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A tail of two stories.

Schrödingers catLook what the cat refused to drag in, someone wittier than yours once said. To touch on Syria with a ten foot barge pole is to set oneself up for controversy or worse: ridicule. So keep it light, and you might be able to persuade yourself folks are laughing at your jokes. Or better yet, don’t talk about it at all. As famous cat-ignorer Erwin Schrödinger knew, if you ignore a thing hard enough, you don’t have to worry about it being alive or otherwise. Way cheaper than buying cat food or cleaning out the litter box, and certainly more convenient than pondering the lives and/or death of one hundred thousand people. You know, human beings.

Feline torture enthusiast Schrödinger also knew that two things, seemingly mutually exclusive, can be true at the same time. The glass is half full; but the glass is half empty. I am a brilliant scientist; but a terrible pet owner. Or, and this is where things get hair-ball-y: The Syrian opposition is fighting to save a country from genocidal tyranny; but the Syrian opposition, a ragtag of reluctant democrats, armed teens, and wild-eyed Al-Qaeda affiliates are tearing asunder an ethnically diverse, secular haven led by an occasionally stern patriarch with a lisp holding firmly against imperialist threats.

Which is it? Should the casual observer resign to flipping a coin? Shall we look away and assume the cat always lands on its feet? How does one call heads or tails on such an animal? What was God thinking? Better yet, what was he smoking? And where can I get some?

Zen MeowThat was Zen.

In early 2011 a bunch of school kids spray-painted the Egyptian revolutionary slogan on a wall in Daraa, Syria: “The people want to topple the regime.” The children were arrested and beaten by government goons. Subsequent protests were brutally repressed, evoking ever-wider demonstrations, and increasing government atrocities to the point where Gandhi himself would have considered raising his voice ever so slightly. And thus, popular protests slowly, surely, but most of all bloodily, became a civil war.

This is Miaow.

Two and a half years later oddly-whiskered Bashar Al-Assad is banking on his buddies in Iran, their Hezbollah baddies in Lebanon, oh, and Russia for weapons, cash, and boots. The noble Syrians meanwhile, gunning for freedom, economic opportunity equal to that of the president’s ethnic minority, and the right not to be gunned down for wanting those things, have awoken to awkward bed partners indeed, thinking: Where are my clothes? What time is it? And: Who the fuck are these clowns?

Proxy and the Banshees.

Saudi-Arabia, ever the champion of universal suffrage, is weighing in. Ostensibly bored of funding every reactionary madrassa from Lahore to Casablanca since the fifties, Osama Bin Laden’s exploits in Afghanistan, and as recent as last year squashing a democratic uprising in neighboring Bahrain, the house of Saud discovered they should now support Syrian democracy. With a straight face. Qatar; the military powerhouse you never suspected, Turkey, and the United States are all rooting for people power as well. Ish. Wikipedia still calls it a civil war. Which is true. But it’s fast become a proxy war too: A conflict where outsiders pick your country to fight each other directly or cajole and arm others what they haven’t the cajones to do themselves. Sometimes entire countries are invented merely to serve that exact purpose, but let us not drag Belgium into this.

I can haz warz?

lolcat1It sounds good. Perhaps a little too good. Bomb the evil, chemical weapons-wielding dictator. Not much. Just a little. Just enough to take out his air force, a few tanks here and there, otherwise known as his strategic advantage over the opposition. Nit-pickers can debate why wait until a hundred thousand folks have died to get upset about the latest one thousand just because the particular method carries an eerie historic connotation. Fair point. All these things are true. We should have done something then, and we should do something now.

Herding cats.

At peril of stating the obvious, it is clear all of the interested parties have a thing or two to win or lose. However with an ever-growing list of participants, is it reasonable to expect a predictable outcome if the ante is upped, after the Washington surgeon strikes with all the precision of three hundred Hummers falling from the skies? Will Syrians be better off when Assad, thusly needled, is left in place, only angrier?

Doing something about a war shouldn’t mean having a bit more war and hope –fingers crossed- at the end you have a lot less war.

International affairs haven’t changed much from, say, 1914. It’s a very lightly supervised kindergarten. Obama doesn’t trust the ex-KGB guy. Putin simply doesn’t like black people and besides, is way too busy looking for his shirt. Iran can’t play because, you know, they have beards. Assad has a funny moustache. Meanwhile the meat machine grinds and grinds.

A declaration of war.

lolcat2They know you went on that porn website yesterday. They know you ‘liked’ that video that claimed 9/11 was an inside job.  They know you love funny cat videos. What they cannot do is stop you from doing any of the above. The Internet is a weapon of much distraction.  It should be. No one needs to stay angry twenty four seven. It only takes a minute or two. Thanks to the Internet I know exactly which weapons manufacturer is financed by my bank ( I have emailed/Facebooked/Tweeted, and they have felt obliged to spend time and resources responding. We are finding out which politicians are wined and dined by those merchants of death. We have unprecedented access. You have no excuse not to fight back. All it takes is a keyboard, and they are cheaper than ever. It takes a minute or two to tell your politicians: “Put that thing back in your pants.” These two things are true at the same time: There are billions of us. We are nice, but we are going to cut your dick off.


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The Bosnia equation

To intervene or not to intervene. Among Syria’s neighbors, the question looms ever larger. Turkish talk of humanitarian corridors and the Red Cross’s pleas for access to Homs and other flashpoint cities is reminiscent of timid Western attempts at stemming the Bosnian civil war. In addition, the example of military intervention in Libya, which I opposed exactly a year ago and still do, as well as the Iraq war, although a different animal entirely, towers over the debate.

No one wants to stick their head into a hornet’s nest, as Western media more or less rightly portray Syria. You don’t mess with a patchwork of ethno-religious groups and not expect unexpected, i.e. unpleasant results. We have learned this the hard way. There is never a clear-cut case for intervention. But sometimes there are clear-cut reasons not to intervene, as the 2003-2011 US war in Iraq shows. To this day, the long black shadow of that disaster skews the debate in the sense that we forget the human imperative of stopping the slaughter of thousands, as is currently happening in Syria. The question is, how to go about this?

Again, Libya looms large as a how-not-to. One of the problems with the West, and certain Arab regimes’ intervention in Libya was that it was emphatically not a humanitarian action that happened to topple a dictator. Rather it was a regime change sold to skeptical western audiences as a humanitarian necessity. Let’s not forget that at the end of the day Libyan rebels, aided by NATO air power, received critical training and direct logistical and tactical support from Qatari boots on the ground. Not to mention arms. Lots of arms, which are currently causing havoc among local groups vying for influence and power as well as elsewhere in the region flooded with cheap hardware. In short, we fucked up. Kinda.

What’s the alternative then to letting thousands die at the hands of a brutal regime? Is there a middle-ground between respect for state sovereignty and intervention for humanitarian reasons? Is there a way, in other words, that sovereignty-spastics like Russia and China might be swayed in favor of protecting the lives of countless innocents? To a humanist, anything is better than doing absolutely squat all against slaughtering unarmed men, women, and children. To Russia and China anything -absolutely anything- is preferable to the mere idea of a well-armed bully rolling into their respective backyards or worse, and laying claim by military means to natural resources or the countries sitting on top. Hence their recent veto in the Security Council against sanctioning the Syrian regime. Again, the US adventure in Iraq has destroyed a lot more than that country’s infrastructure. Its diplomatic fall-out will likely hobble the cause of not-killing-folks for years to come.

Again, what then? How do we stop the butchering? The answer perhaps lies in the question itself. The main goal as well as the extent of any action or mediation should be to stop the killing. Nothing short of it and nothing more. Bearing in mind Western duplicity in its handling of Libya, talking protection but gunning for the regime, it might be difficult to convince opponents of intervention of the veracity of such a mandate. Yet it is a course that must be pursued nonetheless. In essence, the international community should devise a way to grind the war down to a non-combative stalemate. For example one would prohibit Assad’s regime from continuing to commit wide scale atrocities, but also inhibit a hurriedly armed disparate group of non-professional opposition fighters to become a security threat themselves as we are currently witnessing in Libya.

Needless to say bringing about and enforcing such a stalemate is easier said than done. The Arab League’s observer mission was a good albeit timid start. Diplomacy should work to identify and propose a quid-pro-quo to the Russians who might be able to induce the Syrian regime into accepting a new, expanded observer mission. Trucking in food and medical supplies, hardly a threat to the government’s hold on power, nonetheless increases a perceived outsider presence, a psychological factor that should not be underestimated. Bearing in mind the atrocities that occurred in UN-patrolled Bosnia, one shivers to imagine what might have happened had we turned the other way entirely. In short, quixotic as it might seem, an unarmed outsider presence, in any shape or form, and the diplomatic pressure to maintain it, should be the lodestar of interventionist thinking as the court of global public opinion is increasingly complemented by actual international court rooms.

Of course, unarmed observers, truck drivers, journalists, and medical personnel are a vulnerable asset. Pressuring a regime into protecting them, or at least not outright shooting at them, is alas, a lot more easily achieved, given all permanent UN Security Council members are on board, than having them not shoot its own civilians. It follows that the mere presence of said observers, truckers, journos and medics becomes an impediment to all-out war. With Syria’s death toll creeping up to 10.000, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. But until there are people trapped still in Homs and elsewhere any opportunity, however tenuous, is worth considering.

Whether a regime is able to provide for its people and if not, how it might be changed, is really not in the purview of other regimes, be they democratic or otherwise.  Full stop. The international community however has a duty to prevent the deaths of thousands of civilians, be they a victim of a natural disaster or the wrath of authority.

In Sinai, a fictional story, trapped tourists elicit a widening international chorus to ‘go in there and sort out the the mess’. The region teeters on the brink of war...

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“One hundred and fifty years from now, in a world where Africa is the dominant technological and economic power, and where crime, war, disease and poverty have been banished to history, Geoffrey Akinya wants only one thing: to be left in peace, so that he can continue his studies into the elephants of the Amboseli basin.” 

This is a story outline by Jonathan Dotse from Accra, Ghana, who blogs under the name of Afrocyberpunk about the future of African science-fiction. If indulging in (self)reflection about the future of society impacted by scientific development signifies a forward look, in fear or hope, then Africa has come into its own. In the wake of District 9, which mixed distinct Afro-centric backdrop and themes with an audacious inversion of such common sci-fi notions as ‘advanced’ and ‘earthly’, a bevy of African books and movies jostle for attention.

It’s not a stretch to connect these leaps of the imagination to a continent buoyed by a thriving resource trade, enormous but often unequal economic growth, and the advent of the 100 Gbit/s Wasace fibre-optic cable connecting Africa with the rest of the world. While authoritarian-run Rwanda aspires to become the next India, Silicon Valley and Japan all rolled into one, Nigerian cyber-scammers leave no gullible inbox unspammed. Throw in rare earth metals and pirates and you’re left wondering how any writer can resist the lure of the continent’s infinite possibilities.

But I’m drifting off. This blog is about plugging ‘Sinai’, an Arabian tale of old powers, nostalgic dictators and oil, not to mention 3000 years of Abrahamic lunacy. The contrast couldn’t be greater. Here’s a land looking back. Back to Islam as Muhammad meant it. Back to the secular, progressive fifties Middle East where skirts were short and the sky was the limit. Back to the glorious thirteenth century when Arabs invented science-fiction for crying out loud. Not that this is a new lament. Arabs never recovered from the discovery of America and the global trade shift toward the Western water ways. Only a handful of elites reaped the dividends of the oil age. Everyone else got fucked. No need to envision a dystopian future when that future is now.

Sinai is not science-fiction. While questioning the past, the future has largely caught up with it. The old order is thrown out, reluctant. Shackles are broken, that sort of thing. The future is left untouched, and is in any case not for me, a closet orientalist, to envision. 

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Mount Sinai provides a nice hike. Moses knew this too. Perhaps he was just eager to get away from the unruly bunch that had followed him into the desert for some reason. Thousands of men, women, and children, and not a lot of granola bars to go round. Prophets could do worse than read the fine print on the contract.

“What do we do now? Are we there yet? How about we make this enormous golden calf, wouldn’t that be cool?”

“I don’t know. No, not by a long shot, and frankly, I have no idea where we are. And no, we’re not making a golden calf. These things are a bitch to schlep around in the desert. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some, er, worshipping to do, er, up there. On ye olde mountain where dwelleth Jove, I mean Jehovah. Make sure the kids are in bed by ten, and oh, if someone could start thinking about breakfast, that would be great. The way things have been going, it’s likely I’m going to be pissed off again about something. I might spare the rod if I’ve had, I don’t know, eggs benedict, fresh orange juice?”

And up he went. Sans the snaking path hewn and chiseled over the centuries by Christian monks the trek probably took Moses a bit longer than today’s hi-tech-sandaled backpacker. There was no one to sell him a three dollar Snickers along the way. And it gets chilly up there without the fire of God to light your belly. “Yes,” the Supreme Being whispered through the dried shrubbery, “all the way up here. As Gods go I’m a bit of a shy fellow. Come, come. Glad you could make it. We’ll have a good old chat. Hope Pharaoh didn’t give you too much grief. Quite the show I put on, right? The other Gods were so jealous. Wait, did I say that out loud? Shit, now I can’t let you into the Holy Land. Anyway, you’re not far now. Up you go.”

Today’s nightly traveler can rent a dingy mattress. Blankets too if you didn’t bring a sleeping bag. Evening hikes and sleep-over are the best, if you can stand the keen, jagged winds. The sunrise is more than worth it. If you happen to be up there on Easter morning, expect a busload of white-robed American evangelicals providing a rude wake-up call. Annoying if you happen to unslumber with a full blather. They were ‘friggin’ everywhere, chanting, clapping, posing for the twentieth grinning snap shot -bedraggled nonbeliever lurking in the background. Photoshops right out, I guess.

In Sinai, the robed revelers are there for more than a little sing-along. Frankly, you don’t wanna know. Or do you?

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Liberals aren’t doing very well in the Middle East. Islamist parties have swept the ballot in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya is just a plain mess. Coptic Christians are fretful for their already tenuous position in Egyptian society. Women fear a patriarchic backlash implied in Islamists’ conservative programs. The latter use newly-won democratic freedom to gain power, but will they abide by the rules of the game once in power?

First of all, liberals -and with few caveats I consider myself one- are a bunch of wining cry-babies. Quite often we are prone to jitters in the face of dangerous trends like islamization, global warming, or the new, abhorrent indulgences of youngsters. How often do we really look in the mirror and admit that, ah yes, we too were once young and dangerous, and liberals also drive cars, use power-guzzling iPads, eBooks and er, wAshing Machines. By and large, liberals gave nary a peep when ‘secular’ and hence perceived as ‘liberal’ regimes beat, jailed, tortured, and killed their Islamist opponents, be they AK47-toting maquisards or moderate anti-totalitarian believers of the Eighties Polish priest variety.

During the Mubarak years liberal Egyptians either left the country or more or less went with the flow, enjoying the economic privileges of an economic pyramid heavily skewed in favor of an internationally mobile elite and business-savvy military brass. The few who did stick their necks out know why the rest didn’t. Western liberals, who are able to bathe in bikinis and -God forbid- Speedos on Sharm El-Sheikh’s beaches, didn’t see a problem. Mubarak was pro-women, as would be his son, they assumed. As long as the Egyptian economy grew, who needs democracy? And grow it did. The ones that profited though were those that knew someone that knew someone. You guessed it, liberals.

Geert Wilder

When liberals forget that liberalism and its enabler; material wellbeing, is for everyone, they cease to be liberals. They ought to stop yammering and acting all surprised at the electoral success of Islamic movements that have for years provided social services and healthcare to those who needed it most. The revolutions sweeping the Middle East are an opportunity to establish a level playing field where all the currents of a society can vie for attention, approval, and influence. Liberals haven’t had a veritable opponent in decades. Ideas are crusted over with neglect and complacency. It’s time for some soul-searching and re-inventing. Arab liberals can do better than a simple copy-paste job of their European or American peers. Challenged by xenophobic rabble-rousers the latter have done a lot of caving in and Chamberlain-ing, and not a lot of self-criticizing and looking to a different future.

In ‘Sinai’, a tongue-in-cheek thriller, a Muslim Brotherhood-led government isn’t doing so great. The challenges are great, and the people’s patience threadbare. The ‘liberals’, represented by a pair of wily old generals, are more than yearning for a simpler past. A doofus backpacker winds up in the middle of this tug-of-war. Suddenly a lot more is at stake than the soul of Egypt… 

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Democracy in the Middle East

Sinai is not a political treatise. Or maybe it is. Depends on your definition of ‘is’ perhaps. It’s a bit of a silly story of a dude lost in an Alice in Wonderland type of strange land. But even silly stories are set in a time and place. Sinai’s is a recent democracy, it’s foibles and turmoil.

It’s been a year since the revolutions began. It’s been a year since western pundits started wondering what’s next. Can there be such a thing as Arab or Muslim democracy? Will Islamist forces seize the opportunity to try and impress upon a volatile society its patriarchic and misogynistic views? Will the West be forced to reassess long-standing relationships, scramble to save contracts, jostle for new ones, and pragmatically pander to whichever regime or constellation of forces arising from the chaos? The answer to all of these questions of course is ‘yes’. Unfortunately the answer to all of these questions means nothing much at all.

Winston Churchill once said “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” The same can be said of the Middle East. The past couple of years have been especially prolific. So much has happened in fact, and is happening, that to draw ANY kind of conclusion today about the Arab Spring is not only futile, but very much at peril of sounding silly. The generals of Egypt are trying to claw back the power and influence lost in the process of removing their much-hated figurehead Mubarak. Hence, democracy is lost. Islamists are winning important democratic elections. Hence, the future will look like Iran. In lieu of finely-tuned sarcasm, I’ll just put it bluntly: It’s stupid! Fuck off!

Sinai’s main character, like a lot of newly-minted Mid-East pundits, isn’t well-versed in the matters at hand. Linus isn’t versed at all actually. He was looking for a beach, and found a war zone. Talk about great, dashed expectations. He has to learn the hard way that things don’t really end -no spoiler alert: the book does end! In reality, no such clear-cut narratives exist. Everything is a process. History is not a collection of periods that begin and end. It’s an oscillating wave. Likewise, democracy is not a point of arrival. It’s a conductor like copper wiring. Democracy allows for a society to communicate, first and foremost with itself. Suffrage allows for ALL ideas to be heard, however smart or retarded, and for a (often disappointing) common denominator thereof to percolate as collective action. Competing forces in a society can wage battle without actual blood flowing on the dance floor. Democracy is an imperfect means to an end that no one knows.

Buy Sinai here.

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Why the Arab Spring was no surprise.

“Nobody saw it coming!” they say. Among others the White House, whose business it is to know who’s hot and who’s not among its Arab satellite regimes, found itself flabbergasted, not to mention discombobulated. “A complete surprise,” muttered many a well-paid analyst, often expounding their ignorance on national TV. “Told you so,” gloated a few -ahem- prescient observers. One might arguably pop the latter’s bubble by saying that if you predict enough things, some are bound to come true. Winning the lottery is difficult, but it happens nonetheless. And yet, while playing the lottery is purely a game of chance, history accords the astute observer quite a few threads to see what’s ahead. In that sense, it’s more like playing black-jack while a voluptuous blonde woman befuddles your opponent.

The Arab Spring, in other words, was always in the cards. Without delving too much into the past, Egypt under Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) was a police state run under emergency law instated after the previous president’s assassination at the purported hands of Islamist militants. While in the streets of Cairo and the sugar cane fields of the Nile valley and Delta a low-intensity war raged between Saudi-financed terror groups and brutal American-armed security forces, Egyptian society grew poorer, and evermore conservative. The nominally secular regime yielded the religious forum to the invisible (because illegal, yet non-violent) Muslim Brotherhood. I.e. certain conservative aspirations were met while the root of the Brotherhood’s success was left unaddressed; pervasive state corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and a lack of social services that the Brotherhood was more than happy to make up for.

Meanwhile the Egyptian middle-class, whose women in the Sixties and Seventies happily wore mini-skirts, bikinis and jeans, was all but decimated after the costly wars of ’67 and ’73, and the neoliberal “Opening” policy begun by Sadat just before the start of the Eighties. Egyptian cinema, a rich and artful platform to discuss social change, women’s rights and existential musings, withered. Although the incisive Egyptian sense of humor and keen observation is difficult if not impossible to suppress, the Eighties and Nineties were a time of ‘loud and camp’, and such finely chiseled imports as Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. On the romantic side, perhaps no movie embodied the crux and end of that era better than “Titanic”. Among Egyptian, and indeed Arab youth, always dreaming of a better life, an American life, the message really sunk in. “Get rich, or die trying,” to paraphrase a Mr. Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent.

This American orientation, already badly wounded by US support for arch-enemy Israel, ended with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died there. No weapons of mass destruction were found. Al-Qaeda followed the US army into Iraq, not the other way around, while democracy, hardly worthy of the name, stumbled. The Egyptian and other Arab regimes, by association, stood bare.  Justice would not come from the West. John Rambo wasn’t going to set things straight. Egyptian cinema of the Nilties in turn took on a sharper tone. Movies like “Hasan and Marcos” discussed Christian-Muslim relations. The scandal flick “The Yacoubian Building” based on a novel by Alaa Al-Aswany set in an Art Deco building by the same name, offered a piercing review of Egyptian society. Even high-rolling action films like “Tito” and “Fatah Ainaik” (Open your Eyes) bathed in a political undercurrent, pitting young men against the political and economic 1%.

Already in 2004 a vocal political movement came to the fore. The Egyptian Movement for Change, or Kefaya (Enough) was born from solidarity committees with Palestinians’ 2000 Intifada against Israeli occupation, and from the huge protests against the US invasion of Iraq. Rumors that Mubarak’s son Gamal was being groomed for dynastic succession further galvanized the opposition. In December of 2004 between 500 and 1000 protestors surrounded by riot police demanded Mubarak step down. Cowed and beaten by pro-regime thugs, and failing to expand beyond an intellectual Cairo elite, the movement did manage to wrest some token reforms from the state. Moreover, one of the movement’s founders Hany Anan, declared: “We are showing Egyptians that we can challenge the ruler, we can tell him we don’t want you, that’s enough, you go, and we can do this in public and still go back to our homes, maybe with some wounds or some bruises, but we still go home.”

It would take another five years, and the inspiring Tunisian example, for the rest of Egyptians to pinch themselves and open their eyes to a startling possibility. ‘Wait a minute… You can do that?” The surprise, perhaps, was all theirs.

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