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What's Next for Pope Benedict XVI?

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 09:38

And why he became the first pontiff in nearly six centuries to resign

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on October 12, 2011. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will step down at the end of the month, citing his deteriorating health. Benedict's surprise resignation makes him the first pope to relinquish his duties since the 15th century. I spoke to Kishore Jayabalan, who heads the Rome office of the U.S.-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

What is the mood at the Vatican after Pope Benedict's announcement that he is resigning? Does the news come as a shock, or had there been speculation that he may step down?

A little bit of both. The news is a shock in the sense that nobody really expected it to happen now. But I think a lot of people who had seen Pope Benedict in the last few months thought he was looking quite old and tired. He has actually talked about this in the past, that a pope who can't do his duties should feel free to step down. When he said that about a year and a half ago, it was considered quite revealing news.

How rare are resignations from the papacy?

It has not happened since 1415, and this was only the second pope that we know of to resign. The last time it happened was with Gregory XII.

Pope Benedict says he is stepping down due to his deteriorating health. Are there other reasons that could have motivated his decision?

He does also talk about the pace of global media and politics and events today. So it's also the circumstances that are surrounding his age and ill-health. I believe what he says, that the pace of the job and the pace of today's modern-society communications make it very difficult for somebody who is not fully fit and fully capable of dealing with these fast changes. He feels like he has been left behind in some way, that he can't effectively lead the church, and that there are probably many other cardinals out there, potential popes, who could do a better job.

What do you think Benedict's plans are now? Is he likely to stay at the Vatican, or will he move back to his native Germany?

I would not be surprised if he returned to Germany. He at least twice asked John Paul II, the previous pope, to let him return to Germany so he could write, leave Rome, and get back to what he truly loves. When Pope Benedict was elected in 2005 he went on the record, very publicly, saying that he did not want this to happen, that he prayed to God to say, "Please, do not let this happen to me." So my guess is that he will probably want to get as far away from the scene as possible.

You don't make it sound like Benedict enjoyed his papal duties.

Well, it's a very difficult job, especially for somebody who is already 85. He's not a young man. He says in his letter, very explicitly, that in this day and age it's very hard, you have to have a strong mind in a strong body, and I don't have those right now. I think he realized he was not up to the task. Any bishops in the world can resign for health reasons, so why can't this apply to the bishop of Rome? That's probably what he is thinking.

What happens now? Do the rules governing the election of popes apply in this case, or does the situation call for special measures?

The College of Cardinals will meet. Pope Benedict announced his resignation for 8 p.m. Rome time on February 28, so the conclave can be held any time after that. Now the question is: Will Pope Benedict take part in the conclave? He might want to just say, "This is a decision for the College of Cardinals and you should decide it." But he is also still the bishop of Rome. He might not take part in the decision, but it might create some interesting discussions to see what happens when you have a pope still around and a new pope comes into office.

Can Pope Benedict's resignation be seen as hurting the Vatican's standing?

I don't think so. I guess it's always possible, but I think it's something that he probably considered very carefully, very seriously, and did not take very lightly. What this says, we'll have to see, because it is unprecedented. We don't know what the reaction of the world is going to be to something like this. It is quite shocking.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

China's New Bachelor Class

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 07:31

Gender imbalances in China have created a generation of men for whom finding love is no easy task.

[Aly Song/Reuters]

Cool as glass, a young couple strolls into the Tiffany & Co. attached to Beijing's four-star Peninsula Hotel, elegantly lit with custom crystal chandeliers. She grips his elbow; he's aloof. Epitomizing urban affluence in today's China, this male likely drives a slick car, owns an even slicker high-rise and is more than willing to shell out for a Western-style tuxedo, wedding cake, live music, and, of course, a platinum Tiffany ring.

In other words: he's rich.

By contrast, millions of his fellow rural countrymen will likely never know such splendor or even the joy of matrimony. These young males are known as "bare branches," trees without leaves, involuntary bachelors demographically destined to a life without a wife or child. An estimated 40 to 50 million bare branches are scattered around the nation, and according to Quanbao Jiang and Jesús Sánchez-Barricarte, authors of the article "Bride Price in China: The Obstacle to 'Bare Branches' Seeking Marriage," they tend to be concentrated in rural or poverty-stricken areas.

It's a reversal of hundreds of years of gender discrimination in China. A longstanding preference for boys -- presumed better able to assist in backbreaking farm work -- has played out in sex selection through abortion and infanticide. After the country instituted its One-Child Policy in 1978, it gave most families only one chance at that coveted baby boy.

This only exacerbated the imbalance. Now, an estimated 12 to 15 percent of Chinese men -- a population nearly the size of Texas -- will be unable to find a mate within the next seven years.

This harsh reality has begun to change the country's patriarchal system, yielding the power of choosing a spouse to females. And many are electing for comfort. On the mega-popular dating show "If You Are the One," contestant Ma Nuo perfectly encapsulated China's mood when she famously declared that she would "rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle." Indeed, 70 percent of single women in a 2011 survey said financial considerations ranked above all else when selecting a husband.


The cost of rural females marrying up is leaving the men from their villages waiting and wanting. Hard-pressed to compete with higher-earning males and unable to spring for the car and perhaps the house that some young women see as a matrimonial prerequisite, forlorn bachelors subsequently fall victim to what Jiang and Sánchez-Barricarte deemed the "poor->bare branch->poorer" cycle.

As Deborah Jian Lee and Sushma Subramanian noted in their recent Pulitzer Center report, this cycle is perpetuated by an age stigma. That is, regardless of socioeconomic status, wifeless men over 30 years old are derisively referred to as "leftovers;" the stuff of to-go boxes. Interviews by the Institute of Social and Family Medicine at Zhejiang University found that these societal pressures have led them to feel aimless, angry and alone. Bleaker still, whole villages exist without one unmarried woman. Fueled by sexual frustration, marginalized by neighbors, these islanded bachelors are increasingly likely to drink, fight, gamble, and frequent prostitutes.

"I get very lonely. No one cares about me, and I have no one to speak to when I go home. I sometimes get so drunk that I vomit," a 36-year-old migrant worker told researchers. "When that happens, there's no one to clean up after me."

There are glimmers of hope. Joe Xu, multimedia journalist and co-writer/producer of the upcoming documentary, "The People's Republic of Love," speaks to a digital pursuit of romance that can, in premise, bridge this gender and income gap.

"[Online dating] has greatly expanded the pool for people to choose from without ever having to spend the time to meet the person," he wrote to Tea Leaf Nation via email. "The development of mobile apps in conjunction with the Internet has allowed people to meet each other anywhere at any time. Mobile dating has effectively merged online and offline dating elements to give people more opportunities to meet--and the odds of finding someone is then much higher."

Kitty Bu, host of the online program "Thoughtful China," last month hosted a panel discussion on how young adults differ significantly from past generations in their attitudes toward (digital) dating and matrimony. Tingting Jin, a guest on the show and editor-in-chief of wedding planning website, concluded that status and salary rate higher than starry-eyed love.

Countering this notion, Xu contends that romance is not lost on the less affluent.

"If romance is reduced to just buying expensive things and lavish dinners then, yes, romance is a luxury," he explained. "But just because people in the countryside can't afford luxuries does not mean they are not romantic."

It is a painful irony. In an era of shifting values, splits between consumerism and custom, Tiffany's and traditional gowns, Chinese men bound to family farms and businesses now have more tools for love at their disposal. WeChat, a voice-messaging service that easily facilitates hookups, boasts 300 million users. A location-based app called Momo is also on the rise.

"Chinese people are not straightforward people; they prefer to communicate through a website, communicate through writing," said Momo Vice President Zhang Ying in an interview with The Next Web.

But rather than giving separated soul mates boundless opportunity to find each other, the Internet in practice breaks this social promise. Quantifiers (What model is his Audi?) have been coded into the relationship game, effectually furthering the divide between the haves and have-nots. One thing is for certain: Twenty-four million chances at dates, duds and "I dos!" are doomed to be missed.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

A Middle-Class Paradise in Palestine?

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 04:45

The West Bank's first Palestinian-designed planned city offers a window into the promises and perils of the current situation in the Middle East. But will it be a novelty, or a game-changer?

The Rawabi construction site, as it appeared in October of 2010. (Dan Balilty/AP)

The sole outlet to Rawabi sits off a dizzying two-lane highway flanked by round, scraggly hills. In this part of the West Bank, just north of where the Jerusalem suburbs thin into a dry, granite-gray wilderness, the mountains seem to aid in the illusion that Israeli and Palestinian spheres of authority can remain perfectly, even harmoniously separate. Arabs use the road to get to the Palestinian-controlled cities of Bir Zeit and Ramallah; for Jewish Israelis, the road connects the Jerusalem area to settlements deep inside the northern half of the West Bank.  

Ramallah's skyline is barely discernible on a hazy day. Ateret, a red-gabled settlement of about 90 families that sits high above the Rawabi junction -- a community which would likely either be vacated or incorporated into a Palestinian state under a future peace agreement -- flickers in and out of view with every delirious knot in the road. Even a concrete pillbox looming over the highest point along the highway is abandoned, its connection to the territory's oddly invisible occupying army marked only by a tattered Israeli flag that no one has bothered to steal or replace.

Last year was the first since 1973 in which no Israeli citizen was killed in a terrorist attack originating from the West Bank. As on the newly-pacified Gaza-Israel border, a tense quiet pervades things here, although a bright red sign at the junction reminds one category of motorist not to feel too complacent. "This road leads to Area 'A' Under the Palestinian Authority," it reads in Arabic, Hebrew, and broken English. "The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law." At the Rawabi junction these warnings of latent danger are almost comically off-base, partly because of the only other marker at the turnoff: a light-green arrow sagging off of a nearby post.

No one lives at the end of the road, which is every bit as wavy and disorienting as the adjoining highway. It empties into a scene that seems engineered for maximum bewilderment: three high-rise cranes, topped with fluttering Palestinian flags, tower over massive stone and concrete building frames. Cement-mixers, painted the same shade of light green as the arrow at the turnoff and marked with the project's logo -- a wiry oval with a cute little convex loop at the end, like a child's drawing of a heart that could also be a tree -- line up to receive material from a buzzing, state-of-the-art plant. The construction site, a couple turns up-road of the cement factory, is swarming with workers in green hardhats. Spotless SUVs with the Rawabi logo on the door speed from one side of the site to another.

Rawabi, which will be the first Palestinian planned city in the West Bank, runs from the top of the mountain to the valley below, with its highest point sitting at an elevation slightly higher than Ateret, which is now constantly visible. In contrast, the chaos of Ramallah, stronghold of an insolvent and sclerotic Palestinian Authority, feels distant in more senses than one. 

Rawabi represents something totally new -- a visionary Palestinian-directed private sector project, with support from both Israeli businesses and a major Arab government. It has the potential to shift the conversation on the region's future on both sides of the Green Line. It could convince Palestinians -- and the rest of the world -- that the future of the West Bank shouldn't be shackled to Ramallah or Jerusalem's vacillating willingness to hash out fundamental issues. It could prove that there's an appetite, both among Palestinian consumers and foreign donors, for the creation of a social and economic existence in the West Bank that's de-coupled, insomuch as currently possible, from the Middle East's tense and labyrinthine politics. 

It would also help solidify the benefits of the current cessation in hostilities. Indeed, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's progress in fostering the end of violent resistance in the West Bank in the years after the bloody Second Intifada, coupled with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad's widely-respected institution-building initiative, could get a crucial private sector assist through Rawabi's eventual success.

And Rawabi gets at something even more fundamental. "It touches upon all of the core issues of control and sovereignty," says Robert Danin, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who, as head of the Quartet mission in Jerusalem from 2008 to 2010, witnessed some of the political discussions that accompanied the project's creation. "This could be a huge, iconic victory for the whole strategy of building Palestine from the bottom up rather than trying to build it at the negotiating table," he says.

Its success would prove just how much power Palestinians can, and indeed already do, have in shaping their future. And its failure could prove the exact opposite.

I visited Rawabi two weeks ago with a group of national security professionals, as part of a trip organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based think tank. (All of the photos in the body of the article are mine.) We were taken around the construction site by a young Palestinian engineer who conveyed the vast ambition underlying the project: When the city is completed, she said, it will house 45,000 people in 23 distinct neighborhoods with innocuous, nature-based names like "Flint," and "Hard Rock". (Rawabi is Arabic for "Hills".) There will be eight schools -- some of them built with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development -- a "huge park," a convention center, an 850-seat indoor theater, and a 20,000-seat amphitheater carved into a hillside. 

Most ambitiously, there will be a commercial center that developers hope will bring in between 3,000 and 5,000 permanent jobs within the next five years -- hopefully, we were told, in the informational technology sector (an aspiration that might imply a certain cooperation with the burgeoning tech industry on the other side of the Green Line). The engineer said that Rawabi had already created 3,000 construction jobs for West Bank Palestinians. The city is Palestinian-designed and Palestinian-built -- making the surfeit of Qatari flags at the construction site somewhat puzzling at first. And while the project does not purchase materials from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the engineer was hardly shy in explaining that Rawabi would add an estimated $85 million to the Israeli economy.

As we drove around the construction site, the engineer's talk made few demands on the imagination. The sheer scale of the project is already obvious. Within the next 18 months, the first phase, which includes six neighborhoods, a mosque, the amphitheater, and two-thirds of the city's commercial center, will be complete, and 3,000 people are scheduled will move into Rawabi by the end of 2013. Apartment blocks built of a local white stone -- "Rawabi stone," the engineer called it -- are already rising out of a network of concentric ring-roads centered on the top of the hill. Most of these roads have already been paved, and there are terraced retaining walls, built out of thick stacks of local sandstone, running all the way to the bottom of the valley. No bleachers have been installed in the amphitheater yet, but it's fairly far along, with the future seating area fanning into a wide notch in the mountainside. There are attractive stone signs bearing the stylized Arabic names of neighborhoods that haven't been built yet.

The future commercial center is also well on its way to completion. Situated on a shelf slightly below the summit of the hill, the complex of office buildings, hotels, theaters, and a convention center will huddle around a broad outdoor plaza, which will be connected to the lower neighborhoods through a wide flight of stairs. The stairs, plaza, and central buildings are already past their skeletal phase, and the high-rise apartments ringing the city center look like they're almost complete. For now, the commercial core is a jumble of dust and brutal concrete surfaces, but in the future, someone lingering in the cafés near the staircase will enjoy phenomenal views of the rugged hill country, and perhaps even glimpses of the Jordan River Valley on a clear day.

These aren't dachas plunked on fake islands off the coast of Dubai. It's the kind of place where just about anyone in the world with middle or even upper-middle class aspirations, would want to live.

It is still possible to remain unconvinced of Rawabi's reality -- doubtful as to whether that café will ever be built, or whether any middle class-Palestinian desirous of a generic middle class existence will ever linger there. There's abundant reason for skepticism. The project's future depends on the Israeli authorities' willingness to allow for the construction of access roads in "Area C," or West Bank territory under the direct control of Israel. The sole existing route into the city only exists because the Israeli government, after years of bureaucratic and high-level diplomatic wrangling, granted Rawabi's developers a permit for a "temporary" road. Technically, they will have to destroy the road when the current permission expires. And even if the Israelis agree to make the road permanent, one two-lane route is hardly adequate for a city of 45,000 people. Developers claim it isn't even adequate to the needs of the current construction site. 

Water is another challenge. Negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian Water Authority are ongoing, and developers say they have held in excess of 100 meetings with Israeli officials on water-related issues alone. Developers admit that they aren't sure where the city's water resources will eventually come from, and the construction site only got running water two months ago.

And they'll admit that attracting jobs to the site is an even bigger challenge than Israel's West Bank regime. Rawabi isn't meant to be a bedroom community of Ramallah. It's meant to be a self-contained city, with office and retail space. The jobs haven't quite materialized yet (although the developers have a slight head start: between 200 and 300 call center-type jobs currently based in Ramallah are scheduled to move into Rawabi when the first phase of construction is complete). If the political or security situation seriously deteriorates -- if the checkpoints return, if the Israelis are forced to re-occupy urban areas ceded to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords, as happened during the Second Intifada; if Hamas wages a violent takeover of the Palestinian government -- all bets are off. The developers don't seem to be bothered by those possibilities right now. At the showroom, built at the very top of the hill, the future is nothing but bright. 

I chatted with another site engineer as we walked through a scale-model mock-up of a typical Rawabian street, where happy families in western dress waved from little video screens inset in plastic apartment windows. I asked her about the Qatari flags I had seen around the construction site. Qatar's state investment fund is footing two thirds of the nearly $1 billion project bill, she said. "This is the biggest investment in the history of Palestine," she explained as we stepped over a fake valley in the next room, walking past a mock-up of a stunning hilltop view contained inside a mock-up of a future apartment suite. The Rawabians will apparently own large flat-screen TVs and stylish coffee tables, and their living spaces will be kept mercilessly clean.

What, of that $1 billion investment, was going to Israel, I asked? Israeli companies were providing cement powder and sand, she said, and the project had consulted with "Israeli experts." "In some cases, you have to do that," she said, alluding to the comparative difficulty of importing building materials through neighboring Jordan. In other words, working with the Israelis was a necessary business decision for a project this large and complex.

The fake street, fake valley, fake apartment-display ended in a pleasant sky-lit lobby, where representatives of the Cairo Amman Bank, Arab Islamic Bank, and Arab Bank sat in logoed glass cubicles, available to discuss financing for future purchases. And for the still-skeptical, there's a six-minute 3-D movie, where the city appears in its completed glory -- a place where families picnic, men in business dress greet each other amid bustling plazas, and fireworks crest over soaring apartment towers topped with solar panels. The architecture is tasteful. These aren't dachas plunked on fake islands off the coast of Dubai. It's the kind of place where I, or just about anyone in the world with middle or even upper-middle class aspirations, would want to live. And it looked weirdly familiar.

The group had a chance to visit with Bashar Masri, the Nablus-born founder and CEO of Massar International, the Palestinian conglomerate financing a third of Rawabi. Massar and Qatar Diar, the real estate investment arm of the government of Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, jointly created Bayti Real Estate Investment Company -- Palestine to build and market Rawabi. But if two-thirds of the project's money is coming from Qatar, the vision behind Rawabi is Masri's.

Massar owns a private equity fund that invests in Palestinian agriculture and natural gas distribution. It runs travel agencies in Jordan and brokerage firms in Serbia. Massar invests in Harvest Export, which sells Palestinian produce to consumers in Russia and Western Europe -- as well as in Israel. Two years ago, Masri made headlines when he attempted to purchase a bankrupt Jewish housing development in East Jerusalem. He helped create an online trading and brokerage platform for Palestine's stock exchange. 

Masri has lived outside of Palestine for periods of his life, and is, by all accounts, largely untainted by connections to the PA's notoriously rent-seeking inner circle. He's a trim middle-aged man, smartly-dressed, friendly and approachable. There seemed no more appropriate a place to talk to him one-on-one than on a wide terrace overlooking the construction site, with hills, valleys, and rising apartment blocks -- the future he was in the process of building -- stretched out in front of him.

"This project is built for today's politics...we're not waiting on a breakthrough."

"On a good, clear day, you can see Tel Aviv, Ashdod, and Ashkelon," he told me. "One-third of Palestine and Israel." Rawabi is in the second-largest, yet most sparsely-populated Area A in the West Bank -- from the terrace, which faces away from Ateret, you can see expanses of mostly-empty hills. Perhaps in Masri's mind, they are awaiting Rawabis of their own. When I returned to Washington, I asked him in a phone interview if he viewed his project as the first of many such planned cities in Palestine. "I always say our success is measured not by how many homes we sell. It is measured when a second Rawabi is established," he told me.

Standing on the terrace, I asked him if his willingness to undertake such a massive project reflected any optimism about the coming years -- no one invests this much time, money, and energy into something if they expect war is on the horizon. "This project is built for today's politics," he replied. "If it gets a little worse, or a little better -- fine. If it gets really bad, we're in trouble. If it doesn't, then great. We're not waiting on a breakthrough." 

He estimated that Israeli obstruction had delayed the project by a year and a half. The bureaucratic inertia could continue: For instance, developers were surprised to find out that, by a quirk in the West Bank's notoriously Byzantine and palimpsestic legal codes, they required the approval of a joint Israeli-Palestinian water commission created through the Oslo Accords to build a sewage treatment plant in an Area A, approval that they recently received. There's also the still-unresolved matter of the access road. But thus far, Rawabi had flourished in spite of delays and inconveniences.

Could it survive its isolation, though -- could this hilltop off of a two-lane highway get enough water and electricity to support 45,000 people living at a middle class standard? "There is nothing here at all. We're out in the boondocks," he conceded. "We're building everything from scratch." One needed only to glance at the busy construction site below to understand that Masri considers this a point of pride, far from a potential death-sentence for his project.

I asked Masri about something that had jumped out at me during the 3-D video. The finished Rawabi, I'd noted, had the same terraced garden parks, stoic, modular apartment design, and concentric hilltop roads that I had seen in Talpiyot Misrach, a new neighborhood on the fringes of West Jerusalem. His city looked very, well, Israeli.

"This place is influenced by Reston, Virginia," he said -- Masri is a Virginia Tech alumnus, and had lived in the Washington, DC area earlier in life. It was, he said, influenced by planned suburbs outside of Cairo. "And it's influenced by Modi'in," he added, explaining that the site's engineers and designers (who were entirely Palestinian, we had been told earlier), had traveled to the Israeli city, which is built around similar topography, for inspiration.

Palestinians have long understood that a western-style standard of living was possible in their part of the world. They knew that places like Rawabi already existed minutes from their own homes, but didn't think that the quality of life epitomized by hilltop settlements and cities in Israel -- places they weren't allowed to visit without an official permit from the military -- was accessible to them. 

During our phone interview, Masri talked about the astonishment that Palestinians feel when they visit the construction site. "When [Palestinians] come to Rawabi, and they go through the showroom and they see what we have planned for them, and they see it actually being built, they say, 'Wow, this can't be for us. This is not for us. This is too high of a standard for us because we are supposed to live miserably under the occupation'. Then they come to the other side of the showroom and see the city being built, and reality starts sinking in."

It's a type of living closely associated with the Palestinians' neighbors in Israel. "They know very well that just a 20-minute drive away, there's a community with a much higher standard of living. And that community happened to be one representing the occupier, quote-unquote the 'enemy.' But they would love to live like that. And that's why when they come to Rawabi some of them don't believe this is for them initially. The first thing that goes through their mind is that this could be for the Israelis."

But it is for them. Rawabi's significance could lie in something more mundane than basic issues of sovereignty and control in the West Bank. It lies in the common, human desire -- powerful on either side of the Green Line -- for a comfortable and dignified existence.

In some quarters, this idea of working within the present and less-than-ideal political and economic framework to achieve this goal is nothing short of inflammatory. The U.S.-based, anti-peace process website Electronic Intifada has smeared Masri as an Israeli collaborator, and there have been scattered accusations that the project actually legitimizes Israeli control over the West Bank. 

Danin says that Masri is faced with a difficult balancing act. "On the one hand you're denying the occupation, and you're saying you do not accept its legitimacy," he says. "But that doesn't mean you won't work with Israel in order to improve the Palestinian situation with the goal of removing the occupation. That's a difficult message to convey successfully."

Masri rejects the notion that he abetting a problematic status quo. "The vast majority of Palestinians understand and know reality," he said. "There is no home in Palestine without Israeli cement and parts. Every construction project in Palestine must have components from Israel. So it's not like I'm doing something different." 

Of course, he doesn't like that Israel has so much control over Palestinian imports, and the West Bank economy in general. "This is the occupation," he said. "I'm not happy about that and that's why we strive for a state of our own." But he likened boycotting Israeli products to boycotting products from the United Kingdom, the United States, or other countries supportive of Israel -- something he wouldn't consider. The only people he won't buy from are the West Bank settlers.

Luckily, Masri's vision has the backing of a powerful regional government -- one that does not officially recognize Israel, and whose actions have often had the effect of strengthening some of the Jewish State's sworn enemies.

The Gulf kingdom of Qatar has done more than simply buy into the Rawabi paradigm: It's also funding two-thirds of the project, to the tune of over $600 million. This is enough money to single-handedly finance the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority -- which is effectively broke, thanks to penalties imposed by the Israeli and U.S. governments after Mahmoud Abbas's successful push for a U.N. General Assembly vote on Palestinian U.N. membership, and a freeze in financial aid from Gulf State donors, most notably Saudi Arabia -- for the better part of a year.

"The vast majority of Palestinians understand and know reality...Every construction project in Palestine must have components from Israel. So it's not like I'm doing something different."

Instead, the Qataris have not only bypassed the PA, but channeled money into a project that seems to prove the PA's uselessness. "It's like an island inside the traditional infrastructure of the PA," says Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of a book on Palestinian internal politics. "It shows everyone what you can do if you don't go through the PA. The PA receives $600 million a year [in foreign aid] and they have not done something like this." 

Masri says that the leadership of the PA has been fully supportive, but that Rawabi has been hurt by the Palestinian government's lack of capacity. "We should not be building public schools. We should not be building a waste water treatment plant or waste water networks or water reservoirs," he told me. "Unfortunately we have to do that because the Palestinian Authority does not have the funding and the donors let [the PA] down."

There might be a political calculation behind Qatar's decision to throw an amount of money equivalent to two years of U.S. financial aid to the PA behind a single private-sector figure like Masri. Qatar recently announced plans to invest nearly $400 million in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and in October of 2012, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani became the first head of state to visit the Strip after the Islamist militant group's 2007 takeover. Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal lives in Doha, and Qatar Diar is financing a major development in Sudan, whose cash-strapped government enjoys close relations with Iran, and has facilitated the transfer of long-range rockets to Hamas. In short, Qatar supports an E.U. and U.S. listed terrorist organization bitterly opposed to both Israel and the current PA leadership. And it also has no problem investing in Rawabi.

According to Kamran Bokhari, vice president of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs for Stratfor, Qatari support for Hamas is part of the sheikhdom's larger, post-Arab Spring strategy of siding with the Middle East's Islamists, and specifically the Muslim brotherhood, whom the Qataris view as the region's rising power. "The Qatari strategy is that the situation has changed, and we need to fend for ourselves and ensure that the regional anarchy is not going to impact us," says Bokhari. The Qatari investment in Rawabi -- which feeds an $85 million investment in the Israeli economy, and which could not have happened without some degree of official Israeli approval -- is an example of this larger geopolitical strategy, which is driven more by perceived self-interest than by an ideological affinity for political Islam.

"Investments in the region are about the return on political influence," adds Gregory Gause, a professor at the University of Vermont and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution-Doha. He noted the presence of a large American airbase in Qatar, and the country's close relations with the United States.

In the Palestinian territories, as in the broader region, the Qataris are supporting secular and religious forces in a way that will maximize their influence and keep the regional balance as favorable for them as possible. In a sense, the same strategic calculus that convinces Qatar to support Hamas allows them to cooperate with Israel and the West Bank private sector as well. 

"I think Qatar is going by the ground reality," says Bokhari. "Fatah, the ruling faction of the PA, is essentially tanking. It's really in a state of decline because of corruption and charges of embezzlement. It's got an aging leadership. There's no dynamism left in the group. There's a lot of factionalism. It's almost like an oligarchy." 

Rawabi could be Qatar's way of encouraging the currently-calm status quo in the West Bank, but without obviously upgrading their ties to Israel, or throwing their money behind a political establishment that they don't fully trust. "On one end they need to make sure Fatah does not completely collapse or weaken to the point where they're no longer coherent," says Bokhari, "and Hamas needs to be shaped and contained and shepherded in a way that it doesn't grow into anything larger."

Though there are politics underlying Qatar's investment in Rawabi, it is still, inevitably, a financial decision. "You have serious people who have a lot at risk here," Danin says. "Their goal is not primarily to make a political point. Their goal is to recoup their investment and make some money." Even resource-rich Qatar, which wants to diversity its holdings in order to hedge against long-term shifts in the oil and natural gas market, cares whether its investment choices pay off.

Danin believes that Rawabi's Palestinian and Qatari investors made a wise decision. Housing in Ramallah is expensive, and Danin says that there is a sizable and highly-educated Palestinian middle class in need of an alternative to the West Bank's de-facto capital. He expressed little doubt when I asked him if the West Bank economy could support Rawabi. "This is a Palestinian national project," he said. "It is the best of what is possible in that it's private sector-led, and it's profit-making led."

And it has supporters in high places. When President Barack Obama met with Israeli officials in Washington in September of 2010, Rawabi was on the agenda.

From one perspective, Rawabi is a historic investment in Palestine, as well as an unusually open point of cooperation between Israel and an Arab government. It could improve the lives of Palestinians, while convincing Israelis that they have nothing to fear from their neighbors' prosperity. But any attempts to change the status quo in the West Bank are fraught with difficulties.

There's Israeli bureaucracy to overcome. "In Israel, if the Minister of Defense says I want something, it's not that the system thwarts it. But the system is so decentralized that ultimately it takes a lot of steps to get it translated into action," says Danin. Israeli officials are positively disposed towards Rawabi, but it's still taken years to resolve sovereignty and governance issues around necessities like water, and a single access road. Such Israeli inertia was apparently at the heart of Obama's concerns back in 2010, and sources say that the president has discussed the issue of the access road with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on multiple occasions.

Back in Washington, I asked Masri if he believed the Israelis understood the potential importance of Rawabi. "I really don't know," he said. "Their statements are neutral to positive. But their actions are neutral to negative."

And then there's the larger inertia. What meaning does a place like Rawabi have if it sits in the middle of a still-unresolved conflict, or if Palestinian economic self-improvement stands in contrast to an all-pervading political stasis -- or even political backsliding? Today, Rawabi is significant because of its novelty. But if there's a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, perhaps enabled by a growing West Bank economy and a permanent end in terrorism, it could take on an importance much larger than itself.

On the drive out of the valley, where the highway swerves past the pillbox with the beaten Israeli flag and past the turnoff for Ateret, the picture is still mixed.

The Excellent Age of No-Fuss Drones and Remarkable War

Sun, 02/10/2013 - 06:30
I wanted to make sure everyone saw Dexter Filkins' response to this weeks news regarding Obama's justification for the killing of American citizens, as well as the hearings to confirm John Brennan. Filkins describes an earlier visit to meet with villagers in Yemen. The villagers were survivors of an attack by their own government against an alleged Al Qaeda training camp. 
Except it later came out that the attack was not launched by the Yemenese government at all, but by Americans lobbing tomahawk missiles into the town of Al-Majalah. To be clear there were Al-Qaeda fighters in the village but the ultimate numbers are chilling--14 Al Qaeda dead, 41 civilians, 23 of whom were children:
Later, when I spoke to American officials, they seemed genuinely perplexed. They didn't deny that a large number of civilians had been killed. They felt bad about it. But the aerial surveillance, they said, had clearly showed that a training camp for militants was operating there. "It was a terrible outcome," an American official told me. "Nobody wanted that."
None of the above is intended as an attack on Brennan, who has spent the past four years as President Obama's counterterrorism advisor. He has a hard job. He is almost always forced to act on the basis of incomplete information. His job is to keep Americans safe, and he's done that. Al Qaeda's leadership, particularly in the tribal areas of Pakistan, has been decimated. Operating in Yemen, where vast tracts of the country lie beyond anyone's control, cannot be easy.

But, as the details from the Al Majalah show, even the best-intentioned public servants operating with what appears to be decent intelligence can get things horribly wrong. Maybe Al Majalah was indeed an Al Qaeda training camp--maybe those aerial surveillance images were spot on. But, in retrospect, we know that the cameras missed the women and children.
Indeed, if there is one overriding factor in America's secret wars--especially in its drone campaign--it's that the U.S. is operating in an information black hole. Our ignorance is not total, but our information is nowhere near adequate. When an employee of the C.I.A. fires a missile from an unmanned drone into a compound along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he almost certainly doesn't know for sure whom he's shooting at. 
Most drone strikes in Pakistan, as an American official explained to me during my visit there in 2011, are what are known as "signature strikes." That is, the C.I.A. is shooting at a target that matches a pattern of behavior that they've deemed suspicious. Often, they get it right and they kill the bad guys. Sometimes, they get it wrong. When Brennan claimed, as he did in 2011--clearly referring to the drone campaign--that "there hasn't been a single collateral death," he was most certainly wrong.In some ways, I think the white paper obscures the issue. I certainly am concerned with the when and why of killing treachorous American citizens. But much more haunting to me is what Filkins highlights here--the lobbing of missiles into the homes of people, and compounding it by claiming to have done no such thing. 
Again it one thing to say, "We understand that there will be innocent children who will die because of this kind of warfare, but we must employ all available means to secure American lives and interests." And all another to say as Brennan speaking for the Obama  administration did, "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we've been able to develop." In fact, there have been many "collateral deaths," but they are of the sort that most Americans will never see and,most of us suspect, don't much care about.
But if that's really true, then there is no need to dissemble. There's no need for words like "imminent" when you really mean "when I feel like it" or claiming that you're acting with a country's permission when you're pledged to acting regardless. Americans need not feel ashamed for doing what states always do--act in their best interests. I think it's highly debatable whether drones are in our best interests. In fact I suspect we're seeding future wars. 
But our real problem is that we somehow think we're above our own interests, that our virtue is divine. Our problem is we think we're better than we actually are. We've gotten so good at telling ourselves this.

Why Russia Should Fear the Year of the Snake

Sun, 02/10/2013 - 06:01

Happy Chinese New Year, Russia. If history is any indication, you're in for an especially interesting one.

Shop assistants hold stuffed snake toys ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on February 4, 2013. (Siu Chiu/Reuters)

Many people enjoy the fireworks and celebrations that come with Chinese New Year. Not everyone, however, is enthusiastic about the upcoming Year of the Snake, which begins February 10.

For one thing, the Year of the Snake is traditionally considered a less fortuitous cycle in the 12-year Chinese zodiac than the Year of the Dragon, which precedes it.

The September 11 terrorist attacks, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the start of the Great Depression all took place in "snake" years.  

Even worse, the 2013 Year of the Snake will be what's known as a Black Water Snake -- a rare, once-in-60-years confluence of astrological elements that may augur a volatile year ahead.

But one country in particular has reason to be afraid of snakes -- Russia, where some of the tumultuous moments its in history have consistently coincided with Years of the Snake.

'Big Changes' Coming

"The Year of the Snake is different because it's a year that, for Russia, has always marked very important, sweeping changes in our social and political life," Pavel Sviridov, a futurologist and president of the Temporal Research Fund, explained in a recent interview with the website. "So 12 years have passed, and we're about to usher in the 2013 Year of the Snake -- a year that will mark the beginning of big changes in our country."

In fact, a quick look back over some of the most notable moments in Russia's turbulent 20th-century history reveals an uncanny synchronicity with the "snake" years. (Even earlier, if you count the 1881 assassination of Alexander II, known as the "tsar-liberator.")

It begins in 1905 with the first Russian revolution -- the massive workers' strikes that spelled the beginning of the end of the tsarist regime. Twelve years later, in 1917, came the Bolshevik Revolution, which ushered in more than seven decades of communist rule. ​​

In 1929, the next Year of the Snake, the Soviet government launched its collectivization drive -- stripping peasants of their land and livestock -- leading to massive deportations and famine.

Twelve years later, in 1941, World War II began. In 1953, Josef Stalin died. And 1989, the last Year of the Snake of the 20th century, marked the start of the Soviet collapse with revolutions in Eastern Europe.

Ideologically Inert

The imminent arrival of a new Year of the Snake has stirred speculation about what major changes could await Russia this year.

The astrological site stopped short of predicting a new Russian revolution but suggested 2013 could see a crash in the country's financial markets reminiscent of the 1929 Black Tuesday collapse in the United States that sparked the Great Depression.

Other astrologists appeared more sanguine about Russia's chances.

"Of course, we don't wish anyone ill," astrologist Mikhail Chistyakov wrote on his website. "But cataclysms can befall not only us but also those on the other side of the Atlantic."

Still another prognostication went so far as to pronounce Russia as stuck in the midst of a 52-year political "lacuna" that will leave the country socially stable, if ideologically inert, through 2053 -- a Year of the Snake forecast that most Russian politicians may find to their liking.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Here's How Not to Drive in Moscow

Sat, 02/09/2013 - 05:59

One of Russia's most renowned and criminally reckless street drivers was recently brought to justice. And he left behind some videos.


Given the ubiquitousness of dashboard cameras in Russian cars and a reputation for reckless driving on its roads, it's hardly surprising that some drivers are making a game out of posting videos of their adventures on the Internet.

One of them, going by the nickname Black Devil, is a 22-year-old Moscow student without a driver's license. He has posted videos on his YouTube channel of himself cruising around Moscow at high speed in a Porsche Cayenne without license plates, passing other cars any which way he can, driving on the sidewalk, ignoring traffic stops, etc., etc.

But Black Devil may be wishing he hadn't made so many recordings, as he has been caught. Moscow's Interior Ministry hasn't released his name, but he faces 15 days in jail and will certainly also be fined heavily.

More hair-raising are his videos of a rider taking a Suzuki Hayabusa at high speed through traffic, weaving around trucks and popping wheelies with abandon.

What's more surprising is that the videos seem a bit tame compared to the many videos floating around the web of the madcap -- possibly drunken -- antics other drivers have recorded around Russia.

But then, maybe Black Devil is alive to tell the tale for a reason ...

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

A Life in the Islamic Republic's Shadow

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 04:30

The story of Hooman Mousavi, who was born in an Iranian prison, and whose parents were executed for opposing the country's Islamist government.

Hooman Musavi fled Iran upon being released from prison after several years of incarceration for "acting against national security." (RFE/RL)

A young prisoner sat blindfolded, facing a wall in Tehran's Evin prison. It was April 2010, nearly a year after the disputed presidential victory of Mahmud Ahmedinejad sparked massive street protests and thousands of arrests. The room was silent, but suddenly he heard a voice, closer than he would have expected.

"What's your name?"

"Hooman Musavi."

The prisoner felt a powerful blow to the back of his head. The man standing over him opened a briefcase and took out a pile of papers. "Sign them," he said. He struck the prisoner again, this time in the face.

"The session took 18 hours," says Musavi, 26, who recently fled Iran and shared his account of the experience with RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "The entire time, the interrogator threatened me and insisted I sign everything -- documents describing whom I had been in contact with, which demonstrations I had participated in, what reports and footage I had prepared, and to whom I had sent them."

Musavi, who had been arrested for participating in and documenting the Green Movement protests, cried throughout the incident. "I felt so much pressure," he says. Finally, the interrogation ended and guards took him back to his cell in the prison's infamous Section 209, the solitary confinement ward where he was to spend the next seven months.

Any relief at the interrogation ending was short-lived. Within minutes, two men had entered Musavi's cell and handcuffed his hands to a radiator affixed to the prison wall, so high that Musavi, already exhausted, could not sit down. As the hours passed, he watched as his hands turned purple from the pressure of the handcuffs and lack of blood.
Any relief at the interrogation ending was short-lived. Within minutes, two men had entered Musavi's cell and handcuffed his hands to a radiator affixed to the prison wall.
"I was so weak, and the guard would open the cell door, put some food on the floor and close the door. I couldn't move a muscle, let alone reach for the food," he says. "I lost consciousness for some time, and when I came to, I panicked when I looked at my hands. They had turned black and purple by then. It was a very strange condition. My shoulders were numb; I couldn't move them."

A day later, guards entered his room and removed the handcuffs. Musavi fell to the ground, drained of all strength, as he felt the blood begin to flow back into his hands. The guards dragged him back to the interrogation room. The pile of papers had quadrupled. Musavi, desperate, said he was ready to sign whatever they put before him, but his hands were still too numb to hold a pen. So the guard brought an ink pad, and one by one, Musavi marked each piece of paper with a single fingerprint.
Day after day the interrogations continued, much as they had since security agents had stormed his Tehran apartment on April 1, posing as gas repairmen. They kicked him in the stomach, handcuffed him from behind, and combed every inch of his home -- even the meat in his refrigerator -- before taking his computer, camera, and mobile phone to look for evidence of Musavi's participation in the postelection protests.

But it wasn't just Musavi's role in the Green Movement that had made him a target of the authorities. His family history had contributed as well. It was something his interrogator liked to remind him of, every day, as he returned him to his cell. "We're going to execute you," the man would say, in a voice that would make Musavi shiver. "Just like your mother and father."

Repeating History

Hooman Musavi was born in prison, on Yalda, the night of the winter solstice, in 1986.

A month earlier, his father had been arrested on charges of cooperating with the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which had participated in a series of antiregime attacks in the 1970s and '80s and had fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

Musavi's father, a textile manufacturer in the city of Shiraz, had sold head scarves to female MKO members. He and an in-law were taken to the city's Adelabad prison and were executed within weeks. By then, Musavi's aunt and mother had been arrested as well. Musavi's mother, Haiedeh, gave birth in Adelabad, and Hooman spent the first two years of his life inside the prison.

"My aunt used to tell me how I was always sick during those two years; I cried the whole time," he says. "I had sores and often caught bad colds. Even when I got older those symptoms stayed with me because of the stress I had endured early on. My aunt said my mother stopped producing milk and she couldn't feed me. So some of the female inmates would give their food rations to women who were lactating and could still breastfeed children. I used to be fed by five or six different women there in order to keep me alive."
In 1988, Musavi's mother was executed as part of a five-month wave of mass executions of political prisoners. "My mother was a very simple woman. She didn't even know what the ideals of organizations like the MKO were," he says. "She never gave up under interrogation; she remained faithful to my father until the last moment. She was executed for this very reason."

For the rest of his life, the shadow of his parents' executions hung over him. Two decades later, struggling to survive in Evin, Musavi began to share his interrogator's conviction that he would share his parents' fate.

"I was thinking they might come back and take me to the gallows at any moment," he says. "It had already happened to my family. I was raised with the understanding that innocent people can be captured and executed."

Lonely, But Never Alone

Musavi was raised by his aunt after she was released from prison. An older brother and sister had been divided between other relatives and lived far away, in Mahshahr and Tehran. His upbringing was difficult, marked by poverty and neglect. There was no fatherly hand on his shoulder, no motherly affection.

For years the young Musavi harbored a secret dream: "I wished that they would throw a birthday party for me and that someone would buy me a gift," he said. "But it never happened."

When attention came, it was unwelcome. Musavi was 12 when he received his first summons to the Shiraz division of the Intelligence Ministry. He had done nothing wrong to attract the gaze of the security services. In his words, he had simply reached the age when authorities saw fit to remind him of his family's history and urge him, firmly, to mind his manners.

"They questioned me and told me more about my family," he says. "When I entered high school, the interrogations became more frequent and they would always tell me not to follow politics. 'Fool around with girls, drink, use drugs -- do whatever you want, but don't get involved in politics. If you have the slightest political inclination we'll arrest you.'"

The warnings proved ineffective. After entering university in Qazvin to study industrial engineering, Musavi was called before the school's disciplinary committee numerous times for participating in student protests. "They would ask whether I prayed or why I was absent from visits to religious sites like Qom and Jamkaran. Questions that had nothing to do with the university and were meant to hurt me." Half a year before he was due to graduate -- and just a few days after the 2009 presidential election -- he was suspended.

'We Didn't Want Much'

Many claims of irregularities were made in the 2009 vote, which officially handed the incumbent Ahmadinejad a 62 percent win, with his reformist rival, Mir-Hossein Musavi, trailing with 34 percent. Outraged, hundreds of thousands of people flooded onto the streets of Iran to support Musavi and a second candidate, Mehdi Karrubi.

Hooman Musavi (no relation to the presidential candidate) was among the protesters, using his camera to shoot photographs and videos of the demonstrations in Iran. When the government responded with a forceful crackdown, dozens of protesters were killed and thousands, like Musavi, were arrested in the weeks and months that followed.

Looking back at the events, Musavi insists his activism had nothing to do with the remorse he still feels for his parents. His aim, he says, was purely rational. "We didn't want much," he says of himself and his fellow protesters. "We just wanted someone to answer our question -- what happened to the votes we had put in the ballot boxes?"

Friendship, Tears

After a few months in his tiny isolation cell, Musavi says he no longer feared his interrogators' threats of execution. To the contrary, he longed for it. "I would cry for hours in my cell, and ask God for them just to take me and execute me," he says. "Just to put an end to the situation."

After seven months Musavi got a reprieve of sorts, when he was moved out of solitary confinement and into Section 350, the ward reserved for political prisoners. Living conditions remained grim. But Musavi says after months of isolation he was happy to be with other prisoners -- especially former protesters like himself.

"They were dissidents of the regime or members of the Green Movement or prisoners of conscience, and there was so much sympathy," he says. "They gave me a jacket and a knit cap, and my morale began to improve. I really felt like I had no regrets about having gone onto the street to film the demonstrators, to help make sure the world heard their voices. It was a good feeling."
Section 350 held some of Iran's most famous political prisoners, including Hoda Saber, a well-known journalist and activist who had been serving jail time off and on since 2000.

In June 2011, the 52-year-old Saber began a hunger strike to protest the death of a fellow activist. His health quickly failed, and he died just eight days later of a heart attack. Witnesses at Evin complained that prison authorities ignored Saber for hours after his chest pains began, even as he begged for help.

"Mr. Saber was losing weight every day and his situation deteriorated," Musavi recalls. "During the final days he was left in his bed and he could no longer see. He didn't recognize his fellow prisoners; his condition was very bad. No one attended to him; when he would lose consciousness we would take him to the prison clinic. But they wouldn't take him and he'd be returned after five minutes.

"The last time we took him to the clinic we didn't hear until the next day that he'd become a martyr at the hospital. When the news reached us, the 200 inmates in the ward, there wasn't a single person who wasn't crying. It was one of the worst days of our lives."

No Mercy

Nearly a year after Musavi's arrest, officials had still not scheduled his court hearing; each month, a prison authority renewed his arrest warrant in order to keep him in detention. Finally, in March 2011, he was taken to court for a closed-door session. His lawyer was barred from attending and the Revolutionary Court judge was preoccupied throughout by workmen who had been brought in to repair the air conditioning.

"He was quite resilient, but when we took him from the room it was like carrying a corpse."
The trial was over in 20 minutes. The judge, delivering the verdict, referred to Musavi as the son of antirevolutionaries and pronounced him guilty of acting against national security by participating in illegal gatherings and establishing contact with opposition satellite channels. His sentence: three years in prison, prohibition from all state universities, fines, and 74 lashes.

Another 16 months passed before Musavi was taken to be lashed. A total of 14 political prisoners were lashed that day: Musavi was the first. He had taken care to put on several layers of clothing, in the hope of dulling the pain. But a judge observing the proceedings ordered Musavi to strip down to a T-shirt.

"I was the first person to be lashed and I had the feeling that the soldier didn't know how to do his job," he says. "The lash consisted of three strands of leather woven together with a knot at the end, to make the tip very heavy and painful. When the soldier was lashing me, it hit me in the chest. My chest was purple, covered with bruises. My entire torso was swollen. I was doing my best not to moan or beg for mercy, but I asked: 'Why are you lashing my chest? You should hit me on the back.'"

The last prisoner in the group was a dentist who had been sentenced to nine years and 160 lashes for his satirical writing about religion. The remaining prisoners, already reeling from their own lashings, were forced to watch. The strokes of the lashes were so harsh that they peeled away his skin. Blood gushed from his wounds, and the man screamed in pain. Finally, it ended. 

"He was quite resilient, but when we took him from the room it was like carrying a corpse," Musavi says. "His condition was critical. None of the others bled from the lashings. Their skin wasn't cut, only bruised. But this man's body was bleeding in several different parts, and his skin was slashed open. We were all crying for him."

The 14 prisoners returned to the ward. No medical care was provided. The other prisoners brought bowls of water and strips of cotton to make compresses for their injuries. "It was if all the prisoners had been lashed," Musavi says. "Everyone felt crushed."

Escape, And Uncertainty

In August 2012, Hooman Musavi was released after 2 1/2 years in prison.
But even once outside he continued to feel trapped by the thoughts of his fellow prisoners still held in Evin. He visited their relatives and went to see the graves of activists who had lost their lives in the Green Movement protests, including Neda Agha-Soltan, the student whose shooting death was captured on video and became a graphic symbol of the brutality of the government crackdown.

But even these quiet activities drew the attention of the security forces. Musavi's interrogator summoned him with a warning, reminding him of his months in solitary confinement and promising he would not escape the gallows again if he returned to prison a second time.

Left with no other option, Musavi fled the country, carrying only a small pack of possessions. (For his protection, his location has been left unstated.) He is uncertain what the future holds, but hopes that he will finally escape the destiny of the child, born and orphaned in prison, who could never outrun the Iranian regime.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Here's How the U.S. Can Work With Pakistan

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 04:30

Advice from a former American ambassador.

Pakistan's Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani speaks to the media in Skardu, northern Pakistan on April 18, 2012. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

Pakistan and America have had some tough years. When President Obama first took office, Pakistan had just returned to democracy after years of military rule, and many were optimistic that the two countries could build a new and healthy relationship.

Leaders in both countries hoped they could contribute to regional stability, promote prosperity, and work together against militancy and terrorism. Instead, despite great effort, we've seen increasing mistrust and skepticism on both sides. Now, as President Obama begins his second term, Pakistanis prepare for an election that, if it proceeds as hoped, would mark the successful completion of a civilian term of office and the continuation of civilian institutional rule, flawed as Pakistani democratic institutions might be.


In both capitals, the high hopes of 2008-2009 have given way to a more sober mood. We now should engage realistic assessments of what we can do. Let me suggest how we can assess the last four years, and look forward to progress in the next four and beyond.

First, the common task of fighting militancy and terrorism remains a priority for both countries. I believe it is a mistake for America to view Pakistan exclusively through the optic of our efforts in Afghanistan, as we've too frequently done in recent years. And yet as the situation changes in Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond, we need to marry realistic timelines and policy decisions with the priorities of Pakistani officials. This means continuing with the successful formula of high-level meetings that combine military and civilian leaders from both countries ("three-on-three"), talking together about military and civilian topics, so that joint decisions on security issues are not hampered, or even crippled, by institutional barriers in either government.

Second, we need to admit that the ambitious effort to balance our commitment to strengthening democratic institutions and building prosperity has not been as successful as we would have liked. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation, which generously authorized $7.5 billion dollars in civilian assistance to the post-Musharraf state for five years, has not had the impact its sponsors (and its implementers, such as the late Richard Holbrooke) had hoped.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but it is crucial that the Pakistani leadership step up and admit its failings rather than simply accuse the Americans of inefficiency or bad faith. Pakistan's institutions, from federal ministries to provincial educational to health providers, need drastic reform -- and so does the fiscal structure, which through anti-democratic favoring of feudal interests, cripples public faith in Pakistani democracy. Any American assistance from now on should require Pakistani leadership to reform; and it may be that Pakistani calls for an end to the dependency trap of traditional assistance are right.

If we agree on these two ideas -- that we must continue a reasonable, clear-eyed cooperation on counterterrorism informed by (but not defined by) what happens in Afghanistan, and that we must reassess civilian assistance to encourage reform of Pakistani institutions that allow for truly democratic Pakistani leadership -- then we have a strong start. The next step would be to break away from the tyranny of negative narratives that limit bilateral ties and reinforce the idea that we have a bad marriage or codependent relationship. If we can detach ourselves from these comfortable but lazy assumptions, we can open the door to new approaches. I suggest two.

First, wherever possible, we should not limit ourselves to bilateral solutions. Difficult as it may sound, there can be no solution to our long-term security needs in the region without paying attention to neighboring countries. Former Secretary Clinton began the process of looking at post-2014 security arrangements in a regional setting; she also emphasized that these arrangements are not sustainable without stronger regional economic relationships.

This regional approach should continue. We cannot discuss Pakistan without thinking about India, China, and Turkey, their interests, and the roles they may play in the future. Sure, it is more complicated, but it is also more realistic, and helps bury the "viceroy obsession" so prevalent in Pakistan today.

Second, wherever possible, we should not limit ourselves to government-to-government initiatives. My experience in Pakistan convinced me that Pakistanis admire American business practices, educational achievements, and cultural vitality; our abysmally low polling numbers in Pakistan are almost exclusively the result of their perceptions (fair or not) of our security policies.

Now, it should not be our goal simply to be loved, and we may need to make decisions in our security posture that aren't popular to some people abroad. That being the case, we should understand the limitations of polling data and start encouraging the long-term contact of institutions in both countries to promote a positive impact over years, even decades. American businesses can bring global practices to Pakistan. American universities have traditional links to Pakistani counterparts that need to be rebuilt. Pakistan and America have extraordinarily dynamic philanthropic traditions that work together. The growing energy and power of Pakistan's unruly but promising media is an opportunity for our media as well.

Now is not the time to turn away from Pakistan, despite the frustrations of recent years. Rather, let's take a good look at why the last four years did not work out as we wanted, and share that honest assessment with our Pakistani partners. In addition, let's make sure we use approaches (beyond bilateral) and tools (beyond governmental) that play to our strengths. Finally, a little patience and generosity -- on both sides -- will certainly be required to heal the cuts and abrasions we have both suffered in recent years.

This post also appears at The Asia Society, an Atlantic partner site.

China's 'Trial of the Century' Will Be a Dud—and That's the Point

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 14:06

What Bo Xilai's upcoming trial says about the evolution of China's legal system.

China's then-Commerce Minister Bo Xilai addresses a conference in 2005. Bo is expected to stand trial this year for his involvement in the murder of Neil Haywood in Chongqing, China. (Philippe Wojaze/Reuters)

Just over a year ago, the then-police chief of Chongqing, China, Wang Lijun, fled to the nearby city of Chengdu in a desperate attempt to defect to the United States. While he didn't succeed in escaping China, he did manage to unleash the country's biggest political scandal in decades; a titillating affair which led to the spectacular downfall of one of China's best-known and most ambitious political figures.

At the time of Wang's flight, Bo Xilai was the crusading Party Secretary of Chongqing and the architect of a populist revival that seemed poised to launch him into the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China's highest political office. Now Bo -- stripped of his position, his membership in the Communist Party, and his freedom -- awaits trial for his involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Haywood, who perished after apparently being poisoned by Bo's wife.

As is typical in China's opaque criminal justice system, no one knows when or where Bo's trial will be held -- or even where Bo himself is waiting. This much, though, is certain: Bo's trial will be the most high-profile in China since The Gang of Four were convicted in 1981. And while the two trials may share a similar notoriety, the distinct circumstances around them encapsulate how much China has changed in the last three decades.

Little known outside China, the Gang of Four refers to the quartet of officials who assumed de facto control of the country during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Following a decade of horror, stagnation, political upheavals, and mass persecutions -- all under the nominal leadership of an increasingly senile Chairman Mao - the four were arrested following Mao's death in 1976. Four years later, The Gang of Four were summoned to stand trial in front of a special tribunal in Beijing.

The trial was a spectacle from the start. Gang leader Jiang Qing - Mao's widow - proved to be a feisty defendant, as the NYU China legal expert Jerome A. Cohen, who watched the proceedings on television, recently remembered:

Jiang asked: "Can a defense lawyer take my place so I don't have to come to court?" When the court president said this would not be possible, Jiang snapped back: "Then I don't want one." Shortly thereafter, she had to be temporarily removed from the courtroom for obstreperous behavior, and the trial went downhill.

Ultimately, the Gang of Four were convicted of a range of crimes and subsequently imprisoned. All four have since died.

Though an outsized character not cast in the mold of the bland Chiense politician, Bo is unlikely to be as defiant as Jiang Qing. First, the Gang of Four trial was no ordinary proceeding; the Chinese government created a special tribunal to deal with the country's prior regime -- the very regime that had imprisoned its successor and had wrought tremendous damage across the entire country. The trial was televised because "it was a clear opportunity for the government to state, definitively, that the Cultural Revolution had ended, that this was a clear break from the past, and that the politicized struggle sessions had come to an end," says Professor Carl Minzer, an expert in Chinese legal history at Fordham University.

The Bo Xilai trial, on the other hand, is an affirmation of, rather than a repudiation of, the regime. Although Bo was a deeply driven individual who had great political ambition, he was at heart an establishment figure working from within the existing norms of the Communist Party. Professor Jacques deLisle, an expert in Chinese law at the University of Pennsylvania, summed up the differences between the two trials in this way: "The Gang of Four had run the show and were being replaced by their victims. Nobody thinks Bo wanted to actually run the show."

The Bo Xilai trial, when it finally unfolds, will be sure to attract significant media attention from around the world. Yet unlike with the Gang of Four trial, the Chinese government will do little to publicize the proceedings. If Chinese judicial history is any indication, the trial will be speedy and decisive, an expeditious execution of "justice" that will fit neatly into China's current legal norms. For a "trial of the century", it is sure to disappoint. And that, in China, is precisely the idea.

Can an American Woman Stop Domestic Violence in China?

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 07:10

The landmark court victory of Kim Lee, a victim of domestic abuse from her Chinese husband, may bring discussion of domestic violence out in the open in China

[Li Yang teaches English to several thousand students in Guangzhou, China, in 2004. Li's American wife Kim Lee recently won a court decision following claims of domestic abuse. (Reuters)]

To many outside China, it might have seemed like another straightforward heroine-and-villain celebrity divorce story. He was the founder of a hugely popular English learning program known as Crazy English, and is a household name in China. She was his American wife. But the breakdown of Kim Lee's marriage to her husband Li Yang, which culminated with a Beijing court granting a divorce for reasons of abuse on February 2, has caused many Chinese to reexamine the issue of domestic violence.

After being beaten by her husband for years, and subsequently being denied assistance from the authorities and family friends, Kim Lee finally took to the Internet for help. She first posted photos of her bruised knees and swollen head on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service, in September 2011.

Shortly after publishing the photos, Lee posted a graphic account of one of their altercations in English: "You knocked me to the floor. You sat on my back. You choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor. When I pried your hands from my neck you grabbed my hair and slammed my head into the floor ten more times!"

The initial reactions of many who read the post was shock, with users denouncing Li and urging Lee to go to the police. Weibo user @X__小妖 __X commented, "The heavens should split this freak Li Yang in half with lightning!! Kim, use the weapon of the law to protect yourself!!" Another user, @哈佛妈妈微博, posted, "As a woman I can't bear things like this, I know I can't help you personally, but I know together all the women in China can help. Fellow women re-tweet this; we won't bear this kind of insanity!"

Shortly after Lee began posting online, Li Yang also went public, stating : "I hit her sometimes, but I never thought she would make it public, since it's not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders." While these remarks could be interpreted as a calculated move to create a distance between Lee and her Chinese sympathizers, it also reveals the unspoken nature of domestic violence in the country.

For many in China, especially in rural areas, physical violence in the home is an accepted part of a marital relationship. Lee's appeals to her sister-in-law for help, for instance, were met with the suggestion that she should stop provoking her husband. In a separate case, Tea Leaf Nation contributor Thomas Stevenson wrote about how a woman he knew who experienced harassment was told by police, "He obviously cares about you and wants to be with you. You should go back to him." In Sichuan, a woman named Li Yan was driven to murder her husband after years of abuse and having her appeals to the local women's association go unheeded. In an interview with The Guardian, Li's brother Tan stated that "domestic violence is considered to be an issue within the family, and other families have more or less similar situations, so they did not take any action."

Statistics show the extent to which domestic violence is a problem in China. A study carried out by the All China Women's Federation estimated that abuse occurs in more than one third of Chinese households, with women comprising 85 percent of the victims. Worryingly, just 5 percent of the women who reported violence in the survey stated that their marriages were unhappy as a result.

By the time Lee left the courtroom, almost a year and a half after her first posts, her case had received more than three million comments on Sina Weibo alone. While most of those posting supported Lee, there was a sense from some that standing up to her husband was an foreign, not a Chinese act. One user, responding to an article about the case published in the Hong Kong media outlet Phoenix, commented, "American women are strong, Chinese men aren't up to marrying them, they certainly can't afford to offend them." Another user remarked, "Li Yang is admittedly wrong!! But if you look at the smile on this old foreign woman's face...all this money coming to makes you want to throw up. No wonder Li Yang carried out domestic violence."

Kim Lee won an important victory in court, and helped stand up for herself as well as countless other victims of abuse. And while views on domestic violence remain varied in China, this public divorce has, at the very least, helped bring a once private matter further into the light.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

Iran's Stealth Fighter is Probably an Elaborate Fraud

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 04:30

Experts believe that the Iranian jet is hardly the aeronautical breakthrough the Islamic Republic wants the world to think it is.

The Qaher fighter jet, which was unveiled last weekend. (Iranian TV, via YouTube and RFE/RL)

Iran over the weekend presented what it called a "significant achievement in the field of aerospace technology" -- a domestically built fighter jet with stealth capabilities.

Some aviation experts, however, believe the tiny, angular fighter jet with stubby wings shown to the world may have been an expensive mock-up and that video footage of the black jet screaming across the sky may actually show a radio-controlled model aircraft instead.

Such skepticism may be understandable, given the recent questions surrounding Iran's now-dubious claim of having sent a monkey into space and returning him safely to Earth.

At an unveiling ceremony in a Tehran warehouse on February 2, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that now "the speed of Iran's development in science and technology does not depend on circumstances, it depends on our will." He assured the world that the Qaher (Conqueror) F-313 project "carries the message of brotherhood, peace, and security and it doesn't pose any threat to anyone. There is no intention to interfere in any other country's affairs."

He also said the "deterrent" aircraft, built by the country's Aviation Industries Organization, had been test-flown for "thousands of hours" and that Iranian pilots were "very satisfied with its performance."

"We should set higher targets," Ahmadinejad said. "We see that it is possible. We have the capabilities."

Footage from Iranian TV allegedly showing the aircraft in flight.
Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi described the jet as having "unique physical characteristics," of being made of "advanced materials," and said that it boasted a very low radar cross section that enables it to operate at low altitudes. He also said it can take off and land on short runways and can carry advanced, domestically manufactured weapons.

Considering that Iran is operating under an international arms embargo and that spare parts for its aging fleet of domestic commercial aircraft and air force jets (some Russian-made and others being U.S. jets acquired before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution) are difficult to obtain, experts and analysts are calling into question the veracity of Tehran's claims.

"The Aviationist" website, run by former Italian Air Force pilot and freelance aviation journalist David Cenciotti, calls the Qaher F-313 a "really peculiar design," with "odd" canopy material and a tiny nose section where it would be difficult to house radar:

The cockpit seems to be basic (a bit too much for a modern plane - note the lack of wirings behind the front panel and the presence of few instruments, some of those similar to those equipping small private planes...).

The air intakes are extremely small (they remind those of current drones/unmanned combat aerial vehicles) whereas the engine section lacks any kind of nozzle: engine afterburners could melt the entire jet.
Cenciotti concludes that the photograph released by Iran is "nothing more than a large mock-up model" and that the video more closely resembles a "radio-controlled scale model more than a modern fighter jet."

He notes that the Iranian footage, revealingly, does not show the plane taking off or landing.​​

The Israeli newspaper "Maariv" quotes Israeli aeronautics expert Tal Inbar as saying the fighter jet looks like a fiberglass or cardboard model:

"It's not a plane, because that's not how a real plane looks. Iran doesn't have the ability to build planes. Plain and simple."
"The Times of Israel," however, quotes an Israeli aerospace engineer on condition of anonymity as saying that, while the plane on display was "clearly not" a working prototype... integrated advanced stealth design with extreme maneuverability. He said that while the Qaher's design lacked bombing capability, it had the potential to be an effective interceptor capable of defending Iran's skies from aerial threats.

"They need a defensive interceptor that gives them the element of surprise, and it is big enough to carry real air-to-air missiles," he said.
Another aviation and defense writer, Dave Majumdar of the The DEW Line blog, says the aircraft on display in Tehran more closely resembles an old G.I. Joe toy than a modern stealth-capable aircraft.

The Iranians would have you believe this is some sort of highly advanced stealth strike aircraft that they've already designed, built and flown. But this, frankly speaking, looks unimpressive -- and if I had to put money down on it, I say it's a mock-up. I suppose it could be some sort of test bed, but I'm highly skeptical.
He questions almost every aspect of the jet, noting that if this is, indeed, supposed to be a combat aircraft, there can't be much room for fuel, let alone weapons onboard. He says the cockpit appears unfinished and that the canopy seems to be made of poor-quality Plexiglas "with some really bad optical qualities." He even questions whether there's actually an engine installed.

"Time will tell if this is a serious development or not," Majumdar concludes. "I suspect not, but we'll see."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The National Security Challenges that the U.S. Drone Campaign Can't Solve

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 14:31

Obama's excessively-secret targeted killing program has had plenty of unintended foreign policy consequences.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, performs a low altitude pass. (Reuters)

In President Barack Obama's bold second inaugural address, one line was my favorite. "We will defend our people and uphold our values," President Barack Obama declared, "through strength of arms and rule of law."

Obama was right to describe the "rule of law" as a weapon the United States can use to defend itself. But the administration's insistence on enveloping its counter-terrorism efforts in excessive secrecy flouts the rule of law. A proud American ideal is being turned into a liability, not an asset.

"It's not sufficient for the administration to say, 'Trust us, we're taking care of it,' " said Amrit Singh, author of a new Open Society Institute report that raises numerous questions about the United States' use of rendition and torture since 2001. "There needs to be greater transparency."

One reason residents of Pakistan, Yemen and other countries so bitterly oppose covert drone strikes is that they flout the "rule of law." A legal concept that dates to Aristotle, the rule of law means the legal code's supremacy over autocratic rule-by-dictat.

Given the current unrest in the Middle East, Americans' cynicism about the spread of such ideals is understandable. But the "rule of law" is a galvanizing concept around the world. From Syria to Brazil to China, people are demanding governments that are accountable to them, less corrupt and merit-based. Establishing those ideals is extraordinarily difficult, but the popular desire is clear.

The Obama administration's covert drone program is on the wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.

Questions about covert drone strikes are finally being asked in Washington. Hearings tomorrow on whether John Brennan should become the next CIA director will bring rare scrutiny to the program. And NBC News' publication of a leaked Justice Department memo justifying the administration's claim that it has the authority to kill an American citizen without judicial review is finally prompting criticism as well.

While attention has rightly focused on the number of civilians killed in the covert strikes, a story in the New York Times on Wednesday revealed another destructive by-product of the overreliance on drones. The piece described how Yemen's elite, U.S.-trained counterterrorism unit has been posted to traffic duty in the capital in recent weeks. Instead of the force carrying out raids to capture militants, drones are being used.

The approach is counterproductive in two ways. Using local security forces to kill and capture militants is more precise, popular and effective in the long run than drone strikes. And by snubbing local forces, the United States is alienating its allies.

"We could be going after some of these guys," a member of the elite force told the Times. "That's what we're trained to do, and the Americans trained us. It doesn't make sense."

The United States is ignoring its own calls for transparency. Singh's report, "Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition," found that at least 136 people were victims of "extraordinary rendition" by the United States under the George W. Bush administration. It reveals that at least 54 countries have assisted in the effort by allowing U.S. planes carrying detainees to land on their territory.

But the full extent of the program - and whether it continues in any form today - remains unknown. Both the Obama administration and congressional oversight committees have failed to release exhaustive reviews and basic documents that could set the record straight.

Brennan, who served in the CIA at the time, has denied approving of extraordinary rendition or torture. Officials inside and outside the administration portray him as a moderate who favors minimizing drone strikes, opposes torture and favors increasing transparency. His move to Langley is an effort, they say, to shift drone strikes from covert CIA activities to more overt attacks carried out by the U.S. military.

If true, that would be a welcome step. But the Obama administration has a long record of promising transparency and then embracing secrecy ‑ from drone strikes to legal memos to unprecedented prosecutions of government officials for leaking to the news media.

Accusing Obama's actions of falling short of his rhetoric is nothing new. His excessive embrace of secrecy, though, is more than a case of inaction. It is a faulty policy that is a flagrant display of American hypocrisy in predominantly Muslim countries, where we need public support. Muslim moderates who yearn for the rule of law are our potential allies. In the end, only they, not U.S. soldiers, have the power to eradicate militancy.

I support using drone strikes as a last resort. They have helped kill senior militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. But targeted killing in any form is not a magic bullet.

In Pakistan, drone strikes have created a stalemate. Senior militants are killed, but their deputies cite exaggerated civilian casualty counts to gain new recruits. The CIA weakens militant groups but can't eradicate them.

Drones strikes should be minimized and made public. Why an attack is carried out, who is killed and if civilians died should be publicly detailed.

At best, the Brennan move will increase transparency. But it may be too late. Since 2001 the United States has acted as a high-handed power not subject to the law. For more than a decade, average Pakistanis and Yemenis, whose support we need to isolate militants, have seen this.

Now, Americans are finally seeing it as well.

This post also appears at, an Atlantic partner site.

Worth Reading: ChinaFile Discussion on 'Airpocalypse'

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 13:15
ChinaFile is a new venture by the Asia Society, for which the Atlantic will be a partner and to which I will be one of many contributors.

The discussion today genuinely is worth noticing. It's about the reasons for, and likely consequences of, the "Airpocalypse" that is now evident through so many big Chinese cities. For reference: That's our old neighborhood in Beijing, in a picture shot from a 30th floor window last week.
The long introductory post by Alex Wang, whom I knew in Beijing when he represented the Natural Resources Defense Council there, and who is now at UC Berkeley, sets out all the reasons why the current emergency matters for China and the rest of the world. Other contributors elaborate on some of the even worse ramifications, and possible responses.

As I argued last month -- here, here, and here -- the nearly unendurable conditions that Chinese growth has brought to many Chinese people represent a kind of challenge that the system and its leaders have not reckoned with before. Apart, of course, from the effects on the rest of the world. I think you'll find this discussion valuable and clarifying, if not exactly encouraging. (I have a cameo entry at the end, saying essentially what I've just said here.)

With the Burgas Bombing, Hezbollah Returned to Its Roots

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 11:55

The Lebanese Shi'ite militant group, now blamed for a July attack on a busload of Israeli tourists in a resort city in Bulgaria, is once again striking far beyond its home country's borders.

The bus destroyed in the terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria on July 19th, 2012. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

Hezbollah, a growing body of evidence suggests, is back in the business of international operations after a long hiatus -- striking out not only at military or official targets of its sworn enemies, but also, this time, at civilians. Bulgarian officials said on Tuesday that they could connect Hezbollah to the July 2012 bombing at a Black Sea resort that killed six civilians (five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver) along with one attacker. The results of Bulgaria's investigation, if they bear out, add credence to a pattern that has slowly taken shape over the last seven years, ever since Hezbollah was first indicted for a political assassination in Lebanon and later accused of strikes on Israeli targets abroad. The Party of God, once eager to forswear tactics considered terrorist, appears to be tilting back into their embrace. The culmination of this transformation, or return to origins, could have serious consequences.

Observers of Hezbollah have kept track of the organization's enduring ability to strike beyond Lebanon's borders and its deep connections in Western diaspora communities. Still, Bulgaria's claim that two of the alleged Hezbollah operatives carried real Western passports, from Canada and Australia, provides hard evidence. US officials have always worried about Hezbollah operatives with Western passports, but have never made any credible claims about the number of cells with military training that are believed to reside outside Lebanon.

The Party of God, once eager to forswear tactics considered terrorist, appears to be tilting back into their embrace.

The deliberate investigation of the Bulgaria bombing could heighten alarm about Hezbollah. Last year Hezbollah was accused in plots against Israeli targets around the globe, some  foiled ahead of time (Bangkok, Baku), some botched in execution (India, Georgia), and some lethal, like the one in Bulgaria. Perhaps Hezbollah is frustrated by its own weakness; since 2008, it has sworn to retaliate against Israel for the assassination of Hezbollah's military mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh. Yet more than four years have passed, and Hezbollah has failed in any plots against high-profile Israeli targets. Hence, perhaps, the targeting of Israeli holidaymakers instead.

Now, evidence from these cases is emerging at a time when the Lebanese party-cum-militia is feeling more threatened - and perhaps more militarized - than at any point in more than a decade. Hezbollah fighters have been actively involved in the Syrian civil war, on the regime's side, another departure for an organization that for two decades has styled itself a national resistance movement, and has portrayed all its fights as defensive stands against Israel. In Syria today, Hezbollah can make no such claim for its fighters. Furthermore, if Syria decided to retaliate directly at Israel for its recent strike, Hezbollah would be the most efficient vehicle through which to do so.

Western intelligence and security officials have long worried about Hezbollah's presence among the Lebanese diaspora, which numbers somewhere between 10 and 14 million. Plenty of Lebanese abroad support Hezbollah politically. Some are known to engage in fundraising and other types of nonmilitary support. What's not clear is how many of these dual nationals have any time of military training, or any role as sleeper or sabotage cells. The Bulgarian revelations suggest that Hezbollah might have some real strategic assets sprinkled in the West.

Since the massive attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 (which Hezbollah denied but to which it was tied with conclusive evidence in Argentine courts), Hezbollah for a long time avoided kidnappings and terrorist spectaculars. But there's growing evidence that that policy changed in 2005 with the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah has denied any blame for that murder, resorting to increasingly improbable evasions of responsibility. Still, it was a political assassination, and deplorable as it was it didn't mark a return to attacks on random civilians. Last year's plots, however, if they are conclusively laid at Hezbollah's doorstep, do amount to a substantive pivot.

The Bulgarian revelations suggest that Hezbollah might have some real strategic assets sprinkled in the West.

Hezbollah has argued since the mid-1990s that it should be treated as a liberation movement, accorded the status of a quasi-state. It has claimed to behave within the norms of nations, concentrating after 1994 on military targets in its fight with Israel and making a plausible claim to proportionality vis-à-vis Israel's use of force against Lebanese civilians.

One benefit of this approach for Hezbollah has been Europe's refusal to list it as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah remains the dominant player in Lebanon's government and the single-most powerful political and militia organization in Lebanon. While American diplomats by law can't even talk to Hezbollah members, most Europeans have maintained relations.

Terror-listing is an inherently symbolic exercise; despite the financial sanctions it carries, the designation does little to change behavior and it reduces the political maneuver room of all involved. To what extent has the US listing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization altered its behavior? (For that matter, what difference does it make when foreign states brand the Pentagon "terrorist?") But if Hezbollah is going rogue, or returning to its rogue roots of the 1980s, it will hurt the group over the long run, as it loses the access it has won in the Middle East and in Europe, and squanders what credibility it earned beyond its immediate following. Hezbollah will remain a quasi-state, but a rogue one.

Today, Hezbollah faces tremendous pressure as its patrons in Syria are on the verge of a state collapse. The Sunni resistance movement that might take over the embattled country detests Hezbollah nearly as much as it does Bashar Al-Assad. So Hezbollah faces the prospect of regional isolation and a strategic dismemberment, with the loss of the hinterland long afforded by Syria

The best-case scenario is that the machinations of outside players in Syria, including Hezbollah's, don't alter the wider status quo: that what happens in Syria stays in Syria. Increasingly, however, that seems like a fragile supposition. Already four outside forces have their own guns more or less in the game: Turkey and Israel against the regime, Iran and Hezbollah for it. Plenty more players are sending money or weapons in: the United States, Qatar, Kuwait, Russia, along with other wealthy figures and factions around the region.

Would this imbroglio ignite a regional conflagration? Iran's threats, like Syria's, ring hollow, but aren't without cause for concern. With so many outsiders in the mix, and so many partisan groups already fighting inside Syria, all it takes is one miscalculation. If Hezbollah already has activated secret cells to foment international attacks, making what appears to be several attempts across the world to hit Israeli targets, that marks another destabilizing escalation. It's a volatile mix, and the more threatened Hezbollah and the Assad regime feel, the more likely they are to make wild moves - attacks guaranteed to provoke international retaliation, or actions that they themselves will come to see as mistakes. There's no guarantee that we're headed for a regional war, or a spate of international attacks spawned by Syria's conflicts - but there's more cause today than ever before to worry.

Malala Is Back: The Challenges Ahead for Girls' Education in Pakistan

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 07:51

The teenage activist, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, is now out of the hospital -- and ready to continue the work that nearly got her killed.

Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai smiles with nurses as she is discharged from The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham on January 4, 2013. (Reuters)

Yesterday, people around the world watched in admiration and awe a clip from an interview with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for girls' education. "I want every girl, every child to be educated," she said bravely in comments given before she had surgery at a hospital in England-apparently, she is now recovering well-and discussed the new Malala Fund to do just that. The fund's inaugural grant will help girls from the Swat Valley, where Malala is from, receive an education instead of entering the workforce prematurely.

Girls' education in Pakistan, however, needs more than Malala's determination and courage. While the Taliban have certainly terrorized parts of the country, they are not to blame for the sorry state of girls' education in Pakistan. Over the years, Pakistan's various governments have made halfhearted efforts to address the shameful gender gap, but the proof of their failure is in the numbers:

The statistics are appalling. In 1981, 45 percent of male youth (15 to 24) in Pakistan were literate, versus only 24 percent of female youth--a literacy gap of 21 points. Since that time, while overall literacy rates have improved, Pakistan's gender gap has barely budged. In 2009, 79 percent of male youth were literate, but only 61 percent of female youth--a literacy gap of 18 points.

Another way to understand Pakistan's slow progress on female education is by comparing it with Bangladesh. Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh became independent in 1971. Ten years later, Pakistan and Bangladesh were performing comparably on literacy. But Bangladesh has since raced ahead in female education and now literacy rates there are higher for female than for male youth.

Between 2000 and 2005, Bangladesh managed to double female primary school enrollment to 90 percent. In Pakistan, female primary school net enrollment in 2010 was only 60 percent. Pakistan's educational system (and attitudes toward women more generally) are holding the country back. In 2010, only 22 percent of Pakistani women participated in the workforce, as opposed to 57 percent in Bangladesh. While it is now commonly acknowledged that a literate and educated female population can powerfully contribute to economic development--not to mention improve life outcomes for their families--Pakistan is missing the boat.

The world rightly applauds the courage and determination of young Malala Yousafzai, but getting girls in school needs to be a national obsession for Pakistan if it hopes to tackle poverty and extremism.

This post appears courtesy of, an Atlantic partner site.

China's 'Re-Education Through Labor' System: The View From Within

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 07:37

An inside look at the country's notorious prison camps.

A policeman leads inmates as they walk along a road with their wrists tied to a rope in Emei Mountain region, Sichuan province on September 26, 2012. (Reuters)

In 1987, when Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo finally lifted martial law after nearly forty years, Taiwan's Government Information held its first Taipei International Book Exhibition. The exhibition, which in 1987 gathered 67 publishers from eleven countries, has grown immensely since, attracting 420 international publishers from 60 different countries in 2012.

The exhibition--the "first formal diplomatic event held by the publishing industry in Taiwan"--is a symbol of liberalization and democratization of Taiwan, and its commitment to freedom of speech. Because of strict censorship in the People's Republic of China, many Mainland activists publish their work in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which guarantee freedom of the press. Among them is Harry Wu, a 75-year-old Chinese human rights activist who spent 19 years in so-called "re-education through labor," or laogai, a Chinese labor camp system originally modelled after the Soviet Gulag. Wu has written extensively about the laogai system, combining first-hand accounts with extensive research.

Detention at laojiao may last up to three years and does not require a judicial procedure.

Laogai is distinguished from laojiao , the more traditional Chinese labor camp system, in that the former is a prison used to detain individuals convicted under the Chinese Criminal Code, whereas the latter is used to detain those who have only committed minor offenses and thus are viewed by the government as being easy to reform. Detention at laojiao may last up to three years and does not require a judicial procedure; at laogai, one can be sentenced to life, though only after a trial.  Both systems aim to "re-educate" the detainees through penal labor.

In a discussion panel at National Taiwan University, Wu recounted his experience in the laogai camps and emphasized that this system still exists today. In 1994, 45 years after the system's establishment in 1949, the Chinese government officially abolished the term laogai, only to rename it jianyu, or prison. "Henceforth, the word 'laogai' will no longer exist, but the function, character and tasks of our prison administration will remain unchanged," announced the government in 1995, betraying any hope for actual reform. According to Wu's research, there are six to eight million inmates working in such prison camps today.

"My father was a right-wing banking official; we were well off. In 1949 the Communist Revolution began, and we lost all our property. My mother committed suicide," said Wu. "I spent nineteen years in laogai because I expressed my opinions."


It was in 1957, a year after the Communist Party began the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which encouraged its citizens to voice their true opinions on politics and society, that Wu was sentenced to life. He was just 21 years old, studying at the Geology Institute in Beijing.

"I was released in 1979, and in 1985, I went to the U.S.," Wu continued. "I was free. A free man. In a free society... You can't imagine what that feels like--you've never been not free."

Wu responded with vivid detail to a student's question asking him to depict life in the laogai camps. "Every morning we would all get up and line up, with the guards at the camp pointing guns at us. They would divide us up into groups and assign us to plots of land. Within that plot of land we would pick grapes, tealeaves, cotton, and other things. We couldn't go beyond our assigned space--there was an invisible line. Cross that line, and you're shot.

"Every worker had a labor quota he had to fulfil. We would pack a cardboard box with grapes and weigh it to make sure we'd fulfilled the quota. They would take the box and load it onto a plane, which flew out to Japan. Once, one of the workers became sick for three days and did not meet his quota. At the end of the day, when they lined us up and called our names, that guy was called to the front. 'You didn't meet your quota! You disobeyed Chairman Mao! You neglected your duty!' The troop leader at the camp yelled at him. They tied the guy's hands behind his back and onto a bamboo stick. They ripped his shirt off, exposing his chest bare.

"The leader continued to yell at him. After a while, they released the guy, and he fell tumbling into a ditch, tearing at his arms, chest, and face. His skin was covered by countless mosquito bites. 'What, I didn't hit you,' said the leader. To this day, I can still hear him screaming in pain."

Wu said that laogai camps are full of such "tricks" that allow not only leaders at individual camps but also the Chinese government to circumvent the rules and cover up the inhumanity of the system. For example, most laogai camps carry two names: a commercial name for outside trade and an official administrative name. "Camps might outwardly be called 'XX Farm,' 'XX Brick Factory,' or 'XX Mining Factory.' For example, there was one whose commercial name was 'Yunnan Province Jinma Diesel Engine Plant.' But its administrative name was 'Yunnan Province Prison No. 1.' In the end, they were all actually prisons."

"There's a department called Ministry of State Security Number 326 that deals with people deemed politically dangerous like me."

"Laogai provides free labor--it's a huge business," Wu explained. "I've asked Americans who do business with Chinese companies before: Do you know about laogai? Do you know how the goods are produced? Do you want to do business with people reap the benefits of laogai? But they don't know."

According to the Laogai Research Foundation, a non-profit organization that Wu established in 1992 to research and promote public awareness about laogai, "The Chinese government profits handsomely from the labor camp system by allowing goods made with forced labor to enter both domestic and international markets...Due to intentional deception on the part of laogai enterprises, lax international labelling requirements for manufactured goods, and the fact that many laogai products are traded via middlemen, it is extremely difficult to trace the origins of laogai products once they have entered the market."

The discussion eventually shifted to Wu's life as a "free man" in the US. When he arrived in the US in 1985, six years after his release from laogai, he had US$40 to his name. After three years of working odd jobs such as selling liquor and donuts, Wu began researching as a visiting professor at Stanford University's Hoover Institution in 1988, compiling personal accounts and detailed evidence on the laogai system. In 1992, he founded the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, DC.

One student asked whether the Chinese government interferes with the Foundation's activities. Wu answered, "There's a department called Ministry of State Security Number 326 that deals with people deemed politically dangerous like me. At the Foundation, we receive blackmail threats and strange phone calls; our email system often goes down, too. Sometimes I find my car's tires are flat. It's much better in the U.S., though--it does a better job keeping these types of activities in check. Whenever these things happen, I just call the FBI.

"I'm a U.S. citizen now. But when I went to China in 1995 to gather more information about the laogai system, I was arrested and detained, although I had proper documentation. They sentenced me to 15 years in prison.

"Then something strange happened," continued Wu. "I was supposed to serve 15 years, then be deported. But--the Chinese officials told me they can deport me first." This was a compromise on the part of the Chinese government. Wu's detention led to an international campaign demanding his release. Former Capitol Hill Senator Jesse Helms, Wu's friend and supporter, wrote in a letter to a letter to then Secretary of State Warren Christopher: "Should harm come to Harry Wu while he is in Chinese custody, there will be severe implications for China in the United States Congress."  After 66 days of detention, Wu flew back to the U.S.

"In total, I am sentenced to 34 years in prison. For what? I don't know. I didn't rob a bank, I didn't shoot anyone, I didn't rape anyone. Why the 34 years? No one knows."

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

Is This the Twilight of the Putin Era?

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 04:31

Intrigue, mayhem, and public shenanigans have gripped the upper echelons of the Russian elite -- just as they did in last days of Boris Yeltsin's rule.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the town of Krymsk in the Krasnodar region January 11, 2013. (Reuters)

Somebody is out to get Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Or somebody is setting up Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Or both. Or neither. But regardless, something pretty weird appears to be going on.
A slick feature-length video appeared online last week attacking Medvedev for selling out Russia's interests in the Middle East during his presidency by implicitly backing NATO's air campaign against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. And he did do, the video claims, against the express wishes of Vladimir Putin. The film, which runs more than an hour and features top Russian military figures, popped up on what appeared to be Rogozin's YouTube page. Rogozin has staunchly denied having anything to do with it -- or even having a YouTube page.

So was this yet another in a long string of attacks on Medvedev? It bears a striking resemblance to another online video that appeared last summer attacking him for his alleged indecisiveness during Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia.

Or was it an elaborate provocation to discredit Rogozin, a bombastic nationalist and divisive figure whose star has been rising of late? There are certainly many who would like to knock him down a peg and President Putin is known to disdain his lieutenants airing dirty laundry in public.
Who knows? But the video's appearance is symptomatic of a trend that runs deeper than the immediate question of whodunit. It is illustrative of the ongoing intrigue, mayhem, and public shenanigans that have gripped the upper echelons of the elite -- a tendency that is, to some degree, reminiscent of the twilight of former President Boris Yeltsin's rule.
It was just this tendency that Putin made a priority of stifling during his first stint in the Kremlin, when he established the "power vertical" and reasserted the authority and prestige of the  Russian state. The return of such 1990s-style mischief and disarray, of which last week's mysterious anti-Medvedev video is just one example, points to an erosion of this authority.
The Deep State and the Fake State
In the past several months, the State Duma has taken up legislation on everything from combating blasphemy, to banning foreign words from the Russian language, to barring dual citizens from federal television channels, to prohibiting so-called homosexual propaganda. Meanwhile, long-delayed reforms of the creaking social welfare and education systems, overhauls the Kremlin claims it wants, have gone nowhere.
According to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center, the Duma's approval rating is just 36 percent. Medvedev's government hasn't fared much better. Since it took office in May, there have been constant rumors of its imminent firing. Putin constantly berates the cabinet. The Duma regularly ignores its bills.

Likewise, as political analyst Leonid Bershidsky noted in a recent commentary for Bloomberg, the government isn't bothering to enforce many of the new laws the Duma has passed, leading to some angry exchanges on the floor of parliament. "In the current state of suspended animation the executive branch resembles a mammoth embedded in ice: You can examine it but cannot see any movement," political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky recently told the daily Nezavisismaya Gazeta.

Medvedev himself has become something of a punch line and a punching bag. There have been not-so-subtle jokes on television about not being able to remember the prime minister's name as well as persistent regular barbs from former ministers like Aleksei Kudrin, German Gref, and Anatoly Chubais.
The degradation of Russia's formal institutions is an outgrowth of how the country has been governed for the past decade. Under Putin, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Duma, and the courts have largely been elaborate window dressing, a form of kabuki theater where stage-managed political set pieces were played out for public consumption. The important decisions were made by an informal super elite of about a dozen people -- a cabal of political, security, and business insiders with Putin serving as its front man and decider-in-chief.
Kremlin-watchers have given these shadow rulers different labels, such as the Collective Putin to Putin's Politburo. I prefer to call it Russia's Deep State. By whatever name, it is a central feature of Putinism.

For the Putin elite to rule this way, it needs to preserve the illusion that the formal institutions are effectively fulfilling their constitutional functions. In this sense, the Deep State needs the fake state to look real -- or at least plausible. And it doesn't anymore.
The Mask Comes Off
For Putinism to work effectively, not only does the fake state need to look real, but the Deep State needs to remain deep. And this ceased to be the case on September 24, 2011, when Putin and Medvedev announced their fateful "castling move" -- with Putin replacing Medvedev in the Kremlin and Medvedev taking over the prime minister's post from Putin. Once that happened, once the mask came off, the degradation of Russia's formal institutions -- from the rigged elections, to the puppet Duma, to the technical government -- was only a matter of time.
"The Deep State worked when everyone was aware that it existed...but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians," longtime Kremlin-watcher and New York University professor Mark Galeotti, one of my co-hosts on the Power Vertical podcast, says. "Putin made the presence of the Deep State so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."
In addition to exposing the facade, the castling of September 2011 led to a crisis within the Deep State itself -- with the elite's technocratic wing favoring a thaw to accommodate a changing society and the "siloviki" wing advocating a crackdown on dissent. And since that time, the Kremlin's efforts to put the old system back together again have only exacerbated the crisis.
The Fading Putin Majority
For much of the past decade, Putinism was based on more than repression. And the continued rule of a few dozen insiders was propped up by more than a facade of hollow state institutions. Putinism at its high point was also based on a broad consensus, a social contract, an unwritten compact between elite and the governed. The Kremlin provided stability and ensured rising living standards, and in exchange the population gave its loyalty.
It worked well after the chaos and deprivation of the 1990s. But it also had an expiration date. "Last winter's crisis exposed the disintegration of the pro-Putin majority, a kind of pro-authoritarian consensus that had become established in the first half of the 2000s," political analyst Kirill Rogov wrote recently in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "It became obvious that the old paradigm is coming apart at the seams, that it does not suit the most advanced and dynamic strata of the population, and in the context of falling economic growth rates it is, moreover, losing the support of ordinary people and of the regions."
The Kremlin's reaction to this, Rogov argues, has been to build "a new, much more conservative, Putin majority" on the ashes of the old. "In order to shape such a majority it was necessary to convince [the Kremlin's] ideological competitors that they are marginal and to convince ordinary people that they don't need these groups," Rogov wrote. "It was necessary to exploit issues that, on the one hand, arouse and outrage the advanced community, but which, on the other hand, are alien and incomprehensible to ordinary people."
Thus the antigay legislation. Thus the fealty to the Orthodox Church and the battle against blasphemy. Thus the xenophobic measures, like prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans and the attempts to purge the Russian language of foreign words.
But the plan isn't working. "This strategy turned out to be a trap for the Kremlin. A conservative majority simply is not emerging, and the hysteria goes on and on," Rogov wrote. And as a result, the country's institutions look increasingly absurd and the formal state looks increasingly fake. And with much of the elite uncomfortable with the strategy to begin with, the Kremlin's efforts are leading to even more intractable divisions and clan intrigue inside the Deep State.
Which brings us back to that mysterious Medvedev video that appeared online last week and what it appears to signify.
In the late 1990s, as the ruling elite fractured and the Yeltsin regime entered its crisis phase, the public airing of "kompromat," or compromising material, among warring factions became increasingly commonplace. One of the most memorable was a video clip that aired on state television in March 1999, that purported to show "a person resembling" the prosecutor-general at the time, Yury Skuratov, cavorting with a prostitute. At the time, the phrase "Человек, который похож на Скуратова" ("a person resembling Skuratov") entered the political lexicon as a catch phrase, a punch line, and a symbol of the authorities' bankruptcy.
We're not there yet, or course. But we seem to be headed in that direction.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

From Bullets to Bistros: the Mexico City Miracle

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 12:00

Even as drug war violence encroaches, a sharp drop in crime over the past decade has changed the culture of Mexico's capital.

Policemen patrol during the start of a joint security operation in Ecatepec, on the outskirts of Mexico City on January 22, 2013. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

After midnight, Cesar Perez, the director of Mexico City's Driving Without Alcohol program, stands alongside more than a dozen other police officers at a checkpoint on the corner of Reforma and Insurgentes avenues, near the capital's historic center. Perez, a veteran officer with a serious demeanor, isn't looking for drug smugglers. He and his team have a different focus: drunk drivers.

He looks over at the line of cars by the curb. "In 2003 [former New York City mayor Rudolph] Giuliani came to look for programs to increase the efficiency of the police," Perez says. "We had a high incidence of drunk driving." Under a slight drizzle, a police tow truck operator raises the front of an impounded late model Volkswagen Beetle. The car's driver, a middle-aged man in a crisp blue shirt, fails his breathalyzer test and will spend the night inside a holding facility, along with a few hundred other over-the-legal-limit drivers detained at other checkpoints.

In other parts of the country, cartel violence is raging and criminals are taking advantage of the resulting power vacuum. But in Mexico City, the police, through their presence in the streets, have helped reduce the types of common crimes that affect residents the most. The alcoholímetro checkpoints are now a well-recognized element of Mexico City's nightlife. They are part of a broader slate of innovative community-oriented police programs that have helped turn Mexico City from one of the world's most dangerous places into one of the safest areas in Mexico.

At the checkpoint on Reforma Avenue, police officers in white vests emblazoned with the word "ALCOHOLÍMETRO" wave cars though the cordoned-off lane behind the mobile breathalyzer station. "It's a civil infraction... [we detain] eight to twenty-five people a night," at each checkpoint, Perez explains. Five detainees who failed their breathalyzer tests wait inside a transport vehicle. "When there are five or six people, we take them to El Torito," he says, a holding facility where drunk drivers must spend a minimum of twenty and a maximum of thirty-six hours. "It's not a pleasant place. People don't want to go back," Perez says.

Police patrols, security cameras, and a relentless focus on reducing crime has transformed Mexico's capital.

Mexico City was once feared as being the most dangerous city in the planet. A new network of security cameras, and a focus on community police-work and patrols, have helped entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, and young professionals out of a decade of stalled urban renewal programs, and fostered the emergence of a vibrant nightlife. As street gangs have receded to fringe neighborhoods, crime has fallen, and many late night partiers have a different concern: the fear of being detained at the breathalyzer checkpoints.

Even high profile figures such as Manuel Espino, the ex-president of the right-of-center National Action Party, and Sergio Sendel, the actor who provided the voice for Diego in the Spanish-language version of Ice Age, have been detained at the checkpoints and taken to "El Torito." Nearly 100,000 drivers have been detained at alcoholimetro checkpoints since the Driving Without Alcohol program was implemented in 2003. The culture of Mexico City's vida nocturna has already started to change.

After Mexico's economic collapse in the mid-1990s, violence increased in the capital. "There was an explosion of crime," says Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico City-based security consultant. In 1994, Mexico City's crime rate increased by a third, a jump that was repeated again in 1995. In 1997, in two separate incidents, an American journalist was shot in the spine during a botched kidnapping attempt and two German tourists were shot in a robbery at a restaurant. In 1998, for the first time, the U.S. State Department warned that crime in Mexico City "had reached critical levels," and warned U.S. citizens visiting Mexico's capital that there had been a "marked increase in the levels of crime committed." In 1996, an average of three murders a day was recorded in Mexico City.

Starting in 2000 with the election of leftist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as Mexico City's mayor, the city began investing in a series of innovative social programs. Shannon O'Neil, a Mexico expert from the Council on Foreign Relations, explained that Marcelo Ebrard, who was mayor between 2006 and 2012, and his predecessor, Obrador, "went street by street in the Centro Historico and got rid of the ambulantes [unregistered street vendors]. It's a variant of the broken windows theme." Ebrard also told the police to focus on ticketing drivers who neglected to wear seatbelts. He installed security cameras throughout the city, and set up the alcoholímetro checkpoints to crack down on drunk driving.

"Accidents caused by drunk drivers are down 30 percent," Perez said. Other types of crime have fallen as well. In 2012, the U.S. Department of State dropped its "critical crime level" warning for Mexico City. Police patrols, security cameras, and a relentless focus on reducing crime in in upper-middle-class neighborhoods such as Polanco, Condesa, and La Roma have helped change the city. In particular, the alcoholímetro anti-drunk driving program has been a success. "People think it's annoying, but it really works, it's lowered the number of drunk driving accidents," Eduardo Guerrero said. In recent years Mexico City has also achieved impressive reductions in assaults, robberies, and violent crime. In 2011, inter-gang conflicts in Mexico City, the largest urban hub in the country, accounted for about 1 percent of the total number of drug-related murders reported in Mexico.

On a warm winter afternoon, Oscar Tapia, a 33-year-old cable technician, took a break from a game of basketball near the glass-paneled Reforma 222 shopping center, not far from where Perez and his team ran the alcolímetro site. Tapia looked up to a row of aging, graffiti-smeared cement apartment buildings with heavy grates over their windows. "This used to be a conflict zone, a point of sale for drugs," Oscar, who grew up in the neighborhood, explained. "It used to be that if you went to visit friends or family you had to leave by eleven or twelve because crystalazos [smash-and-grab robberies] were common." As he talked, a blue and grey police car passed slowly on the street. "Now the patrols pass every twenty minutes," Oscar explained.

Mexico City's success in reducing crime helped fellow PRD politician Miguel Mancera win a landslide victory in the race to replace Ebrard as the city's mayor. During the campaign, Mancera claimed that security was his first policy priority. He promised to put "police by your side in the community" and to "keep reducing crime." He won an overwhelming 63% of the vote.

In Mexico City, the police benefit from a favorable power dynamic. Although there are rumors that some trafficking organizations might be trying to muscle their way into Mexico City's retail drug markets, the city is generally not a focal point for cartel violence. The police enjoy the benefit of being the most powerful armed force on the streets. In other parts of Mexico, where local police offices are short-staffed and poorly equipped to face threats from cartel members, the federal government has used the army and federal police to battle drug traffickers. Aside from a couple of high-profile yet isolated incidents, such as the triple homicide at the capital's airport and the pair of decapitated bodies found at an upscale shopping mall in 2012, Mexico City has largely been spared from the grisly violence affecting other parts of the country.

As street gangs have receded to fringe neighborhoods, many late night partiers have a different concern: the fear of being detained at the breathalyzer checkpoints.

The first few weeks of 2013, however, have put Mexico City's police on alert. In a 24-hour period between Friday, January 11 and Saturday January 12, a number of disturbing incidents occurred in Mexico's city's more dangerous, outlying neighborhoods. On Friday night, gunmen killed an 18-year-old man near a known outdoor drug depot. An hour later, three men were found blindfolded and tied up, killed by multiple bullet wounds. On January 12, two men were killed while drinking in the street. A few hours later, gunmen stepped out of a car and killed three men in the same area. In total 11 people were killed in the span of 24 hours and 22 people were killed over the course of the weekend.

Still, unlike other parts of the country, Mexico City is not likely to emerge as a narco-violence hotspot. As security analyst Alejandro Hope explained, "Recent killings are mostly about control of the retail drug market. It may have been a flare-up between rival gangs -- rather serious, but nothing that alters the main insight that Mexico City tends to be safer than, say, Monterrey, just because it has far many more cops."

The heavy police presence discourages criminals from operating in plain sight, and a network of public security cameras provides an additional deterrent. Plus, for organized criminal groups, operating in Mexico City attracts unwanted political attention that could hurt their more lucrative smuggling operations in other parts of the country. Mexico City's retail drug market is largely served by an atomized group of local dealers rather than a vertically-integrated mafia-type organization. In the city's gentrifying core, the police patrols enjoy the relatively mundane tasks of thwarting petty crimes and stopping drunk drivers. So far, the community-focused policing strategy has yielded positive results.

Federico, a 26-year-old Mexico City resident who spent a day in "El Torito" after failing a breathalyzer test said people "know the alcoholímetros exist... this is a reason to avoid driving [drunk.]"

Seated at an outside table at an expensive Argentine restaurant at one of the main avenues in La Roma, he added, "now, if I have a friend who is [thinking about driving while intoxicated], I say it's not cool." A late model silver and blue police car passed slowly on the main avenue.

"Do you want another beer?" a waiter asked.

"No, I'm good," Federico said.

For Russian Dissidents, It's White Ribbon Day in Moscow

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 08:00

Behind the anti-Putin movement's symbolic protest

Activists protest in Red Square, central Moscow on May 27, 2012. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Social activists in Moscow have dubbed February 5  White Ribbon Day, urging residents to wear the ribbons that have become the symbol of the demand for free elections. The call, made on a Facebook page, comes after weeks of media rumors -- unfounded, as it turns out -- that the Moscow city council, or duma, had banned displaying the white ribbon at its December 26, 2012 session.

Television host Vladimir Posner even asked Moscow Culture Department head Sergei Kapkov to comment on the alleged "ban" during a February 3 broadcast on state TV's Channel One. Kapkov said the measure was needed to protect protesters. "Such ribbons can be taken as a provocation -- when you are riding in the metro, when you are using public transportation," Kapkov said. "And we have already had cases when there was physical interference in the life of another person."

Kapkov's comments set off alarm bells among activists, and Moscow City Duma Chairman Vladimir Platonov was quick to announce that no such ban had been adopted.

Following the December 2011 State Duma elections, tens of thousands of Muscovites poured into the streets festooned in white ribbons. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin famously mocked the ribbons during a marathon question-and-answer session with citizens on December 15, 2011. "To be honest, when I saw on television what some people had attached to themselves -- it's not very polite, but I'll say it anyway -- I thought it was an anti-AIDS campaign," Putin said. "I thought they had stuck, excuse me, condoms on themselves."​​

Symbolic Act of Protest

In the 14 months since then, the opposition has lost much of its energy, and only a few hundred people have signed onto the social-media-driven White Ribbon Day event. It will be difficult to measure the impact of the event, organizer Ilya Faybisovich says. But he adds that it's important to send a signal to the authorities. "This action -- if you can really call it that -- is sort of a roll call, some sort of signal into space that even if we don't normally wear white ribbons ourselves, for whatever reason, we will put them on if they tell us that for some reason it is forbidden to wear them," Faybisovich says. "And that seems like a reasonable reaction to me."

In its final 2012 session, however, the Moscow City Duma did adopt measures aimed at restricting protests in the capital. It banned single-person protests if they were determined to have been organized and coordinated. It also banned the use of motor vehicles in demonstrations within the city center. It also adopted measures to set up so-called "speakers' corners" in two Moscow parks, on the model of the famous institution in London's Hyde Park.

In his interview with Pozner, Moscow official Kapkov defended this initiative, which Pozner said had been criticized as a "fictional" version of political dissent. "This is not fiction -- if you separate the topic of Hyde Park from the political discussion. There are a lot of people who are defending the interests of the homeless or abandoned animals -- that is, there are people who want to attract the attention of the authorities and television to the problems that they have devoted their free time to or that concern them," Kapkov said. "In order for them [now] to hold a public event, they have to apply to City Hall and that, unfortunately, is now all politicized. And it takes a very long time."

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Tatarstan Finally Gets a Proper National Anthem

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 07:41

But the patriotic song's lyrics are still a point of contention in the Russian republic.

The text of the proposed anthem. (RFE/RL)

Russia's republic of Tatarstan has had its own anthem for 20 years, but only now is it getting some words.

"Every time I hear the anthem I can see people wanting to sing," says Rimma Ratnikova, the head of a special commission dedicated to revamping the anthem.

After the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, some of Russia's republics, riding a wave of ethnic nationalism, were keen to have their own anthems. But because of widespread fears about secessionism and the further break up of Russia, Tatar politicians trod carefully.

They did at least agree on the music: an anthem called "My Homeland" by Tatar composer Rustem Yakhin, who died in 1993. In 1990, the song was the winning entry in a competition devoted to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. With the Soviet Union still intact, the contest was held in secret.

The words to the anthem, based on a poem written by Ramazan Baytimerov, a World War II veteran who died in 1989, are a sentimental ode to Tatarstan:

I walked so many roads, I've seen the world,
And tender winds stroked my face.
But when I come to you, my native land,
I'm overjoyed deep inside.


When I'm away from you for just a day,
I feel as if I am an orphan.
You are the beauty of this endless world,
The graceful light that shines bright at night
But Baytimerov's words, in the early 1990s, were not considered evocative enough by Tatarstan's politicians and intellectuals.

"That time was rather tense, and moreover, some Tatar 'palace poets' wanted to make some money by creating a new text, so with their advice the Tatar leadership decided just to postpone the solution of the problem until better times," says Rim Gilfanov, the director of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.

Contest Organized

In 2012, with momentum in the Tatar parliament to finalize the text, Ratnikova's commission -- which is made up of parliament deputies and literature and music professors -- organized a competition for the public to write the lyrics for the Tatar national anthem. The commission received around 200 submissions, both in Tatar and Russian. In the end, however, the text the commission chose was a slightly altered version of Baytimerov's poem.

One of the trickier tasks for the commission was to strike a balance between Tatar and Russian, both of which are official languages in the republic.

While the number of Tatar speakers has grown since the 1980s, Russian is still most commonly used in the republic and Tatar nationalists feel their language is under threat. At the end of 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a controversial new language law that guarantees education in Russian. The new law, which goes into effect in September, states that classes in non-Russian languages cannot be conducted to the detriment of Russian-language teaching.

Some ethnic Russian residents, who make up almost half of Tatarstan's population, protested against the mandatory teaching of Tatar in Russian schools in 2012.

In the end, the commission decided that two couplets of the anthem will be in Tatar and two in Russian, with the Tatar sung first. "What we really wish for is that all the couplets, including the Tatar ones, are sung also by non-Tatars living in Tatarstan," said Ratnikova.

Of its 83 federal parts, Russia has 23 republics, which are based on the ethnicity of their indigenous populations. The republics are allowed their own languages and constitutions.

These republics vary widely on their approaches to anthems. Tatarstan's neighboring republic of Bashkortstan has long had an anthem with words, with the Bashkir part sung before the Russian. Daghestan doesn't have an official anthem, but a well-known tune, translated into Russian from Avar, is considered to be a "popular" anthem.

In Chechnya, the music and lyrics to the republic's anthem were composed by Akhmed Kadyrov, the former leader who was assassinated in 2004 and the father of current President Ramzan Kadyrov. The Chechen song, however, is never performed at official events, where the Russian national anthem is preferred.

The parliament will vote on whether to approve Tatarstan's anthem during its next session on February 21.

Tatarstan is the host of the 2013 Summer Universiade, an international sports meet for university students. "With the Universiade 2013 approaching it will be nice to hear our anthem at international sporting events," Ratnikova says.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


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