The Battle for Antarctica

You might think that of all the seven continents, Antarctica stands the best chance of surviving environmental destruction at the hands of mankind. The ice-covered expanse within the Antarctic Circle is a virgin terrain with no indigenous peoples; compare that to Asia, the largest continent in area, whose population has surpassed four billion.

But in Antarctica: Battle for the Seventh Continent, author Doaa Abdel-Motaal debunks our romantic perceptions of Antarctica as a pristine land of monochromatic vistas, frigid weather, and South Pole explorers. As she tells the story, Antarctica is already being overrun by commercial fishing and touristic excursions, and is gravely threatened by a coming geopolitical scramble for its valuable mineral resources and large-scale human habitation. “As Antarctica becomes more livable because of climate change, much of the world will become more difficult to inhabit,” says Abdel-Motaal. “Today we are standing before a major mass migration, and we have to prepare ourselves for that.”

Antarctica traces the battle for the continent to the first half of the twentieth century, when seven nations—Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, France, and the United Kingdom—laid territorial claims. Negotiations initiated by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower led to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, a landmark for international peace that demilitarized the continent and designated it a scientific preserve. Since then, there has been a steady rise in human activity: research stations staffed by about 4,000 scientists and technicians dot the landscape, and Argentina and Chile have established experimental human settlements.

Abdel-Motaal says that many of the research stations are conducting “incredible scientific work” but others are there “to plant the national flag” for the possible future extraction of Antarctica’s petroleum, gold, and diamond deposits. The fifty-three parties to the Antarctic Treaty began discussing mineral exploitation in 1981, and the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) was adopted in 1988. The convention later collapsed following intense pressure from environmental groups including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, as well as non-party states who wanted to turn the continent into a “World Park.” The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which bans all mineral resource activities except scientific research until 2048, was established in 1991. Abdel-Motaal insists we must think ahead: “When 2048 comes around and countries start to express an interest in mining the continent and exploiting the economic resources, we had better have a plan otherwise this thing may descend into chaos.”

Abdel-Motaal argues that Antarctica, a land mass larger than Europe, has the weakest environmental protection regulations of all the continents. Only 1.5 percent of Antarctica’s land mass has been set aside as protected conservation areas, far less than the 17 percent recommended by the Convention on Biological Diversity. Abdel-Motaal points to commercial fishing and tourism as economic activities already depleting fish stocks and degrading the landscape due to the lack of sufficient regulations. With the distant continent increasingly accessible, these issues will only grow.

The gravest threat to Antarctica, Abdel-Motaal says, is climate change that is melting the continent’s ice layer. Having registered the lowest temperature ever recorded in 1983—nearly minus 89 degrees centigrade—last year a record warm temperature of 14.8 degrees centigrade was hit. “We don’t know and we can’t tell whether the temperature rise that we’re seeing in the Antarctic peninsula is due to natural climate variability or man-made global warming,” explains Abdel-Motaal. “However, what is clear and what cannot be contested is the fact that the temperature is rising.” The precise reasons for rising temperatures are difficult to measure, particularly in Antarctica, where a large hole in the ozone layer must also be taken into consideration. Abdel-Motaal says that if the entire west Antarctic ice shelf melts, it could lead to a four- to six-meter rise in the global sea level with catastrophic consequences such as the destruction of ecosystems and flooding of entire regions.

Abdel-Motaal supports the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The accord pledges to control the rate of average global temperature rise, decrease damaging effects of climate change, promote development of technology with low greenhouse gas emissions, and provide economic incentives to help realize these goals. Abdel-Motaal argues that failure to stem climate change could have dramatic consequences for Antarctica itself, too: besides destroying the continent’s ice layer, it could spur large-scale human migration to the continent and accelerate a race to exploit mineral resources. “Forces are coming together that are likely to renew the battle for Antarctica,” she warns. Abdel-Motaal believes there is a misconception that the Antarctic Treaty brought peace, when in fact rapidly changing global dynamics will soon leave the continent exceptionally vulnerable.

Abdel-Motaal, a former deputy chief of staff at the World Trade Organization who holds a master’s degree in sociology from the American University in Cairo, offers a proposal to bring order to Antarctica’s future. It is based on the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, which granted Norway sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean and also granted treaty signatories rights to mineral resources and commercial fishing. Abdel-Motaal proposes that Antarctica be divided along similar lines among Antarctic Treaty signatories into sovereign territories, which could in turn enforce stricter environmental protection regulations. “There is nothing worse for the environment than to have a no man’s land,” Abdel-Motaal says. The ultimate aim, she adds, is equity in utilizing earth’s last frontier: “The resources of the continent are part of the common heritage of mankind and nobody should be allowed to monopolize them.”

Woes of Arab Youth

Many young people experienced the Arab Spring uprisings as their own coming of age story. Today, six years later, they are grappling with the realities of growing up. Sixty-five percent of the region’s 400 million people are under thirty. A demographic that cannot be ignored, Arab youth can either be an empowered source of progress or a dire threat to political and social stability.

How well these youth transition into adulthood—and how their governments respond to their needs—will certainly influence the future of the Middle East. An exhaustive study of those questions by fifteen research organizations from Arab and European countries recently presented an important preliminary finding at the American University in Cairo: for youth living in Mediterranean Arab countries, the number one problem is unemployment, contributing to a desire to emigrate expressed by more than 15 percent of respondents in a survey.

The Sahwa (“Awakening”) Project funded by the European Union explored youth views on everything from politics and culture to gender. Teams of interviewers, data analysts, and researchers conducted a survey with ten thousand individuals between the ages of 15 and 25 in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. In addition, ethnographers in each country held discussions with focus groups on local socioeconomic conditions.

According to Bahgat Korany, AUC professor of international relations and political economy and director of the AUC Forum, the project’s Youth Survey found that factors pushing young Arabs to emigrate included a lack of professional opportunities, low incomes, poor living conditions, and a desire to support families. Migration for job-related reasons ranked first at 48 percent among Egyptian survey respondents. Perhaps surprisingly, people of all education levels expressed the desire to leave Egypt; and almost half of Egyptians wishing to migrate are employed but lack job security.

Indeed, Korany learned, the Egypt job market lists many vacancies, but Egyptian youth often fail to qualify for them. The problem, he suspects, is that the Egyptian educational system, which focuses on rote memorization, fails to develop the critical thinking and leadership skills required for the modern economy. Additionally, Korany noted, Arab youth in general place too much emphasis on landing poor-paying public sector jobs; this is due to the desire for job stability and social safety nets.

The Sahwa researchers concluded that better education and labor policies are the keys to enhancing young people’s socioeconomic opportunities and reversing the migration trend. Otherwise, the protests the region witnessed in the 2011 Arab Spring may return. “Youth as a group is usually proactive, pro-change, rightly or wrongly, and they want the change to be immediate,” Korany said. “If it is not, they are ready to go to the street.”

Saudi Arabia’s Post-Oil Future

The euphoria that accompanied the launch of “Saudi Vision 2030” has begun to dim in the face of fundamental challenges. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud’s ambitious plan to steer the country’s economy away from oil dependency and through an era of austerity seemed to offer a much-needed roadmap for overdue reforms. The plan’s measures include new taxes on foreign workers (the majority in the private sector), raised visa fees, reduced public salaries and hiring, and a gradual withdrawal of energy subsidies.

The call for austerity had an inauspicious start: soon after the launch of Saudi Vision 2030, foreign media reported on the continued lavish spending of both Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman Bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud. Critics of the economic reforms cite the government’s precipitate approach and the absence of the necessary legal or political guarantees to ensure accountability or sustainability. Prince Mohammed, appointed deputy crown prince in 2015 after his father ascended the throne, consolidated the regulatory and executive power of the government under his direction in the Council for Economic and Developmental Affairs. To much of the public, the reforms seem to be reallocating money from one place to another, rather than investing in privatization.

The immediate outcomes of the economic reforms on the labor market to date are counterintuitive. The government is mainly targeting the private sector for taxation. Unfortunately, the private sector is rather weak and highly dependent on governmental contracts. In addition, weak labor regulations and the lack of unions undermine workers’ rights in labor disputes. The government suspended payments to major private contractors in 2016, leaving thousands of foreign workers unpaid for months and without legal redress. Some took to the streets in anger and were imprisoned and flogged for destroying public property. When foreign governments intervened, King Salman allocated $266.5 million to settle cases, and later replaced the minister of labor over rising unemployment among nationals, which had reached 12.1 percent.

The situation is also dire for Saudi citizens in the private sector. Saudis occupy 70 percent of jobs in the public sector and less than 15 percent in the private sector. Since 2011, the state adopted measures toward the “Saudization” of jobs in the private sector. Despite the state efforts to spike Saudization, private sector employers continue to prefer lower-paid foreigners over Saudis. Recently, the Shura Council criticized the Saudi Arabian General Investment authority for a failed strategy that caused one out of eight foreign investors to end their business in Saudi Arabia. It was more likely that the rising cost of operation and the taxation of foreign workers is what drove investors away.

A recent revision of Article 77 of the labor law granted employers the right to terminate workers’ contracts for modest compensation. This caused a 38 percent drop in Saudization. In the last nine months alone, 50,000 Saudis’ contracts were terminated and 170,000 new foreigners were hired. It is therefore unlikely that the projected 450,000 jobs for Saudis will be created in the private sector by 2020. Small measures were planned to absorb the public fury, such as the Shura Council meeting with unemployed Saudis, after receiving thousands of petitions, and a decision to suspend companies accused of blanket layoffs. However, businesses continue to terminate employment contracts to manage the rising cost of operations.

The state’s cautious manner in addressing the position of women was evident in how it managed women’s participation in the workforce, one of the lowest globally. Though Saudi Vision 2030 places an ambitious objective of “unlocking the talent, potential, and dedication of our young men and women,” it does little to translate it into reality. The plan targets only an 8 percent increase in women’s workforce participation.

Saudi Arabia also chooses to ignore the grassroots advocacy campaigns to further women’s rights, for example by abolishing the ban on women driving and the male guardianship system. Nor does the kingdom have a codified personal status law supporting women’s family rights. The state’s investment in the ride-hailing company Uber, with women representing 85 percent of its clients, ensures a long shelf life for the driving ban.

Women are eager to join the job market. Ironically, some women have even found opportunities operating food trucks—even though they cannot drive the vehicles themselves. Though the state has placed several women in top positions, appointments should never be confused with representation. Four of the first women members in the Shura Council submitted a request to the king to be relieved from their duties due to obstructions in reforming women’s legal rights. The state continues to treat women as avatars of the kingdom’s Islamic and tribal identity.

The state has always managed reforms in a way that maintains the ultimate control of the ruling Saudi family. Even when terms like “our people” and “our society” are used, as in Saudi Vision 2030, public participation remains symbolic rather than genuine. A fierce domestic resistance has developed against selling shares in the oil giant Aramco because of concerns about losing control of the sole resource of the nation to foreign investors.

The monarchy’s system of patronage, based on loyalty rather than public rights, is hard to maintain when money is in short supply. The Saudi royal family has long deferred political reforms—particularly those affecting women, youth, and minorities—based on the premise that they may trigger a backlash among religious conservatives, an argument which is easily refuted considering the little to no resistance following decisions to curtail the religious police’s powers, or to allow concerts and public performances. Failure to address human development in its true essence—job creation, social security, and representation in decision-making—is the hallmark of a blurry, unsustainable vision for the future.

Hala Al-Dosari is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Plight of an Arab Intellectual

The twelve novels of Sonallah Ibrahim span the reigns of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. His works have explored how ordinary people are affected by the vicissitudes of Egypt’s politics, from the waning days of the Egyptian monarchy (captured in Stealth, published in 2007) to the Islamicization of culture (Zaat, published in 1992). His prison diaries, written on cigarette paper and smuggled past guards, laid the foundation of his 1966 debut, That Smell, whose coarse minimalism upended the conventions of the Arabic novel.

Ibrahim, 79, is a lifelong agitator, “a symbol of the independent intellectual,” as Al-Masry Al-Youm put it. In Nasser’s time Ibrahim was imprisoned for Communist Party affiliation while working as a journalist. In 2003, he took to the lectern of the Cairo Opera House to refuse the Arab Novel Award, a literary prize given by the state, objecting to the Mubarak regime’s corruption. He joined the protests that overthrew Mubarak in 2011, but later criticized them as lacking a viable political agenda. To the surprise of many (and dismay of some of his admirers), Ibrahim initially supported the military’s ouster of democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi amid popular protests in 2013. Cairo Review Contributing Editor Jonathan Guyer interviewed Ibrahim at his apartment in Cairo’s Heliopolis district on March 27, 2017.

JONATHAN GUYER: Why do you write novels?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: When I was a teenager I would buy every newspaper available. If I didn’t have money, I would agree with the seller that I would read it and bring it back for half price. Really my passion was the press. All my attempts to join a newspaper or magazine failed. Right after coming out of prison I went to Rose El-Youssef, and they said no. I went to other papers. Someone I knew was in charge of Al-Gomhouriya, a daily paper. I started doing stories and submitting them. I did an interview with the Soviet poet [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko, who had come on a visit. I noticed that he was wearing a watch in the shape of a triangle, and I wrote that in the interview. The man at the paper said to me, “Really, what kind of watch? Are you making it up?” At that time, when I had started writing That Smell, I started to feel that that form of expression was more comfortable for me, completely free, that I could say or do anything.

JONATHAN GUYER: What’s your opinion about the Arab media today?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: It is in a very bad situation. First there is no independent journalism at all—either everything is under the control of the state or they take money from other countries. In Lebanon for example, every Arab state, and Western state—the Americans have a paper, the English have a paper, Saudi Arabia, and so on. It is the same in Egypt in another form, meaning there are the three papers or the magazines that the state publishes, and there are other papers, called independent, but they are nothing like independent. They are owned by major capitalists, and for them, they’re not journalists or interested in journalism. It’s side work, or side activity, to help the main activity of theirs, which is imports or business or whatever. Also, the government, by means of the intelligence services, interferes with newspapers. They make phone calls and say, “Don’t talk about that subject, or else.”

JONATHAN GUYER: What happened to Marxism in Egypt?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: That’s a very big subject. But we can say that, first, there was a struggle, a power struggle, with Gamal Abdel Nasser. Gamal Abdel Nasser was victorious in that power struggle. The Communists just thought about getting rid of the English. Well, Nasser got rid of them and then immediately started with industrialization, factories, nationalization of big companies, and started on a path, that might have been wrong or right, that’s not my point. It was a practical effort. He had an apparatus to implement things. He pulled the carpet out from under the feet of the Communists. But the general ideas of the Communists are still around today, even if there isn’t strong organized action. But the same ideas of social justice, freedom, equality, ideas on healthcare, things that most people agree with, even the liberals. You know that the ancient Egyptians were the first to go on strike. “Give us our beer!” The builders of the pyramids every day received sun-baked bread, onions, and a glass of beer. A divine right!

JONATHAN GUYER: In the novel Zaat, for the first time your protagonist is a woman.
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Because when I thought about writing that book, I was feeling angry because of the people’s position toward the regime, keeping quiet, accepting, being patient, in need, under oppression. In what I had been writing before then, one, two, three, four novels, the main character was a man. So I felt that the political situation in the country required a woman. Yes, political solutions required a woman, and my writing required the presence of a woman. I had the idea of a woman. When I was in the Communist Party there were girls, comrades, with me. I was in a cell where the senior figure was a woman. Something great. The woman I wanted as the main character was Zaat, Princess Zaat Al-Himma. There is a myth about an Arab princess who led the armies against foreign enemies. But after a while Zaat became a very simple woman, like the woman who lives in the apartment next door, like my sister, like the majority of women. The woman who has inner power to sustain the family, to care for the husband and children and school and kitchen and everything, see. But still she is not sharing the common public interest. She does not have a role in politics, in taking decisions. Sure, she’s the main power in this house, but she has no force or power in the decisions taken, the main decisions taken.

JONATHAN GUYER: In your novel Stealth, there’s a story about the Jewish school.
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Yes, my house was opposite the Israelite School. That’s what was written: the Israelite School. There are Muslims and Christians, and there were Jews. It’s amazing, but the Jews were completely integral to daily life. There were people who you knew, and you only found out they were Jewish much later.

JONATHAN GUYER: Things started changing with the Israeli attack in 1956, or with the founding of Israel in 1948, or even before then?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: No, from 1948. Problems began because of the reaction to what was happening in Palestine. And that reaction was used or exploited by two fascist groups, Masr Al-Fata and the Muslim Brotherhood. They said, “No, no, no.” The Jews started to be afraid. Some decided to leave, not many, until Israel worked on that idea. Israel itself started to make them scared. They frightened the Egyptians. There was something called the Lavon Affair. They frightened the Jews: “They will kill you, the Egyptians will. Leave.” So that happened.

JONATHAN GUYER: How has the rise of the Gulf countries changed the Arab World?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Religious fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia, for example, found itself with a lot of money. Egyptian teachers, doctors, lawyers, they go and stay for four years and come back. There is no cinema, there is nothing for them to do but sit around at night and play cards. Or people go to the mosque, and wear a white gallabiyah, and grow a beard, and so on. They start to use the language or the words that signify what’s good and virtuous. They come back here, a very poor country, with a car and a copy of the Quran, and a gallabiyah. When I was young it was not possible for someone to go out in the street wearing a gallabiyah. He had to wear a suit. That affects the whole society.

JONATHAN GUYER: What do you think about President Donald Trump? 
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: A pig, a big pig, a fat pig, in office. But I don’t think he’ll last long. He represents a part of American society well. There is something strange about that country. A great country, with the most powerful inventions, the new successes, the boldness to go into the unknown. Despite the problems of big capital, all this ferment, it is the pinnacle of Western civilization. People who produced someone like Will Durant, or Einstein, people with wide horizons. Yet, there is intolerance. It’s hard to believe they’d bring forward someone like Trump. Excuse me if I’ve hurt your feelings, if you’re one of the Republicans who supports Trump.

JONATHAN GUYER: How do you regard America’s policy in the Middle East today?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: I think there is confusion. Painful to see what’s happening in Syria. I think all the people bear responsibility. Of course Bashar Al-Assad most of all. He’s a criminal. As though we were in the Middle Ages.

JONATHAN GUYER: What’s the place of the Arab intellectual in all these affairs?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: He tries to understand what’s happening, but that’s difficult. Then, I think, I’m not expecting action from him. I’m not expecting much. Because, ultimately, the respectable Arab intellectual, if you give him an invitation to Saudi Arabia, and give him an envelope with something in it, he’ll write you an article saying this and that. Understand? That is the dilemma of the intellectual all over the world.

JONATHAN GUYER: How do you see the Mubarak era, which covered much of your writing life? On the streets, we hear the public saying that they want another Mubarak.
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Because the situation under him was better.

JONATHAN GUYER: What future do young Egyptians face?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: A beautiful generation. A beautiful generation and lots of things will come from it. I expect many things from it, and the generation after it. It’s a natural story for any country or people.

JONATHAN GUYER: Did Abdel Fattah El-Sisi save Egypt in 2013?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Yes, that’s correct. That’s correct. The situation then: the Muslim Brotherhood, with the backing of America, Germany, France, and England had a plan that the whole region should be in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. They imagined that they represented moderate Islam, and they would be able to reach an understanding with them, because they have the same mentality of the shop owner, of the merchant. And there’s the army. They’ve become present in everything. They have schools, factories, making everything, even pasta. They became a power, an economic power, and in consequence a political power. With that, they did not want the Brotherhood. The liberals and the left: there was no unity, no organization, no plans.

JONATHAN GUYER: Why did El-Sisi have to save Egypt?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: It wasn’t just El-Sisi who rescued the country. The people were vigilant, the people said no. First, a retrograde wave of Islamic rulings had begun about bizarre things, like a hadith about selling women, for example. Then there was the presence of Gamaa Al-Islamiyya, the group which assassinated Sadat and others, at the October 6 War commemoration. There were many things that were illogical, or that the people hadn’t asked for. The people realized the opportunity to again rectify the situation. In addition, the Brotherhood didn’t have any solution or proposal for the economic problems of the people. That’s it.

JONATHAN GUYER: Morsi’s policies were against the people?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: No, it wasn’t against the people or the populace, not against. It didn’t comply with what the people demanded.

JONATHAN GUYER: Now it seems that you don’t like El-Sisi’s administration at all. Do you regret what happened in 2013?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: On June 30, do I regret what happened? It was the only way to repair the calamity.

JONATHAN GUYER: It’s fifty years since the Six-Day War.
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: The meaning of 1967? The meaning of 1967 was the victory of the Western or American vision for the Middle East. To get rid of Arab nationalism.

JONATHAN GUYER: Did the 1973 war restore dignity?

SONALLAH IBRAHIM: You said restoration of dignity, but was it a restoration of right? No.

JONATHAN GUYER: The right in Palestine? Or the right of the Arabs?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: It’s one right. Palestine for us isn’t just the issue of Palestine. Palestine isn’t the issue for Israel. Israel’s slogan is from the “Euphrates to the Nile.” The whole of this region. Something direct. The target of Israel is not only Palestine.

JONATHAN GUYER: Why are so many Egyptians drawn to Islamism?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: The same reasons that help spread fundamentalism in American society. Frustration at the failure of processes and attempts to make progress or create openness, tolerance, progressive ideas about social life, a new vision of sexual relations. There is a reaction to all of that, which is fundamentalism. The return to certainty, to the constant. The Quran, the Book, is there. Everything is in it, and the story’s over.

JONATHAN GUYER: Is there any chance for liberalism in the Arab world?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Of course. I believe that what is happening now in terms of chaos and disorder will in the near future give birth to—look, waves, it is waves. In the West if you look, think with me, 1920, 1936. A leap forward, then reaction, fascism. And after fascism, reaction, a leap forward, then comes the reaction. Then come the 1960s. Wow, the 1960s, we want to change everything, and everything changed. The greatest possible actualization of the self, of freedom, of breaking out, of creativity in art, in film, in music, in writing, in everything. Afterwards, there’s a reaction. And so on. It’s always like that. Bang, then a reaction going backwards, then another reaction going forwards. But in the whole process, the ideas of progress are winning.

JONATHAN GUYER: Where is Egypt in 2017?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Going down completely. And afterwards we’ll head upwards. The reaction will happen.

JONATHAN GUYER: Who are the new generation of Arab leaders?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: One of the beautiful things for the whole world, not just for Egypt or the Arabs, is that the age of the leader—of a sole, unique leader—is over. There was Stalin, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Clinton, De Gaulle, Mitterrand, Gandhi, all of that, and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The halo has broken.

JONATHAN GUYER: Can you imagine another revolution in Egypt?

JONATHAN GUYER: What form would it take?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Its form, now at this moment, would be vicious, oh, something like the first days of the French revolution. People who go and smash things up and steal. For one reason: because the regime, and El-Sisi in particular, is very stupid, and does not want an official opposition. If there were an opposition, official, organized, there could be dialogue, pressure. Understand? That would prevent chaos. If there is a revolution, it will be chaos, and I don’t want that. Revolution yes, I want revolution, but not chaos. An organized revolution, and that takes time.

JONATHAN GUYER: What have you been writing?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: A novel on the last day in the life of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The idea is, who is Gamal Abdel Nasser? What were his motives?

JONATHAN GUYER: The role of the writer during Nasser’s time, is it similar to the role or duty of the writer now in Egypt?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: All the time the same, I suppose. The role of a real writer, he should have a kind of vision. The revolt against the status quo, against the situation, the desire to reach new horizons.

JONATHAN GUYER: You were an expert witness at the 2015 trial of Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who was convicted of violating public decency.
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: There has to be a form of solidarity with people, when I myself could at any time be in his position. I’m threatened with the same thing.

JONATHAN GUYER: Do you see a connection between your first novel That Smell and Ahmed Naji’s Using Life?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Perhaps yes. There is a single line, which is the desire that exists for a writer to say things as they are. Freedom of expression.

JONATHAN GUYER: Naji is a bit scared now of expressing himself.
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Of course. Me too, I’m scared.

JONATHAN GUYER: Scared of what?
SONALLAH IBRAHIM: Scared that I did an interview with a newspaper called Al-Masry Al-Youm, about a month ago. I said that El-Sisi had to go. They came with a photographer and took pictures, and then they didn’t publish the interview.

SONALLAH IBRAHIM: I talked about parliament, and the government, the whole regime. That isn’t what we expected from June 30. That’s all. It wasn’t published. Okay. Afterwards, a few days ago, a week ago, I did an interview with a website, Al-Tariq, the site of the Social Democratic Party. I told them that El-Sisi has to go, as he’s no longer able to solve the problems, and that if he continues, we’ll have a revolution of the chaotic kind. And in order to prevent that, he should go.

Ripples of the 1967 War

The 1967 war did much more than register the defeat of three regular Arab armies, only this time without any of the alleged mitigating circumstances of 1948 (such as underequipped forces or foreign tutelage), or the unabashed external colonial interventions of 1956. The war demonstrated the fundamental vacuity of the Arab existential threat to Israel and the limits of post-independence Arab military power, amateurish and incompetent at best, criminally negligent at worst. Having studied the enemy well, Israel’s generals executed an almost perfect game of surprise and well-rehearsed professionalism, while their Arab counterparts obligingly took refuge in bluster and bravado. Despite the desperate image of a country besieged and threatened with extinction, Israel’s generals were well aware that they were on a winning streak and that the Arab threat was mostly shadowboxing and show. The real uncertainty was the extent of victory and exactly where to draw the line—at the Jordan River or the tip of Mt Hermon.1

The war left Israel in possession of an additional 69,000 square kilometers of Arab land beyond the June 4, 1949 demarcation lines. The new regional superpower was now poised on the mouth of the Suez Canal and at the outskirts of Damascus. Jerusalem and its holiest of sites was taken in two days, and the Jordan River was once again the scene of a mass Palestinian exodus—some 250,000 people (including many who had already been dispossessed in the 1948 war) moving to new and interminable exile in the East Bank.2

In the fifty years since, much has changed but much has also remained the same. Sinai may have been returned to Egypt intact, but elsewhere the physical terrain has been altered beyond recognition. Today, there are around 125 government-recognized Israeli settlements in the West Bank along with some one hundred “illegal” outposts, twelve large new Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and some 600,000 colons implanted on Palestinian soil, and an expanding Israeli presence and claim over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.3

The depressing reality of occupation hangs like an endless mist over the Palestinian people and their land. Israel’s control over the land, sea, and airspace of Palestine remains pervasive and fundamentally unchallenged. The basic facts generated by the 1967 war have proved largely immune to the challenges of the past decades, from the peacemaking of Oslo in 1993 to the popular eruptions of the two intifadas, to the successive Gaza wars. And as Israel sinks further into its ethnic and nationalist–religious retrenchment today, there is little reason to believe that the near future will produce any significant progress toward a positive change.

Over fifty years, the consequences of the war have branched out and multiplied in various directions. However, a few of its ramifications stand out and may be worth considering in some detail. Perhaps the most immediate and visible product of the war was its impact on Palestinian national consciousness and on the role and standing of the Palestinian people in their longstanding struggle over the land. A central paradox of 1967 is that by defeating the Arabs, Israel resurrected the Palestinians. The war revived the concussed post-1948 Palestinian national movement and transported it from being a relatively marginal element to center stage. The era of Arab tutelage (wisaya) over the Palestinian cause that effectively began in the late 1930s (after the defeat of the Palestinians’ Great Revolt against British rule and the Zionist threat) stuttered slowly to a halt after 1967, with the rise of Palestinian armed factions and the emergence of the Palestinian fedayeen as a symbol of Arab defiance and bold militancy as compared to the failed incompetence of the Arab armies along with their self-professed progressive regimes. The March 1968 battle of Karameh in which Fatah guerillas took a stand against an Israel Defense Forces incursion across the Jordan River seemed to epitomize the shift from failed regular confrontations to successful guerilla warfare. Indeed, even the name of the locale where the battle took place, Karameh, which means dignity in Arabic, appeared to atone for the humiliation of the Arab defeat the preceding June. Largely lost to the Palestinian and Arab public consciousness at the time was the fact that the battle was mostly won by regular Jordanian artillery rather than any adept guerilla tactics.

One consequence was a premature rush toward concepts of popular armed struggle and a proliferation of armed groups that soon found themselves in bloodier and more sustained confrontation with the host Arab countries—first in Jordan and then in Lebanon.4 The gradual revelation of the limits of Maoist/Guevarist-type guerrilla warfare combined with Israel’s expanding occupation and settlement of Palestinian and other Arab lands, eventually gave birth to the tactics of airline hijacking and external “terrorism.” The Zionist terrorist groups in the late 1930s and 1940s may have been the Palestinians’ most creative innovators and predecessors in this respect, but today’s tiresome airport security measures, among other things, may be seen as just one of the longer lasting legacies of the 1967 war. All that was yet to come. In the immediate wake of 1967, the Palestinian national movement, with Fatah at its helm, seemed to defy the Arab defeat and to promise a new revolutionary era, beyond the post-colonial Arab authoritarian and military regimes and bound in spirit to the popular struggle of other nations such as in Algeria and Vietnam.5 By discrediting the Arab regimes, the 1967 war eventually opened up a space for the Palestinians to reclaim ownership of their own cause, and for what Fatah and its leader Yasser Arafat proclaimed as a sacred achievement: independent Palestinian representation and “independence of decision” (huriyyat al-qarar).

Yet Palestinian proprietorship of their cause, while formally acknowledged by the Arab states in 1974 (via the Arab League’s recognition of the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”), did not put an end to Arab intervention or manipulation of the Palestinian cause, or prevent the Arab states from seeking to use the PLO’s disparate factions as tools of their own foreign policy.6 Nonetheless, Fatah/PLO largely succeeded in maintaining their “independence of decision” for some three decades after 1967, finally culminating in the decision to sign a separate peace with Israel at Oslo in 1993.

“Independence of decision,” however, was not to be the precursor of the fuller and more complete political freedom and independence as sought by the PLO since 1988 based on self-determination and statehood in a negotiated two-state solution with Israel. Indeed, it could be argued that given the imbalance of power with Israel (and its American ally), the post-1967 attempt to create an independent Palestinian actor was an uncertain and risky enterprise from the start. By inflating the Palestinians’ perceptions of their own role and by denying the Arabs their say in the cause, the 1967 defeat ultimately helped to absolve the Arabs of their responsibilities (as in Camp David in 1978 and Wadi Araba in 1994) and left the Palestinians vulnerable to Israel’s overbearing force and powers of compulsion, and to the Arabs’ readiness to turn their attention elsewhere.

The Struggle Continues
Today, the Palestinians may have lost much of their ability to act independently. The apparent current shift toward a regional approach promoted by Israel and encouraged by the United States and that restores the Arabs as a primary factor in determining the Palestinians’ fate is in part the consequence of a fading separate Palestinian role and voice. The Arabs who signed off on the PLO after 1967 are now striving to reaffirm their say in determining what the Palestinians may or may not expect from Israel, and for its part, Israel is seeking to bypass the Palestinians by building bridges to the “Sunni” Arabs on the assumption of common enmity to Iran and its Shiite surrogates. Whether this will amount to much is open to question as it is very unclear whether the Israelis are ready to offer the Arabs what they have failed to offer the Palestinians and what the former will find acceptable on the latter’s behalf. The changing Arab attitudes toward Israel have yet to yield any fruit, and Israel’s current infatuation with its self-proclaimed Sunni allies appears more as a prevarication than a prelude to peace.

The Arabs’ openness to Israel is not new. Even before United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 was passed in November 1967, the main Arab states had collectively moved from outright rejectionism to a more nuanced and flexible political–diplomatic stance. The much-maligned “Three No’s” of the Arab summit in Khartoum in August 1967 disguised a profound shift that reflected the scale of defeat and injected a powerful dose of realism into Arab decision-making. In a forgotten line prefacing the call for “no peace, no recognition, no negotiations,” the summit communiqué explicitly endorsed “political action at the international diplomatic level to eliminate the consequences of the aggression and to ensure the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Arab territories occupied during the June war [emphasis added].” Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser felt that this would give him leeway with the Soviets as he sought to rebuild his shattered army with their help. But he and his fellow conferees were equally convinced of the need to give Jordan’s King Hussein a green light to pursue whatever political–diplomatic action was necessary to reclaim the lost West Bank, the Palestinian lands that were irretrievable by military means given the imbalance of power with Israel. Nasser also encouraged those countries with strong relations with the West (such as Saudi Arabia) to use their good offices to influence Western capitals in favor of an Israeli withdrawal.7 With its endorsement of “political action,” Khartoum paved the way for Egypt and Jordan’s historic acceptance of Resolution 242 only a few months later that explicitly called for recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

Khartoum thus gave a green light to what was the most important Arab shift since 1948. Rather than seeking to undo the Zionist takeover of Palestine, Arab efforts were henceforth concentrated on “eliminating the consequences of the [1967] aggression,” and the Three No’s were rapidly subject to modification and reinterpretation as necessary. Qualified acceptance took the place of outright rejection: no to formal peace, no to direct negotiations and, no to de jure recognition of Israel. The rest was negotiable. While never formally reneging on Khartoum’s strictures, both Egypt and Jordan slid rapidly toward formal recognition, negotiations, and peacemaking with Israel; Israel’s 1948 borders were thus consecrated by the 1967 war and by the Arabs’ acknowledgment that the struggle henceforth would only be over the territories lost in that conflict.

The 1967 war also did something else. By unifying all the territory of Mandatory Palestine under Israeli rule for the first time, it reversed the post-1949 de facto partition of Palestine and undid the last vestiges of the 1947 Partition Plan map. The interregnum between the 1949 truce and the 1967 war had established a basis for partition, albeit along substantially different demarcation lines than that envisaged by the UN. In many ways, the past fifty years have been a struggle to return to partition in one form or another. The 1967 war erased the boundaries between Palestinians and Israelis, and developments since have only aggravated the prospects for such a separation.

And this may be 1967’s most significant and lasting legacy. Today’s unfolding reality has created a demographic Jewish presence east of the Green Line that has made it increasingly difficult to imagine the withdrawal of any significant body of settlers: the standard estimate is that one hundred thousand at the very least will need to be evacuated in order to create a viable Palestinian entity on the West Bank. But the prevailing wind in Israel is sweeping matters in totally the opposite direction toward further expansion and annexation, and it is very hard to conceive of an Israeli government present or future that will have the political will and determination to “remove Jews from their homes” as the recent tussle over Amona has so aptly demonstrated.

But the perpetuation of the post-1967 occupation and the spread of Israeli annexation-ism will not automatically lead Israel to a one-state dilemma where the choice will be between offering equal rights for the Palestinians in the territories or apartheid, as some have supposed. The fact is that as an increasingly sham democracy, Israel can continue to play between the lines of legality: it will pass one law curbing the settlers’ excesses in one direction and will pursue practical policies that give them free rein in another. The Israeli right, active, dynamic, and determined, will continue to press for various forms of annexation. The West (or rather some of it) will continue to complain, liberal and enlightened circles will continue to protest, the Russians, Chinese and Indians will continue to trade and do business, the Trump White House will stand aloof, and the U.S. Congress will continue to punish the victims.

Conversely, however, the Palestinians will not go away. The fact is that Israel cannot but appear as an aggressor given the imbalance of power between the two sides. Part of why it has lost sympathy is because since 1967 it has been fighting against peoples not armies. The threat of “de-legitimization” confronting the Jewish state may not all be about occupation; and there may be some who will oppose Israel regardless. But to ignore the occupation as a factor in Israel’s moral undoing is ludicrous and self-defeating; Israel cannot credibly claim de-legitimization as a defense of continued occupation, as it is doing.

The last few years of fruitless peacemaking have sought “finality of conflict and an end of claims.” This is not an irrational object for a peace process. But “finality” in this case is a hard thing to define. Unless one side is totally beaten into submission and surrender as in World War II, the conflict is only liable to morph rather than cease altogether. The 1967 war looked pretty final at the time, but it merely redefined rather than ended the conflict.

One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, seventy years after the partition of Palestine, and a half-century after 1967, the struggle over Palestine looks set to continue, and is likely to take on new forms. Some of it will replicate the familiar tropes of the past: violent outbursts punctuated by longer or shorter episodes of political and diplomatic activity that will more likely prove futile than not. But some of it is likely to take new directions, whether in terms of the emergence of new Palestinian and Arab forces, radical realignments within Israel itself, or a result of some unforeseeable changes on the world scene. Perhaps the best judgment on 1967 is that its ripples will continue to spread long after the passing of its initial shock.

1 The literature on 1967 is voluminous and of extremely varied quality. Worth noting are Tom Segev 1967: Israel, the War and the Year that Transformed the Middle East (2007) and Wm Roger Louis and Avi Shlaim (eds) The 1967 War Origins and Consequences (2012). For the so-called “war of the generals,” the Israeli military debate over the extent of the Arab threat in 1967, see Joseph Ryan’s The Myth of Annihilation and the Six-Day War (Carnegie 1973),

2 The 1967 exodus produced a new category of Palestinians known as “displaced persons” as opposed to the 1948 refugees. See Robert Bowker Palestinian Refugees: Mythology, Identity and the Search for Peace (2003).  The descendants of Palestinians displaced by the 1967 war are now estimated at around one million people mostly in Jordan. For details of these and other “internally displaced Palestinians,” see Often forgotten is that another 130,000 Syrians and Palestinians were displaced from the Golan Heights and scores of Arab villages on the Heights were destroyed by Israel in the wake of the war. In 2009, the UN estimated their descendants at 500,000. See Muhammad Muslih’s The Golan: The Road to Occupation (Institute For Palestine Studies 1999) and the UN Human Right’s Council 2009 report

3 Precise and updated figures for Israeli settlements and settlers are not easy to come by, but B’tselem offers a reliable source. See Note that Israeli settlement land appropriations far exceed the built-up areas. There are an additional 20,000 Israeli settlers on the Golan. See comprehensive figures in Also note Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent call for Washington to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over the annexed Golan.

4 See Yezid Sayigh’s magisterial study of the Palestinian national movement Armed Struggle and the Search for the State: The Palestinian National Movement 1949-1993 (Institute for Palestine Studies/Oxford University Press 1997).

5 The Palestinian movement’s universal revolutionary claims and appeal have almost been forgotten in the post-Oslo years—but this was a significant element in the revival of a Palestinian identity and its eventual global recognition. See Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s The Global Offensive; The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order (2012).

6 The Lebanese civil war of 1975–89 was one devastating case in point.

7 A full account of the Khartoum deliberations was published in 1979 by Abdel Majid Farid, as part of his book Min Mahadir Ijtima’at Abd al Nasir al-Arabiyya wad-Dawliya 1967-70 (Minutes of Abdel Nasser’s Arab and International Meetings). Farid was Secretary of Nasser’s Presidential office between 1959 and 1970. See also Yoram Meital The Khartoum Conference and Egypt’s Policy after 1967: A Reexamination (Middle East Journal Vol. 54/1 Winter 200) for a detailed examination of the background and primary motives of Egypt and the major Arab players at Khartoum and its consequences.

Ahmad Samih Khalidi is an academic visitor at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, an associate fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Palestine Studies Arabic edition. He has been active in Palestinian politics and Track II activities for over thirty years, including as a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority presidents Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. He was co-chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project on Israeli–Palestinian security in 1993–95 and associate fellow of the Middle East program at Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) in 1995–96. He served as advisor to the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid/Washington peace talks in 1991–93 and as senior advisor on security to the Cairo–Taba PLO–Israeli talks in 1993. He is the co-author of Syria and Iran: Rivalry and Cooperation; A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine; and Track-II Diplomacy: Lessons from the Middle East.

Myths of the Six-Day War

Fifty years after the Arab–Israeli war of June 1967, we have new material to better understand the origins and impact of that landmark event and thus a much better historical perspective. The common narrative, still prevalent in Western political circles, is composed of twin myths. One myth is that the war was imposed on Israel, and the second myth is that after Israel’s stunning victory it was willing to achieve peace with all Arab countries and the Palestinians. Both myths can now more easily be challenged and debunked.

The Israeli capture of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 was an accident of history that Israel had the great fortune to exploit. Ever since the birth of Israel in 1948, the country’s political and military elite felt that Israel had missed a valuable opportunity during the war of independence to create a Jewish state throughout historical Palestine. The regret was that the army did not occupy the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1948 when it seemed that it had the military capacity and opportunity to do that.

Since then, there has been a strong military and political lobby inside Israel that pushed for the occupation of the West Bank (and to a lesser extent the Gaza Strip). The lobby comprised powerful people who, according to my research based on the Israel State Archives, nearly succeeded in convincing the government to take by force these two areas in 1958 and 1960. The threat of such an action, as well the expansion of Israeli work on diverting the Jordan River, prompted Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to dispatch forces to the Sinai Peninsula (a move he would take again during the 1967 crisis).

The looming threat of an Israeli attack on Syria and Jordan in 1967 is downplayed by mainstream historiography in the West, which tends to portray Nasser as an irresponsible leader who took his country into an assured disaster. However, we should remember that war could have erupted in 1960, but it did not mainly because David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister at the time, did not wish to launch a military adventure. By 1967, he had been ousted from the Israeli political elite.

A review of documents in the Israel State Archives as well as contemporaneous press reports make it possible to see how the Israeli government had well prepared for a swift takeover of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.1 This is not surprising. Israel already possessed a system of control over a large number of Palestinians (the system of military rule imposed on the Palestinians in Israel since 1948) that could be reimposed on another Palestinian group.

The decisions taken by the Israeli government following the 1948 war reinforce the impression that the leadership of the state was searching for the opportunity to expand the geographical space of the Jewish state. This Israeli behavior is better understood if we accept the recent scholarly tendency to define Zionism as settler colonialism and Israel as a settler colonial state. The definition is apt if we consider Zionism to be an ideological movement that pushed Europeans (who felt unsafe in Europe) to resettle in faraway locales in search of not only a home but a homeland. This search encountered an indigenous population that more often than not became victims of genocide at the hands of the settlers. In Palestine, ethnic cleansing and segregation (hafrada in Hebrew) has been and remains the principal means by which the settler colonial project hopes to turn the whole of Palestine into a Jewish state.

As the great scholar of settler colonialism Patrick Wolfe has put it, settler colonialism is a structure, not an event. Thus, the 1967 war and its aftermath should be seen as a direct continuation and the consequence of the Zionist colonization of Palestine since 1882 and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) in 1948. Israel went knowingly, and well prepared, to war in 1967, and had contemplated long before the war the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The second myth of the constant Israeli search for peace is also challenged given what we know with the passage of time and exposure of more evidence. The current Israeli strategy for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip should be seen in the wider context of some key strategic decisions taken by the Israeli leadership immediately after the 1967 war.

There was a distinct difference between the way the Israeli political elite viewed, in the wake of the war, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, on the one hand, and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and Syrian Golan Heights, on the other. From the moment the war ended, it transpired that the first two areas were not open for negotiations, while the two other areas were at least considered by some ministers as a possible trading card for future bilateral peace. With time it would take the war in 1973 to reach a deal with Egypt, despite the beginning of intensive Jewish colonization in the north and south of the Sinai. Peace with Syria was never achieved, and Jewish colonization there became more intensive and was followed by de jure annexation.

In a series of meetings around June 19 and 20, right after the end of the war, the thirteenth government of Israel took a few decisions that would be respected and adhered to by all subsequent governments, regardless of their political composition. This government was the most consensual that Israel had ever had, or would have. Every political party and ideological shade was represented, which enabled the government to act with unprecedented authority when it made its decisions.2

The first decision the government took was to keep the West Bank and the Gaza Strip within Israel’s rule. There was then, and there is today, a tactical debate over how best to achieve this goal. The options are either direct or indirect rule. With time, this tactical discussion was misconceived by many outsiders as a genuine debate between  peace and war camps within the Israeli political elite. This misconception helped to commodify Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East when nonetheless faced with the most blatant proof that it was not: a harsh occupation imposed on millions of people. With time, we learned that indirect rule meant Judaizing parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (areas that did not have a dense Palestinian population). In 2005, indirect rule meant withdrawing Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and ghettoizing it with siege and closure.

Government documents show a clear determination to keep the West Bank under Israeli control forever and to permanently demarcate the Jordan River as Israel’s natural border. Keeping this territory required an additional decision: what to do with the millions of Palestinians living there? The Israeli cabinet in the early days after the end of the 1967 war gave serious consideration to repeating the mass expulsion of inhabitants carried out in 1948, but this was ruled out. It was decided that the Palestinians would by and large be allowed to stay (which did preclude some massive expulsions from the Greater Jerusalem area and in the Jordan Valley).

This second decision triggered the need to make a third decision. If the territories were to be kept under Israeli rule and the people would remain, what would their future be? The deliberations show that the policymakers quite consciously decided that the inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would not be Israeli citizens but would be without any citizenship, and hence without any basic civil rights. There was also a recognition among the leaders of Israel that citizen-less status would be kept for a very long time (in fact, that remains the case today).

The greatest challenge facing the thirteenth government of Israel was how to commodify these three decisions to the international community at large, and to the United States, Israel’s important ally, in particular. The international community through the United Nations demanded that Israel withdraw from the 1967 territories in return for peace (as expressed clearly in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and, later, 338). The issue of Jerusalem became an additional bone of contention. The Israeli government decided shortly after the end of the 1967 fighting to annex East Jerusalem into the State of Israel. Israel had already violated a 1949 UN decision to internationalize Jerusalem by moving its governmental offices from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (this is why hardly any country has its embassy in Jerusalem). In June 1967, this was an official and de jure annexation, accompanied by the expulsion of Palestinians in the Old City and the expropriation of private land around the city.

This annexation might have been stopped had the United States chosen to block it. The American government did privately voice its dissatisfaction but was willing to turn a blind eye toward these serious violations of international law. The same American attitude later provided a cover for the colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With the exception of the George H.W. Bush administration, no American government has dared, or wished, to curb let alone stop the Judaization project.

These three decisions became the cornerstone of Israeli strategy toward the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. With American consent, a “peace process” was conceived in 1967 supposedly to implement the principle of “land for peace” sanctioned by the United Nations, which in practice was a charade that provided international immunity for the implementation of Israeli strategy on the ground.

These decisions were not known to public opinion in Israel at the time. There was a genuine debate between what can be called “redeemers” and “custodians.” The redeemers asserted that the West Bank and to a lesser extent the Gaza Strip belonged to the heart of ancient Israel that was “redeemed” in 1967. They advocated the full annexation of these territories to Israel. The custodians, on the other hand, saw these territories as bargaining chips in negotiating bilateral peace agreements, first with Jordan and later with the Palestinians. Until the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, one can say that the custodians had a presence in Israeli politics, press, and academia. In a way, Rabin headed this camp when he decided to support the Oslo I Accord in 1993.

However, those who represented the custodians in the military and political elite succumbed easily to the pressure of the redeemers, fearing being depicted as unpatriotic. More importantly, within Rabin’s Labour Party there was a hard core of redeemers who talked the talk of the custodians but walked the walk of the redeemers. While speaking of the need to keep the territories as a card for peace, they initiated facts on the ground that rendered it impossible to achieve any future peace agreement.

The political elite, whether on the left or right, has adhered to the same strategy as it emanated from the government’s decisions in 1967. That strategy was implemented immediately in June 1967 and its methodology is still affecting the lives of millions of Palestinians on the ground. The methodology involves territorial partition as a means of control and segregation. Using partition as a means of oppression (while praising it as a “peace process”) is in keeping with the concept of settler colonialism as a structure and not an event. Zionists accepted the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 as a peace proposal, and its rejection by Palestinians has long been seen as evidence of Palestinian intransigence toward opportunities for peace. Yet native populations subjected to the perils of colonization never consent to partition as a substitute for liberation.

Partition was used once more in strategizing the Israeli matrix of control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The basic idea was to divide these parts of Palestine into Jewish and Arab spaces. Jewish settlements were meant to be built in less dense Arab spaces, and serve as buffers between Arab and Jewish spaces while bisecting the Arab spaces themselves. What began on a small scale in 1967 has evolved to a monumental scale a half-century later.

The separated spaces strategy was challenged by Gush Emunim, a messianic settler movement that grew and was nurtured in the religious Zionist field. While governments from 1967 onwards colonized the territories strategically, avoiding settling in the midst of Palestinian communities, Gush Emunim settled according to an imaginary biblical map in the heart of the Palestinian areas. Their presence disrupted the more orderly colonization from above, and created hotbeds of fanaticism and violence that physically antagonized the Palestinians around them. Another tactical change occurred when Israel decided to withdraw its settlers from the Gaza Strip and besiege and ghettoize it instead. However, the strategy’s methodology remained the same: partition and more partition, so as to expand Jewish space, downsize the contiguous  space of the Palestinians, and bifurcate the West Bank into small enclaves, separated from each other by roads, military bases, and Jewish settlements.

These territorial arrangements were accompanied by a regime of oppression that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu once singled out as tantamount to apartheid South Africa. The oppression was also used as a means of deterring resistance from the local population. The methodology includes the practice of increasing oppression in the face of Palestinian resistance and, more importantly, extending and deepening colonization in the case of the West Bank and tightening the siege in the case of Gaza.

Power of Complacency

The Israeli methodology has adapted itself well to changing circumstances, notably the Oslo peace process and the emergence of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. The first Palestinian uprising in 1987 convinced some Israeli leaders that, to perpetuate the methodology of partition as the best means of keeping the territories while trying to pacify the local population and world public opinion, Israel needed to devise a more acceptable face of colonization. They found a willing and disempowered Palestinian partner, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for this ploy. Of course, the PLO had its own agenda and aspiration when it agreed to sign the Oslo I Accord in September 1993. However, at the end of the day, it played into the hands of the overall Israeli strategy on the ground. That strategy has upgraded the idea of partitioning the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between densely and more sparse Jewish colonization into so-called “Palestinian-controlled areas” and “Israeli-controlled areas.”

The discourse suggests that this is a genuine attempt to resolve the conflict as a whole and to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In practice, the 1993 Oslo agreement, and in particular the Oslo II agreement of 1995, enabled Israel to perfect the partition scheme for the West Bank. The region was dissected again and again, with an apartheid wall constructed in 2003, to make life even more unbearable. Movement between Palestinian villages and towns is almost impossible today; the so-called autonomous Palestinian space, under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, is constantly invaded by Israeli forces seeking resistance activists or whoever is on their blacklists. Under Oslo, Israeli settler colonialism became even more oppressive.

The demise of the Oslo I Accord forced Israeli strategists to adapt once more to a changing reality. Israel has moved to a unilateral policy with a clearer strategy not only of dividing the West Bank into Jewish and Arab parts, but also of striving to annex officially to Israel the “Jewish” parts. Oslo II had divided the West Bank into three zones: Area A (under the rule of the Palestinian Authority), Area B (joint Palestinian and Israeli control) and Area C (under exclusive Israeli rule). Israel now strives to annex Area C (more than half of the West Bank) into the State of Israel. This final blow to prospects for establishing an independent Palestinian state, though met with indifference by political elites in the West, triggered unprecedented outrage in global civil society manifested in part in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

The settler project has also adapted itself to the reality unfolding in the Gaza Strip since 2006. The methodology of partition could not work well in such a small territory. Thus, under then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel decided to remove the settlers and incorporate Gaza into Area A under Palestinian Authority control. It did not work according to plan. The Islamist Hamas group, first through democratic elections and then through more violent means, took over governance of the Gaza Strip. However, this unexpected development did not alter the Israeli strategy nor require a change of methodology. Besieging Gaza and reacting brutally to Hamas’s resistance to ghettoization—in a policy verging on genocide—is aligned with the original 1967 strategy.

Israeli policies in the future will seek to maintain the status quo created by the 1967 war. Israeli leaders will find immediate solutions to changing circumstances without abandoning the settler colonial project of displacing Palestinians and maintaining the land under indefinite Israeli control.

It is noteworthy how Israeli public opinion enables Israel’s political elite to adamantly continue with the settler colonial policies despite the drastic deterioration in Israel’s international image. The redeemers–custodians debate petered out after the Oslo I Accord was signed. There was a false sense among custodians, which we better understand in hindsight, that their moment of truth arrived in 1993. The failure of the Oslo process was evident quite soon after the accord was signed.

Since the mid-1990s, there has been no debate in Jewish public opinion about the fate of the territories (and, in the public’s mind, Gaza was taken out of the equation with the withdrawal of settlers in 2005). The non-settler Jewish society has no access to the occupied territories anymore; in fact, the territories are formally a no-go area for Jewish citizens.

This complacency has been reflected in the very low priority that the occupation received in party election platforms in recent years. The conflict has been resolved in the eyes of the Jewish electorate. There is a clash with Gaza, but it is with “Islam” and not part of the historical conflict. The complacency has allowed the government to take unilateral measures in implementing its strategy. In recent years, public opinion polls show that an equal number of people support the two-state solution (or, a very uncompromising Zionist version of it) and full annexation of the West Bank.

The colonization of the territories and dispossession of the Palestinian inhabitants is now in its fiftieth year. The implementation of the three strategic decisions the thirteenth government of Israel took in June 1967 unfolded before the world’s eyes. The reasons behind the international community’s inaction are complex. What is important in this context is that the international community led by the United States accepted a narrative that absolved it from interference and encouraged it to provide international immunity for Israeli actions. The narrative is based on the perception that the reality on the ground is temporary and that the chance for a solution is real and imminent. This perception includes the conviction, genuine or cynical, that Israeli violations of human rights will stop once “peace” is achieved. Since peace is “just around the corner,” there is no need for international pressure on Israel. The world has thus enabled Israel to create daily facts on the ground that have rendered impossible any peace process based on a two-state solution.

1 Government meeting, June 11 and 18, 1967, Israel State Archive. See government meeting from June 11 and 18, 1967, ISA, Government meeting, 8164/7-A.

2 Ibid.

Ilan Pappé is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. His latest book is Ten Myths about Israel. He is the author of The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge; The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine; The Modern Middle East: A Social and Cultural History; and A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples.

Winds of Change

Over the last half-century, the Middle East has seen profound changes and immense challenges. Heads of state have been swept from power in nearly every Arab nation—often by natural death, but in many instances through political uprisings or violent overthrow.

An exploding youth bulge and regimes that reject inevitable change have interrupted natural transitions of power. People throughout the Arab World are questioning their identities and trying to reconcile between national, ethnic, sectarian, and religious affiliations. All this sits amid polarization between progressive and repressive fundamentalist visions for the region. Meanwhile, the strong winds of globalization are also unsettling the Middle East. And the changing global political landscape—the reemergence of Russia, rise of China, election of a non-conformist American president, the spread of populism, particularly in Europe—requires the Arab World’s urgent attention.

The United Nations 2016 Arab Human Development Report reveals that Arab youth between the ages of 15 and 29 constitute nearly a third of the region’s population. Another third are below the age of 15. Even though the younger generations are increasingly better educated, youth unemployment rates in the Arab World have risen to almost 30 percent, twice the global average of 16 percent. Sclerotic economies are unable to accommodate and make use of the vast amounts of human capital atrophying in the Arab World.

It is noteworthy, as the 2016 Arab Youth Survey reveals, that there seems to be little appeal for extremist groups and their twisted interpretation of Islam among the youth. Nevertheless, many young people believe that without job opportunities and space for political expression, marginalization and frustration may increasingly be a source of tension and instability and might be an important factor in recruitment for terrorists and extremists.

Mismanagement of change in the Arab Middle East has weakened the social contract between governments and their constituencies, occasionally leading to the breakdown of authority and sowing the seeds for instability. The traditional Arab leading countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria have been facing their own challenges and transformations, albeit of a differing form and nature. This has resulted in very significant geopolitical change in the region, exacerbated by the imbalanced, even catastrophic American policy, especially in Iraq, which has expanded the influence of non-Arab Middle Eastern states such as Turkey, Iran, and Israel.

Globalization offers vast opportunities for the strong and capable, but poses difficult challenges for the weaker states and marginalized peoples. Given the Arab region’s demographic composition, globalization is dividing the population. Some reach for modernity at an unrealistic pace, others dream of recreating history by generating fundamentalist and extremist intolerant trends resisting change by all means possible.

These persistent domestic and international challenges prompt many to question whether the Middle East has a future. However, despite the ominous challenges, I believe there is much reason for hope.

Today’s Arab youth are more energized, are generally better educated, and provide tremendous opportunities. The Arab World is still a wealthy region, investing across the globe even as it attempts to attract local investment. Governance practices, while still centralized and authoritarian, are much more transparent and accountable in many countries than in the past.

The fight against terrorism and extremism appears to be progressing with the liberation of territories previously under control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This is reason for cautious optimism. Although, in the short term at least it will lead to the dispersion of terrorist groups and to a rise in violent acts across the region as is evidenced by the heinous attacks against Egyptian Copts in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday 2017.

The antiterrorism successes also coincide with important steps toward domestic stability. As Transparency International points out, Tunisia recently undertook steps toward a national anticorruption strategy that included passage of an Access to Information Law. Between 2011 and 2013 Egypt went through two revolutions and faced serious societal challenges with a rapidly increasing population, slow economic growth, and terrorism in the northern Sinai Peninsula. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s government is, however, tackling difficult economic decisions head on, such as reducing subsidies, floating the exchange rate, and investing in infrastructure. Terrorist bases have not yet been eradicated in Sinai, but the security situation in the rest of the country has been enhanced significantly. Much remains to be achieved, particularly with respect to civil liberties, but slow progress is visible.

Saudi Arabia is witnessing a generational transition with the rising influence of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdelaziz. As resources diminish and technological advancements challenge the historical relevance of oil, Prince Mohammed has proposed an ambitious economic transformation by 2030, which aims not only to diversify the economy but also to start a process of change in the social contract in Saudi Arabia featuring taxation, accountability, and transparency. Saudi Arabia publicly announced in 2017 that it is giving priority to the fight against corruption within its governmental bodies.

Obstacles to Progress
While the challenges posed by globalization and management are seen throughout the world, in the Middle East they are exacerbated by two basic Arab deficiencies.

The first deficit is the absence of efficient governance and a failure to efficiently provide public goods and services as expected by the people. It also means the failure to evolve pluralistic political systems promoting economic competitiveness, transparency, and accountability in today’s connected world. Citizens are increasingly engaged stakeholders, even in more conservative and authoritarian systems, and Arab governments need to recognize this.

The second deficit is an Arab overreliance on foreign powers with respect to national security. Historically, this has been a tradition with a revolving door of foreign players from North Africa to the Levant and down to the Arab Gulf. This has led to a severe weakening of national security capacity of individual Arab states, particularly in dealing with neighboring non-Arab states in nonexistential crises. The evidence is the fact that the efforts to resolve the crises in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, and the efforts to address terrorism in Iraq, are all being led or driven by non-Arab parties. The dependence on foreigners has often superimposed an international and/or regional geopolitical agenda, complicating subregional or domestic concerns and thus making conflict resolution ever more tedious and fueling discontent.

Understandably, but regrettably, the Arab World is repeating its past mistakes by looking for answers to its challenges outside the region. In fact, the essential first step toward effectively responding to its challenges is for Arab countries to frankly address their domestic problems and push for more effective regional cooperation to take better charge of their own futures. Furthermore, Arabs should reflect as a group on relations with their non-Arab neighbors because the Arab identity, while not the exclusive factor in defending them, enhances their national security capacities.

Turkey and Iran, for example, have expanded their regional influence over the past two decades. Serious questions include Turkey’s aspirations in Syria, its claims to parts of Mosul in Iraq, and its active support for Islamists in Libya, Egypt, and even in Somalia. Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria are clear expressions of geopolitical aspirations in the Levant. Its influence in Iraq and aggressive approaches toward Bahrain and Yemen under the cloak of supporting the Shiite constituency are additional bids for geopolitical gain.

Israel is led by an extremely intransigent right wing government. Its policies have eroded any serious opportunity for achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in light of the failure to establish a Palestinian state.

Beyond the region, the Arab World must undoubtedly look at the emerging role of China as a leading economic power with increasing energy interests within the Middle East and Africa and thus an expected greater political role in the world at large. Arab leaders must also keep an eye on other global players with evolving domestic and foreign policies, such as Japan, India, and the European countries. Of course, Donald Trump’s America and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are of tremendous interest to the Arab World. Arabs will be engaging both the old and the new in Russia, the United States, and around the world.

Russia in Putin’s present term in office has regained its assertiveness and self-confidence. This is evident in Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Crimea as well as in its recent military involvement in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. When I met President Putin as Egypt’s foreign minister in 2014, he was concerned about extremism and was already fuming about his country having been treated disrespectfully by the West. It was crystal clear that he would respond. It was no surprise then that he would take the opportunity to fill every vacuum and gradually regain Russia’s global role and political position through well-calibrated assertiveness.

In the United States, President Trump did a marvelous job in responding to the silent masses: those who felt marginalized by Washington’s politics. His mandate is more concerned with day-to-day domestic issues than foreign policy. Many of his positions are neither traditionally Democratic nor Republican. In fact, several months into his term of office his detailed foreign policy positions remained unclear. His intervention in Syria in many ways contradicts the isolationist tendencies espoused by many in his constituency. Nor can one say how much support his eventual policies will find among the American body politic, or in the national security agencies and departments. Several of his cabinet appointees hold opinions that are not identical to Trump’s own expressed views.

We should be cautious about jumping to conclusions, but it is fair to assume, based on Trump’s campaign rhetoric and various steps as president, that there will be changes in style and substance. The American president is a non-politician with an overarching desire to be seen as the achiever or closer, and a penchant for sharing information and making grand pronouncements through social media. He is an American leader with very little interest in traditional alliances such as NATO, historic relations with the Arab Gulf states, or even in shared values (open societies, democracies, international norms). Here is a realist pragmatist in the extreme, one who places American material interests at the forefront and will assess and make decisions with the same mindset of a corporate leader looking at a balance sheet on a quarterly basis. American governance will be a case study in political cost-benefit analysis with a loudspeaker. It will also be a litmus test for the balance of power between the institution of American presidency and the other governmental institutions.

Superpowers and Others
How should Arabs deal with Trump’s America? First, they should understand that like any negotiator Trump’s main calculation is whether the Arab World can influence the issues that are on the table. He will only include those who can influence events and make decisions. This fact reinforces my argument that Arabs must take greater charge of their interests in the ongoing regional and subregional conflicts in the Middle East. That to me is the paramount point of departure.

In concrete terms, for example, it will be important for Arabs generally, and Egypt and Jordan in particular, to share with Trump a multidisciplinary vision of how to deal with terrorism and extremism in the Middle East that encompasses military and nonmilitary actions and steps. In calling for American support, these two countries as well as the rest of the Arab World will have to concretely define what they can put on the table in national assets such as military or security services and voices like Al-Azhar to address the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of centrist, moderate, peaceful, and progressive Sunni Muslims. Other countries in the Arab Gulf will probably be asked to pitch in militarily, through their religious services, and with significant financial resources.

Libya is a theater of conflict where Trump will expect Egypt, a border state, to play a leading role. The breakdown of the Libyan nation-state has fueled the exponential growth of extremist and terrorist activities emanating from the country. And, there have already been some preliminary reports stating that at least two Islamic State cells crossed over from Libya before the church attack. While the United States may provide special forces every now and then, as well as training, logistical support, and some resources, I don’t expect to see American boots on the ground in Libya in any substantive fashion. In spite of the recent failed attempt by Egypt to organize a face-to-face meeting between Libyan National Army General Khalifa Haftar and the head of the Government of National Accord Fayez Al-Sarraj, this is the right approach. Libyan authority cannot be exercised if these two parties are at loggerheads. Only extremists gain from the continued divergences. The subsequent Tunisian, Egyptian, and Algerian joint declaration in spirit is also helpful.

As the Libyan political discourse is being set in motion, I would suggest two further steps: establishing an international border control force, drawn from the United Nations, Arab League, and African Union, to prevent cross-border smuggling of weapons, money, and terrorists; and revoking the arms embargo to the legitimate Libyan army to enable the exercise of legitimate authority over Libyan territory.

Most of the world seems to have forgotten the Arab-Israeli conflict. No serious effort is being made to pursue a sovereign contiguous Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Given his statements during the campaign and afterwards, Trump’s commitment to a two-state solution is flimsy, to say the least. Trump’s pronouncements have opened the door for rampant Israeli settlement expansion and complicated the issue of Jerusalem. Arabs should convey to Trump that the two-state solution is the only peace option on the table. They should underline that when this is achieved, and not before, a comprehensive regional peace is possible in accordance with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Arabs must strongly argue that expanding Israeli settlements erodes the prospects for peace, and that such activities and the confiscation of Palestinian land cannot be condoned or left without consequences.

Exaggerated expectations about American-Russian cooperation on Syria have quickly come to naught as traditionalists in both countries’ defense systems reasserted their postures that in fact the United States and Russia were each other’s greatest adversaries. Nevertheless, I expect and envision room for U.S.-Russian political understanding on Syria. This would if not resolve at least manage the crisis and prevent it from exploding into a more dangerous confrontation between the two parties. It will not be easy, given the number of other stakeholders on the battlefield. There is also the fact that parties aligned with Washington or Moscow don’t necessarily accept direction.

It is imperative for Arabs to emphasize that while they all want a new Syria, they are equally committed to the sanctity of Syria’s territorial integrity. Respecting the different Syrian constituencies is important but should not result in dividing Syria along ethnic, sectarian, or religious lines. This would be a quick yet dangerous fix, with domino-effect implications for Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Gulf states, Turkey, and Iran.

The war in Yemen began as a domestic conflict. Yet it has morphed into a regional battle, especially given Saudi Arabia’s apprehensions about Iran’s rising geopolitical influence. The conflict has broader security implications, especially related to maritime transit in the Arabian Sea off East Africa, an area already plagued by piracy. As frustrating as it may seem, the United Nations effort led by Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed remains the approach with the most potential.

Nearly all of the regional issues facing Arab countries raise the question of addressing Iran’s increasingly assertive geopolitical aspirations, which many feel were enhanced by the Iran nuclear deal led by the Barack Obama administration. I believe that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was not ambitious enough: it should have been part and parcel of creating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, or at least a structured step in a larger framework including Israel to ensure the sustainability of nonproliferation in the region.

The deal would also have been improved if it included parallel diplomatic understandings on Iranian activities in the region, including not meddling in the internal affairs of other states. It is generally believed that Trump’s America will rigorously enforce rather than abrogate the Iran deal given that it involves a number of other international stakeholders. Arab states will raise their concerns about Iran expecting open ears and serious consideration by the Trump administration. It is important they put forward concrete ideas and suggest confidence-building measures to create an environment conducive to useful, albeit difficult, direct discussions—bilateral or subregional—between some Arab countries and Iran.

Vision for the Future
With the fluidity of the situation, and with no one party able to impose or resolve issues alone, this is a moment to be seized. While there are many scenarios and possibly efforts to disenfranchise and divide the Arab World, this is a chance for Arabs to lay down parameters for a cooperative future.

The Middle East is going through a sociopolitical revolution. After initiating nation building, and in this case region building, Arabs must undertake the challenging and important task of presenting their vision for the future. They need to address questions about national governance, especially in states with complex ethnic compositions. They should establish the basis for neighborly relations, and develop solid foundations for national security capacity domestically and regionally. In doing so, they must be aware of the regional geopolitical realities, and adhere to the acceptable norms and practices in the international community. In essence, Arabs must actively participate and take initiative in determining their own future.

Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008, and as envoy to Japan between 1997 and 1999. On Twitter: @mnabilfahmy.

Inside Tunisia’s Power Struggle

After President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight into exile in January 2011 amid a political uprising in Tunisia, an initial struggle for power ensued between secular leftists and moderates that quickly gave way to a far more serious and permanent one between all secularists and Islamists. Moderate secularists won the first round, and the defeat of the leftists proved critical in shaping the character and aims of the Tunisian revolution, limited to changing the system of governance and leaving intact the social and economic order of the ancien regime. Of far more enduring consequence, however, was the emergence of the Islamic Ennahda Movement as a major political force. Ennahda and the even more fundamentalist Salafis were destined to replace Tunisia’s socialists and communists in the unfolding revolution, at least according to the secular narrative.

The first indication of the extremely moderate course the revolution was to take came over the question of who would serve as interim president and prime minister. Protesters rose up against an attempt by Ben Ali’s prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, to remain in office. Caravans of youth coming from Sidi Bouzid and other towns of the interior invaded the capital and occupied the Place de la Kasbah outside the government’s offices twice. A protest of one hundred thousand people—the largest demonstration of the revolution after Ben Ali’s departure—took place on February 25 to demand that Ghannouchi leave, and two days later he resigned. But then revolutionaries readily accepted another stalwart of the old ruling elite, Beji Caid Essebsi, to take Ghannouchi’s place. Then 84-year-old Essebsi had served since independence in various high-ranking positions, first under independence leader President Habib Bourguiba and then under Ben Ali. He had been head of national security and alternatively the minister of the interior, defense, and foreign affairs as well as member of parliament. His saving grace in the eyes of the country’s young revolutionaries was that he had retired from politics altogether and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years before resurfacing after Ben Ali’s exile. This had given him at least the appearance of clean hands. More surprising was the lack of serious protest over Fouad Mebazaa becoming interim president for he, too, had been a stalwart of the ancien regime—president of the Chamber of Deputies (a house of parliament) and a politburo member of Ben Ali’s ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally.

The group that emerged as the first main interim decision-making body carried the awkward title of the High Authority for the Achievement of the Revolution’s Objectives, Democratic Transition, and Political Reform. It was established February 18, 2011, and became Tunisia’s de facto parliament for the following nine months. During that period, Tunisians of all political shades took to the street by the thousands almost daily to make known their demands and grievances. More than once, the country appeared on the brink of chaos. That prospect was frightening enough to convince twenty-eight political parties, a collation of youth groups, and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) to agree on the formation of the High Authority with the intent of countering and neutralizing the distrusted interim government led by ancien regime figures. Had Tunisia’s power-hungry leftists had their way, the course of events might have taken on a far more radical and secular character.

A week after Ben Ali fled, a coterie of these leftists formed the 14th of January Front and called for an alternative interim government under its authority, according to Yadh Ben Achour, the law professor drafted to lead the High Authority. The front’s bid for power was blocked by Prime Minister Ghannouchi just before he was forced to resign on February 27. Fearing a leftist coup, Ghannouchi had convinced these revolutionaries to merge with a group of more moderate lawyers and other activists he had appointed to draft political reforms in the immediate wake of Ben Ali’s ouster. Ben Achour, a highly respected university constitutional law professor, agreed to chair the High Authority, which soon grew to 155 members. The radicals thus found themselves in the minority, sharing power with a coalition that included representatives from twelve Islamist and secular political parties; the country’s twenty-four governorates; and sixteen human rights, women’s rights, and prodemocracy groups, plus UGTT delegates. Added to the mix were seventy-two leading national political figures, the Union of Jobless University Graduates, two members of the family of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation triggered the uprising, and a number of relatives from protesters killed by police during the uprising.

This unelected High Authority, its legitimacy repeatedly challenged by Islamists, had to make some difficult decisions to steer Tunisia safely through very turbulent political waters prior to elections for a Constituent Assembly in late October. Ben Achour, who had had no previous experience in politics, found the task to be a jarring experience. The revolution had set loose “all kinds of irrational behavior.” Tunisians had gone from “nothing to an excess of everything” in their ways of thinking, acting, and speaking out. He found his office flooded with proposals for a new constitution, including several from “mentally unstable” people urging everything from “technological politics” to rule by three co-presidents. Ben Achour said he was quickly reminded that “often revolutions fail.”

The first issue the High Authority resolved was an election law, published on April 11. It included an unusual requirement, namely that half the candidates on each party’s electoral list had to be women. No other Arab country before or since has had anything remotely resembling such an electoral provision, but all parties, including Ennahda, endorsed it. Tunisian commentators were quick to note that men were likely to be placed at the top of the list, ensuring many more male than female deputies. (This indeed turned out to be the case with only forty-nine women finally winning seats among the National Constituent Assembly’s 217 deputies.)

The second issue before the High Authority proved far more controversial and almost upended the whole transitional process: whether to postpone elections for the assembly, initially scheduled for July. The debate immediately created battle lines between Islamists and secularists on some issues and between leftists and both Islamists and remnants of the ancien regime on others. Ennahda had been banned from Tunisian politics since the early 1990s. Even so, secularists immediately assumed it to be the best organized and financed party, and they wanted more time to organize, hoping to level the playing field. The High Authority found a pretext to postpone elections, namely that the government could not recruit the twenty-four thousand officials needed to oversee them by the original date of July 24. So they were postponed until October 23. The interim government, which had been left in the dark, at first rejected any postponement but then reversed itself. Ennahda was so disgruntled that it suspended its participation in the High Authority at the end of May, complaining that it had been excluded from the decision-making process and that the body had no legitimacy because it had not been elected.

By June 2011, an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and deep distrust among contending factions had already settled across the political landscape. The interim government’s first interior minister, Farhat Rajhi, who had been sacked in late March, warned on his Facebook page on May 4 that elements of the ancien regime were plotting a military coup should Ennahda win the elections. The military immediately made clear that it had no such intention, but by then suspicion of conspiracies led by either former regime figures or Ennahda supporters were rife. Secularists conjured up dire scenarios for Tunisia should the Islamists prevail at the polls, as was generally expected. Few seemed reassured by Ennahda’s Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali that his movement was committed to a “civil state” in which state and mosque would be kept strictly separated.

The Rise of Ennahda
Tunisia’s Islamists had played no role in the uprising because Ennahda’s leadership and most of its cadre were still in jail or exile. Only on January 30 did its leader,  Rachid Ghannouchi, then 69, received a tumultuous welcome from his followers upon his return, stirring fears among secularists that Ennahda was mostly likely to win Tunisia’s first authentic democratic elections. A general amnesty of the three thousand political prisoners from the Ben Ali era, at least one-third of them Islamists, only came on February 19, more than a month after the president’s exit. Ben Ali had allowed the even more conservative Salafis to organize and preach on the condition they stay out of politics. So they did, even during the uprising that overthrew their benefactor.

I had attended Ghannouchi’s press conference on June 6, 2011, marking the thirtieth anniversary of Ennahda’s founding, during which he said everything he could to assuage secularists’ fears. “Tunisians on every street are breathing freedom and we intend to preserve that,” he said. “We do not intend to be the only party and will not accept a one-party system ever again.” Ennahda would “refuse to allow our mosques to be taken over by political parties to give political messages as the old regime did.” There would be no going back, either, on the gains Tunisian women had made since independence. “Equal rights for women are guaranteed in the current constitution and we do not wish to change it. . . . You [women] have nothing to fear from us.” Furthermore, Ennahda intended to form a coalition with secular parties for the October elections and afterward if it won, in forming a government.

Even in Ghannouchi’s assessment at that point, the revolution was not going altogether in the right direction. The formation of political parties was out of hand, with eighty-three officially registered as of early June. The High Authority had lost its credibility and succumbed to “authoritarianism.” Unidentified elements were working to derail the revolution by postponing elections “perhaps indefinitely.” Ghannouchi was referring to a proposal that had been put forth by seventeen secular parties, some associated with the ancien regime, suggesting that instead of electing a constituent assembly Tunisians should hold a referendum approving the existing 1959 constitution with a few amendments.

Ghannouchi was also worried about plots from abroad seeking to block Ennahda’s march to power, mainly coming from France, whose government (then under President Nicolas Sarkozy) had been Ben Ali’s major foreign supporter. His foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, had offered to send French paratroopers to help put down the uprising just before he fled the country. She resigned February 27 over her controversial remarks and the disclosure she had flown on a private jet owned by a Ben Ali business associate in the midst of the uprising. Early on Ghannouchi adopted a strategy to counter possible French machinations by seeking the support of the Barack Obama administration in the United States. To succeed, he had to convince Washington that he and his Islamist followers were committed to multiparty democracy based on the separation of religion and state.

So it was that Secretary-General Jebali went to Washington in May 2011, the first of many Ennahda delegations that were to lobby the administration, Congress, and various think tanks over the next three years. Jebali’s message was that the United States had nothing to fear from his party. Ennahda firmly believed religion was “the affair of society, not the affair of the state.” He decried the “paranoia” among secular Tunisians over the prospect of Ennahda winning a plurality (if not a majority) of votes in the October elections. His party had every intention of forming a coalition government because “frankly, Ennahda is not ready to govern alone. It makes us fearful.” He foresaw a long period of “cohabitation” between his and various secular parties. Ennahda had accepted all the basic principles spelled out in the “Republican Pact” the High Authority had approved in June 2011, mainly to assuage the fears of secularist Tunisians.

The pact turned out to be an important document that eventually shaped the writing of the new constitution. It contained a bill of rights and guarantees for various freedoms, including explicitly the “freedom of conscience,” which all parties agreed meant the right to practice the religion of one’s choosing. The document endorsed the separation of religion and state. It stated explicitly: “We are convinced that the Tunisian people aspire to build a civil society” as well as a republican form of government that preserves “the civil character of the Tunisian state.” Equality between men and women “without any discrimination” was also affirmed. There was no mention of making the sharia, the Muslim body of religious laws, the source for legislation. All parties agreed to preservation of the existing Personal Status Code of 1958, championed by secularist women in particular. “We accept the Republican Pact,” said Jebali explicitly. Ennahda’s only reservation was that the pact could not stand “above the constitution.” The political course his party intended to follow, he said, was the same taken by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. It had gained power in 2002 by moderating its Islamic principles and winning the support of many secularists mainly because of its successful capitalist economic policies.

Like secularist parties, Ennahda had its own fears for the future. Jebali singled out a repeat of what had happened to the movement in 1991, when the Ben Ali regime had aborted its bid to compete in elections that year by arresting five to six thousand Ennahda members and officials and discrediting it as a “terrorist organization.” “We had a big setback,” he said, adding, “we have fear of another setback again.” With remarkable prescience, he included among his other concerns that Tunisians would come to identify Ennahda with the more militant Islamist Salafis and turn against both of them. He predicted that public pressure would push his party toward moderation and force the Salafis in the same direction or risk isolation.

Farida Labidi, who headed Ennahda’s women’s organization in 2011, sought to dispel secularist fears of a reversal in the Tunisia family code, which was widely heralded as the most progressive of any Arab country other than the one Morocco had adopted in 2004. She believed fear of Ennahda in the minds of women secularists had been deliberately instilled by the former Ben Ali regime to gain support for its crackdown on Islamists. Yet her spirited defense of women’s right to wear the hijab seemed certain to complicate Ennahda’s efforts to reassure secularist women. She recalled the long struggle by Islamic feminists under the regimes of both Bourguiba and Ben Ali, whose secularist policies seemed reminiscent of those adopted by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the republic of Turkey on the ashes of the Ottoman caliphate after World War I.

Since 1981, Tunisian women had been forbidden to wear veils in the workplace and were discouraged from donning them in public. She herself had begun wearing the hijab in 1983 only to find herself “at war” with the police. She recounted that she had been issued a fine and her hijab torn from around her face while she was attending university in pursuit of a law degree. (At the time of my interview with her, she wore a bright red ankle-length robe and a black head scarf bearing a flower print but no face veil.) The authorities had strictly forbidden women from entering a police station or any government building while wearing a veil. Those who wore them while taking oral examinations at the university were automatically flunked. In reaction to these restrictions, she insisted, many women had decided in the post-Ben Ali era to wear a hijab, and not all were Ennahda members. Labidi, a lawyer, also argued that Tunisian women, Islamist or secularist, faced many of the same problems. Tunisia’s newfound freedoms had not changed the mentality of men even inside Ennahda. “We’ve got to push the parties to take women in and the government to give them top jobs.”

Labidi also considered the Salafis a challenge not only for Ennahda but for all Tunisian women. The Salafis had fallen under the influence of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, followers of one of the most puritanical Salafi sects. Ben Ali had allowed them free rein to multiply and spread the intolerant Wahhabi creed to compensate for his crackdown on Ennahda and show he was still a good Muslim. In the aftermath of Ben Ali’s downfall, they had found themselves free to press their fundamentalist beliefs and campaign against Western cultural influence in the country. These were themes all Ennahda leaders were to echo in an effort to separate the party from Salafi extremism. The Salafis indeed seemed to go out of their way to alienate secularists by holding prayer sessions along Avenue Bourguiba, the central boulevard of the capital. Labidi noted that although the Essebsi interim government had refused to allow the Salafis to form a political party, it had made no attempt to suppress their demonstrations of piety and attacks on Western-style music concerts, art shows, or bars serving alcohol.

Labidi’s secular counterpart was Sonia Ben Achour, a fashionably Western-dressed woman and university professor who in June 2011 had just stepped down as head of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. She immediately bristled at the mere mention of Ennahda, which for her was part of the Islamic fundamentalist current with the same goals as the Salafis. She compared the party’s spiritual leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, to a two-tongued devil, preaching tolerance to the secularists and a revival of Islamic fundamentalist practices to his own followers. “Islamists have no vision for Tunisian women other than the veil and their going back to the house,” she declared. She agreed with Labidi on one point, however. Former President Ben Ali had deliberately “played the religious card” in the last years of his rule by allowing a Salafi renaissance in a bid to bolster his sagging popularity. He had restored the religious radio, Zitouna, and prodded the Sufi orders to become more active. “It was the political manipulation of Islam.”

So how serious was the “Islamic challenge,” in her view? Ben Achour revealed herself to be of two minds. On one hand, she estimated only 15 percent of Tunisians could be counted as followers of either Ennahda or the Salafis. Women of her education and values were not about to let Islamists “push us around.” On the other hand, she anticipated “a lot of work ahead” to defend women’s acquired rights against the Islamists. It was also important that Tunisia recognize international declarations on women’s rights “because Islam can be used to restore discrimination against women.”

Secularist Bulwark against Islamists
In mid-2011, the largest political party defending Tunisia’s secular order was the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which had been allowed to function during the Ben Ali regime, though its co-president, Ahmed Chebbi, had been blocked from running for president. The PDP’s other co-president was Maya Jribi, making it the only party with a woman standard bearer. Its spokesman, Maher Hanin, a philosophy professor, was bullish about the party’s prospects at the polls. In his view, the PDP reflected the country’s main “democratic centralist tendency,” comparable to European social democratic parties. The PDP, he boasted, was growing by leaps and bounds with two hundred branches across the country and “hundreds” of requests to join. It was attracting youth, professionals, women, business owners, and the middle class generally. “We don’t understand why everybody [abroad is] interested in Islamists here rather than the secularists,” he said. He confidently predicted the two main contestants in the first post-Ben Ali elections would be the PDP and Ennahda. A public opinion poll published in May 2011, carried out by the U.S. International Republican Institute, seemed to confirm this prediction. It showed PDP President Chebbi with a 32 percent approval rating compared with 44 percent for Ennahda leader Ghannouchi, though the vast majority of respondents (72 percent) said they had not yet decided whom they would vote for in the elections.

The UGTT quickly emerged as the main civil society group defending the secular order Tunisia had inherited from Bourguiba and Ben Ali. After playing such a prominent role in the uprising, it seemed conceivable the organization might spawn its own political party to challenge the PDP and Ennahda. There was an initial attempt to do just that with the creation of the short-lived Party of Work, led by Abdeljelil Bedoui, a veteran union activist and one of three UGTT officials named to the first interim government under Prime Minister Ghannouchi. (All three had resigned one day after being appointed.) In the 1980s, Bedoui had drawn up a platform for a UGTT-based political party that had never materialized. Bourguiba had immediately quashed any movement toward the creation of a separate labor party by putting the UGTT under the wing of his own Destour Party. However, a new political era was dawning after Ben Ali’s departure, and this seemed to offer the very popular UGTT the occasion to form a workers’ party. Even Bedoui no longer saw the wisdom of such a move, and the failure of his effort illustrated the problems Tunisia’s leftists, including socialists and communists, faced in seeking to establish themselves as a political force in the post-Ben Ali era. Bedoui tried to broaden his party’s support by appealing to small entrepreneurs, lawyers, human rights activists, teachers, and doctors as well as UGTT activists. He deliberately named his organization the Party of Work rather than the Workers’ Party. Its ideology was not socialist, either, but what he called “Scandinavian-style social democracy.”

Bedoui’s attempt to launch a new leftist party on the momentum of the uprising failed for a number of reasons. One of the biggest obstacles was the varied composition of the UGTT. Its five hundred thousand members belonged to many different parties and political currents; they included communists, socialists, and Arab nationalists on the left and many Islamists on the right. Bedoui conceded that had the UGTT itself sought to launch a party, it would probably have fragmented into separate unions attached to different parties. But his gambit to form a new party did not work, either. The Party of Work was destined to become just one more of a number of leftist groups that sought a foothold on the crowded political landscape. By the fall of 2011, the government had authorized more than one hundred parties to compete for delegates to the National Constituent Assembly. The UGTT did not back any of them, which would help explain why it was able to play an indispensable role of arbitrator and mediator between secularist parties and Ennahda later.

The Revolution’s Ephemeral Honeymoon
Another salient characteristic of Tunisia’s revolution was the near nonexistence of what historian Crane Brinton called the honeymoon period among revolutionaries immediately following the overthrow of the ancien regime. The visceral distrust between secularists and Islamists surfaced immediately and grew more public and bitter with each passing day. All sense of a common endeavor came to an abrupt halt June 27, 2011, when Ennahda announced it was pulling out of the High Authority. Ghannouchi challenged its claim to “popular legitimacy” or to proceed like an elected parliament when it was not. “Who are you to want to decide the essential laws for the people?” he asked. Ennahda’s complaints included the High Authority’s decision to postpone elections from July to October, which it had opposed, and the nonconsensual way the law on political parties had been approved. Then, too, its own proposal to allow outside financing of party activities had been rejected without debate in favor of a total ban on any foreign funding. Secularists, on the other hand, were alarmed by the onset of Salafi attacks on liberal artists, their shows, and their supporters. They targeted Western-influenced filmmakers like Nouri Bouzid, the trendy Afric’Art Hall in Tunis, and films considered disrespectful of Islam like Neither God nor Master and Persepolis. Over the weekend of July 16–17, a spate of violent incidents involving Salafis erupted across the country, mostly notably in Sidi Bouzid, where one 14-year-old youth was killed and four policemen were seriously injured. Secularists and Islamists blamed each other for the violence, the former charging that the Salafis were seeking to incite enough trouble to call off elections.

The May public opinion poll conducted by the U.S. International Republican Institute reflected the confused mixture of great hope and uncertainty Tunisians harbored about their unfolding revolution. Nearly 80 percent of Tunisians thought things were going in the right direction, though a growing number—28 percent in May versus 32 percent in March—said they were having trouble feeding themselves and their families. A lack of security was at the top of concerns, followed by unemployment. Excitement about elections was at a height, with 92 percent reporting they were either very or somewhat likely to vote in the upcoming elections. Over half of respondents said they favored a secular government, though 40 percent indicated the opposite, and 63 percent said they wanted Islam to serve as the underlying cultural base of society. They did agree on one point—whether Tunisia had a secular or non-secular government was either “very important” or “important” to over three-quarters of them. Clearly Islam’s place in the identity of the new Tunisia was already at the forefront of concerns just four months into the search for a new president.

After two delays, the first truly free and fair multiparty elections in Tunisia since independence in 1956 took place on October 23, 2011. They were also the first in any of the five Arab countries that witnessed an uprising that year. Tunisians were called on to elect 217 delegates to the National Constituent Assembly, whose main task would be to hammer out a new constitution. Its mandate was supposed to last just one year, when new elections for a parliament and president were to be held. Tunisians faced a veritable cacophony of voices and choices: one hundred parties, thirty-four coalitions, 1,500 electoral lists collectively offering nearly 11,700 candidates to choose from. Only the Constitutional Democratic Rally of Ben Ali had been formally excluded from running, together with its senior officials. Perhaps the biggest anomaly, given the historic nature of the occasion, was that only 52 percent of the 8.2 million eligible voters went to the polls.

All pre-election polls had predicted Ennahda the likely winner, and indeed it was. But of great importance to shaping the future course of events, Ennahda fell far short of capturing an outright majority, winning only 37 percent of the vote. In the end, the Islamists held eighty-nine seats, forty short of an absolute majority. This meant that although Ennahda would be in charge of forming a government, it could not accomplish this on its own and would need partners. Since no other Islamic faction had participated in the elections, Ennahda had no choice but to turn to one or more of the secularist parties. The question became which party, or parties, would agree to work with Ennahda in what was certain to be a contentious process of deciding the place of Islam in the new constitution and whether the legislature or the presidency would be the center of power.

The elections produced some other major surprises. The PDP had been the leading secular party in pre-election opinion polls but fared extremely poorly, coming in fifth with less than 4 percent of the vote, giving it only sixteen seats. Another surprise was the emergence in third place of the hastily assembled and awkwardly named Popular Petition for Freedom, Justice and Development Party led by Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, a media tycoon living in London, where he owned a satellite television station. He, too, proved to be a popular son of Sidi Bouzid, where he was born. Though sympathetic to the Islamist cause, Hamdi had been associated with Ben Ali. But he had cast himself as a populist, using his TV station to reach the general public and propose demagogic reforms, such as financial support for the country’s half a million jobless and free healthcare. His strategy had worked. Hamdi’s party managed to capture almost 7 percent of the vote and secure twenty-six seats in the constituent assembly.

The left, meanwhile, had splintered into a dozen parties and coalitions, the strongest of which, the Democratic Modernist Pole, won only five seats with less than 3 percent of the votes. The Communist Party won less than 2 percent, giving it just three delegates. As for Party of Work, it failed to gain a single seat, and Bedoui was even defeated in his home district. The results of these first elections of the post–Ben Ali era explained why the left would have to resort to extra-parliamentary means, like street protests and UGTT-sponsored strikes, to gain any leverage at all in its dealings with Ennahda.

Meanwhile, Ennahda proved extremely pragmatic and politically astute upon finding itself the country’s new leading party. It successfully convinced two center-left secular parties that had come in second and fourth to join it in forming a government—the Congress for the Republic (CPR) (9 percent of the vote and twenty-nine delegates) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties known as Ettakatol (7 percent of the vote and twenty delegates). Both CPR and Ettakatol had existed as tiny opposition parties during the Ben Ali era and were led by well-known figures. The founder and secretary-general of Ettakatol, Mustapha Ben Jafar, a radiologist, had tried unsuccessfully to run against Ben Ali in the 2009 presidential election, while the CPR was led by a human rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, who had lived in exile in Paris since 2002 after Ben Ali had banned his party.

Thus it was that Tunisia came to be ruled for three years by a “troika coalition” of one Islamic and two secular parties, which found themselves again and again forced to cooperate and compromise. Ennahda immediately made manifest its intention to share power: the constituent assembly elected Marzouki as interim president and chose Ben Jafar as its own leader. Marzouki then appointed Ennahda Secretary-General Jebali as prime minister to form a government that was officially installed on December 24, 2011—a year and seven days after the uprising began. Its cabinet of ministers reflected the new spirit and practice of power sharing: only twelve of twenty-five came from Ennahda and included seven independents, most importantly the ministers of defense and religious affairs. It seemed an ideal formula for launching Tunisia’s pioneering experience in power sharing between Islamists and secularists.

Excerpted from The Arab World Upended: Revolution and Its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt by David B. Ottaway. Copyright © 2017 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

For a limited time only, get The Arab World Upended: Revolution and Its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt for half price at the publisher’s website when you enter discount code “Cairo.” To order, click here.

David B. Ottaway is a senior scholar in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. For thirty-five years, he worked for the Washington Post as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Europe, and later as a national security and investigative reporter in Washington. He is the author of, most recently, The Arab World Upended: Revolution and Its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt, and The King’s Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s Authoritarian Legacy

For years, explaining Turkey’s democratic travails seemed an easy task. There was the persistence of an authoritarian tradition, whose source was identified as Kemalism—the secularist-nationalist founding ideology of the Turkish republic—and which the military embodied. According to the conventional narrative on Turkey, with which anyone who has only casually followed international politics during the last decades will be familiar, the Turkish military had a mission—to “protect secularism”—which explained, so we were taught, its habit of overthrowing governments. All that was needed for Turkish democracy to flourish was the emergence of a force strong enough to end the tutelage of the military.

For several years, the rise of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seemed to be the answer. The general consensus among international observers was that Erdoğan was on a mission to make Turkey fully democratic. Disappointment and bewilderment have increasingly replaced that hope, particularly after an April referendum engineered by Erdoğan expanded the executive power of the president. There’s a scramble for explanations and definitions that will make sense of and conceptualize Turkey’s authoritarian drift under Erdoğan, the presumed liberal-turned-authoritarian.

The problem at the heart of the matter is that Turkey lends itself all too easily to simplistic dichotomies and to exoticism. The currency of these dichotomies, in turn, reveals an unmistakable, residual orientalism, as in Edward W. Said’s framing. Turkey is, invariably, a place where “East meets West,” where “secularism” and “Westernization” fatefully collide with “Islam.” Western scholarship has long since abandoned the modernization paradigm of the 1950s and 1960s that was applied to the Middle East by orientalists—of whom Bernard Lewis was a leading exponent—and into which Turkey was fitted as a model example of a “modernizing” Muslim country. The judgment of Patrick Kinross, the biographer of Kemal Atatürk, that the founding father of Turkey “dragged his country from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century,” couldn’t sound more anachronistic—and unacceptably orientalist—today. Yet orientalism nonetheless continues to hold sway. Turkish politics is still understood in essentialist terms, within a framework that pits “Western” against “Islamic.”

The only thing that changed when the moderate Islamists came to power was that the role that had traditionally been ascribed to the Turkish actors was reversed: now it was the former Islamists, who had recast themselves as “conservative democrats,” that were assigned the role of the modernizers, while the former heroes of the modernization paradigm, the secularists, were redefined as reactionaries who impeded democratization. In practice, nothing changed.

Alain Rouquié, a French political scientist, advances the definition “hegemonic democracy” to describe regimes like Erdoğan’s Turkey (and Vladimir Putin’s Russia): they are not liberal democracies, because the rights of the minority and the rule of law are not respected; but neither are they dictatorships, because elections are held, and political alternation thus remains possible. Yet, this is increasingly so only in theory. Turkey may not be a dictatorship—elections are held, and President Erdoğan and his party continue to enjoy broad popular support—but the rule of law and freedom of expression remain as elusive as ever.

Last November, Turkish authorities arrested Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the co-chairmen of the pro-Kurdish and moderately leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—the country’s third-largest party in terms of voters and representation in parliament. Other party lawmakers, as well as the co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish city of Turkey, were also detained. The prosecution called for what would amount to life imprisonment of the leaders of the Kurdish party. Meanwhile, Turkey has come to hold the dishonorable world record for imprisoning journalists, by far distancing China and Iran. They include editors and board members of Cumhuriyet, the oldest daily of Turkey. Journalists are routinely accused of abetting the cause of either the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—the separatist Kurdish organization that has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984—or the cause of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s erstwhile ally, effectively exiled in Pennsylvania with whom the Turkish president has been locked in a violent power struggle since 2012. The editors of Cumhuriyet stand accused of having supported both PKK and the “Fethullah Gülen terror organization.”

The President and the Cleric
A new narrative is now in fashion, according to which the process of liberalization in Turkey, held to have lasted from 2003 to roughly 2013, was abruptly aborted and authoritarian rule restored, simply because Erdoğan tolerates no dissent. It has become commonplace to blame the authoritarian drift of Turkey on Erdoğan’s thirst for personal power. Murat Belge, a liberal Turkish intellectual who supported Erdoğan for many years, until the crackdown on peaceful protesters in Istanbul and across Turkey in 2013, captured this line of thought when he wrote that “all of the problems that haunt Turkey emanate from the personality and goals of Erdoğan.”

The question of what drives history is an age-old debate. Structural forces, as Karl Marx would have it, or the great heroes and villains, according to Thomas Carlyle? The answer, in the Turkish case, is that both are correct. Erdoğan and his party came to power, carried by class dynamics; but once in power, the personalities and respective ambitions of Erdoğan and of ally-turned-rival Fethullah Gülen have been decisive. The AKP primarily though not exclusively represents the assertive, conservative bourgeoisie of Anatolia that has taken advantage of neoliberal globalization since the end of the 1980s and prospered. It was only to be expected that its economic and social clout was at some point going to be translated into political power. But the AKP’s social base is much wider: the party has also successfully wooed part of the secular bourgeoisie, the conservative lower middle class and the lumpenproletariat as well. Nonetheless, the AKP’s ascent was greeted by Turkish liberals as a “bourgeois revolution” that they expected was going to break the traditional hold of the authoritarian state over society.

These liberals should have reminded themselves, not least since most of them are former Marxists, that Marx had a much less deterministic view of the dynamics of the relationship between the bourgeoisie and state authoritarianism. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, his classical text on the relationship of state power and class interests, Marx described how the French bourgeoisie came to sacrifice its own immediate political liberties for its long-term economic class interests, bowing as it did before the might of a state—in the person of Louis Bonaparte—that held out the promise of securing these economic interests. Many Turkish intellectuals have indeed lately called attention to what seem to be striking parallels between Erdoğan and Bonaparte. There is a major difference, though, between “Bonapartist” Turkey today and mid-nineteenth century France: no revolutionary upheaval threatens bourgeois interests in Turkey today. The working class is docile and it forms a pillar, in electoral terms, of the regime. The systemic dynamic behind the authoritarian drift lacks any imperative to neutralize a nonexistent class challenge; instead, state authoritarianism is being driven by the power rivalry within the ruling elite between Erdoğan’s AKP and the followers of Gülen and by the challenge posed from the periphery by the Kurdish minority.

In fact, the AKP government never really broke with the tradition of state authoritarianism; it only created the fiction that it had done so. What was vastly more consequential than the limited liberal reforms that were enacted during the first years of the AKP rule—notably curbing some of the powers of the military—was that Erdoğan and his Gülenist allies wreaked havoc inside the ranks of the military. What international observers and liberals in Turkey saw as a period of democratization in fact featured breaches of the rule of law on a massive scale, when hundreds of military officers, as well as similarly innocent civilian opponents of the regime, were imprisoned and convicted on the basis of trumped-up charges and fabricated evidence. The show trials were supervised by Erdoğan, who declared that he was the “prosecutor” of them, while the Gülenists in the police and in the judiciary orchestrated them.

Erdoğan had no choice but to turn to the Gülen movement when he came to power: the AKP lacked the educated cadres, while the Gülenists had already become entrenched in the police and the judiciary. Etyen Mahçupyan, an organic AKP intellectual who briefly served as chief advisor to former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, explained Erdoğan’s quandary: “When you come to power, you see that besides you, there are three major forces in the country: the PKK, the military, and the Gülenists. If you antagonize all three at the same time, you will not survive. You must reach an entente with one of them. Thus, there is a period together with the Gülenists, and the peace process with the PKK. And then, as the fight with the Gülenists followed, and the war against PKK restarted, there is a forced entente with the military.”1

Once the common enemy, the old state establishment, was defeated, the Gülen movement and the AKP turned on each other. The first sign of this internecine conflict showed in 2012, when an attempt was made to arrest the chief of the national intelligence service, a close confidant of Erdoğan’s. The then-prime minister made a thinly veiled countermove in the power struggle by announcing his intention to close down dozens of private prep schools that were being run by the Gülen movement. That step precipitated a further round of retaliation from the Gülenists in late 2013, when the judiciary launched an investigation into government corruption. Erdoğan then responded by purging Gülen supporters from the police and the judiciary. And he turned to the military as a new ally, releasing in 2014 all the imprisoned officers who he now admitted had been wrongly accused of coup plotting.

However, the military was no longer the same. Starting in 2003, the AKP government had regularly blocked the high command’s requests to discharge officers suspected of Islamist ties. Meanwhile, the mass imprisonment of “Kemalist” officers had depleted the military’s upper ranks, and made it possible for younger officers to rise further and faster than ever. The Gülenist clout within the military appeared considerable, and Erdoğan had to hope that the top brass, to whom he now appealed, would succeed in keeping Gülenists among the lower ranks in check.2 The high command nearly failed to do so. Even though many details of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt remain unknown, it is very likely that officers loyal to Gülen played a decisive role. The notion that the coup was the work of a Gülenist faction is not far-fetched, since the attempted putsch occurred in the context of entrenched Gülenist influence within Turkey’s institutions of state and a years-long power struggle between Erdoğan and Gülen.

Strong Men
Erdoğan accepts no limits to his power, and the constitutional amendments approved in the April 16 referendum institutionalize the executive presidency that was effectively in place. Erdoğan was never known to be a team player; early on, he acquired the sobriquet “reis,” the leader. As a young, upcoming politician in the Islamist Welfare Party in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he famously defied Necmettin Erbakan, the legendary leader of the Turkish Islamist movement. So it comes as no surprise that he has worked to monopolize power into his own hands. Yet his authoritarianism is ultimately defensive in its character; as Etyen Mahçupyan points out, his hold on state power has always been tenuous, forcing Erdoğan to rely on others—the Gülenists, the military—in order to survive politically. And Gülen is no less responsible than Erdoğan for Turkey’s descent back into authoritarianism; indeed, it is not at all likely that a more democratic Turkey would have emerged had Gülen’s power grab succeeded. The opposite is more probable.

Officially, the Gülen movement is committed to values of religious moderation and interfaith dialogue; it promotes education and science through its extensive network of international schools. Yet the Gülenists also, and more importantly, form a secretive network that has ruthlessly sought to wield power, in glaring contradiction of the moderation that the movement’s officials preach. Tellingly, journalists that reported on their power grab during the early years of the AKP’s rule were imprisoned for years. The fact that Erdoğan jealously protected his power prerogatives, and refused to cave in when the Gülenists asked for a bigger share of political and state power, may in fact have saved Turkey from a much more sinister authoritarian regime. Turkey today would have been a different country— although not necessarily more democratic—if it hadn’t been for the role that Erdoğan has played. Nonetheless this should not obscure that what are seen to be expressions of his personal power greed are also in tune with Turkish political logic in the longue durée. Erdoğan is not the progenitor of the idea of an executive presidency—it has a long pedigree in the successive leaders of the right in Turkey that favored it since the 1970s. The first to propose an executive presidency was the leader of the far right in the 1970s, Alparslan Türkeş. The idea holds a natural appeal to conservatives and to the far right, both inclined to favor the rule of a strong man that embodies a strong state endowed with the mission to preserve the integrity of the Turkish nation.

It seemed reassuring enough when the former Islamists of Turkey presented themselves as “conservative democrats”—this was undeniably a semantic improvement that also appeared qualitatively promising, as the Islamists had been antidemocratic, and now embraced democracy, albeit in its “conservative” version. However, in the Turkish political context conservatism is not a democratically reassuring definition. Framing Turkish politics in the distorting terms of the Kemalist–Islamist dichotomy has meant, though, that conservatism has escaped scrutiny. Tanıl Bora, a Turkish liberal intellectual—and the author of a new, acclaimed history of political thinking in Turkey since the closing days of the Ottoman Empire—observes that the single-minded focus of the liberal Turkish intellectuals during the last decades on critically scrutinizing Kemalism and its authoritarian legacy, although legitimate in itself, has offered nationalist-conservatism, and generally the antidemocratic right and its authoritarianism, a free pass.3

Yet, this is remarkable. After all, it is conservatives that have ruled Turkey without interruption, except for a few years in the 1970s when a social democrat headed the government. And on those occasions that the military has stepped in, it has done so only in order to implement the rightist authoritarian policies that the governments of the civilian right had proved unable to execute, and not to promote any “Enlightenment values,” as the long-lived myth about the Kemalist praetorian guard of Turkey maintains. Atatürk himself was a radical secularist, even though it didn’t mean that he was also “enlightened,” but his rightist successors, generals and civilians alike, have been neither secularists nor democrats.

When what has passed for “Kemalism” has been used as a tool to shore up state power, as it was during the rule of the military junta in the 1980s, it has equaled authoritarian, nationalist-conservatism, with a strong dose of Sunni Islam. The true state ideology of Turkey since the 1940s has been a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” a term that was put in official use during the military rule in the 1980s. In this respect, the current Turkish regime represents continuity. Above all, Kemalism is a supremely distorting concept that prevents making sense of modern Turkish history; it needs to be replaced with the more pertinent term “conservatism” if this history is ever to be rendered intelligible.

Turkish conservatives have a history of advocating authoritarian rule. From the 1960s onward, they consistently called for and worked for restricting political freedoms and liberties. The rightist leader Süleyman Demirel, Turkey’s long-serving prime minister and finally president from 1993 to 2000, in the 1970s led the Nationalist Front, the rightist, antidemocratic alliance composed of conservatives, the far right, and Islamists that subverted Turkish democracy and prepared the ground for the right wing military coup in 1980. The Front, supported by big business and assisted by the right wing networks in the state, the infamous “deep state” of Turkey, led the charge against the rising social democracy and against a constitutional order deemed too liberal, as it allowed the left to organize and accorded rights to the trade unions. Today, the Nationalist Front of the 1970s has been resurrected, with the same mission as the last time: to impose a straightjacket on democratic politics and ramp up authoritarian state power. The far right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), with its leader Devlet Bahçeli, joined hands with the AKP and Erdoğan in pushing for the April 16 constitutional amendments that render parliament powerless.

Fissures and Fascism
Historically in Turkey, moves to amend constitutions deemed to be too liberal and to ramp up authoritarian state power have coincided with the rise of emancipation movements, be they social or ethnic. The recent rise of the pro-Kurdish and mildly leftist HDP in many ways parallels the rise of the left in the 1960s and 1970s and it has triggered similar reactions: the formation of a nationalist-conservative alliance and authoritarian-minded constitutional amendments. In the 1970s, the right called for a version of presidential strongman rule to protect the state against “communist subversion”; today, the leader of the far right, Erdoğan’s ally Bahçeli, is similarly arguing that the introduction of a presidential system is in the interest of the state, and that this system will ensure that the aspirations of the Kurds are checked. Indeed, while the parliamentarian system allows the Kurdish political movement to potentially wield power, to make use of that power to advance its claims for local autonomy—as has been noted, the pro-Kurdish HDP is the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament—it can of course never hope to win the presidency. The introduction of an executive presidency that makes parliament irrelevant is thus fundamentally in accordance with raison d’état, and not the simple expression of Erdoğan’s “power hunger.”

The need to ramp up state authority has partly arisen in response to the fact that the constitutional order that the military junta put in place in the early 1980s has at the end of the day proved ineffective in shielding the established order from upsets from below. The 1982 constitution introduced a 10 percent threshold to parliament, which was designed to block the Kurdish minority from gaining representation, but in the general election in June 2015, the pro-Kurdish HDP broke through the barrier. The push for concentrating all executive power to the presidency is also intended to remedy the institutional breakdown of the Turkish state apparatus. The fracturing of the state into rival, warring factions, which culminated with the attempted coup in 2016, has become another argument in favor of shoring up state authority.

Perry Anderson, a British Marxist historian, has observed that, “Turkey could become a democracy so much earlier than Spain, a more advanced society—let alone other countries as economically and socially backward in the 1950s—because there was no comparably explosive class conflict to be contained, no radical politics to be crushed. Most peasants owned land, workers were few, intellectuals marginal, a left hardly figured. In these conditions, there was limited risk of any upsets from below. The elites could settle accounts between themselves without fear of letting loose forces they could not control.”4 But, as Anderson notes, that degree of security would not last. Class fissures, absent in 1950 when Turkey became a multiparty democracy, would surface in the 1960s with the emergence of a working class. That triggered calls for authoritarian rule from conservatives and from the far right. The buried ethnic fissures that did exist would start to crack open and threaten the established order from the mid-1980s and onward.

Turkey was able to return to democratic governance a few years after the 1980 coup because the class conflict that had erupted in the 1960s and 1970s was successfully contained. The oppression of the left by the military junta created a vacuum that was filled by Islamism, which was helped along by the policies and ideological discourse of the military. Kenan Evren, the general who took power in 1980, warned that it would be “unthinkable” for Turkey to become irreligious. “We must firmly embrace our religion,” he declared in 1981.

In the absence of the left, the claims of the popular classes were channeled, first to the Islamist Welfare Party, and later to the AKP, its successor. Cihan Tuğal, a Turkish academic, has used Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “passive revolution” to describe how the popular challenge to capitalism in Turkey was absorbed and neutralized by Islamism. The fact that the Islamists had replaced the left as the voice of the people helped maintain a parliamentary system, as the passive revolution that they accomplished during the 1980s and 1990s ensured that the popular classes—workers and peasants—did not rise to challenge the established order as they had done in the 1970s, when they had rallied to the social democratic left.

Islamic conservatism has proved to be much less successful in containing the ethnic conflict. To once again paraphrase Anderson, Turkey cannot remain a parliamentary democracy because there is an explosive ethnic conflict to be contained. Since the 10 percent threshold to parliament no longer offers any guarantee that Kurdish parties will be denied national political representation and power, the only recourse left for the guardians of established order—the nationalist-conservatives—is to replace parliamentarian rule with an all-powerful presidency.

Can social democrats save Turkish democracy? HDP co-chairman Demirtaş last year made a plea for the formation of a “democratic bloc” that would stand up against the ruling “fascist bloc.” A few days before he was arrested, the Kurdish leader—who received nearly 10 percent of the votes in the presidential election in 2014—asked, “Why should it be impossible for those who call for equality and brotherhood to get 60 percent of the votes? Why can’t we come together and form a democratic bloc? Are we condemned to a fascist bloc?” Demirtaş was addressing the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has showed no interest in forming such a leftist democratic alliance, even though it calls itself social democratic.

Quite the opposite: the CHP, which is the founding party of Turkey, and is beholden to Turkish nationalism, played a decisive role in paving the way for the arrests of the HDP lawmakers. When the Turkish parliament in May 2016 voted to abolish the immunity of the lawmakers, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu instructed his party group to vote for the joint proposal of the AKP–MHP alliance, knowing very well what the next step would be. Not all CHP lawmakers followed his instruction, but critically, enough of them did. The HDP has also found it difficult to transcend nationalism; even though the party has made an attempt to reach out to a broad electorate, it has nonetheless remained just as beholden to Kurdish nationalism as CHP is to Turkish nationalism. In the absence of a broad, democratic left, Turkey does seem condemned to being ruled by some version of the same old authoritarian right as always.

1 Talk with the author, Istanbul, June 2015

2 “Erdoğan Loses It,” Foreign Affairs, February 9, 2014

3 “Tanıl Bora: “Olağanüstü dayanıklı saydığınız o ‘kodlar’ da değişir…”,” Oggito, February 8, 2017

4 “After Kemal,” Perry Anderson, London Review of Books, September 25, 2008

Halil Karaveli is senior fellow in the Silk Road Studies Program of the Central Asia- Caucasus Institute where he heads the Turkey Initiative and is editor of Turkey Analyst. From 1991 to 2007, he was an editorial writer at Östgöta Correspondenten, a Swedish daily. He has contributed to the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and National Interest.

Modi’s Bold New World

In early March 2013, following pressure from students and professors, the University of Pennsylvania cancelled a lecture that Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of India’s Gujarat state, was scheduled to deliver via videoconference later in the month. At the time, Modi was dogged by allegations that he had failed to stop anti-Muslim riots that killed over one thousand people in Gujarat in 2002. As a result, he had effectively been banned from the West. The United States, citing an obscure law that prevents foreign officials guilty of egregious religious freedom violations from entering the country, had rejected his application for a visa in 2005. The European Union had also refused to let him visit.

Times certainly have changed. As prime minister, Modi is taking the West—and the world—by storm. He hobnobs with heads of state and holds forth with the world’s top corporate leaders. He draws capacity crowds to celebrity venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden and London’s Wembley Arena. In 2014, he even shared a stage with Beyoncé and Jay Z at the anti-poverty Global Citizen Festival in Central Park.  Such is the world’s adulation for Modi that relatively few overseas observers—other than human rights and religious freedom activists—have called out the Hindu nationalist leader for his draconian policies at home, which have included crackdowns on nongovernment organizations that receive foreign funding.

The transformation from pariah to pop star since Modi became prime minister in 2014 is nothing short of extraordinary. And yet it’s not just a story about the remarkable rehabilitation of a politician’s reputation—it’s also a broader tale about India. New Delhi’s foreign policy has become increasingly personalized by its globetrotting, spotlight-seeking prime minister. This was most certainly not the case with Modi’s predecessor, the bookish and camera-shy Manmohan Singh.

Modi’s deep personal imprint on India’s foreign relations helps drive a foreign policy focused around three broad themes: prosperity, national interests, and recognition as a global power. The prime minister highlighted the importance of each of these in a speech to a geopolitical conference held in New Delhi in early 2017, emphasizing in particular that the world should welcome India’s growing clout. “Our economic and political rise represents a regional and global opportunity of great significance,” he declared. “It is a force for peace, a factor for stability, and an engine for regional and global prosperity.”

Observers should not dismiss Modi for reveling in swashbuckling personal diplomacy. On the contrary, he appreciates the strategic importance of intense personal interactions in international relations. “The world is interconnected and interdependent,” he said in a 2016 interview on the Indian TV news channel Times Now. “You will have to connect with everybody at the same time.” Not surprisingly, as of February 2017, Modi had made more than fifty foreign trips as prime minister.

Modi’s active personal diplomacy has produced a series of major deals that help serve Indian national interests and promote economic development. These include an accord for the United Arab Emirates to invest up to a whopping $75 billion in infrastructure, one of India’s key needs. The business community in India has cited poor or nonexistent infrastructure as its greatest hurdle, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has admitted that the country will need $1.5 trillion over the next decade to address its infrastructure gap.

Modi has also concluded a uranium deal with Australia to boost India’s lagging nuclear energy capacity. India is in great need of energy on the whole; economists have estimated that for Indian economic growth to register in the double digits, energy supplies must increase by three to four times over the next few decades—and yet India currently suffers from peak demand deficits in electricity that reach 25 percent in some regions. When the deal was announced in 2015, India’s nuclear energy capacity was under 5,000 megawatts—less than 2 percent of the country’s total power supply. 

Additionally, Modi has signed a transport corridor deal with Iran and Afghanistan. This accord entails the development of a port in the Iranian city of Chabahar, new roads, and a railroad stretching north from Chabahar to the Afghan border. India’s neighboring nemesis Pakistan has long denied it transit rights—a reality that underscores the significance of this deal for New Delhi. A completed transport corridor with Iran and Afghanistan would give India direct land access to key markets—and energy resources—in Afghanistan and by extension in Central Asia for the first time since Partition in 1947.

Furthermore, after several years of unsuccessful negotiations, India was granted membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a prestigious thirty-five-member entity that facilitates New Delhi’s access to missile technology. Entry into the MTCR is particularly important for New Delhi given that rival Beijing has long wielded its veto to prevent India from joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, another prestigious club that hastens access to critical technologies.

Arc of Ambition
At home, Modi projects himself as a determined, can-do reformer. This attitude is reflected in his foreign policy as well—evidenced not only by his ability to strike big-ticket deals, but also by his willingness to be bolder and less risk averse than his recent predecessors. Indeed, India’s foreign policy has become more ambitious under Modi, setting new precedents and going places it hasn’t gone before. This is well illustrated by three of Modi’s key policies: stronger engagement with East Asian neighbors, pushback against Pakistan, and deeper defense ties with the United States.

Modi first announced his “Act East” policy in 2014 at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It replaces India’s former passive-sounding Look East policy and telegraphs New Delhi’s determination to more actively engage its Asian neighbors to the east. The basic parameters of Act East are the same. New Delhi has long appreciated the strategic necessity of engaging its east. A nation with great power aspirations, after all, needs to cultivate influence not only in far-flung regions, but also in areas close to home—particularly when this broader backyard boasts two-thirds of the world’s population and a major portion of its wealth.

However, three factors suggest that the Act East policy is more than what one critic has dismissed as a “catchy but vacuous” initiative. First, Modi has been extremely present in East Asia. As of February 2017, he had made fifteen visits to the region—more than twice as many as Singh had made at a similar point in his term. Second, Act East has produced some major agreements. One is the uranium deal with Australia. Another is an oil and defense accord with Vietnam that provides naval vessels to Hanoi and grants oil exploration rights to New Delhi in parts of the South China Sea. The deal is a potential boon for India’s energy security but also shows the extent of Modi’s readiness to reach eastward: under the deal, Indian interests (from its oil workers to possible energy assets) could be directly imperiled in the event that rising regional tensions over China’s claims in the South China Sea lead to conflict.

Finally, India’s implementation of the Act East policy has been accompanied by a strong embrace of the new and emerging economic architecture proliferating across the Asia Pacific. India is the second-largest shareholder in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It is also one of sixteen nations—including China—negotiating the formation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This initiative, which is comprised entirely of Asian countries, has taken on new importance since President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump’s move effectively rendered that formerly U.S.-supported trade pact—one that India was never a part of—dead in the water. RCEP, if ratified, would make up a trade bloc comprising half the world’s population and almost 30 percent of global gross domestic product. Significantly, RCEP would further embed India in regional economic networks by facilitating access to key supply chains in Southeast Asia, which houses some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Pushback against Pakistan is another feature of Modi’s bolder foreign policy. Since independence, the troubled India–Pakistan relationship has vacillated between periods of conflict and calm. During his first year and a half in power, Modi sought the latter. He extended an olive branch and pushed for dialogue. In late 2015, he even made a surprise visit to Pakistan to see his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. However, in 2016, a year that featured two major terrorist attacks on the Indian military that New Delhi blamed on Pakistani militants with ties to Pakistan’s security establishment, Modi changed tack—in dramatic and arguably unprecedented fashion. He made bold statements that Indian leaders rarely make: he threatened to reexamine and even revoke the Indus Waters Treaty, a decades-old water-sharing agreement that ensures that the Indus River—a critical water source for Pakistanis—flows downstream unencumbered into Pakistan. In his annual independence day speech, he boldly expressed solidarity with people in Balochistan—an impoverished Pakistani province convulsed by a separatist insurgency that Islamabad accuses New Delhi of helping foment.

Modi announced in September 2016 that India had staged a limited military strike on Pakistani terrorist facilities along the disputed India–Pakistan border. India has carried out these covert crossborder strikes before, but rarely if ever has it gone public about them. The message was clear: Pakistan was being put on notice that India is willing to resort to punitive measures to safeguard its national security. New Delhi also announced a campaign to diplomatically isolate Pakistan until the latter cracks down on anti-India terrorists on its soil. The opening salvo was a successful effort to convince member states of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation to boycott a summit meeting planned in Islamabad.

While Indian leaders have typically sought to avoid overly antagonizing Pakistan, Modi has taken a more defiant position that appears less concerned about Pakistani responses. Tellingly, in 2015, New Delhi signed off on a deal to transfer Russian-made fighter helicopters to Afghanistan—the first time India had sent offensive weaponry to Kabul. Previous Indian leaders have held off, in part to avoid provoking the ire of a Pakistani security establishment that resents any semblance of an Indian military footprint in Afghanistan. Modi, however, was not deterred.

Strengthening India’s military ties with Washington is another example of Modi’s bolder posture. U.S.–India relations have enjoyed growing momentum since the early 1990s. One constraint, however, has been India’s concerns about taking security cooperation too far, for fear of violating the nonalignment principle that has long guided Indian foreign policy and precluded New Delhi from pursuing alliance-like arrangements. India has gradually relaxed its embrace of nonalignment in recent decades, but under Modi this transition has seemingly accelerated. In late 2016, Washington and New Delhi agreed to a deal that gives the latter the status of “Major Defense Partner.” This means that in the realms of defense trade and defense technology sharing, Washington will extend to New Delhi the same types of benefits it does to America’s closest allies. 

This isn’t to say the United States and India will be fighting wars together anytime soon; New Delhi isn’t yet ready to completely shake off the nonalignment albatross. Indeed, the mere suggestion—proposed by a top U.S. military commander in a New Delhi speech in 2016—of staging joint patrols in Asian waters prompted immediate rejections from India. Still, under Modi, Indian messaging on bilateral military cooperation has been notably robust. A 2014 joint statement issued after a summit between Modi and President Barack Obama underscored “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”—suggesting the future prospect of some level of operational cooperation, including in conflict-prone regions.

Indeed, New Delhi’s rising concerns about Beijing’s increasingly provocative actions in the South China Sea, coupled with India’s growing presence in the Asia Pacific region thanks to its Act East policy, have likely influenced Modi’s decision to push for a stronger defense partnership with Washington, which in recent years has pushed for its own “pivot,” or “rebalance,” to East Asia. New Delhi’s interest in deepening naval engagement in Asia—spelled out in a revised maritime security strategy released in 2015—suggests that U.S.–India maritime cooperation could be a major focus area for U.S.–India defense relations. 

Policy and Panache
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 2014 election manifesto provides a strikingly accurate window into the current government’s thinking about foreign policy. It lays out what can perhaps be described as the makings of a Modi doctrine: the embrace of an active, confident, and tightly focused foreign policy that aims to better position India as a rising power and accelerate its path toward superpowerdom.

The manifesto, perhaps underscoring the importance of intensive international diplomacy, contends that India’s previous government “failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbors.” The document laments how India’s foreign policy has been marked by confusion rather than clarity, and that India has been “floundering” rather than “engaging the world with confidence.” The manifesto promises to build “a strong, self-reliant, and self-confident India, regaining its rightful place in the comity of nations.” The document’s foreign policy guiding principles state that “we will engage proactively on our own with countries in the neighborhood and beyond….We will pursue friendly relations. However, where required we will not hesitate from taking [a] strong stand and steps.”  These principles are quite consistent with the moves Modi has pursued in office, such as the Act East strategy and the muscular policy toward Pakistan.

Several other core characteristics undergird India’s foreign policy. These include “enlightened self-interest”—a principle also championed by previous Indian governments, and which stipulates that India’s foreign policy should be carried out independently, without ideological influences or historical baggage. The noted Indian strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan argues in a book on Modi’s foreign policy that this tenet has been on full display—from the prime minister’s engagement with Washington despite the earlier U.S. visa ban to his desire to pursue a workable relationship with China, a nation that once fought a war against India and today is arguably New Delhi’s greatest strategic competitor. 

Another core component of India’s current foreign policy is unpredictability. At first blush, this may seem counterintuitive, given New Delhi’s emphasis on a focused and disciplined foreign policy. In fact, however, it’s very much in line with the Modi government’s penchant for bold moves. Consider Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan in 2015; the unexpected visual of Modi, only three months into his term, happily sitting alongside Xi Jinping, president of rival China, on a swing along a riverbank in Gujarat; and Modi’s invitation to Obama—issued just weeks after he met the U.S. leader for the first time, in Washington, in September 2014—to serve as chief guest at India’s Republic Day festivities the following January. This marked the first time an American president was invited to receive  this prestigious honor. 

There is actually a fair amount of continuity, too, in Modi’s foreign relations. This includes maintaining strong relations with New Delhi’s old Cold War friend Russia; pursuing a strong economic partnership with Beijing despite ample political tensions; undertaking energy-focused diplomacy in the Middle East; and engaging global forums like BRICS. Additionally, India’s often obstructionist position in global trade negotiations has persisted (in fact, rumors—rejected by New Delhi—abounded in 2016 that India’s overly protectionist position threatened to get it kicked out of RCEP negotiations ). To its credit, however, the Modi government has taken a more conciliatory position in international negotiations over climate change than did its predecessor.

For all of Modi’s foreign policy success stories, he has fallen short on several fronts. India’s hopes to make more of a splash on the global stage have been dashed to some degree by its continued inability to gain entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and to secure a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, India’s efforts to patch up relations with its South Asian neighbors (setting aside Pakistan) have suffered a blow thanks to a major spat with Kathmandu, which accused New Delhi of indirectly supporting a blockade of goods into Nepal along the India–Nepal border for several months in 2015 and 2016. Some Indian commentators have also accused New Delhi of aggravating its relations with Pakistan by botching its policy in the disputed region of Kashmir. New Delhi antagonizes Islamabad, contend these critics, by constantly blaming Pakistan for recent unrest in Kashmir without acknowledging that India’s own policies, and particularly its heavy-handed security measures in Kashmir, are a big part of the problem.

Modi’s foreign policy could face additional challenges—both externally and internally driven. Global geopolitics have changed dramatically since Modi assumed office—a reality that could have deleterious impacts on New Delhi’s foreign relations. The Trump administration’s pledge to leave a lighter footprint in the world, and its threat to revisit its relationships with longstanding alliance partners in Asia, raise the specter of stepped-down U.S. engagement in Asia—and perhaps even an end to America’s rebalance policy. A less present America in Asia would constrain the regional security cooperation that New Delhi hopes to scale up with Washington. A downscaling of America in Asia would also strengthen China in a big way, adding to Beijing’s already-formidable clout in the Asia Pacific and complicating Indian efforts to shore up its own influence in the region.

Internally, India’s foreign policy could be hampered by an age-old problem: insufficient capacity within foreign policy institutions. This ranges from a lack of people working in the foreign policy establishment to the absence of an institutionalized process of policy planning and policymaking within the Indian foreign ministry. When India’s foreign secretary asked senior officials who within the government does the thinking about overall foreign policy, “he was met with embarrassed silence,”  according to a Brookings Institution study of Modi’s foreign policy. Efforts are underway to address these institutional constraints, but these are longstanding challenges, and even a can-do type like Modi will have his work cut out for him.

With Modi now well into the second half of his five-year term, his popularity abroad remains high and his personal diplomacy robust—even as his government has begun to wholeheartedly embrace a Hindu nationalist social agenda at home. In March, it appointed a hardline, anti-Muslim monk to serve as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. There’s no reason to doubt that the he will continue to travel the world with panache, wage an energetic foreign policy, and garner many happy returns for his country’s economy, national interests, and global reputation.

Michael Kugelman is the deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy and has written for the New York Times and Washington Post. On Twitter: @MichaelKugelman.

Holding the Center

Germany has been the leading political and economic power in the European Union for the last several years. Major policy responses to the euro crisis or the refugee crisis have been largely shaped by Berlin. This is not surprising, given that the country is a stable democracy and the leading economy in the eurozone while many of its most important partners have been struggling politically and economically. Rather astonishing is a more recent development: Germany is also assuming a crucial military role within the new strategic posture of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

On the Eastern flank, Germany has, after initial reluctance, played an important role. It helped set up the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), agreed upon at the NATO Wales Summit in 2014, and offered to lead a multinational NATO battalion in Lithuania as part of the “enhanced forward presence,” established at the NATO Warsaw Summit in 2016. Germany is now also leading the way in putting to work the Framework Nations Concept, which it proposed years ago, by offering partner countries to integrate units of their armed forces into German command structures on the division level.

Taken together, these changes essentially reveal, at least for some well-versed observers, that the Bundeswehr is turning into Europe’s “anchor army,” or the “backbone for the Alliance’s military reorganization.” These developments indeed signal an important change in the German role within NATO and represent the beginning of an ongoing adaption to the changing strategic environment. An increasingly revisionist Russia, the specter of a disintegrating European Union (EU), a nationalist United States of America under President Donald Trump, and illiberal political forces within the countries of the transatlantic security community force German elites to reconsider their foreign policy outlook. As the principle foundations of Germany’s foreign policy are under pressure, there is increasing awareness and readiness in Berlin to step up.

Those who see a new military giant in the making, however, are mistaken. Even if the German strategic culture is slowly evolving, the country is, for various reasons, neither able nor willing to become Europe’s major military power. In the years to come, its leaders will have to walk a thin line. On the one hand, they have to deal with a population that has been accustomed to a low-threat security environment and is skeptical of increased defense spending and military engagement. On the other hand, they have to respond to American calls for increased German defense spending if they do not want to endanger the future vitality of NATO.

“Strategic Black Hole”
Only a couple of years ago, many domestic and international analysts worried about the German role in NATO. They complained not only about a lack of commitment of the German government to NATO operations, but also a lack of strategic input coming from Berlin. For years, Germany was a prime target of those allies who warned that NATO could become a “two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not,” as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it in 2008. Although other countries had caveats for their military forces in Afghanistan as well, Germany was often seen as the main culprit and the alliance’s prime free rider.

When the German government abstained in the 2011 United Nations Security Council vote authorizing NATO military intervention in Libya and withdrew German ships in the Mediterranean from NATO command, some worried about the future direction of German foreign policy and whether it might seek a more independent role and chart a course different from that of its most important Western partners. For some, Germany had even become “NATO’s lost nation.” As the British strategic analyst Julian Lindley-French summarized a discussion at Wilton Park in 2010, he wrote: “Germany is a strategic ‘black hole’ in the heart of the alliance. In the absence of a Germany willing to fulfill its role as a leader of the European pillar of the alliance, NATO is weakened to the extent that the burden on and consequence of American leadership will remain overwhelming. This imbalance undermines the functioning of the alliance as an effective political forum.”

A closer analysis of NATO’s development since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, reveals that Germany often defined the red lines of the alliance’s transformation. Instead of offering their own visions, a series of German governments mainly put forward what NATO could not or should not do. Germany opposed both the vision of a “global NATO,” an interventionist alliance able and willing to engage in theaters throughout the world, and the vision of a regional alliance that would return to its roots and focus on territorial defense against Russia. Yet, it did not really offer a vision of its own, often to the dismay of its allies and also to many Germans. Writing in Der Spiegel in 2010, a group of former German officials bluntly stated: “In Germany, there is no significant discussion about the future of NATO, its self-image, its strategy for the future, and the question of how Russia can be included. Berlin is not showing any opinion leadership, nor is it spurring international debate. This has been a disappointment for other members of the alliance, who are asking themselves whether the Germans are afraid of the debate or are simply no longer capable of contributing to it in a forward-looking way.” NATO, it seemed at the time, was not vital to German security anymore.

Against the background of growing international and domestic criticism, the strategic community in Germany launched various efforts to make the case for a stronger German role in foreign and security policy. Many experts shared the view that the country was punching far below its weight and that this situation was not sustainable in the long run. One such initiative was a working group put together by Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which presented a report in 2013 that summarized a newly emerging consensus among the strategic community in Berlin. Specifically, the authors stressed that “Germany must use its increased influence to contribute to shaping the future of the alliance.” In a similar vein, at the Munich Security Conference in 2014, German President Joachim Gauck delivered what will likely be remembered as his most important speech. Arguing that “change is gradually gnawing away at German certainties,” Gauck made a forceful plea for Germany to “take more resolute steps to preserve and help shape the order based on the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations.” Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier echoed the president’s call in their speeches at the same venue. Steinmeier even employed specific adjectives that Gauck had used the day before: “Germany must be ready for earlier, more decisive, and more substantive engagement in the foreign and security policy sphere.” Some observers later described the thrust of this concerted effort as the new Munich Consensus.

Concrete Policy Initiatives
Few had thought at the time that the Munich Consensus was to be tested almost immediately. Only a few weeks after the Munich conference, Russian forces entered Ukrainian territory. In mid-March, the Russian government annexed Crimea. The initial reaction from Berlin was cautious. Yet, the continuous escalation in Eastern Ukraine convinced the German government that Moscow was unwilling to negotiate a peaceful solution and that the Russian government’s actions presented a full-blown assault on the principles of the European security order that needed to be defended. After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine reportedly by pro-Russian insurgents, killing nearly three hundred civilians, the German government changed gears and became one of the leading advocates of economic sanctions against Russia. Although the German government opposed the delivery of defensive weapons to the Ukrainian government, fearing that this would only add fuel to the fire, it went along with the new focus on reassurance for those allies who felt particularly threatened by Moscow. The so-called Wales Package included more exercises across the alliance and the establishment of the VJTF. At the same time, Berlin insisted on the need to respect the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, a political document that established common principles for the relationship between the alliance and Russia and included the promise by NATO to “carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.”

While most Central and Eastern European (CEE) governments argued that Russia had violated almost every main principle of the Founding Act and thus could not expect NATO to stick to it, Germany in particular maintained that the alliance should continue to respect its commitments and avoid a tit for tat demonstrating that the alliance’s behavior was different from Russia’s and that a return to the principles was its goal. In particular, Germany and a number of other countries opposed the establishment of new NATO bases and permanent stationing of troops on the Eastern flank.

On the diplomatic front, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the principal negotiator on Ukraine. Given that the United States did not insist on a leadership role in the negotiations and was willing to let Berlin take the lead for pragmatic reasons, the German government together with its French partners was basically in charge of the West’s Ukraine diplomacy within the so-called Normandy format, which brought together France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. They were at least able to forge a peace agreement that has not broken down completely (although it is continuously violated and its provisions are still far from being implemented fully).

Due to the continuing deterioration in the European security environment, more and more politicians in NATO called for additional steps going beyond the Wales Package of 2014. In the run-up to the Warsaw Summit, the Obama administration made clear that it expected Germany to be among the lead nations in what came to be known as the “enhanced forward presence” of the alliance in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, underlining the collective defense commitment laid down in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s so-called musketeer clause—“an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies.” In early 2017, the Bundeswehr deployed their first batch of soldiers and heavy equipment to Rukla, Lithuania, where it leads one of the four multinational battalions (the other three battalions in Estonia, Latvia, and Poland are led by the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, respectively). This military contribution also made possible a diplomatic success for Berlin because NATO also decided to renew its efforts to convene with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council. German politicians had long called for renewed dialogue but faced opposition from the CEE countries who felt dialogue was largely meaningless without Russia willing to engage constructively. By upping its military commitment to its allies, Berlin could further its diplomatic goals and strengthen NATO’s efforts to reengage with Russia. The new NATO compromise essentially read: as much defense as necessary, as much dialogue as possible.

Moreover, the Framework Nations Concept, which was initially derided by some when it was first presented by the German government in 2013, is taking shape. Based on the realization that the various national armed forces of the European countries are too small to field the necessary forces, this concept designates so-called framework nations making their structures available for others who are willing to contribute to a certain mission but would be unable to do so without a larger nation leading the effort. After the Dutch who have two armored brigades under German command, the Czech Republic and Romania recently signed an agreement expressing their readiness to link parts of their armed forces to the Bundeswehr. It is the bottom-up answer to the top-down vision of a “European Army.” Christian Mölling, a defense expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, even proposed to create a new division with the explicit aim of offering an opportunity for smaller states to contribute to it. Such a decision would indeed turn the Bundeswehr into the backbone of a European army. But bold proposals are almost certain to incite domestic resistance.

In Search of Domestic Consensus
Most of Germany’s ongoing strategic adaptation takes place without much public attention. On the one hand, this is not particularly surprising. Much of the issues are technical, and a lot of the change is incremental. The small islands of cooperation (or even integration) between European militaries are clearly not as exciting as talk of a European army. Yet, taken together, they signal a new phase in European defense. On the other hand, it can also be argued that the German government avoids offensively communicating and justifying the significant changes in the Bundeswehr’s strategic posture. For a long time, Defense Minister von der Leyen was the only prominent politician making an effort to explain the Bundeswehr deployment to Lithuania. Others, such as former Foreign Minister Steinmeier, instead voiced concerns across the alliance when he warned of “loud saber-rattling and war cries” in the run-up to the Warsaw Summit because he felt that NATO’s response risked a “focus exclusively on military aspects.” While stressing her support for the mission, Chancellor Merkel has not shown any eagerness to make the case for the new posture in a major speech or even an interview. This is dangerous in the long run: in 2015, a Pew Research poll found that 58 percent of Germans said that the Bundeswehr should not be sent to defend its allies if there was a violent conflict with Russia. This undermines the credibility of deterrence, and makes an escalation more likely. The lack of strategic communication is even more striking given that there is a historical precedent that could help to explain what Germany is doing: its own history. In essence, German soldiers are now doing what Allied soldiers did for West Germany at the height of the Cold War when the West German government also insisted on the presence of their allies at the intra-German border. But the reluctance to address and debate the Bundeswehr’s engagement in Lithuania is just one example of a rather shaky new consensus. Large parts of the German population remain highly skeptical when issues of military power are debated. This makes a stronger German role in European defense a tough sell for politicians, and a potential campaign issue.

Most recently, the 2 percent goal of NATO has become a major issue in the German debate. As the allies agreed at the Wales Summit in 2014, they would aim at spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense within a decade. Trump’s repeated calls for stronger allied contributions to NATO, combined with thinly veiled threats regarding the future U.S. commitment to the organization, shed additional light on the large gap between Germany’s commitments and its actual spending levels. Yet, the new German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, raised doubts about the German commitment to the 2 percent goal. On a visit to Tallinn, Gabriel conceded that “Germany needs to do more, no question about it,” but also stressed that it was “completely unrealistic to raise expectations in Germany or among our partners that we will add 30 billion euros to our defense spending over the next eight years.” Gabriel and other German critics of the 2 percent goal put forward various arguments. Some hold that an increase in military spending is ill-advised in general and would signal a dangerous militarization. They would rather increase German spending on development assistance and conflict prevention. Others maintain that the NATO goalpost is not a helpful target. Pointing to allies such as Greece that have long spent more than 2 percent of its GDP on defense but have not contributed much to NATO operations, they argue that focusing on output instead of input would be key. Some also criticize the significant waste of resources for national capabilities. Finally, others even claim that Germany spending about 60 billion euros on its military would be unacceptable to its partners with memories of the Third Reich. As Gabriel put it: “We also have to consider whether Europe wants a Germany that invests 60 billion euros a year in the German Army. . . . This would be military supremacy in Europe, and I think our neighbors would not like to see that.”

While these arguments are not without merit, they need to be seen in perspective. First of all, increasing defense spending does not have to come at the expense of civilian foreign policy instruments. Rather, more engagement is needed here as well. In the late 1980s, West Germany spent about a quarter of its budget on foreign policy broadly defined. Today, Germany spends just about 15 percent. And while some foreign policy challenges indeed call for nonmilitary answers, one must not ignore that some of the most pressing issues cannot be addressed without military power either. Even if they do not like it, Europeans have to deal with the fact that other actors are ready to use military force to reach their political goals. Being prepared and able to respond may eventually make the use of force less likely.

It is true that greater efforts at pooling and sharing military equipment in Europe may indeed save taxpayers’ money in the long run and that additional money would have to be spent smartly. According to a McKinsey & Company analysis for the Munich Security Report 2017, European nations could save up to 30 percent of its annual European defense investment if they decided to streamline procurement. Yet, there is no ignoring the fact that European militaries have amassed significant capability gaps that require additional spending (even if jointly). It is hardly imaginable how the increasing demand for European military contributions in and beyond Europe can be met with the current set of forces. This is true for the increased commitments to collective defense and deterrence on NATO’s Eastern flank, contributions to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups, or efforts to support EU or UN peacekeeping and training missions in Africa. Germany, as NATO’s second biggest economic power, has to do its share.

In addition, the claim that Germany’s partners would be wary of a stronger German military is far-fetched and not a convincing argument to oppose NATO’s 2 percent goal. Germany’s partners have consistently argued for increased German defense spending. They fear a strong Germany within NATO far less than a weak Germany that does not provide its share to the alliance’s collective defense. Moreover, a strong commitment of Germany to the institutional framework of NATO is the best insurance policy against military nationalization.

Trump versus NATO
No one expects Germany to reach the 2 percent goal within a few years. But increasing its efforts to spend more on military capabilities may be the price the country has to pay in order to uphold NATO, the crucial framework for German defense. Germany has not only a responsibility but also a strong strategic interest in strengthening NATO. Moreover, the German government has supported the NATO decision to raise defense spending to 2 percent and even reaffirmed it in the most recent German defense strategy, the Weißbuch 2016. From this point of view, questioning Germany’s commitment to the 2 percent goal comes at the worst of times as Donald Trump and his team have made clear that they expect a marked increase in defense spending lest the United States would “moderate its commitment” to the alliance, as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it.

If the current or any future U.S. government really decided to “moderate its commitment” to European defense, German policy makers would face a completely different situation. Not only would they have to spend much more on defense, without the U.S. commitment to NATO as an extra-European balancer, worries about German dominance in Europe would be much more acute. Against this background, German politicians would do well to do more to make NATO fit for the future. While recent changes point to a stronger German role within the alliance, progress is slow and based on a rather shaky domestic consensus. The alliance will not be able to fulfill its tasks without leadership from Europe’s richest economy. German contributions are, again, crucial for NATO’s collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. The center must hold if NATO is not to fold.

Tobias Bunde is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for International Security Policy at the Hertie School of Governance, and head of policy and analysis at the Munich Security Conference. His writing has appeared in Contemporary Security Policy, Sicherheit und Frieden (S+F), and Internationale Politik. He is co-author of the annual Munich Security Report and has written for the Financial Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Project Syndicate, and others. On Twitter: @TobiasBunde.

Crisis of Confidence

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order. By Richard N. Haass. Penguin Press, New York, 2017. 352 pp.

Whatever the lasting institutional impact of the Trump revolution, it has surely thrown the Washington foreign policy establishment into a state of panic. Many of the mostly apolitical professionals at the State Department, the Pentagon, and other national security agencies are experiencing dread, both at the content of the Trump administration’s early policy decisions and at the processes by which they were promulgated. Particularly turbulent has been the White House’s relationship with the intelligence community, as details of Trump associates’ curious relationships with Moscow seep into the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post.

With the bureaucracy girding for massive budget cuts, even Republicans on  Capitol Hill are wary—wary of Trump’s unpredictability and unpopularity, of his ambivalence for conservative orthodoxy, of the power of a weaponized tweet. The rest of the foreign policy establishment—including journalists, business interests,  and foreign diplomats—have been struggling to navigate unfamiliar and treacherous waters.

Amid this uncertainty comes Richard N. Haass’s new book, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, on the fraying global system and America’s role in it. The book begins—like Henry Kissinger’s 2014 World Order—with an outline of the evolution of international order from the Congress of Vienna, which concluded the Napoleonic Wars, through to the twentieth century’s Cold War and its aftermath. Haass brims with ideas throughout, so much so perhaps that he lacks Kissinger’s patience in developing this historical analysis into a framework for better understanding today’s turbulence.

Haass, a former U.S. government official and diplomat who has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) since 2003, provides an expert tour d’horizon of the many pressing geopolitical and geo-economic challenges facing the United States in the Trump era. A reader is sometimes challenged to keep up as Haass reviews in less than twenty pages the breakups in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in the 1980s and American military operations in Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti in the 1990s to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. He offers valuable insights, such as an analysis of why the Asia-Pacific region has been more stable in recent decades than the Middle East. (Three reasons: the Asian countries’ prioritization of economic development; their more developed national identities; and American support for Japan, South Korea, and other Pacific partners.)

With profound technological and economic transformations feeding a global wave of populist discontent, it was inevitable that the new American president taking office in 2017 would face daunting questions about America’s place in the world. Haass clearly intended A World in Disarray be to a guide to the incoming administration, and the book contains prescriptions on reconstructing the world order.

Central to Haass’s argument is the notion of “sovereign obligation,” described as “the need to develop and gain support for a definition of legitimacy that embraces not just the rights but also the obligations of sovereign states vis-à-vis other governments and countries.” This approach, outlined in broad strokes, is a global order based on interdependency, in which the United States plays a unique role, and faces unique responsibilities. Given the dollar’s role as de facto global reserve currency, Haass argues that Washington has a responsibility to consult with others in fiscal or monetary policy deliberations.

What is fascinating—and, to many foreign policy hands, troubling—is how the Trump administration is so starkly at odds with the framework within which Haass and the foreign policy establishment have long operated. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” Trump declared at his inauguration. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” Among Trump’s initial decisions in the Oval Office was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious multilateral Asian trade agreement and a signature Barack Obama administration foreign policy initiative, for which Haass makes an impassioned plea.

The Trump administration promises not a tactical recalibration, but a wholesale change of course. The disarray it has caused in Washington and foreign capitals is not at all what Haass has in mind, yet it is precisely what many Trump supporters voted for. Indeed, one of the most remarkable incongruities of the complex socioeconomic and technological transformations in recent decades is that they are empowering politically the very elements who feel most threatened by them economically. Haass, as the head of a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank headquartered on New York’s Upper East Side, personifies the Eastern elite Trump voters revolted against.

Candidate Trump openly cultivated the political support of the previously fringe conspiratorial right as part of his core political base. Infowars, the website run by media provocateur Alex Jones, carries frequent denunciations of Haass’s organization’s covert corporatist agenda to assert control over the United States and the world. (Full disclosure: The reviewer is himself a member of CFR, though his role in this global conspiracy is negligible.) Shortly after his November election victory, Trump appeared on the radio program of Jones—who claims September 11 was an inside job and that NASA faked the moon landing—and praised Jones’s “amazing” reputation.

In the decades following the end of World War II, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in particular, U.S. diplomatic and political supremacy was taken for granted in Washington. American foreign policy practitioners, Democrats and Republicans alike, could generally imagine global challenges as existing “out there,” at least partially insulated from the messy vagaries of domestic politics. For a time, at least in the 1990s, it seemed there was no foreign policy challenge too big or too small for the United States to take on.

How times have changed. Although many Trump supporters voted to seal themselves off from the world outside, the 2016 U.S. presidential election is stark evidence of just how narrow the distance between America and the world has become. Many of the problems “out there”—institutional stresses, political upheaval, power redistribution, extreme polarization—are not really so different from the problems “in here.” Meanwhile, the traditional tools of statecraft—military force, diplomacy, economic and humanitarian assistance—are losing their efficacy, particularly in the Middle East. While these deep structural changes date to the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, when the United States was at the apogee of its military and political power, the Trump administration has embraced them. Thus, what White House strategist Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state” manifests itself in a budget proposal that would slash 28 percent of the joint budget for the State Department and the Agency for International Development and which could significantly reduce America’s diplomatic footprint and its capacity to respond to complex global crises.

Haass seeks to make the case that “the world matters to Americans.” That is certainly true, but he exerts little effort to explain how the myriad geopolitical challenges described in A World in Disarray affect the lives of Americans outside the Washington bubble, tens of millions of whom rallied instead around Trump’s message of economic nationalism. The rise of Trumpism did not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of an increasingly polarized political culture, in which large majorities of Americans distrust Congress, the media, and even the new president himself. Indeed, the book outlining a compelling program to address the corrosive impact of this domestic crisis of confidence—and in so doing to rejuvenate America’s atrophying foreign policy capacity—has yet to be written.

Perry Cammack is a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He served on the policy planning staff in the office of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry from 2013 to 2015 and as a senior profes- sional staff member for Senator Kerry on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from 2009 to 2012. On Twitter: @perrycammack.

The Unnatural World

The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age. By David Biello. Scribner, New York, 2016. 304 pp.

“Mother Nature seems to be losing the battle to live with her most innovative child.” So begins the chronicle of the Anthropocene by David Biello, the science curator for TED (the ideas-spreading organization that runs TED Talks and other platforms) and a contributing editor to Scientific American. In this whirlwind tour of the battlefronts against climate change, Biello surveys some of the most innovative, idealistic, and frequently frustrated soldiers in that fight, often portrayed as fanatics in the best sense of the term: zealots for ending our self-defeating quest to grind out economic growth on the backs of methods that will make the planet inhospitable if left unchecked.

For the uninitiated, the Anthropocene is a proposed name for our current geological age, one in which humans have an ability to fundamentally reshape nature—specifically through the burning of fossil fuels and land use—that overwhelms nature’s ability to respond or correct. Carbon dioxide is a necessary part of the atmospheric mix of gases, as the greenhouse effect is the sole reason Earth can support life. Too much of it, however, turns the balance from life-affirming to life-threatening. The past three years have been the warmest since systematic record keeping began in the 1800s. The effects are growing increasingly visible: perennial lows in Arctic sea ice cover, extreme water scarcity across wide swathes of the planet, and accelerating plant and animal species extinction. And our efforts to combat it have, overall, been lackluster, bogged down by concerns about economic costs.

Biello is a fan of the concept of a distinctly human-influenced geologic era. The idea is controversial within geology itself, but has gained wider credibility among scientists and climate change analysts; Biello likes how it conceptualizes the impact of human activity on the planet. If humans have created a new era, it is incumbent on us to ameliorate its effects, lest Mother Nature loses the ability to nurture human beings completely. For decades scientists have warned about the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, spewing forth from power plants, cars, and factories. Politicians were much slower to gather together the will to decelerate that trend (reversing it completely is still a couple of decades into the future).

The Unnatural World takes a global approach to understanding mankind’s most truly global problem. The main characters in Biello’s survey are a combination of college students and “mad” scientists, city planners, and renewable energy CEOs. Some figures need no introduction, like Elon Musk, head of tech innovators SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, who stumps for solar power as the answer to our transportation and electricity needs while simultaneously pushing for permanent colonization of the moon in case solar doesn’t work out.

Others are relatively unheralded, though their work could be just as high impact. Ben Novak, a scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is working to bring back the passenger pigeon, a now-extinct migratory bird that Novak became obsessed with in his youth. The pigeon, hunted to extinction to feed a burgeoning American population in the nineteenth century, can only be seen thanks to drawings, photographs, and taxidermy.

With advances in genetics, though, there is at least a theoretical possibility that those extinct animals could be resurrected (a more high-profile effort is also currently underway to bring back the woolly mammoth, a perhaps more majestic creature also eradicated by the spread of the most relentless apex predator: humans). Whether they should or not, a discussion generally reserved for science fiction, may soon become as central to our public debates over science as whether cloning is morally acceptable.

It is hard to say after reading The Unnatural World how optimistic we should be about the ability of mankind to prevail in the struggle for a sustainable planet. The human impulse to bend nature to our will as a matter of convenience is longstanding, from the time we learned to make fire and grow crops. There is very little in current technology that can compete with the heat efficiency per dollar spent on a lump of coal, unless we can coordinate policy to have prices reflect environmental damage. As the book demonstrates, there are a lot of solutions out there, but individual voices screaming into the void appear to be insufficient in the face of a wide swathe of indifference and, in some cases, well-funded active hostility.

To date, despite the efforts of the international community, we do not have a comprehensive roadmap to a new era for mankind’s relationship to nature. In Biello’s telling, the world as we have known it since we moved on from a nomadic lifestyle is ending, but we lack a consensus on how to engineer the new one. It will take technology certainly, including many of those Biello profiles in his book. But it will also take smart policy, which we are arriving at in fits and starts, with the potential for significant backsliding. It will take a new morality, broader than even the one envisioned by Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical condemning environmental degradation, a morality of sustainability and conservation rather than consumption. That is not something that can be built overnight.

Neil Bhatiya is a former fellow at the Century Foundation. On Twitter: @NeilBhatiya.

Spring 2017

In his epic study of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, historian Tom Segev recounts a popular joke told by Israelis after their swift victory over the Arabs. Two officers are talking about how to spend their day. “Let’s conquer Cairo,” one proposes. The other replies: “But what will we do after lunch?”

Nobody should be laughing now. Our Special Report: Fifty Years after 1967, describes a Middle East in chaos, and a struggle over Palestine that continues half a century later with no end in sight. In our lead essay, “Ripples of the 1967 War,” Ahmad Samih Khalidi explains how the crushing Arab defeat resulted in the resurrection of the Palestinian national movement as well as in a settler occupation that has made peace difficult to imagine. Ilan Pappé authors “Myths of the Six-Day War,” in which he debunks the common falsehoods that the Arabs forced Israel into war, and that the Israelis were willing to achieve peace with Arab states and Palestinians afterwards.

In “Winds of Change,” former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy discusses how domestic battles between progressives and regressive fundamentalists, sclerotic economies, globalization, and a bulge in the youth population present continuing challenges to Arab governments. On top of that, Fahmy argues, the dramatic domestic and geopolitical shifts involving America, Russia, Europe, and China require the urgent attention of Arab leaders.

We’re very grateful to Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. for permission to publish an extract from David B. Ottaway’s latest book, The Arab World Upended: Revolution and Its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt. “Inside Tunisia’s Power Struggle” is a detailed account of what many experts consider the Arab Spring’s sole success story: in the country where the uprisings began, Islamists and secularists found a way to work together after the ousting of the Ben Ali dictatorship.

Finally, in “Turkey’s Authoritarian Legacy,” Halil Karaveli reports on the country’s ongoing repression under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Further afield, Michael Kugelman explains the remarkable transition of India’s prime minister from global pariah to international dealmaker in “Modi’s Bold New World.” And, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s wavering commitment to NATO, “Holding the Center” by Tobias Bunde reports on how leaders in Berlin are rethinking German foreign policy.

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor

Trump, Congress, and Democracy

Is democracy coming to an end in America? This ought to be a frivolous question, but it no longer is. No less of an authority than President Barack Obama has issued the warning. In his final State of the Union address in early 2016, he called on his fellow Americans to “fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.”

President Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections has caused more observers to question the health of democracy in America, such as Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley and former labor secretary in the President Bill Clinton administration. However, the challenge to American democracy does not come from the election of an anti-establishment outsider, however outrageous he may be, but from a combination of two circumstances: the coming to power of a president with disrespect for democracy at a time when democratic institutions are already weakened.

What has eaten into the democratic foundations in America, more than anything else, is the power of money. The system is rigged in favor of the rich and of special interests. Washington’s government is perverted by the collusion between big politics and big money. There is gridlock in government and anger in the heartlands. What is broken is, finally, the “we-feeling,” the sense of community and shared political values, in the population, and trust between people and government.

There are also other, if less dramatic, institutional distortions. During the last two or three administrations the balance of power between the main branches of government has been upset so that Congress has gradually lost authority. From one side, a politicized and unrestrained Supreme Court has usurped powers it should not have, and made itself not just a guardian of law, but a maker of law. From the other side, the presidency has usurped other powers to govern without the collaboration of Congress such as in the widespread use of “signing statements” to limit his duties of implementing Congress’s laws and “executive orders” to govern without the consent of Congress.

The remarkable thing in the destruction of political equality, and the pincer movement by the other powers against the legislative branch, is that Congress itself is entirely passive. President Obama said that elected representatives are “trapped” by their dependency on raising ever more “dark money.” Congress has made itself an observer from the side-lines to the deterioration of the constitution.

Into this morass of institutional weakness steps a radical anti-politician. The inclinations of the person who becomes president, although constrained by checks-and-balances, matter enormously for the character of governance. American democracy is in need of repair. It has instead got a wrecker at the helm.

President Trump is not a man of democratic instinct. Of course, we observers from afar cannot know much about his true personality but it is to take him seriously to listen to what he says. He ran an outrageously ugly campaign based on anger, on fear of the other, on stimulating base mob instincts, on prejudice, on misogyny, on disregard of truth and facts, on disrespect for disagreement. He threatened his opponent with retribution and violence and held up the specter of mass, possibly armed, action, having refused to commit himself to accepting the election result were it to go against him. He has been described, by competent expertise, as a world-class narcissist.

On the substance of his policies, we are starting to see the outlines of how he will govern, which are consistent with the persona we saw in the campaign.

These are:

A continuation in government from his habit in the campaign to disregard the truth and to use untruths as a method of working. The denial of truth and the propagandistic use of untruth is the method of dictatorship.

A systematic assault on the country’s free press. Journalists are collectively “dishonest” and what they produce is “fake news.” This is damaging. We are already into a Kafkaesque nightmare where the very meaning of truth and fact is being destroyed.

A continuation of disrespect for disagreement. An actress who speaks her mind gets clobbered, from the position of the presidency, as “overrated” in her profession. A judge who rules according to the law, is branded a “so-called” judge. The White House spreads fear in the country.

An apparent uncontrollable urge to pick fights: with those who might disagree, of course, but also with his own administration and the intelligence services, and internationally with allies, such as the European Union, NATO and the neighboring country of Mexico.

A disregard for the duty of a powerful nation’s leader to make himself informed about matters he pronounces on. Washington spreads fear in the world.

A blustering use of executive orders, fortifying a precedent for governing without the collaboration of Congress. The deterioration of the constitution continues.

And more drip-drip use of dictatorial methods. A lack of willingness to answer and inform, such as on his and his administration’s possible relations to an internationally aggressive Russia. Governance by prejudice, such as his (failed) attempt to ban all citizen from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

The administration is being ridiculed for being a mess. But that is to underestimate what is happening. This president came into office in an American democracy of institutional fragility. He has started to govern in ways that render the institutional foundations yet more fragile. The American polity needs an injection of trust but is getting ineffective and unsafe governance.

And whose fault is that? The U.S. Constitution is designed to prevent any single president from doing much harm. But when President Obama says “fix our politics” he is really saying that the constitutional institutions are not what they should be. The Trump presidency is unattractive, but it is Congress, finally, that is not doing its job.

Stein Ringen is emeritus professor at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, and blogs at