The junta that runs Egypt has banned a group of Americans and Europeans working on democracy promotion from leaving the country, among them the son of Ray LaHood, President Obama's Transportation secretary.
Sam LaHood, the director of the International Republican Institute's (IRI) Cairo office, told the Associated Press that he was turned away at the airport last Saturday as he sought to fly out of the country. It has since emerged that a number of other employees of foreign NGOs have been barred from departing, stemming from the December raids by Egypt's ruling military on their offices, among them those of the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
The raids on groups that had been operating openly in Egypt for years, albeit without official licenses and occasionally subject to state harassment, appeared to be a warning from Egypt's military rulers, known as the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), against pushing for too much change too fast.
It's hard to imagine the US, which has given Egypt roughly $2 billion per year in aid since the country signed its peace accord with Israel in 1979, turning its back on Egypt. But if Egypt's ruling generals were looking for a way to push the Obama administration in that direction, targeting the son of a cabinet secretary and others would be a very good way to go about it.
Real fear of foreign conspiracies?
What is going on here? Though the xenophobia of Egypt's rulers is often treated as a pose, going after these US government-funded groups makes it almost seem as if they believe their own propaganda. Perhaps they have in fact convinced themselves that all opposition to military trials for civilians, or demands that their frequently unchecked power be removed, stem from foreign agitation, and that all "real" Egyptians are behind them.
On the other hand, the targeted NGOs are groups with reasonably long track records in Egypt, and well known to the state bureaucracy. The military could have forced them to close up shop without an investigation and the threat of criminal charges, and Washington would have grumbled. But the travel bans have pushed the issue front and center and will require stern US diplomatic engagement. It's hard to imagine that the head of SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and his fellow officers wouldn't have anticipated this – or what they think they gain.
Why Egypt raided NGO offices
Egypt alleged that the groups were illegally funding local political groups, and seized computers, documents, and cash in the armed raid. But preventing their executives from traveling – presumably because criminal charges may be brought against them – is a major escalation.
Both IRI and NDI have run into trouble with Egypt's rulers in the past, but problems were eventually smoothed over. The work of both organizations is hardly radical, with a focus on teaching NGOs how to craft messages and manage budgets, and political parties the importance of polling and using focus groups. After Egypt briefly shut down both groups a few years ago, they found new ways to operate by working with the state. NDI, for instance, kept state security informed of all their programs in advance.
Now, SCAF is escalating tensions at a time when Egypt needs international funds more than ever.
Official statistics showed tourism dropped by 30 percent last year, and some officials privately say the decline was greater. Wealthy Egyptians have moved cash offshore, in a climate where criminal proceedings are ongoing against many close to the old regime, and many more are afraid that they will eventually be targeted.
Foreign investment, with plenty of domestic upheaval, has likewise dried up. Egypt's foreign reserves halved last year, and are now down to about $18 billion, a perilously small number for a country with 80 million people, the majority of whom rely on government fuel and bread subsidies.
A state too big to fail
As a practical matter, assuming the charges are eventually dropped, it's unlikely the US will turn its back on the military, or Egypt more generally. The country is in many ways too big to fail in the eyes of the US, with its peace deal with Israel and the emerging political power of the Muslim Brotherhood. After years of the State Department giving Egypt's most popular opposition movement the cold shoulder, US Ambassador Anne Patterson has been reaching out to them in recent weeks. Perhaps that's what the military is banking on.
Egypt's finances practically dictate that the country will be going cap in hand abroad for cash in the near future. The US would usually be a first port of call, as would the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, where Washington has considerable sway. All of this would argue that cooler heads will prevail. But the message from SCAF to Washington today feels like, "You need us more than we care about you."
Perhaps it's a posture to remind America not to oppose the military's interests as Egypt turns towards presidential elections and rewriting a constitution in a way that many activists hope will clips the military's wings.
But in an election year, with Obama's rivals looking for ways to show the president is easily pushed around abroad, this could become a bigger issue. This week, at least, SCAF is playing a dangerous game.
The war drums on Iran continue to beat onward. Hawkish editorials and opinion pieces adopt the style and content of articles from a decade ago, in which a Middle Eastern country run by a "madman" was on the brink of obtaining weapons of mass destruction – weapons that would almost certainly be used to threaten the security of the world.
The older articles were about Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein almost certainly had (except he didn't). The current crop are about Iran. Front and center is an op-ed by Mark Helprin in the Wall Street Journal yesterday titled "The mortal threat from Iran." He writes that the "primitive religious fanatics" who rule Iran don't think rationally about their own nation's interests, and that, absent a US attack soon, "Iran will get nuclear weapons, which in its eyes are an existential necessity."
Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute in California, even echoes Condoleezza Rice's January 2003 warning that the smoking gun of an Iraqi nuclear program could be a "mushroom cloud." He writes: "We cannot dismiss the possibility of Iranian nuclear charges of 500 pounds or less ending up in Manhattan or on Pennsylvania Avenue."
RELATED: Iran nuclear program: 5 key sites
To be sure, Iraq and Iran are not the same; Iran is indeed enriching uranium, a key component of a nuclear weapon. But the fear-mongering sounds the same. What today's arguments about Iran ignore, however – much as the arguments in favor of the Iraq war ignored – was the position of the US intelligence community that Iran is not currently building a nuclear weapon. The US position appears to be that Iran is seeking the ability to build a weapon, without actually taking that final step.
Two weekends ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability and that's what concerns us and our red line to Iran is: Do not develop a nuclear weapon."
And it's not just the US assessment. Israel's liberal newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday that "Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to the intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to [visiting] Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff." Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak poured cold water on speculation that his country is planning a unilateral attack against Iran. "This entire thing is very far off. I don’t want to provide estimates [but] it’s certainly not urgent," he said.
To be sure, there are concerns. US, European, and Israeli officials suspect that Iran is concealing much of its nuclear work, which it insists is for peaceful purposes only, and that weapons-related work that they don't know about could be taking place. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, told the Financial Times' German edition yesterday: "What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons," according to a Reuters translation.
But the flow of recent statements has been mostly in the opposite direction. Concern? Yes. Redoubled efforts to use sanctions to force more light onto Iran's nuclear activities? Yes, absolutely. Hair-on-fire panic? No.
The tone from private-sector analysts is something else, however. One of the latest examples is from Jamie M. Fly and Gary Schmitt, writing in Foreign Affairs. They even quote former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's line about "known unknowns," (that is, things that Saddam Hussein might be hiding) being a cause to consider going to war with Iraq in February 2002.
They write that in the case of Iran, the "known unknowns" are "troubling," and go on to outline a case for a broad US war to bring down the Islamic Republic. Having asserted that US airstrikes targeting Iran's nuclear sites would probably fail in ending the program, they write: "Given the likely fallout from even a limited military strike, the question the United States should ask itself is, Why not take the next step? After all, Iran's nuclear program is a symptom of a larger illness – the revolutionary fundamentalist regime in Tehran."
They then suggest that a broad US air campaign against Iran would be popular with Iranians. "It is sometimes said that a strike would lead the population to rally around the regime. In fact, given the unpopularity of the government, it seems more likely that the population would see the regime's inability to forestall the attacks as evidence that the emperor has no clothes and is leading the country into needlessly desperate straits. If anything, Iranian nationalism and pride would stoke even more anger at the current regime."
That flies in the face of Iranian history and what most Iranians – including members of the Green Movement – say about how the population would respond to war. While there is clearly great discontent with the regime, and many millions of Iranians would like to throw off clerical rule, the history of Iran suggests that war would probably result in an uptick in support for the regime, confronted as it would be by a hostile foreign power. When Saddam Hussein gambled that Iran was weak in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and went to war, the result was a rallying of support for the fledgling Iranian regime and a ruinous war that helped the country's new theocrats consolidate their power.
For now, the war talk looks set to go on. But with Iranian parliamentary elections scheduled for March – a chance for the opposition to perhaps show its political strength, or another occasion for Iran's rulers to fix the results, as happened in the 2009 presidential reelection – the chances of action soon are vanishingly slim. Diplomats and leaders, from President Obama to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will sit back awhile and watch to see if sanctions are working, if the regime will start to unravel from within, well aware that wars are much easier to start than to get out of.
"Deplorable," says Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"The culprits and those who trained them in such a way that these simpletons thought this was acceptable should be punished to set an example," says Pat Lang, a former special forces officer who fought in Vietnam.
The video that emerged online this week was filmed by the participants, yucking it up as they urinate on the dead bodies of presumed insurgents – whose bare feet and tattered clothes are a sharp contrast to the well-equipped Americans. Next to them lies a small, overturned wheelbarrow.
While callous and shocking to the vast majority of Americans who have never been anywhere near combat, I felt no surprise watching the video. Only sadness. It's a point well made by Mr. Exum in his post on the matter (which includes some links to WWII propaganda posters showing how much worse the dehumanizing of the enemy was back in the day).
One big difference today is the diffusion of camera phones and other media allow the ugly dehumanizing effect of war to go viral. In a way, I am glad. Since so few Americans actually fight in our wars, it's good that Americans see the effect war can have on other people's sons and daughters.
War is an awful human experience. It is sometimes necessary, but it is never sanitary.
RELATED: Iraq war, by the numbers
This is not to say that such incidents are common among US soldiers these days. Far from it. Most noncommissioned officers and officers maintain unit discipline. And given the proliferation of cheap digital cameras among soldiers and marines who, after are all are often prone to highly inappropriate jokes (nearly 40 percent of the Marine Corps, for instance, is under 22 years old), it surprises me that there there haven't been more videos like this. That speaks well of the honor and discipline of the vast majority of those who have served.
But the gallows humor and contempt for the enemy on display in this video isn't far from what you would experience embedded with any combat group. In 2004 in Iraq, I saw a US tank rolling through central Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood with a slogan stenciled on its gun: "Allah my ass!"
I'm sure the young soldier who put it there thought he was being funny. But someone higher up the chain of command didn't stop it before the tank left base and became a rolling symbol of contempt for the faith of Iraq's people.
In groups that have lost men or been under extreme fire, hatred, and anger flow freely.
Every war will have bodies desecrated, massacres of the unarmed (as occurred in Haditha, Iraq, after a young marine was killed by an IED and his buddies went on a rampage, killing more than 20 local residents), and abuse of prisoners (Abu Ghraib is but one example; our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan have viciously tortured prisoners, as have our enemies). In WWII, mutilation of the enemy dead was far from uncommon.
In the past decade, there have been many more incidents when US troops have stepped in to stop abuses. In Anbar province in 2005, I was with a Marine unit who had to stop Iraqi government forces, a mostly Shiite unit, from burning and looting the cars of Sunni civilians at a traffic stop. The US army helped uncover and stop secret Iraqi government torture centers in Baghdad in 2006 (though, sadly, they were quickly reopened elsewhere).
The military is investigating, and appears to have identified the four marines. Their military careers, it's safe to say, are close to over and a court martial is almost certain. A deeper look into the Marine unit involved and its command environment is coming down the pike. That's as it should be.
But remember that if you put enough men in combat, for enough time, this sort of thing is likely to happen.
Evidence of a covert war against Iran's nuclear program is mounting. Yesterday's assassination of an Iranian scientist tied to the program is just the most recent data point in the last year that indicates an accelerating effort to spread fear and slow the country's nuclear work.
Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist who the Iranian state press says was the marketing director for Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, was the latest victim. He was killed by a small bomb affixed to the underside of his car, the same method used to murder nuclear physicist Massoud Ali Mohammadi in Tehran exactly a year ago. In all, four scientists connected to nuclear work in Iran have been killed since the start of 2010.
In September 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, the most sophisticated cyberweapon deployed in history, was uncovered. The virus – which computer security efforts said was too complex to have been built without a large team and extensive resources – targeted Iranian nuclear enrichment centrifuges designed to produce highly enriched uranium, slowing Iran's enrichment for months.
Though Iran says its nuclear program is simply meant to produce power, highly enriched uranium could also be used in the production of a nuclear bomb – the aspect of the program that US and Israeli officials find most worrying.
Whoever is responsible, the murders appear to be as much about spreading terror as they are about stopping the nuclear program. Iran has legions of capable engineers, and none of the victims appear to have had indispensable knowledge or abilities. According to the Congressional Research Service, Iran's main nuclear research complex in Isfahan probably has 3,000 employees alone, and the there are about 10 other major nuclear sites in the country.
But spreading fear among the living can slow them down, spread confusion, or deter young recruits. If scientists became frightened enough, they might be reluctant to travel to work or conferences inside the country. Meanwhile, enhanced security measures at the sites could prove cumbersome.
RELATED: 5 key Iranian nuclear sites
In November 2010, Majid Shahriari, a nuclear engineer at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, was killed by a car bomb. In July 2011, engineer Darioush Rezaeinejad, believed to be working within Iran's secretive nuclear program, was gunned down in the street. Last November, Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, considered the father of Iran's missile program, died with 16 others in a still unexplained explosion at a military base.
If Ian Fleming's super-villain Auric Goldfinger, the antagonist in the Bond book of the same name, was right to say once is coincidence, twice is happenstance, and three times is enemy action, then there should be little doubt that a coordinated assassination campaign has been under way in Iran for some time. Suspicion has turned to Israel, since it's the nation most alarmed by Iran's nuclear program and has carried out assassination efforts abroad in the past. After the 2010 murder of a senior Hamas official in Dubai, strong circumstantial evidence pointed to the Mossad, Israel's secret intelligence service.
After Gen. Moghaddam's death, Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor told Israel's Army Radio that "not every explosion over there should be tied to espionage and stories from the movies," though he went on to imply that Israel was willing to use violence over Iran's nuclear program. "There are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways," Mr. Meridor said then.
Israeli officials have been studiously ambiguous in their comments on the murders in Iran. That would make sense if Israel was responsible – and if it wasn't. After all, if the murders are being carried out by someone else (perhaps the US, though the White House says the US was not involved, or perhaps as part of some internal Iranian rivalry), it doesn't hurt to get some of the credit, particularly if it has the consequence of creating more fear and doubt in an enemy state.
"There are other messages in these campaigns: one is to terrorize those who are working in [the nuclear program] already. The second is targeted to young scientists thinking of joining," Haaretz columnist Yossi Melman told the Monitor's Joshua Mitnick for a story we published this morning. "The third message is to the regime and population: The message is, 'We can get you anywhere, any time.' The regime is seen as weak."
Is any of this having the desired effect? Iran has continued to insist that it's nuclear work will stream ahead and that it won't be cowed.
In a letter to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee asked for the international community "to condemn, in the strongest terms, these inhumane terrorist acts" and said Iran will not be deterred. "Any kind of political and economic pressures or terrorist attacks targeting the Iranian nuclear scientists, could not prevent our nation in exercising this right" to nuclear program, he wrote.
But Iran is increasingly isolated, and the odds for international support over the killings are slim. As Reuters pointed out yesterday, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn an alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the US last year, but has not taken action to condemn the murders of Iran's scientists.
Analysts have speculated that centrifuge problems at Natanz were caused by Stuxnet and slowed down production rates for months. As for the killings, there has been no evidence yet of scientists abandoning the nuclear program out of fear, or of the loss of a key member of the Iranian team.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said over the weekend that sanctions and international pressure against Iran's nuclear program are "working," and indeed, crushing financial sanctions are probably doing more to complicate Iran's nuclear work than any covert efforts from abroad. Asked about Iran's intentions, Mr. Panetta said, "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability and that's what concerns us and our red line to Iran is: Do not develop a nuclear weapon."
By "capability" he's referring to Iran developing all the know-how and material needed for a bomb, without taking the final step towards assembly, perhaps keeping that in reserve for a moment when they felt threatened enough – or secure enough – to go the final few yards.
But fear can be a double-edged sword. Were Iran to successfully build a bomb, the nature of the whole game would be changed. Efforts to stop its nuclear work would of necessity shift towards finding ways to live with a new nuclear power – just as the world had to learn to live with first a nuclear China, then later a nuclear Israel, India, and Pakistan.
RELATED: 5 key Iranian nuclear sites
The information warriors at the Pentagon probably can't believe their luck.
Iran has spent much of the past month crowing about how it could shut down the Strait of Hormuz -- a choke-point for vast quantities of seaborne oil for nearly 40 percent of the world -- and said it was "warning" the US to keep its ships out of the Persian Gulf. The US, as a far greater naval power, with a naval base in Bahrain, and an interest in keeping sea lanes open, brushed off the Iranian threat.
Though tensions have continued to rise, with Iran sentencing Iranian-American Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death yesterday for allegedly spying (his family says he returned to Iran to visit his grandmother) and new US sanctions on Iran's central bank, two peaceful opportunities to underscore the US naval reach in the region literally fell into America's lap.
Last week, the Navy destroyer USS Kidd swept in and rescued 13 Iranian fishermen who'd been held hostage on their small boat by Somali pirates for over a month. The fishermen, who'd been through a "horrific" ordeal according to one of their American rescuers, were given food, medical treatment, and enough fuel to steam home.
Today, the US Coast Guard got into the act. The Coast Guard provides security for the US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain and patrols the Persian Gulf. Patrol boat Monomoy responded to a distress call from the Iranian cargo dhow, Ya-Hussayn, at about 3 am this morning. The boat was taking on water and had a fire in the engine room and the Monomoy took its six person crew aboard.
The US sailors gave the Iranians a halal meal ("Halal meals are in accordance with Islamic law and are stored aboard U.S. Coast Guard ships to provide to Muslim mariners in distress," the US 5th Fleet helpfully explains), blankets, and minor medical assistance before transferring them to the Iranian Coast Guard's Naji 7 an hour and a half later.
Small cargo boats routinely ply the waters of the Gulf from Iran to Dubai, Manama, and other entrepôts on the Arab western coast. Though the word "dhow" was traditionally used to describe single-masted vessels, rigged with triangular sails, it's sometimes used generically for "cargo boat" in the region.
In the past, Iranian forces haven't been as friendly to civilian mariners in the Gulf. In 2009, Iran's navy seized a British yacht in the Strait of Hormuz, which is just 30 miles wide at its narrowest point and the gateway to the Gulf. The Kingdom of Bahrain's five crew members were held for a few days in Iran and at one point threatened with prosecution before their release. In 2007, Iran seized and held 15 British sailors and marines who allegedly entered Iranian waters while they were patrolling the Iraqi coast. It released them after two weeks.
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Thomas Friedman is a prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, who travels the world meeting influential people and sharing his thoughts about global progress. Because Mr. Friedman is enormously influential, with a cabinet full of Pulitzer prizes, it's important to set the record straight when he gets some facts wrong – as he did in a speech Monday at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Reading Al Ahram's and The Daily News Egypt's accounts of the event, I found three apparent errors of fact made by the columnist.
1. Partially explaining the success of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in recent Egyptian parliamentary elections, Mr. Friedman said: "The Muslim Brotherhood is legitimate, authentic, progressive alternative. Only faced by the four-month old liberals, they had to win." Al Ahram's English edition quoted him as saying Egypt's "liberal parties ... are only four months old."
Four-month-old liberals? Friedman's point was that the Brotherhood has been around for over 80 years, and was therefore better prepared than secular opponents for Egypt's fairest elections in at least a generation. But this doesn't track the actual history.
While many new parties have sprung up since the Tahrir protests last year, a number of Egyptian liberal parties have been around as long or longer than the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party. The Wafd Party, which appears to have come in third in the election, was founded in the early 20th century, and was reformed in the early 70s. The Tagammu Party, another secular group with socialist roots, also ran in the recent elections and was formed in the 70s.
2. Asked about "the future of Egypt’s free-market economy under an Islamist-led government," Friedman answered, in the words of Al Ahram, that "Islamists would eventually be forced to adapt to 'modernity.' He pointed out that the relatively lenient positions adopted by Islamist parties on certain controversial issues – like the regulations governing Egypt’s tourism industry – represented a clear indication of this trend."
His view that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will moderate their positions as they're finally faced with the task of governing isn't an unusual one. But the way he responded to the specific question suggests that he doesn't know that, on economics, the Muslim Brotherhood are basically free-market capitalists. He appears to think they have some kind of "pre-modern" thinking about economics.
3. According to Al Ahram, "Friedman went on to draw a comparison between the Egyptian and Indonesian models. In the latter case, Islamist parties swept democratically-held elections in the 1990s, but soon lost ground after failing to meet voters' expectations."
Islamist parties did not win an Indonesian election in the 1990s, or since. Under Suharto, the Islamist United Development Party (PPP) was one of three legally allowed parties, but the elections were rigged in favor of his secular Golkar Party. In the first post-Suharto election of 1999, Islamist parties finished well behind secular parties. They have not come close to winning an election since and had their worst showing of the post-Suharto era in the most recent parliamentary election, in 2009.
But Friedman did go on to say that Rick Santorum has no chance of becoming the next US president, something that appears to be correct, given the huge polling lead Mitt Romney has over his Republican rivals. So it wasn't all bad.
Iran announced with great fanfare today that it had sentenced the young Iranian-American Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death for spying. Mr. Hekmati's family said he's merely returned home to visit his grandma.
While his background (he served as a translator with the US military) suggests a return to his birthplace was unwise, giving the surging tensions between the US and Iran and the Islamic Republic's tendency to arrest Iranian-Americans – if recent history is anything to go by, Mr. Hekmati probably isn't a spy. Instead, he's just become the latest pawn in a long-running game: Iran, fueled by domestic paranoia and understandable concerns about US sabotage efforts, arrests Iranian-Americans as one of the few ways to lash out at a far more powerful foreign foe.
"Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA are simply untrue," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wrote in a statement. "The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons."
Since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 was resolved, the detention of Americans in Iran was a rarity until 2007, when a new form of hostage-taking began that was apparently designed to pressure Washington.
Hekmati would appear to be one of at least 10 US citizens arrested and held for political reasons in Iran since then, particularly at times when foreign pressure and domestic fear were on the rise – such as the summer of 2009, when the Green Movement threatened briefly to become a popular uprising that might sweep away the Islamic Revolution.
Now, with the US and Europe threatening to target Iran's oil industry and an Iranian public worried about a shaky economy and attacks from outside, Iranian-Americans headed for Tehran should tread with care. The good news is that many are eventually released. The bad news is that women and Americans without Iranian heritage appear to fare better than Iranian-American men.
For instance, the three young Americans who strayed across the Iranian border in 2009 while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan were arrested and held on espionage charges. But the conditions of their detention were reasonable. The lone woman amongst them, Sarah Shourd, was released after a little over a year and the two men were released after a little over two years.
Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi was detained in January 2009 – yes, again on espionage charges – and released in May of that year. In May 2007, female Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari was arrested and held on espionage charges and was released in late August of that year. Ms. Esfandiari was tied to the US-based Wilson Center think tank at the time, working on Iran democracy issues and had returned home to visit her mother. She was one of three Iranian-Americans detained that year.
One of those detainees has fared far worse. Kian Tajbaksh, another Iranian-American academic and an urban planner, was arrested in 2007. Mr. Tajbaksh was sentenced in 2009 to 12 years in prison for spying, and remains there today. Described by friends as apolitical, he had been coming and going from Iran for years on consulting jobs at the time of his arrest.
Iran claims it has strong evidence on Hekmati. Last month state television aired what it said was a confession from Hekmati, claiming he had been dispatched to Iran by the CIA to spy on its intelligence agencies.
Iran has tortured political opponents in the past, or threatened their family members with harm, in order to coerce television confessions like the one given by Hekmati. Photos of opposition cleric Mohammed Ali Abtahi before and after his 2009 detention eloquently make the case of the kind of treatment political prisoners can receive in Iran.
Hekmati's case appears to be complicated by his military ties. And the swiftness of his death sentence, when other American targets have simply been given jail time, is cause for concern. A US spy drone that either crashed in Iran or was hijacked by the country in December was evidence of the intense US espionage effort against the country's nuclear program. Fresh sanctions signed by President Obama at the end of last year targeting the country's central bank, has put both politicians and average citizens on edge about the stability of the economy.
Iran has responded as it usually does – by claiming it will disrupt global oil supplies passing through the Strait of Hormuz if it comes to war. And, perhaps in the case of Hekmati, by arresting an American.
In late December, Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs, charging that they were illegally receiving foreign funding. Among them were two of the United States' biggest democracy promotion groups.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), though independent, have close ties to the US government, with most of their funding coming from the National Endowment for Democracy. Their local operations were shuttered, and their computers, documents, and cash were hauled away by armed Egyptian government agents. The US-based Freedom House, the Konrad Adenauer Institute of Germany, and a number of NGO's working on judicial reform and democracy were also raided.
It was a stark illustration of the fact that while Hosni Mubarak is gone, much remains the same in Egypt, where a military junta, suspicious of outsiders and jealously protecting its own prerogatives, is currently running the show. I helped write a couple of pieces on the recent raids and noted, briefly, that IRI and NDI were shut down in 2006, largely over the same kinds of complaints that Egypt's junta is making today: They aren't licensed and their foreign funding amounts to harmful meddling in Egypt's internal affairs.
Though the two groups are connected to the major political parties in the US, their work abroad is similar and the domestic political differences between Republicans and Democrats are irrelevant to IRI and NDI. They focus on voter education, teaching political parties how to craft platforms, conduct focus groups, and much of the other grunt work that goes into political campaigning. But Egyptian officials (indeed, officials in many other countries) have frequently complained about their efforts, portraying them in some cases as subversive.
I was living in Egypt in 2006, and wrote briefly about the problems for the US NGOs then, which started after IRI Egypt director Gina London was quoted in a local paper in May 2006 saying they were carrying on with their work there despite the failure of the government to grant them a license. Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit personally called the State Department to complain and the two groups' operations, as well as the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) were shut down for a number of months.
So I was surprised, and a little worried, to see a press release from NDI on Jan. 2 that sought to clear up "numerous false or misleading allegations related to NDI's status in Egypt" and that said among other things that "at no time was NDI asked to stop its work or close its office" in Egypt between the time it submitted an application in 2005 and late December of last year. The group also complained that "it is regrettable and ironic that the money taken from NDI’s Cairo office was to be used to support an international election delegation that was accredited by the Government of Egypt to witness the third stage of the People’s Assembly elections."
Had I remembered wrong? Or been told something that wasn't true in 2006? (I hadn't spent much time on this.) I emailed NDI's Washington-based head of public relations Kathy Gest and asked: "Are you absolutely sure NDI has never been asked by [Egypt] to suspend work before? I'm fairly sure that happened in 2006, though IRI's relationship with the Egyptian government was worse."
She responded: "NDI has never received any formal communication from the Egyptian government telling it to cease work or leave the country." I replied to that: "How about informally? I was told they were quite sternly told to back off at the time." Ms. Gest responded to that: "NDI has never been told previously, formally or informally, by any Egyptian official to close our office or leave the country."
I started asking around, since I'd have to make a correction to two stories if this were so. Two friends from Egypt remembered events much as I had, and one suggested that I search the US diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks. There were numerous cables related to the incident.
One from September 2006 says "The (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) official in charge of registration of foreign NGOs has said the freeze on activities by IRI, NDI, and IFES, as well as the issue of their pending legal registration in Egypt, could best be resolved by a "high level" overture from the (US government) to the (government of Egypt)" and that "IRI's May public relations activities were the proximate cause of the GOE's June freeze on IRI, NDI, and IFES." Another cable from March 2007 says Egyptian government "officials have stopped short of formally expelling the institutes, but have said that "any activities" by the organizations in Egypt are now "unacceptable.""
That cable goes on: "prior to the June 2006 freeze on activities, the institutes had operated openly, albeit with a minimal media presence, with the tacit approval of the (government of Egypt), while awaiting a formal decision on the registrations. After the June 2006 freeze, prompted in large measure by an IRI media event, the institutes dramatically scaled back their operations, but continued to build contacts with Egyptian civil society and otherwise position themselves for the relaunch of regular operations."
In August 2007, the US embassy reported that the groups were setting up operations outside of Egypt to work with Egyptian groups. "NDI and IFES also continue to explore the limits of the possible within the limited space that the (government of Egypt) has permitted for them. NDI staff has been meeting with advocacy groups and civil society organizations outside of Cairo in preparation for planned offshore activities to build their capacity," says that cable.
NDI and IRI eventually worked out a modus vivendi with the Egyptian state and its security services. A September 2008 cable reports: "An National Democratic Institute (NDI) resident representative Lila Jaafar told us September 16 that in spite of NDI's lack of official registration, the organization provided training and publications to local NGOs over the past year by adopting a low-profile posture and informing State Security Investigative Services (SSIS) of NDI activities in advance."
All this background is a reminder that democracy promotion in Egypt was controversial under Mubarak – and to the generals now running the country, at least, it remains controversial. I'm not sure why NDI doesn't remember all this. But six years later, neither NDI or IRI have their licenses approved.
A massive explosion ripped through central Damascus today as tens of thousands of Syrians turned out across the country to peacefully protest against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The apparent target was a bus full of military police.
The contrast between the protests and the carnage in Damascus is a reminder that the struggle for Syria is now a two-front war. Though driven by unarmed citizens demanding that Mr. Assad leave power, there is an increasingly armed component.
The Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from Assad's military, is now standing with protesters – and threatening to escalate the conflict if the Arab League observer mission fails to produce satisfactory results in the coming days.
Perpetrator still unclear
What really happened in Damascus today? Speculation is thick on the ground, hard facts about the perpetrator almost nil.
The government claimed the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. Syrian State TV was quick to leap on the attack for propaganda purposes, carrying a montage of pictures of the carnage with ominous, minor-key music and the word "terrorism" emblazoned across the screen.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, insisted that they hadn't carried it out, and some even speculated the bombing was a false-flag operation carried out by the regime to make the opposition look bad.
That seems unlikely. But Assad's government has repeatedly sought to frame the uprising against his family's 40-year grip on power and the Baath Party he heads as the work of foreign agitators and terrorists – a carbon copy of the tactic used by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, with limited success.
But in the case of Syria, the presence of Islamists who might drive the country's conflict in an overtly sectarian direction can't be ignored.
Syrians fought with Al Qaeda-aligned militants in Iraq, and the country's confessional balance – a Sunni majority, a significant Christian minority, and the minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to dominating the upper echelons of the security services and the government – could prove explosive if the conflict drags on. Today's attack in Damascus followed an even deadlier blast in December,
In the late 70s and early 80s, Syrian Islamists waged a low-level insurgency against the government of Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father and predecessor. Dozens of officials and Army officers were assassinated, with Alawites – a heterodox Shiite sect – particularly targeted. The violence culminated in the Hama massacre of February 1982 almost exactly 30 years ago. The town was a bastion of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the elder Assad's forces swept in to Hama, and killed at least 10,000 residents in a scorched earth campaign that mostly targeted civilians.
Though there have been no massacres on that scale during the current uprising, tens of thousands of citizens have been detained and dozens of bodies have turned up later bearing signs of torture. The UN says that at least 5,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began last January.
While the situation in Syria looks more and like a civil war, the sheer numbers of people willing to take to the streets and protest, given the risks, is a reminder of the shaky ground the regime is resting on.
There were large protests in at least a dozen places in Syria today. Two Youtube videos of today's protest are below, the first from Idlib and the second from Damascus.
A big battle is coming in Egypt, as the third round of parliamentary elections wraps up today.
On one side is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose superior organization, brand recognition, and public trust made it the big winner in the first two rounds of voting. On the other side is the military junta that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak was forced from power, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
With the third round of the vote nearly done (though runoffs are still to come) the question is: Will the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) take an outright majority of parliament? And will SCAF continue to seek to limit the power of the parliament to write a new constitution?
SEE ALSO: Egypt elections
The FJP, founded after Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power last year by Egypt's popular uprising, won 40 percent of the vote in the first two rounds and by some counts 48 percent of the available seats. They are expected to do well in today's final round, given as it's being held in smaller towns and rural areas. Depending on how this round shakes out after runoffs, and how potential legal challenges are dealt with, the Brotherhood could go over the 50 percent threshold.
If it doesn't make it, it will have to work with either the Salafis (Islamists who favor an austere application of Islamic law that they believe prevailed at the time of the prophet Muhammad) or secular parties to form a government. But either way, what will it matter?
The Brotherhood has said it should be up to the democratically elected parliament to decide on the membership of a committee to write the new constitution, while the military has been pushing for appointees to be involved that would likely water down the Brothers' influence.
That Constitution will set the rules of the game for the new Egypt (for at least as long as it stands), and could have profound effects on the evolution of the state by what it says about the role of Islam, protections of minority rights versus the will of the majority, and how much civilian control can be exercised over the military.
Generals have been the most powerful de facto politicians in the country since the '50s, with both Mubarak and his two predecessors drawn from the officer corps. The military has been eager to maintain control over its own budget – and over its vast array of business interests.
The military's ability to get its way, however, is unclear. Writing at the Middle East Research and Information Project Issandr El Amrani argues that the military, due to a variety of missteps since February, has squandered a lot of popular support. He writes:
The military’s claim to be guardian of the revolution has been weakening since soon after Mubarak was toppled. The SCAF was slow to arrest kingpins of the old regime, and its military police maltreated protesters in March and April, as with the infamous “virginity tests” of women. The protest movement’s mounting dissatisfaction culminated in the reoccupation of Tahrir Square in July. Another turning point was the October 9 confrontation at the state broadcasting headquarters, known as Maspero, in which 25 protesters for Coptic rights died at the hands of army troops. (The SCAF claims that an unknown number of soldiers were also killed; [blogger Alaa] Abdel Fattah is accused of murder in this connection.) If many Egyptians accepted that these deaths resulted from panic among the soldiers, the SCAF’s grip on public sympathy has slipped badly amid the clashes of November and December.
But that does not necessarily mean that the Brotherhood will have it all its own way. During the popular street protests this fall, the Brotherhood stood apart, afraid that unrest could lead to a cancellation of elections and a loss of its chance to seize power. In that, it looked like it was backing the military. The movement will be somewhat constrained by the reality of the military's power within the country – and the chance that its opponents, particularly some of the secular parties, will look to the military to protect their own interests.
In the months ahead, we'll find out if the Brotherhood is willing to cut deals with the current powers that be (it has in the past). But either way, this election, with all its flaws, has shown a movement that was still officially outlawed when Mubarak fell is today the most popular political force in the country.