August 27 - September 17
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for August 27 - September 17!
Obviously I’m off schedule this week, but I wanted to make sure to cover the riots at the Embassies. I should be back on schedule for the next Dispatch. This is a long one, and includes some content written a couple weeks ago.
On September 11th, following the release of a film insulting Islam, a group of ultraconservative Islamists rioted at the US Embassy in Cairo, scaling the embassy walls and replacing the American flag with an Islamist flag. On the same day, riots outside the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya escalated into an attack on the embassy that left the US Ambassador to Libya and three other state department employees dead. Over the following few days, protests erupted in Yemen, Sudan, Tunesia, Lebanon, and several other countries.
This was the first time a US Ambassador has been killed since 1988. The attacks came as a shock in the wake of the Arab Spring, which many in the West watched with optimism, so it’s worth taking a close look at what really happened here.
The backstory behind the film is bizarre. The production quality is absolutely atrocious, and all of the dialogue mentioning Mohammed or Islam in the film was clearly dubbed after production. Both the cast and the crew of the film have stated they were deceived about the purpose of the film, claiming they were told it was about an Egyptian warlord from 2000 years ago. The film appears to be the sole brainchild of its producer, a Coptic Christian parolee who appears to have been responsible for dubbing the dialogue. The film was promoted by various right-wing and Coptic groups, including Pastor Terry Jones of Florida, famous for burning Korans, and was published on YouTube in Arabic a few days before Sept. 11. It somehow came to the attention of the religious establishment in Egypt and was widely decried, with both the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and the Muslim Brotherhood calling for protests over the movie. From there, word of the obscure film spread throughout the Middle East, prompting calls for protests from religious leaders.
The video itself is ultimately irrelevant. It was such a hatchet-job of a film and produced with such limited support that it’s more an act of vandalism than a proper piece of media: the film was obviously never designed to be watchable, it was designed to pack as much vitriol and blasphemy into 14 minutes as possible. It’s the equivalent of a Westboro church protest - blatant shit-stirring - and it’s a good bet most of the protestors hadn’t actually seen the film.
So if the film doesn’t matter, then what happened in the streets?
It’s worth splitting the events out into three areas: Libya, Egypt, and the rest of the region.
The protests at the Libyan embassy resulted in the deaths of four State Department workers, including the Libyan ambassador. The people who killed the ambassador, though, were not protestors. They were heavily armed, with assault rifles, rockets, and smoke grenades, and apparently pursued the ambassador some way before managing to kill him. The Libyan security forces apparently fought back strongly, and the newly-elected Libyan parliament issued a rapid and strong apology and denunciation of the killing. It appears the ambassador’s killing was premeditated, and the protests were either used as cover or stirred up for the purpose. There are two lessons from Libya: The first is that the country is far from under control, and Salafist (ultra- conservative Islamist) militant groups are largely free to operate at will. This is bad. The second, though, is that the new Libyan government will engage with the west. They are not strong enough yet even to exert control over the whole country, but as the new government develops, it looks to be a possible ally in the region. This is good.
The protests started first in Egypt, and were strongest there, stretching for several days and involving street fights with security forces. There were peaceful protests, but several of the more hard-line Salafist groups took the opportunity to exert themselves in the street. The concerning part is that the Egyptian security forces, which, unlike Libyan forces, can still exert control of the streets, did not contain the protests for the first couple of days. More concerning was the new Egyptian president Morsi’s long wait before decrying the violence at the embassies - it took a call from President Obama and a reminder of the several billion dollars of aid money Egypt is expecting from the US to jar him into action. This is concerning: it implies Morsi either politically cannot decry the expressions of the ultra-conservative elements in Egypt or is not willing to do so. While some changes in the US/Egypt relationship were expected after the Mubarak government fell, the US has been sincere in its efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. Morsi’s first reaction, combined with calls by his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, for more protests in the streets following the embassy violence, are not a good sign for future US/Egypt relations. The death of the Libyan ambassador was a tragedy, but events in Egypt may well cast a longer shadow.
Events in both Libya and Egypt still fit into the broader regional landscape. Ultra-conservative Islamist elements have been a feature of the region for some time - the Arab Spring moved the dictators out of the way, which means these groups are more visible, but they’ve been there all along, along with anti-Western sentiment. This doesn’t mean these are majority positions - though in several countries, they appear to be significant enough that governments are having to tread carefully in dealing with the protests. The Arab Spring was (rightly) cheered in the West, but many of the dictators replaced survived in part because they were supported by the West and because they cracked down on exactly the sort of ultra-conservative groups which have promoted these protests. I don’t think the sentiments expressed over the last few days are broadly representative, but it’s a fair bet it will take some time to figure out exactly what form the relationship will take between the West and the nations of the Middle East.
Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, announced on September 6 a plan for open-ended, unlimited purchases of distressed sovereign European debt by the bank. The move, by far the most aggressive by the bank, would still tie bond purchases to austerity measures, but does promise to lower borrowing rates across the Eurozone.
If the ECB had announced this plan two years ago, the Eurozone wouldn’t be where it is now. The continued demands for austerity are unfortunate, but likely a political necessity to get the plan approved. The new plan doesn’t solve all of Europe’s problems - Spain, Italy, and Greece all still face significant economic hurdles, but Draghi has managed to finally backstop the Eurozone: if the ECB actually goes through with the bond purchases, the EU will now be able to avoid a sovereign default. The big remaining question is whether Germany will go along with the plan. The Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, was the one “No” vote for the ECB’s plans, and German courts are deciding this week whether the European Stabilization Fund (the previous attempt to save the Euro) will go through. It’s still possible for Europe to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but for the time being, this is extremely good news.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced a new bond purchasing program aimed at stimulating the lackluster US economy on the 14th. The new program will largely aim to buy mortgage bonds to increase consumer spending, and does not have a fixed duration, with the Fed announcing it will continue the program even after the economy starts to pick back up.
The Fed’s actions are unlikely to have an immediate or drastic effect on the economy. Interest rates are already exceedingly low, and it’s unlikely lower rates will spur much more spending than they have already. Paradoxically, the Fed’s promise to keep rates low until at least 2015 is part of the reason this move won’t strongly affect the current economic outlook: Anyone looking to borrow knows rates will stay low, and most borrowers are still facing a slow and uncertain economy. Still, the size and length of this program, and its implicit promise to allow some inflation, should help push the economy forward a bit - for all its other maneuvers, the Fed so far has been extremely timid when facing any prospects of inflation, which has limited the size, duration, and impact of previous acts. With inflation well below two percent, the Fed has finally decided the job market is the more pressing concern.
The current economic climate isn’t crying for monetary (Fed) stimulus. Interest rates have been as low as they’ve ever been for several years now, with salutary effects in the financial markets but little apparent effect on the broader economy. The problem is and continues to be high unemployment and low demand, not lack of funding. The fundamental mechanism by which monetary policy aims to affect the economy is by making money and loans cheaper, and therefore inducing borrowing and spending - but without demand and with uncertain economic prospects, few businesses are willing to invest in anything right now. Compounding the problem is the “Fiscal Cliff” slated for the beginning of next year, in which expiring tax cuts and draconian budget cuts aim to put another brake on an economy that’s almost in reverse. What the economy needs right now is proper leadership, not more money, and Bernanke has been urging Congress to do something, anything, for the better part of a year now. It looks like the Federal Reserve has finally decided that, whatever little benefit their action may have, it’s better than nothing, especially if Congress fails to act before next year.
Note: This section was written before the embassy events occurred.
It was brought to my attention last dispatch that I hadn’t covered Bahrain - this is true. The bulk of the events in Bahrain occurred last year before I began writing the Dispatch, but it’s a story that deserves to be heard, and the situation continues. There’s quite a bit to unpack here, so this is going to be a long section.
Bahrain is an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. A small, oil-rich nation, its population is around 500-600 thousand, though at any given time there are several hundred thousand expatriates from other nations. The country is predominantly Muslim, and predominantly (60-70%) Shia. It has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family, a Sunni tribe, since the late 1700s, and the al-Khalifas have relied heavily on sectarian tensions to keep power. Bahrain is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Arab oil-producing nation on the Arabian Peninsula, and is the home of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf.
The Uprising and the Crackdown
Al Jazeera produced an excellent documentary on the Bahraini uprising in June, entitled “Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark”. I recommend watching that for a more in-depth (and certainly more visceral) background.
The Bahraini uprising began February of last year as the local expression of the Arab Spring. Three days of peaceful protests at Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain calling for a more representative government and equal rights for the majority Shia population ended in violence with a pre-dawn raid by the police which resulted in the deaths of four protestors. The following day, the army opened fire on a group of protestors marching back to the square, killing one more protestor and wounding several more. The attacks sparked even larger protests, this time calling for the King’s ouster, and by February 22, more than 150,000 Bahrainis had joined the protests at Pearl Roundabout - Bahrain’s population is around 500,000.
On March 14, after several more weeks of protest, the Gulf Cooperation Council agreed to send troops to help the Bahraini monarchy put down the rebellion, sending thousands of troops, mostly from Saudi Arabia, to Bahrain. On March 15th, the King declared a state of emergency, and on the 16th, more than 5000 troops stormed Pearl Roundabout, violently clearing the plaza. Over the following weeks, security forces systematically targeted protestors and opposition figures, invading the hospitals and arresting doctors who treated protestors, knocking down Shia mosques, and beating, arresting, and torturing opposition figures. Since then, the government has continued targeting Shia neighborhoods - a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights called out the Bahraini security forces for firing tear gas directly into houses in Shia neighborhoods, which can cause severe medical problems.
The crackdowns in March fractured the popular movements. Protests and crackdowns have continued since, and the government seems caught between a reformist faction led by the Crown Prince, which has attempted to negotiate with the opposition, and a hardline faction led by the Prime Minister. Arrests of opposition leaders have continued, and the government has stepped up rhetoric decrying the protests as Iranian-led Shia machinations aimed at destabilizing the country.
It’s worth noting that the Bahraini crackdown is the first time the Peninsula Defense Force, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s security force, has ever actually engaged an opponent. That it’s first real use was to put down a popular uprising is extremely telling. There’s also some question as to the amount of latitude in dealing with the protests the al-Khalifas actually have given their reliance on Saudi Arabia - the Saudis have been just as ardent in putting down any sign of a Shia uprising in their own country, and are generally extremely hostile towards the Shia.
There’s an opening for Iran to stir the pot in Bahrain as well: Bahrain’s uprising is mostly Shia, increasingly sectarian (due to the government’s own actions), and is already creeping towards violence. Given the proximity of the country to Iran, and the fact that groups with Iranian ties have operated there in the past, there’s a genuine possibility Iran could eyeball Bahrain as a cheap way to sow chaos in the back yard of two of its regional foes. Increased instability or a truly violent Shia uprising in the country would cause significant problems for both Saudi Arabia, which has managed to keep a lid on its own Shia population over the last year, and the US, which would be faced with the prospect of a violent insurrection right outside one of its largest and most important naval bases.
For the US, the Bahraini uprising and the al-Khalifa’s violent reaction should prompt some introspection as to our geopolitical ties. American hands have largely been tied in Bahrain due to both the strategic importance of the naval base and our reliance on Saudi Arabia’s petro-largesse to bankroll our other adventures in the region. In short, because of our oil dependency, we’ve been unable to even comment loudly as the autocratic rulers of a regime we heavily support violently repressed their own people. Among the dividends of the world’s largest military and deepest pockets is apparently not genuine strategic autonomy: our silence as the Bahraini Shia have been abused by their own government does grave harm to our image in the region and provides further material for those rallying against us. Our energy problem leads us to back dangerous autocrats, push coups, spend trillions of dollars on occupations and other military adventurism, ignore overwhelming evidence of climate change, spoil natural habitats, and sow instability around the world. There is simply not a single other strategic US objective that has done more to tarnish our image, destroy our credibility, and force us to either engage in or support despicable, immoral behavior than our reliance on petroleum, and Bahrain’s crackdown, and our impotence throughout, should be cause for serious reflection.
* In the Kingdom of Tear Gas - Gregg Carlstrom for the Middle East Research and Information Project * Bahrain’s triangle of conflict - Reza H. Akbari, Jason Stern for Foreign Policy * A Revolution Paused in Bahrain - Cortni Kerr, Toby Jones for MERIP
The Iraqi vice president, a Sunni, was sentenced to death by the predominantly Shia government for allegedly running a death squad in Iraq.
The new Somali parliament elected a former political activist, Hassan Sheik Mohamud, as its new president. Mohamud survived an almost immediate attempt on his life the next day while giving a press conference.
Thanks again for joining me, and my best for the weeks ahead!