Talisman Gate

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Who Killed Hariri?

September 28, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Who Killed Hariri?

September 28, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/20683

In February, a couple of weeks after Rafiq Hariri's assassination in Beirut, I pegged the blame for the murder on the Syrian leadership, who I claimed had acted through their acolytes, Hezbollah. My reasoning at the time was that the Syrians had the motive and the means, and that the only terrorist team that could pull off such a delicate operation was the one headed by the Lebanese terrorist Imad Mughniyeh.

A couple of months later, while visiting Lebanon, I surveyed the site of the blast and changed my mind: the bombing that killed Hariri along the waterfront was too big and too flashy and thus did not bear Mughniyeh's signature. Would the Syrians do such a thing on their own? Unlikely; too high a risk of being caught. No, this job was done by a Lebanese network, but which one if not Mughniyah's "A-Team"? The likely suspects were the Syrian loyalists in charge of the Lebanese security apparatus.

Yes, blaming the heads of the Lebanese security apparatus seemed the rational thing to do, and a little too easy. At the top of the list was the much-feared director of General Security, General Jamil Al-Sayyid. I went to visit him in May at his home, but was much disappointed: instead of finding a nefarious and evil spymaster, I found a vain and very proper military officer. Al-Sayyid seemed genuinely stung by the accusation that drove him to volunteer his resignation after decades of service to the Lebanese state. He had an "I'll show them" attitude that involved setting-up his own think-tank and publishing a liberal newspaper: he would launch a political career and avenge his sullied name and track record. He did not strike me as a man that would be smartly sinister enough, or gullibly dumb enough, to be involved in the Hariri murder.

Since resigning, Al-Sayyid had managed to regain some respectability through a long interview that was serialized over several days in a leading Arabic newspaper. He was even seen about town dining with the American ambassador at an Italian restaurant in downtown Beirut.

But Al-Sayyid, along with three other top officers, was arrested last month by the Lebanese authorities on the recommendation of the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who is running the United Nations-mandated investigation into the assassination. Mehlis is supposed to hand in his final report by Oct. 25. A lot is riding on Mr. Mehlis, including the culpability of the Syrian regime in ex-Prime Minister Hariri's murder. His report could amount to a casus belli against the Assad dynasty by the international community. The only problem is that I think that Mr. Mehlis has very little by way of a smoking gun, but rather can only establish motive and some circumstantial evidence.

The Mehlis Mess?

There was talk of a defector, who in the first account leaked by Saudi intelligence was supposed to be Major Zuheir S., a Syrian intelligence officer with direct oversight of activities in Lebanon. The Saudis had helped him defect and then took him to Paris (where he was debriefed by the French and then Mr. Mehlis) and to Cairo (where the Egyptian spooks figured out that he was lying) and then to Spain (where he met Rifa'at Assad, an exiled claimant to the throne of his nephew, Bashar, and a chum of the Saudis).

The Syrians countered by leaking a brief biography of Zuheir Siddique, who turns out to be in their account a colorful con man with seven wives and a checkered career in the annals of fraud all over Syria and Lebanon. He had somehow snookered the Saudis, the French and Mr. Mehlis into believing that he was credible and could prove Syrian blameworthiness. Sources keep telling me that this guy was Mr. Mehlis's trump card and that the Syrians had found it easy to discredit his testimony. Other information that Mr. Mehlis had acted on and that found its way into the Lebanese press is also turning out to be wrong.

One theory talks about a cover-up at the scene of the crime, but making that work would require the Lebanese bureaucracy to be more efficient than it is. The supposed cover-up could be explained away as fumbling rather than malice. Moreover, the four top suspects - who headed four rival security and military branches - loathe each other, and it is very hard to envision them working together to kill Hariri.

Even the handling of the investigation by Mehlis seems sloppy and is "operating on ad hoc law" that is in contravention of what the U.N. set down in its related resolution and would not hold up in court, according to Al-Sayyid's lawyer, Akram Azzouri, speaking in a telephone interview on Monday.

Accepting Mr. Mehlis's thesis would make one hesitant to entertain yet another suspect entity: a Sunni fundamentalist group with the "previously unknown" tag. Sunni fanatics in carefree Beirut? The mental image just does not seem to fit, but I am slowly getting used to it. Omar Bakri, the militant fundamentalist who was recently kicked out of Britain after spending 20 years there and heralding the day when the Islamic flag shall flutter triumphantly over 10 Downing Street, is now beseeching his followers to join him in Beirut. An appendage of Zarqawi's organization in Iraq is branching out under the name of Jund al-Sham into both Syria and the northern Lebanese town of Trablous. Shia-Sunni tensions across Lebanon are also surfacing and creating a political atmosphere that harks back to the civil war days.

The Syrian regime is nasty and horrible: they are a relic of a defunct Ba'athist totalitarian ideology that rules through vicious sectarian domination. There are plenty of reasons for undermining and overthrowing them, but on the current evidence, Hariri's murder should not be one of these reasons. Given what I know after following this story for a while, I am less certain today that they or their acolytes - whether Hizbullah or Al-Sayyid - are indeed guilty of this particular foul deed.

The Mehlis investigation could be barking up the wrong tree, and this would have immense repercussions. There seems to be a frenzy of wishful thinking in Washington and Beirut that Herr Sherlock Holmes would nobly and irrefutably expose just how evil the Syrians really are, but everyone may be in for a major disappointment. The Egyptians have already figured out that the whole affair is going in the wrong direction and seem to be jumping ship. The Syrians are having a field day by poking holes in the supposed "evidence" against them and their Lebanese lackeys, and they have dispatched their smug No. 2 intelligence man to Paris with a big dossier to bolster the argument of their "innocence."

But the question remains: who killed Hariri? Whoever did it has wedded terrorism to long-term strategic planning. In the old days, regimes like Assad's or Saddam's or the Iranian mullahs, had mastered this dark art. But what if al-Qaeda is planning to use Lebanon as a launch pad to bring down the regime in Syria? There is more to this bigger picture, and scapegoating the Syrians may be easy but dangerous if it serves other interested parties skulking in the shadows.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer based in Washington D.C., and currently traveling around the Middle East. He can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

September 28, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Egypt's Faded Elegance

September 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Egypt's Faded Elegance

September 21, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/20349

Across Cairo, from the Azbekkiya Gardens to the alleyways of the Azhar Mosque, I was snooping around for contraband. I wasn't looking for hashish, which is plentiful and available, but something even more dangerous in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt: free thought. I was looking for a book, one that was published in the Egyptian capital some 80 years ago. The bookstall dealers would size me up and dart discrete glances around for fear of the secret police.

The book in question was authored by Ali Abdel-Raziq at a time when Turkey's Kemal Ataturk had just abolished the caliphate in Istanbul and sent the last vestige of this 1,300-year-old Islamic institution packing into European exile with his paintbrushes and other worldly possessions in tow. Many contenders emerged to fill the vacuum, including the Sherifs of Mecca and the Egyptian royal family, but didn't get anywhere. Abdel-Raziq argued in his treatise that the institution had been defunct for some time and that it was useless in that cosmopolitan day and age of the roaring 1920s.

Nowadays, most of these wary booksellers would encourage the inquiring customer to "Just Say No" and then try to peddle an available published retort to Abdel-Raziq's book. Others were more helpful by suggesting the famed Madbouli publishing house and bookstore on Tala'at Harb Square as a place that might carry it. However, even there the guys in charge would shrug and simply say that the book is from another era, out-of-print and illegal. Yet, they were well stocked-up on Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

However, they did have another book entitled "The Liberal of Women" by Qasim Amin first published in 1899. It made quite a stir back then but today it is being sold encased with a diatribe written by Tala'at Harb himself - after whom the square was re-named in the 1960s - whereby he vehemently defends the Islamic headdress for women, the hijab, that Amin had subtly criticized.

What is even more interesting is that the square had been earlier named for Monsieur Jean Anthelme Seve, an ex-officer in the Napoleonic armies who had converted to Islam and "re-christened" Soliman Pasha el-Fransawi (the Frenchman) who found a new life in the service of the founder of the modern Egyptian state, Muhammad Ali. A great-granddaughter of Soliman Pasha married a great-grandson of Muhammad Ali, and their union produced Farouk, the last ruling king of Egypt, who was overthrown in the 1952 military coup.

Soliman Pasha's statue used to have a good vantage point of Cairo's "European" district: It could peer down on the Swiss-owned Groppi patisserie shop and the glitzy Cafe Riche. Around that area, one can still spot mementos of a different time, a time when Jewish refugees found refuge in easygoing Cairo: a rusting sign for the dental office of Dr. Victor Bromberg in English, Arabic, and Cyrillic script, and the name of the Weinstein department store engraved in stone in both English and Arabic. At some distance down the street is the art deco Metro cinema where the sophisticated movies of 1940s produced by the Egyptian movie industry used to be shown; mimicking western hits like "Casablanca" in their grace and charm. Now playing: a comedy with a silly, unrealistic plot that rants against normalization with Israel. The clientele no longer attend in their fezzes and best suits, but rather clap along with a catchy and popular ditty whose main chorus is "I Hate Israel."

Across the street from the cinema stands the faded Yacoubian Building at 36 Tala'at Harb Street; the setting and title for a best-selling novel published this year by Ala'a Aswani. This novel also created a stir by lamenting the end of the glorious and elegant days that Cairo had seen, which ended with the advent of the military officers into power including Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. It is a novel about the rural-mannered nouveau riche and newly-empowered elite taking up residence in the fashionable districts of old Cairo, and the urban and cultural degeneration that ensued.

During the glory years, refugees, adventurers, and entrepreneurs flocked to cosmopolitan hubs like Cairo and Alexandria from all over the Mediterranean basin: Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Lebanese, and all sorts of other nations. They found a booming economy brought about by a sound yet controversial British administration and a relative freedom to thrive and prosper. They also found vibrant anti-British politics and a clamorous constitutional and democratic experiment that the British at times, and the royal family at other times, tried to undermine. Those were heady years when ground-breaking books on Islamic reform and women's rights were published and eagerly read. These foreign-born nationals made their lives in Egypt and saw it as home; they bought-up communal burial plots with room for their loved ones and descendants.

Their headstones now lie forgotten and badly tended, with some crypts caving in to expose skeletons in well-tailored suits to the elements. The stray dogs loitering around seem startled by visitors; the descendants no longer visit and are long gone back to other hospitable hubs around the Mediterranean. Markers for the final resting place of the occasional White Russian colonel can be found, as well a disinherited Romanov prince, in the Greek Orthodox cemeteries of Cairo and Alexandria. These ghosts may find themselves haunting the same streets they knew, but nevertheless wander cities that are much changed.

It is useless to lament a bygone era swept away by revolutionary ideals. Revolution has a logic of their own and does not occur without pretext. Rural Egypt had re-asserted itself, arguably for the first time in 7,000 years. The military strongmen that officered the coup played to the conservatism and customs of rural Egypt and re-directed politics toward ambitious pan-Arab slogans and socialist economies, while quietly snuffing out personal freedoms.

Yet one cannot ignore the current malaise of Egypt: a stagnation of politics and culture in a place that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the stage for a brief and now-faded Middle Eastern renaissance. Politics have been reduced to theatrics, and the available cultural fare showcases books on magic and Zionist conspiracies.

Madbouli carries more books on Iraqi history, poetry, arts, and society than on Egypt itself. But oddly enough, cosmopolitan and liberal Egypt is astir again, this time seemingly inspired by the democratic experiment in Iraq: Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, some 10% of the population, is demanding to amend the 1973 constitution that stipulates Islam as the primary source of legislation. The Coptic communal press is loudly denouncing the bitterness of religious persecution. The Nubian ethnic minority is also beginning to seek some redress for past wrongs and more political enfranchisement.

The past can be resurrected to animate the present conditions of Egypt. Secretary of State Rice described this month's Egyptian elections as a small step forward, but Egypt needs a giant leap into the past. Egypt's dictators had orchestrated a decades-old plan for national amnesia to forget the cosmopolitanism and liberalism of the past. They have changed street names and forbidden books from that era. Egypt needs to re-discover its past and use that as a starting point toward an even better future to come.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer based in Washington D.C. who recently visited Egypt. He can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

September 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Carnival in Cairo

September 14, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Carnival in Cairo

September 14, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/20016

Any self-respecting carnival must feature a freak show, and the farcical elections in Egypt last week were no different. But the Bush administration had demanded a show of democracy, and President Mubarak gave them a show. And what a show!

Bulaq al-Dakroor is a poverty-stricken neighborhood on the western outskirts of Cairo where redbrick and concrete tenements seemingly lean into each other as they tower over narrow, unpaved alleyways. The balconies are festooned with colorful hanging laundry. Muslims and Christian Copts team the streets where grime glazes over sectarian tensions. On election day Wednesday, the people of Bulaq voted back into office the man who had ruled over them for almost a quarter of a century. Pick-up trucks, which also double as "buses" here - were decked-out with loudspeakers blaring the praises of the national leader. Apparatchiks from the ruling National Party were on hand to huddle the masses into the voting booths. They are getting six more years of Mr. Mubarak, and they seemed euphoric about it. One has to wonder why.

Across town, on the eastern outskirts of Cairo, the inhabitants of the Qarafeh neighborhood around the Imam Shafi'i shrine were biting their tongues. Wednesday was also the birthday of their patron saint, whose shrine is the center of a vast cemetery that bears his name. Except that people here are so poor that they opt to inhabit this necropolis where roofed family burial plots provide free shelters. Hundreds of thousands of them keep the dead company, and their once-a-year bit of fun is the mawlid, or celebration of the local saint's birth, that was postponed for a day by the Egyptians authorities so that local people would focus on the elections.

But on Thursday night, the street leading up to the shrine was turned into a low-budget Luna Park with rickety rides where Mickey Mouse motifs alternated with Islamic crescents in garish colors, and carnies were loudly ushering the gullible masses to their stalls while Sufis were testing the sound stages for their devotional concerts. But these living grave-dwellers were genuinely enjoying themselves in the raucous commotion. Again, given their hard reality, one has to wonder why.

A certain generalization can be made of the Egyptian people, and that is their propensity for humor and spontaneous fun. Living for millennia along the banks of the fickle Nile River made life hard, and whatever can deflect reality for a moment, whether a joke or uninhibited dancing, was welcome. Egyptians also found ways to humor their despots to ward off the latter's excesses, and they humored Westerners, be they invaders, tourists, or meddlesome governments.

So if Mr. Mubarak wanted to put up a show, and the Americans wanted to watch a show, the people of Egypt were willing to oblige and make the most out of these show-case elections. They certainly knew that their lot was not going to change, but the pretense made them feel a little better, just like pretending that a saint that died in the ninth century still enjoys having his birthday celebrated and thus may endow the celebrators with his blessings.

The 19 days of campaigning were quite fun. Sure, there is some progress being made, but it isn't a reflection of democracy and responsible citizenship; rather it is a symptom of political hysterics. I am told that nine months ago, before the small elitist and leftist Kefaya movement took to the streets and got Western press attention, this sort of Mubarak-bashing was inconceivable. But times have changed, and Mr. Mubarak wants not a vibrant democracy, but the illusion of vibrant politics. Hence the silly, conspiracy-oriented freedom to rant that looks good in print and on CNN.

Mr. Mubarak's campaign started off with a visit to a typical rural dwelling in the Nile Delta. He was hosted by a farmer and his wife who were very grateful for this honor. The septuagenarian Mubarak was re-inventing himself as an alpha male, with tie-less pastel shirts in a campaign choreographed by his 43-year-old son Gamal, who is widely perceived as the heir apparent. However, a week later, an enterprising local journalist tracked down this particular farmer and found that he lived about 30 miles away from where he had hosted the president and that the secret police gave his wife a tray of tea glasses to serve. The Mubarak campaign did not issue a denial or an apology.

Ayman Nour, who took about 7% of the vote versus Mr. Mubarak's 88%,was busily promising the nation three hot meals a day and an unemployment benefits program worth $2.5 billion over two years. He claimed he could pay for this out of Egypt's cash-strapped budget by combating corruption. But Mr. Nour could not offer any sober reforms and resorted to promising castles in the smog-congested skies for Egypt's poor.

The other nine candidates were even more colorful: my favorite was Ahmad al-Sabahi, who started out life as a tram ticket collector. During the 1940s, Mr. Sabahi joined the quasi-fascist Green Shirts that sought to find an Islamic copy of Nazi ideology. His Ummah Party was licensed by President Sadat even though 35 out of the 50 founders bore the last name Sabahi. He is noted for the sentence "I am Khomeini and Khomeini is I," which he uttered many years back. Sabahi promised Egyptians a mandatory enforcement of tarboush or fez wearing and state-subsidized interpretation of dreams.

Rifaat al-Ajroudi wanted to build a secret underground city for Arab nuclear scientists, while Usama Shaltout sashayed around in attention grabbing Pakistani garb and demanded that all Muslim alms paid by the oil-rich Gulf States should be channeled to Egypt.

Ibrahim al-Turk's slogan was "One Nile, One People" which rationalized re-annexing the Sudan, a sore point between Egyptian and British authorities (and the Sudanese people as well) for over a century. And finally Fawzi Ghazal promised to re-orient Egyptian agriculture toward pharmaceutical plants (the botanical kind, not the factories) that are, according to him, the "new oil fields."

Campaign sloganeering sounded a lot like the supposed blessings of Imam Shafi'i as explained by the shrine's keepers: eyesight for the blind, child-bearing for the infertile, and finding hidden gold by digging-up graves. This was not an election, but rather a mawlid celebration, where voters joined in the fun fully knowing that it was not going anywhere. After all, the downtrodden need to dream of better times.

The Bush administration hailed the Egyptian elections as a step forward, but voter apathy was telling. One hardly found ink-stained fingers while roaming Cairo on a day that felt like any other day in this chaotic city. Less than a quarter of the electorate voted, even though they were threatened with a constitutionally mandated $20 fine amounting to half of an average monthly wage.

President Bush made a good call on Iran's election several months ago by denouncing it as a non-election, but now seems reluctant to hold his ally Mr. Mubarak to task for this carnival. The Egyptian people, forever humorous and humoring, can see through this charade and yet feel helpless. Maybe a resounding reality check from Washington would have them take a closer look at their dire circumstances in places like Bulaq and Qarafeh, and demand some accountability from their politicians. If Mr. Mubarak gets away with his election as a benchmark for "democratic" progress, then a central tenet of Mr. Bush's vision for democracy in the region revolving around human dignity would be rendered meaningless.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C., and currently visiting Egypt. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

September 14, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Monday, September 12, 2005

Zarqawi vs. Maqdisi

Click here on Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol. 2

Skip to p. 59 to read "A Virulent Ideology in Mutation: Zarqawi Upstages Maqdisi" by Nibras Kazimi.