or maybe, he has not died but ascended into a realm of pure representation, like that Barry O'Blivion guy in Cronenburg's Videodrome (I am surely not the first person to make the comparison).

Momus comments on the difference between English and French language obituaries of Baudrillard, with the francophone world engaging with his ideas and anglophone obituaries focussing on his largely misunderstood claim that the first Gulf War had not taken place and on his apparently being the inspiration for well-known film The Matrix. The latter point is particularly comedic, suggesting that Baudrillard ran around in leather coats wearing wrap around shades and forgetting the obvious point, made by Baudrillard himself, that the film is a rather facile distillation and adaptation of his views. This is life.

On the first point, about the Gulf War not happening: my recollection is that Baudrillard, like many post-modernists, reckoned that in our hypermediated age events are less significant than their representation. Therefore, the endless rolling news reportage of the war becomes what counts, not the war itself. While I see what he is getting at here, I do not quite remember what he means by saying that the War did not happen (as opposed to it being of less significance than its media portrayal). Maybe the point is intended rhetorically. It does though call to mind a very real problem with the writings of Baudrillard (and of post-modernists generally): they are by and large written in a largely impenetrable manner. Baudrillard does at least have the excuse of foreignness - he cannot answer for the opacity of his translations. Having read other English-language post-modernist writers, however, it does appear that there is a post-modern writing style, one that Baudrillard's translators have captured well.

To see what I mean, check out Baudrillard's 'The Mask Of War', a nice short piece that appeared in some book called 1000 Days of Theory. It is a while since I read it closely, but my recollection is that there is an interesting point in there somewhere, but I cannot see it now.

16 March, 2007


Out in Spy School today, our lecturer was talking about how well-known Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb reckoned that in the coming ideal Islamist society men and women would be equal. "But what about those countries were women aren't allowed to drive?" inquired a student.

I don't think anyone should be allowed to drive.