A rather astonishing recent story in Bloomberg Businessweek called "Obesity, the other Gulf War syndrome," blames the fact that Kuwait is by some measures now the second fattest nation on the globe on a surprising culprit: The introduction of American fast food to the tiny kingdom after US troops drove out Saddam Hussein's army in 1991. The article is illustrated with a Kuwaiti man and woman snarfing hamburgers being dropped out of an American warplane.
"According to surgeons like Al Sanea, the bariatric boom can be traced to the buildup to the 1991 Gulf War. That was when hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops descended on the Gulf nation, bringing with them Taco Bell, Hardee’s, Baskin-Robbins, and Nathan’s Famous (NATH) hot dogs, among others," writes Bloomberg's Peter Savodnik. "'The [war] was the demarcation line,” says Dr. Abdulwahab Naser Al-Isa, at the Department of Community Medicine & Behavioral Sciences at Kuwait University. Andrew Smith, the author of the Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food, says, “The American military went in, and obviously they wanted fast food. Therefore, the number of fast-food establishments expanded exponentially.' And Kuwaitis fell in love."
Mr. Savodnik's article, relying as it does on anecdotes rather than research, and a strange confusion of correlation with causation, caught my attention. It's true that Kuwaitis are today, along with residents of the other wealthy Gulf monarchies, among the fattest people in the world. The ready availability of high-fat food coupled with sedentary lifestyles are the not particularly surprising causes. Too many fast-food burgers? Of course. But also too much kofta, and too much machboos, the national lamb dish served on a bed of rice (the rice cooked in fatty lamb-stock).
IN PICTURES: Fourth of July traditions
And while ice-cream, hot dogs and the other favorites that Americans will be eating at picnics and in backyards around the country today to celebrate July 4 are certainly fattening, the popularity of these foods are no more the cause of obesity here or anywhere else than the heavy use of butter in French cuisine is the reason that only 10 percent of the French are obese (against about 30 percent in the US and about 33 percent in Kuwait).
Food culture, portion size, and a lack of exercise seem to be the most important causes. And across the world, increasing prosperity in previously poor countries is the most clear reason for rising body mass indices.
A 2009 review of medical literature examining obesity in the Gulf, "The prevalence and trends of overweight, obesity and nutrition-related non-communicable diseases in the Arabian Gulf States," found fairly similar obesity rates in Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, similarly wealthy kingdoms, and noted that "along with the economic growth of the Gulf region, there have been increases in nutritional health problems and related diseases. This is often referred to as the nutrition transition, which was first noted in developed countries, but has quickly spread to emerging economies and developing nations in the past two decades."
A 1998 study at the University of Kuwait, Changes in body mass index (BMI) and prevalence of obesity among Kuwaitis 1980-1994 found that "BMI and prevalence of obesity increased among Kuwaitis between 1980-1981 and 1993 and 1994 probably due to the effects of modernization, affluence, increased food consumption and the concomitant changes to sedentary lifestyles. The rate of temporal changes in BMI and obesity were higher, by comparison, in Kuwait than in selected other countries."
Another University of Kuwait review of reports on local obesity from 2005 references two investigations of domestic obesity that predate the Gulf War: A1981 national survey that found that 25 percent of men and 48 percent of women between 16 years old and 60 were obese; and a 1985 Kuwaiti survey that found 31 percent of Kuwaiti men and 62 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 59 were obese. That shows Kuwaitis were pretty fat in 1981, and got a lot fatter by 1985, years before Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq and President George H.W. Bush rallied an international coalition to drive the Iraqis from the country.
The report's introduction argues that "obesity is one result of the rapid cultural and social changes that have occurred in the Arabian Gulf region and
Kuwait since the discovery of oil in 1936 and the economic boom in the 1970s and 1980s. Three major societies were found in the Arabian Gulf and in Kuwait before economic booms: agricultural, grazing, and sea and fish societies. All have their healthy and natural food which are considered to be high in fiber and less in fat, carbohydrate and proteins."
More fatty food, and less fresh fruit and vegetables, always spells trouble for a nation's waistline. To be sure, the Kuwaiti taste for fast food is part of their problem; when the first McDonald's opened in Kuwait in 1994, apparently a 7-mile line formed for its drive through window.
But on this July 4, don't blame that burger you've just pulled off the grill for Kuwait's weight problem. The proximate cause appears to be another national addiction Americans share with Kuwaitis. Oil, and not the kind you'll be scraping off the grill tomorrow.
IN PICTURES: Fourth of July traditions
A pattern of deception extending over a period of years. A flouting of the law to profit at the expense of others on three different continents. And a belief that the rules did not apply to them.
No, not the latest mafia family to be taken down by a special prosecutor. But Barclays PLC, the sprawling British banking group that recently paid a $450 million fine for seeking to rig LIBOR, a benchmark interest rate used to value trillions of dollars of investments. Barclays' brash and fabulously wealthy CEO Bob Diamond finally resigned today after a storm of press and public outrage, as did Chief Operating Officer Jerry del Missie. They were preceded by chairman Marcus Agius yesterday. Today, US and UK regulators have requested more time to look at other banks and individuals who participated in the LIBOR fraud.
But for the moment, that's where accountability, and the similarity to how other complex cons are prosecuted, appears to end. A number of other, as-yet-unnamed banks are being investigated for participating in the fraud. Barclays' experience in handling this late unpleasantness will provide a helpful template for them when regulators come knocking at the door: Offer to pay a fine that amounts to a fraction of annual profits, and your executives and employees will avoid being named, let alone prosecuted. Barclays made $14 billion net profit in 2009, at the height of the LIBOR rigging scheme, and $4.7 billion net in 2011.
Regulators are seeking to spin the Barclays story into one of effective government oversight. The head of the UK's Financial Services Authority, Tracey McDermott, said yesterday she hoped the fine levied on Barclays will amount to a "watershed moment" for the financial industry. But both Mr. Agius and Mr. Diamond remain millionaires many times over; the bonuses paid out to the traders and supervisors involved in fraud in years past have not been clawed back. And no one is facing jail time. The regulatory message so far amounts to: "Don't get caught, or else we'll ask you to stop doing what you're doing."
Public confidence in the probity of banks is not being done any favors, particularly in the UK, where the reputation of "The City" is approaching all-time lows among average folks, as Mian Ridge writes today.
Mr. Diamond has long been a symbol of a greedy banker in the UK press and politics. Two years ago Peter Mandelson, then the UK cabinet secretary in charge of business affairs, complained that Diamond gave British bankers a bad name, singling out his compensation package. "He's taken £63m not by building business or adding value or creating long-term economic strength, he has done so by deal-making and shuffling paper around," he said.
Diamond has frequently defended himself and bankers more generally, insisting that financial institutions are good at self-regulation. He insists that fears that the trading desks of banks take big risks that compensate them when they pay off, but leave the public holding the bag when they go bad, were overblown.
"We've got to end this rhetoric around casino banking," he told a conference in Dec. 2009. "The facts aren't there, the rhetoric is just too loud. Trading is incredibly important to the success of financial institutions. Ninety-eight percent of the losses that we've seen in the banking system to date have started with loans and not trading. Big and systemic are not synonymous."
What happened? The LIBOR story has a veneer of complexity over it: Word salads of unfamiliar acronyms and impenetrable jargon that bankers have created to conceal what they do. But it's actually a simple tale of incompetence, greed, and galloping arrogance that, like most cases of financial theft, will probably not end in jail time for any concerned.
The US government's Commodity Futures Trading Commission outline of Barclays' behavior makes for damning reading.
"Over a period of several years, commencing in at least 2005, Barclays PLC, Barclays Bank and Barclays Capital, by and through their agents, officers and employees located in at least New York, London and Tokyo, repeatedly attempted to manipulate and made false, misleading or knowingly inaccurate submissions concerning two global benchmark interest rates, the British Bankers' Association's (BBA) London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) and the European Banking Federation's (EBF) Euro Interbank Offered Rate (EURIBOR)," the commission writes.
In simple English, that's an assertion that Barclay's employees on at least three continents spent years lying in order to fix benchmark interest rates that help determine the value of about $10 trillion of global debt and $350 trillion in derivatives, mostly swap contracts. For instance "Barclays based its LIBOR submissions for US Dollar... on the requests of Barclay's swaps traders, including former Barclays swaps traders, who were attempting to affect the official published LIBOR, in order to benefit Barclays' derivatives trading positions."
The daily LIBOR fixing by the BBA is based on self-reporting from major financial institutions on the cost of short-term unsecured borrowing. Though it's based on the honor system (a regulatory failure if ever there was one) that daily fixing is used as a benchmark that effects the prices of swaps and debt instruments in dollars, pounds, yen, and euros. So if you can fiddle the LIBOR number, you can manipulate markets to your advantage.
Barclays employees were lying to help the bank's derivative traders control prices, and thereby steal from the investors on the other side of their trades. And they weren't alone. The US government says a group of Barclays traders focused on the euro swaps market "coordinated with, and aided and abetted traders at certain other banks to influence the Euribor submissions of multiple banks, including Barclays, in order to affect [published EURIBOR rates] and thereby benefit their respective derivatives trading positions." These other banks haven't been named.
Regulators have released redacted messages between Barclays traders and the employees who reported LIBOR rates. One New York trader in May 2006 wrote, "We have another big fixing tomorrow and with the market move I was hoping we could set the 1M and 3M LIBORS as high as possible." (The fixing is when the daily LIBOR rates are calculated; "1M" means "one-month," referring to the rate for interbank loans of that duration.) A submitter in London in April 2006 responds to a trader's request to manipulate one-month and three-month LIBORS with a "done for you big boy."
In other cases, Barclays management told employees to lie in their LIBOR submissions to make it look like other banks viewed Barclays as particularly credit worthy.
Who knew what and when? The British press has reported that Diamond knew of some of the lies. Mr. Agius said on a conference call today that ousted COO Jerry del Missie was involved in directing the deception. Barclays has said that most of the traders and middle managers accused of wrongdoing have since left the firm. But the extent of managerial involvement in the scheme is unclear. In fact, it seems that upper management at Barclays took a studied disinterest in knowing too much about how the bank reported LIBOR.
In a footnote on page 9 of the CFTC report on Barclays, a US regulator muses on the "common and pervasive" practice of Barclays in London tailoring its reporting of interest rates for LIBOR to the trading needs of Barclays' swaps desk in New York.
"Appropriate daily supervision of the desk by the supervisors, as well as periodic review of the communications, should have discovered the conduct. However, Barclays lacked specific internal controls and procedures that would have enabled Barclays' management or compliance to discover this conduct." How pervasive? Regulators have turned up emails from traders demanding lies on the LIBOR reporting so they could profit, though they've elected to withhold their names.
Why would they not have controls or procedures for something so obviously open to abuse, and so important to both the trust in the institution and in the financial markets more generally? Those are good questions to which no good answers have yet been provided.
Mr. Diamond, in a letter to employees a few days ago that amounted to his swan song, maintained that the systematic rigging of a key world interest rate over a period of years was unfairly reflecting on the whole bank. "More than anything, though, I am angry because the impression has been given that the behaviour revealed in the documents last week is indicative of the culture at Barclays generally," wrote Diamond. "I love Barclays, and I am proud of all of you. We all know that these events are not representative of our culture, and it is my responsibility to get to the bottom of that and resolve it. Make no mistake the actions taken in this incident were against all of the principles we live by."
None of this is Diamond's responsibility any longer. Where exactly the buck is going to stop on this one is unclear, with indications starting to emerge that senior politicians, and not just bankers, were aware of the LIBOR manipulation.
Simply utter the phrase "Muslim Brotherhood" and you're guaranteed to stir dark animal passions among conservative politicians and commentators -- or at least public approximations of dark animal passions. The election of the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as Egypt's president has kicked those passions into overdrive.
For many, the Egyptian political movement has joined a long line of American boogeyman with a secret plot to rule the world, from the Masons to the Catholics to the United Nations. In Egypt, there are similar night terrors. Tawfiq Okasha, a conspiratorial TV show host known as the Egyptian Glen Beck, likes to rail against the Masonic/American/Muslim Brotherhood plot to destroy Egypt.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh earlier this week went on a rant implying that the Brothers have already managed to take over parts of President Barack Obama's White House after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement on Morsi's election. Morsi, read the oath of office in a packed Tahrir today, looking and sounding the part of the leader of the Arab world's largest country. This weekend, he was confirmed the winner of the first free presidential election in Egyptian history.
"We expect president-elect Morsi, as he forms a government, to demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity that is manifest by representatives of the women of Egypt, of the Coptic Christian community, of the secular non-religious community and, of course, young people," Ms. Clinton said. "We hope that full democracy is understood to be more than one election.”
That's a pretty tepid statement, bowing to the reality of an election and making a general appeal for the protection of minority and women's rights. And what was Clinton supposed to do? Scream "we're all going to die" and demand the Egyptian military cancel elections and declare itself a junta-for-life?
But Mr. Limbaugh saw evidence of "the plot" behind her comments, launching a diatribe that claimed that the mother of an aide to Clinton is friendly with Morsi's wife and that therefore the Brothers are being propelled to power by the Obama White House. "That's why Hillary is out celebrating the brotherhood. That's why Hillary is joining Obama in telling the military to give it up for the Brotherhood guy," said Limbaugh.
IN PICTURES: Egypt in turmoil
Unfortunately for Mr. Morsi, the fantasy of an Obama White House cheering section for the Muslim Brotherhood is just that. In fact, Morsi will be lucky to wield much power within Egypt, let along abroad, his title as president and Limbaugh's fertile imagination notwithstanding. This evening in Cairo he addressed a cheering crowd of supporters in Tahrir Square, promising an inclusive government, social justice, and equal protection for all Egyptian citizens. He also spoke of a bright economic future.
As a sign of that caution, Morsi insisted in his speech today that the peace will be kept with Israel. That doesn't rule out demands for changes going forwards (the restrictions on Egyptian military movements in the Sinai rankle Egyptian nationalists of all stripes, Islamist or not), but is far from red-meat for the anti-Zionist crowd.
But he is not in the position to deliver on any of these politician's platitudes - or on some kind of secret agenda - by himself. The simple fact is that the Egyptian military remains the most powerful government institution. Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who has run Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, and his fellow officers have been in the middle of every major negotiation about Egypt's future since. The announcement of Morsi's victory with 51.7 percent of the vote was delayed as the military sought to extract concessions from the Brotherhood's candidate. Since, the military has been negotiating a role for itself in the cabinet.
Earlier this week, a military spokesmen told an Egyptian television station that Morsi had already agreed to allow Tantawi to stay on as defense minister, and the army has also been negotiating control over the interior ministry, which oversees the national police, and a major role for itself in drafting a new Egyptian constitution.
While Morsi has electoral legitimacy, neither he nor the Brothers have the ability to take the military establishment head on, even if they wanted to. They probably won't. The group was founded 84 years ago, and while for a brief time it considered the armed overthrow of the Egyptian establishment, the Brothers' last act of violence was over 60 years ago. Waves of government crackdowns down the decades, with leaders spending years in jail for their political beliefs, have bred caution into their bones.
Morsi has other realities to contend with. Almost half of Egyptian voters favored the military's candidate for president, Ahmed Shafiq, a stunning reality when measured against the presumption that a large majority of Egyptian's favor fundamental poltical change. Egypt's various secular political groups, from socialists to liberal capitalist groups, don't intend to roll over in the face of one presidential victory. And Egypt's vast tourism industry, already hard hit by 18 months of political turmoil, would probably have a lot to say about efforts to ban booze or bikinis from Egypt.
Though Morsi formally renounced his Brotherhood membership this week, declaring himself a president for all Egyptians, that's just window dressing. His entire adult life, his brand of nationalism, and his political position stem from the group. He is a Brother through and through. He is committed to advancing the group toward its ultimate goal -- the implementation of the Islamic sharia through Egypt, with the Quran in effect the country's constitution.
Were he free from political constraints, it's safe to say that a greater degree of censorship, mandatory dress codes for women, and sharia courts would be quickly implemented in Egypt. That's what the Brothers want, the meaning of the word "Islamist" when applied to them. But he does not have a free hand, and will not have one anytime soon.
"Neither Morsi’s personality, background or statements nor his group’s intentions will affect how well he can govern," Joshua Stacher, a political scientist who studies Egypt at Kent State, wrote this week. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces "is too overshadowing and obstructionist to allow the new president much free will. Additionally, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood does not have a fixed character or soul. Its members are religious, but the group is not a band of simple ideologues. While a range of behavior can be expected, none of it suggests that the Brotherhood will lead Egypt toward adopting Saudi Arabian-style Shariah law. In this context, the past is prologue. Under the brutally repressive presidency of Mubarak, the Brotherhood repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to nonviolent political pragmatism. Once again, President-elect Morsi and the Brothers are unlikely to use religion to resist the ruling class of generals."
What does an "Islamist" president mean given all this? Expect an Egypt that is cooler to advancing US interests in the region (Mubarak was a US stalwart and his military profited handsomely from US aid as a consequence; the same military that spent decades beating on the Brothers), that was, after all, founded to counteract Western influence in Egypt that its followers believed was undermining their faith. Expect the ministries controlled by the Brothers once the cabinet is announced to perhaps begin "encouraging" female employees to cover their hair; expect a heightened degree of discussion about rewriting or abandoning the peace agreement with Israel signed 30 years ago.
But don't expect short, sharp breaks with foreign powers at a time when Egypt is more dependent on foreign aid than ever, or legislation rammed down the throats of a divided nation yearning for jobs and peace, not upheaval. Egypt is not yet a democracy and it is not yet clear that it will become one any time soon. But there are enough competing power centers there now that Morsi, for good or ill, is boxed in.
IN PICTURES: Egypt in turmoil
Events in Syria are rapidly unraveling. Earlier today President Bashar al-Assad abandoned his claims that the regime was merely fighting terrorists sent by foreign powers to destabilize Syria and said the country is in a "real state of war." Today some of the war's heaviest fighting near Damascus took place and a pro-Assad television station about 12 miles south of the capital was overrun by rebels, who killed employees there.
While Mr. Assad's military has fought ferociously to put down the rebellion, using the heaviest mortars in the world and launching artillery barrages on majority Sunni towns like Hama and Homs, there has been some restraint. So far there has been no repeat of the Hama massacre of 1982, when Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, leveled much of that city to put down an Islamist uprising, killing more than 10,000 Syrians.
The younger Assad's acknowledgment of the war around him today could signal a turn to more ruthless tactics. If that happens, it will be against an armed opposition that has steadily grown more lethal in recent months, with arms paid for by the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar flowing to the rebels, an increasing tempo of attacks on government security forces, and an increasing adoption of the tactics that Sunni insurgents employed with devastating effect against US forces and their allies in the war in Iraq. At the moment, both sides see the total destruction of the other as the way to end the war.
An international meeting is scheduled in Geneva for this weekend at which world powers will discuss Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she has "great hope" for a positive outcome. But with Syrian ally Iran excluded from the talks and Syrian enemy Saudi Arabia, which is backing the rebels, not expected to attend, she will probably be disappointed.
Syria was a major entry point for foreign jihadis into Iraq during the height of the war there, and it was presumed that Assad's regime turned a blind eye to the Syrian, Egyptian, and Libyan fighters passing through his territory. After all, the US had been grumbling about regime change in his country, so anything that kept US troops tied down next door was to his advantage.
But veterans of the Iraq conflict have now joined the fight against Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose followers are viewed as apostates by Sunni fundamentalists. The Alawites are a minority in Syria, but they have dominated senior government positions and the military officer corps for decades.
Among the techniques deployed by insurgents are improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against government convoys. Roadside IEDs generated most of the US casualties in Iraq, and though solid data is hard to come by, they're probably responsible for most of the more than 400 Syrian military deaths reported by the government so far this month. IEDs are popular among insurgents because they're cheap to make and are less risky to deploy than direct assaults on heavily armed regular troops.
There are also indications that the bombs are increasingly sophisticated. The Brown Moses blog, which aggregates news about Syria's war, points out growing reports of the use of explosively formed penatrator IEDs in Syria, which penetrate further than regular IEDs. David Enders reported earlier this month that some rebel groups have acknowledged to him the growing presence of EFPs in Syria.
The weapon amounts to a curved copper cap fixed over the explosives in the bomb. The explosives hit the copper cap, forcing it into a fast-moving slug of metal than can penetrate armor.
“They are hard to get and expensive,” a young IED maker complained to Enders, who wrote the "former university student [spends] his days making bombs with fertilizer, mostly by packing it into empty cooking-gas containers... for targeting tanks, he packs truck axles cut in half full of explosives."
In Iraq, senior US officers complained that Iran was providing the insurgents with EFPs. But workshops for the construction of the bombs were also found inside the country, and it's axiomatic that the longer a war drags on, the more technically proficient local insurgents become in the manufacturing of bombs. In the case of Syria, Iran is an ally of the Assad regime. There are also indications of workshops to build the explosives inside Syria, as this video purports to show.
The assault on the pro-Assad TV station this morning is also a reminder that it's not just civilians on the rebel side that are being killed in the expanding war. At least three people were killed in the assault on the Ikhbariya TV station and there were claims that the rebels took hostages, although this has not been confirmed. Supporters of the uprising said the attack was appropriate, since Ikhbariya is a government propaganda outlet.
Propaganda is indeed a major part of the regime's survival effort. But when foreign journalists Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin were killed in a government artillery barrage on a rebel-held section of Homs earlier this year, there were howls of outrage from the opposition. The two were part of a group traveling with the rebels, staying in a flat that amounted to an information hub for the local uprising. The information war cuts both ways, and is due to continue.
From a tactical perspective, the ability of rebels to strike at a major regime symbol so close to Damascus could signal real trouble for Assad – if they manage to follow up with further assaults. While there have been few signs of the regime crumbling from within, there have been reports of more defections in recent days. A loss of control of routes into Damascus would increase the pressure on Assad and plant seeds of doubt among more of his supporters – something he will fight desperately to avoid.
I covered the Iraq war for five years, at the height of the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. Syria, with its ruling Alawite minority and majority Sunni population, already seems pointed down that ugly road. The below video purports to be of successful rebel IED attacks on government forces, practically indistinguishable from the sort of propaganda that Sunni insurgents issued about their attacks in Iraq.
In the past week Egypt's Mohamed Morsi has rung up a string of firsts. The first freely elected president in Egyptian history. The first Islamist head of state in the Arab world. And first in line to receive the blame – or the praise – for the Egyptian ship of state's course. At the moment, it has practically run aground amid political turmoil and a shrinking economy.
The tasks in front of Morsi are daunting. Investment in Egypt has collapsed since Hosni Mubarak was driven from power by a popular uprising in January and February of 2011, the country's senior officers have demanded an increased share of formal political power, and a politicized judiciary has become an erratic, unpredictable player in the country's politics – dissolving the freely elected parliament, considering a petition to ban the Muslim Brotherhood that drove Morsi to the presidency, and making pronouncements on the constitutionality of efforts to write a new constitution.
And though Morsi won the presidency fair and square, the Egyptian public is sharply divided. Ahmed Shafiq, a retired officer who served as Mubarak's last appointed prime minister and who represented the military class's interests in the presidential race, received over 49 percent of the national vote. Some of those votes were out of a straightforward desire for the stability that largely prevailed under Mubarak's military-backed regime. But many were cast against an Islamist presidential candidate whose organization's stated goal is the imposition of the Islamic sharia on Egypt's people..
On Morsi's side of the ledger were many voters who don't approve of the Muslim Brotherhood's free market economic approach or determination to transform Egypt into a state governed by Islamic law. Instead, these voters saw a civilian Islamist president likely to be at loggerheads with the powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as preferable to restoring the state of affairs that had prevailed in Egypt since the Free Officers coup of 1952 until this week.
For the moment, furious back room lobbying and negotiations are taking place in Cairo. Morsi is scheduled to be officially sworn in as president on Saturday, and after he formally takes office he'll be in charge of appointing a prime minister and a cabinet. The military would like to influence his choices, as would the revolutionary and secular parties that hold little electoral legitimacy at the moment but were major forces in shaping the uprising that ousted Mubarak.
Morsi promised in his victory speech last weekend to be a compromising head of state, and has promised that his cabinet will include secular politicians, at least one member of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, and women. He's also said that he'll appoint a vice president without ties to the Muslim Brotherhood or its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), an organization he cut formal ties with after being announced the winner.
Who exactly he'll pick has yet to be determined and Egyptians are warily looking on. He could appoint women, but all of them loyalists from the Muslim Sisters. He could appoint a Christian or two, but a compliant one (one of the FJP members of the parliament was a Copt). A substantial number of Egyptians are frightened that events of the past few weeks are the leading edge of a full Islamist takeover of Egyptian life, with repressive Saudi-style social codes, a step backward for women, and an increased marginalization of the ancient Coptic community. Morsi's aides insist they shouldn't be scared, but the truth of their assurances will start to be revealed in the coming weeks.
The April 6 Youth Movement, an umbrella group of mostly secular-leaning politicians who were deeply involved in the uprising, formally supported Morsi against Shafiq. But this week they also set up a website called the "Morsi Meter" to measure the new president's success in meeting his campaign promises. So far, the meter reads: "Promises that have been achieved: 0 out of 64." The website has the promises grouped in three categories: Security, traffic, and bread.
These are the sort of tangible, difficult to deliver things that millions of Egyptians are looking towards.
Crime has risen in the past year-and-a-half, on the one hand, while a corrupt police force that relies on torture to obtain confessions from alleged criminals remains on the beat. Millions of Egyptians rely on government-subsidized bread to survive – the Egyptian government is the largest wheat buyer in the world – and the size and quality of Egypt's subsidized loaves has declined in recent years. Where the money will come from to turn that situation around remains uncertain. At the time of Egypt's uprising, the country's foreign reserves stood at $36 billion. Today, they are around $15 billion.
Egypt remains without a constitution, and its rules are now a hodgepodge of the Mubarak-era constitution and a series of constitutional amendments issued by SCAF since February of 2011. A constitutional assembly packed with Islamists and appointed by the now dissolved parliament, which the Muslim Brotherhood and allies from the Islamist Al Nour party dominated, is still technically in control of the process, and is scheduled to meet on Saturday. But an Egyptian court is set to rule on the constitutionality of the assembly itself on Sept. 4. The court could well dissolve the grouping, a move that would probably be backed by the senior officers, who have indicated they would like to control the drafting process.
The military's most recent declaration contains a vaguely worded statement that gives the military the power to dissolve the group if it "encounters obstacles that prevent it from completing its work," which effectively gives it a veto over the whole process even if the court rules to leave the body in place.
Finally, there are the questions of new elections. For now, there are three effective independent branches of government: the president, the courts (packed as they are with Mubarak-era appointees) and the military council, likewise a manifestation of the old regime. If and when a new constitution is written, new parliamentary elections will be held (assuming the courts don't throw another curve ball and overturn their earlier decision). And after that, the military has indicated it would like fresh presidential elections. If so, Morsi may end up with less than a year on the job, rather than a full term.
The political clock is ticking in Egypt. Though measuring presidents on their first hundred days is an American practice popular with journalists and pundits, but rarely truly indicative of how a presidency will play out, in the Egyptian case it's probably apt. President Morsi may not have much more time than that.
The firmly held belief in the US, Israel, and other countries that the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad holds large quantities of chemical weapons is a major factor under consideration for all the international players involved in the Syrian crisis.
Hard data on Syria's chemical and biological warfare capabilities is scarce, but the country is believed to have one of the largest chemical agents stockpiles in the world, including VX and Sarin nerve agents. It also has an impressive number of surface-to-surface missiles, such as Scud-Ds which can be fitted with chemical warheads, and modern Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries, including portable shoulder-fired systems.
"This is unknown territory," says Charles Blair, senior fellow for State and Non-State Threats at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. "We have never been through the potential collapse via a very bloody ethnic civil war of a country that is likely armed with a very large stockpile of chemical weapons.”
... The main concern in the West is that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting in Syria will attempt to obtain chemical agents from Syrian stockpiles. Al Qaeda has been seeking chemical and biological weapons since at least the late 1990s. Documents seized by US troops in Afghanistan in 2001 indicated that Al Qaeda was working on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, possibly attempting to weaponize biological agents. In 2009, a British tabloid reported that an Al Qaeda group in Algeria was forced to abandon a training camp after experiments to weaponize bubonic plague led to the deaths of 40 militants.
I wrote last week about reports of CIA involvement in determining which rebel groups receive weapons, and expressed some concern that they could be a first step towards a broader US involvement in Syria's civil war. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the rebellion; Iran and to a lesser extent Russia are backing Assad. That's one messy situation to get in the middle of.
But I neglected to mention Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and long-range missile systems, an issue that is probably at the top of the list of concerns of every US soldier and intelligence officer working on Syria. While the collapse of the Baath regime isn't imminent, it's certainly possible. And if that day comes, finding a way to secure the country's chemical weapons – which could end up almost anywhere, given the country's porous borders and history of smuggling over the Iraqi, Turkish and Lebanese borders – will be paramount.
It's a safe bet that the US operatives making contacts with rebel groups in Turkey are bringing up this issue, and seeking to create relationships and cut deals that will give the US and its allies a head start on locking down Syria's chemical weapons if that day ever comes. Fear of so-called weapons of mass destruction is an issue that could see the US form temporary alliances with militant groups it wouldn't touch with a barge pole under other circumstances.
This morning Egypt's president elect told Iran's Fars News Agency – a government outlet with close to ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards – in an interview, "We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region."
The story caught attention around the world, particularly among those inclined to see the Muslim Brotherhood's victory as alarming. Many took the interview as evidence that the Sunni Islamists of Egypt are about to make common cause with the Shiite theocracy of Iran. While that isn't likely, a desire for Egypt to be less beholden to the US on the part of Mr. Morsi would hardly be surprising. After all, the US financed a regime that spent decades pursuing Morsi and his allies for their political beliefs.
But Egypt also doesn't want to antagonize the US, the country's largest aid donor, at a time of financial crisis needlessly. Soon after the Fars interview appeared, an unnamed Morsi spokesmen took to regional media and said he hadn't granted any interview to Fars.
What's true? Who knows.
Iranian state media frequently serves a propaganda function. And it's also likely that Morsi is having his cake and eating it too.
That's been a bit of a pattern with him, adjusting his comments to suit his audience.
In his victory speech Sunday, he struck the right tone. "I am intent with your help to build a new Egypt ... a constitutional, democratic, and modern country," he said. "We Egyptians, Muslims, and Christians ... are advocates of civilization and construction."
Does he mean it? Many secular-leaning Egyptians and Coptic Christians will wait and see.
But what is certain is that Morsi and the movement he comes from are pragmatic and cautious. Morsi went out of his way to single out the military for praise in his remarks, even though in the days leading up to the announcement of his victory he'd bitterly complained about the extra-constitutional constraints the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had placed on the power of the presidency (the military basically removed any possibility of civilian oversight of their affairs and gave itself a major role in foreign policy and writing the next constitution).
He threatened not to take the oath of office in front of the Constitutional Court because that would amount to acknowledging SCAF's decrees. But today, he relented. The threat had been a negotiating position with the military. Did he get something in exchange? Again, who knows.
Donald Trump weighs in on Egypt
Games aren't just being played in Egypt.
Fox News has been on a bit of tear in seeking to make Morsi out to be a major threat to world peace. Yesterday, their website carried a video that purported to be Morsi delivering a fiery anti-Israeli speech, but was in fact delivered by another man. The misleading video remains uncorrected today on the Fox website.
Then this morning the gang on Fox and Friends brought on reality television star Donald Trump to explain the implications of Morsi's election (he apparently sidelines as an Egypt expert) and how it was all President Obama's fault to viewers this morning.
"Obama's foreign policy has been a disaster. Now the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Egypt which is about as bad as it can get and we give billions and billions of dollars to Egypt," said Trump. "We could have helped Mubarak stay, he was a friend of ours, and he was a friend of Israel. And we dropped him like a red hot potato ... he was dropped so quickly that it was incredible."
He emphasized his point on Twitter later. "The Islamists have won," Trump wrote. "Just as I predicted, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Egypt. Barack Obama never should have abandoned Mubarek (sic)."
Mr. Trump is so fundamentally wrong on this matter that it's hard to know where to begin pointing it out.
The Obama administration actually dragged its feet on urging Mubarak to step down, worried precisely about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power and the loss of a military-backed dictatorship that had been a fairly reliable client of the US for decades.
Unprecedented protests against Mubarak swelled over Cairo on Jan. 25, 2011. To longtime Egypt watchers, the sheer size of the crowd and the exuberance with which average Egyptians had thrown off the shroud of fear Mubarak had kept around them, it was immediately clear that something had irrevocably shifted.
In late 2010, Mubarak had carried out the most rigged election in Egyptian history (all Egyptian elections under his regime were rigged, but some more gently than others) and he was maneuvering to have his son become his successor. The Egyptian people had had enough.
But the Obama administration, cautious as ever, was slow to throw its weight behind the forces of democracy and change. Here's Hillary Clinton on Jan. 25: "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
On Jan. 27, Vice President Joe Biden was sent out to praise Mubarak as a friend of the US, insist he should remain in charge, and dismiss suggestions he was a dictator. Within days, security forces and plain-clothes thugs loyal to the regime were out on the streets, beating and sexually assaulting democracy activists and imprisoning some of their leaders.
On Feb. 5, Obama's special adviser on Egypt, Frank Wisner, was saying it was "critical" that Mubarak remain in power to manage a transitional period. It was only after this point, as Egypt veered towards violence and it was clear to most observers that Mubarak had lost help of securing his ongoing political role, that the US government's rhetoric shifted in a far more negative direction. Mubarak finally stepped down on Feb. 11.
Quite simply, the Obama administration's behavior was the precise opposite of how Trump described it.
The Obama lost Egypt meme
He's not the only one. Later in the day, John Bolton who was one of the leading proponents in the Bush administration for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which ended with a Shiite Islamist government friendly to Iran replacing a secular Sunni one that had been hostile to the Islamic Republic, came on Fox to continue pushing the "Obama lost Egypt" meme. As the presidential race heats up, this line of attack will probably be a frequent one.
But it's, again, outrageously at odds with reality.
The US government in fact had little influence over unfolding events in Egypt in 2011, or in the past few weeks. Egypt's military has managed Egypt's transition in the past year-and-a-half and has placed itself in what appears to be a senior position over Morsi, who comes from the military's old enemy the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yes, the US has continued to fund the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year during the transition, but that's not something that helped Morsi. Instead, he won the presidency because the Egyptian people preferred him to his opponent Ahmed Shafiq, a retired officer and long-time aide to Mubarak who would have carried on the military dominance of Egypt that stretches back to 1952.
Would the US and Obama have preferred if the Egyptian's had chosen Shafiq? Almost certainly.
Was there something he could have done about it? No. The US may send money to Egypt, but that buys far less leverage in internal politics than many in the US imagine.
That money has helped secure the peace with Israel for 30 years, and it likely to continue to do so. Morsi obliquely referred to the peace arrangement with Israel in his victory speech Sunday ("We will maintain international charters and conventions and the agreements and commitments Egypt has signed.") and is also beholden to a military establishment that wants no change.
Could he seek to scuttle the agreement with Israel some day, or try to alter its terms? In his heart of hearts, he probably would like to. And someday the Brotherhood's position in Egypt may be much stronger than it is now. But the group's popularity is a fact of life.
And the result of acting against a popular democratic transition in Egypt is never mentioned by the people who imply that Obama or his aides somehow failed to control that foreign country sufficiently. Would they have liked the US to back a violent military coup, and perhaps a violent purge of Islamist activists? Perhaps a military intervention? They never seem to say.
Egypt, for all its problems, has embarked on a brand new journey. Morsi will be seeking to maximize his power inside Egypt, and will be hemmed in by both secular Egyptian parties and a military that are eager to find advantage for themselves. Little will be certain during what promises to be a long transition except this: Spin will be imparted on unfolding Egyptian events, in service of all kinds of agendas.
The Muslim Brotherhood is in many ways the founder of modern Islamist movements, with roots extending back 84 years. Though it long ago abandoned violence as a political tactic, and was harshly repressed by ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, it remains a highly controversial organization. In US political circles, it's hardly uncommon to hear to the organization mentioned in the same breath as terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. More reasonably, many Egyptians fear the organization will seek to replace Egypt's civil code with Islamic law. After all, the group's primary slogan is "Islam is the solution."
But the organization also has a history of pragmatism, and caution. Egypt is waiting for a national address from their new president any moment now, and all indications from the Brotherhood is that it will be conciliatory, with promises from Morsi to include secular-leaning Egyptians in his new government. Downtown Cairo was flooded with Morsi supporters, celebrating the stunning turn of events: A man once imprisoned for political crimes by Mr. Mubarak is now president -- Mubarak is now in jail, and will probably end his days there.
IN PICTURES: Rulers of Egypt
But sure as the dawn will come, some outlets in the US scarcely hesitate to turn up the volume of fear and disinformation. Shortly after Morsi's victory was announced earlier today, the Fox Nation website of Fox News put up a short unsigned blog headlined "Muslim Brotherhood Takes Egypt, Cleric Declares: 'Our Capital shall be Jerusalem, Allah Willing.'"
Embedded in the short blog is a video, which identifies the source as "Breitbart Non-syndicated" that purports to be a speech from Egypt's President Morsi. Before the speech begins, the following text appears upon the screen: "Rabbilive.com introduces... Egypt's newly elected president as declared by the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, Israel's new neighbor."
Then a fiery sermon begins with a bearded man, the prayer callous on his forehead prominent: "Our capital shall not be in Cairo, Mecca or Medina," he says, according to a translation provided by the US State Department-funded Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization founded by a retired Israeli colonel. "It shall be in Jerusalem, Allah willing. Our cry shall be 'millions of martyrs march towards Jerusalem.'"
Scary stuff, right? Egypt's new president, within hours of his victory, essentially promising to immediately launch war on Israel. There is of course one problem. The man in the video isn't actually Mohamed Morsi. It's the preacher Safwat al-Hegazy delivering an address in support of Morsi a few weeks ago. Morsi later distanced himself from Hegazy's remarks, saying ""Jerusalem is in our hearts and vision. But Cairo is Egypt's capital."
It says at the top of the misleading video "Brietbart non-syndicated," but Rabbilive.com appears to be the source of the misleading text. Breitbart.com is the right-wing website founded by Andrew Breitbart. Here's that website's post today on the video.
Make no mistake. The political sea-change in Egypt is going to create challenges for foreign powers and shift relationships built with the Egyptian autocracy over decades. A Morsi government will not be as reliably friendly to Israel's interests as Mubarak's was. The militant Islamist group Hamas, based in the Gaza strip, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's worth bearing in mind that the Egyptian military has sought control over Egyptian foreign policy -- as suspicious of the Brotherhood as Israel is. And the Egyptian economy will be more reliant than ever for foreign aid in the immediate future. The US, eager for Egypt not to make any provocative moves over its peace deal with Israel, is likely to play a restraining role as well.
Misinformation serves no one, though many will be taken in. At the time of this writing, the Fox Nation blog had 6,100 recommendations from Facebook users.
IN PICTURES: Rulers of Egypt
The Greece vs. Germany showdown at Euro 2012 later today has plenty of spice going into it thanks to the backdrop of politics. Greece in political and social turmoil due to its debt crisis, with Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel holding the purse strings.
Michael Steininger took a look at the political backdrop for us today, with wealthy (and to Greeks, arrogant) Germany facing off against poor (and to Germans, lazy) Greece:
“I hope this match will be Angela Merkel’s first and last at these championships,” Greek goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis told his nation's media, referring to the fact that the chancellor is going to attend the match in Gdansk. Greek newspapers urged their national squad to “push Germany out of the Euro.” And even Germans are not sure if Merkel’s presence in the stadium will be a good idea.
“I truly hope that Mr. Samaras is going to be there too, sitting next to her,” says German columnist Hans-Ulrich Jörges. “Otherwise the Greeks really believe they are playing against Merkel.”
Here is the German dilemma: Of course they want to win the match. But do they want to do so at the price of more Greek misery? A look into the Twittersphere reveals that many Germans would answer that question with a resounding “Yes.” “Dear Greeks, score one goal against us and we ask our money back,” a German Twitter user threatens. Another advises the Greeks that losing the match “is free of charge.” And there is this picture being re-Tweeted over and over of the Greek national squad's jersey sporting the logo of the German finance ministry as sponsor.
But this match has been played out before, with the showdown framed as a clash between two great cultures. On the one side: Nietzsche, Schlegel, Kant and Beckenbauer (yes that Beckenbauer) against Plato, Heraclitus, and Socrates. No, not this Socrates:
But that Socrates.
Well, I'll let Monty Python explain the rest. And given the way elimination matches at important soccer tournaments play out, fans might be lucky for a late brainwave to seal the points in regular time.
Turkey says one of its fighter jets was shot down by Syrian air defenses over the Mediterranean today, a potentially alarming development as Syria's civil war is deepening and signs are emerging that Turkey is assisting the arming of that country's rebels.
Leading Turkish daily Hürriyet quoted an "official" source as saying Syria shot the plane down and that the two pilots were successfully rescued at sea. The Turkish government news agency Anatolia said the plane was an F4 Phantom, a US-made fighter that debuted in the 1950s and is often used for both bombing and reconnaissance. Turkey's fleet of F4s have been upgraded over the years with the assistance of both the US and Israel. Anatolia quoted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan as saying Syria has apologized the incident.
While there's no hard evidence yet that Syria shot the plane down, it's safe to assume that Turkey has been intensely monitoring developments in next-door Syria with every resource at its disposal, with thousands of Syrian refugees having poured into its territory, and elements of the loose-knit Free Syrian Army operating from within Turkish territory.
The chance this incident will lead to a major escalation in the conflict – with Turkey overtly fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad – is extremely remote. Turkey isn't eager for war with Syria, and vice verse. President Assad has his hands full fighting his own people.
But the loss of the plane is a reminder of how hot the situation is becoming, with Russia having claimed it's rushing more air defenses to Syria to help its ally protect itself from outside interference. Jostling for supremacy over Syria's skies, if only in the interests of spying and collecting information, is likely to intensify, making future incidents rather more likely than not. While the events today are no tipping point, future ones that result in the death or capture of pilots could prove to be another matter entirely. Earlier this week, a Syrian pilot flew his Russian-built MIG-21 to Jordan and defected.
Turkey does frequently conduct bombing raids inside another neighbor – Iraq. Kurdish separatists from Turkey shelter in that country's autonomous Kurdistan and often stage attacks on the Turkish military across the border, usually drawing reprisals. Earlier this week, Turkish warplanes pounded what the government said were rebel camps inside Iraq, after an attack on a military base in Turkey left eight Turkish soldiers and over two-dozen Kurdish rebels dead. The country is unlikely to be looking for another front to fight on.
Inside Syria, the war is set to drag on. An unarmed UN mission to monitor a cease-fire that was agreed to in April, but never adhered to, has been suspended. Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood, the leader of the mission, was in New York this week and all but conceded that it has failed and an adjustment of approach is needed. With reports of better armed rebel groups, financed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, a quick resolution to a war that has displaced hundreds of thousands already is not on the cards.