Oct 102014


We often boast of the uniqueness of our system. We are not a totalitarian society that crushes the individual out of existence and tramples over his/her rights and freedoms. Ours is not a traditional society that suffocates its members with the authority of the tribe, its dated norms, rigid customs and smug chieftains. Nor are we comparable with the communist system and its rationalised instruments of surveillance, force and coercion. No, ours is a liberal, free and open society.

But there are questions we need to ask ourselves. For, is the distance that separates us from these systems we deplore really as great as we believe? Can we take the gap that divides “us” from “them” for granted? Are liberal societies completely immune to totalitarianism? Could the boundaries between these systems not be blurred? Could the liberal system itself not slide into tyranny, whilst still preserving its veneer of freedom, tolerance and pluralism?

We all remember the McCarthy era, with its government and privately run “loyalty review” boards, “subversive activities control” committees, random arrests, house searches, aggressive investigations, unconstitutional laws, extra-legal procedures, blacklists, illegal trials, and full jails.

We all recall the May ’68 riots, when the French government turned protests by a number of angry university students into a national crisis, with its brutal handling of the situation generating a strike by two-thirds of France’s workers. In response to the strikes, De Gaulle, who was president at the time, deployed the army, dissolved the National Assembly, and threatened to institute a state of emergency.

Two decades later, Thatcher summoned a massive police force – which many former miners maintain included British army soldiers in disguise – to crack down on the miners striking over pit closures and loss of livelihood. The striking miners, Thatcher said, were “the enemy within” who did not share the values of the British people. “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”.

Commenting on what he had witnessed, Arthur Scargill said, “We’ve had riot shields, we’ve had riot gear, we’ve had police on horseback charging into our people, we’ve had people hit with truncheons and people kicked to the ground… the intimidation and the brutality that has been displayed are something reminiscent of a Latin American state.”

And today, amidst the so-called war on terror, we watch ourselves rapidly turn into a surveillance society. Liberal democratic governments are using the authority their citizens have placed in their hands to violate their rights and erode their freedoms. In the name of national security and the protection of “our” sublime values, liberties are squandered, judges’ authority is depleted, and the unlawful gets legalised.

Oppose the systematic destruction of hard won freedoms and you’re intimidated into silence, dismissed as an “apologist for terror”, or a simpleton who does not understand the “depth and magnitude of the terrorist threat”.

We continually sing the praises of our democratic system, its transparency, representativeness, and checks and balances on power. But rarely do we put our theories to the test of reality – instead deliriously repeating them over and over again as though they were some sort of sacred dogma, to be believed regardless of the facts on the ground. With its torrent of lies and distortions, the Iraq war, like several events in the past, has exposed the vulnerability of the liberal democratic system.

As one opinion poll after another revealed the extent of public opposition to the war and hundreds of thousands protested in the heart of London, battle plans were being drawn up, troops were already being mobilised. When Bush congratulated Iraqis that freedom was knocking at their door, his police forces did not hesitate to handcuff angry protesters in the streets of New York and Washington.

Democracy, its institutions and representative bodies, seem to shrink to insignificance when confronted with the specter of “national interest”, an ambiguous notion defined by a few politicians, their unelected entourage and a network of powerful lobbies and interest groups

Another dark stain on our system’s record today is its turning on its least privileged of minorities, pushing it to the corner, surrounding it with suspicion, repressive measures and policies, and giving free reign to bigotry and prejudice. Muslims are Britain’s poorest community, five times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than their fellow white Britons, four times more likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to have no qualifications, live in social rented accommodation, and suffer from ill health. But just as Thatcher had blamed the poor for their poverty, the trend today is to hold this new underclass responsible for its misfortunes in one of the most socially stratified and closed social systems in the world.

From “the working class character” with its “laziness” and “lack of motivation”, to Muslim culture and its “penchant for isolationism”, our system seems to excel in the creation of scapegoats.

The value of a socio-political system is not judged by its self-congratulatory rhetoric, nor by the way it conducts itself in times of ease and stability, but by its behaviour in crises. If the threat of some deluded terrorists can drive the liberal system to turn its back on the principles upon which it claims to be founded, and to degenerate into surveillance, coercion and majority tyranny over the minority, I hate to think how it would react if faced with the danger of armies stationed at its borders, mutiny, coup d’etats, invasion, or occupation.

The question we must have the courage to ask ourselves is: grand slogans of freedom, tolerance, and pluralism aside, how liberal is our “liberal” system?


Oct 102014



Since the map of the Middle East was drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in the aftermath of World War I and the retreat of the Ottoman Turks in favour of the British and French, the lines demarcating the boundaries between states in the Arab region have never been successfully challenged, even in the heyday of pan-Arab nationalism.

Saddam Hussein’s ill-conceived adventure in neighbouring Kuwait ended in catastrophe, costing him his regime, and eventually, even his life. But two decades later, a small obscure group has, ironically, managed to achieve what the once mighty Iraqi army had failed to do in 1990. Declaring its dominance over huge swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, ISIL has effectively erased the long established frontier between the two countries, thus mounting the first successful challenge to the Sykes-Picot arrangement.

History abounds with shadowy extremist organisations, centred on deviant ideas – not always of a religious nature – eccentric megalomaniacs, or purely criminal objectives. ISIL is neither unique nor without precedent in this respect. What distinguishes the group is in reality neither its fanaticism, nor brutal methods, but the suddenness of its rise and astonishing speed of its territorial expansion. In the space of a few months, this once marginal faction has come to occupy the centre stage of international politics, threatening the existence of entire regional states and governments, redefining old political geographies, even managing to bring together sworn enemies around the shared goal of defeating it, from Iran and Qatar to the US and Gulf kingdoms.

Unexpected ascendancy

Endlessly churned out epithets about ISIL’s theological origins, exclusionary takfiri (apostate) tendencies and religious legitimisation of its brutal methods are useless in the quest to grasp the causes of its unexpected ascendancy and rapid proliferation.

It is the changing geopolitics of the region that holds the answers here. What gave and continues to grant ISIL – and other violent anarchic groups of its kind – momentum and room for diffusion is the strategic and political vacuum generated by the retreat of US influence in the Middle East, and Arab Orient more specifically.

The US is no longer able to monitor and regulate the rhythm of events in that sensitive part of the world. The wave of exhibitionist pre-emptive strikes launched by the neo-cons ended in two consecutive military defeats and hasty retreats.

The limits of US military might were laid bare for all to see. Thanks to its superior firepowerit was able to topple regimes and dismantle existing structures, but was dismally impotent to rebuild them anew. And in the vacuum and trail of devastation it left behind, the US created a fertile soil for the growth of extremist violent groups, on the one hand, and of internecine ethnic and sectarian conflicts, on the other.

Another irony is that the Americans find themselves today compelled to return to the Middle East, having retreated from it in order to channel what remains of their might on the escalating threat posed by a rising China and respond to the challenges of the shift of wealth and influence eastwards. But Obama’s US looks nothing like the one that had mobilised its fleets against Saddam Hussein a decade ago. Today, it reluctantly retraces its footsteps to the same battlefield, broken and bruised, full of caution and foreboding.

The geopolitical void that appeared with the decline of US power after Afghanistan and Iraq was further exposed with the Syrian revolution, as the US and its Gulf allies proved powerless to end the conflict conclusively in their favour, desperately jostling for control and influence with the Iranians and Russians. And as in Iraq, radical jihadist groups swiftly moved in to fill the resulting political vacuum, finding an ideal social foster in long standing sectarian grievances.

Complex demographics

Today, we are witnessing the explosion of the complex demographics of Arab society. In colonial times, local administrations had managed tensions between its myriad traditional social configurations, religious, sectarian, tribal and ethnic, via a policy of containment, dilution, or repression. This role was subsequently taken up by the post-colonial state within a process of superimposed pseudo-modernisation, and under the banner of a collective national identity that remained feeble and skin- deep.

Amidst the collapse of fragile post-colonial political structures in countries like Libya, Iraq, Syria, and the Yemern, traditional bonds and identities have reasserted themselves again, but in a more raucous bloody manner. Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Arabs, Muslims and Christians, all turned against each other in a chilling spectacle of senseless self-mutilation.

This atmosphere of paranoid animosity, social disarray and political crisis was a potent incubator for Islamic radicalism, with its ideological fervour, excommunicatory tendencies, and puritanical dreams. Political grievances mingled with ethnic and sectarian grudges to produce the hatred ridden grandiose discourse of al-Qaeda, ISIL and their Jihadist likes.

Price of failure

Today, the region is paying the price for the failure of top-down modernisation and the disintegration of artificial post-colonial national borders and frail political edifices. And with the evaporation of the great hopes pinned on the Arab Spring of the possibility of change through peaceful means and popular protests, extremism and violence have reared their head once more. But as disillusionment and despair descend on the region and tighten their icy grip on its throat, this deformed ghoulish child of crisis looks uglier, deadlier and more vindictive than ever.

By renewing and bolstering old alliances with Gulf sheikhdoms and autocratic Arab regimes to thwart democratic political change; overseeing the return to military coups and cloaking them with legitimacy, the US and its European allies have sent Arabs a clear resounding message: “Ballot boxes are not for you! They are pointless as means of change. Their results are easily discarded and trampled upon. Violence and revenge are the way out of your bleak existence.” Nothing could have rendered more credence and legitimacy to the rhetoric of ISIL and the jihadist cause.

Through its modern history, the Arab region has been an open index of the ascent and descent of global powers and a mirror of the great players’ fluctuating fortunes. And in this strategically positioned part of the globe, power shifts have always come at a heavy price, paid in much blood and socio-political instability, be that from the Ottomans to the British in the wake of the World War I, or to their American heirs after the World War II. The currently unfolding transformation is no exception. The wave of turmoil, chaos and misery it carries will most likely continue to engulf the region for years to come.




Oct 102014

Pro-Morsi Protesters Clash With Security Forces


A collective sigh of relief was almost audible across Washington and other western capitals when Sisi accomplished the mission and successfully staged his blood-drenched military coup. They could all go back to business as usual with the Arabs. No need for the newly devised strategy of containment. No need to sing the praises of freedom, or pay lip service to the emancipation of nations or the popular will. Sisi’s US furnished tanks and the Gulf Sheikhdoms’ petrodollars took care of tarnishing and demolishing the unwelcome Arab Spring. Time to rewind to pre-January 2011 and reconnect with old friends and companions! They have been sorely missed indeed!

Ditch the new rhetoric of ‘change’, ‘transition’, democratisation’, ‘the popular will’ and ‘mutual respect” and pull the worn out familiar dictionary in constant use since World War II out of the drawer. It’s now back to “Stability”, “security”, “our interests” and all the other euphemisms for forced political stagnation, active obstruction of change, and the coercively imposed status quo.

 Voices which had been muted since the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia are reverberating once more. One of them is Denis Ross’s, who recently wrote in the New York Times openly urging the administration to go back to supporting its “friends and partners” in the region. Lest there should be confusion over who these may be, Ross does not hesitate in his article entitled “Islamists are not our friends” to define them in explicit terms. They are “the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared”. They offer the only glimmer of light in an otherwise dark Arab ocean. They populate the tiny island that should serve as America’s sole gateway to the region and unique foothold therein. Forget the one and half billion Muslims around the globe, “our” interests lie exclusively with these chosen few and the policies “we” pursue should wholly depend on them.

Everyone else is banished into a vast and vague category labeled   “Islamism”. In this gigantic pot, the moderates of Tunisia’s Ennhadha, Malaysia’s Abim, and reformists of Iran suddenly find themselves thrown alongside the lunatics of Al Qaeda and Isis on the opposite end of the Islamic spectrum. The enormous intellectual and political differences that set them apart no longer matter. Sunnis, Shias, democrats, moderates, Salafis, extremists, and violent anarchists are bundled together and forced into a single monolithic block in a flagrant example of reductionism, oversimplification and colour-blindness.

 Like Many pseudo-liberals, Ross’s discourse is replete with contradictions. While calling for the support of hardened autocrats and ruthless dictators, they still feign an unwavering commitment to “our values” and “democratic pluralist traditions”. Democracy, rights and liberties thus turn into a thin veneer conveniently deployed to disguise the ugliness of egoistic strategies and policies pursued on the ground, a fig leaf behind which narrow myopic self interest hides its nakedness.

Dismissing the Muslim scene as a homogenous entity outside history, these either ignore or willfully turn a blind eye to the intellectual and theological movements and conflicts unfolding there. For alongside thunderous political and military encounters, a more significant, though less visible confrontation is under way on Islam’s battleground. Three divergent strategies of interpretation are actively competing for Muslims’ allegiance.

The first, which traces its origins to the 19th century reform school,  both in its Sunni and Shiite manifestations, sees no contradiction between Islam, democracy, human rights, women’s emancipation, and civil and public liberties. This is the brand of Islam endorsed by the likes of Tunisia’s Ennahdha party, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party and Turkey’s AKP. They are Islamists, but they are also democrats. Islam is their frame of reference, the same function performed by Christianity in the case of the Christian democrats and socialism for the Social democrats.   

 Against this competes an Islam espoused by autocracies and Gulf sheikhdoms, with their official clergy, government preachers, and ruthless religious police, tasked with legitimizing the status quo, authoritarianism and repression in the name of religion and the protection of public mores. Their religion is a state ideology at the service of despotic rulers. This would appear to be the brand of Islam which friends of the Arab world’s autocrats and dictators, such as Ross, favour and would like to see the American administration support.

 Sharing much with this form of Islam, particularly its orthodoxy, literalism and absolutism, proponents of the third interpretation endorse a different type of politics, however. They are Wahhabi anarchists. Their most vocal representatives are Al Qaeda and Isis, who are determined to propel the Muslim world into senseless and endless wars with infidels, both within and without. Like “autocratic Islam”, this is virulently opposed to democracy, human rights, and individual freedoms and openly hostile to democratic Islam.

This is the current intellectual map of the Muslim world. The American administration needs to ponder which direction it would rather the region take. It must decide which Islam it wants: a peaceful, democratic Islam, crucial to any pursuit of real long term stability, or the anarchical and destructive Islam of al-Qaida and Isis, with its roots in the absolutism of Saudi Wahhabism.

At the apex of the neo con project, Condoleezza Rice had admitted that “For six decades…, a basic bargain defined the United States‘ engagement in the broader Middle East: we supported authoritarian regimes, and they supported our shared interest in regional stability” confessing that “this old bargain had produced false stability”. It is astonishing that over a decade later, after two American military defeats and consecutive hasty retreats, as well as numerous popular revolts across the region, the American administration is being dragged back to the same disastrous strategy -which Obama had come to power on the pledge of revising and relinquishing.

The first wave of the “Arab Spring” may have receded under the crushing weight of “our” Gulf allies’ conspiracies to destroy political life -with petro-dollars and manufactured anarchy- wherever an Arab will to change has registered itself. But the demands at its core show no sign of ebbing away. Ross’s friends, who danced and cheered when Egypt descended into the bloody abyss of military coups, may succeed in delaying change. But that would only be for a while. They and their patrons in Washington and Europe may soon realize that the Arab masses’ demands for self-determination through democratic constitutions, freely elected parliaments and representative accountable governments may prove too difficult to bury, for the simple reason that they are genuine and entirely legitimate.





Apr 042008

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Nov 302007

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Thank you, Mr Bush

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Sep 192007

History may remember Iraq as the highest point of American global power, but as the starting point of its decline too. It is ironic that Bush, America’s most unilateralist president, promises to be the catalyst for the emergence of a “new” multipolar world order. With his excessive reliance on military force and exaggerated use of threats of its deployment, he has done more than any other leader in America’s history to shatter America’s world dominance and pave the way for a more balanced international order. Continue reading »

Taking power from the people

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Aug 092007

We live in an age of democracy, or so we are told. Since the defeat of fascism and Nazism after the second world war and the disintegration of communism in eastern and central Europe a decade ago, democracy seems to have established itself securely as the ideal form of government and the fundamental standard of political legitimacy. The tale of democracy, from its birth in antiquity to the present seems to have had a happy ending. Continue reading »

Aug 012007

The British political class loves to talk of the special relationship between the US and Britain based on the “common values” the two countries share. But cross the Atlantic and you’ll hear very little said of this “special relationship”. As Victor Bulmer-Thomas, former Chatham House director, puts it, “The bilateral relationship with the United States may be ‘special’ to Britain, but the US has never described it as more than ‘close’.” Continue reading »