24 June, 2007


These are the books I currently have on loan from the Spy School library.

Palestine in Crisis: the Struggle for Peace and Political Independence after Oslo, by Graham Usher

Notwithstanding the bombastic first part of the title, this seems to be a book about the development of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian society after the signing of the Oslo accords. I am currently interested in the institutional history of the PA, so this book is right up my alley.

"Palestine in Crisis" is the kind of title any book on Palestine written in the last 60 years could have.

When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, edited by Robert I. Rotberg

I have borrowed this because I am interested in the theoretical end of how countries go badly wrong, even if I find the "failed state" model somewhat problematic.

State Formation in Palestine: Viability and Governance during a Social Transformation, edited by Mushtaq Husain Khan (with George Glacaman and Inge Amundsen)

I think this covers similar ground to Usher's book, but is a bit more academicy, being a series of papers on different aspects of the "crisis-ridden progress in Palestinian state formation". Looking at the blurb again it seems like it is going to outline and critique the idea that the PA's collapse results from largely internal factors. Deadly, these guys are writing my thesis for me!

The Politics of the Palestinian Authority: from Oslo to al-Aqsa, by Nigel Parsons

This seems to cover similar ground to Usher's book, but looks more academic and was written more recently (after the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada).

Semi-Presidentialism in Europe, edited by Robert Elgie

I just can't get enough of that semi-presidentialism.

17 June, 2007

They have a word for it

There are some foreign words that should be used more in English, because they can express concepts with a conciseness only renderable in English with great cumbersomeness. I will now introduce you to two... pay attention, as I will be using them again without explanation.

1. Autogolpe
This is a Spanish word that in literal translation means "self coup". It's what you get when the existing government of a country decides they do not like the consitution, so they just tear it up and shoot or throw in jail anyone who kicks up about it. I first heard the word in connnection with Peru, where President Alberto Fujimori in 1992 decided that he did not like the powers the constitution gave to the country's parliament, so he just annulled the constitution and wrote a new one, consisting of one article: "1. Whatever President Fujimori says goes". Another celebrated autogolpe was when in 1993 Russia's President Yeltsin got fed up with his country's parliament voting against his proposed laws, so he sent in tanks to kill them. Wikipedia helpfully explains that Chancellor Palpatine's elevation of himself to the Imperial throne also constitutes an auogolpe.

2. Mukhabarat
I first came across this word in a Robert Fisk book, where he referred to the Syrian intelligence service as the Mukhabarat, making me think that this was its actual name (in the same way that the East German state security agency was the Stasi, South Africa's BOSS, Israel's MOSSAD and Shin Bet, etc.). It turns out that mukhabarat is just an Arab word for intelligence, in that "military intelligence" kind of way; some of the Syrian state security agencies do indeed have the word in their name, but none of them is THE Mukhabarat, at least not in that sense. The thing I have come to realise since then, though, is that mukhabarat is a very useful and handily snappy general umbrella term for the state security agencies of a country. That is how it is used with Arab states, anyway, but I think it could do with being applied more generally. So, in talking about the UK, we might refer to MI5, MI6, the Special Branch, GCHQ, and certain other shady agencies collectively as being Britain's mukhabarat. I suppose ECHELON might be a kind of globalised mukhabarat for the free world.

14 June, 2007

A little peace

Today's headline in the Times talked about how Hamas are basically creating an Islamist mini-state in the Gaza strip. The paper sees this as a bad thing, and talked ominously of how this is likely to throw the Middle East peace process into crisis. I found this somewhat amusing, as it implies that there is a Middle East peace process.

13 June, 2007

Palestinian Semi-Presidentialism and Counterfactuals

I am always guided by inertia. In choosing a thesis topic for Spy School I have ended up combining my supervisor's own academic interest in semi-presidentialism with my own general interest in Palestine to produce a thesis topic based around semi-presidentialism in Palestine. In terms of thesis questions, I will be asking whether the Palestinian Authority's semi-presidential regime is a significant cause of its current collapse; my answer will probably be "no".

Just to recap, semi-presidentialism is what you have when a directly elected president faces off against a premier responsible to a parliamentary assembly. Depending on which definition you are rolling with, the president might need to have considerable powers, or they might not. My supervisor, who could stake a good claim to being Mr Semi-Presidentialism, favours a procedural definition whereby the president merely needs to be popularly elected for a regime to be semi-presidential.

Some people do not like semi-presidentialism. Either it turns into a de facto presidential regime (with empirical research suggesting that presidential regimes tend towards rubbishness) or else the dual authority problem (a directly elected president facing off against a premier responsible to a directly elected parliament) exacerbates political tensions and leads to gridlock, political paralysis, or worse. In newly democratising regimes where the norms of democratic behaviour have not been internalised, there is the fear that tensions between the president and premier will be resolved in a non-constitutional manner (see recent events in Ukraine)

And so to Palestine. One interesting thing about the Palestinian Authority is that its continued existence currently looks very shaky, with a real likelihood that it will no longer exist by the time I have completed my thesis. This may or may not be a bad thing for the Palestinians, but it is great for me, as it means I will not have to make any awkward predictions about the regime's future. The PA has had a semi-presidential setup for the last couple of years and there has been escalating tension between the president and prime minister's parties, spilling over into armed conflict. So you could argue that that semi-presidentialism has been a cause of instability there. You would however probably be wrong to see it as a major factor. Instead, three things are more salient. Firstly, the political parties are armed, with their cadres quite willing to turn their guns on each other should things get nasty. Secondly, the PA is weakly institutionalised; while it has a notionally impressive security apparatus, the various security agencies are largely autonomous from the political elite and are in any case controlled by placemen of the Fatah party who are resistant to being moved. Thirdly, the PA is largely dependent on external sources of funding, but its donors have an animus towards the Hamas party; thus, since Hamas entered the government, the PA has been starved of funds, leading to a collapse in its administrative capability and much sulkiness by unpaid security personnel inclined to blame their personal travails on the Hamas administration.

Some counterfactuals are maybe interesting as a way of considering whether different institutional setups would see different outcomes following the Hamas victory in last year's legislature elections. Firstly, consider if the PA had a purely presidential regime. Hamas gaining a majority in the legislature would not cause serious problems for President Abbas, as he would retain control of executive functions in a political entity that does not do much in the way of passing laws. Abbas would probably be able to play the situation to his advantage, playing the PHEAR TEH ISLAMIST card to the international community to justify cracking down on his political enemies and postponing anything approximating to free presidential elections to the distant future for fear that this would see Hamas take over the PA; he would probably receive a pat on the back if he staged an autogolpe and shut down the parliament. Maybe the Israelis would throw Abbas a few scraps to make him look good compared to his internal challengers, but as Abbas' role is to be their Palestinian gang-boss he should not expect too much. Abbas might or might not face a revolt from Hamas down the line, but given their ambivalence about the PA in the first place they might not challenge for its ownership. So this is still possibly the highest scoring outcome for the Palestinians – although it is bedtime for democracy and they find themselves with a regime plainly subservient to the Israelis, they are maybe spared the chronic internal strife they face in the real world.

Secondly, imagine the PA had an entirely parliamentary regime. When Hamas unexpectedly wins the 2006 elections, things happen pretty much as they do with us – they form a government, the international community pulls the plug, the mukhabarat bosses resist being brought under Hamas control and start kicking up over not being paid, the armed parties start trading pot-shots, and the PA collapses into civil war.

Whichever way you set up the institutions, the outcome for the PA seems a bit poor. If I was them, I would want to play a different game.

10 June, 2007

Another 1967

This year, last year, and next year have some interesting anniversaries. Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the Suez caper, in which the UK and France teamed up with Israel only to discover that they were no longer major world powers. Next year will mark sixty years since the foundation of the state of Israel, or sixty years since al-Nakba, the catastrophe that saw several hundred thousand Palestinians forced from their homes. This year, meanwhile, sees the fortieth anniversary of the Six Day War, in which the Israelis stuffed the combined armies of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.

The Six Day War is still seen a major turning point in the affairs of the Middle East. I suppose at one level it changed the rules of the game - it was no longer possible for anyone to claim that Israel's military defeat was possible, and Israel's neighbours implicitly or explicitly switched to more modest goals. More crucially for Israel itself, the country found itself in possession of all of mandate Palestine (as well as Syrian and Egyptian territories), and a much enlarged population of sulky non-Jews. Shortly after the conquest of the West Bank, Israeli settlers began to move in there, in an effort to tie the land to Israel forever. The acceleration of their programme in the 1990s plays a major role in preventing resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Given that 1967 was such a turning point, it is interesting to imagine how things might have turned out differently then. The war is an interesting illustration of the importance of contingency in human affairs, with the various actors in the struggle having real choices that were important determinants of what eventually happened. I gather from my old pals in Points of Divergence, an alternate history APA, that there are more than no pieces in which people imagine the consequences of an Arab victory in 1967. Given the imbalance of forces at the time, and the actual totally rubbish performance of the Egyptian and Syrian armies, this would be a rather fanciful outcome and not one that could seriously be considered. More interesting, though, is a speculative piece by Doron Rosenblum that appeared in Ha'aretz last week. Rosenblum imagines what might have ensued had Israel's civilian leadership faced down the militarists who were calling for a first strike on Egypt. In some ways the piece is a triumph of the plus-ça-change,-plus-c'est-la-même-chose school of alternate history, where you make a big change but then have everything turning out more or less the same. Nevertheless, the piece is interesting in terms of suggesting how things could have turned out differently, with Israel being spared the moral corrosion that ensues from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

You could of course imagine any number of other alternate 1967s - what if Nasser had pursued a less risky strategy, what if Jordan had stayed out of the war, what if the Egyptian army was not completely rubbish (or at least had leaders who played to its strengths rather than its weaknesses), what if the USS Liberty incident had provoked extreme US sulkiness, and so on. We of course do not get to live in these imagined worlds, but merely thinking about them should be enough to make us appreciate the importance of human agency and reject gonzoid determinism.

Moral turpitude

I wrote the other day about an Italian court case, where Italian and American security personnel are on trial for kidnapping a man and transporting him to Mubarak's torturers in Egypt. Since then, the Council of Europe has released a report on the extraordinary rendition system, in particular talking about the secret gulag the CIA ran (or runs) in Eastern Europe. You can download it in PDF format here.

I find it disturbing what a minor news story this is, and how little outrage at a political or popular level it seems to excite. We are not talking about strange faraway countries here, but countries and airports in the European Union. Secret prisons, people being flown off to dictatorships' torturers, people being kidnapped on the streets of constitutional states and spirited off to Mubarak's thugs, a government obstructing a kidnap trial to maintain good relations with the kidnappers - if all this is not a major story, what is?

Albania welcomes George Bush!

US President George Bush has received a hero's welcome in Albania - in marked contrast to the protests that dog his progress in other countries. It's always nice to have a friend. More BBC pictures here.

09 June, 2007

Tough on crime. Tough on the causes of crime.

In Italy a number of people are on trial for kidnapping one Mr Abu Omar and arranging for his transportation out of the country to an Egyptian torture camp. Some of the indicted kidnappers are being tried in absentia, having skipped the country. The Italian government has said that it will not seek their extradition; a senior official of the country sheltering these alleged criminals has said that they would in any case never be sent to face trial.

06 June, 2007

All politicians are the same

There are those who say that it does not matter who becomes President of the USA, as whoever gets the job will always pursue the interests of the US power elite.

It is, however, only Republican candidates for the nomination who are at this juncture talking about nuclear strikes on Iran.