At The Masters

April 6, 2012


Via TribLive

World Affairs:

When asked on January 30, 2011, about the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in post–Arab Spring Egypt, the man seen by the media as a leading figure in the uprising, Mohamed ElBaradei, brushed aside Western fears: “They are not a majority of the Egyptian people. They will not be more than maybe twenty percent of the Egyptian people.” For ElBaradei, Western fears of the Islamists dominating the Egyptian future were “a myth that was sold by the Mubarak regime.” Nor was the former IAEA chief and Egyptian presidential hopeful alone in his insistence that the Muslim Brotherhood was only a harmless minority. President Obama agreed: “I think they’re one faction in Egypt. They don’t have majority support in Egypt.”

The nearly unanimous consensus among both the Egyptian political class and the Washington experts was that the Islamists were only a scarecrow used by Mubarak to frighten the West. The Muslim Brotherhood, according to this view, counted no more than one hundred thousand adherents out of a population of more than eighty million. And its failure to support the initial uprising in Cairo on January 25th made the group marginal to the current Arab revolt. Early warnings of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt were dubbed “hysteria.” Yes, the Islamists were in the background of Tahrir Square, but they were weaker than people assumed. This was a liberal revolution led by tech-savvy youth, and the future of Egypt was a bright one.

Ten months later, after Islamists won seventy-two percent of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament, that optimistic avoidance of reality seems hard to fathom. Those who had been blithely confident of the future admitted that they never expected this result. Some professed never to have heard of the Salafists, although the party won more than a quarter of the votes. Shock and surprise, both in Cairo and Washington, soon gave way to a desperate effort to explain why the Islamists won and why the consequences of their victory might not be as disastrous as it seemed. Unfortunately, the explanations offered have created less rather than more clarity about the present situation in Egypt.

In the aftermath of the first round of voting, some immediately argued that the Islamist victory had been heavily financed by both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Egyptian non-Islamists, fond of blaming everyone but themselves for their failures, were the main propagators of this argument. The fact that Egypt’s richest man stood behind the main non-Islamist party, and spent millions backing it, was irrelevant to them.

News stories have been published with claims that donations from the Gulf were sent to organizations devoted to Islamic teaching and preaching, and accusations have been made that some of this money might have been used in political campaigns. But while spending on Islamic teaching in general may create a favorable personality for Islamist parties, in fact, there has been no serious evidence that Gulf money flowed heavily into the Islamists’ political campaign.

Another explanation was a complaint in disguise: that elections were held too soon. Because the Islamists were better organized, a short time line was in their favor. Some argued that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been around for more than eight decades, was better positioned than the newly established parties to compete, with its extensive organization unrivaled in its efficiency. In fact, while the MB has a long history, this vaunted organization is quite new, having been reestablished from scratch in the 1970s. Furthermore, the Salafists, who were the Brotherhood’s main competitor, are as new to the political scene as the non-Islamist “democrats.” If superior organization explains the MB’s thirty-six percent share of the vote, what explains the twenty-seven percent won by the Salafists’ al-Nour party? Not only is the party new, but it does not even have a unified structure.

There were also conspiracy theories proposed mainly by some Egyptian non-Islamists, who, unable to justify their failure, resorted to accusations of election fraud. Tied to this argument was the insistence that the military was secretly backing the Islamists. (Some of these conspiracy theorists accused the ruling military council of backing the group to scare the West; others accused it of rigging the elections in favor of the Salafists to weaken the Brotherhood.) But while the elections were chaotic and disorganized, no convincing evidence was ever adduced to prove that this hectic electoral atmosphere favored one particular party over the others. Forged ballots in favor of the Salafists were discovered in a polling station, but so were others found in favor of the MB, the Wafd, the Egyptian Bloc, and numerous former National Democratic Party candidates.

Next was the argument of illiteracy. Egyptians, it was claimed by the non-Islamist elite, are ignorant and illiterate people who were led like sheep by the Islamists. But this elite has always bemoaned its fate of having to live in the same country as those ignorant Egyptians. And the elitism of this elite reflects poorly on their idea of democracy. (Edmund Burke famously reflected on their equivalent during the time of the French Revolution: “You will smile here at the consistency of those democratists who, when they are not on their guard, treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst, at the same time, they pretend to make them the depositories of all power.”) If it was illiterate Egyptians who carried the day for the Islamists, how to understand the fact that the Islamists won every district in the country, including cosmopolitan Cairo?

The final explanation offered by the Egyptian non-Islamists for their failure was that their votes had been spread among several competing parties. But Egypt’s electoral system actually benefits smaller parties. Had the non-Islamists gathered in one unified list, they would have gained fewer seats than they did. Furthermore, whatever their own results, this amalgamation would not have affected the Islamists’ percentage.

These explanations and rationalizations have little to do with the real reasons for the Islamists’ victory. One of the most important of these reasons is the mundane fact of the electoral system under which the vote took place. Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt was divided into two hundred and twenty-two electoral districts, each electing two candidates. It was a system that favored local families in small districts who were the backbone of the authoritarian National Democratic Party (originally founded by Anwar el-Sadat and since then wielding uncontested power in state elections). As a nonideological party, the NDP simply supported local candidates with a strong patron-client relationship in the various districts as their members. Even when the party’s official candidate lost a seat, this outcome simply opened the door for the winners to join.

It was the non-Islamists who insisted on changing the electoral system. Obsessed with what they termed “the remnants of the regime,” they sought a new system, based on party lists, to kill the chances of continued domination by the local families. In the end, the ruling military council, attempting to appease everyone, chose a mixed system whereby two-thirds of the seats are chosen through party lists and one-third in individual districts. This meant that roughly three former districts were now combined into one, diluting the influence of local families, who were now forced to compete against each other outside their strongholds. With nothing in common, and realizing that only the top names of a party list would actually win, they could not agree on a unified list. The result was that some local families decided not to compete this time around, while others battled against each other, with the Islamists reaping the fruits of the disarray.

The electoral system chosen also gave a clear advantage to the smaller rural governates at the expense of Cairo. Since the system required two candidates in each individual-seat district and double that number in each party-list district, the governates were allocated seats in multiples of six. This meant that the smallest governate received six seats. A governate like Matruh, which demographically should have received two seats, got six. A governate like Fayyoum was allocated eighteen seats instead of fourteen, while Bani Suef got eighteen instead of fifteen. All of this came at the expense of the urban centers, especially greater Cairo, which was allocated forty-one fewer seats than it should have had according to population. In total, the urban centers were deprived of fifty-eight seats.

A final significant aspect of the new system is that it required Egyptians to vote for two individual candidates as well as a party list. It is important to notice the gap between the number of votes received by the Islamists on the party lists and the votes their individual candidates received. Those who voted for the Islamists on the individual seats are their actual supporters. Outside of the cities, most Egyptian voters were going out to vote for a local candidate that they knew and that had provided services to them. Being forced to choose a party list alongside their local candidate, they chose the Islamists. Had the elections been held according to the old electoral system with small districts, the local families would have checked the power of the Islamists.

The quality of the candidates they offered also helped the Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood offered its most powerful candidates on the individual seats. It also put a leading MB figure on top of every party list. The rest of each list was composed of relative unknowns. Their calculation proved correct: Reserve your strong candidates, who have local support, in the districts for the individual seats where name recognition and services matter and strengthen the appeal of your list with famous figures. The results of this strategy were spectacular. Out of a total of one hundred and sixty-six individual seats, the MB won one hundred and eight and the Salafists thirty-three. The non-Islamists won only eleven of these seats, with the remaining fourteen going to former NDP members. The Salafists’ weak performance in the individual seats, compared to the party lists, reflects the reality of their strength. While they have a mass appeal among voters, they are incapable of operating in small districts where local grassroots work of “retail politics” is required.

The Salafists’ overall performance deserves a special look. Lacking a central party command, their electoral strength depended on two key components: Salafi organizations and sheikhs. The two major Salafi organizations are el-Gameya al-Sharia and Gameyet Ansar al-Sunna. The first was established by Sheikh Mahmoud el-Sobky in 1912, while the second was established by Sheikh Mohamed Hamed el-Fiky in 1926. Both organizations have thousands of offices around Egypt and control thousands of mosques. They have been spreading Salafi ideas and practices since the 1920s. The ultraconservative Islamist al-Nour party tapped into those two existing organizations, choosing many of its candidates from among their local branches. Besides the grassroots base, the performance of the Salafists in the different governates reflected whether a leading Salafi sheikh lives in that area. Kafr el-Sheikh and Behira, for example, were two governates where the Salafists got the most support in the list voting and defeated the Brotherhood due to the following Sheikh Abu Ishaq el-Howeini has there. The same goes for Alexandria, where their victory is due to the influence and following of the Salafist school of Alexandria founded by Sheikh Mohamed Ismail el-Mokadem. This explains why in a governate like Monofia, which should have been an ideal place for the Salafists, they won only nineteen percent of the vote. With no Salafi sheikh residing there, they could not build the level of support they had in neighboring Delta governates…

Read it all.

The Walrus:

IN THE FALL OF 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war in Indochina, Bill Clinton became the first US president since Richard Nixon to visit Vietnam. While media coverage of the trip was dominated by talk of some two thousand US soldiers still classified as missing in action, a small act of great historical importance went almost unnoticed. As a humanitarian gesture, Clinton released extensive Air Force data on all American bombings of Indochina between 1964 and 1975. Recorded using a groundbreakingIBM-designed system, the database provided extensive information on sorties conducted over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Clinton’s gift was intended to assist in the search for unexploded ordnance left behind during the carpet bombing of the region. Littering the countryside, often submerged under farmland, this ordnance remains a significant humanitarian concern. It has maimed and killed farmers, and rendered valuable land all but unusable. Development and demining organizations have put the Air Force data to good use over the past six years, but have done so without noting its full implications, which turn out to be staggering.

The still-incomplete database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed—not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson. The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide. The data demonstrates that the way a country chooses to exit a conflict can have disastrous consequences. It therefore speaks to contempor­ary warfare as well, including US operations in Iraq. Despite many differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous, volatile insurgency.

We heard a terrifying noise which shook the ground; it was as if the earth trembled, rose up and opened beneath our feet. Enormous explosions lit up the sky like huge bolts of lightning; it was the American B-52s.
— Cambodian bombing survivor

ON DECEMBER 9, 1970, US President Richard Nixon telephoned his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to discuss the ongoing bombing of Cambodia. This sideshow to the war in Vietnam, begun in 1965 under the Johnson administration, had already seen 475,515 tons of ordnance dropped on Cambodia, which had been a neutral kingdom until nine months before the phone call, when pro-US General Lon Nol seized power. The first intense series of bombings, the Menu campaign on targets in Cambodia’s border areas — labelled Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Dinner, Dessert, and Snack by American commanders — had concluded in May, shortly after the coup.

Nixon was facing growing congressional opposition to his Indochina policy. A joint US–South Vietnam ground invasion of Cambodia in May and June of 1970 had failed to root out Vietnamese Communists, and Nixon now wanted to covertly escalate the air attacks, which were aimed at destroying the mobile headquarters of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (VC/NVA) in the Cambodian jungle. After telling Kissinger that the US Air Force was being unimaginative, Nixon demanded more bombing, deeper into the country: “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in…I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?”

Kissinger knew that this order ignored Nixon’s promise to Congress that US planes would remain within thirty kilometres of the Vietnamese border, his own assurances to the public that bombing would not take place within a kilometre of any village, and military assessments stating that air strikes were like poking a beehive with a stick. He responded hesitantly: “The problem is, Mr. President, the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war…in fact, they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.”

Five minutes after his conversation with Nixon ended, Kissinger called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders from the president: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?” The response from Haig, barely audible on tape, sounds like laughter.

THE US BOMBING of Cambodia remains a divisive and iconic topic. It was a mobilizing issue for the antiwar movement and is still cited regularly as an example of American war crimes. Writers such as Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, and William Shawcross emerged as influential political voices after condemning the bombing and the foreign policy it symbolized.

In the years since the Vietnam War,something of a consensus has emerged on the extent of US involvement in Cambodia. The details are controversial, but the narrative begins on March 18, 1969, when the United States launched the Menu campaign. The joint US–South Vietnam ground offensive followed. For the next three years, the United States continued with air strikes under Nixon’s orders, hitting deep inside Cambodia’s borders, first to root out the vc/nva and later to protect the Lon Nol regime from growing numbers of Cambodian Communist forces. Congress cut funding for the war and imposed an end to the bombing on August 15, 1973, amid calls for Nixon’s impeachment for his deceit in escalating the campaign.

Thanks to the database, we now know that the US bombardment started three-and-a-half years earlier, in 1965, under the Johnson administration. What happened in 1969 was not the start of bombings in Cambodia but the escalation into carpet bombing. From 1965 to 1968, 2,565 sorties took place over Cambodia, with 214 tons of bombs dropped. These early strikes were likely tactical, designed to support the nearly two thousand secret ground incursions conducted by the CIA and US Special Forces during that period. B-52s—long-range bombers capable of carrying very heavy loads — were not deployed, whether out of concern for Cambodian lives or the country’s neutrality, or because carpet bombing was believed to be of limited strategic value…

Read it all.

The New Republic:

On the evening of Wednesday, February 22, protesters pitched tents in front of the district office of Democratic Representative Allyson Schwartz in the small hamlet of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. The group—which numbered about five, and has since expanded to 15 members, including at times veterans of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Philadelphia, and Occupy Delaware—was met with a mixture of alarm and bemusement from the mostly middle-class residents of the commuter town, population 4,000, located just north of Philadelphia; but Ed Foley, the mayor of Jenkintown, declared that they were welcome to stay as long as they behaved. “In Jenkintown, we’ve struggled with traffic calming and they’ve had an excellent traffic calming effect,” he toldCitizen’s Call, a local website. “No one is rolling through that stop sign anymore.”

Occupy Jenkintown was an act of solidarity with Nathan Kleinman, an avid Occupier and Jenkintown resident who is running to unseat Schwartz in the April 24 Democratic primary—and who has been dubbed “the first Occupy candidate” by Politico. Four people close to the Schwartz campaign had challenged the approximately 1,500 signatures Kleinman collected in order to appear on the ballot, and, as a result, the 29-year-old now found himself forced to wage a write-in campaign. Occupy Jenkintown wasn’t officially endorsing Kleinman, but they most certainly were livid at Schwartz. Hence the encampment outside her office. “There is strong precedent for showing force against a candidate who makes problematic decisions,” Chase Doyle, a Jenkintown Occupier and friend of Kleinman, told me.

For his part, Kleinman says that the Occupiers acted of their own volition. “The first I heard of it was from [Jenkintown Occupier] Michael Mizner,” Kleinman told me. “He said it, I thought as a joke, and I said, ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’ And Mizner said, ‘Autonomous action is a bitch.’” Now, whether Kleinman wanted it or not, Occupy Jenkintown exists. And, along with Kleinman’s campaign, it represents a noteworthy—and, to date, unusual—example of the Occupy movement inserting itself directly into electoral politics.

KLEINMAN GREW UP in Abington, right next to Jenkintown, where he attended a Quaker high school before enrolling in Georgetown in 2000. His passion for human rights led him to Madeleine Albright’s class as a senior and to the gates of the White House in 2005, where he fasted for twelve days to raise attention for Darfur. Back at home, Kleinman worked as a field organizer for the Obama campaign and as a press aide for Joe Sestak’s failed Senate bid in 2010, following which he took a job with a local state senator.

Kleinman first set foot in Occupy Philadelphia on day six of the encampment, and, soon after, he resigned from his job in order to embrace the movement full time. “I was just really glad that people were standing up and refusing to accept the status quo any longer,” he told me.

The status quo that Kleinman ultimately decided needed changing the most was Schwartz, a socially liberal, fiscally moderate Democrat who has represented the 13th district since 2005. “I used to volunteer for her,” Kleinman says. “I thought she was a real progressive, but I’ve become increasingly disappointed.” Citing her votes for free trade deals, the Bush tax cuts, the PATRIOT Act, and the war in Afghanistan, Kleinman declared his candidacy on January 23 and proceeded to gather the requisite signatures to get on the ballot.

Following the challenge against his signatures, Kleinman represented himself in court on March 2 but quickly determined that a protracted legal fight wasn’t the best use of his limited resources. “It didn’t look like it was going to go my way, to be honest, and the judge clearly was not listening to my arguments, though I had the law on my side,” Kleinman explains. “I decided that I would be a write-in candidate from here on out.”

When I met Kleinman on March 8, he had a full schedule. After distributing food to the homeless and speaking at a candidates’ forum hosted by an LGBT group in Philadelphia, Kleinman drove to Jenkintown where he was hosting his third “open strategy meeting”—an Occupy-inspired idea in which he broadcasts his thoughts about the race and solicits feedback from anyone who cares to attend.

At the meeting, which took place in a gazebo next to the Occupy Jenkintown encampment and was attended by about 20 people, Kleinman began on a positive note, announcing that he’d secured a large donation: “Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s donated two thousand twelve dollars to my campaign, which is really huge,” he said. “I’m hoping to get Jerry to donate, too.”

Kleinman delivered a lengthy speech, then took suggestions from the assembly—which included registering new voters and encouraging supporters to pitch small tents on their front lawns. At one point, after a long digression into the drug war in Mexico and a campaign to divest from the Chinese oil company Sinopec, a volunteer pleaded, “So what strategies do you have in place to actually get this stuff going?” “You mean the policy stuff?” asked Kleinman. “No, no, I mean the actual campaigning strategies to get you elected,” the woman replied. “We haven’t been leveraging our volunteers as well as we could,” Kleinman admitted. “That’s something we’ve got to change.”…

Read it all.

View From The Left

April 6, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

View From The Right

April 6, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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